Friday, March 7, 2008

Saturday, January 23, 1960: Dead Ants Are My Friends, A-blowin' in the Wind

Dead ants are my friends, a-blowin’ in the wind
Dead ants are a-blowin’ in the wind

According to (one of many internet sources where one can find the definition), a mondegreen is "the mishearing (usually unintentional) of a phrase as a homophone or near-homophone in such a way that it acquires a new meaning." A banal example of a mondegreen can be found on an old Korean laser disc I own of Sam Raimi’s film Army of Darkness, in which the date, “1300 A.D.” has been (mis)translated in the subtitle as “1380,” an understandable mistake by a non-native speaker of English. Most of us are familiar with figures such as the Necker Cube and the “duck-rabbit” (pictured), ambiguous figures used to illustrate the idea that the perception of visual phenomena is not only a matter of the eye recognizing the stimulus, but also the mind. The picture of the duck-rabbit is an example of an ambiguous image, or graphic amphiboly. At least one theoretical implication of the duck-rabbit for cognitive psychologists is that it reveals the role of expectations and experiential knowledge in the act of perception: what one sees is more often more accurately understood as what one thinks one sees. A different theoretical implication of the duck-rabbit is the role of unconscious desires in the act of perception, as illustrated by the use of Rorschach (“inkblot”) Test.

When it comes to mondegreens (an aural ambiguity enabled by the homophone), some wonderful ones have been created by the mishearing of popular song lyrics. Hence my motive for writing this blog: I’d originally intended to write about Johnny Horton, an interesting popular singer not much remembered anymore, but as a consequence of my wife Becky and I reminiscing about her mishearing the lyrics to Horton’s “Jim Bridger” as a little girl, I changed my focus to the mondegreen. Here’s what Horton sings:

He spoke with General Custer
And said listen yellow-hair
The Sioux are a great nation
So treat ‘em fair and square
Sit in on their war council
Don’t laugh away their pride
But Custer didn’t listen
At Little Big Horn Custer died.

Here’s what Becky, at about age six or seven, heard:

He spoke with General Custard
And said listen yellow-hair
The Sioux are a great nation
So treat ‘em fair and square
Sit in on their war council
Don’t laugh away their pride
But Custard didn’t listen
At Little Big Horn Custard died.

Although not as amusing, my Johnny Horton mondegreen occurred by mishearing a lyric in "North to Alaska," a song I played over and over and over as a small boy. What I heard was, "They’re goin’ North, to the Russian zone," rather than "They're goin' North, the rush is on." Who knows why I heard it this way? Perhaps because in kindergarten we’d been studying about Alaska, which had recently achieved statehood, and which, geographically speaking, we’d learned was very near Russia. I simply don't remember, but I suspect this actually might be the reason, thus illustrating the role of subjective expectations in perceptual (and aural) cognition.

Among the more famous mondegreens that have occurred through mishearing the rock music lyric is, of course, the one from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” in which, “’scuse me, while I kiss the sky” was misheard by some as, “’scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” (Does this mishearing reveal what was perceived by some as a sexual ambiguity in Jimi Hendrix, or, alternatively, homophobia--or repressed homoerotic desire--in the listener?) Apparently, so I’m told, having heard of this mondegreen and found it amusing, Hendrix began singing the lyric the "kiss this guy" way during live performances.

But I believe my favorite mondegreen is derived from The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” because it is so wonderfully surreal:

The Beach Boys sang:
Well since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head

Well since she put me down there’ve been owls pukin’ in my bed

Speaking of The Beach Boys, here’s a wonderful one:

Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul
--Dobie Gray, Drift Away

Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul

Are American listeners inclined to misread (mishear) the lyrics of rock and roll songs more so than the lyrical content of other popular music for paranoid reasons? Dave Marsh observes in Louie Louie (Hyperion Books, 1993):

Rock lovers and rock haters both assume that great rock ’n’ roll songs are, or ought to be, dreamed up on the spot. Rock fans think this proves the music’s tremendous spontaneity and dedication to amateurism. . . . Rock bashers promulgate rock-on-the-spot because it reinforces their sense of it as throwaway garbage made solely to generate big bucks and/or gonadal excitement, with an underlying purpose either cynical or Satanic. (10)

The charge of Satanic influence was a later development in the history of rock, but ever since Elvis the lyrical contents of rock songs have been under suspicion. Dave Marsh uses “Louie Louie” as an illustration of the way the inherent ambiguity of rock lyrics raises paranoid suspicions, but it’s nonetheless true that the lyrical content—predictably—of rock and roll lyrics has often been filled with sexual innuendo, perhaps beginning with Elvis’s popularization of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” For instance,

I'm like the one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store

has to be one of lewdest lyrics in rock history; I do not know whether Elvis recognized the innuendo, but he nonetheless performed it, and got away with it, on American national TV in 1956.

