Friday, March 30, 2012

Iggy Pop -- "Baby" (1977)

We're walking down the street of chance
Where the chance is always slim or none

T. S. Eliot's 1925 poem, "The Hollow Men," famously concludes with these lines:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper 

T. S. Eliot
Delete "world" and substitute "2 or 3 lines series" and these lines ring just as true.  Once again, a series of related 2 or 3 lines posts -- this particular series features records that I bought and listened to during my law school years (1974-1977) -- is ending with a whimper.

We had such high hopes when this series began almost a year ago with Roxy Music's "The Thrill Of It All."  (It goes without saying that we were so much younger then -- but we're older than that now.)

There were some highlights -- the Sparks, 10cc, City Boy, and, of course, Roxy Music.  But as usual, I front-loaded the series.  I trotted out my favorites at the beginning -- after that, the whole thing succumbed to a slow, inexorable decline, as I gradually lost interest in this series and began to plan new series in my head.

Now that I've admitted that the "Law School Years" series has lost its way, let's hustle the old boy off as quickly as possible -- we'll pull the plug and make room for a new series.

I didn't buy Iggy Pop's 1977 Idiot LP.  I didn't steal it either -- well, not exactly.

I became a member of the staff of the Harvard Law Record, the law school's biweekly newspaper, as a second-year student and held various editorial positions in my penultimate (yes, it has been a long time since we've used our favorite word) and ultimate law school years.  

I got a new editorial title each semester -- features editor, executive editor, senior editor, and one I've forgotten.  None of them really meant anything -- my role at the Record was pretty much always the same.  Basically, I was kept far away from anything that smacked of serious journalism, spending most of my time on restaurant reviews and articles for the annual "April Fool's" issue.  

Oh, yes -- I always volunteered to go out and get the pizzas and beer that sustained us every other Wednesday night, when we edited and laid out the upcoming issue.  That way, I could make sure that we had the kind of pizza and beer that I liked.

A couple of months before graduation, it finally hit me that I could get a lot of free stuff by calling up publishers, record companies, and movie theaters and telling them I was the Record's book, music, or movie reviewer.  That was true, in a way, although I don't recall ever seeing a book, music, or movie review in the paper.

Most of the free books I got were boring, law-related tomes.  I did go to one free movie screening -- The Late Show, a well-reviewed (but not by me) comedy/mystery starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin, which was nominated for the Academy Award for best original screenplay in 1977.  

(By the way, the screenwriter and director of The Late Show was Robert Benton, who had co-written the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde.  Two years later, Benton wrote the screenplay for Kramer vs. Kramer, which he also directed.  That movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Benton won the Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay.)

I still have the one free review LP I managed to snag -- Iggy Pop's The Idiot.  Today, Iggy has a place in my pantheon of music gods, but I didn't know much about him in 1977.  

Iggy Pop (born James Newell Osterberg, Jr.) was a native of Muskegeon, Michigan whose extreme on-stage behavior -- he rolled around in broken glass, exposed himself, and invented stage diving -- was inspired by Jim Morrison of the Doors, whom he saw perform at the University of Michigan in 1967.

Iggy stage-dives
The story goes that Iggy called Moe Howard to ask permission to call his nascent band "The Stooges."  Moe supposedly said he didn't care as long as he didn't call the band "The Three Stooges."

The Stooges released a couple of interesting albums that didn't sell very well, then broke up -- but got back together and issued Raw Power in 1973.  Its first track was "Search and Destroy," which is still an awe-inspiring song.

"Search and Destroy" has already been covered by 2 or 3 lines, but I can't resist posting the famous Nike commercial that featured it:

Iggy had a nasty little heroin addiction at this time, which contributed to the Stooges breaking up again in 1974.  He checked himself into a UCLA hospital in hopes of getting clean.  David Bowie, who had produced Raw Power, visited him regularly.  He  usually brought along some cocaine to share with his friend.  

Iggy and David later relocated to Berlin.  Bowie help write and produce the two albums (The Idiot and Lust for Life) that Iggy released in 1977, and the two performers wrote some songs together (including "China Girl").

Iggy has kept busy in the ensuing years.  He's recorded a number of albums, written an autobiography, and appeared in a number of movies and TV shows -- including the great Nickelodeon show, The Adventures of Pete and PetePete and Pete had some other very odd guest stars, including Adam West, Steve Buscemi, Frank Gifford, Deborah Harry, Patty Hearst -- yes, that Patty Hearst -- LL Cool J, and Michael Stipe.

