Thursday, June 24, 2010

1906: “Nobody” by Bert Williams

Bert Williams was perhaps the most famous American performer who you’ve never heard of. He was the Jackie Robinson of American entertainment, appearing in the first African American Broadway show, was the first African American member of the legendary Ziegfeld's Follies, and was the best-selling African American recording singer for the first two decades of the 20th Century. He played for presidents and kings, literally – Woodrow Wilson and King Edward VII, respectively – and was famously hailed by W.C. Fields as “The funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” Duke Ellington immortalized him in music as part of his groundbreaking Carnegie Hall concert in 1943, while Booker T. Washington hailed Williams as having “done more for our race then I have. He has smiled his way into people's hearts; I've been oblidged to fight my way.”

Williams' biggest hit was a half-spoken comedy song called “Nobody” that epitomized his popular persona as a down-on-his luck loner. It was a hallmark work in the canon of American deadpan, with each word slowly considered for maximum melancholy effect:

When life seems full of clouds and rain...And I am filled with naught but pain...Who's there to sooth my thumping, bumping brain?


“In picking a song I always consider the words,” Williams once wrote. “The tune will take care of itself. I should feel sorry for a song that depended on its tune if I had to sing it!” He claimed that he didn't take proper care of his voice and that, as a result, “now I have to talk all my numbers.” But Williams' is underselling his voice. While the verses of “Nobody” were indeed spoken, they unknowingly point the way to the future in the deadpan vocals of Lou Reed, Johnny Ramone, and Beck, making Williams a sort of grandfather to postmodern American singing.

Williamssinging in the refrains, however, was something else altogether. IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII—ain't never done nothin' to nobody,” he sings, riding out the word “I” to mimic the sliding trombone that plays just before it. Though unremarkable to modern ears, this put Williams’ at the innovative forefront of popular singing, helping to lay the first ground-stones for instrument-influenced “scat” singing that would explode some twenty years later. Regardless of whatever innovations the song contained, audiences ate it up simply as a clever and catchy song – much to Williams’ eventual dismay. “Before I got through with ‘Nobody’ I could have wished that both the author of the words and the assembler of the tune had been strangled or drowned or talked to death...” Williams once wrote. “Month after month I tried to drop it and sing something new, but I could get nothing to replace it, and the audiences seemed to want nothing else. Every comedian at some time in his life learns to curse the particular stunt of his that was most popular. ‘Nobody’ was a particularly hard song to replace.” Not that he didn't try. There were rewrites like “Somebody” and “Everybody,” but people saw right through these for the rip-offs that they were. Everybody wanted “Nobody.”

As a light-skinned native who was born in the Bahamas, Williams always wore blackface makeup on stage, even when he was the only member of an entirely African American cast to do so. To a modern audience this may seem racist if not redundant, but regardless of Williams’ reasoning for doing so, it spoke of the hall of mirrors that is American entertainment: a black man imitating a white man imitating a black man. However, Williams never lost sight of who he was under the makeup. When asked if he would rather be a white man, he always answered a firm no. “There is many a white man less fortunate and less well equipped than I am,” he explained. “In truth, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient – in America.”

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The 45 Best 45 PRM Records

It is tempting to write that the 45 RPM single is a dying art form, but the truth is it already has been dead for about 20 years now.

Initially introduced by RCA Records in the 1940s as a solution to the bulky and brittle 78 RPM record, the 45 was a sleek innovation for the postwar world: Smaller, lighter, plastic, and easy to hold, thanks to its signature "doughnut hole" center. The latter made it easy for children to carry, whose newfound disposable income made them the principle target of this new format.

Around the same time that the 45 was being developed, so was a sleek new form of postwar music: Rock and roll. Just in case the connection wasn't clear enough, the first R&B 45 ever released was Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "That's All Right," which less than a decade later would be Elvis Presley's first release - and, as some like to tell it, The First Rock and Roll Record ever. To learn more about the former or the latter, consult the work of my friend Jim Dawson, author of 45 RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution and co-author with Steve Propes of What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record?, both of which are definitive (and insanely readable) works on their respective subject matters.

But my focus here is not on history -- territory that Mr. Dawson has already more than aptly covered -- but rather excellence.

Growing up in the twilight of the 45 -- the only one I remember being bought around the house was my older sister's purchase of Prince's 1989 "Batdance" single that she couldn't find on cassette; my parents told her that this was a waste of money since it could only be played on the family record player, which we were using less and less -- I had to reconstruct their significance in retrospect. I don't know if I really ever got it until I came across Greil Marcus' essay "Treasure Island" in a reprint of the seminal collection of essays he edited, Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island.

The book had originally come out in the late 1970s and his essay remained un-updated. In building what he considered to be a complete collection of rock and roll music, he relied heavily on singles, and only used long-playing albums for when the artist's work merited it. Although he wrote a blurb for every single album included, he did not do so for the many singles in between. He did this "because space prohibited it and because most singles stand on their own, so many of them glorious one-shots from performers with only one thing to say or worth hearing."

