THE WINSTONS
Color Him Father

The title song — a soothing, sunny single about the strong arms of the perfect Big Daddy — is one of the nicest things left us by 1969, but it certainly didn’t augur for an exciting soul romp of a follow-up LP. The Winstons were an integrated (black and white) band of professional pickers and blowers whose credentials included stints behind Otis Redding and the Impressions, and like most (all?) highly qualified sidemen they were short on eccentricity. The sole near-exception is an instrumental, “Amen, Brother,” with a modest drum break that is supposedly the most sampled piece of music in rap and hip-hop, and is said to have, of itself, spawned whole subgenres. But mostly the Winstons purvey light soul for Reno tourists, with positive messaging and sticky nostalgia (“I’ve Gotta Be Me,” “Days of Sand and Shovels”). On the upswing from schmaltz, they manage an “Everyday People” that is square enough to recall the California Poppy Pickers covering “Back in the USSR,” but fast enough to be not-bad; and a “Birds of a Feather” that bubblegums the Joe South original and winds up besting it, simply by easing up on the echo-chamber effect. But it’s long reach, short gain; these guys left it all on the 45.

P. F. SLOAN
Anthology

Sloan — singer-songwriter, Dylan with a cotton-candy afro — wrote some of the choicest pop melody of the mid-60s (“You Baby,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Where Were You When I Needed You”) as well as that well-intended growl and stupefying #1 “Eve of Destruction.” He was also the uncredited voice of the early Grass Roots, which started out as an in-name-only entity fronting for Sloan’s demos; his is the weak voice on version 1 of “Where Were You.” The main reason for spending an hour with this anthology is to hear working versions of the handful of songs later recrafted as Roots tracks, particularly “Melody for You.”

TONY OWENS
“I Got Soul”

Dark obscurity from that history-turning year of 1966, a slamming, sinister tempo and high-pitched guitar backstrokes that sound like flicks of a razor. A logical pursuit of the rhythmic implications of “Harlem Shuffle,” only bigger and scarier, a statement from the Godfather that makes Bob & Earl sound like errand boys. Altogether one of the most arresting soul vignettes ever to slide through the cracks of common knowledge; makes the having of soul sound like slow, sexy murder.

SLIM HARPO
“I’ve Got My Finger on Your Trigger”

Another hot and dangerous find: panicked-but-precise drum-horn cacophony, a rough double entendre confusing (or conflating) foreplay with gunplay, Harpo voices it like Boss Dynamite, and it fades in less than two minutes. Leaves you licking your fingers. 1970.

JOE JACKSON
Rain
It’s less important to call it the best Elvis Costello album Elvis Costello never made than to say it is a coming back (not a “comeback”) by someone who has been threatening for a good two decades to go off into an ether of arty tinklings and overelaborate wordage, art-song crossed with poetry-lounge. Jackson’s voice, always underrated, has its sour edge back, and its manic capability. The writing is Costelloesque, with songs like “Too Tough” and “Invisible Man” that are built on solid chordal foundations and elegant paths from verse to chorus; lyrics are smart and scannable without being distracting. Half the tracks don’t sustain their initial good riff or melodious promise, but the other half do.

MANDO DIAO
Never Seen the Light of Day
They are Swedish, but much of this sounds to me like a shake on the fierce Irish reel-rock that Shane McGowan and others brought o’er in the ’80s of the last century. It’s pop in nature, but that doesn’t mean it’s a soft drink: there’s enough fizz to cauterize your throat, or your ears. Pogues sell out? Or non-Pogues buy in? Whichever, it has tunes and a galloping rhythmic unity, a lot of force and humor in the vocals and guts in the playing.

TED NUGENT
“Journey to the Center of the Mind”
A remake, to be found on his recent Love Grenade LP, alongside such devilishly droll titles as “Girl Scout Cookies” and “Bridge Over Troubled Daughters.” The 1968 original by the Amboy Dukes was Ted’s first (and, unless he uses his famous crossbow to kill Bigfoot, probably last) moment of historical noteworthiness, and on this blaring, bollixed redundancy he does all he can to make you want to hear it again, while making you wonder how he got it right the first time. Maybe it was the band; maybe it was the drugs they were doing and he wasn’t.

RAY DAVIES
Working Man’s Café
Davies has always been one of the few pop stars for whom one could feel any appreciable personal warmth. Not that his ego was of insignificant size, or his person irreproachable, but his musical persona bespoke a fine vulnerability combined with resilience, an acceptance of absurdity, and an insistence on the importance of small, forgotten things — not just virgins and village greens, but the average person’s average defeats. His was a compassion that skirted mawkishness: “A Long Way from Home,” “Oklahoma USA,” “The Way Love Used to Be,” “Don’t Forget to Dance.” How could you not feel for him, and imagine he felt for you?

One of many possible obverses to that is that Davies can be as musically annoying in his own way as any elder statesman with the financial and historical license to go on indulging his weaknesses forever. If Neil Young’s peculiar irritation is to squawk ‘n’ rawk over a paucity of ideas, Ray’s is to serve up echt-honky tonk stylings around observational witticisms that are neither as sly nor as oblique as you might like them to be.

That describes a good half of Working Man’s Café, though the better half of the equation is what you get up front. A barnstorming opener, “Vietnam Cowboys,” tracks the globalization and cross-pollination of junk food and junk culture with war and recession — plant closings in Cleveland connected to sweatshops in Cambodia in a kind of economic-military butterfly effect. It’s not subtle, but it is rocking, with a pirate-size hook. “You’re Asking Me” calls up classic Kinks, not as mirrored memory but as immediate effect. The verbal noise for most of the album is just fine, a fling of word porridge from which emerge quick pictures of characters like the man with the “perfect mullet hanging down his back.”

The album’s slow crash comes in the form of songs that go silly, or just start stupid and stay that way. “The Voodoo Walk” coalesces from a swampy riff stolen from “Run Through the Jungle” to a thick mass of pop-type blustering, neither vitally messy nor piquantly shaped but only sloppy, a watery mudpie of sound. “Peace in Our Time” is not the great Elvis Costello song but a bombastic plea for personal and global forgiveness. “One More Time” reiterates the right (that is, Left) opinions, fixing them in the wrong (that is, plywood-dull) music. We get the point intended, if not the pleasure.

Final score, Working Man’s Café leads us to expect a good deal more than we get. And the lack of a single heartbreaker hurts.

LEVON HELM
Dirt Farmer
Ray Davies all but invented a kind of pop song — a combination of a point of view and a sound: listening to Brit-poppers from the Jam to Arctic Monkeys, we snap our fingers time and again and say “Ah! Kinky.” Levon Helm, meanwhile, didn’t invent anything, he comes out of a tradition — an earth-folk tradition which, as drummer and vocalist for the Band, he helped extend into the rock era. Unlike Ray Davies, whom we judge on how well he does Ray Davies material, Helm will stand or fall by how hardily he tests the tradition he inherits.

Were it not discredited by association with certain manifestations of art rock and the singer-songwriter phenomenon, “song cycle” would be the term to apply to Dirt Farmer. Not to say its songs all sound alike, or even that they all feel alike. But there’s a cohesiveness that runs far deeper than lyrical continuity. Levon anchors the good band — playing drums, guitar and mandolin — on songs he learned as a boy in Arkansas, alongside new compositions in that style. Among the traditionals are the Stanley Brothers’ “False Hearted Lover Blues”; “Single Girl, Married Girl,” a Helm solo from the days of the Canadian Squires; and “Little Birds,” which Levon learned from his father and performed at the Band’s earliest concerts.

There’s the sensation here of music being extracted from hearty chests and old throats; of overall effort, musicians pulling a sound out, pushing a picture forth. Not like torture, but like it costs something (as it well might, given that Helm is a recent survivor of throat cancer); yet it sounds organic, as hard-grown and rough to the touch as bark. Most songs have a droning rhythm, insistent and low to the ground, with a minimum of syncopation or embellishment. Much of it sounds like it could have been recorded concurrent with the Band’s second album: both have that log-cabin flame flicker, that nostalgia for pioneer stoicism, and the backup vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams echo Helm’s deceased co-vocalists Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.

With a few (quite successful) exceptions, Dirt Farmer songs don’t bounce or stride, they move purposefully on beats weighted by massed percussion and thickened by a moaning fiddle. Most seem pitched a key or two past Helm’s most comfortable range; he is always reaching, straining. But the pull is powerful, the strain dramatic; and the tension stays high. “A Robbery,” a song about Frank and Jesse James, has the simple, forceful line, We will burn your train . . . your damned express car, and Helm puts it over as few still singing really could.

Then there’s “Anna Lee,” in the middle of which Helm’s voice seems to breaks through layers of time, travail, cancer, and the musical-mythic associations we are likely to bring to it — and turns into something else. Namely, the voice of an 80-year-old man, a grandfather, say, dressed in Sunday suit, standing on the main street of an unremembered town 150 years ago.

As much as anything, I like the way in “Calvary” he sings down to they ground.

STRANDED — The Countdown (19)

The Best of Sam Cooke (RCA). Starting out with producer-arrangers Luigi & Luigi, former gospelier Cooke spent the late ‘50s and early ‘60s writing the first testaments of the higher soul to come: smart and versatile, with lots of charm and production value, not averse to crossing over for some nightclub sweetening. Cooke’s sense of high-school romance imagined, innovatively, that black and white teenagers had much in common (Motown would soon take up that commercial flag). As a singer he built a style out of long smooth lines embellished by little clusters of detail notes at the ends, a style that would be heard in a whole legion of singers to follow, both black (Otis Redding, Al Green) and white (Rod Stewart, Steve Perry). The Best of Sam Cooke is pure and miraculous, not a bum number on it. The highs remain airily, ineffably high (“Cupid,” “Wonderful World,” “Only Sixteen”); the back-and-forth between Cooke and Lou Rawls on “Bring it on Home to Me” is a soul milestone; and the dance tunes actually put you in a party frame of mind. And then there are the oddities. The gap between “Chain Gang”’s lyrics and its suave delivery is too broad to be countenanced by the rational mind. Similarly, the version of “Summertime” comes from a weird imaginative province that is part Hollywood and part inexplicable vision, with Cooke’s sweatless white-shirt croon spreading over a simple guitar pattern and counterpoised against a haunting female holler, a spirit signal coming from far across the fields. 1957-1962 / 1962.
——. “Another Saturday Night” (RCA). A funny tale of social damnation, and Cooke takes it seriously enough to make it credible. (Sadly, though, for this and the following entry — plus such beauties as “Good Times” and “That’s Where it’s At” — you need to supplant the classic Best of with the definitive 1986 anthology The Man and His Music.) 1963.
——. “A Change is Gonna Come” (RCA). The strings at the opening pour down like slow-motion sheets of rain in a dream, and surge at the end like a thunderous omen. Hard not hear to hear it that way today, or in 1965; clearly, it was made in the spirit of prophecy. There have been many versions of the song by many artists, including talents as estimable as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Beside the original, they mean nothing. 1965.