Here's one of Iggy's Pete and Pete appearances:

I don't think The Idiot is one of Iggy's best albums, but the price was right.  

Before we listen to "Baby," here are a few lines from the song "Funtime," which is also on The Idiot:

Hey baby, we like your lips
Hey baby, we like your pants
All aboard for funtime!

I was sorely tempted to feature "Funtime" because of these very lyrics, but the song is a bit of a downer -- not that "Baby" is what you'd call upbeat.

Here's a bonus video -- Iggy and David Bowie performing "Funtime" live on . . . the Dinah Shore Show?  That's right, boys and girls -- hard as it may be to believe.  If you don't like the song, jump ahead to the 2:56 mark and watch Dinah's interview of these two seriously weird guys.

Here's "Baby":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cream -- "We're Going Wrong" (1967)

Please open your eyes
Try to realize
I found out today we're going wrong
"We're Going Wrong" is a stunning song -- absolutely chilling.

It doesn't sound like any other song I've ever heard.  That's mostly due to the unique and unearthly quality of Jack Bruce's singing and the drumming of Ginger Baker, who used timpani sticks (which have heads wrapped in felt or chamois) instead of traditional drum sticks.  The 6/8 time signature is somewhat unusual as well.

Clapton, Baker, Bruce
There's not a lot in the way of lyrics here -- two very short verses, and "We're going wrong" repeated over and over.  I don't think there's any great mystery as to what the song is about -- it seems to be about a love affair that has gone so wrong that it probably can't be resuscitated.

But given the way that Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce came to absolutely loathe each other -- their bitter arguing during a car ride in early 1968 reduced Eric Clapton to tears -- one is tempted to see the song as describing their venomous relationship.

Cream formed in July 1966 and broke up in November 1968, the victim not only of Bruce's and Baker's mutual antipathy, but also of Clapton's dissatisfaction with the musical direction Cream had taken.  The group got its start as a blues trio -- half the songs on its first album were covers of blues standards -- but is remembered now for psychedelic songs like "White Room," "Tales of Brave Ulysses," and "SWLABR."

"We're Going Wrong" appeared on Cream's second album, Disraeli Gears, which was recorded in New York City in May 1967 and released that November.  The album was produced by Felix Pappalardi, who was almost a fourth Cream member.  He not only produced Disraeli Gears, but also co-wrote (along with his wife) two of its songs. 

Pappalardi was also the bass player for Mountain, best known for its classic single, "Mississippi Queen," which also was produced by Pappalardi.  He retired from performing because he had suffered significant hearing loss while touring with Mountain.  

Felix Pappalardi and his wife
Pappalardi's wife shot and killed him in 1983 in their Manhattan apartment.  She claimed it was an accident, but was convicted of negligent homicide and served about 18 months in prison.  (In other words, she basically got away with murder.)

Here's "We're Going Wrong."  I'll be surprised if you can listen to it with experiencing cutis anserina:

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fools Face -- "Won't Make It Hard" (1981)

We could go on forever
As long as there are no complications

That's all well and good -- except for one thing.  Aren't there always complications?  

According to Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide, Fools Face "was the most criminally-overlooked pop band to emerge in the '80s."  I agree.  

Most of you have never heard of Fools Face.  (I wonder why it's not "Fool's Face," or "Fools' Face," or "Fools' Faces"?)  A few of my high-school friends may be familiar with Fools Face -- they even may have seen them perform live -- because Fools Face is from Springfield, Missouri, which is just an hour's drive from my hometown (Joplin, Missouri).

One of my friends made me a cassette tape of the group's 1981 Tell America album.  Their consisted of two interlocking upper-case F's -- the first printed normally, the second one printed upside-down and backwards -- and he replicated that logo on the label of the cassette.  

Here's the logo:

I think my friend had seen Fools Face perform in Kansas City, where they were very popular.  (They opened for Elvis Costello when he appeared at the Starlight Theatre in 1982, so they were no slouches.)  

I had moved to Washington, DC, several years earlier, so I had never heard of the band.  But I was a big power pop fan -- Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, the Go-Gos, Cheap Trick, and Squeeze were all going strong at this time -- and I liked my Fools Face tape a lot.

That was 30 years ago, and I doubt that I've listened to that tape in the last 25 years.  But a few days ago, Fools Face popped into my mind for some reason, and I was pleased to find that some fan had uploaded the entire Tell America album to YouTube.

