Promised Land Calling

‘The American lives … for his goals, for the future. Life for him is always becoming .. ‘ (Albert Einstein)

‘ To be an American is to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, in so far as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.’ (Leslie Fielder)

‘Well she was an American Girl raised on promises – she couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else’ (Tom Petty)

Americans are always on the move. The road, the river and the very sky above all offer up territory to be travelled through in search of a new life – a fuller, truer life than the life you just happened to be born in. American lives, at least in the imagination, can always be started again, reborn and remade in a new place in the new world. And, what else but the Promised Land would a bible drenched culture call this fabled home away from home?

Songs about moving on, moving away, moving up and moving forward are a constant theme within the tradition of American song. Many American songwriters like Bruce Springsten and John Fogerty are virtual voyageurs and cartographers of the American spirit sending back enticing reports from the road detailing the wonders and discoveries to be found somewhere beyond the narrow confines of a childhood home’s city limits.

No songwriter in popular music has excelled Chuck Berry in converying a sense of physical and imaginative movement in the very fabric of his compositions. A Chuck Berry song usually leaps into life like a Coupe de Ville accelerating powerfully, smoothly and thrillingly away from a stop light onto a beckoning open road. Chuck will take one glance at his rear view mirror but his heart, his mind and his imagination are engaged with the seemingly unlimited promises of the highway over the hill.

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One aspect of his songwriting genius is the way he rhythmicallly marries his words and his melodies so that the songs glide and flow carrying the listeners attention all the while. A Chuck Berry song always tells a story, often in the great American tradition a tall story, that instantly grabs your attention even as you fasten your seatbelt for the exciting ride ahead. His songs are filed with acute journalistic observations of American life and culture expressed with an artists airy zest and √©lan. They are almost immediately memorable and musicians know that played with attack they offer guaranteed approval from any audience, anywhere. If you don’t love Chuck Berry’s songs you ain’t no rock ‘n’ roller!

Promised Land, one of his last great songs, was written during his unfortunate prison experience in the early 1960s. It seems he needed to borrow an atlas from the prison library to plot the, ‘Poor Boy ‘s’ epic journey across a continent in search of freedom and a better life (a life no doubt mirrored in Chuck’s imagination as the doors clanged shut each prison evening). The artful use of the atlas is clearly reflected in the mellifluous use of the place names sprinkled throughout the song. The song gleams with life giving detail; the (Grey)hound stranding them in Birminghmam, the Poor Boy sitting pretty above Alberquerque in his Houston bought silk suit, the thirteen minutes waiting time before the jet would arrive at the terminal gate. We feel we could take over the call back to Tidewater 41009 and tell the folks back home all about Poor Boy’s adventures.

I’ve chosen Johnny Allen’s 1971 deliriously driving Swamp Pop take on the song to play here because it’s a magnificent version and because I love the sound of the accordion (played here by Cajun hero Belton Richard) in overdrive. This is a version of the song that makes me feel three floors drunk even when I’ve been drinking water all day! I also feel sure, at least for the duration of the song, that my dancing would surely burn up the hardwood floor of any South Louisiana Honky Tonk lucky enough to have me visiting.

As a special treat I’ m also sharing a storming live version from The Dave Edmunds Band featuring the cream of British Rock n Roll musicians including Andy Fairweather Low and the magnificent Geraint Watkins on accordion. Geraint, the Celtic Cajun, had been in Johnnie Allen’s band when he toured Britain in the early 1980s and here he brings a wonderful woozy swagger to the song that makes me want to hit replay every time I hear it.

I wonder whether California, the Poor Boy’s Promised Land, really did turn out to be flowing with milk and honey. For wherever you go you travel with the baggage of your own history. You can change your name and your Zipcode with ease but changing yourself? But that’s a story and a song theme for another day on the Jukebox.

Today let’s just turn up the dial and revel in the journey …. ‘Left my home in Norfolk Virginia …

Notes:

Johnnie Allen:

Johnnie was christened John Allen Guillot in Rayne Louisiana in 1938. He was a Cajun farm boy with Spanish and French genes and a distinguished musical heritage in that a great uncle was the great accordionist and pioneer recording artist Joseph Falcon (check out his wonderful, ‘Allons a Lafayette’ to transport yourself back to the late 1920s).

He was gigging from his earliest teenage years and proving himself to be an affecting singer. With his band the Krazy Kats from the late 1950s he proved a master of the delicious musical confection called, Swamp Pop’ which built on the Cajun base with seasonings of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and rhythm and blues music. His, ‘Lonely Days and Lonely Nights’ from 1958 is a staple of South Louisiana culture. Throughout the 1960s he pursued his music career while developing a distinguished career in education.

