Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Nancy & Lee, Part V: Pop vs. Rock

The summer of 1967 became known as the “Summer of Love,” in effect an opportunity to market new fashions, rock music, and alternatives to Western (or European) thought and religion to the young people of America. As a moment in history, the designation was supposed to signal a profound shift in consciousness. A pop song was written to announce this shift, John Phillips’ “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” sung by Scott McKenzie. Thousands of young people, celebrating the American values of freedom and the open road enabled by the automobile, flocked to San Francisco, later to Monterey (for the Pop Festival), where that summer “bohemian chic” was all the rage. Fashion designer Thea Porter was responsible for most of the bohemian chic fashions of the 60s and 70s—caftans, diaphanous patterned shifts, and Middle Eastern (or Oriental) influenced dresses and blouses.

“The hippie look started out as more of a political statement, a type of anti-fashion, but it soon became the fashion itself,” states Laura McLaws Helms in her book, Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic, co-written with Venetia Porter, the designer’s daughter. Changes in fashion allowed for new, exotic, and, occasionally, bizarre expressions of individuality. The Fall of the Summer of Love began on October 17, 1967, when the musical Hair had its off-Broadway debut at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in New York, later opening on Broadway in April 1968. The Monterey Pop Festival was to rock (a noun that once had been a verb) what Hair’s “tribe” was to Bohemian chic. The entertainment industry realized that it was time to market products specifically for the counterculture.

Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, released in August 1967, featured the band members in jackets designed by Thea Porter on the album cover.
The vaguely Oriental jackets, coupled with the band being photographed using a prism lens, all suggested an hallucinatory “trip.” As purveyors of Bohemian chic, the band announced itself through the album cover as playing a new kind of music signaling a new form of consciousness. Any number of terms were applied, correctly or incorrectly, at the time to the band’s music—psychedelic, hallucinatory, “mind-expanding,” “trippy.”

NANCY SINATRA: My music was left behind in a way…since I was never embraced by my peers. I was stranded, on my own, to fend for myself . . . . I remember, years later, meeting Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow at the Clinton White House. They virtually snubbed me. I was hurt.

An interesting comment, to be sure. However, I’m not sure that it was Nancy Sinatra’s music that was left behind. She represents a pop music aesthetic that signifies values that certain individuals, such as those named above, hold in disdain. She is a representative of a fashion style that was considered conservative—miniskirts, go-go boots, simple A-line dresses—that was rejected by rock culture’s adoption of the values represented by Bohemian chic—non-Western, Oriental, and superficially radical. Anti-fashion became fashion, earnestness became pessimism, and the supposed shift in consciousness became an obsession with sex and hallucinatory drugs. Pop music was for so-called “empty people,” superficial in thought and feeling. In contrast, rock was for those who felt deeply, those who adhered to the fundamental modernist values: individuality, spontaneity, inspiration. By associating itself with modernist values (previously adopted by jazz culture), rock leveraged itself into the position of being the superior pop musical form.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Nancy & Lee, Part IV: Movin’ Beyond


An old adage warns never judge a book by its cover. What about an album cover? Music critic Michael Jarrett observes, “[album] covers not only represent—encode in visual form—the myths associated with music, they contribute to the construction of those myths. They are part of the process that imbues music with meaning, giving it both a face and a voice.” (Sound Tracks) Record covers mirror back our perceptions of particular types of music, perceptions that are to a great extent visually and not musically determined, perceptions that are shaped by our past experiences with other texts representing aural “events.” Album covers are essential to our consumption of pop music; they shape our reception of the music the album contains.

Nancy & Lee’s cover photo was taken by Ron Joy (1931-2013), a prolific photographer whose celebrity photos appeared on the covers of magazines, books, and album covers from the 1960s through the 1990s. Joy had previously taken the cover photos for Nancy Sinatra’s albums Sugar (1966), Nancy in London (1966), Country, My Way (1967), and the Movin’ With Nancy soundtrack LP (1967). In contrast to the cover photographs of other records released during the same time period featuring couples, the minimalist, burnt orange background of Nancy & Lee is an interesting innovation. The cover of Sonny and Cher’s In Case You’re in Love (1967), for instance, features the laughing couple sitting back to back on a large boulder that sits above an expanse of water, likely a lake. Carryin’ On with Johnny Cash and June Carter (released later in 1967) features the smiling couple sitting together within a forest clearing, leaning against each other at the shoulder. Question: is the use of natural landscapes on these album covers intended to be an idealized visualization of an idyllic, untroubled, and pastoral life dating back to the Edenic world of Adam and Eve?