Some of the tracks weren't familiar.  (It's possible my friend didn't record the entire album, and its also possible that I've just forgotten those songs.)  But several of them -- including "Won't Make It Hard" -- were immediately recognizable.

One of the commenters speculates that Springfield native Brad Pitt (who was about the same age as the band's members) might have seen Fools Face perform when he was a Kickapoo High School student.  

Brad Pitt, Kickapoo HS (class of '82)
Another one pointed out that Pitt was a member of the Sigma Chi fraternity at the University of Missouri, and that Fools Face played at "Bid Day Bash" parties at frat houses (one year, Sheryl Crow's band was the opening act at that party) and also at The Blue Note club in Columbia (which is still going strong).

Brad Pitt, Mizzou student
Here's the kicker.  After their first couple of albums failed to get much notice outside of Missouri, Fools Face moved to Los Angeles in 1984 in hopes of getting a major record deal.  When that didn't happen, the band folded.  After a long hiatus, the group got back together in the late 1990s -- and one source says they played at Brad Pitt's high-school reunion.  Another source says they played a gig in Springfield that Pitt and some of his buddies attended when Brad came back to visit his family one Christmas.

But let's not get all bogged down in details.  Everyone agrees that Pitt saw Fools Face perform in Springfield in 2000 or so -- perhaps after seeing them play one or more times in Columbia many years earlier.

That's quite a revelation, but a couple of other commenters topped it.

Here's what one of the commenters said:

I saw these guys in '81 or '82 in Gelena KS at Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club. I was too drunk to remember a hole lot.

Perhaps this guy was drunk when he typed that comment -- that would explain the misspellings of "Galena" and "whole."

Another commenter confirmed the first guy's claim.  (I'm guessing neither one of them were English majors.)

First heard this band at an 18 yr. old/Dance/3.2 Beer Piss dive called Sgt. Peppers in Galena KS (previously The Brass Monkey). They were much more than a New Wavish, Punkish band of the Late 70s-Early 80s and they could've made it big but I'm glad they didn't cause they were more than that. Fools Tails, good music and lots of energy!!

Some of my friends and I spent many nights drinking 3.2% beer in Galena, Kansas in the mid-1970s -- click here for an account of those nights -- but I had moved away from the area by 1981.  So I missed out on seeing Fools Face perform there.  

One of the 3.2% beer joints in Galena 
(Did you know that 3.2% beer is defined legally as "nonintoxicating" in some states?  You can put lipstick on a pig, but that don't make it a prom date.  And you can put hot fudge and whipped cream on a t*rd, but that don't make it an ice cream sundae.  Define 3.2% as "nonintoxicating" if you wish, but that don't mean you won't get drunk if you pour two or three quarts of it down your throat.) 

Finally, if you're curious about the reference to "Fools Tails" in the second comment quoted above, my research indicates that the band members wore tiny little pony tails that were called "fools' tails" by their fans.     

Here's "Won't Make It Hard":

The Tell America album was never issued on CD and isn't available online, but a fan has uploaded each track from the album to YouTube -- so you can listen to some or all of the songs on it that way. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Dio -- "Rainbow in the Dark" (1983)

No sign of the morning comin'
You've been left on your own
Like a rainbow in the dark
2 or 3 lines has been blessed by serendipity many, many times.  What I like best about doing this blog is discovering new music (or rediscovering old music that I had forgotten) and meeting interesting characters and fellow music aficionados like Michelle "Mickie" Mills.  I hope this isn't the last time Mickie writes for 2 or 3 lines -- I plan to pester her mercilessly until she agrees to produce another guest post.

A few weeks ago, I was researching some random musical topic and stumbled across Mickie's blog, which is titled "Mickie's Zoo."  Here's a link to "Mickie's Zoo."   (To follow her on Twitter, go to @mickieszoo.)  If you live in southern California, you need to visit "Mickie's Zoo" regularly -- you're missing a lot if you don't.  

Michelle Mills
What impressed me most about Mickie's blog was how prolific a blogger she is.  I made a big deal of doing "29 Posts in 29 Days" this past February.  Compare my one-post-a-day output to that of Mickie, who put up 290 posts in February -- an average of ten per day!

Mickie is a staff writer for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group, which publishes several newspapers in southern California.  She is also the editor and a staff writer for DaBelly, an online arts and entertainment monthly magazine based in Los Angeles.  

Mickie has hosted entertainment shows on television and radio and has appeared in film, on stage and in music videos.  Most impressive to me is the fact that she has been in a number of bands, including the hard rock/heavy metal band, Morpheus.  (2 or 3 lines will be featuring a Morpheus song later.  They weren't quite in the same league as the Rogues, of course -- few bands are -- but they weren't bad.)

Among her other accomplishments, Mickie was the Queen of the 31st "Pasadena Doo Dah Parade" in 2008.  (I can't begin to do justice to this event -- click here if you'd like to know more about it.).  Here's a Terry Miller photo of "Queen Naughty Mickie":

And here's Queen Mickie reigning over the parade:

Mickie is also a professional belly dancer (specializing in sword work), a student of Polynesian/Tahitian dance, and dances and plays percussion with the Ad Hoc Consort/Danse Macabre, a traditional Elizabethan band.  

After I checked out Mickie's blog, I commented on one of her posts and invited her to be a guest writer for 2 or 3 lines.  (I'm always looking for free content.  I'm also always looking for my readers to click on my ads, of course.)  Mickie is kind of a big deal, but she graciously agreed to write for my modest little (albeit wildly popular) blog.  

As you'll see below, I got more than my money's worth out of Mickie -- she knows how to tell a story, and the story she tells below is a compelling one.  It's about a performer I didn't know much about, and a song I don't think I'd ever heard.

Before I turn it over to Mickie, here are a few words about the performer she chose to write about -- Ronnie James Dio, whose musical career began in 1957, when he was only 15 years old. 

Dio got a big break in 1975 when he was invited to be the lead vocalist for Rainbow, the band formed by ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore when Deep Purple broke up. 

A Rainbow eight-track tape
In 1979, Dio joined Black Sabbath, replacing Ozzy Osbourne.  In 1982, Dio and Black Sabbath's drummer,  Vinny Appice (whose brother, Carmen Appice, was Vanilla Fudge's drummer), formed the band Dio, which released ten albums over the next 20-plus years.

I'll let Mickie take it from here . . .

As an entertainment writer and music journalist for more than 15 years, I have had the opportunity to experience many magical moments with artists that most fans can only dream about. Yet the most meaningful and memorable of those moments occurred when I was just a fan.
Back in the 1980s, as I was walking through the living room of my then-boyfriend's house in Syracuse, New York, a music video was blaring on MTV.  It stopped me in my tracks.  The singer had one of the best voices ever to grace my ears and, like the Pied Piper, his music drew me to the television and kept me entranced until the last note.
I waited until the title and performer information came up on the screen and learned it was Ronnie James Dio performing "Rainbow in the Dark" from his 1983 album, Holy Diver.

Ronnie James Dio in performance
(photo by Keith Durflinger)
Although I liked metal, I certainly wasn't a metalhead in those days, but that one song quickly changed my life.  Today, my ever-growing music collection must be at least half-filled by metal and related genres.
"Rainbow in the Dark" spoke to me in other ways as well.  I had had a pretty hard life up to this point and music was my place to find solace. Music gave me a release for my anger, tears and occasional rejoicing.  I had long felt very alone and had worked very hard to overcome the obstacles in my life and so "Rainbow in the Dark" became my anthem -- a song of standing up for yourself, embracing your differences and hardships, persevering and shining through.
The years went by and either I was in the wrong part of the country or didn't have the money to buy a ticket and catch Dio whenever he and his band were on tour. But I kept up with their albums, and when I fronted my own heavy metal/hard rock band, I emulated his style -- opting to utilize my good vocal range instead of screaming, and inking lyrics with fantasy and poetry at their core.
Finally in the late 1990s Dio was coming to the Riverside Auditorium in Riverside, California. It wasn't too far of a drive and I could afford the ticket.  The only snag was the concert was on a weeknight and I couldn't find anyone to go with me. But I was undeterred. I dressed in the "metal uniform"-- black t-shirt, jeans, studded leather belt and sneakers -- and was good to go.
Great White opened the show. I stayed in the back of the room, letting the "chicks" fight their way to the front of the stage for a better position to scream at and flirt with the band. I was prepared to make my own struggle through the crowd for Dio, but when Great White finished, most of the women left or went to the back of the room.

Dio concert poster
With many an "excuse me," I made my way through the sea of black shirts. The men let me go all the way to the front until I was standing at stage right. The stage was raised, so it was up to my shoulders (I'm only five feet tall), but I would be able to see my first Dio concert clearly.
The big moment arrived: the band came out and launched into their set. Lead singer Ronnie James Dio interacted quite a bit with the audience. He would walk the edge of the stage giving high fives and shaking hands with the first few rows of fans, but he kept missing me. I must be too short for him to notice me, I thought.  Knowing there couldn't be many more songs left, I resigned myself to my fate -- I was not going to get any closer to my idol than I already was.
Dio launched into my favorite song, "Rainbow in the Dark." I was ecstatic that I would get to hear "my song" live. Partway through the first verse, Ronnie walked from center stage straight to me, leaned over and grasped my wrist. He held me firmly, yet gently as he looked into my eyes and sang the rest of the verse and the chorus. Releasing me with a grin, he returned to his center stage spot.
During those few short minutes, I felt as if somehow Ronnie knew what I had been through and was giving me the message that everything would eventually be OK. Of course, he didn't really know anything about me and was merely doing what he did best. Dio and I did make a connection that night, not just as fan and rock star, but as two people with a shared love of music.
A few years later, I began writing for a small music magazine, which helped launch my journalism career. I was privileged to interview Ronnie several times and to also get to know him on a personal level. During one of our interviews, I asked him about the song, "I Am" from the 2004 album, Master of the Moon.  Like the words of  "Rainbow in the Dark," the lyrics of "I Am" talk about personal strength.

Mickie and Ronnie in 2007
(photo by Daniel Narvaiz)
"That really speaks a lot about what I've always tried to do in how the songs are written, again write about people," Dio said. "I've always been really angry about people who don't fit the mold that is supposed to be the one that we all fit, beautiful and trim and gracing the cover of magazines and if we're not that, we're some kind of secondary citizen of this world. Again, I've written about that subject a lot and in the case of 'I Am,' that's what it's supposed to speak about. It doesn't matter what you look like, it doesn't matter what the package looks like, it's what's inside and you can survive; you can succeed because you are, you are someone. You should be proud of what you are inside and therefore 'I Am' is meant to be a flag raised for people who think they are less than everyone else and to tell them that I can succeed so therefore you can as well.''
Ronnie had this to say about his success: "The other thing I can do very well is relate to people because all the songs I've ever written, I've written for people. That's why Dio's been successful, because people who like Dio, or like me perhaps, realize that I'm doing these things for them, I am what they are, I am them. I'm just a regular person. Some people think I'm this wonderful person-- I'm not. I just happen to sing a bit better than most. And I've got conviction . . . I want to hear, 'Thank you Ronnie, you've given us the album we wanted to hear.'''
Ronnie James Dio died in 2010. "Rainbow in the Dark" remains my favorite song and he remains my favorite vocalist. Thank you, Ronnie -- you gave me the music I wanted . . . no, the music I needed to hear.

And thank you, Mickie, for sharing this very personal story with 2 or 3 lines. Everyone who cares about music can appreciate how thrilled you must have been when Ronnie took your hand and sang "Rainbow in the Dark" just to you.

In 2006, "Rainbow in the Dark" was selected as number 13 of VH1's "Top
40 Greatest Metal Songs." It is featured in the video game Rock Band 3 and in the films Bad Teacher and Ricky 6.

Here's the scene from Bad Teacher that features "Rainbow in the Dark":

Here's "Rainbow in the Dark":

Here's video of a 1983 live performance of "Rainbow in the Dark" by Dio on the television show, "Rock Palace":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lemon Drops -- "I Live in the Springtime" (1967)

Every day, I lay out in the sun
Every night, I stay out having fun
In the spring, I love everyone

As of very early this morning, it's officially spring -- the best season of the year.

Narcissus (the official
flower of 2 or 3 lines)
Why is spring better than summer?  Because spring waxes, while summer wanes -- and because anticipation is always better than fulfillment.  (It's why 5 PM on Friday is better than 5 PM on Saturday.)  

And if spring is the best season, what is the best day?  The first day of spring -- obviously!

The original members of the Lemon Drops were students at McHenry High School in the Chicago suburbs.  None of them were older than 17 when this song was recorded.

The Lemon Drops (circa 1967)
The history of the Lemon Drops makes me want to cry -- everything that could go wrong for them did go wrong.  (I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that they had all committed suicide in a fit of despair over their collective bad luck.)

