‘There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love’ (Washington Irving)
‘Oh, I awoke in anger, so alone and terrified,
I put my fingers to the glass,
And bowed my head and cried’ (Bob Dylan – I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine)
Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we don’t know why. Sometimes (though we are loath to admit it) we know exactly why.
Sometimes we know we are about to cry. Sometimes the hot tears overwhelm us in an instant.
Sometimes we cry when we read, or write, a tear stained letter.
Sometimes we cry when the hearse carries our loved one away.
We knew that would happen one day, even thought ourselves prepared for it, yet we learn that no one is ever truly prepared for such an emotional earthquake.
Sometimes when we unexpectedly catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror we find ourselves surprised by tears of shame and regret.
Sometimes we cry tears of pure joy – remember the day your child was born? The day you got married?
The day that dream that you feared would never be more than a dream became miraculously true!
Sometimes we cry because with sickening finality we know that dream is over, over.
Sometimes we cry not believing just how stupid, stupid, pluperfectedly stupid we have been.
Sometimes we simply cry and cry and cry and somehow having cried our hearts out we feel a little better.
Sometimes we need a great singer to to sing about the tears in things and we feel a whole lot better.
The coin rose into the Iowa night air – spinning, spinning, spinning.
Tommy Allsup and 17 year old Ritchie Valens watched it carefully wondering which way it would land and who would have the good luck to exchange freezing hours on the ancient, ‘Winter Dance Party’ tour bus for a seat on a plane with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.
Before they knew it they’d be in the warmth of Fargo Airport and arrive at their next gig in Moorehead without having to worry about frostbite.
The coin was caught and Ritchie, the victor, smiled. Then, round about midnight the Beechcroft Bonanza took off with 21 year old pilot Roger Petersen at the controls.
But February 3rd was barely born before Petersen, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens lay dead on a frozen field just outside of Clear Lake. February 3rd 1959 – the day the music died.
On that icy bus Ritchie must have often dreamed of his California hometown. Sure, Pacioma was dusty, down at heel, downright dirty but, but, it was warm!
Warm sun, warm air, warm water, alive with the comforting warmth of family life.
Ritchie, of Mexican heritage, was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13 1941 (11 days before Bob Dylan in far away Minnesota).
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley he was exposed to and influenced by a wide variety of musical styles including Mariachi, Flamenco, R&B and Jump Blues. He had a special affection for cowboy crooners and always listened out for the guitar sound of each genre.
In his imagination and his guitar licks he was developing a striking sound which would echo and add to the history he had inherited.
Things happened very fast for Ritchie.
He was working, really working, the days allotted to him.
Before his mid teens he was a proficient guitarist and a handy drummer. By October 1957 he was a member of a local band, The Silhouettes, and honing his performance skills at Valley venues.
He was known by some as the, ‘Little Richard of the Valley’ and by the middle of the following year he had come to the attention of wannabe music mogul, Bob Keane.
Impressed by Ritchie’s quietly charismatic personality, his ability to command an audience and his guitar fluency Keane signed him to his new Del-Fi label soon after his 17th birthday in May 1958.
Ritchie made some demos at Keane’s two track home studio before he was ushered into 652 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, Los Angeles – the home of Gold Star Studios which had superior recording technology including state of the art echo chambers courtesy of owner/founders David Gold and Stan Ross.
Gold Star would become famed in the 1960s for epochal sides produced by the divergent geniuses of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
What Gold Star already had when Ritchie arrived in July 1958 was a team of superbly accomplished, committed and flexible musicians who could turbo charge any song they played on.
Ritchie was very fortunate to have nonpareil drummer Earl Palmer, pianist Ernie Freeman and doubling guitar/bassists Carol Kaye and Rene Hall lending their very considerable talents to his material.
The records Ritchie made at Gold Star are a very potent combination of the charming, deeply affecting, visions of a sweet 17 years old who was a hell of a guitar player with the dynamic drive of top class studio professionals.
What glorious, explosive, life enhancing, last a lifetime and more, records they were!
So, let’s drop the needle on Ritchie’s appropriately named debut single, ‘Come On, Let’s Go’ and listen as he and the band take off for the winning line like a nuclear powered dragster!
As soon as, ‘Come On, Let’s Go!’ revs up you know you’re not going to be any kind of wallflower at this dance.
No, you’re going to slip, slide and spin right to the centre of the hardwood floor and you know, come on, that you won’t be on your own for long.
The Darling you’ve been dreaming of is going to be there right opposite you with eyes only for you. And, as the rushing, rippling guitar flows all around the two of you will slip and slide and spin in perfect harmony. Just like in your dreams.
Everyone will say – ‘Don’t they make a great couple’.