The Ron Joy photograph of Nancy and Lee eschews a natural setting in favor of the controlled lighting of a photography studio. The color of Nancy’s jacket and Lee’s shirt, as well as their sun-tanned faces, is enhanced by the minimalist burnt orange background. They are bent very slightly forward, Nancy leaning into him as if they are sitting atop a horse that’s not visible within the frame. The minimalist background accentuates their eyes as they both stare directly at the viewer, breaking the theatrical “fourth wall.” The tops of their heads are at the same level, as are their eyes. They imitate each other’s pose as well. Are they to be perceived as boy/girl fraternal twins (dizygotic), one light, one dark? We return their gaze, our eyes moving from to left to right and back again, caught by the surprising ambiguity of their facial expressions: is this photograph an artfully created spectacle, or a documentary-like portrait? Is the photograph pop music’s citation of the doubling scene of Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), released in the U.S. in 1967? Persona is a film that Susan Sontag said is about doubling: “...it is...pertinent to treat Persona as relating the duel between two mythical parts of a single self....” She goes on to say, “A sub-theme of doubling is the contrast between hiding and showing forth. The Latin word persona, from which the English ‘person’ derives, means the mask worn by an actor. To be a person, then, is to possess a mask.” (Styles of Radical Will).


Sontag’s reference to the actor reinforces the observation I made in my previous post, that songs—especially duets—are more like plays than poems. The singers are like characters in a play. As I also suggested last time, the male-female duet is like a conversation overheard by a listener who is put in the position of being a voyeur. And yet, while Nancy and Lee’s duets are charged with an erotic undercurrent, they are not love songs. “Sand,” “Summer Wine,” “Some Velvet Morning “Lady Bird” and “Sundown,” invoke atmosphere and mood like good film music, but the meaning of their lyrics remains open to interpretation, to the performers (see the liner notes) and listeners alike. The ambiguous cover photograph on Nancy & Lee—is it a documentary-like portrait of the couple, or is it an image of doubling, an image that both reveals and masks simultaneously?contributed to the construction of the powerful myth of Nancy and Lee that endures to this day.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Nancy & Lee, Part III: Movin’ With Nancy

You don’t walk through life anymore. You run. You dance. You drive a car. You take a plane, not a train. Clothes must be able to move too. — Fashion Designer André Courrèges (1923-2016)

The pop charts in 1967 belonged to Nancy Sinatra. The year began with the success of the soon-to-be RIAA gold single, “Sugar Town”/“Summer Wine”, followed by “Somethin’ Stupid,” a duet with her father Frank that spent a month at #1 and months more on the chart. “Somethin’ Stupid” was later nominated for a Grammy Award for Record of the Year, losing to the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away,” a song she was to perform in Movin’ With Nancy. At one point, for the week ending April 22, she had three singles on Billboard’s Hot 100: “Somethin’ Stupid,” “Love Eyes,” and “Summer Wine.” She would repeat this rare feat the next week as well. During the Summer of Love, her single featuring the title track to the latest James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice,” was released, followed by another hit single, “Lightning’s Girl,” followed in turn by yet another hit single with Lee Hazlewood, “Lady Bird”/”Sand.”

At the end of the year, she starred in a successful TV special. Broadcast on NBC December 11, 1967, the Emmy Award-winning Movin’ With Nancy is a kind of road movie filmed in and around Los Angeles—e.g., Leo Carrillo State Park,  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power—with one sequence shot at Big Sur and a short sequence at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. The Beatles’ attempt at a road movie, Magical Mystery Tour, would show on British TV later that month (in black & white) and in early January 1968 in color. (Movin' With Nancy would repeat as well, in April 1968, shortly after the release of the Nancy & Lee LP.) In contrast to the critical and commercial success of Movin’ With Nancy, the Beatles’ avant-garde road movie was a flop. Movin’ With Nancy features appearances by “special guests” Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Lee Hazlewood. Choreographer David Winters (who was nominated for an Emmy Award for his work in this show) is also acknowledged as a special guest, as is Frank Sinatra, Jr., who makes a cameo appearance.

The show opens with a medium long shot of a brick red ’57 Ford Thunderbird convertible parked in a driveway. Residence behind. Close on a white entry door. It opens, revealing a pair of brick red leather boots—not flat-heeled ankle “go-go” boots, these boots have spiked heels and rise above mid-calf, these boots are strictly non-utilitarian and represent above all style and fashion—instantly reminding us of the song to which Nancy Sinatra is most famously linked, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” a song about a woman who ain’t gonna take any more shit from her man, a two-minute-forty-two-second proto-feminist anthem. Pull back to reveal Nancy Sinatra in checkered miniskirt, not a micro-mini, but plenty short, in a white sweater with a wide black stripe at the waist and leather gloves matching the brick red color of her boots and her Thunderbird. The impression is that of a confident young woman embracing her body and style. She strolls over to her stylish vehicle—this car is hers—climbs in, starts it up, throws it in gear, and speeds off down the driveway, singing “I Gotta Get Out of This Town.” Opening credits over a Vorkapich montage. She passes through residential streets onto Ocean Blvd. in Santa Monica, and soon she’s rolling on the 405 heading north to Moorpark to take a ride in a balloon (“Up, Up and Away”) before doing some hiking at Big Sur (“Sugar Town”).