ALICE COOPER, “Eighteen” (Warner Bros.) The essential statement of antisocial ennui and existential crunge from the forefathers that punk would never acknowledge. It should be comical by now, but no: it’s too straight-on, too hardheaded and guileless for laughs — the thick-skulled, beer-guzzling Midwestern factory boy gets his chance to speak, and he says nothing, he says it all. 1971.

ELVIS COSTELLO, My Aim is True (Columbia). The first strike of the young punk genius, they said. The heroic malcontent’s manifesto against soul-free modernity, they said. Since the first play, it has sounded to me pinched, fussy, and irritating, a series of little tantrums. I’ve never grown to like it — except for “Welcome to the Working Week” and “Watching the Detectives,” which I loved instantly. 1977.
——. & THE ATTRACTIONS, This Years Model (Columbia). Close enough to a great rock album to pass for one — that organ dripping with mercurochrome, that furious beat, that ferocity of a brilliant punk at his sharpest moment of perception and expression, when all evils are clear and liars lose their powers of invisibility. What’s missing is love: that is, the real, living thing, or its ghost, or its promise, or its devastating absence. To be truly great, an album like a novel or movie needs a sense of what our lives are all about, and, just as no atheist may deny that God exists for some, no misanthrope can presume to show us to ourselves without confronting love as reality or myth. Costello did that — in full, with melodies, the right band and the right producer — on his third album, Armed Forces. Despite hard competition from several later releases (King of America, Mighty Like a Rose, All This Useless Beauty, the Costello-Nieve EP box set), that still strikes me as his definitive work. 1978.

COUNTRY JOE & THE FISH, “Bass Strings” / “Section 43” (Rag Baby). Creepy-crawly post-folk, high-psych nightdreams. Haunted by organ and hollowed through with harmonica, they were made to accompany, or perhaps inspire, dark acidy slitherings in Bay Area ballrooms. First released as two-thirds of an EP that was the Fish’s second release, both songs were rerecorded for their first album, but in their low-rent, small-studio, limited-release form they are more sinuous, more elegant, more on the historic spot. (By the way, I don’t know what “Section 43” refers to, unless it is the part of the US Criminal Code which permits corporal punishment of children by their parents; the song, an instrumental, isn’t giving up any secrets. Anyway, here is outtake footage of the Fish performing it at the Monterey Pop Festival.) 1966.

PJ HARVEY
White Chalk
34 minutes long, almost entirely based on minimal piano figures (an instrument Harvey had only just learned to play). The music is wreathed in a chill feel of cold English country, and the lyrics are reminiscent of Sylvia Plath: “The Piano” has a Daddy rattling keys in the doorway, and a Mommy who is “trying to leave.” Throughout, you see Plath’s empty kitchen and gas stove. Harvey’s leads echo down long hallways, and there are ghosts on backup.

A creepy, insinuating little caprice of an album, tops in the 2007 genre of ethereal female folk-rock discoveries that included Cathy Davey’s Tales of Silversleeve, Carina Round’s Slow Motion Addict, and Stephanie Dosen’s A Lily for the Spectre.

RINGO STARR
Liverpool 8
You don’t have to love the Beatles to make it halfway through this, though it would help. But if you do love them, there’s no way you’ll find Ringo’s second consecutive non-embarrassment (after 1992’s Time Takes Time) empty of pleasure. That’s after you get past the title song, a guided tour of Fab nostalgia spots whose grope at grandeur is more than canceled out by a rack of execrable rhymes (“Played Butlin’s camp with my friend Ror-ree / It was good for him, it was great for me”). Rewatching the Anthology DVD a few weeks ago, I was struck again by Ringo’s modest wit, his forthrightness, his poise; “Liverpool 8” strikes me only as a measure of the unaccountable things people will do in the name of nostalgia. Destiny was calling, I just couldn’t stick around — it’s okay for someone writing on the Beatles to say that, but not the Beatle himself.

There is only one unredeemable song (“If it’s Love That You Want”); the rest nestle nicely enough into a comfort zone that is plush and narrow. Producer Dave Stewart can play a Beatles cliché just like ringing a bell: the record ripples with familiar Studio One touches — orchestra clamor, backwards talk, flanged vocals, sitars buzzing in a vacuum, elfin voices and odd squiggles in every vacant crack. As for Ringo’s singing, age works its wonders on even so indifferent an instrument as his: if his voice is no longer as jaunty as it was circa 1972, it has accrued a patina of yearning that sounds just right. (Or maybe he’s only yearning to hit the note.) Ringo handles the minimal demands without great strain; on a slightly more demanding song, like the pretty, pseudo-Mexican “Pasodobles” (echoing flamenco guitar solo and all), Stewart must mix Ringo’s vocal down, ever downward, until it is pretty much just another layer of sound.

So it’s a nice piece of work. Its force of artistry won’t shake the world or even topple a trashcan, but Liverpool 8 is probably every bit as good as it can be. Which is not the empty praise it might appear: can we say the same of the last albums by, oh I don’t know, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney?

OK GO
“Here it Goes Again”
This was discovered sometime last fall. Hipsters no doubt know more about this band than do I. But as much as I love the video, I was surprised to find that the song itself was logging heavy time in my iPod earphones as I strode the streets of my fair city. It has clever lyrics, a great pop tune, and a band dynamic tending to the harder edge of the early British Invasion spectrum. But what really lodges the damn thing deep in your sound-hole is that off-key no or oh or oh no or whatever it is that punctuates the refrain like damp smacks on a cheap piece of tin. These boys have the feel of one-hit wonders, but what a bang-on hit.

STRANDED — The Countdown (18)

CLEFTONES, “Heart and Soul” (Gee). Pure adolescent goodness, and it gets an extra point for adorning the sock-hop in American Graffiti. 1961.

JIMMY CLIFF, “Vietnam” (A&M). Sweet, sad, needful at the time, not so much now. 1970.
——. The Harder They Come (Mango). As a consumer, I was always peeved by the rip-off of repeating two tracks (“You Can Get it if You Really Want” and the title song). But other than that it’s utterly without flaw. Like a lot of people, I fell in love with reggae from this record. 1972.

COASTERS, Their Greatest Recordings — The Early Years (Atco). The Coasters’ great sides — written and produced by Leiber and Stoller, but brought to something bigger than life by the agile, gleeful voices of the singers themselves — were straight off the funny pages and the serial screen, full of radio melodrama and sitcom silliness. Their genius as a music-making collective was to discover how wonderful such things could be when taken out of their contexts and placed in that of a rock record, with caffeinated beats and a sax that always sounded like a junkman blowing his nose. They told the most absurd stories in the most absurd voices, traveled the globe on worn-out shoe leather, and chased golden idols and exotic femmes like a troupe of Indiana Joneses from the South Side of Chicago. Every time they turned around, they bumped into trouble; but their pluck and their humor got them through. From “Searchin’” to “Along Came Jones,” “Yakety Yak” to “Charlie Brown,” “Down in Mexico” to “Little Egypt,” from Cell Block #9 to Smokey Joe’s Cafe, this is great, great stuff, a treasury of American humor and bubbling stewpot of post-war pop culture. 1955-1961 / 1971.
——. “What About Us” / “Run Red Run” (Atco). In the years since Marcus noted these two sides in Mystery Train as encoded racial satire and revenge scenario (A-side a tragicomic tale of have and have-not, B-side a tall tale about a monkey turning tables on its master), it’s been impossible to hear them any other way. That’s perhaps because there is no other way to hear them; it’s perhaps because there is no need. “Run Red Run” in particular is a perfect little construction of fantasy and fear wrapped up as mere fable: Uncle Remus rocks out. Run, Red, Run, ‘cause he’s got your gun / And he’s aimin’ it at your head — boogedy, boogedy, boogedy! Nothing very funny about that. 1959.

EDDIE COCHRAN, “Summertime Blues” (Liberty). It’s hard to say which is finer about this affectionate piece of teen dissent — the perfect summertime sound of it, just slightly reverberant, as if it were echoing through the lot at Mel’s Drive-In; or the way this kid who knows his life isn’t actually that bad petitions both Congress and the United Nations to get behind his grievance. For a would-be anarchist-hedonist-punk, he seems to have paid attention in civics class. This is the kind of protest music I like best of all: rack it with “School Days” and “Dancing in the Street.” 1958.

COMMODORES, “Machine Gun” (Motown). One of those great ‘70s instrumentals you heard all the time on the radio and never caught the name of. (Others: “Love’s Theme,” “TSOP,” “Frankenstein.”) I like it, but it’s hard not to wince a bit at it today, if only because the musical mimics behind “That 70s Show” have so cleverly plundered push-button grooves like this for their between-scene interludes. 1974.

CONTOURS, “Do You Love Me” (Gordy). I seem to remember disliking this long before Dirty Dancing came along to render it officially and eternally unlistenable. Hard to say what’s not there, or what’s there and shouldn’t be: it’s got punch, delight, a certain glee factor. I ought to love it. I don’t. (Though it does get a half-point for bringing what may have been the first false fade to Top 40 radio. Does “Strawberry Fields” have some of its genesis here?) 1962.
——. “First I Look at the Purse” (Gordy). A witty Smokey Robinson number that was done up in more fervent style by J Geils Band on their first LP. (Though it does get a half-point for being a very early avatar of the pure Motown sound.) Sorry, Contours: looks like it’s the kiss-off. 1962.

* * * Marginalia * * *
After today, I plan to post most of my Beatle-related jottings over at a new blog I’m building with some friends, which we call Hey Dullblog. It had its origin in the flurries of emails that used to fly between us when a new or unusual Beatle story came over the wires, or when one of us wanted to share a Fab enthusiasm with the others. Now we’re posting on our enthusiasms, giving links to Beatle stories, opinionizing ad hoc, commemorating meaningful anniversaries, stumping each other with our Never-Ending Beatles Trivia Quiz Challenge, etc. We’ve got dispatches coming from both coasts, and at least two boroughs of New York! And we’re only a couple of weeks old.

