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Three in a Row

(Pictured: David Bowie, 1973, in the middle of a good run.)

This morning I tweeted an Ultimate Classic Rock story about the anniversary of the release of the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed and asked if any band other than the Beatles ever released three albums in a row better than Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. I got several suggestions, and here are some of them:

From a couple of people, including friend of the blog Bean Baxter at KROQ in Los Angeles: Springsteen’s Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River.

From Tim Rolls: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane.

From Trey Andrews: Something Else by the Kinks, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and Arthur.

From Sly_3 and Derrick Hinton: Radiohead’s The Bends, Kid A, and OK Computer.

From J. Daniel Rollins: Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty, and Skull and Roses by the Grateful Dead.

From Patrick Kelleher: Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy by Pearl Jam.

From Citylife80: U2’s War, The Unforgettable Fire, and The Joshua Tree.

What I do not know about rap and hip-hop music is, well, everything. Steven named Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Cardigan Spumante suggested the 1997-2002 run of The Untouchable, Last of a Dying Breed, and The Fix by Scarface. Another person suggested three by Ice Cube: Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Death Certificate, and The Predator. Another suggested any three albums by Insane Clown Posse, which I suspect may be arguable. A different suggestion about which I don’t know enough to comment included the first three albums by Creed (My Own Prison, Human Clay, and Weathered).

Sportswriter Doug Farrar (to whom I wave hello and say “love your work”) suggested a pair of threesomes: Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix and Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who’s Next by the Who. This led another person to suggest that Quadrophenia would make that four in a row by the Who.

Others also suggested four in a row. Friend of the blog Brian Rostron and music writer David Cantwell (one of my favorite writers and a follower I’m pleased to have) both suggested that my list of Stones albums should be expanded, adding Beggar’s Banquet before Let It Bleed. Similarly, Patrick Orr would add Nebraska to the list of Springsteen albums. And on the subject of four-album runs, JMRF nominates Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde.

Nick Beck suggested a run of five: Led Zeppelin’s first four plus Houses of the Holy. And the CD Project suggests the Miles Davis period from 1959 through 1970, which covers 13 albums, from Porgy and Bess through Bitches Brew.

A few of respondents named performers without naming albums: Prince, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Outkast. Regarding Steely Dan, my three would be Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, and Aja, but you could persuade me that it should be Can’t Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstasy, and Pretzel Logic. I presume the Joni threesome would be Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark. My guess for Prince would be 1999, Purple Rain, and Around the World in a Day. With Outkast, you’d have to tell me.

I should probably Storify all of the tweets I got, but that’s going to take longer than I have today. If you’d like to add your own run of three (or more) albums that you think can rival Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street, please put it in the comments.

Everybody’s Daddy for a While

(Pictured: on November 20, 1975, Gerald Ford meets a Thanksgiving turkey.)

So now then: barring some sort of drama in the Electoral College, or barring him deciding to say before January 20th, “Screw it, I won, but it’s all yours, Governor Pence, and I’m outta here,” Donald Trump is gonna be president. Recently on Twitter, music writer Stephen Erlewine suggested we try to imagine him pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, or attending the Kennedy Center Honors, or presiding over the Easter Egg Roll. But it’s farcical to think that this vulgar cartoon of a human being might plausibly perform those very American functions we expect of our presidents. Even Richard Nixon, the most painfully awkward public man of the 20th century, was able to do such things. But Trump? Come on.

It’s also difficult to see Trump as a family man, despite the role his three oldest children played in the campaign. Five kids by three different women does not conjure up images of breakfast around the family table. It’s easier with Nixon. He doted on his daughters, although Mrs. Nixon was sometimes more political prop than partner. (In the White House, he occasionally communicated with her by sending memos via his staff.)

In 1969, songwriter Jeff Barry and singer Andy Kim, contemplating the new family in the White House, wrote and recorded “Tricia Tell Your Daddy,” which imagined a breakfast scene “On a family Sunday morning / When he comes downstairs a-yawning / From his bed.” The song (also recorded by Jay and the Americans) asks the First Daughter to speak to her father about his great responsibility, about peace and poverty, and about love.

Tell him he’s the man, Tricia
The world’s in his hands, Tricia
Tell him that you’re not his only child
He’s everybody’s daddy for a while

“Tricia Tell Your Daddy” isn’t a protest song, exactly. It’s more a plea for understanding and a song of hope.

Forty-eight years later, asking this incoming president for understanding seems like a waste of breath. And while there’s hope among Trump’s constituency, that hope is almost certainly destined to be shattered. He’s not building a Mexican wall, he’s not deporting 11 million Muslims, and he’s not going to throw Hillary in jail. The sad likelihood is that the only people who’ll get exactly they want from a Trump presidency are those who want to gut public institutions and persecute gays and lesbians—and of course the American Nazi Party, the KKK, and other retrograde morons.