He combines his love and expertise in music and education as the author of two excellent books on Cajun culture, ‘Memories: A Pictorial History of South Louisiana Music’ and, ‘Born To Be A Loser’ a fascinating portrait of the troubled life of the singer and songwriter Jimmy Donley. Johnnie has proved to be a marvellous advocate for his native culture. There is an excellent compilation of his recording history entitled, ‘Promised Land’ on the British Ace label.

Floyd Soileau:

Floyd Soileau is one of the regional independent producers whose musical and commercial awareness were crucial to the rich development of American musical life in the post second world war period. Operating out of Ville Platte as a DJ and record shop owner he had a keen eye for talent and soon his Swallow and Jin labels were producing outstanding traditional French language Cajun records as well as Swamp Pop sides. Take the time to listen to complications of these labels and you’ll enjoy a hugely enjoyable eduction in Louisiana’s musical culture featuring a roster of legendary talent.

Promised Land – The history of a hit:

Promised Land, Chuck Berry’s song from 1964, was recorded by Johnnie Allen in 1971 and was a regional favourite. In 1974 the ever alert British DJ and author Charlie Gillett issued it in the UK on his Oval label as the lead single on his magnificent compilation of South Louisiana music, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (now available on the Ace label).

Amazingly some 8000 sides were sold enough to approach the outskirts of the singles charts. In 1980 it was reissued through the punk/pub rock label Stiff and again sold well. 1982 saw it issued again as a single and as part of the compilation. Johnnie Allen toured Britain and showed himself to be a winning and dynamic performer. Finally it was included on a catch all Virgin collection called, ‘Country Legends” in 2006. It has now been awarded a gold disc for achieving sales of over a million copies as a single and as part of collections.

Geraint Watkins:

Geraint is a musician I seem to have been watching ever since I discovered the joys of live music in the early 1970s. He is a hugely talented singer, accordionist and keyboard player good enough to play with Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Nick Lowe. His solo work is filed with deeply felt and beautifully played songs. In particular look out for the incandescent, ‘Only A Rose’ from his superlative CD, ‘In A Bad Mood’.

For all his distinguished service with the music world’s top table artists a part of me will always remember with most affection his time with bar band maestros The Balham Alligators who dispensed crazy Cajun delights week after week in a London music pub I used to frequent, ‘The Hare And Hounds’. Frequently both the band and audience were very well ‘refreshed’ and evenings phased in a blur of delirious delight. I will never forget and always treasure the sight of Geraint, dressed in shorts and unmatched socks with a sleeping dog at his feet, launching into his own brilliant, ‘Marie Marie’ with the audience roaring him along.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Charlie Gillett. He was a pioneering popular music historian, a gifted writer and a marvellous radio broadcaster. He was generous in sharing his deep though lightly worn knowledge and he was a ceaseless advocate for the best music whether it was from Tennessee or Timbuktu.

He is the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox and the best teacher and mentor I’ve ever known.

Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life. So do you. Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have. A great song can be a pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed flinty observations and heart rending detail. These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future. Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled. Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied. At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus. A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life. The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine. The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though easy’s getting harder every day she carries on. She carries on.

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity. Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel. She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun ccok and restauranter.

All the while with her her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality. There is an almost brutal matter of factness in many of her songs. She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives. It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them. The reader or listener can do do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters. Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through. It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition. The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal deatils of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier words sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth. As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading. Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see. I dont know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her latest the comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

The Immortal Jukebox A7: Little Richard – Tutti Frutti

‘My heart nearly burst with excitement – I had heard God’. (David Bowie on first hearing Tutti Frutti)

‘Ambition: To Join Little Richard!’ (Entry in Bob Dylan’s High School Yearbook’)

‘It was as if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to technicolour’ (Keith Richards)

Before any truly catyclismic event in world history there are usually foreshadowings and auguries: precursor events that indicate something immense is on its way. I have identified one such sequence in history and set it out below:

In the summer of 1883 in the Sunday Strait between Java and Sumatra the Island of Krakatoa was the location for a volcanic eruption of staggering power. The explosion which destroyed the island was heard in Perth, Australia some 2000 miles away. It was probably the loudest sound ever heard by humankind as the sky grew dark with rock, ash and pumice. Tsunamis were generated as the shock wave reverberated seven times around the planet. Weather patterns and temperatures were disrupted for years on a global scale. The explosion was the equivalent of 200 megatonnes of TNT. In comparison the Atom Bomb explosion over Hiroshima was a mere firecracker.