Of course, lyricists have deliberately exploited various forms of linguistic ambiguity, which only encourages the listener in practice to "hear" all sorts of fantastic possibilities. For instance:

Amphiboly (grammatical ambiguity):
I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola
--The Kinks, Lola

Fallacy of Accent:
She’s my girl Bill
My, my girl Bill
--Jim Stafford, My Girl Bill

Paraphrasis (Song titles):
Turning Japanese; Pictures of Lilly (guys)
I Touch Myself; She Bop (“I’m picking up good vibration”) (girls)

One can’t avoid deliberate subterfuge of lyrics, either, meaning the deliberate (intentional as opposed to unintentional) misreading of lyrics, as my friends and I did to the lyrics of the following song, in order to transform into a song about fetishization (which doesn’t preclude that some, in fact, did mishear the song as we consciously transformed it).

The Rain, the Park & Other Things

I saw her sitting in the rain
Raindrops falling on her
She didn't seem to care
She sat there and smiled at me

Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
She could make me happy (Happy! Happy!)
She could make me very happy


I saw her shitting in the rain
Raindrops falling on her
She didn’t seem to care
She shat there as she smiled at me

Then I knew (I knew, I knew, I knew, I knew)
She could make me happy (Happy! Happy!)
She could make me very happy

But others were transformed by someone having made a simple Freudian slip (thus activating an unconscious but absolutely appropriate repressed meaning):

Don't Pull Your Love Out

Don’t pull your love out on me baby,
If you do, then I think that maybe
I’ll just lay me down, cry for a hundred years


Don’t pull your love out of me baby
If you do, then I think that maybe
I’ll just lay me down, cry for a hundred years

No wonder, then, that Eric Burdon pleaded--in vain:

Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood

But while one indeed may be a soul whose intentions are good, one can still, alas, be misunderstood:

Oh Lord, Peace, at least my Bemis understood.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Cookeville: Follow-up

Yesterday, the day after I posted my blog entry on Sam Cooke, I received a lengthy comment from Cooke’s nephew, Erik Greene, correcting a factual error I’d made and also adding some additional information about Cooke’s career. (Comments are posted as a link to the blog entry, but I also receive a copy of the responder’s post via email. For those who haven’t read his response, click on the “Comments” link at the end of the “January 22, 1960: Cookeville” entry below.) After receiving his response, I wrote to Mr. Greene thanking him for taking the time to post a detailed comment, and also asked him if he minded me posting an update to clarify a couple statements I’d made in the blog. He wrote back a cordial response saying yes, by all means, that he would appreciate having a dialog in an open forum. I should point out that Erik Greene is the author of Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective (for further information, visit his website, As I told Mr. Greene, I’d every intention of referring to his biography just as I had to Peter Guralnick’s, but I just simply forgot to do so. I’ll claim as an excuse fatigue and the lateness of the hour for the oversight. (I should point out that the time stamp at the end of each entry is the time the blog entry was first saved in the system, not the actual time—normally much later—I formally post it.)

Mr. Greene pointed out that the date of January 22 as the date of Sam Cooke’s signing with RCA is incorrect; the date of the signing was actually January 6. I took the January 22 date from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, which I’d assumed—wrongly, it turns out—would be factually correct. January 22 was actually Sam Cooke’s birthday (he would have turned 29 years old in January 1960). Mr. Greene also indicated to me that there are several other factual errors on the RRHOF Sam Cooke page, and hence he admitted to me that his frustration was really directed at this vast conglomerate (a corporate venture to be sure) that disseminates such shoddy information. Nonetheless, I should have followed my usual practice of corroborating factual information with the various print sources I have, which I failed to do in this case, an oversight for which I apologize, and something I will not fail to do again.