But you won’t need to be told. You’ll be in your own cocoon of rhapsody and even if the speakers failed now it wouldn’t matter – because you’re together, together, and the rhythm is pounding through your heart.
You don’t have to think about how the dance goes .. The two of you are the Dance. And, you wish it would never, ever end. And, in some part of your being that Dance never will end.
And, anytime you need to recreate that feeling all you have to do is whisper your mantra to yourself, ‘Come on, Let’s Go!’
The success of Come On, a summer Billboard top 50 hit and eventual half a million selling single, made the decision to leave high school and become a full time professional musician a no brainer.
Before his untimely death Ritchie would appear twice on Dick Clark’s Bandstand, take part in Alan Freed’s NYC Christmas Jubilee extravaganza and feature in the Rock ‘n’ Roll movie, ‘Go! Johnny Go!’ as well as playing local gigs, join the ill fated Winter Dance Party tour and record two albums worth of songs at Gold Star.
He was working with a true spirit and a generous heart the days allotted to him.
This spirit and generosity is captured for all eternity in the two sides of his second single, recorded in October 1958, the lovely paen to teenage amour, ‘Donna’ and the electrifying, you’re never the same after you’ve heard it for the first time, can’t wait to hear it again and again, ‘La Bamba’.
Now when discussing La Bamba I could put on my oversize musicologist’s hat and wax in a scholarly fashion about Vera Cruz and folkloric traditions. But as soon as you hear the throaty roar of the opening guitar riff none of us is going to be bothered with that!
No. We’re going to be delirious with delight as Ritchie and the Band rattle through the song leaving all the doors and windows of our imagination blown wide open.
Guitar buffs will find a lifetime’s inspiration in the ensemble passages and the venomous rattlesnake solo (just ask Jimmy Page and Robert Quine).
Obviously the vast majority of people listening to the song will have next to no idea about the meaning of the lyric. Yet, all of us who are fluent in the Esperanto of Rock ‘n’ Roll will understand immediately that it’s a celebration of life.
I love the way Ritchie can’t help but burst into laughter at the sheer blast of being in the studio laying down what they must all have recognised was a classic.
Our understanding of La Bamba is surely most truly expressed in abandoned dancing that blissfully banishes all the idle traffic littering our everyday mind.
La Bamba means nothing more and nothing less than love and life and freedom.
Cue it up again. It’s mighty medicine for anything that’s ailing you!
Ritchie Valens and Donna Ludwig were born on opposite sides of the racial, cultural and financial tracks. No way they could be a couple (especially if Mr Ludwig had any say in the matter) but time has told us time after time that love laughs at impossibility. Love can navigate through seemingly impenetrable barriers.
And, anyone listening to the artless charm of, ‘Donna’ can’t help but be moved at its primary colour evocation of what it means to be young and in love.
Its swooning tempo and lyrical guitar remind us (if we need reminding) of those days in our youth when our hearts beat faster just at the mention of our beloved’s name.
Perhaps you sang that name to yourself under your breath (for in some sense it was a secret you were hugging to yourself) as you walked home after the dance or as you sat on the bus on your way to school. People must have wondered what you were smiling at so radiantly.
Of course it’s not something you can ever really explain – you have to live it to know the sweetness of that feeling. What you could do for anyone who really wanted to know was play them, ‘Donna’ and say – well I guess it feels just like this!
Ritchie Valens lived for only Seventeen years. The Night came for him – as it will come for us all.
Yet the days he had were enough for him to record two rock ‘n’ roll classics and ensure himself legendary status among fellow musicians and fans of the music he loved.
Soy capitan Ritchie. Soy Capitan.
Indicative of my love of Ritchie Valens’ music is my ownership of two CD sets summing up his short career. Both, ‘The Ritchie Valens Story’ on Rhino and, ‘Come On, Let’s Go!’ on Del Fi will provide deep draughts of joy.
The movie, ‘La Bamba’ featuring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie is a thoroughly enjoyable Hollywood product with musical heft provided by the always excellent Los Lobos.
There is a memorial monument to Ritchie, Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper north of Clear Lake which is among the pilgrimage sites I plan to visit in the USA.
For that blessed period there can be no doubt that there was magic in him and magic in the music.
And, listening I dare you not to believe in the magic of rock and roll, not to believe in the magic that can set you free!
Zing! Zing! Zing! Go the strings of my heart!
Do You Believe in Magic, a top 10 hit in August 1965, announced John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful as supreme messengers of Joy.
Now whether you call, ‘Magic’ folk music, jug band music or rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t matter. For its all of those and more. It’s a technicolor head spinning fairground ride through a starlit New York night.