My friend and the blog’s administrator, Mike Gerber — author of the Barry Trotter parody series, as well as Freshman (2006), a novel about a “fictional” Ivy League university, so funny I urinated on the first Yale alumnus I saw — has just posted a brilliant rumination on the recent passing of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It contains some bold and convincing suggestions about the role that benign little fellow may have played at a troubled point in the history of the Beatles, and of one Beatle in particular.

Those who don’t like others to have opinions, let alone express them, should stay the fuck away, thank you very much. Everyone else, though, is most cordially invited.

MADONNA
“The Beat Goes On”

A teaser from her November-slated album, computer-programmed in collaboration with Pharell. Kudos to Madonna in her race (to the death?) to stay ahead of the pop-tart brigade, but her contemporaneity fetish comes a cropper here: it announces itself from blip one as a piece of oppressive nothingness, as pleasurable as a rice-cake diet in a time of drought. I begin to hate it when Madonna prefaces an outbreak of ping-ponging robo-blips with the deadpan command: “Instrumentation.” Among the things Madonna should never attempt again: rapping (remember that bit in “Vogue”?), or anything approximating an ironic tone. An artist who has made thin vocal technique and canny soullessness work in her favor should never try to sound as if she had no soul; in the deathless words of Jake LaMotta, “It defeats its own purpose.”

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
“Radio Nowhere”

I wrote this a little over two years ago:

Craziness, color, recklessness, astonishment, not just outrage but outrageousness — that’s what I want from Bruce Springsteen, as I want them from any artist. . . . You might say I’m asking the wrong things of the wrong person, and you’d be right — but you wouldn’t have been back when Born to Run came out, or Nebraska. Springsteen needn’t dye his hair yellow, or release an album of Dadaist verse shouted over industrial noise. Craziness comes in all colors, hot pink or olive drab, and an artist can astonish us by the simplest, most unassuming of means. That’s what artists do.

“Radio Nowhere,” the single from Springsteen’s upcoming LP, is probably the closest he will ever come to taking advice from me. It’s hardly industrial, but it is noisy; hardly Dada, but the rhymes rain down fast. It’s the lament of an emotional Luddite inveighing against the lack of soul in our web-wired, satellite-spinning globe. He doesn’t hate technology, just the way we substitute interface for interaction; to dramatize, his voice punches through a layer of not-quite-static, the backing a fast crunchy rock with distortion elements. (When was Springsteen ever distorted?)

As commentary, the single is cranky and predictable; as a noise, it’s damned good. But I think what’s most exciting about “Radio Nowhere” is that it reinvents that American night Springsteen has, in his best music and deepest soul, always inhabited. It’s the great unending American night that is always hot even in winter, alive with voices even when there’s no one around, whose sky always crackles with music and whose breezes smell of gasoline and chance. Born to Run came out of that night; Nebraska dissolved into it. His latter-day records have taken place in a dim twilight in a tired living room, expressing an intermediate funk full of borrowed voices and stale despair. “Radio Nowhere” gets him off the couch, into the car, into the dark, into the American night. We’ll see if the album has the guts to stay there.

DEREK McCORMACK
The Haunted Hillbilly

This was found yesterday, near the back of an overstacked shelf in a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore on Broadway. It had a guitar-playing skeleton on the front and said this on the back:

STEP RIGHT UP!
A year ago he was the Star of the
GRAND OLE OPRY.
King of Country & Western.
And now? He can’t play. He can’t sing.
Hear his pitiful pleas!
Quiver to his Yellow Yodels!
What’s he so scared of?
What reduced him to this sorrowful state?
A VAMPIRE!
A blood-drinking, soul-sucking fiend.
VAMPIRES LIVE!
See what they do to mortal men!
Step right up and feast your eyes on
THE WRECK WE CALL
THE HAUNTED
HILLBILLY!

All that come-on, plus an encomium inside from queer shock novelist Dennis Cooper, and Canadian critic Bert Archer saying “McCormack’s an evil little blessing.” It was autographed by the author. And there it was hidden in a dusty hole, peeking out at me, asking only five bucks.

Could you resist this thing? Me neither.

It’s a novella that takes only as long to read as it takes to dream a bad dream; I read it in the dusk hour between sundown and blinding dark. The setting is Nashville, you’re not certain when, but you’d guess late ’40s, early ’50s. The hero — no, the victim — is a gifted young country singer named Hank. Hank is married to a woman named Audrey, who sews his first suit and sends him looking for a shirt worthy of her stitchery. The narrator — all-seeing, all-consuming, all-perverse — is Mr. Nudie, a Nashville haberdasher catering to the Grand Ole Opry elite, who makes flamboyant stage suits replete with spangles, glasswork, rhinestones, sequins, and stylized depictions of country-associated objects (cacti, trains, guitars). The haberdasher spots the singer, and begins not only dressing him but owning him: taking pieces of his flesh and soul, and destroying those around him. You see, Nudie is a vampire, in fact a gay vampire, and possession is his game.

The book’s style, suitable to its content, is stripped not just to the bone, but to the marrow. (“Hank steps out. A gasp goes up. His suit’s starry. Spotlights bend off his blazer. He sings his song. The one on his suit. About being blue.”) And if those character names sound familiar … yes, there was a real country singer named Hank. His last name was Williams, and his first wife was named Audrey, and he was brilliant, a once-in-a-century changer and shaper of his form. Hank Williams died from too many pills at the age of 29, looking pale and skeletal in the dark rear seat of a limo on his way to a show. They say his corpse looked almost as if it had been emptied of blood. But he looked that way alive, too.

And yes, there is a real Mr. Nudie. Or was: he died April of last year. Nudie Cohn, born in Kiev, Russia, made suits for everyone from Roy Rogers to Buck Owens, Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy) to Robert Redford (The Electric Horseman), the Sons of the Pioneers to the Flying Burrito Brothers. He made Elvis’s gold lame suit — the one worn by the King on Elvis’s Golden Records, Vol. 2, as if precisely to substantiate the record’s timeless headline: 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong!

The Haunted Hillbilly is a conflation of fact and fiction. Just enough of the facts are misplaced, or displaced, to prevent exact correlation with the principals’ received biographies, and so to leave holes, or open graves, in the spaces between known realities. For instance, Nudie had a wife named Bobbie; there is a woman named Bobbie in The Haunted Hillbilly, but she is Hank’s girl. Hank Williams died in Oak Hill, West Virginia; the book’s Hank never escapes Nashville. Hank’s nemesis throughout the story is Ernest Tubb, the “Texas Troubadour,” a real person, an Opry favorite — but not, so far as I know, the insanely treacherous figure depicted here. The book ends with Nudie, still on the prowl, finding and fixing on a new boy, a new idol, a new tailor’s dummy (or “judy”) for his rhinestone designs: a boy who says his name is Johnny Horton. Johnny Horton who had a number of hits, became a country superstar, and married Hank Williams’s first wife Audrey before meeting a premature death in 1960.

The book’s spookiness is in its conflations. Its Nashville is a graveyard, done up in All Souls’ colors, in which ghouls and live ones, clean facts and gross fantasies copulate. Hank Williams’s depleted corpse, Nudie’s outrageous clothes (made partly, McCormack reckons, from such materiel as human bone fragments), and even Robert Johnson’s satanic bargain (the pop myth of the sold soul) are part of the grim procession. Nudie’s evil accomplice is named “Dr. Wertham,” and that can be nothing but a reference to the once-famed Dr. Fredric Wertham, innovative social psychologist, opponent of grisly EC comic books, and author of the notorious anti-comics jeremiad Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Not least of the shades haunting the story is that of Spade Cooley, Hollywood cowboy, grinning bandleader, and purveyor of watered-down, radio-friendly Western swing who, beset by paranoid delusions, in 1961 tortured and beat his wife to death as his daughter watched. Judging from his crimes and his photos, Cooley had a lot more vampire in him than either Hank Williams or Nudie Cohn. (For that whole story, see the relevant chapter in Nick Tosches’s Country, or see here. Note further that Cooley was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan only a few years into his sentence, presumably for sentimental reasons — one old Hollywood hand taking pity on another.)

What you have here — and it is worth picking up if found peeking from a high shelf, asking only five dollars and an hour’s attention — is some kind of demon fetus pickled in a jar of Southern moonshine, the malformed spawn of Rosemary’s Baby and King Death.

Postscript, 2010:  McCormack’s novel has been made into a stage musical, debuted this past summer by the Sidemart Theatrical Grocery of Montreal.

GLEN CAMPBELL
“It’s Only Make Believe”

Glen was another of Nudie Cohn’s clients, and gave the old man his unofficial benedictory with “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Well, feh on that Glen Campbell. My Glen Campell is the one who shone for a few brief years (say, 1966-70) as a pop singer backed by his fellow Wrecking Crew members; who made Gentle on My Mind (1967), an album that has been a favorite since I was knee-high to a tree stump; who sang an uncredited lead on the priceless Sagittarius single “My World Fell Down” (the sole slick studio anomaly on Nuggets); and who ended his days of greatness with this piece of operatic agony, the totality of which proves his instinctive genius as a pop singer.

Positioned, oddly enough, as the opener to The Glen Campbell Goodtime Album (1970), Campbell’s “Make Believe” towers over even Conway Twitty’s spectacular 1958 original. The huge production is less Spector’s Hollywood than M-G-M’s; there is a clarity and separation, a stage-show detail to the arranging that Spector never went for. It verges on bombast, in fact it is bombast, but Campbell’s voice gives it pain, drama, and desire. The thing is, his voice was objectively so limited: strained at the top register, thin in the middle. But on material that mattered to him, it was unrelentingly passionate, full of emotional aspiration. It was the sound of an ordinary man reaching for grandeur, of Joe Buck before the mirror, singing his pain, expressing fearlessly.

“It’s Only Make Believe” is the perfect song for Campbell — as “You’re My World” and “Crying” were perfect side-enders to Gentle on My Mind. The song is built as a struggle, a climb: the melody leads the singer inward and upward, each chord raising the stakes on the last, to deposit him at the climax of each verse at a new peak of wanting and not-having. Campbell fights to stay on top of the orchestration, on top of the song; fights to give his emotions primacy over the noise, to assert his identity over the desolation the lyrics promise. Hal Blaine said Glen had a sixth sense for how to make great pop records. He proves it here, by upping the ante on Conway Twitty in at least three ways. First, the song’s orchestration and activity grow denser, more dramatic, with each verse. Second, Campbell gives the song an all-important key change — thus pitching himself in the last verse against an even stiffer struggle, his ordinary voice against even more extraordinary demands. Lastly, he makes the climax out of a single note: MY only prayer will be. Unlike Twitty, Campbell gives melisma to that note, bending it upward over the melody, hurling it atop the tumult. At that moment, the singer could either go down forever, or take every honor in the universe. Campbell gives the moment its due. It’s the last bit of gut he’s got to give, his last chance to beat the song and stand tall. He does it. The song ends on a burst of ecstasy, as if trumpeting the ordinary man’s unexpected heroism.