The actual date, of course, is a matter of trivial significance; more significant is the historical importance of his signing with RCA in the first place. I don’t believe Mr. Greene disagreed with my overall observation about how poorly Sam Cooke is represented on CD. In my original post I’d focused exclusively on Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, in order to make two general points: 1) although RCA is hardly a “minor” label, the album remains unavailable on CD, and 2) close scrutiny of the album reveals that RCA had in mind transforming Sam Cooke into either Johnny Mathis or Harry Belafonte, both successful at the time as “cross-over” artists. And if I’m wrong about this assertion regarding specifics (Mathis or Belafonte), the general point is the same. Although it is true I raised some hesitations about certain of his songs later in the blog, my point in bringing up Cooke’s Tour was not to criticize either the artist or the album but to illustrate the complexities of the music industry at the time, not only how RCA was trying to “market” Cooke to a white audience through a “concept” album (a similar concept, incidentally, that was used by Ray Charles later in the year with The Genius Hits the Road) but his own strained relationship with a black audience which felt he had betrayed his calling as a gifted gospel singer. I suspect that Mr. Greene took offense at my characterization of certain of Cooke’s arrangements as being “saccharine” (which, in yet another embarrassment, I misspelled in the original blog entry) an admittedly pejorative term that suggests that Cooke’s arrangements are somehow atypical of, rather than consistent with, the arranging practices of the time. What I should have said, and what is more accurately said about some of his music, is something Simon Frith observed about twenty years ago in his essay, “Towards an Aesthetic of Popular Music” (included in R. Leppert and S. McClary, Eds., Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 133-149), that the most successful popular music has always been sentimental. While Frith was not referring to Sam Cooke in the context of this remark, his observation applies as much to the music of Sam Cooke (e.g., “Wonderful World”) as it does to the Beatles (e.g., “Yesterday”) and many hundreds of other popular music artists. To characterize certain of his songs this way is, I hope, not in any way dismissive of it, which is to say I’m now trying to make an argument of definition rather than one of quality.

Still, I can’t rid myself of the impression that the poorly documented career of Sam Cooke on CD makes his case remarkable, in the sense that it should be remarked upon. To be completely honest about the matter, I’m not at all a fan of either compilation albums or “greatest hits” albums. I’m fully aware that many people disagree with me, and that from an industry standpoint “greatest hits” albums generate significant revenues. (Case in point: in terms of sheer numbers, The Eagles’ Greatest Hits is the biggest selling rock album of all-time.) In the case of Sam Cooke, compilations (whether those be titled greatest hits, best ofs, or any number of other innumerable retitlings) by far dominate his current catalog available on CD. I’ll illustrate the situation as follows, indicating whether the original RCA album is currently available (or ever available) on CD:

Cooke’s Tour (RCA, 1960) No
Hits of the 50s (RCA, 1960) No
Swing Low (RCA, 1961) No
My Kind of Blues (RCA, 1961) No
Twistin’ the Night Away (RCA, 1962) No
Mr. Soul (RCA, 1963) No
Shake (RCA, 1965) No

Again, for an artist of his stature, this is astonishing. I did a quick search on eBay for these records, and if in fact the album is available for sale at all, one will pay, as the saying goes, “a pretty penny” for it. As I wrote to Erik Greene: “. . . there are a great many poor or even terrible albums that have been released on CD in gloriously remastered form in order to fully document the career of a major recording artist. Some bad films by some famous film directors are available on DVD in order to properly document the director's career; even failures are revealing, even as much as grand successes. I think the same rule ought to apply to popular recording artists. Even some early 70s budget compilations of rather insignificant material by Elvis exist on CD. . . Cooke's Tour . . . ought to be available, if for no other reason than to document the way RCA was trying to "market"--or "mis-market" perhaps--Sam Cooke.

Mr. Greene responded (referring to Cooke’s Tour in particular):

While it's true Sam was out of his element on most of the album, I have to honor that it was an experiment--and a miscalculation by both Sam and RCA--of what the listening public wanted to hear. . . . With Sam’s limited number of releases, you are correct in assuming "Cooke's Tour" deserves to be digitally transferred to CD, for its historical reference if not its artistic value.

I heartily agree with him: these albums are of great historic value and should be released. It is worth noting that albums of the most arcane sort have been issued on CD through labels such as Collector’s Choice Music, but RCA hasn’t yet been compelled to release on CD seven of the original albums Cooke recorded for the label (and an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) thus making them available to a new generation of listeners.

I can’t help but think--cynically, perhaps, I don’t know--that the manner of Sam Cooke’s death has harmed his subsequent historical reception, an unhappy situation that Erik Greene, in Our Uncle Sam, attempts to redress, by looking closely at the details of his uncle's shooting. I hadn’t considered the implications of this when I wrote my initial post, but it surely has to be taken into consideration as one of the factors that have affected his popular, if not critical, reputation. For Sam Cooke did not die romantically, the Romantic myth being essential to the proper image of the rock and roller as artist. He did not die by suicide, like Kurt Cobain, or a martyr, like John Lennon, or by a drug overdose (and hence an emblem of the self-destructive artist) like Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison; instead, he died rather like Elvis Presley, that is, in a wholly unflattering light. The difference in their subsequent historical reception is that RCA has released virtually everything save the most obscure outtakes and alternate takes by Elvis; in contrast, Sam Cooke’s recordings, if released at all, have been issued in a slipshod, ad hoc basis. Perhaps the recent biographies by Greene and Guralnick will help redress this oversight.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Friday, January 22, 1960: Cookeville