But even the artists whose work was represented by many albums -- such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and the Rolling Stones -- still had singles filling in the gaps. For example, to cover the late Beatles period, he simply included "Don't Let Me Down" as a single, which can indeed be heard as a sort of rough and passioned farewell; to get Elvis's '70s work, he was just as frugal: "Burning Love." Again, I can see his point, on a desert island, what more Elvis from this period do you really need? The power of the one record can speak for them all.

Being a romantic of the past -- "Oh how I love things as they used to be," goes the correlating Kinks line -- I kept an eye out on what was released on 45s and what kind of statement this small two-song record could make. (I soon learned this was even more so with British bands, where the country's practice of was on an album and what was on a single was strictly segregated; America initially also worked this way, but seems to have dissolved the divide between the two in the late '50s.)

When I began collecting rock and roll trinkets and treasures to line cabin walls and basement panelling, I soon learned that 45s were a very cheap, cool-looking thing to have. I also began to realize how freaking good they could be. The watershed came with the first 45 I bought, "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" by the Beatles. I found it mind-blowing that two such amazing songs were on the opposite sides of each other -- and this coming from someone who always found Sgt. Pepper to be fine, but rather boring. This did not get past the Beatles' inner-circle; producer George Martin has called his decision to release their two strongest tracks as they began work on what would become Sgt. Pepper was the biggest mistake of his professional career. I for one certainly think the album would've been vastly improved by the inclusion of these two songs.

But George Martin's loss is the 45 record's gain. Growing up in the CD age, I always had to piece back together singles and chronologies retrospectively, usually aided by books or the always-excellent liner notes of Rhino Records' reissues. Using "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" -- "The first concept 45?" Marcus suggests in "Treasure Island" -- as the gold standard, I kept a running track in the back of my head of other singles that seemed mind-blowingly perfect, bringing together two songs (or sometimes two parts of one epic song) that were as good, if not better, than the best albums that rock and roll had to offer.

Now that it's summer, I've been listening to a lot of the Beach Boys, obsessively stacking their 45s into digital playlists based on chronologies and chart positions. Some of these sounded to me like the finest 45s ever recorded, so to see how they measure up, I finally compiled the list below of "The 45 Best 45 RPM Records."

This is not a list of the greatest rock and roll singles. That would have to include songs like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," and "Like a Rolling Stone," each of which had relatively lackluster flipsides ("This Boy," "The Spider and the Fly," and "Gates of Eden," respectively). In order to be a great 45, BOTH sides need to be amazing. Some of these singles were flukes, where the intended A-side turned out to be just as popular as the B-side (see #2) or radio stations were unwilling to play the A-side for whatever reason and turned the other side into a hit (see #3). While listings of rock and roll discographies are nothing but maddeningly inconsistent, I did my best to decipher what the originally intended A and B side were upon the record's release, and put them in that order. In many cases, the call on which is the A-side and which is the B-side is virtually interchangeable (see #6, #22, and #23, among many others).

Furthermore, I resolved any ambiguities between American and UK releases by going along with the country in which the artist is from or originally released the record. The exception that proves the rule is Jimi Hendrix, for whom I went with the UK "Hey Joe"/"Stone Free" (as opposed to the American release with "51st Anniversary" as the B-side) because, even though Hendrix was American, he was recording and performing in England and the UK single reflects how he intended the single to be released. Finally, I kept it narrowed to the rock and roll era (roughly 1954 onwards), which meant cutting out scores of great blues and country records, many of which fell outside of what I considered the rock and roll genre (and, for the older ones anyway, only released on 78).

So all that said, here's my list of The 45 Best 45 RPM Records ever recorded:

  1. "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane," The Beatles, 1967
  2. "Don't Be Cruel"/"Hound Dog," Elvis Presley, 1956
  3. "Let's Spend the Night Together"/"Ruby Tuesday," The Rolling Stones, 1967
  4. "Bo Diddley"/"I'm a Man," Bo Diddley, 1955
  5. "I Get Around"/"Don't Worry Baby," The Beach Boys, 1964
  6. "I Forgot to Remember to Forget Her"/"Mystery Train," Elvis, Scotty and Bill, 1955
  7. "Subterranean Homesick Blues"/"She Belongs to Me," Bob Dylan, 1965
  8. "Great Balls of Fire"/"You Win Again," Jerry Lee Lewis, 1957
  9. "I Wanna Be Your Dog"/"1969," The Stooges, 1969
  10. "What'd I Say, Parts 1 & 2," Ray Charles, 1959
  11. "That's All Right"/"Blue Moon of Kentucky," Elvis, Scotty and Bill, 1954
  12. "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, Parts 1 & 2," James Brown, 1970
  13. "Wouldn't It Be Nice"/"God Only Knows," The Beach Boys, 1966
  14. "Hey Joe"/"Stone Free," The Jimi Hendrix Experience
  15. "Honky Tonk Women"/"You Can't Always Get What You Want," The Rolling Stones, 1969
  16. "Up on Cripple Creek"/"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," The Band, 1969
  17. "Rip It Up"/"Ready Teddy," Little Richard, 1956
  18. "It's Too Late"/"I Feel the Earth Move," Carole King, 1971
  19. "Hey Ladies"/"Shake Your Rump," Beastie Boys, 1989
  20. "I Put a Spell on You"/"Little Demon," Screamin' Jay Hawkins, 1956
  21. "Dancing in the Dark"/"Pink Cadillac," Bruce Springsteen, 1984
  22. "Yellow Submarine"/"Eleanor Rigby," The Beatles, 1966
  23. "Down on the Corner"/"Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969
  24. "Peggy Sue"/"Everyday," Buddy Holly, 1957
  25. "Hey Jude"/"Revolution," The Beatles, 1968
  26. "My Adidas"/"Peter Piper," Run-D.M.C., 1986
  27. "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud, Parts 1 & 2," James Brown, 1968
  28. "Too Much Monkey Business"/"Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Chuck Berry, 1956
  29. "White Light/White Heat"/"Here She Comes Now," The Velvet Underground, 1968
  30. "Oh Boy!"/"Not Fade Away," The Crickets, 1957
  31. "I'm a Believer"/"(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone," The Monkees, 1966
  32. "White Riot"/"1977," The Clash, 1977
  33. "Cecilia"/"The Only Living Boy in New York," Simon & Garfunkel, 1970
  34. "Shout, Parts 1 & 2," The Isley Brothers, 1959
  35. "The Harder They Come"/"Many Rivers to Cross," Jimmy Cliff, 1972
  36. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"/"Boys," The Shirelles, 1960
  37. "Blue Suede Shoes"/"Honey Don't," Carl Perkins, 1956
  38. "19th Nervous Breakdown"/"As Tears Go By," The Rolling Stones, 1966
  39. "Searchin'"/"Young Blood," The Coasters, 1957
  40. "Sunny Afternoon"/"I'm Not Like Everybody Else," The Kinks, 1966
  41. "Sliver"/"Dive," Nirvana, 1990
  42. "Ooby Dooby"/"Go! Go! Go!," Roy Orbison, 1956
  43. "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper," The Beatles, 1965
  44. "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame"/"Little Sister," Elvis Presley, 1961
  45. "Anarchy in the U.K."/"I Wanna Be Me," The Sex Pistols, 1976

Song of My Shelf

I once came across something that a friend had read and found worthy of making into a Facebook status: One legal definition of insanity is doing an action over and over again but expecting a different result.

I, of course, copied and re-posted her exact status into a response. Happily, at least one other person followed my lead. But since I first read those words, they've sunken into that elusive deeper level of thought where you think something without realizing that you've been thinking it.

Today I bought a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I found it for eleven dollars at a small used bookstore and apologetically put it in a bag of a much larger used book store that is probably its main competition. The guy behind the desk didn't seem to mind in the slightest; he made some little joke to make me feel better, which I missed, and he kindly repeated, but I didn't get it the second time either.

This is and of itself is nothing remarkable. What does strike me is that I estimate that this is at least the fourth time I bought it in my life -- not counting an abridged edition I had in college -- and yet I've hardly read more than a few pages of it.

The first time I bought it in my adult (read: post-college) life, it was a cheap paperback copy that I found at a store I worked at for a few bucks. It was yellow and ugly and had a bad drawing of the author's face on the cover. But it was cheap and after having read about it somewhere or other, I decided I "should" own a copy.

The second time I bought it was in New York City's legendary Strand bookstore (18 miles of books!), where I splurged on the Library of America edition -- forty bucks new; I got it used for twenty -- I don't know if you know this series, but you've probably seen them but not known what they are; they publish beautiful definitive editions of great American writing with shiny black dust-jackets and then put them on the market for a lot of money. They're somewhat parallel to the Criterion Collection in film -- an expensive series by smart people for smart people, and with every purchase comes a self-congradulatory sensation that you own something Important. It's very pretty, and it sits among the other first non-presidential volumes in the series: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain. All that's missing is Old Owl Eyes taking them down to show you how they've never actually been read.

Since buying the Library of America edition, I did away with my cheap-o copy, where I gave it to a then-new branch of the Housing Works bookstore (which has since closed & relocated) on the strict rule that I shouldn't have more than one copy of a book (also donated that day were copies of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and the worst Great American Novel of all-time, Moby-Dick).

But then a few weeks ago, I began planning my honeymoon -- Annie had found this lovely cabin in rural Lexington, Virginia, and we made a no internet pact before going. I thought this would be great; I'd sit around all day and read all the books I've always meant to read (this is what Northerners think you do in the South). But as I once saw the great Warren Zevon say on VH1 when they were filming him browsing in a bookstore, "When you buy a book you also think you're buying the time to read it."