NANCY SINATRA: I knew it [“These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”] would be important from the moment the band played it through. I had shopped at Mary Quant’s boutique before the record was released, and the clothes fit the attitude the song portrayed.

The opening sequence is surprising: a woman hitting the road, going where she pleases. It’s not Kerouac in the car, it’s not Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters searching for the Kool Place, it’s not four blokes roaming the countryside in a bus, it’s not those two fellas driving around in the Corvette from Route 66 (1960-64)—she’s got a convertible, too, like those guys, but her T-Bird has a big Dodge engine with a McCulloch blower and eats Corvettes for lunch. She is in her automobile and she is autonomous, free, mobile—moving—and looking to have some fun. “My Thunderbird was totally restored and rebuilt by my friend George Barris of Batmobile fame. It had a Borg-Warner 5-speed stick transmission and a Dodge engine with a McCullogh [sic] supercharger. . . . I took great pleasure in beating Corvettes away from red lights in my innocent looking little T-Bird.” (Liner notes included with the Image DVD release of Movin’ With Nancy.) She may be diminutive (5’ 3”, 90 pounds) and look innocent, but like the singer in “These Boots,” she doesn't take any crap.

NANCY SINATRA: The timing was perfect. . . . I think Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton and I captured the fashion of the time best.

Famed British fashion designer Mary Quant is among those credited with introducing the miniskirt (and perhaps responsible for making it shorter and then shorter again), but where did the boots come from? What attitude is represented by the boots? In 1964, the year before “These Boots” was recorded, when the women’s movement and the space program were just beginning to take off, French fashion designer André Courrèges unveiled his highly influential “Space Age” or futuristic collection of minimalist designs—drop-waist miniskirts, simple A-line dresses, and flat-soled white leather ankle boots with a zipper down back and a Velcro placket. A pair of boots “were essential for girls emulating the ‘moon-girl’ image, a new version of femininity, inspired by youth, sportswear, and space travel.” It is perhaps good to remember that Oklahoman Lee Hazlewood originally wrote “These Boots” for a male vocalist, not a moon-girl, recording his version of the song for his 1966 MGM album, The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood. The boots in his version therefore aren’t futuristic go-go boots, but the old-fashioned cowboy variety.

After ballooning and visiting Big Sur, the “Sugar Town” sequence ends with Nancy strolling away up a slight hill (white leather boots now) into the woods, her back to us. Cut to Lee Hazlewood on a sandy rise at Leo Carrillo State Beach, riding a black horse—the sequence featuring “Some Velvet Morning,” one of Nancy & Lee’s most frequently covered duets. Lee delivers his vocals as he rides, Nancy delivers hers as she strolls somewhere else on the beach. Now dressed all in ghostly white, she is in loose slacks and a diaphanous blouse, holding some flowers. Intercutting between one and the other as they sing. The two are never in the same shot together.

Lee’s voice:
Some velvet mornin’ when I’m straight
I’m gonna open up your gate
And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra
And how she gave me life
And how she made it end
Some velvet mornin’ when I’m straight
Nancy’s voice:
Flowers growing on a hill, dragonflies and daffodils
Learn from us very much, look at us but do not touch
Phaedra is my name

FROM THE BACK COVER LINER NOTES ON NANCY & LEE: What Does “Some Velvet Morning” Really Mean? We don’t know. The words “Velvet” and “Morning” rhyme in our heads. Phaedra sounds like an “upper” that doesn’t quite make it.

THE PHAEDRA MYTH: In one version, Phaedra marries Theseus but falls deeply in love with Hippolytus, Theseus’ son. Horrified by her declaration of love, Hippolytus rejects her. In revenge, Phaedra writes Theseus a letter, falsely accusing Hippolytus of raping her, after which she commits suicide. Angered, driven by revenge, Theseus curses Hippolytus. Frightened by a sea monster, Hippolytus’ horses drag the falsely accused man to his death.

If Nancy is Phaedra, who is Lee? Theseus? If so, to whom is he singing? Certainly not Phaedra (“And maybe tell you ’bout Phaedra”). During the sequence in Movin’ With Nancy, he’s riding his black horse along the seashore. Wouldn’t that suggest that he’s in fact supposed to be Hippolytus? What if Lee Hazlewood only partially knew the Greek myth, or imperfectly remembered it if he knew it at all? 