According to information that can be found on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, Sam Cooke signed with RCA Victor Records on Friday, January 22, 1960. By this time, of course, he’d had a couple of highly successful singles. “You Send Me,” and “I’ll Come Running Back to You” were both #1 on the domestic R&B Charts in the late 1950s, while “Only Sixteen” had reached #23 in the UK. Yet I have to admit that Sam Cooke has always been something of a mystery to me, primarily because it seems that outside of the major singles and the singles made when he was a member of the Soul Stirrers (subsequently released for members of my generation on compilation albums after his death, otherwise we would have never had the opportunity to hear them), his recording career has been poorly documented, or at least in terms of its variety of musical forms, misrepresented, and outside of the major singles, I don’t fully understand the extent of his contribution to rock and roll, or why he's inscribed as a key figure within its history. I'm not sure my ignorance of this matter is entirely my fault, for reasons I'll explain.

For instance, Cooke's debut album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour (LPM/LSP-2221) has—if my research is accurate—never been released on CD. It seems extraordinary to me that at this late date an artist of his stature would have an album or albums yet unreleased on compact disc, but it is so—unless the album is, in everyone’s assessment (everyone that matters), not especially significant. I observed a few blog entries ago that the music industry in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at least insofar as "rock" and "pop" was concerned, was clearly focused on singles rather than albums, and therefore it seems ironic that Cooke’s early singles for RCA did not do very well, let alone his first album: none of Cooke’s singles released immediately after joining RCA were successful. His first hit single (#12) in 1960, “Wonderful World,” ironically, was released by Keen—not RCA—and had been recorded in March, 1959 while Cooke was still recording for his earlier label. “Chain Gang,” one of the two songs attempted during Cooke’s first recording session at RCA on January 25th, had been abandoned, but returned to a couple of months later, and eventually released to hit #2 in early October, 1960, to become his second million-selling single.

But to return to Cooke’s first album for RCA, Cooke’s Tour, which doesn’t seem to get much mention so far as Sam Cooke’s recording career is concerned, and indeed, has never been digitally remastered--especially strange, it seems to me, given its putative significance. Moreover, only three tracks from this album have been, to my knowledge, subsequently released on the many compilation albums RCA released after Cooke’s death. The track listing for Cooke’s Tour (named as such because the songs on the album are set in locations “around the world”) is as follows, followed by the popular singer—by no means the only popular singer to have recorded the song or had success with it—who had a major hit with the song. It hardly seems like a “rock and roll” album to me, or even a “soul” album for that matter:

1. Far Away Places--Bing Crosby
2. Under Paris Skies
3. South Of The Border--Frank Sinatra
4. Bali Ha'i--Frank Sinatra (originally from South Pacific)
5. The Coffee Song--Frank Sinatra
6. Arrivederci, Roma--Perry Como
7. London By Night--Frank Sinatra
8. Jamaica Farewell--Harry Belafonte
9. Galway Bay--Bing Crosby
10. Sweet Leilani--Bing Crosby (Waikiki Wedding, Paramount, 1937)
11. The Japanese Farewell Song (aka "Sayonara")
12. The House I Live In--Frank Sinatra

As I indicated earlier, to my knowledge only three tracks from this album were subsequently released on compilation albums, and these three can only be found on The One and Only Sam Cooke (RCA Camden, RCA’s budget label, 1967): “Far Away Places,” “Bali Ha’i,” and “Jamaica Farewell.” Apologists have attempted to explain away Cooke’s Tour: yes, it’s a pop album, yes, the song selection is rather banal (with, perhaps, the exception of “The House I Live In”), and yes, the honeyed strings are laid on a bit too thick. But it is worth pointing out that the songs were arranged and conducted by Glenn Osser, at the time Johnny Mathis’ musical director, which gives us an enticing clue as to what RCA had in mind for Sam Cooke. No wonder Peter Guralnick, in his biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown, 2005), has a difficult time explaining Cooke’s often saccarhine taste in the arrangements of his songs.

And yet, during his discussion of Cooke, Donald Clarke, in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (Penguin, 1995), suggests how complicated it was at the time for a gospel singer to become a popular music singer. Clarke writes: “Religious blacks were scandalized when one of their stars changed to secular music. Popular as Sam Cooke had been with the Soul Stirrers, he was booed when he turned up at a gospel meeting after having pop hits” (469). It seems to me what RCA wanted to do—based on the content of his first album—was to transform Sam Cooke into a “pop singer” because white audiences at the time were largely unfamiliar (for rather obvious reasons) with black gospel.