Well, we were going straight from the wedding to honeymoon, and I decided to pick up some Great American Literature to bring along, most of which I already had in other forms. Among these was an Oxford edition of Leaves of Grass, chosen because I had an old professor who only used Oxford editions for Shakespeare. In retrospect, it's a little sad that I use an English institution to judge the merits of a distinctly American work, but at the time I figured, good enough for the Brits (and Shakespeare), good enough for me. I dare say it was a noble purchase, a brave purchase, and it mostly sat at the bottom of my suitcase, where it anchored my pants as I read about more important things, like Bert Williams' Broadway career and Groucho Marx's autobiography.

So why buy another paperback edition today? Well, I'll tell you. Inspired by the small stack of books that I kept on my bedside table during the honeymoon of what I should read, I decided to make a permanent "bedside" library shelf of the Great American Canon. Thoreau and Emerson were easy -- I have a Viking Portable Library edition of Thoreau that includes all of Walden, plus a bunch of his other writings, and for Emerson, I've found the Modern Library's Essential Writings has done the trick. There's also a beat-up copy of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn just for fun and a copy of Moby-Dick that I also bought today but will spare you those details (Moby-Dick is so dreary that not even obsessing over buying it can evoke excitement). And for good measure, I threw a little copy of Franklin's Autobiography and a pocket-sized Bible (King James Version, of course), mostly because I once heard a professor say that if you were lucky enough to own books in the nineteenth century, you owned two: One was Franklin's Autobiography and the other was the Bible.

This is all just to say when I put my bright white Oxford Leaves of Grass on the stack, it didn't quite feel right, mainly because I thought it used the first edition of the work, while the Library of America used the last (or a more definitive version of the first, which is arguably the same thing). Well, imagine my surprise when, in finding in Library of America's new paperback "student" editions a fat version of Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which includes the complete original version as well as the complete final "deathbed" version. Hello paperback Library of America and goodbye Oxford!

As I obsessed about this through the day (much like I had with earlier re-bought volumes of Emerson, Melville, and the Founding Fathers), I kept reassuring myself that yes, this was the "correct" edition to have that would complete my "perfect" bedside Americana library. If America truly sees itself as a "city on a hill" and human nature intuitively strives for perfection, is it any wonder that certain volumes can (or should?) be bought again and again, tweaked a little differently each time, like Jefferson's Monticello, or perhaps more to the point, Whitman's many editions of Leaves of Grass? Has the idea of American reinvention so deeply penetrated its land and people that we are always in a constant flux no matter what decisions we make or activities we do? Or is my partaking in buying and re-buying merely American capitalism playing into my own version of madness?

To try and prove to myself that I was not just arbitrarily buying the same half-dozen volumes over and over, I sat down to read my "new" copy of Leaves of Grass. In the first few stanzas I came across the line:

"I am mad for it to be in contact with me."

I wish I could give you the proper context, but I can't (something about going to a bank naked and undisguised); my mind started to drift and I ended up writing this instead. But I figured it was only too appropriate to walk away from Whitman's quintessential exercise in self-indulgence so that I could partake in a little self-indulgence of my own.

You may call it madness, the old lyric goes, but as I sit typing half a foot away from my bedside table with a volume of Jefferson at the bottom, a small black Bible at the top, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass turned upside down aside from the rest of the pile, I see my own little America, built by equal parts of passion and madness, romance and obsession, which is probably always destined to be under construction.

But for the moment, I feel safe, believing that I can finally transition from constructing it on the outside to reading it on the inside.

That is as long as my restless mind doesn't come across a "better" paperback edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

1914: "I Love You Just Like Lincoln Loved the Old Red, White and Blue" by the Peerless Quartet

The failure of African Americans to be granted full civil rights in the years following the Civil War caused the epic conflict to become a fairytale the nation told itself as opposed to the second revolution that it could have (and should have) been. African Americans were pushed out of the picture; the Civil War, Americans assured each other, was a conflict of “brother against brother.” It was an oversimplification, to be sure, but it was also the easier version of the story to tell, and the American popular culture ate it up.

In 1913, a photograph of an ancient veteran in a blue uniform shaking hands with an ancient veteran in a gray uniform became the iconic image of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg; in 1915, D.W. Griffith’s epic (and epically flawed) film Birth of a Nation retold the Civil War from the perspectives of two close families torn apart by the war, in which each family would lose a son; and in the year in between came the Peerless Quartet’s recording of “I Love You Just Like Lincoln Loved the Old Red, White and Blue.”

Maudlin to the point of nauseating, patriotic to the point of laughable, the song tells of a lad meeting a lassie at Gettysburg, where each are leaving flowers for their fathers as part of Decoration Day. As songbirds mate in the trees, the lad declares his love for the lass – he loves her just like Lincoln loved the old red, white, and blue. In the second verse, it is revealed, of course, that his father fought for the Yankees and hers for the Confederates, but this doesn’t matter. “My father wore a suit of blue and your dad a suit of gray,” the lad sings, “That’s why we both bring roses here on Decoration Day!” His words ring with confidence, if a touch of caution, as though he is figuring them out as he says them: There is more bringing them together than separating them – in fact, it’s their very differences that bring them together in the first place.