One of the more wrongheaded bits of analysis I saw in the wake of the election appeared on the morning after: “Trump’s election is going to be really good for artists.” Somebody even suggested it was the best thing to happen to punk rock in decades. But the future of art is not among the futures many of us are considering right now. It’s a stretch to presume that in a culture as atomized as this one, Trump might have a broad impact on art. While punk bands might be moved to rage, there’s not much evidence to suggest that mainstream musicians will respond to Trumpism in their work. Recently, consultant Fred Jacobs wrote about the general failure of rockers to engage as activists, and it’s no wonder. Everybody remembers what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003, and Jacobs reported that in more recent years even a star as big as Bruce Springsteen has been harshly punished by radio audiences for his activism. The most visible rock activist in the 2016 election cycle was probably Ted Nugent, but he had neither radio airplay or record sales to lose. There’s little reason to believe the risk of speaking out will be any less in Trump’s America than it was in Obama’s.

It’s possible, I guess, that I could be totally wrong about this. Maybe art will flower, songs of protest will ring out on the radio, and the next four years will be some kind of new artistic Renaissance. Stuff currently impossible to imagine may actually happen.

Because it already has.

The staff and management of this blog wish you and yours as happy a Thanksgiving as possible under the circumstances.

The Couple

(Some of what follows is speculation.)

It’s early November 1972. Two young Yale Law School students share an apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. They spend a lot of time buried in their work, poring through casebooks in libraries, writing briefs and other papers, engaging in skull sessions with fellow students. But they are also planning to get married—maybe not as soon as he would like, but soon.

One night, they’re at their kitchen table, books spread around, papers on the floor. A radio sits on the counter. It’s tuned to a Top 40 station, maybe Lucky 13 WAVZ from New Haven or WDRC from Hartford, maybe some station from Bridgeport or Waterbury or New York City.

As the work goes on, the radio plays the hits of the day. The Spinners are #1 in New Haven with “I’ll Be Around.” Curtis Mayfield, from her hometown, has his biggest hit in years, “Freddie’s Dead.” Elvis and Chuck Berry, favorites of his because what Southern boy doesn’t love Elvis and Chuck Berry, are riding high with “Burning Love” and “My Ding-a-Ling.” He finds “My Ding-a-Ling” very funny; she rolls her eyes whenever it comes on, partly at the song itself, but also at the fact that he actually likes it.

On this night, their radio plays a couple of politically themed hits: “Elected” by Alice Cooper and “Convention ’72” by the Delegates. He thinks “Convention ’72” is clever; she doesn’t have time for that nonsense. The couple is very much interested in politics, by the way. They worked for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in Texas last summer, but they know the score: McGovern is going to lose to Nixon in next week’s election, and lose badly.

They have already discussed moving back to Arkansas, his home state, after law school, so he can pursue public office. It will be easier for him to run than it will be for her, at least right now. But they both believe that there’s nothing he can do that she can’t. Women are empowered in the world of 1972 like never before, and every sensible person knows that’s the way it’s going to be from now on. As it happens, there’s a song on the radio celebrating that very idea: “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy, which has just broken into New Haven’s Top 10, and which will reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week of December 9, 1972.

Political opinion follows. Read at your peril.

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Choruses of Angels

I have a friend who’s a church organist. The other day she posted an article on Facebook listing 20 Hymns Your Kids Should Know, which suggested that certain religious classics aren’t heard all that much anymore, and which inspired this post.

As a practical matter, religious belief is useless to me. Religion still holds some interest as a cultural expression, however, and that’s a subject I have written about before. Modern translations of the Bible, which are intended to be truer to the original texts and more relevant to modern readers, have removed the poetry, the mystery—the very artistry—that used to be intrinsic to the Bible. Thus, a great deal of the Bible’s appeal is removed, too.

Church music been rendered similarly modern. Dragged to church one Sunday, I heard a band made up of church members clatter through their repertoire of Christian rock covers so poorly that it barely qualified as a joyful noise. But church music doesn’t just sound different than it used to—its depiction of the relationship between God and man is different, too. In a world where we can customize and personalize everything exactly the way we want it, religious belief and religious custom are not exempt. In a more democratic age, less comfortable with arbitrary authority, people want God to be less imposing: not so much the Lord Most High but a Kindly Sky Grandpa. And it’s not just that. Lots of modern religious music is concerned with how you fit God into your plans. More traditional music, especially the old hymns that are falling out of fashion, is concerned with the opposite: about how you fit into God’s plans.

The church I grew up in (which still stands today) was built in 1916, with three floors and a million steps—concrete ones outside and creaky wooden ones inside—and two tiny bathrooms for a congregation of over 1200. It was probably the first public place I ever visited, as a babe in arms. I was baptized there and confirmed there. It was, until I became a teenager and could extricate myself from the requirement of regular churchgoing, a significant site of my social life, second only to school. And it occurs to me that a number of my memories of the place have to do with those old hymns.

The church had a gigantic organ. If there were pipes, I never knew where they were, but whatever and wherever it was, the thing was loud. The organist, Mrs. Seaton, was a virtuoso, and way into playing it. Sometimes, when we reached the final verse of a particularly powerful closing hymn, she’d jump an octave as if she were summoning up a chorus of angels, thus bringing the service to a rousing conclusion. I knew enough about music to know I loved the way that sounded, although certain members of the congregation were not so impressed. “She plays like we’re in a rented cathedral,” one of them groused, although it’s not clear to me precisely what he meant.