Nonetheless, I have a hard time hearing either “soul” or “rock and roll” in Cooke’s first hit for RCA, “Chain Gang.” I hear something very close to Harry Belafonte. Peter Guralnick would seem to agree, admitting that while “Chain Gang” ought to have been--given the “cruel realities of the situation” the song depicts--cast in a blues form. Oddly, Cooke instead “sets the song to a jaunty Caribbean beat,” which makes the song sound pretty “happy-sounding” (320).

Such is the curious musical legacy of Sam Cooke, whose career, at least for me, has never been suitably explained (unless it's simply the influence of his vocal style). Indisputably he was a great vocalist (for me, "Cupid" has one of most memorable and beautiful melodies in all pop music), but his contributions (in the sense of influence) to rock and roll have, to me, never been convincingly explained--unless, as I mentioned above, it rests entirely on the vocal style which has been--copied?--by so many.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Thursday, January 21, 1960: Them Changes

This morning’s paper brought the sad news that George “Buddy” Miles, Jr. (pictured with Jimi Hendrix) died Tuesday night, February 27, of congestive heart failure at his home in Austin, Texas, at the age of 60. Miles, inducted into the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame in 2004, was born in Omaha, Nebraska (my neck of the woods) on September 5, 1947. His father, George Miles, Sr., was a jazz musician, and according to Miles’ obituary, by January 21, 1960--age 12--Buddy Miles, nicknamed “Buddy” after has idol, jazz drummer Buddy Rich, was playing drums in his father’s jazz combo, The Bebops. By the age of 15—if The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983) is correct—Miles had played drums for the session that had produced the Jaynetts’ 1963 hit, “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” (later covered by the British band, The Pentangle). Buddy Miles never finished high school, dropping out of Omaha North High in 1965 in order to become a professional musician; he was awarded an honorary degree by the school in 1998.

Hence by the time I was first made aware of Buddy Miles--although, ironically, until age 12 I never lived at any time more than 40 minutes from Omaha North High--on the Electric Flag’s 1968 album A Long Time Comin’ (loaned to me by a friend in either ’68 or ’69), he’d already years of experience behind him. He was not yet twenty years old when he joined the band. As is well known, The Electric Flag was formed by ex-Paul Butterfield Blues Band guitarist Mike Bloomfield. He, along with bassist Harvey Brooks and keyboardist Barry Goldberg, recruited Buddy Miles for the band, at the time (early 1967) drumming for Wilson Pickett. What isn’t so well known is that two other members of The Electric Flag—sax players Stemzie Hunter and Herbie Rich (the latter also a member of the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame)—were also from Omaha. Moreover, when Bloomfield left the band in 1968, he was replaced by guitarist Hoshal Wright, who was from Omaha. (Herbie Rich and his brother Billy were later members of the Buddy Miles Express.) For some reason, A Long Time Comin’, and its follow-up, titled simply The Electric Flag (which had Miles’ large, round, slightly menacing face on the cover behind red, white and blue neon lettering), didn’t quite click for me, although somewhat serendipitously I only recently picked up A Long Time Comin’ on CD (Columbia CK 9597) along with Old Glory: The Best of Electric Flag (Legacy/Columbia CK 57629). Having not listened to the band’s music for many, many years, I discovered I liked it, and have come to appreciate it. I'm glad for that.

In 1968, after abandoning, reluctantly I think, any hope that The Electric Flag might be viable as a band, he formed the Buddy Miles Express out of the Flag’s tattered remnants, releasing Expressway to Your Skull (Mercury Records, 1968), an unusual mélange of rock, funk, and soul which included an imprimatur, in the form of liner notes on the album’s gatefold sleeve, by Jimi Hendrix. Subsequently, Hendrix would produce the next, more funk oriented BME album, Electric Church (Mercury, 1969).

Then, of course, came Band of Gypsys, the short-lived collaboration consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Miles, and Billy Cox, referred to on Miles’ MySpace page as “one of the first all-black rock bands,” but perhaps more accurately called the first all-black power trio. “Machine Gun” in my estimation is one of the great live improvisations in the history of rock, and I can’t immediately name a drummer other than Miles who could thunder one moment and play delicate jazz flourishes the next. But after the BOG's live appearance at Madison Square Garden on January 28th, 1970--the infamous performance in which Hendrix took the stage high on drugs and unable to play--Hendrix’s manager, Michael Jeffery, fired both Cox and Miles (and subsequently rushed former Experience members Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding to the United States to cobble together what amounted to Hendrix’s final tour). Despite the hesitations of certain critics such as Robert Christgau, Band of Gypsys is now considered a classic album, and has withstood the critical acid bath.

