Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pride and Joy, Marvin Gaye (1963)

"Marvin could caress a song like no other singer. He could even bring tears to the eyes of the upper crust." - Frankie Gaye, in his memoir about his brother Marvin Gaye

It is not always a good thing to learn too much about artists whose work we admire and who were so influential in shaping the music of the times in which we've lived.

I definitely felt that way this past week when, in search of a tidbit about the Temptations' Paul Williams that I had heard might be lurking in a book about Marvin Gaye's life, I ended up listening to six CDs about a man who was about as tormented a human being as one could possibly imagine.

I refer to the audiobook version of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, by David Ritz. I knew I wasn't going to read it because rarely is that genre of book well written by any definition of the term. So since the length of my daily commute just cries out for ways to keep me entertained, I slogged through the set, hoping I'd find what I was looking for about Paul (I didn't) and learning more about Gaye's life, about which I knew just the usual highlights (or lowlights).

I don't want to disparage the man; his body of work was a gift to our generation. But after listening to his story, I must say I'm surprised he wasn't killed sooner than he was. Hell, I wanted to kill him - he was insufferable. His own worst enemy, he was a colossal mess of a human being and brought misery to many in his private life. As it was stated in the book, he "turned blessings into burdens." And that would be putting it mildly. Like Michael Jackson, he was extremely disturbed, brought on in part by a lifelong terrible relationship with his father and massively conflicted feelings about his animal vs. his spiritual nature. He desperately needed psychological help he never got.

But his music, for all his relentless despair, was sublime, and his sensibilities enabled him to be comfortable working in different genres. His first top 10 single, Pride and Joy, is an example of how swinging Gaye could be - certainly a lightweight sort of song, compared to, say, his masterpiece What's Going On, but as he interpreted it, it was fabulous. It was inspired by his feelings for his first wife, Anna Gordy (Berry's daughter, yikes I meant sister, thanks J!!) and made Gaye Motown's most successful solo artist to that point, bringing with it pressures that he could never surmount.

Written by Gaye, Norman Whitfield and Mickey Stevenson, Pride and Joy also features Martha and the Vandellas. Singing background was one of the ways the girls earned their keep around Motown until they could get their lucky break (see my earlier post on Heat Wave to learn more about them).

In these early days, Marvin was a paragon of cool - it's pointed out in Divided Soul that he actually aspired to be a crooner like Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole more than he did a soul man. He admired singers who were extremely relaxed like Perry Como and Dean Martin. In Gaye's case, his relaxed persona may have stemmed in part from the fact that he was never straight, but that's another story. The fact is, he had a silky, emotional voice that oozed with style, very reminiscent of Sam Cooke, whom he idolized. If you want to dissect it a bit, YouTube has an a cappella version of Pride and Joy that's a lovely novelty - you can really immerse yourself in his voice. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Here Comes The Night, Them (1965)

In researching my posts, I'm always intrigued to see how much an artist's parents and/or home life influenced his or her life's direction early on. One whose father had everything to do with his ascent to greatness is the former lead singer of Them, the iconic Van Morrison.

In I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity, by Theodore Gracyk, the author writes that kids from maritime locales in the UK, like Liverpool and Belfast, often had broader rock and roll roots than kids from London and other landlocked cities. In the former, the merchant seamen would bring home the latest recordings from across the pond, while Mick Jagger, for example, would have been more apt to send away for imports.

Morrison's father was a Belfast shipyard electrician and he'd had the opportunity to travel to the U.S. He became an avid record collector and exposed his son to rhythm and blues, folk music and jazz very early on. Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie - these were just some of the standard-issue sounds around the Morrison house. Needless to say, his son responded very positively. He received an acoustic guitar as a gift from his father, along with a copy of a manual that instructed him on the revolutionary fingerpicking style of Maybelle Carter, mother of June Carter Cash. Hey thanks, Dad!