If you were looking for the epicentre of the world’s scientific ferment in 1904 it is unlikely anyone would have settled on the Patent Office in sleepy Bern, Switzerland. Yet it was there that the 25 year old Albert Einstein had an intellectual epiphany. He realised that mass and energy were not two separate realms but expressions of each other. He expressed this relationship in a beautiful world changing equation (you know, E = MC squared) This was an epochal, paradigm shifting breakthrough that has resounded through science and culture ever since.

Asteroids are rare visitors to this earth but when they do pay us a home visit the effects can be profound. As June ended in 1908 in Tunguska in remote Siberia it seemed that the sky was split in two and covered with fire as an asteroid travelling at more than 33,000 miles per hour exploded trigerring a shock wave that devestated 800 square miles of forest. Eighty million trees lay on their sides levelled like so much matchwood. For days afterward the skies above Asia and Europe were eerily aglow.

In the 1940s as the Second World War proceeded the significance of Einstein’s work for military purposes was sharply appreciated in Washington, Berlin, London and Moscow as teams of dragooned scientists raced to produce a war winning weapon. The race was won in the deserts of the American South West by an international team ironically including many refugees from Hitler’s Reich. Mankind now had the capacity to destroy itself and the Atomic Age was born.

Energy, energy, energy. Energy contained and the power of energy released is the linking factor in all these events. There is something awesome in the contemplation of the overwhelming impact such displays of energy can have upon us.

Immense outpourings of energy expressed in music, film and literature can lead to revolutions in human consciousness that can profoundly alter the landscape of our thoughts and our very dreams. Following such events the cultural climate is forever changed and aftershocks continue to ripple on through the succeeding ages.

One such moment took place at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio at Rampart Street New Orleans on September 14th 1955 when Little Richard exploded into a version of an outrageously sexy, raucous and filthy song that had long been a staple of his live performances. The savvy producer of the session, Bumps Blackwell, had heard the song during a time out break the musicians had taken in a local bar, the Dew Drop Inn, and instantly realised that, furnished with cleaned up lyrics suitable for listening to on the radio, this was an unstoppable hit with a drive, attack and energy that was something new under the sun and moon in the Crescent City and for all he knew the whole world.

Richard played the frenzied piano himself with the masterful drummer Earl Palmer for once taken aback and struggling to keep up. Lee Allen plays a scintillating sax solo after being given his cue by the vocalist’s trademark screams and hollers. Little Richard, the Little Richard who occupies a permanent treasured chair at the top table of Rock n Roll pioneers and innovators was born as an artist at the very moment he began to play Tutti Frutti.

His vocals are a delirious fusion of the gospel pulpit, the back alley dive and the tent show after hours party. They lift the song beyond jump blues, beyond rhythm and blues into a new territory that incredulous contemporary listeners and musicians and the generations who followed them would light out for in their millions whooping all the way! But very few of them would be able to combine, like Little Richard could, the rapturous, glossolalial soar and swoop with the low down and dirty guttural rasp. For that you maybe needed to be the twelfth child of a family that included both preachers and bootleggers and grow up listening to testifying choirs in the morning and gut bucket blues men late at night. It would also help if you had lived by the train tracks and woken up repeatedly to the sound of the whistle screaming through your town.

Primary among those attempting to reproduce the Little Richard scream was the teenage Paul McCartney who used it extensively when covering Richard’s songs (his vocal party piece was Long Tall Sally, which was one of the two songs he played atop a desk on his last day at school in Liverpool) and he also incorporated it into his own rockers to give them a wildness that would drive the girls crazy.

I’m sure you know that I’m no physicist or mathematician but according to my calculations the energy released in the first thirty seconds of Tutti Frutti as Little Richard leaves Earth’s orbit for the celestial beyond is exactly equal to and more lasting in impact and influence than the Krakatoa explosion!

Perhaps the incantation, ‘Awop Bop Aloo Bop Alop Bam Boom!’ was the unlocking alchemical phrase the Universe had been waiting to hear for many millennia. Who would have thought that such mystic power would have emerged from an omnisexual, mascara wearing son of Macon Georgia!

You can christen Little Richard the Meteor, the Comet, the Quasar or the Architect of Rock n Roll – he deserves all those accolades and all the honours heaped upon him in his mature years. But it is the dionysiac outpouring of energy in Tutti Frutti that will prove his lasting legacy. The universe shook the day he recorded it and it’s still shaking now.