Miles next appeared on John McLaughlin’s Devotion (Douglas Records, 1970), recorded early in 1970 and comprising what is a dazzling admixture of guitar virtuosity and psychedelic fusion that also featured Larry Young on organ and Billy Rich on bass. (Somehow I missed this classic when it was released, not discovering it until around 1979, when I purchased a mint used copy at the local record store at the urging of one of the store’s employees.) Later that year Miles released the album Them Changes, his only significant hit and the song for which he is most remembered, and which premiered on the Band of Gypsys album. Them Changes included his tribute, “Paul B. Allen, Omaha, Nebraska,” dedicated to Paul B. Allen (born in Omaha), the former Platters’ vocalist (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) and the person Miles largely credited for enabling his musical career.

In 1974 he tried to revive The Electric Flag along with original band members Mike Bloomfield, Barry Goldberg, and Nick Gravenites. The reconstituted group released one album on Atlantic, The Band Kept Playing, but the group dissolved by the end of that year.

And, afterwards, Miles’ career became more elusive. Twice in the next decade—in 1976 and again in 1985—he served time in prison. But things seemed to turn around for him in 1986, when he became the vocalist for the “California Raisins,” a series of commercials that made Miles’ vocal rendition of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" a popular hit. A “California Raisins” album followed, which was highly successful.

Although I don’t remember hearing about it, for a short period in the mid-1990s Miles drummed and sang for the Mighty Jailbreakers, a popular band in the Omaha area. I do remember reading in the paper about a later event, when Miles was to perform at the Omaha Riverfront Jazz & Blues Festival, corresponding to the moment he was formally inducted into the Nebraska Music Hall of Fame. The next year he was inducted into the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame, which he said was one of great moments of his life.

Buddy Miles has been accused by some critics of over-estimating his own importance in the history of rock—largely by virtue of his backing Jimi Hendrix during the Band of Gypsys period—and by others of having an ego the size of Texas (hence, I suppose, it is only appropriate that he died there). But as Greil Marcus observed many years ago, any authentic rock and roll artist, in addition to raw talent, has to have “volcanic ambition” and also must have--equally as important--no real sense of his or her own limits. Certainly it can be said that Buddy Miles performed with some of the greatest names in rock history, and played on many of its most significant recordings. I’ll allow those who can properly access his technical virtuosity to do so, but as far as I’m concerned, when I listen to Buddy Miles, I hear someone playing only as one can when playing itself is all that matters, playing like one who doesn’t care a jot for so-called "limitations."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday, January 20, 1960: Fellini Insolite

In French, the word is insolite; the Italian cognate I do not know, but I do know insolite is a difficult French word to translate into English. The best translation of the word is offered by Richard Schechner (“The Bald Soprano and The Lesson: An Inquiry into Play Structure,” Ionesco: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1973), who defines the word as “the astonishing, the unmaskingness of experience—as when the side of a building falls down to reveal your wife (or husband) in the arms of her (his) lover.”

The films of Federico Fellini—who, on January 20, 1960, celebrated his fortieth birthday—revel in the unmasking of the insolite in the commonplace and quotidian. On this date, the Italian premiere of La dolce vita—the movie that introduced the world to the word “paparazzi”--was two weeks away. Knowing quite well that lists are always provocative, I’ll nonetheless go ahead and assert that La dolce vita is one of “Ten Best” films of the 1960s. The film is as compelling now as it was then. (My formal review of La dolce vita will appear on my blog on the date corresponding to its Italian premiere: February 3, 1960.)

I subscribe to the view expressed by those critics who see La dolce vita as a transitional film in Fellini’s oeuvre: its shift from location to studio shooting corresponds to films that begin to explore the interaction of fantasy and reality. And with his subsequent feature, (1963)—a film which can be considered analogous to what Harold Bloom calls “the crisis lyric” in High Romantic poetry (the pattern of loss and compensation)—Fellini the canonical Modernist emerged: Art is always compensation for the loss of (something). The atmosphere of crisis is made more explicit in Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), his next feature, but it is commonly acknowledged that the protagonist of Juliet of the Spirits, Giulietta (Giulietta Masina), is a sort of female version of Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), the male protagonist of .

