Sunday, March 29, 2015

World War II-era Jehovah's Witnesses Pamphlets

Recently I purchased a stack of Jehovah's Witnesses tracts published during the Second War. The covers' imagery offers graphic representation of the Christian denomination's stance on totalitarianism, freedom, and religious salvation in a time of global unrest.


Yellowed and falling apart, these pamphlets are relics, and the Watchtower Tower Bible And Tract Society presence in the buildings where they were produced is soon to be a thing of the past too, as Jehovah's Witnesses have sold off the bulk of its New York-area real estate holdings. (The addresses listed on the pamphlets are 117 Adams Street and 124 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn, New York.) Articles from 2013 on the exodus here and here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ms. Betty Jo Bangs, in the flesh

In 1971, Betty Jo Bangs released "Daddy Was A Preacher, Mama Was A Go-Go Girl." The early 1970s saw a few singers tackle this song, most notably Jo Anna Neel; Miss DeLoius And The Music Men also issued a version.

I tracked down a promotional photograph of Ms. Bangs. Her posture is demure and her demeanor pleasant and composed. I'm happy to be able to put a face to the singer of the song I love so much.

The photo goes a long way to make up for the brutal typos in the only advertisement I've been able to find for the single, from Billboard magazine. The title is wrong, and Bangs is given an unintentionally hilarious surname. Didn't matter, the song stiffed on the charts. It's A Giant flop.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Roger Angell on the Ageless Dying of Baseball

Roger Angell, on baseball's quietus:
I first heard about the death of baseball one night last December. A friend of mine, a syndicated sports columnist, called me after seven o’clock and broke the news. “Hey,” he said, “have you seen the crowds at the Jets’ games lately? Unbelievable! It’s exactly like the old days at Ebbets Field. Pro football is the thing, from now on. Baseball is finished in this country. Dead.” He sounded so sure of himself that I almost looked for the obituary in the Times the next morning. (“Pastime, National, 99; after a Lingering illness. Remains on View at Cooperstown, N.Y.”) Though somewhat exaggerated, my friend’s prediction proved to be a highly popular one. In the next three or four months, the negative prognosis was confirmed by resident diagnosticians representing most of the daily press, the magazines, and the networks, and even by some foreign specialists from clinics like the New Republic and the Wall Street Journal. All visited the bedside and came away shaking their heads. Baseball was sinking. Even if the old gent made it through until April and the warmer weather, his expectations were minimal—lonely wheelchair afternoons on the back porch, gruel and antibiotics, and the sad little overexcitement of his one-hundredth birthday in July. I haven’t run into my dour friend at any ball games this summer, but I doubt whether the heavy crowds and noisy excitement of the current season, which is now well into its second half, would change his mind. The idea of the imminent demise of baseball has caught on, and those who cling to it (and they are numerous) seem to have their eyes on the runes instead of that leaping corpse. This new folk belief centers on the new folk word “image.” Baseball, the argument goes, has a bad image. The game is too slow and too private, and offers too little action for a society increasingly attached to violence, suddenness, and mass movement. Baseball is cerebral and unemotional; the other, growing professional sports, most notably pro football, are dense, quick, complex, dangerous, and perpetually stimulating. Statistics are then cited, pointing out the two-year decline in baseball attendance, as against the permanent hot-ticket status now enjoyed by football. (Last year, the National Football League played to 87 per cent of capacity in its regular season.) A recent Harris poll is quoted, which showed football supplanting baseball for the first time as the favorite American sport. The poll, which was taken last winter, indicated that football appeals most to high-income groups and to those between thirty-five and forty-nine years old, while baseball still comes first with old people, low-income groups, and Negroes. Bad, bad image.
This is not recent Angell. Certain clues give that away—no one refers to the "networks" anymore, and yeah there was a time when "image" was a fresh pop conceit. Rather, these are the opening sentences of "The Leaping Corpse, The Bombed Pill, The Shallow Cellar, The French Pastime, The Walking Radio, The Full Aviary, And Other Summer Mysteries," an essay that ran in the August 9, 1969 issue of The New Yorker. (It was subtly retitled for inclusion in Angell's first book, The Summer Game.) It's both comforting and uneasy to recognize that baseball has been on its deathbed, and has duly revived, on and off for a long time, well past any notion of nine lives. The concerns that Angell cites—particularly the rising popularity of football, and the reasons for that rise—are prescient if, in retrospect, somewhat obvious. That the game was being derided by some quarters as passé for appealing to "Negroes" is both sadly racist and ironic, given the sport's dwindling ranks of African-American players and fans and the hand-wringing that's inspired. In short—as Angell's reminded us again and again in long career—baseball is both a product and a reflector of its culture, a culture which produces generationally a large group which loves the game and a group  which believes that the game should, really, give it up finally. It didn't, hasn't, and won't, of course. Angell published this piece in the throes of a great season, when the Mets confounded all expectations, when hitting came roaring back (relatively speaking), and when the new playoff system energized the Autumn. And the Seventies were coming: Charley Finley, the A;s, Reggie, Billy Martin, Rod Carew, Pete, the Big Red Machine, Fred Lynn, Spring Training Wife Swapping, Chicago White Sox in shorts.... Well, just read Dan Epstein's books.