Muhammad Ali : The Supporting Cast – Bundini Brown

At the court of a King, and Muhammad Ali is nothing less than a king, there must always be a licensed fool : a Jester ; someone who while embodying the spirit of anarchy and ridicule also knows, to preserve their life and position, when to bow the knee and when to sing the praises of their liege. A Jester, someone who is by nature a rule breaker, has to push the boundaries of taste, manners and position but not forget that there are boundaries – which sooner or later must be enforced to preserve the system as a whole.

Drew Brown, universally known as, ‘Bundini’, occupied this role for the Greatest with festive wit, finesse and wholehearted distinction from the days of youthful glory in 1963 through the ensuing stratospheric ascent, the triumphs, the comebacks and comedowns down to the last unutterably poignant fight with Trevor Berbick in 1981. Despite a five year exile from the court for flagrantly ignoring the Nation of Islam morality which held firm sway in the camp in the mid and late 1960s he emerges from all the reputable histories as a key figure in Ali’s court.

He was born in 1928 and spent his youth in Florida before, barely into his teens, joining first the US Navy and then the merchant marine. He roamed the globe and learned how to look out for himself, how to drink (he loved to drink and went on shore leave binges throughout his life) and how to mock and outmanoeuvre authority. He was a tough street poet and philosopher who figured out that God was best thought of as, ‘Shorty’ – the guy you might disregard but who knew everything about you and who you would have to reckon with some sweet day.

He shared a generous love of live and humanity, energy, ego and quick witted humour with his master. They had a deep bond and recognised the distinction in the other. Bundini was usually aware that while his own talents were far from negligible, with their skilful use an important element in preparing Ali for each battle, they were as different in scale and impact to the world at large as moonlight is to sunlight. From time to time he fell into the Jester’s trap of overestimating his own importance but an actual or metaphorical cuff around the ear soon cured that. A king may be teased but not taunted.

In partnership they lit up the world as supreme patter merchants and travelling players who performed with as much brio to an audience of one as they did to the TV audience of millions. Throughout Ali’s career they put on a kind of peripatetic medicine show selling and demonstrating a genuine elixir of life which bottled a 100 per cent proof mixture of drama, excitement, passion, skill and wonder. Together their act was eyebrow raising, heart lifting, spirit surging, smile inducing, head shakingly outrageous and entirely wonderful.

No Don Draper, million dollar Madison Avenue advertising team, could have devised more successful promotional campaigns than those devised off the cuff by Bundini and Ali. Bundini was there with the net and the honey when they marched outside Sonny Liston’s house when angling for the first title fight. He was there, boosting the hysteria at the weigh in for that fight, as they yelled over and over the immortal lines, ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – Rumble young man rumble!’. Poor Sonny thought he was dealing with lunatics and got his mind thoroughly messed up.

Bundini was there to echo and amplify Ali’s preachers calls and to spur him to greater flights of oratory to win the audience for their cause. He was in the corner for the fights and while it was properly Angelo Dundee who set the strategy and was in command of the back up team it was Bundini’s voice you could hear clearest amid the maelstrom, ‘Dance Champ, Dance!’ ‘End the Show, End the Show!’.

Bundini lived every moment of every round: delighting in the Champ’s jabs and feints and the audacious brilliance of his combinations while wincing when he was tagged by his opponents. It was Bundini, in the dawning early morning light, who could risk the wrath of the sleeping giant and cajole Ali to put on the track suit and pound the roads – putting the endurance into those dancing legs. Bundini through his own largeness of life could charge Ali’s batteries. A King and his Jester who last beyond initial mirth and diversion must come to see each other in their common humanity and as they do so their bond deepens beyond place and fealty into what can only be described as love.

Bundini was the first of the original court to pass from this realm in 1987. Ali knew that he had lost a faithful friend – someone who had helped create the legend and the myths, someone who knew the price paid in sweat and pain as well as the glow of triumph on the summits.

He also knew that Allah, or call him Shorty, would be royally entertained by the tales only a Jester of genius like Bundini could tell.

Footnote: There are two further Muhammad Ali posts on the Jukebox – on his first title victory and his first Pro fight – Check them out!