The films made during the period of fifteen years commencing with Le Notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), completed when Fellini was 37, and ending with Amarcord, made when he was 52, have to represent one of the major creative achievements in twentieth-century cinema. Remove Nights of Cabiria, La dolce vita, , and Fellini Satyricon, and there still remains the “Toby Dammit” episode from Histoires extraordinaires [1968], widely recognized as one of the cinema’s great achievements.

Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), commonly interpreted as meaning “I remember” in the Italian regional dialect spoken in the area of Fellini’s birthplace of Rimini, should not lead one to conclude that the events depicted in the film are actual reconstructions of events from Fellini’s childhood, that is, referentially true. Fellini’s love of the comics and comic books is well known; in Amarcord, this means that the people and events from his past are not historically accurate but have been transformed into caricatures of themselves, reductively condensed into a single defining characteristic or feature. Hence Gradisca (Magali Noël), whom all the local boys fantasize about, is reduced to her voluptuous derriere. Titta’s (Bruno Zanin’s) grandfather (Guiseppe Ianigro) is reduced to the rhythmic thrust of his arm and his accompanying whistle that suggests his once active sex life. The Tobacconist (Maria Antonietta Beluzzi) is caricatured by her prodigious breasts, which in one memorable scene (“Felliniesque”?) she laboriously unpacks in order to allow Titta to suck them, nearly suffocating him. Volpina (meaning “female fox,” played by Josiane Tanzilli), the town nymphomaniac, is reduced to her insatiable sexual appetite.

Amarcord’s structure is mythic, using the passage of the seasons to place all the various vignettes that comprise the film in chronological time. The film begins with the arrival of the puffballs—spring—and the town’s ritual celebration of the end of winter; it concludes with the following year’s coming of spring. In between, there is death, mystery, cruelty, and absurdity—the unconcealing of the insolite--but the film concludes happily, in comedic fashion, with Gradisca’s marriage celebration and the promise of life and love, and the continuation of traditional values from one generation to the next.

Once sequence in Amarcord reveals, for me at least, Fellini at his very best. One summer day, Titta’s family retrieves Uncle Teo (Ciccio Ingrassia), incarcerated in an insane asylum, in order to take him with them on a picnic. He seems genuinely happy to see his family—his simile doesn’t seem to want to go away, so genuinely delighted he is—and ostensibly seems both content and calm, although everyone is puzzled by the fact that his coat pockets are filled with large, smooth stones. After the picnic lunch and after everyone has grown tired and sleepy from the meal, Uncle Teo disappears. After a frantic search, he is eventually found at the top of a high tree, where he is shouting as loud as he can, “I want a woman!” A few attempts are made to get him down; a ladder is brought and one of the farm hands climbs the ladder to get him; Uncle Teo drops one of the heavy stones on his head. A similar fate meets the next volunteer. Eventually, someone is sent to get reinforcements from the asylum. A dwarf nun arrives from the asylum, climbs the ladder, and orders Uncle Teo down from the tree. He immediately obeys. The sequence is at once very funny, warm, absurd, sad, and wistful, revealing how strong memories are always tied to deep yearning for an idyllic past.

A comparison the 2006 Criterion two-disc DVD reissue of Amarcord to my old RCA CED Selectavision VideoDisc of the film (issued January 1984) yielded some interesting results. (I am compelled to point out that there is a widespread, but mistaken, assumption that Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) was, in 1984, the first film released for home video in “letterboxed” format. In fact, the first movie issued in letterboxed format was Amarcord. Interestingly, “widescreen” or “letterbox” mastering was not introduced to home video by the laser disc, but rather by RCA on its now long-defunct Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED) Selectavision VideoDisc system, a grooved disc similar in appearance to a vinyl record--but tremendously more intricate--and contained in a hard plastic shell referred to as a “caddy.”) I found that the subtitles on the VideoDisc compared with those on Criterion’s 2006 DVD re-issue reveals the changed cultural conditions of the thirty years or so. For instance, soon after the nymphomaniac Volpina is introduced, on the VideoDisc (which used a theatrical print from the 1970s, as it credits Roger Corman’s New World Pictures as the distributor) a character refers to her with the subtitle reading, “She even makes love for breakfast.” In contrast, on the Criterion DVD reissue a character mocks her by saying to her, in a more accurately translated line, “I bet you even dip a cock in your morning coffee.” Other such amusing discrepancies in subtitle translations exist.