What the song’s words do lyrically, its music does sonically. The Peerless Quartet have all of the cloying whitebread polish of a barbershop quartet, giving the song a soulless top layer of varnish one might expect from a quaint parlor ballad. Woven throughout the song are snippets of various patriotic and marching songs, stitched together by the rat-a-tat of military-style drums. For a song that is as sappy as Valentine’s Day, it sounds like the Fourth of July. The song not only reconciles North and South, but love and patriotism.

But where is Lincoln during all of this? Where he often is in popular culture: Removed and stoic, like a god watching over things rather than one who participates in the events (or perhaps sets them into motion). His tragic death occurred at just the right time to seal him off at the moment of triumph, which instantly turned a very human leader into a larger-than-life martyr/prophet. When the lad exclaims that he loves the lass like Lincoln loves the old red, white, and blue, he’s saying that his love is the ultimate love – a love from a very real and human source that transcends itself to become almost holy and immortal.

It is interesting to note that he equates his love to the love that Lincoln felt for his country – as opposed to, say, for Mary Todd Lincoln – perhaps all the more so because even after repeated listens this doesn’t jump out to the listener. For all of our rhetoric about separation of church and state, Americans take it for granted that love for their country is a divine love. And this, as exemplified by Lincoln’s spirit, creates the Union that Lincoln fought – and ultimately died – for: A land in which a war of “brother against brother” can directly result in a ballad of “lover meets lover.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]

Freddie Goodhart

It turns out that if you’re an out-of-towner in Lexington, VA, the first thing they ask you is where you are from. If your answer is Brooklyn, the second thing they ask you is why you came down here. If your answer is that it’s because you’re on your honeymoon, the third thing they ask you is why you would ever come to Lexington, VA for a honeymoon.

After going through the above line of questioning several times in the first few days, my new wife Annie and I came up with a quick answer: You honeymoon in Lexington because it’s the exact opposite of Brooklyn.

If New York is the epitome of everything a northern city can be, Lexington feels like what a southern town should be (at least in the mind of a northerner). It’s green, quiet, still, and filled with gothic graveyards and ancient homes of confederate heroes and local legends. Except for one Exxon station with a thinly-veiled wooden sign to hide its blatantly corporate name, there are no chains, no fast food joints, and apparently no drugstores.

The chipper lady at the welcome center told us that it was too bad that we were only staying for a week because she could give us a month of things to do, most of which seemed to involve Stonewall Jackson’s or Robert E. Lee’s home, church, or grave in some form or another. It was our mistake – we had gone in asking the location of a spa where wanted to get massages; for all of her knowledge of the area, the lady stared at us blankly. A fast-talking foreign man in an empty hamburger joint solved the mystery later that day – the place we were looking for had closed down over a year ago from lack of business.

As we staked out the town, Annie and I kept returning to one spot – a junk store with an old wooden sign out front that said “Antique Instruments.” Annie and I had originally met on the New York open mic scene and were both folk musicians and aficionados of what Greil Marcus has perfectly termed “The Old, Weird America.” An antique store and an instrument store inside of a junk store – this was like a wedding present unto itself.

The problem, then, was getting inside. On the first day, we missed our chance. We had discovered the place at 4:00 PM, only to find a small hand-written sign that said “11-3 weekdays or call.” On the second day we came back in the afternoon side of the promised 11 to 3 hours, but found that it was closed once again. By the last day, we got there promptly at 11:30 and were encouraged by the 1930s Pontiac parked outside right in front of the shop. “This must be his,” I said as I approached the front door.

It was locked. I took a long look through the dusty windows and didn’t see too many instruments, but did see other relics that were symptomatic of shops I loved – records, books, old license plates, and photographs. I called the number on the door, it went straight to electronic voicemail, and I left a message explaining our predicament. Annie and I drove away to get on with our planned daytrip to the lake, while I kept one hand on my phone in the hopes that my message would be returned.

We were beginning to think that the store would just have to exist in our imagination, when we happened to drive by it on our way to the lake, we saw that the front door was wide open. I jumped out and went inside while Annie found a parking space.
As I walked in, I became aware of a tall white-haired man at the counter.

“Hey,” I said. “I dunno if you got it, but I’m the guy that just left the message a little bit ago – my wife and I have been trying to come in here for days with no luck.” He seemed to have no idea about receiving any messages, from today or any other day. “Well, yeah,” he said slowly in a thick Southern accent as he tried to light a clove cigarette. “I just get the store open when I can get to it, which is almost never before noon.”

I thanked him for having it open today and he nodded somewhat standoffishly. By the time Annie arrived, I was already lost digging through his wares.

I immediately stumbled upon a stack of old 78 RPM records – not the foxtrots and operettas you find up North, but old country and bluegrass music that you can only find in the south. (I’ve come to learn that old records are almost always found in the places in which they had originally sold.) Lots of Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, and the like – not exactly what I was looking for, but close enough to the mark that I knew it was worth my while to continue digging.