The Immortal Jukebox A6 : Kenny Vance – Looking For An Echo

‘Humans are distinguished by being a remembering, storytelling and singing race’.
(Barclay Butler)

‘ A word thrown into the silence always finds its echo somewhere where silence opens hidden lexicons’. (Dejan Stojanovic)

‘ We were looking for an echo – an answer to our sound – a place to be in harmony; a place we almost found’

All of us search for, cherish and store in our hearts’ chambers the echoes of the sounds of the golden sunny uplands of our lives. Those times when we achieved what we set out to do; when we were first in love, when someone said,’you’re really good at that aren’t you?’, when you knew that this was a really fine time, THE fine time to be alive.

What holds for individuals holds for friendships, communities and nations which strive to hold on to the fine times and to work towards regaining them when they seem misplaced, lost or abandoned. We remember with joy the times we made it to the summit and wincingly the times our faltering grip couldn’t hold on to the elusive prize and we had to start again bruised and chastened from base camp or the muddy ground

We are all looking for answers to our longings and dilemmas, for a place to be in harmony with ourselves, our families and those with whom, willingly and unwillingly, we share our lives.

‘Looking For An Echo’ a single released on Atlantic in 1975 by Kenny Vance has continued to echo in my life for nearly forty years because it’s an anthemic folk/doowop ballad that gloriously captures the sweet heartache of remembering the thrill of reaching for that harmony and the melancholic realisation of how rare it is to hold on to that harmony, once achieved.

Kenny Vance (who grew up as Kenny Rosenberg) is a son of Brooklyn and a canny time served music industry veteran. He came up through 1950s vocal and doowop groups before achieving chart success and a measure of fame with Jay and The Americans who had a string of hits throughout the 60s including the eerily beautiful, ‘She Cried’ (memorably covered by The Shangri – Las). They were a supporting act on both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones first US tours. Late additions to the group, talent spotted by Vance, were two hyper smart East Coast musicians and writers, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, who would form the coolest band of the 1970s, Steely Dan.

Post Jay and The Americans, Kenny went on to carve a productive and profitable niche as a musical director for TV (Saturday Night Live) and in the Film Industry. He was involved in the highly successful soundtracks for Eddie and the Cruisers, American Hot Wax and Animal House.

By the mid 70s he was ready to record again and he produced a fine album called Vance 32 the highlight of which was Looking For An Echo, written by a friend, Richie Reicheg. The recording was layered beginning with simple acoustic guitar and Kenny’s searching, ruminative vocal. This gives the song the yearning quality which is so attractive. The electric instrumentation added builds the swelling atmosphere and the sense of time passing in tension and release.

The song is now something of a standard within the world of vocal group and doowop aficionados: regularly played on oldies radio stations and frequently used a a show stopping, tear inducing, finale to live shows. It reincarnates the doowop days of practicing in parks, subways and halls with vocals soaring upwards from stoops, fire escapes and tenement block roofs as bunches of teenagers quivering with energy and ambition reached for that sound that would warm their hearts and might, just might, make them stars if they could only be heard by someone who could get them into a recording studio and onto the radio.

The song is a quest song and we all know that most quests end in mature (or wearied) acceptance that we will never reach El Dorado to find the mother lode but that there were many fine times along the journey. And, that perhaps the place we now inhabit has its own virtues and consolations if not the fabled ones we imagined in our youth. Still, we listen for the echoes.

Kenny has revisited the song with his group the Planotones upping the dramatic ante and stressing the nostalgic heft of the song. I much prefer the original but would still queue to see him perform the song live.

Notes:

There is a superb version of the song by the titans of acapella singing The Persusasions – available to view on the internet and on their album, ‘Chirpin’.

I’m a lover of reference books on all subjects (as you may have guessed!) but none has given me such pleasure as Jay Warner’s, ‘American Singing Groups: A History 1940 – 1990′. I guarantee that if you read it you’ll be soon making long lists of records to buy and marvelling at the hope and energy which produced so many great sounds that still echo in our hearts and memories. You could start by looking up the entries for groups referenced in Echo – The Moonglows, The Harptones and The Dells.

My favourite Paul Simon album is his criminally under appreciated Hearts and Bones. For the exquisitely described heartbreak of the title track, the devastating sadness and accuracy of, ‘Maybe I Think Too Much’ but most of all for the sweet threnody that is ‘Rene and Georgette Magritte With Their Dog After The War’ which manages, entirely successfully, to yoke a portrait of the surrealist couple to the spectral sounds of the Orioles and the Five Satins.

There is no end to the making of doowop compilations. I recommend those on the Rhino, Ace and Proper labels. Part of the charm of the doowop era is that there are so many one off triumphs that might turn up almost anywhere now – happy hunting!