At the very least, one could say that Fellini had an affection for the fablieaux, bawdy tales that were sophisticated but were not intended to be didactic, that is, their purpose was to entertain, not “instruct.” It is difficult to tell ribald tales and be politically correct while doing so.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tuesday, January 19, 1960: Long Time Passing

The recent death of former Kingston Trio member John Stewart at age 68 prompted me to look back on an article Rebecca and I wrote a decade ago about that hugely successful folk trio, which after a long delay was eventually published in The Guide to U.S. Popular Culture, edited by Ray & Pat Browne (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2001). John Stewart’s biggest solo single, “Gold,” was a Top 10 hit in 1979, but at the time I didn’t immediately associate the song with the same John Stewart who once had been a member of the Kingston Trio. Having never owned the album on which the song appeared, Bombs Away Dream Babies, only years later did I learn that it was the same John Stewart.

“Tom Dooley” most certainly was one of the very first songs I remember with certainty hearing as a child, probably because it was playing constantly on the radio. The Kingston Trio was largely responsible for the “folk revival” of the late 1950s and early 60s, and while the many great folk singers who followed in their wake—Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, among others—reacted against the largely apolitical (or perhaps politically naïve) substance of the Kingston Trio’s music, very few of those who followed them matched their immense popular and commercial success. If nothing else, the band's success taught a younger generation of folk and rock and roll artists the value of proper studio engineering, as their albums are triumphs of studio technology.

According to Joel Whitburn’s The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums (Revised & Enlarged 3rd Edition, Billboard Books, 1995), the band’s debut album, released in 1958 and containing the hit, “Tom Dooley,” spent a whopping 114 weeks on the Billboard charts. The Trio’s second album, …from the Hungry i (1959) didn’t do quite as well, spending only 47 weeks on the charts. During the week of January 18, 1960 (and after), two Kingston Trio albums were on the charts simultaneously: At Large and Here We Go Again (both 1959), which spent a combined 83 weeks on the album charts, both having reached the “#1” spot and remaining there for many weeks.

I've reproduced here our original article, with a couple minor factual errors corrected and the years of death amended to reflect events in the years since the article’s first publication. Subsequent releases on CD, many of which were unreleased until very recently, obviously aren't reflected in our discussion:

Kingston Trio, The (1957-1967), formed 1957 in San Francisco, originally consisted of Bob Shane (1934- ), Nick Reynolds (1933- ), and Dave Guard (1934-1991). After Guard left the singing group in 1961 and was replaced by John Stewart (1939-2008), the Trio carried on until it disbanded in 1967. In the late 1960s Bob Shane purchased the rights to the group’s name, and has continued the group since. He and Reynolds reunited in the late 1980s. During their peak popularity, from 1958 through 1964, the Trio had few rivals but many imitators (e.g., the Brothers Four, the Lettermen).

The group’s first album, The Kingston Trio, was released by Capitol in June 1958. It was the single “Tom Dooley,” however, about a man hanged for murder, that cemented the group’s success, reaching the No. 1 position on Billboard’s Top 40 chart in December 1958. Although the song putatively had been discovered and performed by Frank Proffitt in the late 1920s and had also been recorded by Frank Warner on Elektra in 1952, the Kingston Trio’s version became a hit. The group’s success was so colossal that Capitol released four Trio albums within the next year alone, attempting to cash in on the exposure provided by “Tom Dooley.” At Large (1959), the group’s third LP, stayed at the No. 1 spot for 15 weeks, and is one of the best-selling folk albums of all time. It yielded another hit single, “M.T.A.,” about a man doomed forever to ride the Boston Mass Transit Authority train because he hasn’t the money to get off. During the years 1958-63 the Trio had 17 Hot 100 entries (or debuting single) and seven gold records.

Close-Up, released in the fall of 1961, was the debut album by the “new” Trio, with John Stewart replacing Dave Guard. This Trio’s second single, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (written by Pete Seeger), released in January 1962, became the first of many popular singles; it was followed by “One More Town,” “Greenback Dollar,” and “Reverend Mr. Black,” the latter release of 1963 being one of the group’s most successful singles behind “Tom Dooley.” Time to Think, released early in 1964, yielded the Trio’s last charting single, “Ally Ally Oxen Free,” a Rod McKuen penned tune, but the album also contained the Trio’s moving version of the Clancy Brothers’ “The Patriot Game.” The song failed to chart as a single, as did the Trio’s final single for Capitol, “Seasons in the Sun” (though it became a smash hit for Terry Jacks in early 1974). The group released one more album for Capitol, Back in Town, in May 1964, the 20th album in six years.

The Trio moved to Decca in late 1964 and released four albums. According to critics, the best of these was Stay Awhile, released in May 1965. The final album, Children of the Morning, was released early in 1966; by June of 1967, the group decided to call it quits. The live album Once Upon a Time, released in 1969, consisted of material recorded in 1966.

Additional information, with a more detailed discography, can be found at the group’s website.