Thus inspired, Morrison left school early and went professional at 16, playing saxophone in Irish showbands (like seated big bands, only they stood). Them essentially was formed when a Belfast hotel called the Maritime advertised for a house band, and Morrison was one of those who responded. They were called the Gamblers at first, then decided Them had more cachet. The group became a sensation of sorts; Morrison would improvise and fashion their sets off of the energy of the crowd. It is said his version of Gloria, which became a smash hit, was born on this particular stage.

I don't know how you really characterize what Van Morrison does - his stage presence and that devastating voice, his complete abandon to whatever his muse is ... I have a hard time putting into words how deeply he affects me - and has always affected me, from that first time he growled "Whoa here it comes" and Here Comes The Night just knocked me flat. So beautifully ominous, particularly when you're 12.

As an aside, I didn't realize that their version of the blues standard Baby Please Don't Go (which was Them's first actual hit) became the theme song for the popular British music variety series Ready Steady Go!, where they played as they were getting their commercial start. (Gloria was its B-side.)

Them didn't survive long after their commercial success took them on tour in America and the pressures of the music business broke the group apart. But before that happened, audiences here would have been exposed to some priceless musical interludes.

According to some archival information about the history of the Whisky A Go-Go in Hollywood, Them was the main event for three weeks in 1966, where on several occasions the fledgling Doors opened for them. According to this site, on June 18, 1966, the audience was treated to the two groups serving up a 20-minute version of Gloria and a 25-minute version of In the Midnight Hour. I imagine that Morrison-fest would have been unforgettable.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What's New Pussycat?, Tom Jones (1965)

I'm a Navy Seal and I just threw my panties at him. - YouTube commenter

Ah, the charismatic Tom Jones. I have always been a sucker for a showman - someone who commits to his material to such a degree that you can't help but become a convert even if the material itself is questionable or campy.

For that reason, What's New Pussycat? will always be a favorite. That signature growl: it's ridiculous - and it's sublime. As another YouTube commenter says, "Only Tom Jones knows how to make this such an awesome song."

It's probably worth mentioning that What's New Pussycat? had the advantage of having been written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David - who really were incapable of writing a bad song - for the score of the Peter Sellers hit movie. Jones had sung their To Wait For Love as the B-side of It's Not Unusual; they were impressed with his interpretation of a song that other artists had failed to nail in earlier attempts.

Many times before I've noted that the AM radio playlists during the 60s were as diverse as the streets of New York City. (What's New Pussycat? was #5 the week Satisfaction was #2 on the Billboard charts.) So if you grew up then, it was not unusual to hear Jones belting out his songs on radio and on his weekly variety series, This Is Tom Jones (1969-71). The audience did a lot of screaming. He was considered risqué in certain circles, and sometimes he was even banned, but it was all just good clean fun.

Yet for all the love thrown at Jones' various hits, there isn't a lot in his catalogue that did justice to that lustrous powerhouse of a voice. The arts and culture website Cosmopolis suggested that Jones has "... one of the most incredible and sexiest male voices in show business, comparable to greats like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley ... This comparison of course sheds a bad light on his accomplishments. For years he has worked with pitiful musicians and arrangements. Instead of becoming one of the all time greats, he has produced some of the worst kitsch on the market. His main problem: He is no songwriter and depends on material written by others."

Whether that was his main problem or not, in recent years Jones has tried his hand at his own material - check out songs he co-wrote with Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonder Duplessis for his 2002 Mr. Jones album. According to Jones, "Wyclef and Jerry ... know how to work with me, my voice, my history, and they know how to stretch me while still making me find what's real." (Check out Jean's remix of Pussycat!)

In a BBC Radio interview around the time of his collaboration with the great piano player Jools Holland, Jones acknowledged that always having had so much material put in front of him didn't do much to inspire him to write on his own. Somewhere along the line that changed, but he stressed that he needs to write with others; the collaboration is essential for the ideas to flow, he said.