When I was very little, we were EUBs (Evangelical United Brethren), but we became Methodists after the EUBs and the Methodists merged in 1968. And in church, we sang Old Hundred after the offertory, all the great carols at Christmas, and Protestantism’s greatest hits the rest of the year: “Come Thou Almighty King,” “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” “The Church’s One Foundation,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “All Creatures of Our God and King,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and “Holy Holy Holy.” Writers of traditional hymnody intended their works to be an offering suitable to the Lord Most High. Such inspiration is where the melodies get their power and the lyrics get their punch: “Father all glorious / O’er all victorious / Come and reign over us / Ancient of days” or “Let every kind and every tribe / On this terrestrial ball / To Him all majesty ascribe / And crown Him Lord of all.”

Nobody writes like that anymore, and a lot of churches don’t sing like that anymore. Theological considerations aside, it seems like a net loss to the culture, when some of the most powerful and inventive music of the last 300 years is replaced by something more appealing to the palate but less nutritious to the soul.

My October

(A fragment.)

She doesn’t come around as often as I would like, because we do not always get what we want.

(She is one of those who has taught me that lesson.)

But she’s always with me, even when I’m not with her.

She was there when dreams came true, and when nightmares became real.

She’s in the music I love the most, and in nearly every word I have ever written here.

Hello, October. I have missed you, and seeing you again is everything.

The Oddball

The name of Tiny Tim brings up a constellation of images: the long, stringy hair; the ukulele; the falsetto singing voice; the blowing of kisses. Wasn’t he on Laugh-In? Didn’t he get married by Johnny Carson or something? He’s the subject of a new biography, Eternal Troubadour: the Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, by Justin Martell with Alanna Wray McDonald. Between 1968 and 1971, Tiny Tim, real name Herbert Khaury, was one of the most recognizable pop stars in the world.

In December 1967, after gaining notoriety performing live in Greenwich Village, Tiny Tim went into a studio with producer Richard Perry and arranger Artie Butler to record the album God Bless Tiny Tim. It included a number of the old-fashioned songs Tiny revered, several going back to the Pioneer Era of Recording, alongside newer songs, including Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”

In January 1968, Tiny Tim was introduced to TV producer George Schlatter, about to launch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who booked him for the first episode. Without telling Dick Martin in advance, Dan Rowan brought Tiny on stage and then walked off, leaving an incredulous Martin to watch Tiny perform. A couple of weeks later, Tiny appeared again, only this time he sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me,” a song from his album that had been a hit for crooner-guitarist Nick Lucas in 1929.

On April 3, 1968, “Tip-Toe” was released as a single. The next night, Tiny Tim made his first appearance on Tonight (the night of the day Martin Luther King was murdered). A New York Times profile and a second appearance with Carson came before the end of the month. And on April 27, “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me” cracked the Bubbling Under section of the Hot 100. Two weeks later, it entered the Hot 100 at #83, and it steadily rose from there, eventually peaking at #17 for the week of June 29, sharing the Top 20 with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Mony Mony,” and “Mac Arthur Park.” (Also among the nation’s top songs that week was “Here Come the Judge” by Shorty Long, boosted by the popularity of “here come the judge” as a Laugh-In catchphrase.)

God Bless Tiny Tim charted in May and eventually rose to #7 on the album chart. Tiny Tim would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby, an appearance in which he and Bing traded obscure song snippets from old Crosby movies. A brief meeting with George Harrison resulted in Tiny recording a couple of lines that appeared on the Beatles’ 1968 Christmas record.

In June 1969, Tiny met Victoria Budinger, a 17-year-old girl from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Although he was perpetually in love with somebody (and had a habit of giving an engraved trophy to the girl he loved the most each year), he fell especially hard for Vicki, and proposed to her in August. (He was 37 years old at the time.) He appeared on Tonight in September, where he brought Vicki onstage and gave her a ring. The same night, Carson asked Tiny if he wanted to get married on the show. Tiny accepted; Vicki was horrified. But on December 17, 1969, the wedding—and it was an actual wedding, with a minister and attendants amidst a bower decorated with 10,000 tulips—took place during a taping of the show, on which Florence Henderson and Phyllis Diller also appeared. It was estimated that upwards of 40 million people watched that night, the highest-rated Carson show until his retirement episode in 1992.

Tiny’s story continues after that, ending with his death in 1996 at the age of 64. You can read the rest in Eternal Troubadour if you’d like, although the book is simply not very good. It’s tediously detailed and about half again as long as it needs to be, and riddled with typographical errors. (My favorite: one of Tiny’s backup singers would “occasionally bear her breasts onstage.” As would each of us, if we went onstage.) And as I sat down to write this post, I cursed aloud its lack of an index.

Although Martell says his intention is to reveal Tiny Tim as more than an oddball curio, it’s pretty clear that’s all Tiny was. A few years of unlikely success were followed by a quarter-century’s unraveling, as Tiny’s life grew ever more unsavory. What comes through the strongest in Martell’s book is that Tiny Tim was too much of an oddball to suffer any other fate.

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