Another Fein Mess March 99
The crux of music-reviewing is opinion, and I'm not so sure, contrary to the cliche, you're entitled to one.
Take me. In May, 1990, the L.A. Weekly asked me to write an obit for Sammy Davis Jr. Why me, the rockabilly guy? Because 6 months earlier I'd written about Sam Butera in Vegas. (I cringe when people extend your tastes for you, like when I say I like Queen and people say "Oh, so you must like Bowie." Huh? One guy sang opera, the other can't sing at all.)
I accepted reluctantly because I never liked Sammy. Not only did his voice not reach me, I thought that to most of "my" generation he was a finger-snappin', Nixon-hugging dufus. But faced with the prospect of making $40 I took the assignment and wrote a piece that carefully straddled saying anything. When it came out, much of what I was leaving unsaid was explicated by the editor, who saw fit to add sentences, and interpretations. I felt terrible, and at least one letter-writer chided me for my smugness, as well he should -- THAT's Sammy Davis's legacy? Some non-fan saying that Sammy fell short of the writer's interest-range?
It's my fault, but it's their fault more. The system stinks because it allows, even encourages, people who don't like certain kinds of music to review it, and the result is an atmosphere of negativity.
Music reviewing procedures must be changed. To wit:
1. To prevent peer-fearful record reviewers from being influenced by each other, all promotional CDs must be sent out blank. Listeners must listen, and judge, without "expectations." A code # on the CD will tell the record's identity, available only to a higher, non music-dept. editor.
2. Reviewers must be fans of the music they review to judge whether the music satisfies its intended audience. This is an ironclad rule.
3. Weekly psychiatric exams for all reviewers. The incipient mass-murderers must be set free to fulfill their destiny,
4. Retirement of 30 for anyone reviewing current chart music. There's too many old turkeys in the barnyard.
I had to laugh at Marshall Crenshaw. In 1994 when he was compiling Hollywood Rocks, a compendium of MUSIC reviews of rock movies, he was flabbergasted when the publisher rewrote his copy.
He's a songwriter. Nobody corrects his work. For newspaper and magazine writers it's a daily horror.
Take that Sammy Davis obit I mentioned. I was very careful not to say anything specific, but the editor, R.J. Smith, decided to "clear" it up and suddenly I was nailing things I didn't want said. And said them in ways I despise! I have a long, LONG list of words and phrases I never use -- glitzy, gut-wrenching (the LA Times inserted that one in one of my reviews), cutting-edge, take-no-prisoners -- and here I was saying Sammy "sings his ass off."
I guess people in Bosnia have it worse.
But editors have always messed with writers. Once I remember writing, oh so cleverly, that Dolly Parton, who had just recorded a Miracles song, was "a blonde who acknowledges her black roots." The Variety editor changed it to the tres-clumsy "one blonde who appreciates the Blacks' roots" maybe because he feared I was calling her a mulatto. Dave Barry tells of writing that he was in a trance listening to "I Say A Little Prayer" by Aretha Franklin, and an editor looked it up in a reference book and changed it to Dionne Warwick.
Editors. Let's get ridd of them.
Goddam NY Times crossword puzzle again. My wife calls out "Singer of 'How Sweet It Is'" and I call out Marvin Gaye. "Nope, not enough letters." They wanted James Taylor. Were they being tricky? Yes, in not putting "Fire & Rain," but I don't think they were expecting you to know Marvin Gaye, they were just ignorant that someone recorded it before J.T.
Hal, open the song....
When I had Hal Blaine ('nother aitch) on the show last year, he told me that the opening drum in the Tijuana Brass's "Taste Of Honey" was not supposed to be there. The band was simply supposed to come in, Hal on drums included, at a certain time but someone was always early or late, so Hal, in frustration, pounded out the time signature to indicate "Now!" -- and it stayed in.
And speaking of Goldstar, where that was recorded, engineer Larry Levine, on my show ten years ago, said that "Tequila" by the Champs was a mike test, then released as the b-side of "Train To Nowhere."
Around that same time I axed Dion (not Celine, the real one) how the "The Wanderer" was written for Diana Ross & The Supremes when they hadn't even formed the group yet. "Huh?" he said sensibly. I was referring of course to the line, "There's Flo on my left'mm, and Mary on my rightaa."
And we all know that "Palisades Park" was written by Chuck Barris, the Gong Show guy, but didja know he wrote if for Dion, who passed on it? Speaking of Freddy Cannon, I saw him Dec. 11, '98 at the Golden Apple Bookstore (I took a good video of him, the Tokens, and David Somerville) (Come to think of it, why didn't the Tokens shorten their name to the Tokes in the late 60s? I'll bet they thought about it) and he has undergone a little-noted metamorphosis. In the 50s and 60s he was a good growler, but today, with a guitar on his knee, he's a darn good singer. Maybe he always was. By the way, am I the only person who thinks the guitar intro to "Tallahassie Lassie" is as good as anything by Led Zepellin? I mean that with all respect to the latter band -- that Led could really play a guitar.
Chuck E's on wax, so to speak
In 1981 Chuck Weiss told me that the previous Dec. 8 his father had run to him in shock and said "Did you hear? Someone shot Jack Lemmon!" It was pretty fresh when I heard Chuck tell it, so maybe it was true. I've subsequently heard one female comic tell it, saying it happened in her family. Chuck's long awaited first album (I wouldn't count his other one, which was pretty no-'count) is out and is terrific. I have known him for 34 years, which means he's at least 35.
Speaking of Chucks, I've asked on the tv show what was the most embarassing moment of music you've ever seen. For example, Judy Collins singing a whole song off-key on Saturday Night Live. (I saw it: it made your skin crawl.)
I have two answers. In "Jazz On A Summer's Day," the documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Chuck Berry sings two or three songs and they're awful. It's not only because Chuck was slipshod or out of tune, as is his wont, but because the jazzbos who had been backing Maynard Ferguson or whoever played with sarcasm and derision all over their faces: the film editor made sure you saw it. Very creepy.
The other was Tom Waits, getting back to Chuck Weiss, at the Gay Rights show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977. I went there with Todd Everett -- because we got free tickets! I was shocked to see George Maharis, of Route 66, made all up like Percy Dovetonsils. Todd acutely noted that three female performers that night - Helen Reddy, Tanya Tucker, and Bette Midler - had all had hits with "Delta Dawn."
During a break, I noticed on the darkened stage the figure of Waits ascending some stairs to a piano atop a wall. He was to follow Richard Pryor, but he never got a chance.
Pryor was not in the best of moods:
"When they called me to do this gig for you I said fine. But then I was backstage and saw one of your guys yelling at this young kid from the Lockers dance group because he was smoking near a set. Those young kids worked their asses off to entertain you faggots, and they're not getting paid, but once one of them steps out of line a tiny bit you think you can yell at him. Well you can't! I'm sick of y'all and your faggoty-ass bullshit. What were YOU doing during the Watts riots - sucking each other's dicks? Fuck you and everything you stand for, I'm getting the fuck out of here."
The audience at first laughed at his audaciousness, then let loose boos. The stage went dark. After ten minutes, someone gave the signal to get on with it. With people shouting "Kill him!" and "Fuck Richard Pryor!", the spotlight hit Tom Waits sitting on top of the wall. He was virtually unknown to this crowd, and decided it wasn't time to get acquainted. He wouldn't move. He just sat there smoking a cigarette for five long minutes.
Finally they switched off the light, and a spokesman came out and apologized for Pryor's remarks. I think the rest of the show was cancelled.
If any of y'all ever talk to Waits, ask him about that night.
I never did.