The first pitch of the 2015 season is days away. The game's vital signs will be interpreted widely, by professionals, quacks, and the loud guy in the bar. Baseball will make a fist, get up, do just fine.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Jim Linderman's The Birth of Rock and Roll

Coming soon from Dust to Digital, Jim Linderman's The Birth Of Rock And Roll, a collection of found photographs for which I've provided an essay and conducted an interview with LInderman.

From a review in the Los Angeles Times:
Like Take Me to the Water, The Birth of Rock and Roll will be issued by Dust-to-Digital, the Grammy-winning record label and publisher responsible for essential archival compendiums including the six-CD gospel set Goodbye, Babylon, the "Art of Field Recording" series and “Opika Pende: Africa at 78 RPM.”

The new work doesn't come with companion music, but it doesn't need it. Rather, Linderman guides the reader through a silent meditation on sounds that long ago ceased to exist, their only remaining echo courtesy of a chance encounter with the yay-sayer.

The images try to capture the chaos. An innocent tableau of two groups of people, one white and posing in front of an ice cream shop, the other black and on the next-door porch playing music, lays out the porous nature of segregation. A couple poses for a photo on a sofa, a stack of 45s on the woman's lap. A piercing shot captures white men performing minstrel music in blackface, laying out a stark truth about appropriation and racism.
Read a terrific piece about Linderman and the book by collector Lisa Hix at Collector's Weekly here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

"Do you still wonder why we got the generation gap?"

Jeannie C. Riley will forever be best known for her 1968 smash hit "Harper Valley P.T.A." A lesser track of hers is "The Generation Gap," the titular song from her 1970 album, the cover of which is a time-capsule image of Nashville playing catch-up to prevailing trends in popular culture and pop art. At the time Riley was fairly unique among commercial country female performers in her sex-pot image, and she played it to the hilt, rocking the modish bodysuits and dangerously short mini skirts:

On the back cover, she moves from lady-like sophistication to go-go boot sexiness:

Though Riley appeared confident in these poses, she was largely uncomfortable with the posturing, later claiming that her manager and publicist were behind the sexy persona. Later in the decade Riley became a born-again Christian and began singing and recording Gospel songs.

But not before she weighed in on the raging Generation Gap debate in this mild but fascinating twist number, a perfect blend of late-60s cultural excess as imagined by Music Row, country music's formal conservatism, and good 'ol crass cashing-in. The song was written by Charlie and Betty Craig with Jim Hayner, and though duly promoted the single did not perform well, peaking at 62 in the Billboard Country Charts and failing to cross over to Pop. (The uneven album, which features horns, some psychedelia-lite, and searching lyrics, reached 34.) Though not a hit, "The Generation Gap" endures as a fringed relic of country music's bemused response to the Counter Culture age.

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah

When you see a little baby sittin' on his mama's lap
Well, it's just the beginnin' of a thing called the generation gap
It's not the difference of age now everybody's talking 'bout
It's all those no no's that make up the generation gap

Well, the grown ups go out now to parties and get stoned
But that's somethin' they won't talk about around the children at home
But they ain't foolin' anybody now 'cause the kids are gonna find it out
Just another reason for the thing called the generation gap

The generation gap is a mighty mighty big hole
You ain't gonna fill it up with all the lies being told
Wah, wah, wah, wah, you'd better clean your house
If you expect to narrow the generation gap

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah

Daddy says that drinkin' is a sin that we'll have to pay for
Well, then what's that liquor bottle doin' in the dash of his car?
And who's the man that calls mama every time that daddy's out?
Now, do you still wonder, why we still have the generation gap?

The generation gap is a mighty mighty big hole
Now, do you still wonder why we got the generation gap?

Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah
Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah


Note: I was hipped to this tune years ago by the great Hoodoo Gurus, who released a version in 1988 as a single. Dave Faulkner: "I changed a couple of lines to suit myself."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

George Jones, Leon Payne, and the Woes of Living

Leon Payne, the Blind Balladeer
George Jones, pensive in 1971
Texas-born Leon Payne (1912-1969) was prolific country music songwriter, author of hundreds of songs. Blind since childhood, Payne attended the Texas School for the Blind for eleven years, and began writing songs in the early 1940s; Hank Williams famously covered his "Lost Highway" in 1949. In rock and roll circles he's probably best known for his beautiful, if treacly, "I Love You Because," which Elvis Presley warbled at Sun Studio in July of 1954, and for his chilling "Psycho," which Elvis Costello made his own in an unforgettable live version released in 1981. (Randy Fox tells the story of "Psycho" here.)