A devastating, exhilarating moment: a note to break the heart, and explode the spirit. So I say it is proof of Glen Campbell’s greatness. Of deep feeling, of love, of passion, of a reach for beauty to the exclusion — if only for that moment — of anything else in the world; to the exclusion of the world itself. What more we could want from a pop record, I can’t guess.

ED SANDERS
Beer Cans on the Moon

And then there’s Ed. The offensive discarded consumer objects of the title can say nothing worse about the travesties perpetrated on nature by man than this album of godawful hippie broadsides. By the author of The Family, no less.

ZODIAC
Directed by David Fincher

For those unfamiliar with the case (serial killings, Bay Area, late ’60s-early ’70s), probably pretty boring; for those who have read the Robert Graysmith book, it ranges from the fascinating to the frustrating. The best scenes and deadliest scares come in the first hour, from which point momentum and shape dribble down to an ending that snatches back a saving shred of horror from the broad black vanishing pool of a two-and-a-half-hour sit. Fincher is some kind of diabolical genius, part hateful and part possessed: his creations (Seven, Fight Club) are sparing of love, but they combine sensual disgust and chic misanthropy with a delight in movement, montage, and music. His good films are like chilled corpses animated from within by excited, unsettled spirits that push the cold skin outward, rattle the bones, convulse the limbs, promise restoration and redemption to a world painted in cadaver colors.

The use of music is occasionally remarkable. Fincher doesn’t cheat: the songs are all period-appropriate, and there is nothing that wouldn’t have issued from a Bay Area car radio tuned to the Top 40 in 1969, with an occasional side-dial to early album-oriented FM. A lot of the jazz and extended rock standards (not to mention David Shire’s original score) run from effective atmosphere to unobtrusive wallpaper, but at least two musical juxtapositions merit mentioning. The opening sequence begins with Independence Day fireworks and ends with blasts of gunfire on Lover’s Lane; musically, it begins with Three Dog Night’s “Easy to Be Hard” (How can people have no feelings), and ends with Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” (Here comes the roly-poly man singing songs of love). Set against these events, the plaintive plea of the first and fearful tremor of the second speak with more clarity, terror, and implication than they ever have before — and certainly more than they ever wanted.

Not since the Turtles’ “Happy Together” ended Adaptation has an ordinary song, heard so often it is no longer heard, been so infused with new emotional capability. So reanimated, if you will, with excited, unsettled spirits.

BILL JUSTIS
“Tamouré”
Crude, widescreen Hawaiianisms from some musical coalescence to which Sun Records saxophonist Justis lent at least his name, if not his talent — his precise musical contribution is difficult to divine. This 1963 hit (#1 in Australia) might have served handsomely as soundtrack schmear if cheap Honolulu romances had ever composed a subgenre on the order of gladiator films. I have an unaccountable weakness for this flavor of pre-Beatles cheese, so find it not wholly unredeemed by its own grossness; but suffice to say, it’s neither raunchy nor “Raunchy.” Rockers, move on.

BRITNEY SPEARS
Blackout
Anger without passion, pathos without heart, one rigidly-held attitude per song. Vocals that clearly were phoned in on a BlackBerry; tracks that sound constructed of the techno-crud that collects in the crannies of an outmoded hard drive. It’s shooting fish in a barrel to belittle this. But there are a lot of fish in the American barrel, and they’ve been stinking up the place too long. If Blackout helps to end rather than extend one of the many pointless pop careers currently cluttering our consciousness, its value and importance will be secure.

STRANDED — The Countdown (17)

Backtrack (4)

FAY ADAMS, “Shake a Hand” (Herald). I still think I like Paul McCartney’s version better, but there’s no reason to trust the objectivity of that judgment. Besides, his is a rock version and does nothing to cancel out the original, which is heavy R&B, a hard charge of piano, sax, and drums. Herding all ahead is an Adams voice that is declamatory and powerful yet sounds on the verge of cracking at any moment from the weight of some ambiguous sorrow, as if she knew life would never fulfill even the simple ideal of this one song. Kudos as well to the deep-chested male vocalist who backs her up — the sound of moral support. Any deserted island could use that. 1953.

ALLMAN BROTHERS BAND, Eat a Peach (Capricorn). The blue air of “Melissa” is sweet and fresh, but the album is twice as long as it needs to be. And why would they even conceive of a “Mountain Jam” agglomerated around the motif of an especially irritating Donovan song? Give me “Ramblin’ Man” and, as a highway-driving son of the Middle West, I’ll be happy. 1972.

JESSIE BELVIN, “Goodnight My Love” (Modern). You can hear Belvin in nearly every smooth male soul singer who came after him, from Sam Cooke to Luther Vandross: rich enunciations and silken lines, no strain, all exertion implied in the weighting of selected phrases, dips into low register, etc. He is bliss to listen to, and the record itself is deep romance and essential ’50s gorgeousness, up there with “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight” and “It’s All in the Game.” 1956.

BUSTER BROWN, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” (Fire). There’s a great opening to this, a sloppy guitar and (I think) harmonica and Buster Brown hooting. It comes from a distance, the distance of age and bad sound; the band is in the corner of a field house, playing a dance at a black college long ago. The record tantalizes for a few seconds. Then it rollicks and rolls on out before it seems to have climaxed. The record is a good time, a fine time. But it fades as it should be peaking. Then you need to hear it again to see if you missed the peak — was it that subtle, did pleasure smuggle it past you? No. You were right the first time: a good time and a quick fade. The memory is enough. 1960.

Now, where were we . . .

The Clash (CBS / UK). It’s been well over a year since I did a Stranded entry, and could it be because I have been groping through the ins and outs, ups and downs of my days — and my dreams! — for some delicate, non-tendentious way of saying I simply don’t like the sound of Joe Strummer’s voice? It doesn’t state the case to say that the Clash’s best music is on London Calling, because there are other songs one would not want to be without (“Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Rock the Casbah”). But none of them are on the debut album, one of those classics-by-acclamation which I’ve tried and failed to make yield even a coin’s worth of the riches it has heaped upon the generation of listeners before me. 1977.
——. “Complete Control” (CBS / UK). The Clash’s early songs sound tin-thin to me, long on rage and short on musical realization; the band bangs away and never once shows me the stars, shines a light on me, gets inside my ear or up my ass or deep into any other vulnerable opening. As for Strummer, many believe he had a pure and essential rock and roll sound. He always sounded to me like he was choking on charred hamburger. It’s hardly inconceivable that the two could be the same, but not in this case. 1977.

Fab Revelation #24
The guitar sound of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” — which always reminded me of fanning one’s hand along the fish-gill vent-flaps of a metal radiator — may be an unconscious cop from “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”

Greatest Record Ever?
“If I Were Your Woman,” Gladys Knight & The Pips

Music can wait a few hours. Roll with me here:

1) Right now I’m reading The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood by the film critic David Thomson. It may be a great book, I’m not yet certain, but I do know that no one could have written it but Thomson — the divine Thomson who brings a scholar’s rigor, a poet’s language, a fan’s delight, a doomsayer’s doom, and a dreamer’s vision to bear on what is now more than a century of American film history. He relishes scandal, appraises bodies, and anatomizes familiar works (Chinatown) and careers (Fritz Lang) only to rebuild them as marvelous sinuous, autonomous things with hidden agendas and sinister subcurrents. Through it all he runs the numbers (attendance, tickets, population, dollars, dollars after inflation) and somehow works the bottom-line mechanics, industry nut and financial bolt right into his otherwise ethereal apprehensions of art and image, mask and meaning. The book is an intellectual twister, a sensual pleasure. Nearly every page is giving me something to rethink, showing me something to resee, offering something I can use, tipping a long row of memory dominoes I didn’t know was there.

2) When I moved to New York from Iowa in 1993 I lived in a bare room in a youth hostel on Claremont at 122nd Street, right across Riverside Drive from Grant’s tomb. I didn’t have much in the way of home entertainment beyond a six-inch television and a miniature boombox. On the TV I would watch “Late Night with David Letterman” (he moved to CBS that very fall) and “Conan O’Brien” (his first season) into the night. In those days I slept well without the aid of Ambien, and so woke early enough most mornings to turn on the boombox and hear the tag-end of “The Alison Steele Show.”

Alison Steele, who was known as “The Nightbird,” was a legend of New York radio. She had been on WNEW, the town’s foremost “progressive” station; in 1989 she moved to the classic-rock WXRK (“K-Rock,” they called it), which is where I discovered her. She had one of those lovely, vaguely smoky movie star’s voices (more Lauren Bacall than Ellen Barkin), and a caressing way with the microphone. She would unspin sentences so grandiose — about sailing over the stars, commanding time and space — that no voice but hers could free them of camp, let alone render them genuinely transporting. Listening to her in the dark morning, sunrise only a suggestion of blue light over the Harlem projects, you could so easily fantasy that she was lying next to you that moment, doing the show for you alone.

Come fly with me, she said. Supposedly Jimi Hendrix wrote “Night Bird Flying” for her. She died of cancer in 1995, just two years after I came to town, and was eulogized in the Times and elsewhere with the fondness and fascination she had clearly earned long before I made her fleeting but unforgettable acquaintance.

Almost every morning, to fill in the minute before the end of her show and the start of the next, Alison Steele would play the Beatles’ “Flying”: a two-minute instrumental from the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack, a deadpan Mellotronism, a piece of marshmallow. Steele would deliver the morning’s final benedictions and vocal nuzzlings over the music, kiss you goodbye before leaving you to your day. And the first time I heard her play her show out with it, a faint but decisive thonk!! sounded in my skull. The sound came from a small paragraph I’d never forgotten, hidden in the center of a book I’ve mentioned before on this blog — The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner:

Although few would file it under the Beatles’ Great Works, “Flying” has received more radio exposure than all but a handful of their songs. For countless disc jockeys soon discovered in this ethereal, infectious theme an ideal way to fill up those awkward odd moments before the hourly news: because there were no words, it didn’t seem rude to chatter at the same time, or to phase it out mid-song.

Nicholas Schaffner grew up in New York; he mentions New York radio many times in The Beatles Forever. There can be no doubt he listened to Alison Steele. He died in 1991, just two years before I came to town and might have been able to ask him to confirm this, but I have always gone on the assumption that he wrote the above in reference to Alison Steele’s show. And therefore that I am, in this way, connected on the fine thin strands of an utterly insignificant Beatles song to two of my favorite pop music people — though the three of us just missed meeting each other on the great stage of possibility that is New York City.

3) Coming right after Alison Steele on K-Rock was, yes, the dreaded, infamous, miraculous, despair-banishing and soul-sustaining “Howard Stern Show.” I became somewhat of a huge Howard fan in those days; even today, when I never listen to him (got no satellite radio), I have tenderness for the memories, many of which are logged on the cassette tapes I made of his show between, my liner notes tell me, September 1993 and November 1994.

One of Stern’s regulars among the “Wack Pack” of obsessive fans, besotted freaks and system-screwing busybodies was one Captain Jenks (a pseudonym, Jenks said, taken from the real name of his Army C.O.). Jenks would phone up TV and radio shows (“Sonya Live,” “Larry King,” “Home Shopping”), bullshit his way past the screeners and onto the air with a fake voice (often feminine) and convincing line of happy talk, and then — securely within the eye and/or ear of an unsuspecting audience — insert a shouted advertisement for Howard Stern’s penis! or Bababooey!

Funny? I’m laughing this second.

Jenks would tape his media pranks and replay them the next day on the Stern show. These plays were invariably highlights of the day’s broadcast, accompanied by much infectious gaiety from Howard and his crew. But Jenks often referred to the hapless hosts he’d pranked by a word I didn’t recognize — it sounded like “schwants.” As in, “Here’s the schwants I fooled last night.”

Oh, well, the talk flew so fast I didn’t have time to be troubled by a word I didn’t know and was probably part of some Sternian inner language known only to listeners of longer standing than myself. “Schwants” went into that bulging mental envelope containing all the references I hadn’t gotten and never would.

Where it rested undisturbed for 14 years.

4) Just yesterday, reading page 172 of The Whole Equation, I saw this, regarding the career of James Cagney:

However, he complained bitterly about the cheapness and the violence of the films, and he used his kid brother Bill (who was as tough and foul-mouthed as the on-screen Jimmy we “know”) to go in and browbeat Warners, especially Jack Warner, for whom the Cagney brothers kept the nickname “The Shvontz” (the prick).

What a lovely thonk!! that was! What an invisible if modest load off! Jenks was saying “prick” all those times! Larry King = shvontz = prick. Yes. I will buy that: the whole equation. What sense it made, what delicious sense — and there is no sense so delicious as retroactive sense.

5) See how memory works? A sudden, unexpected explanation of a misheard word from long ago reminds me of dark-hour radio delights I hadn’t thought of in years. Alison Steele and Nicholas Schaffner, “Flying” and Captain Janks; a bare room on the border of Harlem in 1993; and people I’d have liked to meet and never will.

Time to reset those memory dominoes.

MAGGIE BELL
Queen of the Night

Bell began as the main vocalist for British rockers Stone the Crows, but she truly notched her initials on rock history by backing up (or fighting with) Rod Stewart on “Every Picture Tells a Story.” This 1974 solo album is noble soul-rock hysterics and sensual smoke, not terribly unpleasing, but not invariably funky, either: the material is hit-or-miss and grooves wobble. Bell has the true scratch in her throat but she can’t do much to sex up songs that have been arranged with all the raunch of the “Tonight Show” band’s commercial-break transitions. Notable, though, for an early version of “We Had it All,” a Jagger-Richards song which the Stones didn’t record for several years, until the Emotional Rescue sessions — though, with Keith singing, they did it better.

IAN HUNTER
Shrunken Heads

Hunter, whom I had the pleasure of seeing live a couple of Saturday nights ago, is in a unique class of performer: he centers a stage with the look and noise of a rock star, but weighs in with none of the arrogance. He was humorous, commanding, in roaring voice, a lot of fun. Not a shred of gut was spared in the delivery. Hunter’s daughter and Mick Ronson’s son came on at the end for the “Dudes” chorus, and Iggy Pop, with long bleach-blond hair, was snake-dancing in the “Reserved” balcony. Hunter looked, from the floor about 50 feet out anyway, just like he did in 1975 — or, at worst, 1983. Eternal shades, big blond blow-frizz undiminished, not a pound of paunch or any restraint of age on him. He hit the Mott classics (which I love) and solo favorites (which I mostly don’t), but at least half of what he played came from his new album, and it all sounded great: well-built, left-of-mainstream rock songs of feeling and humor and observation.

But they call it “live” for a reason: sometimes a band onstage grips with two fists a feeling and ferocity it was lucky to hook with two fingers in a carpeted studio. That seemed to be the syndrome in play as I listened to Shrunken Heads with the live, crowd- and mic-drenched versions still crashing in memory. The album, the permanent document of those songs that sounded so brash and big in concert, is a piece of largely blah rock, with odd encrusted gems flinting among songs which set their limits early and stick to them. You get a few of the half-ironic Hunter shout-alongs (like “Cleveland Rocks” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”) which, now as much as then, smack of cheese. You get, even worse, repeated dips in the shallow pool of soft rock, instrumentations worthy of Norah Jones, grooves for geezers.

It gets frustrating around the midpoint when you realize the album will probably never achieve its breakout, that it will not stun or jar you out of a fairly comfortable region of the familiarly irritating. That’s when you start looking around to gather ye rosebuds while ye may: the grand chording on the verse to “When the World was Round,” the album’s best song, if also its least surprising; the “shrunken head” metaphor, simple, elegantly gruesome, which seems to cover all the agents of mediocrity, venality, and hypocrisy abroad in our world; the love and guts behind a post-hurricane song (“How’s Your House”) that is, as well as a vision of Hell, an uptempo piano roll full of near-joking lines and a laughing finish; or the title and funny lines of “I Am What I Hated When I Was Young,” a raucous piece of banjo corn.

Hard to say “studio-safe” without sounding snotty or dismissive — because I loved Ian onstage that Saturday night. Oh well, it’s not the end of the world. Just of an album.

THE MIKE CURB CONGREGATION
“More Than Ever (Nixon Theme Song)”
“Nixon Now (Nixon Rally Song)”

Mike Curb had his first hit in the early ’60s with a jingle for Honda scooters. In 1969, year of the constipated apocalypse, he was appointed head of MGM Records, after the movie company had decided for about 10 minutes it would be hip to have a pop label. While there, he promoted a clean-jeans, sta-prest, family-friendly collective image that was epitomized by flagship acts like the Cowsills — which move necessitated him releasing the Mothers of Invention and Velvet Underground from their contracts with Verve, an MGM subsidiary.

Around this time Curb formed his Congregation: suitably pious title for a cacophonous choir that was like the Ray Conniff Singers with bangs, or the Mormon Tabernacle with a middle-class twitch in its hip. “Burning Bridges” was their decidedly unholy hit, from the 1970 Clint Eastwood-Telly Savalas-Donald Sutherland-Don Rickles-Carroll O’Connor — enough already, it was a Dirty Dozen rip-off — Kelly’s Heroes. (Disappointed lately in the intensity of your nightmares? Try watching this steaming two-and-a-half-hour heap of tank vomit and Howitzer flop.)

Having conquered the music world, Curb — encouraged, apparently, by California governor Ronald Reagan — sought entry into the political sphere. His first move in this direction was to write and produce, under the Congregation banner, campaign songs for the 1972 reelection campaign of another California son, Richard Nixon. The songs, along with Nixon’s winning personality, were just the ticket. Curb ran for Lieutenant Governor of California and won. From 1979 to 1983, he acted as de facto governor in the absence of Jerry Brown, who — rather unconscionably, in the circumstances — spent more time running for President than tending to state affairs. In 1980, in between redrafting Brown’s orders and vetoing his legislation, Curb found time to write and produce Ronald Reagan’s campaign song. Key losses in California state politics evidently deterred him from pursuing further triumphs in the public sector. Today he has a country-music empire in Nashville and a NASCAR sponsorship. He is one version of the American dream.

But — so was Richard Nixon.

RALPH “SOUL” JACKSON
“Sunshine of Your Love”

In case you didn’t know, his middle name tells you where to file this piece of mid-line not-badness. Notable mainly for two conspicuous lyric changes, both geared away from romantic abstraction and toward physical specificity. In the first, Give you my dull surprise becomes Give you my big surprise, natch. In the second, the word “tears” is replaced with the word “sheets” — as in I’ll be with you when my sheets have dried up —

IRMA THOMAS
“We Won’t Be in Your Way Anymore”

Yet another lost classic shakes loose from the riffled pages of this great lady’s long history. A little 1970 soul heartbreak and ain’t you fulla shit action for those long smoky midnight hours.

ELVIS PRESLEY
The “Lost” Album

And lost it might have stayed, without tragedy. All that merits mention in this collection — recorded in Nashville in 1963 for a non-movie-soundtrack LP never issued, though some tracks appeared as B-sides and album filler — is “It Hurts Me,” a surging ballad nearly worthy of “Any Way You Want Me,” with a lovely tacky piano obligato. The balance is taken by boggy blues and pseudo-sex. Elvis’s version of “Memphis, Tennessee” doesn’t have anything like the guts of his later “Promised Land,” though not because of the vocal (engaged but not excited) so much as a peculiarly enervated guitar riff — which of course is one of the riffs, one that even I can play competently, and that any studio pro, let alone a real live Nashville cat, should be able to slice into like a fisherman fileting a trout.

THE FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS
The Flight of the Conchords (HBO)

At my mother’s suggestion, we just watched the first three episodes of this musical sitcom. A New Zealand duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, perform pop parodies and oddball diversions while trying to score gigs and stay alive somewhere in the concrete wilds of Brooklyn. (Or is it Queens?) The deadpan comedy scenes (an incompetent manager, a single obsessed fan) are amusing enough, but the music videos that occasionally (but never arbitrarily) break up and into the action are the real bacon on the plate: an inspired parody of “what’s wrong with the world today” songs, about people lying on the street with heads cut off and forks stuck in their legs; an absolutely ridiculous sci-fi thing involving cardboard-box spaceman suits; an “I’m not crying” brain-twister attributing ocular moisture to allergy, sweat, dust particles, rain, every imaginable cause except that you don’t love me no more.