Meanwhile, Annie called me to the back of the store where she had found a shiny mandolin. Annie had wanted one for a long time now and we had in fact made it a point to create an “alternative” wedding registry to encourage friends to get us creative and offbeat things, such as songs, paintings, and maybe, we secretly hoped, an old instrument like a mandolin. Myself, I had always wanted to splurge one day on a 12-string guitar; Annie, she always went for the mandolin.

By the time she was looking at it, the old man had made his way back to her, talking up the instrument.

“Just got that in yesterday,” he said. “About the best shape I’ve ever seen one of those come in. The guy who sold it to me hardly ever used it – looks brand new. He bought it at a store where he paid too much and it’s worth around $350, but I have it priced at $250.”

Meanwhile, I found next to it an old autoharp case. Inside was a shiny autoharp that played well and seemed to have a similar story.

“Just got that in this morning,” the old man said. “The girl who sold it hardly ever used it. She paid a lot more for it than she should of, but I have it priced at $175, which is much less than it is worth.”

He continued repeating various aspects of his sales pitch as we strummed and figured out the instruments, elaborating on some parts but leaving other parts blank. When I asked about whether another instrument’s parts were all original, he dodged the question by telling me that the tuning pegs were the original ones.

But in case we were worried about any chicanery on his part, he took the mandolin in his hands and started picking out a firey little tune. He used to play them all, he told us, going into a list of songs that sounded like songs I knew but weren’t (i.e., I know “Pretty Polly,” he talked about a song with a title like “Pretty Nellie”); most likely, we both knew different variations on the same song.

It turned out the man’s name was Freddie Goodhart, a boogie-woogie pianist, banjo player, and mandolin picker who seems to have played with virtually every major bluegrass musician in the last 50 years (such as Ralph Stanley) and many others whose names rang only distant bells. He was a junkyard-er (which I didn’t know was a verb until I spoke with him) who fixed up old cars like his Pontiac out front, and had run at least two different junkyards in two different states (I was also unaware that one could create a junkyard, let alone make it profitable).

Freddie then settled himself behind the counter, trying to light his clove cigarette for what must have been a half hour while he went into what seemed like a continuing tale of folk festivals, good luck, bad chances, and ex-wives. It was less a story with a beginning and an end as it was a seeming ongoing narrative that we had walked into the middle of and would never end even if we had stayed in the store for a hundred years.

As he spoke, Annie and I took turns listening and digging through the store. It was completely cluttered, with the old instruments in the back, records and books in the front, framed black and white photographs on the sides, and an old Coca-Cola refrigerator in the middle by his old glass counter. What struck me was that, although his sign promised antique instruments, there wasn’t a majority of them or anything else in the store. 

Explaining his goods, he spoke in the words of one man’s version of the American land: “I don’t sell one thing specifically, I just find things I like and bring that in.” It was less an antique or instrument store as it was a beautiful, dusty sprawl of one man’s life and interests, set up like a dime museum but run like a garage sale.

And tellingly, we quickly learned that there were seemingly many more items that weren’t for sale than ones that were.

I slyly picked through some old 78s on his counter while he told Annie a story – about a folk festival in which Freddie got ditched by his friends only to stumble upon and be invited in by the granddaughter of the man who ran the festival, which led to a three-day party of good southern cooking and jamming with the headlining acts – and stumbled upon a copy of the Carter Family’s “East Virginia Blues.” After his tale wound down, I inquired about the record.

“Yeah, that’s an original one there. Don’t know if I could part with it though, but it’s one of the classics.”

He then led me to a couple of dusty albums of 78 records I had somehow missed and found one that was labeled on the front “Carter Family.” Inside, were about a dozen original Carter Family records from the late-’20s and early ’30s, including the one I had most been interested in finding: “Worried Man Blues,” a verse of which was used as the basis of Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” which many believe is his finest recording.

I inquired about price right away – for one of them, for all of them. The previous day I had shelled out $50.00 for a Sun Records 78 copy of Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Break Up,” so I was up for anything. My mind raced doing the number-crunching. I owned one Carter Family 78 – “Rambling Boy” – and had found other records online from that era between $20 and $40, based on artist and condition. These weren’t in mint shape, but they looked pretty good – I tried to set a mental limit of what I would spend on them based on the feedback the man told me. No more than $30 per disc, no wait, maybe $40? Or perhaps strike a deal for the whole book?

“Well, I don’t know if I can part with those right now, those are pretty special,” he told me, walking around the answer without quite giving it. “A man came in a little while and offered me $100.00 for it, but I said no.”

In my calculations, $100.00 would have been a steal for this, but he spoke his words in a straightforward manner, as though he found this offer to be about as good as any other.

“I am getting on in years though, so I should part with them soon, I suppose, but I can’t just yet,” he reasoned aloud. “But I’ll keep you in mind if I do ever decide to sell them.