Country legend George Jones (1931-2013), who also hailed from Texas, released several songbook albums in his career, including collections devoted to Hank Williams and to Dallas Frazier. In 1971 he cut an album of Payne songs, and it's a terrific record. Several of the numbers are more obscure Payne efforts, and if they're not all "great" as the album title promises, there's really not a dud in the bunch. Three songs in particular capture a subject close to Payne's heart: the weakness endemic to humans. There were few country music singers who could narrate the frailties of living more expressively, and, paradoxically, more sweetly than Jones, and he really gets inside of these songs. Produced by Pappy Daily, and accompanied by the reliable Jordinaires, Jones's respectful but affecting performances make clear his affection for Payne's songwriting.

The stories these three numbers navigate are as old as time: the bottle, egotism, and dissolution. You pick the cause-and-effect order in your life; here's the sequence in which they appear on the album.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Gordon Spaeth, 1951-2005

Photo by Eric Fusco
Gordon Spaeth died ten years ago. The longtime Fleshtones sax, harmonica, and organ player had left the band in 1988 for mental and physical health reasons; he'd last played on a Fleshtones record in 1998 ("Blow Job," on More Than Skin Deep) and last played with the band live in 2001. He'd been living for some time in Manhattan at the Prince George Hotel, on 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Madison, a former welfare inn refurbished as supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless adults. He fell from the roof of the Hotel on the snowy evening of March 8, 2005.

It was in Gordon's clean, tidy room at the Hotel where I lengthily interviewed him for Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band. I found him to be guarded but very funny, leery of saying too much about his chaotic personal history but talking a lot, even offering me a hand-written list of the drugs he'd abused in his lifetime, for inclusion in the book. Gordon was kind, generous with his time, always polite and unfailingly patient with my questions, even the probing ones, and I was grateful to have become a latter-day friend of his, happy that he came to trust me. Gordon was a good sax and harmonica player and a greater raconteur, a dangerous presence on and off stage when he was drinking, which was often, more of a danger to himself when he was using hard drugs, which he'd managed to stay away from in his final years. He was very knowledgeable about R&B, rock and roll, and pop music—I cherish our walks around his neighborhood, leavened with his stories about Brill Building history—a lover of music and sharp style, and a hilarious guy, brimming with episodes of wackiness and mayhem from his drinking and drugging days, always quick with a self-effacing remark as with a cutting jibe aimed at someone else. He seemed tough, and he was, but the posture was part-ironic, borne of b-movie juvee ethos and a toxic and unhappy childhood and adolescence, a protective layer from his own self-destructive demons. His heart was pure, if his body was, by the end, compromised. I tell the whole story in Sweat. Gordon Spaeth is still very much missed.
June 2001: Gordon, far left, holding forth on a roof in Brooklyn for (l-r) Ken Fox, me, Keith Streng. (Woman in corner unidentified) Photo by Anne Arbor

1983 or '84: downstairs at the 9:30 Club, Washington D.C.. Photos by Jimmy Cohrssen.

There are plenty of videos online of Gordon Spaeth in action. This from 1986 is terrific fun, as is this 1982 show. Perhaps my favorite is a riotous lip-synched performance of "Return Of The Leather Kings" (from 1987's Fleshtones Vs. Reality) filmed for Andy Warhol's Fifteen Minutes on MTV. The whole band's hamming it up, and Gordon's at his mock-serious best.

Here's Gordon letting it rip on the Fleshtones' cover of Champion Jack Dupree's "Let The Doorbell Ring," from 1997's Hitsburg USA!

Finally, here's "(Legend Of A) Wheelman," one of Gordon's signature songs, from 1983's Hexbreaker:

RIP, Rooster.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Billboard Country Music ads, ctd.

More fun with the traditions and tropes of 1960s country music, via Billboard.

Johnny Bond's wrestling old demons, his sympathetically-portrayed wife looking on unkindly:

 Hank's down at the pawn shop again:

While Buck Owens and Sheb Wooley (not to mention Jimmy Dean) are looking sharp:

Little Jimmy Dickens is prideful:

While Norma Jean's singing about the blue-collar gals:

And Carl Smith's going under:

Meanwhile, from 1971, Betty Jo Bangs—not "Bongs," though the misprint is hilarious—might've been hopeful, but "Daddy Was A Preacher, Mama Was a Go Go Girl" was destined to be a cult hit, and one of my all-time favorites: