Thursday, February 2, 2023

Following the sound

Commercial irrelevance doesn't always end the life of a songDamnation of Adam Blessing was a mystery to me when I picked up their 1970 single "Back To The River" a couple of months ago, yet another band that had yet to materialize from out of my blind spot. I subsequently learned that they were Big In Cleveland in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and poised to break out nationally on the the strength of three solid albums with United Artists and coast-to-coast tours on bills with, variously, the Faces, Grand Funk, Derek & The Dominos, Alice Cooper, the MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, Leon Russell, and other high-profile bands. Then their story stalled and took an all-too-common turn: Damnation of Adam Blessing were fated to be yet another band with a loaded arsenal that ended up shooting blanks commercially. (Guitarist Jim Quinn tells the band's story—including where they got that fantastic name—here. Their albums have been reissued a couple of times.) 

Such market oblivion is all the more remarkable given "Back To The River" which, had the planets aligned, might've become a smash hit, a radio and compilation staple for decades, destined to be rediscovered in Mom and Dad's record or CD collection by later generations of kids. In the event, the single hung around for a while on the charts, appearing in Billboard first as a hopeful "Regional Breakout," and then in a struggle to get its head above the Hot 100, peaking at 106.

An old story: such fortune requires that you redefine what success means. "Back To The River" has been coursing through my brain and heart since my first spin, and has been in high-rotation in my internal Top 40. I'm astonished that this song didn't break big, but then such shock is childish and naive (and boring, too). No one can fully quantify why one band sold records and another didn't, why one indelible melody sticks and another doesn't. And the one-hit wonder is a mystery unto itself. Billboard tells only one story (and a suspect one at that); the final and most important narrative tells the tale of who's listening to a song now, maybe decades after it vanished, moved beyond words as they sit in their home or are out on a walk, the song having buzzed in the air above all of our heads without us really noticing until it lands in a thrift store, a used record bin, Discogs, YouTube. Then the top of someone else's head comes off, and the story's picked up again.

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"Back To The River" is credited to the five members of the band. It begins as a mid-paced, Credence-like march, drummer Bill Schwark and bassist Ray Benich interlocking fluidly as either Jim Quinn or Bob Kalamasz bathes the groove with wah-wah guitar washes, the mood in the opening twenty seconds buoyant and curious, aloft on churning, alert rhythms. Then Adam Blessing—aka Bill Constable—arrives to sing. His voice is immediately likable, and placeable: it's the sound from a million hit records, from old late-night TV commercials hawking Time Life compilations of Vietnam-era songs. If a voice can be good-looking, Constable's is. Assured yet unguarded, the vocal says that this song will be heard. Just try turning it off after the first line—Yes I knew it was wrong when I came here. The singer's addressing his words to someone—there's a "you" other than the listener—but ultimately this song is about a turning away toward that river, back to the river, actually. 
There was love, there was hope, there was me somewhere
And I had to try to see
So I walked through the miles of the hate and the war
'Till I almost lost my dream
The river is where his home is, and where he can be free. The clich├ęs are just around the bend, of course: getting back to nature, the liberty promised there, the timelessness of currents and rural life. But the band risks the  triteness, or trusts the profundity of it all through the haze, and the melody that gets Constable there is simple, three or four notes, tops, and he rides it like a straight, familiar line to truths that exist before platitudes ruin them. Anyway, fuck banality says the chorus, which kicks the song in the ass with a bolting bass line, waves of crashing cymbals, righteous power chords, and stirring harmonies, sounding a bit like the MC5 might have at the exhausted end of a weed-heavy rehearsal. "Now I'm going home!" bellows someone, and it's both a declaration and a thrilling invitation. 

The second verse resumes the wandering, the dark an illusion where the singer could feel but not touch:
So I looked for a line in your dark world
Like a blind man follows sound
But the world ain't round and there is no sound...

The third verse entwines two melodies, braiding the first verse with new lines denouncing hate and announcing a long walk ahead, dryly confident, or anyway hopeful, in the face of setbacks. "Back To The River" can be read as an anti-Vietnam War song (Quinn and other band members were drafted and served in South Asia). The lyrics, from one angle, support that—the dissent and desire are tangible, yet the imagery in those lyrics, many phrases of which could've been said, or sung, by anyone in history standing along or ambling toward a river, and the gently-ascending verse melodies crashing against the onslaught of the chorus feel larger than a time- and date-stamped protest. I'd love to hear a band take on this song now; the right singer with the right band on the right night would step right into Constable's roving silhouette and find that they fit, the date on their birth certificate immaterial. 

"Back To The River" is a pop song that is of its era, and a pop song that transcends its era. It's the kind of paradox that I love to turn up. Which is in part why I haven't shaken the song, and hope never to. 

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Photo of Damnation of Adam Blessing by George Shuba

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