Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Jerry Ragovoy in the Cathedral Of Soul

by Andy Schwartz

When Howard Tate died on December 2, 2011, most obituaries for the great soul singer mentioned the name of another man who’d passed on in July of this year. Jerry Ragovoy (September 4, 1930 – July 13, 2011) was a songwriter, producer, pianist, and the studio Svengali behind Tate’s career masterpiece, the 1967 Verve album originally issued as Howard Tate and later retitled Get It While You Can.

Arguably, Ragovoy never made a better album in his career. In fact, Rags didn’t make that many albums: Much of his most influential music appeared on singles released before 1967, when Sgt. Pepper broke the “album market” wide open. Howard Tate/Get It While You Can features superb vocal performances by Tate, whether singing church–flavored ballads (the title track, “I Learned It All The Hard Way”) or blues standards (“How Blue Can You Get”); sturdy arrangements by Ragovoy, frequent partner Garry Sherman, or Artie Butler; and tough, committed playing by a cast of NYC session players including pianist Paul Griffin and guitarists Cornell Dupree and Eric Gale.

Finally, Howard Tate/Get It While You Can contains the original versions of some of Ragovoy’s best and most–covered compositions including “Ain't Nobody Home” (B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt), “Get It While You Can” (Janis Joplin), and “Look At Granny Run Run” (Grand Funk, Ry Cooder). Several notable non–LP singles emerged from the Tate sessions including “Stop,” written by Ragovoy with Mort Shuman, later covered by both Sam Moore and Jimi Hendrix.

But if Jerry Ragovoy had never worked with Howard Tate…had never written “Get It While You Can” or “Ain’t Nobody Home”…we’d still be hanging his name in the Soul Hall of Fame. Here are some of the reasons why:

Written by Jerry Ragovoy (as “Norman Meade”) and Bert Berns (as “Bert Russell”) Released July 1963 as United Artists 629. No. 1 Billboard R&B (three weeks), No. 12 Pop. available on Cry Baby

In his liner notes for the 1993 CD Cry Baby: The Best of Garnet Mimms (all 25 tracks produced by Jerry Ragovoy), Robert Pruter wrote that prior to the July 1963 release of this landmark single, the sporadic soul hits of the period were “mainly easily digestible songs by Sam Cooke and Chuck Jackson that fitted well into the pop mainstream of the day, so that nothing seemed alien or new about them. ‘Cry Baby’ was different. The song was a gospelized production so full of the soul–saving, fire–and–brimstone ecstasies of the black sanctified church that it singularly stood apart…Never had the public heard anything so intense and so emotional on Top 40 radio.”

Ragovoy told Pruter he’d worked on the song “on and off for about two years” and, in his efforts to place the finished master, had been given the brush–off by executives at various labels: “Typically, in the record industry, if it doesn’t sound like anything the record executives are familiar with, they turn it down.” With Jerry as writer and producer, Garnet Mimms placed eight more songs on the Billboard R&B Singles chart. The consistent excellence of their output was such that even Mimms’ commercial misfires later became ideal cover material: “Look Away” for the Spencer Davis Group with Stevie Winwood, “My Baby” for Janis Joplin.

ERMA FRANKLIN – “Piece of My Heart” mp3
Written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns
Released 1967 as Shout 221. No. 10 Billboard R&B, No. 62 Pop.
available on Piece of Her Heart: Epic & Shout Years

Ragovoy co–wrote this soul classic with frequent collaborator Bert Berns and probably played the piano part that forms the bedrock of the arrangement. One of only two singles ever charted by Aretha Franklin’s older sister, “Piece Of My Heart” is probably Rags’ best–known song thanks to Big Brother & the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), whose cover version reached No. 12 in 1968 and has remained a staple of classic rock radio ever since. Erma’s original was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1968; twenty–five years later, in 1992, after renewed exposure in a British TV commercial for Levi’s, her recording entered the UK Top Ten.

THE ENCHANTERS – “God Bless the Girl and Me” mp3
Written by Samuel Bell & Lorraine Ellison. Produced & arranged by Jerry Ragovoy. Released March 1966 as Loma 2035.
out of print

Garnet Mimms and Sam Bell were members of a Philly vocal group, the Gainors, who left to form the Enchanters. The success of “Cry Baby” pushed Mimms to the forefront, however, and soon the other members (including Zola Pearnell and Charles Boyer) were cutting tracks without him. The Enchanters’ “I Wanna Thank You” struggled to No. 91 R&B in the fall of ’64, but with Ragovoy producing and Sam Bell as a contributing writer, the group came up with two more deep–soul stunners, “I Want To Be Loved” (Loma 2012, released February ’65) and “God Bless The Girl and Me.” I’m pretty sure Sam Bell is singing lead on these sides; if so, then he’s nearly the equal of Garnet Mimms for church–bred intensity and passionate articulation. The combination of piano and organ is another key element derived from gospel music and a trademark of Ragovoy’s sound in this period.

MIRIAM MAKEBA – “Pata Pata” mp3
Written by Miriam Makeba & Jerry Ragovoy. Produced by Jerry Ragovoy.
Released 1967 on Reprise 0606.
available on Pata Pata

Ragovoy’s biggest crossover hit of the Sixties after “Cry Baby” was also among his least typical. Thanks to the support of Harry Belafonte, by 1967 South Africa’s Miriam Makeba was already established in the US: She had released several LPs on RCA and been nominated for a Grammy the previous year. I’m not sure if Makeba was signed to Reprise at the time she recorded “Pata Pata,” or if Ragovoy independently produced and then shopped the master.

In any case, singer and producer retooled a South African folk song (that Makeba had first recorded in 1956) and the result was a sui generis hit that reached No. 7 R&B/No. 12 Pop in 1967. “Pata Pata” was the first song of South African origin since “Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” to make a major impact on American audiences. Makeba’s hit preceded by about a year the Number One success of “Grazing In The Grass” as recorded by her then–husband, trumpeter Hugh Masakela.

LORRAINE ELLISON – "Stay With Me" mp3
Warner Bros. LP 182, released 1969. Produced by Jerry Ragovoy.
available on Stay With Me

Along with Howard Tate/Get It While You Can, this is the other great Jerry Ragovoy album.

Its creation began with the title single, “Stay With Me,” co–written by Ragovoy and George David Weiss. Sometime in 1966, Frank Sinatra canceled a New York recording session, potentially leaving his label Warner Bros. with the bills for a 46–piece orchestra and no music to show for it. On two days’ notice, Ragovoy, arranger Garry Sherman, and singer Lorraine Ellison (born 1931, Philadelphia PA) hustled into the studio and recorded “Stay With Me” – a towering, operatic ballad that many consider the pinnacle of East Coast “uptown soul.”

“To many people, ‘Stay With Me’ still typifies the basic idea of what real soul music is all about,” wrote UK soul music maven David Nathan in a 1974 article for Blues & Soul. “And there aren't too many soulful people around who don't get that spine–chilling tingle when they hear it, even to this day.”

“‘Stay With Me’ was a song that Jerry Ragovoy had written with Mr. Weiss, and I thought it was going to be a monster smash,” Lorraine Ellison told Nathan in Blues & Soul. “It certainly looked that way – the record had twenty-six national breakouts in the States, and it did make it onto the soul charts and made some headway onto the nationals.

“But at that time, Warners was just not into black music, period. They really had no idea how to promote the record and they had no real way of getting into the R&B market.”