Moments, Moments, Immortal Moments

Sometimes it might take just a single beat of your heart. A lightning strike seared into your memory: something really crucial has happened and whatever happens from now on it will be in the shadow of this! Maybe it’s the first time alone together when she called you by your name and it felt like a new christening. Or the time your toddling son folded his hand into yours without thinking as he looked for stability and security on the road ahead.

Sometimes it might take years; the slowly dawning realisation, (like a photograph emerging from the darkroom) that it was that moment, that event, which seemed so trivial at the time, where a new course was set that’s led you to your current harbour.

Moments, moments, moments. Our lives in our imaginations and memories are never a complete coherent narrative but rather a silvery chain of moments: some cherished and celebrated some sharply etched with pain and sorrow. Some where we have the starring role in the drama others where we are strictly extras in the shadows at the edge of the stage.

The older we get the more we learn that some of those moments have become our own immortal moments: the moments we will return to again and again, voluntarily or necessarily as we try to make some sense of our frequently clogged and chaotic lives.

And, when we shuffle through these moments we will find many have been supplied by our encounters with the music, films and books that have become part of the imaginative and emotional furniture of our lives. Snatches of lyrics and melodies from favourite songs that you find yourself unexpectedly singing; scenes from films that seem to be always spooling somewhere deep in the consciousness now spotlit in front the mind’s eye, lines of poetry read decades ago that suddenly swoosh to the surface, seemingly unbidden, in response to some secret trigger.

I remember the exact moment, as a teenager, when I idly picked up a dusty book in a rundown junk shop and read these lines:

‘ Thou mastering me God!
Giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.’

The opening lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ epochal poem, ‘The Wreck Of The Deutschland’. Rooted to the spot I read the further twenty or so stanzas with my head and heart ablaze. I was aware of taking in only a fraction of the meaning and technique of the poem but I was absolutely sure that this was poetry of the highest order and that sounding its depths would be the work of a lifetime. I had made an emotional and spiritual connection that could never be undone and Poetry with that capital P was now a territory open for me, necessary for me, to explore. Strangely enough this was also the moment when I also glimpsed a future in which I might write poetry myself.

Similar thrilling encounters with literature, music and film now form a personal rosary of treasure in my life. I want to share just two more with you here today (I think I sense a series coming on!).

Marlon Brando and Eve Marie Saint as Terry and Edie in a duet scene from, ‘On The Waterfront’ from 1954 in pristine monochrome with wonderful cinematography by Boris Kaufman. This scene played with such truthfulness, tenderness and delicacy by both actors struck me very forcefully at the moment when first viewed and it has continued to bloom in my memory and imagination. If asked to give testimony for Marlon Brando as the greatest film actor of his time I would, of course, cite his thrilling physical presence and ability to dominate and take possession of the screen with special reference to, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ but it is this scene that would win the argument for me. Brando here hits a peak of American naturalistic acting using the method techniques he had learned but without being imprisoned by them.

In this scene with humour, pathos and dignity and without a shred of affectation or disrespect he incarnates Terry as a living, breathing man who wins our sympathy, as fellow human strugglers, trying stumblingly to articulate our feelings both to ourselves and to those we love and those we yearn to love us. Watch the way his body language evolves through the scene as he realises Edie is intrigued by him and interested in him for himself. The way he picks up, plays with and finally wears her dropped glove (seemingly improvised) should be required viewing in every drama school.

Astonishingly, this was Eve Marie Saint’s film debut. The camera obviously loved her at first sight. As Edie she is a luminous quiet presence whose watchful stillness, intelligence and sensitivity makes it inevitable that Terry will fall for her and fall hard. She understatedly lets Edie’s dawning love for Terry emerge as something as natural as drawing breath. She believably illuminates Edie as a young woman with steel in her character as well as beauty and charm. Acting with Brando, even for someone with her accomplished background on stage, must have been an intimidating challenge but there can be no doubt that Eve Marie Saint matched and balanced him through every frame of celluloid on show here.

At some heartbreaking level we understand that these fleeting moments of intimacy shared in this scene by characters afflicted by doubt and bruised souls will be moments they will both need to recall in the painfully tempestuous times ahead. Maybe it’s an eternal truth as Dylan wrote that, ‘Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain’. Few scenes in cinema history bring out the truth of this statement with more clarity.