In trying to find what's real over the years through vast experimentation with musical styles, one thing Jones has never been hampered by is a lack of certainty as to his allure. A friend who saw him live in the 80s handed him some flowers from her perch in front of the stage. Was she ever surprised when he leaned over and gave her a kiss - a French kiss!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Classical Gas, Mason Williams (1968)

I don't know when the term "destination TV" was first coined, but one of the earliest manifestations of the concept for me was in 1967-69, when CBS aired The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

A show that packed a satirical punch so hard it is said Richard Nixon wanted it off the air, it was the baby of Tom and Dick Smothers and their uber-talented stable of writers, which included Steve Martin, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, Pat Paulsen, Bob Einstein, his brother Albert Brooks, and the head writer, Mason Williams. Week after week, the Smothers crew used comedy to skewer the Establishment and give voice to the counterculture.

And did it ever succeed - the censorship battles the brothers waged with CBS are legendary. After wising up to Tom Smothers' habit of turning in the shows too late to be edited before airtime, the network insisted on receiving full episodes days in advance for review by the censors. This was something that everyone in their audience knew about - that's how public it was. Tommy and Dickie were were always my heroes for never surrendering - until they were summarily thrown off the air on bogus breach of contract charges.

But back to the music. In those days it was not customary to present music on variety television unless it was something people were already familiar with, so there was no place for artists to perform new songs for a mass audience before they became hits. No place, that is, until the Smothers Brothers gave them one.

The Smothers' dedication to giving exposure to new artists did not go unnoticed by A&R executives from Warner Brothers-Reprise, which was establishing itself as a label that carried singer-songwriters, a category which had more or less fallen by the wayside during the early years of the British Invasion.

Williams was a folksinger-guitarist turned comedy writer (and the creator of the loopy theme song for the show). For his first album, one of the tracks involved no singing at all. It was called Classical Gas, and it became a smash hit, waking young people up to the beauty of instrumental guitar music.

Described by Williams as "half flamenco, half Flatt & Scruggs, and half classical," Classical Gas was a bonanza of rhythmic changes, and is considered by many to be a tutorial unto itself for learning to properly fingerpick. What was at best conceived as a novelty song became a classic.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

For No One, Beatles (1966)

And in her eyes you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

It was this past week in 1966 that an event many felt was a seminal one in the evolution of Beatles musicology occurred - the release of their album, Revolver.

I wasn't one of those people. I was underwhelmed, disappointed, even, in the tracks on Revolver. The fact that it marked a new phase in the Beatles' development as studio musicians just didn't resonate with me, because the majority of songs didn't resonate with me.

But lurking amidst the various ditties about taxes and yellow submarines was a gem called For No One. It was a song that Emmylou Harris once described as being about "love hurting real bad." It was notable for being such a stark departure from what surrounded it. And it was notable on its own merits, for nailing what it feels like when the look in your former love's eyes has gone dark and cold - even if tears are flowing from those same eyes.

Several things about this song made it interesting apart from its naked emotion. At first blush it appears to be outlining the all-too-familiar perspective of the one suffering - "Your day breaks, your mind aches" ... But we switch back and forth between hearing his anguish and watching her movements, presumably separate from his. A well done juxtaposition that made the song even more harrowing. Such power Paul McCartney packed into such a small space.

For No One also featured a haunting instrumental solo by Alan Civil, a French horn player of international renown who was asked by George Martin to become part of the recording session, because McCartney wanted a horn break.

Some say the song was so perfect because McCartney was writing about the demise of his relationship with the beautiful actress Jane Asher who, it must be said, I wanted to be for a full five years of my teenybopper life. (To her credit, Asher, who continues to act and is a much sought-after cake baker, has never sunk to a tell-all about their romance. If she hasn't by now, she probably never will. A true class act.) But unless they broke up at some point before the relationship ended completely (1968), the chronology is off. Regardless, it is McCartney at his best and purest.

As to Revolver, I will say that I also love everything about And Your Bird Can Sing. Everything. And Eleanor Rigby was a masterpiece in its own right. But because it was released simultaneously with Revolver as a single, I have always thought of it independently of the album because that is how I experienced it.