The single made it to No. 11 R&B/No. 64 Pop, and these stats – along with some positive reviews and a certain underground buzz – were enough for Warner Brothers to green–light a full album. Heart and Soul: Introducing Miss Lorraine Ellison was released as WB 1674 in 1966. Produced by Ragovoy but arranged and conducted by jazz man Oliver Nelson, it was an uneven set that found Ellison singing familiar standards (“Cry Me A River”) and other people’s hits pop (“A Change Is Gonna Come,” “If I Had a Hammer”). “Stay With Me” was buried in the middle of Side Two, and only one other song, “When Love Flies Away,” bore a Ragovoy writing credit. Heart and Soul did not chart and was soon deleted.

“Then interesting things began to happen,” West Coast rock critic John Mendelsohn wrote in his liner notes for Stay With Me – the second Lorraine Ellison album, unexpectedly issued by Warner Bros. in the fall of 1969. “[Such] diverse musical figures as Laura Nyro and Carl Wayne [of The Move] listed Lorraine Ellison as their favorite female vocalist. And in Harlem...an enterprising pirate tape–duplicating operation found mobs of takers when they offered tapes of ‘Stay With Me’ at the somewhat outrageous price of $5.00 apiece.”

“… Having realized that they had an artist of almost limitless potential, both commercial and artistic, sitting around their house, [Warner Bros.] got Jerry Ragovoy busy producing a straight–ahead album of gospel–based soul, the music that Lorraine had been doing for years with such unrewarded brilliance.”

Indeed, this was the album that should have followed the single. Stay With Me is eleven tracks of pure uptown soul, with an unswerving stylistic focus and the sustained mood of a secular cathedral. Ragovoy arranged and produced the entire set; he co–wrote seven songs with (variously) Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Sam Bell, Bert Berns, and Ellison herself. The title song closes Side One with a bang, in a manner analogous to the placement of “Get It While You Can” on Howard Tate.

It was all too little too late, however, and Stay With Me followed Heart and Soul into the cut–out bins. But Janis Joplin must have gotten hold of a copy: She later covered “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” on Pearl, along with four other songs co–written by Jerry Ragovoy.

LOU COURTNEY – “What Do You Want Me Yo Do” mp3
Written by Lou Courtney. Arranged by Jerry Courtney. Produced by Lou Courtney & Jerry Ragovoy. Released 1973 as Epic/CBS 5–11062. No. 48 Billboard R&B in spring 1974.
available on I'm in Need of Love

By 1973, hardcore Southern soul was pretty much a spent force, commercially if not inspirationally. Otis Redding had been dead for years, Atlantic had dropped Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin was cutting jazz–flavored material with Quincy Jones. Ragovoy hooked up with R&B journeyman Lou Courtney, whose biggest chart record – the quasi–Motown dance novelty “Skate Now” – was six years behind him. Together they came up with a flute–flavored, proto–disco sound that was closer to Johnny Bristol’s “Hang On In There Baby” than to the glories of Garnet Mimms or Erma Franklin. Still, “What Do You Want Me To Do” is a genuinely infectious record with an arrangement that positively pops, and Courtney sings the hell out of it. The single crawled to No. 48 R&B and died, but not before singer and producer managed to squeeze out a pretty good album, I’m In Need of Love, also on Epic/CBS.


“Open Up Your Soul” mp3
by Erma Franklin, 1968.
available on Piece of Her Heart: Epic & Shout Years

“I Want To Be Loved” mp3
by Loraine Ellison, 1969.
available on Stay With Me

Garnet Mimms – “Look Away”
by Garnet Mimms, 1964.
available on Warm & Soulful

"Malayisha" mp3
by Miriam Makeba, 1967.
available on Pata Pata

“Ain’t Nobody Home” mp3
by Howard Tate, 1967.
available on Get It While You Can

“Stop” mp3
by Howard Tate, 1967.
available on Get It While You Can

Monday, December 26, 2011

Jeff Chandler: My Second Cousin Removed

by Dave the Spazz

“Don’t ever let them operate on your back. That’s how we lost Jeff Chandler.”
--Don Van Vliet 1

Today’s Hanukkah’s Jew answers to the name of 1950s movie star Jeff Chandler. My Aunt Penny used to swear that Chandler was her cousin from the old neighborhood; however, his absence from any and all family functions caused some concern at the time that Aunt Penny might be full of shit. Claiming familial ties to Jeff Chandler was just schlubby enough to be true so I believed her. Aunt Penny’s son David changed his name from Abramson to Chandler so you can count him as another believer. 2

Jeff Chandler was one of the biggest box office leading men of the 1950s but any enduring fame seems locked into that nervous decade. After serving in World War II, the East New York native sharpened his acting chops in radio comedies and dramas (most notably as doofus biology teacher Philip Boynton on Our Miss Brooks). By the early fifties the former Ira Grossel reinvented himself into the tall, dark and Semitic matinee hero Hollywood had apparently been searching for.

Chandler was generally typecast as the affable, prematurely gray, leading man sort of chap--a stack of good looks with the charisma of a goldfish. He was Cary without the Grant, Gregory sans Peck, he was more Clark Kent than Clark Gable. Tanned and bland, Chandler was just a yutz with a granite chin.

In the seventies I remember he would occasionally pop up on Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie or whenever the Mets got rained out. Unfortunately, Chandler's movies were unremarkable and predictable affairs. If it sucked, he was in it: turgid romances, drab military dramas, sword and sandal epics, crappity-crap horse operas. If Warhol ever sat through a Jeff Chandler epic then maybe his eight hour Empire State Building movie might have seemed unnecessary.

For a blank sheet of paper, Chandler surprisingly shared the screen with a litany of leading lady goddesses of the 1950s: Kim Novak, Liz Taylor, Carol Lynley, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Julie London, Joan Crawford, Jane Russell, Dorothy Malone, and Anne Baxter were among the lucky gals who kissed up on ol' Jeff. At one point he was romantically linked with M-G-M swimming star Esther Williams until the day she allegedly caught him in a dress. In her 1999 autobiography Williams recalled telling him at the time "Jeff, you're too big for polka dots."

In or out of polka dots, Chandler was well-liked and he swung with the swingingest chums that Hollywood had to offer. When good pal Sammy Davis, Jr. lost his left eyeball after a horrific car wreck on Route 66, Chandler famously offered him one of his own. (A few years later Sammy served as a pallbearer at Chandler’s funeral.) Jeff's generous offer, along with constant noodging from Eddie Cantor and Tony Curtis are likely responsible for Sammy turning to the Jewish faith.

Chandler had a singing career as well--who didn’t back then? He released a few tuneless LPs and in 1955 opened at The Riviera in Vegas to celebrity-studded crowds and tepid reviews. Comedienne/singer Rose Marie was at the opening and remarked "Jeff Chandler was a great guy, but he was no singer… he came with a conductor, a piano player, light man, press agent and manager. None of it helped."

On the set of his last film Merrill's Marauders (1961), Chandler herniated his spinal disc while playing baseball with U.S. Army soldiers who served as extras in the movie. He entered a Culver City Hospital on May 13, 1961 and due to a botched surgery he never checked out.

At age 42 Jeff Chandler joined the lost-in-time stars of Hollywood's last golden era, remembered today for nobody knows-quite-what, except from this point on for being my Aunt Penny's cousin from the old neighborhood.