Mink Deville, led by Willie Deville a pompadoured and preening singer (finger on the eyebrow and left hand on the hip!) who showed himself throughout a roller coaster personal and professional life to be a supreme rhythm and blues and soul song stylist. He had rasp and romance, swagger and sensitivity as well as presence and power in his vocal arsenal. I recall the moment of seeing him for the first time on the British flagship chart music programme, ‘Top Of The Pops’ in 1977 and jumping out of my chair to applaud this performance of the signature tune of his early career, ‘Spanish Stroll’.

Willie added sass, instrumental colour and wasted seventies urban elegance to the magic and mystery of doo-wop and Brill Building vocal group harmonies to create a wonderful record that creates its own bright shining world every time you hear it. His wonderfully liquid self regarding, shooting cuffs vocal is all strutting Latin braggadocio anchored in his assured rhythmic poise. Special praise is due to the mellifluous backing vocalists who wonderfully evoke the steam heat of a New York night on a tenement stoop as they support Willie’s imperious lead role.

I love the ringing tones of the guitars, the Spanish flourishes, the proto rap intervention by bassist Ruben Siguenza, the tempo changes and the dreamlike woozy character of the whole song. Most of all, most of all, I love and keep returning to the moment when Willie sings the line:

‘Make a paper boat, light it and send it, send it out now.’

Especially those last three words. Anyone who can make the heart leap with three simple words is an artist to cherish and revere. I’ll write a full tribute to this great late lamented talent in due course but in the meantime trawl Youtube for a series of magnificent vocal performances and load up your shopping cart with his albums. You won’t regret it.

Adios Amigo, adios.

Moments, moments, Immortal moments.

Footnote: Sadly since this post was written and published Lauren Bacall died. I dedicate this post to the memory of wonderful actress and hell of a broad who created more than her fair share of Immortal Moments.

Voyages Around Van 2 : Don’t Look Back

‘Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers in love. But always meeting ourselves.’ (James Joyce)

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ (William Faulkner)

‘Can’t repeat the past? … Why of course you can!’ (Scott Fitzgerald)

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ (Scott Fitzgerald)

Van Morrison like all true artists carries an Eden within him that he returns to over and over again when he needs spiritual refreshment and musical inspiration. This home place contains: the real and imagined streets and avenues of 1940s and 1950s Belfast; the boats in the harbour; the creeping morning fog and the booming foghorns; the scent of Shalimar and beeswax; the sounds of the musical saw and the real as prayer voice of Mahalia Jackson coming through the ether. Off to the side a radio is always playing tuned in to AFN delivering the blessings of the High Priest or the Goons on the grand old BBC.

Hank Williams and Leadbelly are telling their eternal truths on the record player downstairs and somewhere almost in and almost out of sight a young girl, the young girl, is incarnating the vision of eternal and temporal beauty. As he walks along the avenue the leaves on the trees tremble and dance and all the strings in heaven are harmonising (though he knows they can break too). The energy contained within this Eden will be enough to power a vocational life with half a century or more of singing, songwriting and veil tearing live performances. For he has the artists and pilgrim’s faith that the path that has been set out for him must surely lead him through triumphs, trials and tribulations eventually back to that first Eden again.

So when he is attracted to a song he hasn’t written himself it’s because he recognises some echo or intimation within the song’s imaginative structure; the melody, rhythm and lyric that promises to open a doorway to the longed for, never lost but never wholly present Eden – the Eden whose essence he can reach out for and sometimes grasp in performance. That’s what motivates him a thousand times more than the applause of the adoring fans or the plaudits of the critics.

The music of the great John Lee Hooker has often provided this doorway for Van. They share a cussed, defiant belief in their own individual visions and a refusal to tailor those visions to the demands of fashion or contemporary taste. Van and John Lee were separated by twenty eight years in age, the Atlantic Ocean, race, the great depression and a World War. However, this was mere happenstance for in the deepest levels of their musical being they were very close kin who knew the blues in the very marrow of their bones. They were and in music still are to use the lovely Celtic expression Anam Cara – soul friends.

And, the blues is a diverse music embracing all the moods we are heir to including joy, sadness, despair and reverie. Which is to say the blues is music that calls to the heart night and day through good times and bad; in our youth and in our old age. It’s a companion and comfort on our pilgrimage through life. Van recognised the humanity and power of Hooker’s songs and that they were gifts that would keep on giving for a really great song’s power and mystery can never be exhausted but only further explored – each version melding the truths of the song with the character and personality a true artist will bring to the work and that will inevitably change over time.

Time, time, time: inexorably ticking on, beating on, surging through our lives; driving us forward while reminding us of its former presence and our former life all the time – all the time. We can’t go back to that former time but we can’t, won’t, wholly leave it behind. We can’t shed the mind skin we are clothed in. Every day contains the present, the past and the future and coming to terms with that is a key task of a well lived life – and it’s a hell of a subject for a song.