In his essay, “Why Do Songs Have Words?” (included in his collection of essays, Music For Pleasure), British critic Simon Frith writes:

“In the best of songs,” according to Christopher Ricks, “there is something which is partly about what it is to write a song, without in any way doing away with the fact that it is about things other than the song.” Sociologists of pop have been so concerned with these “other things”—lyrical content, truth and realism—that they have neglected to analyze the ways in which songs are about themselves, about language. (121)

Certainly the above observation is applicable to “Some Velvet Morning.” The song consists of the interplay of sound and language, the contrast of voices, and is more redolent of meaning than having any clearly defined meaning. What does it really mean? We don’t know. It seems to tease at meaning, promising more than what it actually says, as if the lyrics are fragments of some longer manuscript, now lost, an ancient, mythic narrative of which only a few pieces survive. Commentators have remarked upon the two different time signatures, 4/4 (Lee) and 3/4 (Nancy), but as I remarked in a previous entry, recording by the mid-60s resembled filmmaking, with a single song consisting of multiple takes seamlessly edited together. The best analogy I can think of is to The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a track that resulted from two (or more) takes played at different tempos and in different keys, subsequently cut together, with one take sped up and the other slowed down. “Some Velvet Morning” does something similar. It splices different takes which have different tempos, different rhythms. Perhaps it is not as sonically dense as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but it shares the same spirit of inventiveness, and rises and falls like a masterful drama.

One final comment. In the same essay referred to above, Frith makes the observation—especially apt as a description of Nancy & Lee’s duets—that songs are “more like plays than poems.” Singers are like actors performing a role. They are like characters in a play. Changes in tone, a pleading voice, sighs and hesitations (to name only a few) are non-verbal devices that carry meaning every bit as much as the semantic connotations of the words themselves. Because male-female duets are rather like conversations, listening to a duet is similar to eavesdropping, forcing the listener into the role of the voyeur. The result is that the conversation is charged with erotic overtones, even if that is not overt or intended.

Question to be explored: What is the basis of rock's claim to a superior pop music status?

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Nancy & Lee, Part II: Noncommutativity

Nancy Sinatra’s and Lee Hazlewood’s successful duets can be understood by yet another analogy to filmmaking. Greta Garbo made twenty-four movies in Hollywood, with fourteen different directors. Of these two dozen films, William Daniels, her preferred cameraman, shot all of them but five. Proposal: William Daniels was to Greta Garbo what Lee Hazlewood was to Nancy Sinatra. As the producer of her albums from 1966 to 1968, Hazlewood was like an auteur, in control of the sonic equivalent of the mise-en-scène—the cinema’s elusive essence. Their best duets, including “Summer Wine,” “Sand,” Lady Bird, and most famously, “Some Velvet Morning, were like haunting mysteries, drawn from the exotic lands of the imagination.

The special alchemy of Nancy and Lee’s collaboration was made possible by Nancy Sinatra’s vocal noncommutativity. In cinema studies, semioticians suggest that an actor’s most significant features become identifiable when audiences attempt to imagine another actor playing the same role, a practice referred to as the “commutation test,” or game of substitution. For an example, replace Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1943) with George Raft, Warner Brothers’ first choice to play the character of Rick Blaine. Had Raft played the role rather than Bogie, would Casablanca even be remembered? As another example, replace Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Fox’s preferred choice for the role, Tom Cruise.

A commutation test in pop music might consist of replacing Nancy Sinatra as Hazelwood’s duet partner with, say, Brenda Lee (the fourth highest charting pop artist of the 1960s behind The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles), or with another highly successful singer of the period, Dusty Springfield. Fortunately, such a commutation test was actually performed. Hazlewood had previously recorded duets with other female vocalists, with both Suzi Jane Hokum and Ann-Margret, without commercial success. These recordings were made at the same time he and Nancy Sinatra were recording their hit records and with some of the same songs. Hazlewood recorded “Summer Wine” and “Sand” as duets first with Suzi Jane Hokum, and these versions were released as MGM singles with no success. Likewise, in 1967 Hazlewood produced another single version of “Summer Wine,” using vocalists Virgil Warner and Suzi Jane Hokum. This version, too, failed to chart. And apparently, in August, 1966 Hazlewood recorded a version of “Sundown,” later included on Nancy & Lee, with Suzi Jane Hokum as well, but that recording is now lost. We can also turn the experiment around: in 1981, Nancy Sinatra recorded an album of country duets with Mel Tillis, titled Mel & Nancy, and while the album sold reasonably well, it has never achieved the legendary status of the recordings she made with Lee Hazlewood, and has not yet been issued on CD.