"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" mp3
by Jeff Chandler, 1955.
available on Spotlight on Jeff Chandler

1. The Book of Changes: Interviews by Kristine McKenna, Fantagraphics Books

2. My first cousin removed, David Abramson (hailing from East New York) could pass for Italian and frequently did. He changed his name to David Roya and eventually David Roy Chandler in a nod to his movie star cousin once removed. He did walk-on bits (usually as an Italian American thug) on Mission Impossible, The Rookies, Black Sheep Squadron and other TV shows. He abandoned his Fonzie image to play an Apache savage who tries to kill Henry Gibson in a very special episode of F Troop. Returning to his bad-ass roots, David found enduring psychotronic fame as Bernard Posner, the spoiled Sheriff’s son in the extremely dated hit Billy Jack (1971). David is currently a 4th degree black belt Tae Kwon Do instructor in Rockaway Beach.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Atheist Who Stole Christmas

by Nicole Audrey Spector

How a guy who once pulled over the car upon espying a black glitter rosary on my neck (I was 12 and the rosary was from Claire's Accessories) was ever impelled to give the world a self-declared “Christmas Gift” is ironic. Yet my dad, in making A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector was hardly a grinch won over. I don't exaggerate when I say that he'd rather have a tick burrowed in his ear than a sentimental Christian on his back. Or a sentimental Jew for that matter (though one may elicit from him a gentle smirk, a boyhood memory). My dad is so outrightly disgusted with religion that when something bad doesn't happen he says “Thank Darwin!”, a phrase I taught him when he told me he'd give me $500 if I read all of On The Origin Of Species. That's roughly a dollar per page. Add the exhaustive intro and afterthoughts I was also required to read and you have about half that. Not to mention I'd have to provide written notes. Still, not a bad deal for a kid, right? Well, I was 23 and unable to finish it. Point is, my Pops' Christmas music has nothing to do with Christian folklore – it indeed dispossess Christ from Christ-mas, and is concerned only with a mirth and merriment that is wholly secular.

When I visited my dad last Sunday and imparted the news of Christopher Hitchen's death, he gazed at my Einstein T-shirt and frowned. “Einstein should have been more outspoken about the non-existence of God,” he said. A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector may as well be called The Atheist Who Stole Christmas or, if you want to get silly, It's My Birthday, Too; So What? – for my father was born on Christmas Day. Around this time of year a lot of people tell me, “You know, it doesn't feel like Christmastime until I listen to your Dad's Christmas album.” The key word is feel. Christmastime, in again the secular sense, has a distinct essence and texture. It's busy, buttery, effulgent, and loud – pairing well with the lavish mania that distinguishes The Wall Of Sound. Nearly 50 years after its incipient release, A Christmas Gift For You is emblematic of an era long gone, but it's not the 1963 time stamp on the work that induces nostalgia. Songs like “Winter Wonderland”, “Frosty The Snowman”, and “Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers” (my childhood favorite) feel to have been born nostalgic, dreamed up in a reverie of how good it feels to be a child at Christmastime. The one original song on the album, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” pines for a Christmas past with Darlene Love belting, “They're singing 'Deck The Halls'/But it's not like Christmas at all/'Cause I remember when you were here/And all the fun we had last year.”

Perhaps my dad had a bit of the Christmas blues himself growing up. He and his older sister, Shirley, were brought up sparingly in a strict but struggling Jewish household. Christmas was of course not observed and though Hanukkah was I can't imagine it was a hugely happy affair. My paternal grandfather Ben suffered from acute diabetes and ended his life when my father was nine, leaving my Grandma Bertha (after whom my dad's record label Mother Bertha Music is coined) to raise the two kids on her own. She moved the family to L.A, where my dad snuck into jazz clubs and at 14, met his hero: jazz guitarist Barney Kessel. It wasn't long under Kessel's wing before my Dad decided that he would never be as good a guitarist as the remarkably under-recognized genius – “not even a close second”, he says, and so, he turned his ambitions toward record making. In my father's few shared memories of growing up, seldom do I get the sense that he was ever doing much of anything aside from growing up – working as hard as he could to assume responsibility for his family. Even the move to L.A from NY, when he couldn't have been more than 12, he remembers as a vehicle for equipping him with the tools he needed to become a young success – to make it big fast.

As far as the family my dad co-created with my mother, Janis, much later in life (he was 42 when my twin brother Phillip. Jr. and I were born) goes, we were raised on Christmas. Hanukkah was there, but off to the side, a corner piece of piety we were unsure how to regard. Phillip and I took turns lighting the menorah (Grandma Bertha probably had one for every light socket in her home), but we didn't quite know what to do with a holiday that, next to Christmas, was so complicated and sombre, so...holy. When Grandma Bertha gave us a dreidel to play with, Phillip and I just stared at it and exchanged worried glances, hoping Grandma would walk away so we could play with real toys.

Jewish as Grandma Bertha was (she took great care in teaching my Mexican Catholic mother how to be a good Jewish wife, mentoring her in the making of many a matzoh ball soup and potato latke), she indulged us our Christmas. Every year she dug the same plastic tree out of a closet, along with other customary Christmas junk – light up Santas and reindeer, boxes of candy canes. Always a sucker for kitsch, my dad would create his own mega marshmallow world in our foyer – replete with fake box presents under a dazzling Rockefeller tree. But the true Christmas fanatic, on either side of my family, was my dad's older sister, Shirley. A virtual Mrs. Claus, Aunt Shirley stormed into rooms with literal bells on, singing the Christmas hits. My father couldn't stand her. She seemed to physically make his skin crawl. Twenty minutes into her company and he was on the brink of a genuine eczema outbreak. To me she was the most wonderful person in the world. She was a brilliant woman, I later learned, but disturbed. She'd go missing for months and eventually years at a time, abducted by some secret darkness in her mind. I only ever saw her as ebullient, glowing. She was a guaranteed presence on Christmas day. She arrived at our house in the late afternoon (the earliest my father would let her in) with her annual trunk load of presents for me and Phillip, singing all the way up our driveway.

A fragment of one such Christmas afternoon exists on VHS, when Phillip and I were about 6 years old. Before the Record button was hit Aunt Shirley somehow guilted my father into getting out his electric guitar. She starts to sing a pitchy falsetto “Silent Night” and my dad strums obediently along, each chord appearing to hurt his face. “All is caaallllm,” Aunt Shirley sings, with proud bravado, “All is brighhhht.” He doesn't let her get very far, abruptly transitioning into “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. Aunt Shirley wavers but catches on – used to him changing things up without prior consult. Two verses into that song and my dad ditches Christmas altogether, digressing into an improv jazz bit none of us understand. Aunt Shirley, jilted, but ever-joyous, takes the camera from my mother and interviews her niece and nephew, truly her favorite people in the world, about their Christmas day. “Such a beautiful family,” she says. The camera shuts off.

That video is the only evidence of my mother, father, brother, and me together. There are no family photos. It's the only recording of Aunt Shirley, as far as I know, that exists. She's at least 50 years old there, and as fragile and beautiful as I imagine she was as a girl, that remarkably bright girl whose mind shattered when her father left. It's one of the only videos of Phillip, Jr. A few years later, when we were nine he succumbed to a complicated illness. He died just a few days before Christmas. I don't remember our last Christmas together, but this one on tape looks like it was pretty good, and it's the one that makes every Christmas since feel not like Christmas at all.