Meanwhile, Annie had found an old photograph on the wall, not of one of the many celebrity musicians, but of a girl running in a field. It didn’t seem to be anyone famous, and if he said who it was, I don’t remember it. But this too came with a story (most of which I missed because I was digging where the Carter Family records were to discover the first Jimmie Rodgers 78 I had ever seen in person – also not for sale), and, of course, something that made the photograph too special for him to sell.

I couldn’t complain though, we ended up with those beautiful instruments at a very fair price and we literally strummed outside our cabin door that evening, as well as a small stack of Elvis EPs for ten bucks.

I took his card, shook hands, and left him my info for the book of Carter Family 78s, but I’m not holding my breath. Whatever monetary value I would give for their sale is clearly nothing compared to whatever meaning and value they conjure in the mind of Freddie Goodhart.

The Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time

There is something futile yet exciting about making lists – ever since man declared himself king of all beasts, he has let his mind be ruled by a sense of hierarchy which often arbitrary if not an illusion altogether. In an attempt to rise above bias, one falls prey to the very biases they possess. This is especially so when the matter at hand involves any form of art, a creation that inherently transcends the ordinary human world on its own terms.

Putting together a list of the greatest rock and roll artists is stupid – as stupid as making a list of the greatest films or books of all time – and it’s even more so when they are ranked, as opposed to grouped in some arbitrary number (often 100, if not some other power of ten) and listed alphabetically.

Well, I hate lists that do the latter. Alphabetical lists are worse than having no list at all. If one can commit to someone being in the “top 100,” why can’t they commit to the amount of importance each person has in that group? To not do so is to be noncommittal, if not outright lazy.

Hence my task at hand. For months I’ve been tinkering with a list of the greatest rock and roll artists (whatever that means), obsessing over who goes where and why. It feels less like making a list than creating a canon – or perhaps the canon – for postwar popular music. This would be like asking Thomas Jefferson to upload the perfect selection of western writing onto a Kindle, or having Alfred Hitchcock fill a Netflix cue with his choices for the most important films of all time.

This is a big task that evokes the words of Bob Seger (who is decidedly not on the list): “What to leave in, what to leave out…” The mission at hand is probably as fruitless as running against the wind, but what would humanity be without wings that have been melted by the sun?

To find our way we must begin at the beginning. “The Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time.” With the exception of “the” and “of,” every single word in this title is suspect. What does it mean to be the “greatest”? What exactly is “rock and roll”? Who can be considered an “artist”? How are we defining “all time”?

Each of these questions could produce an entire volume in and of themselves, so in an effort to keep things moving, what follows is a basic definition/point-of-view that I have on each of them:

Greatest: I use this term to unite what could be thought of as two distinct concepts, one internal and one external: level of artistic quality and amount of influence on other performers. Thus, ideally the two are roughly the same, but in some rare cases, one form of greatness may be enough to outweigh the other factors; such is the case with the Sex Pistols, whose influence was enormous, while their actual body of work was small and uneven by comparison.

Rock and Roll: This is one that I’ve struggled with for the better part of my life, for which I blame a post-’60s mentality. Around the time of Sgt. Pepper and Monterey Pop, rock and roll was being viewed as a primarily white music, while the music made by African Americans was increasingly thought of as rhythm and blues or soul music. Of course, these categories always existed to some degree in postwar music, but as ’50s music became ’60s music, things began to shift. No one would think twice about including people like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley on a list of rock and roll artists, but for every one ’60s African American rock and roller (Jimi Hendrix), there seem to be scores more that we put into a different category like soul, rhythm and blues, or funk (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke).

This is ultimately unfair and deceiving for everyone involved. White rock and roll is unimaginable without black rock and roll (and vice-versa), even once the ’50s had ended: One only needs to think of the Beatles studying Motown records for both their song structure and bass lines; the Rolling Stones directly drawing their early sound and repertoire from the Chess Records catalogue; the Who initially declaring themselves “Maximum R&B” and filling a quarter of their debut album with James Brown covers; Bob Dylan famously calling Smokey Robinson “America’s greatest living poet.” Similarly, Aretha Franklin had R&B hits with her covers of songs by the Beatles, Carole King, and Simon & Garfunkel; Otis Redding covered the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as a response to their covers of his songs and wrote “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay” while listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over; Ray Charles was greatly influenced by the classic country singers who more clearly influenced the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly; Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece What’s Going On is unthinkable without the advances made on the album format by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.

To the performers, it seems that white rock and roll was black rock and roll (and vice-versa) – this music was their influence, their competition, and the standard to which they held their own music. If that is how they saw things, who are we to question that?

Besides, the whole rock and roll vs. rhythm and blues always felt a little uncomfortable to me in our supposed Land of the Free. It makes me think of when I used to work in a bookstore that kept all fiction by black authors separate from white ones; perhaps this was initially done to keep the “urban” fiction together, but by the time I got there, it had been made consistent to the level of full-blown segregation. More than once I approached a confused customer looking for James Baldwin books between the Jane Austen novels and Frank L. Baum stories; “Oh we keep James Baldwin in African American Fiction,” I would reply, “Or as I like to call it, ‘Fiction’.”

Artists: I use this term loosely to mean all rock and roll performers. Even if rock and roll was once considered the bastard child of popular music, there is little to deny that there is a distinct artistry – from Elvis and Chuck Berry all the way down to Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, and the White Stripes – that goes along with the best of it.

All Time: Obviously this will be skewed to the past for two interconnected reasons that parallel my working definition of “Greatest”: First, newer artists have had less time to create a great body of music, and secondly, newer artists need more time to gage their subsequent influence. Conversely, the fact that the list is filled with so many older performers is because they have had so much time for their music to spread its influence.

Initially, I wanted to write a list of the Top 25. But, as happens (at least with me), 25 becomes 30, 30 becomes 35, and so on until I find myself staring down a list of 100. Well, this time I was determined not to let that happen. There's a level of “great” (or perhaps a better word here might be essential) that I felt could be cut off -- i.e., artists like Sam Cooke, the Ramones, and David Bowie are “great” (or perhaps a better word here might be essential) in a way that artists as great and influential as Simon & Garfunkel, Cream, and the Kinks are not. This is not to say one is necessary better than the other -- I listen to the latter artists at least as much as the former, if not more so -- it’s more the idea of a class of an artist who is legendary as opposed to influential.

Maybe this is all just in my head. But when I began to crunch the numbers for real, it seemed that a top 40 was the way to go -- the difference between 40 and 50 seemed the ideal point at which the legendary crossed over into the influential and I liked the idea of keeping it mirroring the original yardstick of success in rock and roll, the Billboard Top 40.

All of that said, here is my current list for the Top 40 Greatest Rock and Roll Artists of All Time, at least for today (and subject to change within hours, if not minutes):

  1. The Beatles
  2. Elvis Presley
  3. Bob Dylan
  4. The Rolling Stones
  5. Chuck Berry
  6. James Brown
  7. Jimi Hendrix
  8. Aretha Franklin
  9. Ray Charles
  10. Michael Jackson
  11. The Beach Boys
  12. Led Zeppelin
  13. The Sex Pistols
  14. Jerry Lee Lewis
  15. Little Richard
  16. Bob Marley
  17. Stevie Wonder
  18. The Who
  19. Sam Cooke
  20. Buddy Holly
  21. The Velvet Underground
  22. Nirvana
  23. Madonna
  24. Bruce Springsteen
  25. U2
  26. Run-D.M.C.
  27. Marvin Gaye
  28. Otis Redding
  29. Elton John
  30. Diana Ross & The Supremes
  31. The Ramones
  32. The Clash
  33. Fats Domino
  34. The Doors
  35. Public Enemy
  36. Janis Joplin
  37. David Bowie
  38. The Byrds
  39. Neil Young
  40. Radiohead

Sunday, June 6, 2010

1963: “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys

If everybody had an ocean. With these five words, the Beach Boys became the epic dreamers of American music. Nothing was too big to put out there, no dream too outlandish, no space too big.

The five words are clumsily thrown in at the beginning of a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (a move so obvious they gave Berry a songwriting credit), this could have been another fluke rock and roll hit in a presumably fleeting new genre they called “surf rock.” Instead, they signaled the beginning of the Beach Boys’ great American adventure, which played out in the ensuing decades as they chased after a sound as big and deep as the country they loved so much.

“Surfin’ USA” was the breakthrough. For the first time, the lead singers in the Beach Boys overdubbed their own voices to fatten up the sound. This made their already sophisticated vocals that much more so – earlier hits like “Surfin’ Safari” and “409” sounded sparse in comparison. For the rest of their classic period, the Beach Boys continued to use this technique to achieve their signature big and bold golden sound.

As is often pointed out, none of the main Beach Boys ever surfed – songwriter/bassist Brian Wilson, his lead singer/cousin Mike Love, and his guitarist/brother Carl Wilson – the only one who ever did at this point was Dennis Wilson, Brian and Carl’s little brother/drummer, who initially had the most peripheral role in the band. But no matter. Surfing was merely just the muse that Brian Wilson used to express his American dreams; when Brian started writing songs about girls and cars soon after, the Beach Boys felt that they were expanding their horizons.

“Surfin’ USA” is little more than a catchy idea put to a catchier tune, with just enough surfing terminology thrown in to lend the song, however inaccurately, an air of authenticity. It’s the refrains where the whole thing snaps together: building off of the idea of everybody in the United States having their own ocean, the Beach Boys call out all of the hot beaches from coast to coast with joyful earnestness. In doing so, they remake the map of America from a land of closed-off wildernesses to a coast of open beachfronts.

Over the years, dark realities would cloud the Beach Boys’ seemingly sunny world – both within the band and throughout the nation they lived in – but for the two-and-a-half minutes that “Surfin’ USA” lasted, you’d never know it was coming. Released in June, the song played all through the summer on radios all over the beaches the song named, and all was well and good and safe with the world. And then, less than six months later, on November 22, 1963, the ’60s took root, and “Surfin’ USA” suddenly became the quaint musings of a distant landscape.

[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]