The soundscape on Nancy & Lee demonstrates the duos unique approach to the pop music duet form. At the time they began recording, the biggest recent hit by a duet in pop music had been Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” a #1 single in the summer of 1965. Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s successful string of duets began somewhat later, in April 1967 with the release of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” As a producer, however, Hazlewood took a more experimental approach to recording. Inspired by the Beatles Norwegian Wood” (US release December 1965) but unable to get hold of a sitar, that instrument's sonic replacement became a guitar recorded normally and then played backwards (starting at 1:58 in Sand”), yielding an unusual sound. Recorded March 8, 1966, “Sand,” was their debut as a vocal duo. About the song, Nancy Sinatra has said, “A running theme in his songs from that point was the young girl with the older guy. That was his fantasy and he captured it beautifully in song. But you have to remember that he had already done those songs. I was the second woman to sing them with him. Suzi Jane Hokum was the first. Suzi Jane’s interpretations were good, but different. With me, he took the little girl quality and put it with adult ideas and something very interesting happened.” (Nancy Sinatra to Al Quaglieri in an interview reprinted in the liner notes for Sundazed’s CD reissue of her 1966 LP, How Does That Grab You?)

While “Sand” was the duo’s debut, it remained unreleased as a single for over a year. “Summer Wine,” recorded at London’s Pye Studios for the the album Nancy in London (July 1966), became Nancy & Lee’s chart debut, but somewhat by accident. Reprise placed “Summer Wine” on the B-side of Nancy’s “Sugar Town” single released late in 1966, resulting in a double-sided hit record and an RIAA gold single certification. “Sand” was not released as a single until it was used as the B-side of “Lady Bird” in October 1967, several months after the chart success of “Summer Wine.” Prior to the release of the “Lady Bird” single, on April 16 1967, Nancy and Lee made their first appearance as a duo, on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing “Summer Wine” (Nancy Sinatra also performed her latest single, “Love Eyes,” solo). That summer, Reprise released the title song for “You Only Live Twice,” the latest James Bond film, recorded by Nancy Sinatra, with another popular tune by the duo as the B-side, “Jackson.” The latter, recorded in Nashville earlier that year and included on Nancy’s album Country, My Way (1967), the album also included yet another duet by the duo, Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” later to be issued as the B-side to “Some Velvet Morning.”

For many fans, the pinnacle of Nancy and Lee’s collaboration is “Some Velvet Morning,” often (mis)labeled as “cowboy psychedelia.” Significantly, “Some Velvet Morning” was first introduced in Nancy Sinatra's TV special, Movin’ With Nancy, that aired on NBC December 11, 1967. A popular and critical success, the show was nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Co-Authored with Rebecca A. Umland

Monday, May 18, 2020

Nancy & Lee, Part I

Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood (1929-2007) are to pop music what Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg are to the cinema: two different artistic temperaments who needed each other to achieve greatness. Like the singular films made by Dietrich and von Sternberg, the iconic songs of Nancy and Lee, among them, “Summer Wine,” “Lady Bird,” “Sand” and “Some Velvet Morning,” draw power from the quality of strangeness mixed with beauty—richly evocative and mysterious, like a dream, set in the exotic lands of the imagination, and distinctive also for their melancholy, minor-key melodies enhanced by the arrangements of chamber pop master Billy Strange. Hazlewood’s deep baritone served as the perfect complement to Sinatra’s sweet mellow tone, but his role as producer was equally important for their success. It is important to acknowledge that by the time the two began recording together in the late summer of 1965, the figure of the record producer had become a distinctive part of the musical equation, distinguishing himself less by what he captured than by the performance he artfully created, or rather, one he staged in order to capture. When Lee Hazlewood produced Nancy Sinatra’s massive hits in the mid-60s, he was not only recording an artist, but a sonic concept as well.

To think of Hazlewood as a director and Sinatra as his star challenges one of pop music’s foundational myths: that performances are “captured,” not made. But with the introduction and rise of magnetic tape (mono, three-track and four-track), recording began increasingly to resemble cinematic acting. In the 1960s, for instance, Glenn Gould shocked the world of classical music when he openly acknowledged that the recordings on his LPs were spliced together from multiple “takes,” comprised of different recorded versions of the same material. The best of these takes were spliced together to create the final release. Gould compared the process of recording to that of filmmaking, in which scenes are frequently shot out of sequence and then pieced together in the editing room. (See Glenn Gould, “The Prospects of Recording.” High Fidelity Magazine 16.4 (1966), pp. 46–63) “In the vocabulary of film studies,” writes music critic Michael Jarrett, “the [record] producer’s purview is the mise-en-scéne, in all of that term’s mystery.” (See Michael Jarrett’s excellent book, Producing Country: The Inside Story of the Great Recordings. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2014, p. 37)