"Sleigh Ride" mp3
by the Ronettes, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

"Parade of the Wooden Ships" mp3
by the Crystals, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" mp3
by Darlene Love, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

"White Christmas" mp3
by Darlene Love, 1963.
available on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Good Tidings: Christmas In The Heart

by Polly Bresnick

I'm half Jewish, half Christmas. Jew-ISH. My family lights the menorah when we remember to, usually uncertain of which night we're on, and we mumble out the prayer that even my father barely remembers, with a crescendoing finale of SHALL HANUKKAH! Or is it with a "Ch-"? Does it have an "h" at the end? (I'm barely "culturally Jewish," which is to say that I'm not really religious at all.)

In grammar school I learned that, for Hanukkah, kids traditionally received eight presents — one on each of the holy, candle-lit nights. Also, there was a dreidel and gelt. That all sounded pretty good. On Christmas, of course, children awoke to find piles of gifts under the tree. Also a very appealing concept to my greedy little kid mind. Since I was both, I was thrilled to realize that maybe I'd get to do both! I did. Sort of. But then the deep holiday laze kicked in, and the Hanukkah gifts were skipped. I didn't complain — there were still plenty of Christmas gifts. One year the laze deepened and I was just on the brink of losing track of my belief in your favorite fat man and mine, the one and only chimney diver, bearer of brightly wrapped and bowed boxes, still cold from the icy pole from whence they came, Mr. Santa Claus. My parents figured they could get more sleep on Christmas Eve if they got some of the wrapping done in the weeks before the special day and put them under the tree as they wrapped. I must have gotten confused about my combo-faith (or just uncontrollably impatient for toys), because I started to sneak one present a day back to my bedroom to unwrap in the solitude of my room, hushed and high on the adrenaline of a child's crime. Didn't take long for my parents to notice. They were pretty mad. As Dylan himself laments on his Theme Time radio show, "Some people just don't have the spirit of Christmas. They think it's all about gift-giving. Though, to be more honest, I think a lot of 'em think it's more about gift-getting. Christmas is not about runnin' around the stores, spendin' money, and tryna' buy people's love and affection." It's about a lot of things. Including comfort, joy, figgy pudding, and music.

I love Christmas music. My mom was/is an old-school, screamin' and faintin' Elvis fan, so we have plenty of Elvis Christmas music. I like that "Silent Night" can sound kind of sexy in Elvis's voice. I can't seem to sing along to his "Blue Christmas" without lowering my eyelids and letting my top lip quiver. And I know the lazy velvet of Bing's Christmas repertoire like I know the smell of fresh baked bread. I impatiently look forward to it all year long like a little kid waiting for the first snowfall sticky enough for snowball wars and snow forts and snowmen. But those guys were church-going, God-fearing Christians, right? They can sing those songs however they want to and it will all sound like golden gospel. Those same songs in Bob Dylan's (née Zimmerman's) voice come out as a different gospel, and one that feels no less true. Dylan's voice singing Christmas songs is sweet and comfy. It conjures the gauzy memory of sitting on the rug next to the teetering, over-ornamented tree, when I was too young to even quite know who Santa was or what Christmas meant or that those big shiny colorful boxes had toys in them, but knowing all the words to all the songs and smiling with easy joy because if Christmas music is playing, it must be Christmas.

I first heard Dylan's polka-romp cover of "Must Be Santa" when it was meming around as a music video. It's the stand-out song on Christmas in the Heart, for me. It has a Santa-gone-wild, runaway sleigh energy that truly warms my halfie heart. And it's a weird roller-coaster dream to hear Dylan clowning the "ho, ho, ho's." The video is a little unsettling: Dylan's at a holiday house party and he keeps popping up unexpectedly. He's out of place, but comfortable, still enjoying himself, even amidst the maniacally smiley (super goy) partiers and the drunken chase-brawl that careens through things, sacrilegious and hip and honest in its interruption of the celebration of — what is it? — Christ's birthday? No one other than the camera notices the throwing of glasses or even the man swinging from a chandelier on his way out the door. Everyone, including Dylan, continues the song, knows all the words. The song itself, in humorous contrast to the adult-beverage setting, is a nursery rhyme list of Santa factoid essentials, an instruction manual for how to believe in Santa, a dictation of what to see in your mind's eye as you imagine him. So Dylan singing this song seems like proof that he may not exactly fit in at this Christmas party, but he still knows all the things there are to know about Santa. And really, what American doesn't?

This may offend some die-hard Dylan fans (and/or Tom Waits fans), but "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" comes out sounding a heck of a lot like a Tom Waits song (Dylan drawls it as "HAYrald Angels"), until his angelic back-up singers slip in, mugging sweetly in close harmonies, like the Boswell Sisters or some other assemblage of voices from another time that would sound just right on an old record player, the dustier the better. "Little Drummer Boy" is a bit over the edge for me. Hearing Dylan do the "ba-rum-ba-bum-bum" made me feel embarrassed for him. Though, again, the female back-up singers find some haunting slant-matched harmonies that give this track its own, new idiosyncratic personality. And, perhaps, maybe I just never liked singing this one. In junior-high chorus, I always imagined the little drummer boy as the baby Jesus — a personage I knew far too little about — which made me feel like I wasn't in the club, and maybe Santa wouldn't put anything but coal in my stocking that hung festively next to the rusting and tarnished menorah. Singing "Little Drummer Boy" in chorus as an awkward preteen atheist was about as comfortable as singing the same token Kwanza song every year, which is to say that it was no fun at all.

In "O' Come All Ye Faithful," "The First Noel," and "O' Little Town of Bethlehem," Dylan really does sound to me like a self-conscious Jew in a church (a feeling I have experienced on the few occasions I've been inside of an actual church during an actual service with singing and praising and whatnot). These are the songs I remember my gentile grandfather singing in a booming, choir-trained baritone beside a piano in a living room in Delaware with a fire roaring and "bubble-lights" (which, I believe, have been recalled due to the serious fire hazard they pose) bubbling merrily on the Christmas tree, though I'm not sure this did, in fact, ever happen in my life.

The rest of the album is perfectly reasonable 'round-the-yule-log fare, with some trickster flourishes here and there. Dylan's poetic sensibility sneaks in as he relishes the swinging alliteration of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland," letting all the w's wash together into a warm and cozy lullaby mumble. There's something deeply satisfying about the cheesy key modulations and boozy swaying rhythms of these songs that I really do know as well as some people know their prayers. I know them so well I don't remember learning the words, as if I were born with the knowledge of them — I know them in a way that really deserves to be described as "by heart" because I know them in my heart and not in my brain. One doesn't get in the Christmas "mindset" one gets into the Christmas spirit. It's reassuring to hear Dylan humoring this cross-section of melodies that I hold so dear. It's as if he's agreeing with me, that Christmas is not in the church or in Macy's or in Daddy Warbuck's Nutcracker-scale living room. It's truly in the heart. And I'm not afraid to say it if my ol' pal Bobby Zimmerman isn't.

Dylan has surprised us so many times, that even a Christmas album wasn't all that shocking to me. The man loves the music of the American everyman. And in this country, where, starting the day after Thanksgiving, it's difficult to find much else on the radio, it doesn't get much more universal than Christmas music. As silly as some of the songs may sound in Dylan's lupine sneer, he sings as if he loves these songs in the same ways I do — and he seems to be proving that these songs are for everyone to sing. As Christmas does in this country, these songs also, for the most part, transcend religion. They're part of the weird warm collective memory of Home and Childhood and Magic.