It’s the kind of song you flat out fall in love with. It’s the kind of song that plays in your head as you fall in love.
As your heart salmon leaps along with the ecstatic guitar licks and rousing vocals you want, need, to tell a stranger about the magic of rock ‘n’ roll.
Play that stranger this song and voila! they’ll become zealous believers dancing till morning and arranging to meet up for more magic tomorrow night.
I find four or five plays in row just about right for this classic.
John Sebastian had the rhythm and tempo of New York days and nights flowing through his veins.
He was the son of a musician father and writer mother whose Greenwich Village home became a home from home for artists like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Lightning Hopkins when they came to play in the Big Apple.
Young John soaked all these influences up and listened hard to the radio picking up on the rhythmic attack and irresistible charm of the music coming out of Detroit and Liverpool.
He added his New York native sensibility and in the irresistible, always going to be a Number 1 record, Summer in the City’ brilliantly and concisely evoked the urban landscape of honking cars, ear blasting jackhammers, street stickball, concrete stoops, echoing air shafts, clanging fire escapes and refuge rooftops.
f there’s a better description of baking summer city streets than, ‘Hotter than a match head’ please let me know.
Sebastian (collaborating here with his brother Mark and Spoonful bassist Steve Boone) summons up the deadening heat of the gritty New York days but knows these are always survivable because of the promise of the cool night when, work done and dusted down from for another day, it’s a different city.
A different city where you want to find a girl and dance, dance, dance until the moonlit still of the night becomes the magical violet hued light of dawn.
A different city where desperate dreams of the strength sapping day become shining night time life transforming realities.
In the summer in the city, the great city, dreams can and do come true.
Most great rock ‘n’ roll love songs concern themselves with the comet like rush of new found love and lust or the gut wrenching aftermath of love lost and betrayed.
It is rare to find a songwriter who can write with captivating tender conviction about the deep but simple pleasures of mature heart and soul nurturing love.
There may be no better example of such a song than John Sebastian’s romantic masterpiece, ‘Darling Be Home Soon’.
Those of lucky enough to have found a true heart’s companion will recognise immediately the deep truth of, ‘I’ve been waiting since I toddled for the great relief of having you to talk to’.
Don’t matter what nobody says all of us are searching for, longing for, the home where our hearts can beat in time with another who has found their home too.
There is a lovely breathy intimacy in Sebastian’s vocal and a sense of sure, surging oceanic feeling in the instrumental accompaniment which always brings glistening tears to my eyes each time I rediscover its enchantment and realise you can, and should settle for nothing less, than to shoot the moon.
And, as far as pop songwriting goes from 1965 through 1967 John Sebastian was practically in orbit round the moon as Euterpe and Terpsichore the Muses of Song, Lyric Poetry and Dance took up residence on his shoulder.
While they rested there wonderful songs filled with emotional insight and droll humour flowed like a river in spate from his pen.
I guarantee that your day will be better if you listen to, ‘Rain on the Roof’, ‘You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice’, Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Darling Companion’, ‘Daydream’, ‘You’re A Big Boy Now’ and ‘Didn’t Want To Have To Do It’.
Its a roster of songs that puts Sebastian squarely in the premier league of 60s songwriters – up there with Smokey Robinson, Carol King and Ray Davies.
For a last example of his pop wizardry I’m going to leave you with his, guaranteed to give you a mile wide grin, backporch pickin’ and a grinnin’, tribute to the expertise of the great musicians below the Mason-Dixon line – Nashville Cats.
The effortless flow and folk poetry of the song never fails to charm. You want to know how to describe the best Bluegrass playing? How about, ‘Clean as country water and wild as mountain dew’.
You want to describe how magnificently fluent those Southern boys are when they pick? You won’t beat, ‘They can pick more notes than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill.’
Now we have to say that John Sebastian’s tenure in The Zone ended in 1968 when The Loving Spoonful effectively broke up. As a solo artist John Sebastian, apart from, ‘Welcome Back’ has never approached the glories of his heyday.
He has written warm and witty songs and performed them on record and on stage with winning charm.
He seems to me like an Olympic Champion who knows that he will never again take the Gold but who still takes part for sheer pleasure.
Euterpe and Terpischore have moved on.
The records happily remain.
Very few songwriters have ever bottled and gifted us as much joy as John Sebastian.
In in his golden period he produced a veritable champagne fountain of songs which can never fail to skyrocket our spirits.
Believe in Magic!
Any Spoonful collection is stuffed with joy. I have and regularly play Rhino Records Anthology which you may still be able to track down.
In addition to his work with Spoonful John Sebastian aided no doubt by his sunny nature was a frequent collaborator with musicians like Fred Neil, Bob Dylan and Crosby Stills and Nash.