Others in the music industry concur that the record producer is, in key ways, analogous to a film director. Bobby Braddock, producer of Blake Shelton’s first five albums, elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame as a songwriter—and who wrote “Did You Ever,” a hit for Nancy and Lee in 1972—remarks: “I always tell people, if they want to know the job of a music producer, I say, ‘Think of it this way: a director is to film as a producer is to recording.” Pete Anderson, guitarist and producer for Dwight Yoakam, insists that a record producer wears “a multitude of hats, but basically, it’s two jobs. One, you’re very much like the director of a film. You work on the script or the songs. You choose the cinematographer or the engineer. You get the locations or the studio. You help cast the actors or the musicians. You work with their performances. Everything that a director would do in a film is very much what a record producer does.” Similarly, Craig Street, who has produced records for both k. d. Lang and Norah Jones, notes that while the artist is “always the boss,” it is to the producer that others on the project turn for answers, and individual producers, like film directors, have different styles. “Some producers lead with an iron fist, just like some film directors—Hitchcock. ‘This is how it goes. This is how it is storyboarded. This is exactly what we do.’”  Finally, songwriter, musician, and music archivist, Marshall Crenshaw, likens record producer Billy Sherrill’s production of Tammy Wynette’s hit songs to Alfred Hitchcock’s films. “The records rise and fall and have so much drama in them,” also “exploding at certain moments.” (Quotations from Braddock, Anderson, Street, and Crenshaw are taken from Michael Jarrett, Producing Country, pp. 33-36)

During the making of the great Nancy and Lee records, Lee Hazlewood was not only frequently her fellow performing artist; he served as writer, too, and—in his role as producer (director)—chose the location (the particular studio) for Nancy Sinatra, his star. For these productions, the recording or sound engineer, analogous to the cinematographer, was Eddie Brackett, Jr. (a “brilliant” recording engineer, according to legendary music producer, Jimmy Bowen). (Jimmy Bowen and Jim Jerome, Rough Mix: An Unapologetic Look at the Music Business and How It Got That Way. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, p. 89) The art/set director was arranger/conductor, Billy Strange. Since this was a period before bands commonly played on their own records, the supporting cast of performers consisted of top L.A. session musicians. All of these individuals were essential to the success of Nancy and Lee’s records.

Nancy Sinatra, however, enjoyed considerable control over the recording process, as well. It was she, for instance, who insisted on recording what would become her most famous hit of all time, a song composed by Hazlewood, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” (1965), despite Hazlewood’s initial protestations that the song was written to be sung by a man. Nancy Sinatra prevailed, and “Boots” became her first No. 1 pop hit—the song’s appeal, insists Richie Unterberger, deriving from the fact that it is “half-menace and half-camp.” (Richie Unterberger, Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books, 1998, p. 132) It was this song that established Nancy and Lee's long, lucrative creative partnership.

Co-Authored with Rebecca A. Umland

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Thirst

I have been reading Judith Freeman’s excellent book, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon, 2007). I was struck by her assertion about the cultural significance fast food took on in Los Angeles. She argues that the rise of fast food in L.A. was, in part, due to the idleness and loneliness of the (older) population. In the following passage, she is talking about Clifton’s Sliver Spoon, a once famous cafeteria (now closed) located not far from the Bank of Italy building on South Olive Street where Chandler worked in the offices of the Dabney Oil Syndicate from 1923-1932. She writes:

In cafeterias like Clifton’s, fast food, cheap food, food you selected yourself and put on a tray and pushed along a metal railing, became inextricably wed not to mere nourishment but to the possibility  of escaping a haunting emptiness for a while. The popularity of the cafeteria in L.A. was primarily due to the loneliness of the people. It was a friendlier type of eating place than a normal restaurant. . . . This was the true lure of fast food, and perhaps it helps explain why it has assumed such an important place in American culture. Fast food is about estrangement and existential ennui, about loneliness, and boredom, and absence, and an arresting of traditional patterns of family life and social context. Who cares if the meal is inferior? If it gets you out in the world. (80)

As I read this passage, I couldn’t help but think of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933), also a story of isolation, existential loneliness, and the nothingness or “nada” of contemporary existence. Hemingway, too, associates the café or cafeteria with a person’s need for companionship. Yet he pursues the issue in a different way. In Hemingway’s story, an old man likes to sit late into the night in a café—the clean, well-lighted place—and drink brandy, often leaving the place when he’s very drunk. Why does the old man find comfort in the café? Why does the old man drink to excess? The older waiter at the café seems to understand the old man’s despair (“Our nada who art in nada”). Of course, Hemingway’s story is set in Spain, not Los Angeles, and it draws on Hemingway’s memories of his life after he returned home from the war. Colloquially, to “drink” means to consume alcohol, but “drink” also implies “thirst.” In contrast, “hunger” implies something else. Hunger, or appetite, is to sexual fulfillment what thirst is to spiritual fulfillment; both terms are used as figurations of human longing and desire: “sexual appetite” and “spiritual thirst.” Hunger and appetite, drink and thirst are tropes that function in different ways, suggesting different desires. In The Little Sister (1949), Chandler associates fast food restaurants with restlessness: “They have to get the car out and go somewhere,” he writes. Is loneliness alleviated by being around other people? Restlessness leads to hunger, while thirst leads to solitary reflection. The old man in Hemingway’s story thirsts; he doesn’t hunger.