"Must Be Santa" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 2009.
available on Christmas In the Heart

"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 2009.
available on Christmas In the Heart

"Winter Wonderland" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 2009.
available on Christmas In the Heart


"Mistletoe" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 2006.
from Theme Time Radio Hour: Christmas and New Year

"Figgy Pudding" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 2006.
from Theme Time Radio Hour: Christmas and New Year

"The Night Before Christmas" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 2006.
from Theme Time Radio Hour: Christmas and New Year


Friday, December 23, 2011

El Judío Maravilloso!

by Ariella Stok

It was a classically Semitic combination of chutzpah and horniness that led Lawrence Ira Kahn, a white Jewish kid from Brownsville, Brooklyn to become Larry Harlow, a king of salsa, a musical movement that combined Cuban son with New York bebop, and served as much to fuel the dance floors of nightclubs numbering in the hundreds during its heyday in the early 1970s, as to define the cultural voice of New York’s influx of Latino immigrants—mostly Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican—that began in the 1950s. Harlow not only was the leader of one of the hottest bands in town during the salsa boom of the late 60s and early 70s, but a pioneer who helped define and expand the genre via his ambitious arrangements and songwriting, engineering and production, and an approach that returned the music to its traditional roots while informing it with the popular sounds of his day. As the first to present salsa in a mainstream American context, Harlow was critical in positioning salsa as not just a piece of ethnic exotica, but an important cultural movement of late 20th century music.

Harlow was born in 1938, raised, and Bar Mitzvahed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, a pastoral neighborhood known for its meadows and farms prior to the building boom that was heavily colonized by a community of Jews who had been lured from their cramped, dilapidated tenements on the Lower East Side by the come-ons of land developers to “move to the country.” His was the kosher household of a musical family. His grandfather provided the piano accompaniment in silent movie theaters and was a theater critic for the Daily Forward, New York’s Jewish newspaper, published in Yiddish and English. His father, mother, Rose Sherman, was an opera singer of Russian-Jewish descent, and his father Nathan Kahn, performed in the Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskills as a musician and bandleader along with two brothers, a comedian and musician. The Khans lived in two adjoining apartment buildings joined together by a courtyard that were filled entirely with a tight-knit community of other Jewish families. It was a happy childhood filled with music, primarily that of his Jewish heritage.

“My Aunt Frida used to sit in the house and sing all the Yiddish songs,” Harlow told me during a recent visit to his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “She’d play the piano and get so excited, her false teeth would fall right out of her mouth and onto the keyboard,” Harlow describes, feigning the guffaws he and his brother Andy used to break into at this scene. He got his first taste of Latin music, in the form of the mambo and cha-cha, at the Latin Quarter, a Times Square club owned by Lew Walters. He and Lew’s daughter, future news anchor Barbara Walters, would sit together in the club’s spotlight booth and watch all the big acts of the day—Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Sophie Tucker, and Eddie Brown, with his father leading the house band under the name Buddy Harlowe, a name both sons Larry and Andy would later adopt (dropping the final e for good measure) for their professional careers. It was here that Harlow first fell in love with his favorite ambassador to Latin culture: “I got to hang out with the chorus girls, mostly Spanish women, and they would pat me on my head and say, ‘oh the cute little boy.’ They’d pull me into their bosoms and I was in heaven. I would smell their bodily sweat and sniff their costumes when they weren’t around.”

A gifted pianist whose mother forced him to practice under the threat of a raised wooden ruler that greeted mistakes with a thwack on the back of his hand, when all of Harlow’s neighborhood friends attended the local high school, he took four busses and trains to make the two-hour trip to Music and Arts High School in Harlem. He was there studying jazz, his first love, but one night after his father took him to see his favorite pianist, Art Tatum in concert at the Hickory Horse, he realized that if he practiced for every minute of his life, he’d still never be as good. His thoughts began to turn to the music he heard in the streets and pouring out of the bodegas of the Harlem neighborhood where he attended school. In the Latin music, he heard a kinship with the improvisatory structures of the jazz that he loved, and understood it as similarly rooted in the modal structures of the Eastern European music with which he’d been raised. But important to Harlow’s ambitions, he sensed here an opportunity to not only distinguish himself but evolve the music into something that wedded it to the popular sounds of the day. He started attending dances at the Palladium and playing in Latin bands made up of other Jewish guy and Italians. These early bands’ repertoire consisted mostly of instrumentals since no one in the band spoke enough Spanish to be able to convincingly sing, and performed in the dancehalls of the old Catskills hotels, where vacationing Jews were perpetuating Latin dance music and taking mambo and cha-cha lessons by the pool. Here he was reunited with the Spanish women he had fallen in love with as a kid at the Latin Quarter, except this time he was old enough to do more than get patted on the head.

“I’m a white Jewish Kid from Brooklyn and all of a sudden I’m thrown into this world of hot-blooded, dark-haired brunettes with fiery eyes who knew how to take care of business and I’m in cha-cha heaven. It was quite an eye-opening experience to make love to a Latin dance instructor with no body fat who had rhythym. The Latin women took me to another dimension!” At 17, in his first semester at Brooklyn College, he and some of his mambonik friends went on a week-long trip to Cuba, and once again, he was in cha-cha heaven, falling deeply in love with the music, culture, and women, for the first time hearing the Afro-Cuban music he loved played by actual Cubans. He quickly returned to Cuba as soon as he could, the next time staying a few months, and then another trip, where he laid down roots, immersing himself in the music scene and following his favorite bands around with a tape recorder, while collecting records of Cuban music, until he was forced to return home by the Cuban Revolution in 1959, hopping a flight to Miami the day Fidel Castro marched into Havana.

Once back in New York, he played for a while in a band led by Harvey Averne, but was soon fired for not wanting to take direction. “I’m a natural born leader,” he explains. He started putting together his own outfit, built around a new sound that was anchored by dual pairs of trumpets and trombones in the front, and a rhythm section in the back, like the bands he had seen in Cuba, and writing songs that expanded the traditional 1-4-5 structures of the mambo and cha-cha to include bigger harmonies made up of 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and diminished chords. Once constructed, his band, Orchestra Harlow hustled a regular gig at Chez Jose, a Latin music club across the street from the Museum of Natural History that catered to an “uppity Puerto Rican crowd.” The club was owned by Joey Artanis (who renamed himself from Rodriguez by reversing the surname of his hero Frank Sinatra – “that’s how white he was”) who wouldn’t let anyone in whose skin was a little too café con leche. One night, Jerry Masucci, a Latin music fan who had studied in Cuba during the same time as Harlow, came into the club to see Orchestra Harlow and offered them a spot on his fledgling label, Fania, which he’d started with the goal of spreading New York salsa to the rest of the world and make a buck off the burgeoning phenomenon. Orchestra Harlow was the first outside artist signed to Fania, which at the time sold records made solely by label co-owner, bandleader Johnny Pacheco out of the trunk of Masucci’s car.

Harlow’s first record for Fania, Heavy Smokin’ was inspired by his other love, The Beatles, both in its chord structures, and its use of four-track recording, making it the first salsa album to be recorded in stereo. He was so excited by the sound he’d created, that as soon as the first acetate was pressed, he got in his car and drove to Brooklyn to play it for his father, accidentally leaving the record on the car’s roof, and losing his first recording as a bandleader. He would later pay tribute to the Beatles more overtly by dropping acid for the first time while listening to Magical Mystery Tour on repeat, and in his 1969 record Mi Mono y Yo, which featured a salsified cover of “Me and My Monkey” as its title track. That year he also decided to try his hand at a different kind of crossover success, forming the 10-piece horn-fronted Ambergris, and applying his knowledge of writing orchestral arrangements within the context of a rock band. Ambergris did a US tour, playing alongside bands such as the Grateful Dead and Small Faces, and recorded one and a half albums, which Harlow tried to have produced by one of his heroes, George Martin. According to Harlow, Martin agreed, but only if Harlow was willing to wait three years for an open spot in his schedule. Then, George Harrison offered his production services, but the band declined, thinking him not funky enough, settling instead on Booker & the MGs’ Steve Cropper, who also wasn’t quite right for the job, according to Harlow. Harlow quotes the Village Voice review of their 1970 performance at the Fillmore East, which cites the etymology of the band name in its dismissal of their act, “Whale puke? Yes they are.”