TFOTC’s music is not quite like anything, except that it evokes rap, soul, techno, and whatever else it needs to; I could compare it to They Might Be Giants, except the Conchords didn’t make me want to puncture my eardrums with a pencil.

Something so odd and beguiling cannot live forever. It may not live a season. But it’s living now, right there on your TV every week. If you have cable. Which some people don’t. That’s the thing about pop culture. It takes money. Unless you want to steal it. Which some people do. But I’m not here to judge anyone. Except the musicians.

Fab Revelation #537
That virtually the whole of Oasis’s worthy career sprang from a single tight and polished tap of pop musicality: “And Your Bird Can Sing.” And that as well as Oasis have done what they’ve done over their 15-year career, the Beatles not only did it better but did it in two minutes.

That Curb Congregation ordeal reminded me of what might be the

Greatest Record Ever?
“Shenandoah,” the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  No kidding: watch the end credits of Oliver Stone’s Nixon if you doubt it.

PAUL McCARTNEY
Memory Almost Full

Seeing Paul on the new iTunes commercial, high-stepping with ukelele to the opening verse of “Dance Tonight,” is a shot of fizz in anyone’s flat day. Sadly — predictably? — the full track, leading off his new collection, starts to pall right where the TV slice ends. And the other tracks hustle up behind it like clever public-school lads: each a scruffy jostler in loose tie and flapping shirt-tail, bright, fashionably deshabille, destined for a high-paying job and a home in the suburbs. So it is largely the same McCartney album we’ve been hearing for three decades now, tricked at the corners and tinted on the margins with grape-flavored synth chew or orange-crush guitar. Paul accesses again his bottomless reservoir of songs that are felt without being moving, that are smart without being intelligent, that are perfect without being remotely exhilarating.

The sequencing is unassailable, though. The best tracks come near the end, and they are nearly good enough to make you want to reassess their precursors. “End of the End” is an ideally self-contained heartbreak ballad in the McCartney line that once ran from “Yesterday” and “For No One” to “One of These Days” and “Here Today,” and then pretty much stopped: a sad little song about the death of something — a love, a partner, a hope; or in this case, the death that comes for us all. Perfection achieves grace, love finds form, feeling runs warm and red.

Even better, and certainly larger, is “House of Wax,” a big sinister string-and-piano-powered melodrama of the kind it sometimes seems only Paul McCartney has ever been able to write to full effect — and then only as a solo artist. I think of “Dear Friend,” “Back Seat of My Car,” Ringo’s “Six O’Clock,” the live “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Tug of War,” and (especially) “Love in Song”: soaring songs full of terror and thunder, Paul’s backyard idylls shunned for music of broad skies, frenetic facility blown out upon an aural landscape more dangerous, thrilling, and suited to the size of the gift that wants so badly to fill it — and, at times like this, does. “House of Wax,” like those others, is a countryside of fear you will gladly walk again and again for the rest of your life.

THE WHITE STRIPES
Icky Thump

Again Jack and Meg produce a noisome slag-heap of fat chording, car-crunching rhythm stomp, and snake-long lyric lines that force poor Jack to his last desperate breath. Get Behind Me, Satan was so damn good — their best since their first, and you can ease right on past that dry sagging Elephant, whatta turd — and Jack’s side project with the Raconteurs was such a smacking shot of pop ‘n’ pepper that I can’t imagine how he, she or they could push the accumulated thrill quotient of 2006 any higher, other than by the rather obvious route of doing the same good things so much better they become new.

Icky Thump ain’t what it ain’t. It is what it is. And what it is, often, is aimless, a shambolistic, incantatory expedition into Nopointland. But there are enough jolts, echoes, and rocks to the head to warn your finger away from the shitcan this button. “You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do What You’re Told)” stutters along on rich rockist block chords; “300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues” has some breathless lines of word-dirt slopping over their metrical limits. “Prickly Thorn, But Sweetly Worn” and “St. Andrew” are folk ballads thumped and droned on false bagpipes and slack-skinned drums, the latter song twisted and swirled with retro Indianisms, a la Beatles ’67. Meanwhile “Conquest” fingers flamenco and “Rag and Bones” gives us more of what we all really want — Meg’s flat, kissable voice pulling back against Jack’s self-infatuated faux-Negroid blues delusions.

The remainder runs down on acoustic diddles and outhouse blues, authentic and ordinary. Suggestions for next time: less thump, more icky?

BRYAN FERRY
Dylanesque
UNKNOWN ARTIST
Dylan Hears a Who

It is well-known that Ferry gave us one of the best Dylan covers in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” from “These Foolish Things” (1973); that he did a not-bad “Baby Blue” on his Frantic album of a few years ago; and that his voice, indifferently deployed, can devolve from high sleaze and sensual rapture to rancid pink icing. Dylanesque achieves only the latter effect. Washy arrangements meet uncertain commitment, and result in the paralysis of an admiration that cannot work itself into enthusiasm. It is overkill, anyway, dreadful overkill: the man who wrote the likes of “Re-make/Re-model,” “Psalm,” “Both Ends Burning,” and “More Than This” has no need to devote an entire album’s worth of lazy phrasing and jelly-legged side-swaying to the songs of any composer other than himself.

There’s nothing here nearly as touching or surprising as Ferry’s take on “Blue Hawaii,” which capped the season premiere of HBO’s Big Love: a version that was fun without being kitschy, dreamy without being kitschy, self-knowing without being — you get it. Dylanesque, in contrast, plays it solemn and goes down weak: bad news when the highlight is a bad song that has produced only bad covers (“Make You Feel My Love”).

Dylan Hears a Who went around a few months ago: a bizarrely conceived, strikingly executed hoax that had a Dylan soundalike (with preternaturally precise Hawksian backing, flying organ and all) delivering Dr. Seuss stories in settings either directly or indirectly evocative of Late Acoustic or Early Electric Dylan songs. Then it was eighty-sixed, inevitably and correctly, I suppose, by a cease-and-desist order direct from the estate of Theodore Geisel, better known as the Dr. himself.

One pushed “Play” on this oddity without expecting much: the web crawls with little Rich Littles who think they sound like someone famous. Maybe they do, to dogs. But this guy had the goods. There was one technical complaint: the Blonde on Blonde-styled, forced-off-the-back-of-the-tongue vocals were too closely miked and breathy, as if recorded through a transistor radio, and then left unmixed to float disembodied over the flawlessly stewed instrumentation. But as a whole it seemed fascinating; the mimicry alone sustained a first, amazed listening. This mystery man (it was a man, right?) had his line on Dylan’s rhythm — knew how to push the parody without sacrificing the musical integrity. You felt you could listen to these songs for pleasure.

The second listening proved you wrong. The laugh quotient dropped from high to huh? The seven-minute, regulation-Dylan-size epics, at first winding and labyrinthine, were now wheezing and laborious. It wasn’t really bad the second time around — the formal excellence still shone through — but the primary musical pleasures wore off that fast, and the wonderful Seussian poetry that raised a full crop or two of American kids (my crop among them, Seuss and Spock being our generation’s common doctors) was, needless to confirm, quite lost in the labor.

No matter. It was a great job of fakery, unexpected and delightful, and now it belongs to the ages. The last time I checked (10 seconds ago), the Dylan Hears a Who website was still shuttered behind a plain white screen bearing only the forlorn legend: “At the request of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P., this site has been retired. Thanks for your interest.” I have my copy, complete with album art (an impeccable mock of Dylan’s Columbia albums of 1965-66), and no one will get it away from me. The songs can probably still be found somewhere on the Internet, that vast range where every dead buffalo someday finds a home to roam. (Here is “Dylan” doing Green Eggs and Ham, still available through the invaluable WFMU; and here is a Salon article on the album, via Rock-o-clock.)

But more poetically, I’d like to think Dylan/Seuss now resides in the great pop-hoax graveyard, where it shares chuckles and Buds with the Masked Marauders and Milli Vanilli. (Hey, they earned it too.)

THE RAYS
“Elevator Operator”

A crash was heard in ’58 . . . Energetic, paripatetic, a sheer breathless drop to Macy’s basement. The Rays are famous for “Silhouettes,” one of the great doo wop delights — and, if you believe John Lennon, a distant inspiration for the Beatles’ “No Reply”! But this is vocal-group comedy from the stratosphere, the greatest record the Coasters never made. Poached from a ’70s UK comp called Jukebox at Eric’s.

BORUK
“To Know Him is to Love Him”

An early ’70s outsider with a home-taping shtick: well-known pop songs play obliviously on a Fisher Price picnic-player somewhere to the rear while the artist emits his world-poetic vapors so close to the Panasonic microphone you can smell his schizo pheromones. In a two-minute helping, Boruk can take you away — to a weirdo loser’s stain-ridden suburban living room; over the course of an album (see here for the proof) he loses his kiwi tang and becomes just another banana.

Take a whiff (Teddy Bears in italics):

To know know know him is to love love love him
And I do (and I do and I, and I do and I do and I do)

“To know him — is to luuuuv him. Knowledge is the fear of Gahhhd. Knowledge is a mental picture, corresponding to the actual thing. Knowledge is limited by a peculiar . . . spatial-temporal . . . huuuman perspective. Knowledge is behavioral control. What’s it to you?”

Whyyyyyy —

“Adam knew Eve, and begat man John and the family king, as Peter found a celibate church, the miracle of TV’s mirror. Dad’s old-fashioned, Judeo-Christian, Greco-Romahn, conscious Skinnerism. Root, radical, nightmare seer. Truth, science, feeling, dear. And it is so inscribed in the book of the Teddy Bears’ gold disc. To know know know him, amehhhn, is to love, love, love him, agehhhhn. And I do — and I do. There you fly, is away.

Uh-piss-tuh-molla-gee.”

And I do and I — and I do and I — and I do and I . . .

More Boruk bio-poop (and a fab sample, co-opting the Chordettes) here.

CAT POWER
“Paths of Victory”

Not a recent find but a long-standing haunter. Not the best version of the timeless-seeming Dylan anthem (which could be either a parody of high-stepping, flag-waving Independence Day ditties or the real thing), but it can stand, or slouch, beside any other on offer. Mainly it will not let me go because in Power’s haggard, past-hope, seen-everything, let’s-tell-this-lie-one-more-time rendition, it is the perfect end music to the Henry Fonda documentary that runs continually in my head.

 

THE SOPRANOS

Series Finale

Along about a year ago (was it?!?!) I troubled to record for you a vision that came to me on a flaming pie: that “The Sopranos” would end its last episode with Tony dying in Carmela’s arms and that “Poor Side of Town” would be the last song. Well, David Chase’s therapist was evidently on another track altogether because the last song was, as you may know, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” And no one was killed — or at any rate, no one was shown being killed.

I don’t know how viewers are taking it back home in flyoverland, but in New York the finale has been slammed as at best a letdown, and at worst a disgrace. I.e., not enough whackin’ goin’ on. The Post is all pissy, fitting for the bathroom sheet it is, with its voice-of-the-blue-to-white-collar-working-stiff-who-just-wants-some-good-wholesome-blood-guts-star-fucking-cop-sucking-moral-high-horsing-NYU student-suicide-picturing get-off material for the morning commute. The other prints fall in line with the Post verdict that “The Sopranos” let its fans down.

What we as individual “Sopranos” watchers may have been expecting from the finale is one thing; but what were we all wanting? In a word, massacre. We didn’t just want to see Phil Leotardo shot, and hear his head crushed as his grandchildren giggled and a schoolboy vomited — though that wasn’t bad. We wanted to see Tony get gunned, at the very least — no, not just gunned, shredded by AK-47, stabbed by Bowie, beheaded: what else befits the large tragic hero? We wanted to see A.J. succeed in killing himself, preferably in some gruesome way. Wanted to see Meadow get caught in the crossfire, that lustrous Italian-American skin scarred and split by her father’s burning metal. We wanted to see Carmela go down in a blaze of bullets, standing, staggering, falling by her man as they held the Soprano fort one last time against alla you lousy bastids. We wanted, in the manner of catharsis-seeking, blood-drinking audiences from the Greeks till now, to see a panorama of gore; a tapestry of issues, ideas, and emotions spattered in body matter; all human complexities, irresolvable agonies, and undramatic non-endings blown to a more or less agreeable, forgettable eternity.

Well, we wanted Bonnie and Clyde. And David Chase, perverse, analysis-seeking prick, wouldn’t give it.

What did he give? He gave an ending that I may not remember on my deathbed with utter clarity, but which I don’t believe I’ll forget in its whole strokes. It was too tense, the sadness too active, the inevitability too impossible. Each piece of the final cell — family members, man at the bar, young couple in the booth, two teenage boys swinging in at the very end — entered the nucleus of the show’s last minute like an active particle, each just so random, unknowing, alive. Once the particles began to revolve and bounce and converge, once the nucleus heated and the scene pulsed with THIS IS IT, you knew you weren’t going to see the moment of impact. You knew the thing would end in darkness and dissatisfaction and that the whole would stick somewhere in the throat, that it would not go down blood-easy.

And it was too ordinary to be easy: it had the pure dumb tension of the ordinary. The conversation was mundane (do you remember a word that was exchanged?), the business with the parallel parking was flinty and irritating as, well, hubcap on asphalt, and even the use of — yep — that last, last song contributed to a sense of No, this can’t be it, this can’t be all, don’t let this be the end! Where is the tapestry, the matter, the torn bodies of the amphitheatre?

Ah, Journey, hmm, well — interesting choice. The lyrics slot right in (they are the credo of the family, the show’s version of the deteriorating mob — of America?), but you weren’t listening to the lyrics any more than you were absorbing the subtleties and felicities of the humdrum, moment-filling dialogue. “Don’t Stop Believing” is shit, and it is important to make that distinction even while admitting that the record is a great one — that it has hooks the size of skyscrapers, that there is glamour and thrill, allness and utterness and a great swipe of the absolute to every shit note of it. “Poor Side of Town,” whatever your blogger’s preference, would have been, by comparison, a purely literary choice. Redolent of Sinatra, velour anterooms in Copa-styled nightspots, a Pinot Grigio of sentiment. The same old Mob; and romance, all romance. But Journey had something I think worked better, and was certainly more unexpected, less easy to snatch: drama. Drama is now. Sentiment is then: “Poor Side of Town” is something that has already happened. It is the thin, impeccable taste of wine, a memory. “Don’t Stop Believing,” in all its glitter and shit and fat frenzy, happens, each time it plays, right this second.

So did the last minute we will ever see of “The Sopranos.” Whatever it was or failed to be, it was a hot, hurtful minute of television that was happening right this second. Maybe I’m only working backward to build a notion in my head, but I don’t think Tony, Carmela, Meadow or A.J. were ever as real, as fleshly, as near to life and death as they were in that last minute.

Well done. Arrivaderci, Sopranos. Now get in your graves.

VARIOUS ARTISTS
Absolute Obscurities of the ‘70s, Vol. 2

From “Black Superman in Zaire” (Johnny Wakelin) to “Rockabilly Rebel” (Matchbox), from “I Love to Love” (Tina Charles) to “Can You Feel the Force” (The Real Thing), from disco and glam to reggae and revivalist tripe, 19 distillations of the decade’s worst hunches and dumbest tangents. Title to the contrary, these were all hits of some magnitude, somewhere, for some space of time, though you’d descend into margarine seas of flaking paper to retrieve the details. Surprise delights there are, though, in the form of the Nolans’ “I’m in the Mood for Dancing” and Smokie’s “Living Next Door to Alice.”

BONE THUGS N HARMONY feat. AKON
“I Tried”

The hook in this ghetto lament is a sad, soulful drag on the refrain that pushes the whole past lyrics that would otherwise seem too straightforwardly self-pitying (“I tried so hard, can’t seem to get away from misery . . . Always be a victim of these streets”). Pounding from chord to chord on heavy bass and synthetic hand claps, weary strings over the top, the hook pulls you in immediately, holds you throughout, and proves for the 15 millionth time that music can put over a truth that words can’t. That, plus Akon is one of the more companionable voices in hip-hop right now, and the Thugs rap fast and fluent enough to make the sob story a dark shifting feeling, rather than a melodramatic tableau you have to stare dumbly at.

ADVERTISING JINGLES
Advertising Jingles

1978 Britpoppery that was unsuccessful enough at first try to have merited some kind of cult rebirth at millennium time. Punchy bandwork and sharp harmonies are abundant, but these only push the annoyance quotient of songs that are so cute they don’t cut, so busy they don’t land, overstuffed with quirks, and doused in a pop sense that is less juicy than fruity. Generic proximity to Squeeze, Split Enz, and early Elvis Costello doesn’t help, any more than the memory of fresh bananas makes you want to eat rotten ones. Good enough to be rediscovered, bad enough to be reforgotten.

THE CAULFIELDS
“Devil’s Diary”

Speaking of Elvis Costello, this track from the otherwise unmemorable Whirligig (1995) is as note-perfect a rip of Armed Forces-era E.C. as the Knickerbockers’ “Lies” was of the Beatles, or Mouse’s “Public Execution” of Dylan. Coincidentally or not, the song’s lyrical tag-line is “I’m bigger than Jesus now.”

AVRIL LAVIGNE
“Girlfriend”

And speaking of pop that misses its broad mark, here’s a further helping of clamorous brattitude from the perpetrator of “Sk8er Boi” and other pee-wee punk anthems that have sent my ears shrieking in the other direction. Heralding Avril’s upcoming album — and a blessing that’s certain to be — this single is every bit as self-aware as we’d expect from a meta-savvy teeny icon of now: insults hurled at the titular girl (“She’s, like, so whatever”) are softened and mirrored by unsubtle digs at the singer’s own obnoxious self (“I’m the motherfuckin’ princess”). You’d say it’s irony, but irony shouted tends to blow itself out; to paraphrase the Who, it’s only teenage self-parody.

I get what Lavigne is up to here: I have a brain cell. In fact, I have two.

THE PIPETTES
We Are the Pipettes

Now, if you want true life-giving girl-sass, here’s the place to go. This came out last summer, twinned with the single “Your Kisses Are Wasted on Me,” and it’d been an age or so since we heard teen queens who bratted so winningly. Where have the Pipettes been all my life? Probably back there being the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, the Go Go’s, Shampoo, and the Spice Girls in their better moments.

THE SHINS
Wincing the Night Away

Third album from smart-but-not-clever, gifted-but-not-precocious Portland poppers wins listener on melodies that hang just right, felicitous instro-touches out of the British bag, and vocals that value engagement over irony. You can listen to the lyrics but you don’t have to. Runs out of steam towards the end, but don’t we all occasionally? Highlights: “Australia,” “Phantom Limbs,” “Turn on Me.”

MILLIE JACKSON
Live & Uncensored

“I been telling everybody’s business, it’s time I told mine,” says the queen of raunch to kick off this marathon 1979 set of hard R&B in gold lamé. And elsewhere, “This goddamn disco shit kill a old bitch like me, boy.” You don’t call the talk Jackson talks between tracks “patter”; “assault and battery” would be closer. The character theme throughout is Millie the miffed, ragging and ranking on some faithless fool of a man — except for “The Soaps,” an extended comic attack on daytime dramas and the black women who stare at them all day long.

For the culture vultures in the crowd, there’s a contrapuntal classical number called “Phuck You,” elaborate japery on those who hide their Millie Jackson records and display their Beethoven. Also found are versions of then-current aggro hits from Whiteboyland like “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (Rod Stewart), “Hold the Line” (Toto), and “Just When I Needed You Most” (Randy Vanwarmer). Pretty phucking phunny, on the whole.

HAMILTON CAMP
Paths of Victory

I remember this guy from the ’70s, when he was an actor in TV sitcoms. (He did a great rap as Del Murdock, polyester owner of a hopeless stereo shop where Johnny Fever did a remote broadcast in “WKRP.”) Come to find out years later he was a middle-tier name in the folk revival, had performed with Bob Gibson and others under the name Bob Camp, and done his own Elektra album in 1964.

It’s all brisk and puffed up, noble-chested deliveries from that noble-chested revivalist-commercialist moment; all ringing energies and world-charging intentions. And it flirts with being unbearable before growing on you. Some element in Camp’s singing, something very like mild derangement, keeps things uncertain; most songs are robbed by arrangement and performance of dull beauty and frozen in a bitter shine. Among the many Dylan covers is a “Walkin’ Down the Line” with double-tracked vocal that, rather than exploiting the song’s jaunty, friendly melody (a la Dylan’s own demo, or the Dillards’ Live…Almost!!! version), goes for bitter harmonic points and a quality of bug-eyed fixation. A major aid is the double bass of Red Mitchell, thumping relentlessly and faithfully like Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride, anchoring the songs to earth.