A Few Songs To Drink To Late At Night in a Sad Café:
John Anderson – Straight Tequila Night
Jimmy Buffett – Margaritaville
Johnny Cash – Sunday Morning Coming Down
Kenny Chesney – Hemingway’s Whiskey
Neil Diamond – Red Red Wine
The Eagles – Tequila Sunrise
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians - Raymond Chandler Evening
Rupert Holmes – Escape (The Piña Colada Song)
Tommy James – Sweet Cherry Wine
George Jones – Tennessee Whiskey
Don McLean – American Pie
Willie Nelson – Drinking Champagne
Jimmie Rodgers – Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – Summer Wine
Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
George Strait – Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
Tom Waits - Warm Beer Cold Women
Bob Wills – Bubbles in my Beer

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

You Can’t Always Get What You Need

Imagine a time long ago, before Crawdaddy or Creem or Rolling Stone or Pitchfork, when nobody needed critics, when there were no Beatles scholars or Elvis specialists or authorities on krautrock or punk rock or post-punk or electro-funk, when everything you needed to know was written on the charts that were dutifully listed and updated in Billboard and New Musical Express, when there was no such thing a rock canon or that there was such a thing even conceivable as a rock canon, a long time ago when rock, or rock ‘n’ roll, had no past, when everything existed in the present moment.

What has happened since is that we have developed an historical consciousness. That time seems so distant because there was still breaking news. Now, there are mausoleums such as the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Record stores serve as museums, where the artifacts of the past are nicely alphabetized and organized into a daunting number of genres, devised by and for musical archaeologists. Events such as Record Store Day (RSD) serve the collective dream in which all recordings from the past, no matter how famous or obscure, are always available. It is perhaps important to remember that events such as RSD are premised on Rule #1 of niche marketing:
  • There are approximately 3,000 people who are willing to buy anything
Corollary: There is a market for everything. And yet, our mass collective desire of plenitude is threatened by the possibility of shortages: the stark realization that while we can always get what we want (we scoff at the very notion of “out-of-print”), we can’t always get what we need. Case in point: I recently came across a collection edited by Bruno MacDonald, The Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear: Unreleased Records by the World’s Greatest Musicians (2012). The jacket blurb says it all: “A Pink Floyd album with no instruments. A Sex Pistols record more incendiary than Never Mind The Bollocks. A sci-fi rock opera by Weezer.” (I take it the  self-parody is intentional.) Other such “You’ll Never Hear” lists can be found by doing a web search. If “Classic” album lists are premised on plenitude and the possibility of collection and acquisition, then “You’ll Never Hear” lists are perversely motivated, denying this possibility.

“You'll Never Hear lists do tell us something, though perhaps that meaning is unintended:
  • Greatness cannot be attributed to music we have never heard
  • Distrust any critic presumptive enough to tell you we can

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Echo/Reverb

Premise: Echo is to exteriority as reverberation is to interiority. As Michael Jarrett observes: “Reverb sonically implies the size and shape of imaginary places that hold music” (Sound Tracks, 72). Echo implies the immensity of a large cave or cathedral (a single sound wave reflecting off a distance surface), while reverberation collapses this immensity into the claustrophobic space inhabited by the cell of a cenobitic monk (sound waves reflecting off a nearby surface). Because an echo can be heard by humans only when the distance between the sound source and the reflecting surface is greater than 50 feet, an echo is typically clear and can be easily comprehended because of the distance and time the sound wave travels. Reverberations, on the other hand, do not have enough distance or time to travel, which means the sound waves pile up on each other, challenging our auditory comprehension. Echo implies distance; reverberation implies propinquity.

In his discussion of Martin Hannett’s recording of Joy Division’s music, Simon Reynolds takes up a discussion of musical spaces. He writes, “Hannent dedicated himself to capturing and intensifying Joy Division’s eerie spatiality” (Rip It Up and Start Again, 112). He goes on to say:

“Digital,” Hannett’s first Joy Division production [in 1978], derived its name from his favorite sonic toy, the AMS digital-delay line. Hannett used the AMS and other digital effects coming onto the market in the late seventies to achieve “ambience control”....His most distinctive use of the AMS digital delay...was pretty subtle. He applied a microsecond delay to the drums that was barely audible yet created a sense of enclosed space, a vaulted sound as if the music were recorded in a mausoleum.” (113)

On Unknown Pleasures (1979), Joy Division’s first LP, Hannent used another effects unit, the Marshall Time Modulator, a device that, in the words of band member Stephen Morris, “just made things sound smaller” (114). That is not a positive assessment. What were the aesthetic benefits of making the band’s sound spatially “smaller”? For Reynolds, it gives the band’s music a desolate, alienated feel (113). Or, one could also say, that the music has the uncomfortably claustrophobic feel of acute hermetic isolation, like being enclosed within the bare walls of a monastic cell.