Despite his success as a recording artist for the increasingly influential Fania, he was still an outsider even after having several successful albums under his belt as the rare white Jewish guy in the big leagues of Latin music, and faced a lot of what he calls “reverse Uncle Tom-ism: What is this white boy doing in our world? Why does he play our music better than we do?” He was able to overcome many of these hurdles by hiring José Carbelo, who also managed Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri and who packaged Orchestra Harlow with his other clients so he was able to slip in through back door of the Latin clubs. As his command of Spanish improved, he was able to do the interviews he had previously declined, and started to become more accepted by the Latin music community as his star continued to rise. He describes himself and the Fania gang as the “Latin Rolling Stones,” 14 handsome, well-dressed guys who had girls chasing them in the streets trying to tear off their clothes. As an outsider, Harlow was also able to influence the aesthetics of the scene, bringing his psychedelic style (lots of jewelry, bright colors, long hair) to both the album art of Fania and the dress code of its artists.

When Harlow heard The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, he was seized by the idea to create his own version—a symphonic Latin album that could tell a complete story, rather than just being a collection of songs like most salsa records. The result, Hommy, was released in 1973 and told the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy (Larry Harlow described the character to me as proto-autistic, before anyone knew what autism was) who was a prodigy of not pinball, but conga drums. Harlow recruited Latin music’s erstwhile queen, Celia Cruz from her artistic exile in Mexico, and gave her a big hit in the album’s “acid queen” analogue, “gracia davina,” a move that effectively brought her out of retirement and restarted her career. Hommy had its premier at Carnegie Hall, bringing Latin music for the first time out of the barrios, social clubs and salsa joints, and into a mainstream American concert venue. Harlow still gets giddy when he describes the event. “I’m pissing in Toscanini’s toilet!” he remembers thinking to himself that night in Carnegie Hall. His dressing room up in the wings of the hall had a peephole that overlooked the stage, providing a panorama of the entire house, and in his white tails and scruffy beard, he lit up a joint and blew the smoke through the opening, a small prank that symbolized to him that he, and his music, had truly arrived.

Using the same rhythm section as he did with Hommy, Harlow followed up later that year with Salsa, an exemplary album that contributed to the growth in popularity of the charanga sound, with its prominent flute leads and string sections, and would coin the sobriquet that has become his legacy. At the instrumental break of “La Cartera,” corista Aldaberto Santiego introduces his boss’s piano solo, “Ya viene, Larry Harlow,” and the singer Junior González finishes the sentence, “El Judío Maravilloso!” or the Jewish Marvel. It was a reference to Harlow’s musical hero and subject of his 1971 LP, Tribute to Aresenio Rodriguez, the Cuban composer and tres (Cuban guitar) player who was known as “Ciego Maravilloso” after being blinded as a child from a mule’s kick to his head. The nickname represented Harlow’s accepted place in the firmament of Latin music and he adopted it as his second name.

Harlow identifies his next album, Live in Quad from 1974, as the only quadraphonic salsa recording ever made. He rigged up a quad setup in the studio he partly owned, Good Vibrations, to mix a record he had recorded behind bars at Sing Sing prison, motivated by his desire to best Eddie Palmieri’s 1972 record, Recorded Live at Sing Sing, on its own turf. Unfortunately, quadraphonic sound never caught on commercially and the effort was wasted, but it was an example of Harlow’s continuously growing engineering expertise and experimentation with production, skills he’d learned by shadowing Fania engineer Irv Greenbaum. In addition to Harlow’s own recorded output, he produced over 260 albums for Fania and was instrumental in assembling possibly the most famous salsa band of them all, the Fania All-Stars.

Although by 1975, as El Judío Maravilloso, Harlow enjoyed acceptance as one of New York’s top salsa bands, the success brought heat onto his scene, and his singer Ismael Miranda convinced him that he needed protection. He had been exposed to the Santería religion during his travels to Cuba, and now began to practice its rituals.

Harlow’s 87th street apartment is a small space with every surface covered by the art and antiques he collects—Calder paintings, black and white photography, and a collection of century-old musical instruments from all over the world. Tucked into the furniture of his living room are three different pianos, none of which I can spot until he uncovers them for me. A shelf near the entrance proudly displays elegant menorahs and other Jewish iconography. He opens a cupboard and reveals a multitier soltero shrine, draped with talismans: several sets of handcuffs, beads, feathers, and he solemnly explains what each is for. I want to ask if practicing Santería, a syncretic religion derived from Christianity and known for its use of ritual animal sacrifice, is a conflict for his Judaism, but he changes the subject as he whisks me away to a restaurant for lunch, to combat his falling blood sugar level (and I suspect to ogle the female diners, judging by the amount of times he pauses mid-sentence, his mouth agape, as a pretty lady walks by.) Harlow says of the growing Latin immigrant community in New York, which numbered half a million by the 1950s: they wanted something to call their own and that’s what we gave them with salsa. Sometimes it takes the perspective of an outsider, and the chutzpah of a Jew, to give the people what they need.


"El Exigente" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1967.
available on El Exigente

"Groovin' to the Afro Twist" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1967.
available on El Exigente

"Tu Tu Ratan" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1965.
available on Heavy Smokin'

"Larry's Complaint (Me and My Monkey)" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1969.
available on Me And My Monkey / Mi Mono Y Yo
(out of print)

"El Malecon" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1969.
available on Me And My Monkey / Mi Mono Y Yo
(out of print)

"Something Happened To Me" mp3
by Ambergris, 1970.
available on Ambergris
(out of print)

"Grazin' in the Grass" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1971.
available on Orchestra Harlow Presenta a Ismael Miranda

"El Dia de Navidad" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1973.
available on Hommy a Latin Opera

"Quirimbomboro" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1973.
available on Hommy a Latin Opera

"Gracia Divina" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1973.
available on Hommy a Latin Opera

"No Queremos Sermon" mp3
by Orchestra Harlow, 1973.
available on Hommy a Latin Opera

"La Cartera" mp3
by Larry Harlow, 1973.
available on Salsa

Thursday, December 22, 2011

That's What the Good Book Says

by Alex Abramovich

Dedicated readers of the Boogie Woogie Flu (which is to say, you people, with too much time on your hands) could tell you right off that if (1) "Good Rockin’ Tonight" (2) "Rocket 88" (3) "Rock Around the Clock" (4) "That’s Alright, Mama" and (5) "Maybellene" have anything common, it's that, at one time or another, some music critic (which is to say, someone with too much time on his or her hands) has put them forth as candidates for “first rock and roll song.”