John Lee Hooker released Don’t Look Back as a single on Vee Jay in 1964. Van, always an assiduous listener, picked up quickly on it and his utterly ravishing version with Them was released in June 1965 on their debut LP. It is said that Van considered his vocal here to be his best on the album and I agree with him. The song is treated as a, ‘hold your breath and let me stop the world from turning while I tell you this’ dream ballad which only the greatest singers can ever really bring off – and Van triumphantly brings it off here. I can hear echoes of the way Arthur Alexander stills the heart with his understated passion.

Van Morrison’s respect, love and affection for the song and it’s composer is etched into every syllable of his scrupulously careful vocal which glows with inner fire. The languid piano part, probably played by the late Peter Bardens, affects an electrically charged otherworldly sound that foregrounds Van’s lingering, beautifully imagined and controlled blues croon. He sings the song, in this version, with infinite gentleness like a man singing to himself looking out the nighttime window as he waits for the sun to appear over the horizon and start another day.

Listen to the tenderness with which he phrases the lyric revealing the sureness and sadness at the heart of the song. I remember hearing him sing, ‘… Stop dreaming … ‘ for the first time and having an intense out of body experience. Van’s performance here is astonishing in its authority and audacity; especially for a youth barely out of his teens. But, genius answers only to itself.

Before his performance of this luminous song was captured again, on his tour of Ireland in 1979, he had transformed himself from the wondrously gifted callow youth of 1965 into a completely realised master of his chosen craft. He had produced at least four albums that can safely be accounted masterpieces. The work of profound spiritual grace that is Astral Weeks; the incandescent Moondance; the exploratory revelations of St Dominic’s Preview and the blazing house wrecking testimony of Too Late To Stop Now.

He had also become a superb band leader who could choose talented, sympathetic musicians and mould them into crack outfits able to switch genres and animate arrangements with fluid power and ease. He had clearly studied the Ray Charles and James Brown bands; noting the way they used horns and back up singers to heat and dramatise their performances. Above all he needed listening musicians who would recognise, respond and surrender to those moments when he would become inspired and launch into extended improvisation that could take a song far beyond any rehearsal’s imaginings.

The 1979 band included Peter Van Hooke on drums and fellow Ulsterman Herbie Armstrong on rhythm guitar who would be faithful and watchful long term lieutenants. Pat Kyle and John Altman gave the horns swing and sensuousness while Katie Kissoon and Anna Peacock sang their hearts out following or prefiguring their leaders vocal stylings. Bobby Tench played gorgeous spiky guitar fills while Mickey Feat anchored the sound with his bass. Peter Bardens was back after many musical adventures at Van’s side and showed he still knew how to second guess his mercurial leader’s thoughts. A new sound (surely a response to the presence of Scarlet Rivera in Bob Dylan’s band) was provided by the entrancing violin playing of Toni Marcus.

With these resources at his command Van now gave, Don’t Look Back’ a more dynamic, searching blues and soul review arrangement that supported his stupendous vocal tour de force. When he is on this kind of form he seems to control not just his brilliant musicians but also the forces of time, temperature and gravity affecting the audience and the venue. You might observe that he becomes lost in the music but it seems to me it is rather that he steps away from the everyday into an old home – a magical, edenic realm where for those few minutes everything is in balance, where all is well and all shall be well.

No one can do this easily or guarantee a performance where this will occur. All the more reason to treasure those occasions when we become with him dwellers on the threshold able to contemplate ascending the staircase that stretches all the way to moon.

Listen to John Altman’s imperious sax solo, the swelling power of the call and response vocals, the sweetness of the violin and the tidal power of the arrangement but above all marvel at the way Van incarnates the vision of the song in his powerful, tender and subtly nuanced vocal. It’s one of his greatest performances comparable to his legendary, incendiary triumph singing Caravan at the Last Waltz.

So hear him sing a song that summons up the past that surrounds us all. Board the boat that’s ceaselessly borne back; meet the ghosts and the giants of your own life and recognise that the past is never past. As a matter of fact try to live in the here and now. Then go on and live into the future.

Footnote:

Don’t forget, if you haven’t already to read the previous posts on Van – featuring his performances of Brown Eyed Girl and Gloria. In fact, I recommend checking out the archive generally if you’re new to the Jukebox.

Thanks to the premier Bob Dylan website ‘Expecting rain’ for providing a link to this post.