An interesting connection, since the cover image on the original Sordide Sentimental release of Joy Division’s single, “Atmosphere” (titled “Licht and Blindheit” on the Sordide release), features a solitary, hooded monk, his back turned to the viewer, standing on a rocky hillside gazing out on a landscape consisting of a thick layer of fog filling the valley below the mountains far off in the distance. As Reynolds observes, the cover image “captures the moment when a certain religiosity began to gather around Joy Division” (115). Perhaps so, since the contemplative figure of the monk stands enthralled by the fog and distant mountains, as if it were a moment of spiritual or religious insight.

The cover image seems to be modeled, perhaps unintentionally, on the painting by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (ca. 1818).
By inviting the viewer to share the point-of-view of the wanderer or hiker, Friedrich is inviting us to share the same subjective experience as the figure in the painting. This applies to the single’s cover art as well, depicting a similar moment of reflection, the fog and far-off, hazy mountains suggesting an unknown future. However, the monk implies the cloister, the contemplative life, while the outdoor setting implies the active life.

Or, the cover picture of Joy Division's single metonymically implies two spaces capable of producing two distinct sonic possibilities: immensity (echo) or monastic cell (reverberation). The unusual spatiality of Joy Division’s music is captured by the contradictions of this single’s cover image. I prefer the trope of the monastic cell, but the suffocating space of the tomb is an unavoidable association, given the photograph by Bernard Pierre Wolff used on the cover of Joy Division’s LP Closer (1980), an image of the Appiani family tomb in Genoa’s Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Restless Wind

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen.” A famous, oft-quoted passage from Raymond Chandler’s short story “Red Wind” (Dime Detective Magazine January, 1938), the Santa Ana winds typically portend the arrival of autumn in southern California. By describing the winds as “red,” Chandler invokes blood (as in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, 1929), violence, and, inevitably I suppose, passion. But “red” can also refer to the atmosphere: the ambient temperature, in this case, hot. In her essay, “The Santa Ana,” published in August, 1967, Joan Didion cites the above passage by Chandler, choosing to elaborate on wind as “atmosphere,” or “mood,” rather than just air in motion:

The Santa Ana, which is named for one of the canyons it rushes through, is a foehn wind, like the foehn of Austria and Switzerland and the hamsin of Israel. There are a number of persistent malevolent winds, perhaps the best known of which are the mistral of France and the Mediterranean sirocco, but a foehn wind has distinct characteristics: it occurs on the leeward slope of a mountain range and, although the air begins as a cold mass, it is warmed as it comes down the mountain and appears finally as a hot dry wind. Whenever and wherever foehn blows, doctors hear about headaches and nausea and allergies, about “nervousness,” about “depression.”

The Santa Ana wind is an inexorable force, unstoppable, merciless, disturbing the atmosphere and consequently the environment, impacting human behavior as well as health and well-being. Both Chandler and Didion resort to mythological thinking (“folk wisdom”) to understand the Santa Ana wind. It is an evil wind, a wind-spirit sent by an illness-causing demon, one of those ancient, malevolent winds that were believed to bring sickness and death. We humans are at its mercy. “[T]he violence and unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” Wind is at the root of all illness and misfortune, capable even of precipitating existential dread. Of the Anemoi, the four wind gods of Greek mythology, Notus (South Wind) would send a wind that rose after midsummer, a scorching wind that would burn the crops and choke men with dust. (Other of the Anemoi were a bit more congenial.)

The wind of song is seldom if ever just air in motion, but Romantically conceived, Romantic in its Coleridgian form: “we receive but what we give,/And in our life alone does Nature live” (Dejection: An Ode). The wind is a positive or negative force based on what we attribute to it. And, alas, when asked a question, the restless wind never answers:

And would we aught behold, of higher worth,
Than that inanimate cold world allowed
To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,
Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the Earth—
And from the soul itself must there be sent
A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,
Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

A Few Songs About the Ever-Changing Wind:
John Anderson – Seminole Wind
The Association – Windy
Billy Bragg & Wilco – Black Wind Blowing
Patsy Cline – The Wayward Wind
King Crimson – I Talk to the Wind
Christopher Cross – Ride Like the Wind
Donovan – Catch the Wind
Steve Goodman – Santa Ana Winds
Jimi Hendrix – The Wind Cries Mary
Elton John – Candle in the Wind
Kansas – Dust in the Wind
The Kingston Trio – They Call the Wind Maria
McCoy Tyner – Fly With the Wind
Peter, Paul & Mary – Blowin’ in the Wind
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
Rod Stewart – Mandolin Wind
Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention – Any Way the Wind Blows
Warren Zevon – Hasten Down the Wind