Now, this is the sort of argument that no one’s going to win. You could just as easily cue up (6) “Cow-Cow Boogie,” which Freddie Slack and Ella Mae Morse recorded in 1942 (though, I’ve always preferred Ella Fitzgerald’s 1943 cover)—

"Cow-Cow Boogie" mp3
by Ella Fitzgerald & The Ink Spots, 1943.
available on Ella: Legendary Decca Recordings

Singin' his cowboy songs

He's just too much

He's got a knocked out western accent… with a Harlem touch

He was raised on loco weed

He's what you call a swing half breed

Singin' his “Cow Cow Booogie” in the strangest way:

‘Comma ti yi yi yay
‘Comma ti yippy yi yay

—and which sets cowboy songs, Harlem accents, jazz cigarettes… all the basic rock and roll ingredients, bubbling together, while Elvis et al. are still in short pants. Or, you argue for Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and the Robins, who tossed yet another song onto the stack (or, as Jim Morrison would have had it, funeral pyre) of “first rock and roll songs,” sixty-some years ago.

"That's What the Good Book Says" mp3
by The Robins, 1951.
available on Leiber & Stoller Present the Spark Records Story

(7) “That’s What the Good Book Says” was recorded by the Robins, in Los Angeles, in 1950. “We let loose with something we had just written,” Leiber recalled, as “a different take on the bible than what I’d studied in Hebrew school:

Well, back in the days of old King Saul
Every night was a crazy ball
The cats smoked hay through a rubber hose
And the women, they wore transparent clothes
That’s what the good book says, boy,
That’s what the good book says….”

"The Robins dug our new creation myth and cut ‘That’s What the Good Book Says’ a month later. It came out in early 1951. A real record. Our very first, with our names on it, although misspelled. But it was real.”

The rest of this first, real Leiber & Stoller record, is worth quoting in full:

Now Moses said to old Pharoah,
“You’ll have to let my people go

If you don’t take their chains off and set them loose,

I’m going to put the plague on all of your Jews”

That’s what the good book says, boy

That’s what the good book says

Now the snake said to Eve,
“You listen to me, go and take that apple off the tree.”
Now, the Lord tried to guide her, but he was blind

She said, “this apple cider tastes mighty fine!”

That’s what the good book says, boy,

That’s what the good book says….

The devil was sitting on a nest of coals,

Giving boiled brew to the sinnin’ souls

They was taking that brim and mixing with wine

And having their self a real crazy time

That’s what the good book says, boy,

That’s what the good book says….

Leiber and Stoller with The Coasters (formerly The Robins) at Atlantic Records

What a great song to write, straight out of the gate! One that turns the bible upside down, and shakes it. It’s got Jewish authors. African-American singers. A heavy backbeat. Bacchanalian (or, pace Jim Morrison, Dionysian) lyrics. Gospel shadings. References to the biblical Exodus (or, as Bob Marley would have put it, “movement of Jah people”). A xylophone solo that anticipates Jimi Hendrix’s work with the Band of Gypsies... Why has Greil Marcus not written a book about this song? What would Christopher Hitchens, or Vaclev Havel have made of it? And was it even included in Jim Dawson and Steve Propes’ 1992 book, What Was the First Rock 'N' Roll Record?

None of us can answer these questions. (I’ve heard that Havel and Lou Reed had this song on repeat, in Prague, as they plotted the Velvet Revolution; according to Wikipedia, their conversation went unrecorded.) But we do know that the Robins, who started off as the “A-Sharp Trio,” in San Francisco, in 1945, eventually turned into the Coasters, and went on to record more than a few classic Leiber & Stoller songs. In parting, here’s Paul McCartney, singing along to one of those songs, talking about John Lennon, and (I think) crying:

top illustraion: Michelangelo's "The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden" at the Sistine Chapel

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Silver Jew

by Jesse Jarnow

There's no real sport in arguing the semeticism of David Berman, who named his band the Silver Jews, and very publicly rediscovered Judaism himself after becoming sober around 2004. "Ain'tcha heard the news? Adam and Eve were Jews," he'd sung on 2005's Tanglewood Numbers. When the 15-year running outfit started to perform live for the first time in 2006, Berman brought them to Israel, where he was filmed at the Wailing Wall, wearing tefillin and weeping. One doesn't have to go hunting for it. Unlike Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or Neil Diamond, he's probably perfectly happy to be considered a Jewish songwriter. So, what do we do with that information? No where one goes looking for David Berman--his six full-lengths with the Jews, his book of poetry actual air, interviews, documentary, art shows of strange cartoons, his Menthol Mountains blog, even his Judaism--one runs into a strange, unknowable figure.

"That guy's a better songwriter than Dylan," a friend of mine once said of Berman, in an attempt to be provocative. "I bet you didn't know that, did you?" It took me a few years to come around to what he meant, to be able to hold it in my head as a true statement and really believe it -- which I think in a circular way has a lot to do with Berman's Jewishness. His music obviously works with the same basic stuff as (especially) mid-'60s Dylan, verse/chorus forms, surreal/funny non-sequiturs as vehicles for wry beatitude. But where Dylan's songs grab for familiar phrases of folk music, borrowing a change or an image, Berman never seems to need to do that. That is, one can pick apart Dylan's songs -- a line from the Anthology of American Folk Music here, a Woody Guthrie phrasing there, on up through his borrowings from Confessions of a Yakuza in 2001. Those phrases, in their way, remain holes in Dylan's shtick, places where there is quantifiable evidence of his imitative creative process. Berman has no such holes, at least not so gapingly open. Bob Dylan might have written better songs, but I think Berman might really be the better and more original songwriter, if such a distinction can be made. But true originality, even the kind that might be dismissed as simple indie-era post-modernism, is exactly what remains unknowable.

One observable thing about David Berman: his total command of language. Throughout the fantastic 2008 documentary, Silver Jew, he slips into parable. Berman recalled, "One day when I was making [Tanglewood Numbers] I was having a very hard time with the engineer, the producer, and I didn't know what to do--this is the first time I tried it, and I asked for a sign--and I walked the three blocks and, leaning up against a tree at the very end [of the street] there were these really nice shears for pruning trees, just sitting there. I said, 'Okay, well, I still don't believe in super-nature, but maybe this means I should cut the relationship off with this person and pare back the tracks and start the album somewhere else."

Elsewhere, he speaks of coming across a field of wild strawberries and deciding to turn the Silver Jews into a touring outfit. Another story about Berman that struck me pretty hard was Nick Weidenfeld's astonishing Fader piece "Dying in the Al Gore Suite," about Berman's 2003 suicide attempt, in which he attempted to overdose on Xanax and crack in the Nashville hotel room where Al Gore conceded the 2000 election. "I want to die where the Presidency died!" He wore his wedding suit. Sometimes, he just acts in parable. When he retired the Silver Jews in 2009, they played their last show in a cave.

If all of this sounds like cult of personality mumbo jumbo to get at the music of a favorite musician, it might be. But Berman (again, perhaps not quite literally) once declared that the Silver Jews were an abstract art project conceived while he and future Pavement founder Stephen Malkmus worked as security guards at the Whitney. It doesn't really matter if Berman is telling the literal truth in his stories about strawberries and shears or wedding suits. There is the sense, almost always, that he is simply operating on a much more abstract level than most. In a way that is almost completely lost in the over-informed age, he remains the archetypal mystic.

Unlike the once-mysterious S.M. and dozens of other musicians from their generation, Berman has never gone for the big reveal, never outed himself as just a normal guy who likes sports and aims for a pleasant life in the 'burbs. Despite moving to Music City U.S.A., there's not a single Nashville Skyline in his catalogue. In 2009, he declared that the Silver Jews were over entirely. Partially--he said--because of his father, Richard Berman, an anti-union lobbyist apparently legitimately known in his field as "Dr. Evil." "My life is so wierd [sic]," the Silver Jew wrote. "It's allegorical to the nth."