DOLLY PARTON
Hello, I’m Dolly

Country goodness from 1967: sweet as pie, crisp and brief as breeze. She puts over the jokes (“Dumb Blonde,” “I Don’t Wanna Throw Rice”) and does justice to the heartbreakers (“I Wasted My Tears,” “I’ve Lived My Life”). As faked up and phonied down as her productions have been over the years, Dolly herself couldn’t deliver a graceless or unfelt note. As Ricky Gervais put it in “The Office,” “And people think she’s just a pair of tits.”

 

RAY LaMONTAGNE
Till the Sun Turns Black

This bizarre folk-soul shouter deserves more space, but suffice to say he is someone to watch just now, and this is the most interesting new album I heard in the last few months of 2006. I didn’t even know what a departure it was from his previous work: eclectic, textural, humorous, and shape-changing where the predecessor, 2005’s Trouble, had been straight-on and earnest. Don’t know why I didn’t list the last song, “Within You” — the best post-Beatles Beatle anthem I’ve heard in years, a long slow climactic fader, how “Hey Jude” might have sounded if John wrote it — among my “Revelations” of 2006. Maybe I didn’t believe it was all there. But it is.

EMINEM feat. CASHIS
“Jimmy Crack Corn”

The disses fly again in Em’s latest single. One crew ranking another. As an underdog, Mathers is a genius. As a thug, he’s as waxy, flat and stupid as the rest of them. Cashis raps like mud flows. The orchestra sounds real mean. Everyone’s got a dick. And I don’t care.

ELVIS PRESLEY
Let Yourself Go!
Elvis’ Greatest Shit!!
An Afternoon in the Garden
Adios: The Final Performance
Having Fun with Elvis On Stage
Cut Me and I Bleed: The Other Side of Elvis

Somewhere among his many fever blisters of visionary fury, Lester Bangs recorded the (no doubt widespread) fantasy of splitting open Elvis’s fat, drug-enriched corpse to reveal the roiling pharmacopoeia within, and gleefully ingesting the chemical-visceral stew in a vile burlesque of transubstantiation.

There are plenty of releases, official and unofficial, that allow the curious to come as near as possible to doing pretty much that. Generally they catch Elvis in less than guarded moments: singing, talking, performing for an audience or just communicating to a few in a studio. Ungainly, inglorious moments of drug, blubber and blood; unheroic, ungracious, un-American fugues of extreme profanity, anger, irreverence. Just as every metaphor worth using has two uses — to catch a dream, and apprehend a horror — every form and version of the star-spangled Elvis has its dark double.

On the fan-friendly, estate-official side — edited and equalized, airbrushed and windblown, stamped “approved” by Graceland Global Industries Consolidated or whatever it’s called — there are such forays into spontaneity as the recent Let Yourself Go! The Making of “Elvis” — The ’68 Comeback Special, which not only supplements the original Elvis TV Special soundtrack but telescopes the many bootleg discs of rehearsals from the Burbank sessions that preceded the legendary broadcast. Elvis starts out with a remarkably bold and bloodthirsty take on “Trouble” that dissolves in laughter and the star inexplicably commanding, “Get that dog outta here.” Following are many startups and breakdowns, blurps and bleeps from the control room, and an ongoing underlayer of listener frustration as Elvis’s dramatic, committed vocals, recorded in pieces for edit purposes, are continually hacked off at the climax.

Let Yourself Go! features some mild cussing and anti-hero infamies (“Are you horrr-neee tonight,” Elvis hums between takes) among repeated tosses at vaguely cornball TV-special production fodder (“Little Egypt,” “Saved”). Its twilight counterpart would be something like Elvis’ Greatest Shit!!, whose centerpiece is an outtake of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” ended with a testy “shit” and “hot damn tamale” from Elvis. Otherwise it is a grossly funny document steeped in waste and vomit and disbelief. I.e., songs from Elvis’s movies: “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sportscar,” “Yoga is as Yoga Does,” “Songs of the Shrimp,” “The Bullfighter was a Lady,” “He’s Your Uncle Not Your Dad,” “Dominic the Impotent Bull,” “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya,” “Do the Clambake.” The TV special’s modest ball of corn thus grows to horrific, planetary dimensions, multiplied as in the fevers of a hallucinogenic sequence out of “The Simpsons.”

Elvis’s last run of real godhead, before the effects of overindulgence manifested in his appearance and performance, may have been his shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden in June 1972 — one of which is captured in full on An Afternoon in the Garden (1997). Robert Christgau and Jon Landau wrote powerful pieces about the transport of seeing Elvis in full flame at the Garden, cape flying and legs thrusting; George Harrison had a sweet moment somewhere in the Anthology extras, describing meeting Elvis backstage, cringing like a lower creature before this towering, high-collared monument to rock and roll manhood. (In the concerts, Elvis lightly rewrote “Never Been to Spain” to fit his own Fab-challenged trajectory through the ’60s: “But I kinda like the Beatles / So I headed to Las Vegas — “)

It’s a big show to listen to, with its own apotheosis of Olympian glitz — a crew of professionals raising professionalism to heroic heights — but there’s more than a dollop of the fakery that replaced drama with bombast and helped make Elvis a joke. And truth to speak, Elvis the hot-blooded, full-throated Garden god is actually no more committed to his mission of entertainment than the near-dead sea-creature who liquefied the stage of Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. This is the show captured on Adios: The Final Performance, a decent audience recording of a legendary moment of popular mortification: Elvis glazed, sweating, bulbous, beyond reclamation or excuse, unwittingly posing for all the photos that will be flashed worldwide less than two months later, when he is dead and every commentator will sagely nod, “Look — you could see it coming.”

“Oh, Jesus,” you can hear an audience member cry as lights beam and anticipation builds, and Also Spake Zarathustra grips the crowd.

No one with a heart can hate Elvis. You have to feel affection even when he is basting in his own sad juices, flopping and flubbing and hugging death. Even when, from the Indianapolis stage, he drug-mumbles his lyrics and repeatedly transmits the patented Presleyan Well, well, well like a sick whale moaning beneath great waves of delighted laughter. Because he’s still giving it all he’s got — as little as that may be — and he is doing it behind the nearest any star has ever come to the Janus face of man and god. Was there ever a god who was less assuming, at least in public, more of a human?

Listen to those awful nautical moans from Indianapolis, repeated to the point of a trope. Listen to him slur, “What is today, Monday?” (“Sunday!” is the mass response.) Listen to the trivial stage blabber he expended on all the identical audiences. In The Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Records of All Time: A Fan’s Guide to the Stuff You Love to Hate! — love to love that exclamation mark! — Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell ranked Having Fun with Elvis on Stage (1974) as the, yes indeed, #1 worst album in the genre’s then-nearly-50-year-history. That placed it much higher, therefore much lower, than such mutant fetuses as Travolta Fever and Joey Bishop Sings Country Western.

Well, it’s not that bad. Granted that the two sides’ worth of Kingly chatter and patter, water-gulps and air-kisses feature nary a lick of music, but there’s Afternoon and others for that. Having Fun consists entirely of clips of a jovial demigod interacting with his female worshippers, making fun of himself, of them, of the whole crazy relationship, and generally behaving as if everyone in the house — himself not least of all — were, get this, average, ordinary human beings. You could say that was a lie (this is Elvis!), and you could say that was the most radical and affirmative onstage attitude for a megastar to adopt at a time when art-rock spectacle and arena-rock bombast were becoming the norm.

Having Fun is very much a G-rated version of the kind of thing you get on the arrestingly titled bootleg Cut Me and I Bleed, apparently a collection of every Presley swear ever caught on tape, including some reruns from Greatest Shit!!. It begins with Elvis reading “a poem that I wrote” to what sounds like a gaggle of typically sycophantic Memphis Mafiosi:

As I awoke this morning, when all sweet things are born,
A robin perched on my windowsill to greet the coming dawn.
He sang a song so sweetly, and paused for a moment’s lull.
I gently raised the window, and crushed its fucking skull.

(That poem was making the rounds when I was a kid. I don’t know who wrote it, but it weren’t Elvis.)

“Fucking skull” sets the tone, and Bleed bleeds it. The irony, or surprise, or payoff, to this pageant of profanity is that while it ostensibly shows Elvis screwing up and goofing off, it also features some of the strongest vocalizing of his career. “A Hundred Years from Now,” before it falls apart, has a startlingly beautiful, boyish vocal, full of breeze and hilltop, as if Elvis were Huck Finn again and the Colonel, the Army, the Mafia, and Hollywood had never happened. There are staggering versions of “Hurt” and “Stranger in My Own Home Town,” the latter a particularly vociferous take, as an angry Elvis departs the text and charges forth into improvised obscenity.

For the wind-up, we go live to Las Vegas. Gearing up for a big number, Elvis acknowledges shouts of love from the crowd. Then a high-pitched cry, tossed upward into the brief silence like a rotten lettuce:

“I hatecha, Elvis!”

“Fuck you,” the King answers without a pause. The crowd is joyous. And applause, deep applause, leads into a rousing “American Trilogy.”

Metaphor, thy name is Elvis.

But following that is something called “Drug Dialogue,” and an infamous tirade it is. Recorded September 2, 1974 — the last night of a two-week stand at the Vegas Hilton — it finds Elvis fulminating over a recent gossip item insinuating he was a junkie. Fully transcribed, though lacking the King’s savage cadence, his homicidal essence:

“Well, I was — you know, in this day and time you can’t even get sick. You are strung out. Well by God I’ll tell you something friend I have never been strung out in my life, except on music. [applause]

“When I got sick here in the hotel, I got sick here that one night, I had 102 temperature, they wouldn’t let me perform . . . From three different sources I heard, I was strung out on heroin. I swear to God, hotel employees, Jack . . . bellboys . . . freaks that carry your luggage up to the room . . . people working around, you know, talking, maids . . . And I was sick, I was — you know, I was getting — had a doctor, had the flu, got over it one day and it was all right.

“But all across this town, I was — I was strung out. So I told ’em earlier and don’t you get offended, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking to somebody else. If I find or hear the individual that has said that about me, I’m gonna break your goddamn neck you son of a bitch. [applause] That is dangerous, that is damaging to myself, to my little daughter, to my father, to my friends, my doctor, to everybody in my relationship with you, my relationship with you up here on the stage it is dangerous I will pull your goddamn tongue out BY THE ROOTS!! [applause]

“Thank you very much — anyway. How many of you saw the movie Blue Hawaii?”

And that’s no metaphor I can grab.