The sum total of all of Berman's gestures shines nearby, but never so close that we can touch it, a mythic figure passing from a life of addiction to redemption, of a seemingly tyrannical father, of poetry, of parable. One might go looking for traditional Hebrew archetypes to describe him. There's the Wandering Jew, the Kabbalistic Jew, the Curious Jew, the Happy Jew, the Quiet Jew. Maybe. Maybe I'm just making these up. But no matter how expert one might be in the old stories, David Berman long ago invented his own self to travel inside, whether or not he records as him again: the Silver Jew.


"Sometimes a Pony Gets Depressed" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2005.
available on Tanglewood Numbers

"Suffering Jukebox" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2008.
available on Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea

"San Francisco B.C." mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2008.
available on Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea

"Animal Shapes" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2005.
available on Tanglewood Numbers

"Honk If You're Lonely" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 1998.
available on American Water

"Inside The Golden Days Of Missing You" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 1996.
available on Natural Bridge

"Tennessee" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2001.
available on Bright Flight

"Buckingham Rabbit" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 1998.
available on American Water

"Death of an Heir of Sorrows" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2001.
available on Bright Flight

"I Remember Me" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 2001.
available on Bright Flight

"Advice to the Graduate" mp3
by The Silver Jews, 1994.
available on Starlite Walker

photos: by Michael Scmelling from Dying in the Al Gore Suite

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

God Help the Troubadour

by Ben Greenman

Phil Ochs was born five months before Bob Dylan and died sixteen months before Elvis Presley, and that tells you all you need to know about him, and that tells you nothing. Ochs was an earnest activist, and a rebel, and a satirist, and a town crier, and a crack-up. He built and dismantled personae with such rapidity that it’s sometimes difficult to find the real person who, in theory, provided the foundation on which those personae were built and dismantled. Born in Texas, raised in Ohio, gifted musically and culturally omnivorous, Ochs appeared on the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1962 and performed at Newport, the folkies’ Mecca, in 1963. Early on, he defined a certain kind of straightforwardly sardonic protest song, bringing Woody Guthrie’s plainspokenness into the tumult of the sixties. Bob Dylan famously remarked that Ochs was getting better and better, and that Dylan could’t keep up with him. In 1967, he took a sharp left turn in his work, abandoning guitar-and-voice for a lavishly pretentious folk-rock. He brooded, marvelously, and then broke out of the brooding with both gallows humor and lovely, clear poetry. Many of his most beloved songs come from this period, such as “Pleasures of the Harbor”and “Tape from California.”

Then came Ochs’ sixth album, Rehearsals for Retirement, which he released in 1969. The album was recorded after Ochs appeared at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and it’s at once a document of the deepest despair—it grew out of terror and sorrow over the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the cover image was of Ochs’s tombstone—and a rollicking good time. “Pretty Smart on My Part,” the leadoff track, skips along on a fleet acoustic riff before descending into a disturbing, if hilarious, series of psychosexual portraits of America. Phil, in chracter, is menaced by a hitchhiker, whips a woman with big breasts, is terrorized by an intruder, experiences humiliation at the hands of the cops, and plots to assassinate the president. Elsewhere, Ochs is the subject of his own pained investigation: “My Life” is almost unbearably naked in both its sound and its subject (“My life,” he sings, “is now a death to me”). “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park And Escapes Unscathed” is a ghostly piano ballad that, in its last thirty seconds, gives way to a glib bit of vaudeville:

Where were you in Chicago
You know I didn’t see you there

I didn’t see them break your head

Or breathe the tear gas air

Where were you in Chicago

When the fight was being fought

Where were you in Chicago

‘Cause I was in Detroit

The album closes with its spectral title song, which starts with one of the most depressing couplets in pop music (“The days grow longer for smaller prizes / I feel a stranger to surprises”) and gets worse from there. Worse, but not even more beautiful: Ochs’s singing in this period is, I think, his best: his limited range and keening style are a perfect match for both the personal lyrics and the more baroque production. “I wear a different kind of garment,” he sings, “in my rehearsals for retirement.”

As it turned out, the garment wasn’t metaphorical. After Rehearsals for Retirement, Ochs commissioned a gold suit from Nudie Cohn, Elvis Presley’s tailor, and transformed himself in a kind of pre-Andy Kaufman King manqué. That period produced exactly two records: the sarcastically titled Greatest Hits, in 1970, which consisted of all new material, and then Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a chronicle of an utterly chaotic March 1970 live date that included a bomb threat that cut short the first show, an altercation with unhappy fans who wanted to get into the second show, and Ochs’s idiotic solution to this problem—he smashed the glass window of the box office, severely lacerating his thumb, and performed the second show with his hand bandaged. And that’s just the offstage drama. Onstage, Ochs played some of his beloved protest songs but also the standard “Mona Lisa,” Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” and medleys devoted to the work of Elvis and Buddy Holly.

Gunfight at Carnegie Hall was, for most purposes, the last of Ochs as a singer. He began to suffer from crippling writer’s block and equally crippling alcoholism. He traveled extensively (he was mugged in Tanzania, damaging his voice), became interested in Chilean politics, performed at a huge rally in Central Park in April 1975 when the Vietnam War ended. And then, the eternal darkness of madness: Ochs started telling people that he was a man named John Butler Train who had murdered the real Phil Ochs and taken his place. This eventually passed, but what remained behind was insurmountable depression and suicidal thinking. Ochs hanged himself on April 9, 1976.

Many artists have recorded tribute songs: Tom Paxton, Billy Bragg, John Wesley Harding, Todd Snider. Snider’s “Thin Wild Mercury” is built around the famous story of Ochs getting kicked out of Dylan’s taxicab after weighing in unfavorably on “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” Well, unfavorable is a relative term. “It’s not as good as ‘Positively 4th Street,’” Ochs said, telling the truth, and Dylan took the mixed review in stride, ordering the driver to stop the car and throwing Ochs out onto the sidewalk. He also delivered a parting shot that stung like an epitaph: “You’re not a folksinger, Ochs, you’re a journalist.”

And then, of course, there’s Dylan’s own “Lenny Bruce,” which isn’t about Ochs, except that it is. Ochs, of course, also wrote a song about Bruce (the heartbreaking “Doesn’t Lenny Live Here Anymore?”), and Dylan’s mournful, clumsy elegy starts by talking about freedom and rebellion and shining the light of truth in the eyes of power. It ends, though, in a cab, which makes me wonder if he’s been talking about Lenny Bruce at all:

Lenny Bruce is dead but he didn’t commit any crime

He just had the insight to rip off the lid before its time

I rode with him in a taxi once

Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months


“Pretty Smart On My Part” mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1969.
available on Rehearsals For Retirement

“William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park & Escapes Unscathed” mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1969.
available on Rehearsals For Retirement

"Chords of Fame" mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1970.
available on Phil Ochs Greatest Hits

“Tape From California” mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1970.
available on Gunfight at Carnegie Hall

“Thin Wild Mercury” mp3
by Todd Snider, 2006.
available on The Devil You Know

“Lenny Bruce” mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1981.
available on Shot of Love, 1981

"Doesn't Lenny Live Here Anymore?" mp3
by Phil Ochs, 1969.
available on Rehearsals For Retirement