After they recorded "I Live in the Springtime" in May 1967, 500 copies of the single were pressed.  But the guy who mastered the stereo tape of the song left one of the two tracks out rather than combining them into a single mono track.  That's why you don't hear any drums in this version of the song, which is available on the famous Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965-68 compilation album.  (That is a must-have album, believe me.)

The group later issued a corrected version of the single with the drum track, but it went nowhere.

For no apparent reason, this video features a clip from a really weird 1971 French movie titled Morgane et Ses Nymphes -- the English title is Girl Slaves of Morgana le Fay.

You King Arthur fans out there will remember that Morgan le Fay ("fay" is another word for "fairy") was a sorceress and half-sister of King Arthur who was once an adversary of the Round Table folks, but later reconciled with Arthur and did him a solid or two.

Here's the trailer for the movie, which is summarized as follows on IMDb: "Two hot chicks happen upon the creepy castle of French witch Morgane le Fay and must choose either to become immortal sex slaves or rot in a dungeon."

(That's compelling stuff, and you have my blessing if you wish to watch the whole thing on YouTube -- LATER.  But let's get back to the Lemon Drops.)

You can say this about the Lemon Drops: if it wasn't for bad luck, they would have had no luck at all.  They created some very original garage/psychedelic music, but never got a record contract.

Actually, they did sign a record deal in 1968, and were about to move to Los Angeles and record their songs when they learned that they owner of the record company had died.  More bad luck for the band -- even worse luck for the record company owner, of course.

There is one piece of good news.  The Lemon Drops were major celebrities at their high school.  "Springtime" was played over the school intercom during lunch period.  The band performed before an audience of over 1000 students in the school auditorium.  

This is all a little too close to the history of the Rogues for comfort.  I was feeling very happy about spring arriving when I began to write this post, but now I'm depressed.

Click here to buy this song from Amazon:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Stylistics -- "People Make the World Go Round" (1972)

Big men smoking in their easy chairs
On a fat cigar without a care

Like the previous 2 or 3 lines, this one features a song that is mentioned at a key moment in What It Was, the new novel by George Pelecanos:  

George Pelecanos was born in Washington, DC, in 1957.  He worked as a dishwasher, a cook, and a bartender and sold women's shoes before publishing his first novel – A Firing Offense – in 1992.  What It Was is his 18th and newest novel.  (Yes, I've read all 18.)  

Pelecanos's books are set in and around Washington, DC, where I have lived since 1977.  One critic has said that Pelecanos owns Washington like the author Raymond Chandler owned Los Angeles.

His novels aren't set in Georgetown or Capitol Hill, and they don't feature politicians, lobbyists, FBI agents, or Russian spies.  

Instead, they take place in working-class neighborhoods in DC (which are predominantly African-American) or the close-in Maryland suburbs (which are predominantly white).  

George Pelecanos
The heroes of his books include private investigators and DC cops, but also record-store clerks, short-order cooks, animal-control officers, and TV/stereo salesmen.  The bad guys are often very bad indeed, and are almost always involved either directly or indirectly in the trafficking of illegal drugs.

*     *     *     *     *

One reviewer has said that Pelecanos writes "urban westerns," and that is as good a description of his books as any I have read.  

Pelecanos is a fan of western movies – his favorites include The Magnificent Seven, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, and The Outlaw Josey Wales – and his books often build to the same kind of good-vs.-bad confrontations that are characteristic of classic westerns. 

Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden, and
Ernest Borgnine in "The Wild Bunch" (1969)
But his books have elements of classical Greek tragedy as well.  His heroes are flawed characters who have to learn painful lessons – they undergo what Aristotle called anagnorisis, or "a change from ignorance to knowledge."  

*     *     *     *     *

As I previously noted, Pelecanos's books are full of music – he always tells you what the characters are listening to on the radio when they are driving in their cars, or what is playing on the jukebox at the neighborhood bar.  

Sometimes I suspect that Pelecanos picks a song just because he likes it so much and wants his readers to like it, too. 

But more often than not, Pelecanos has a reason for choosing a particular song for a particular scene.  The song featured in the previous 2 or 3 lines, "Love the One You're With," is playing on the radio of Derek Strange's black '70 Chevrolet Monte Carlo when the protagonist of What It Was is tempted to cheat on the woman he loves with a sexy client.  

"People Make the World Go Round" is playing on the radio in Strange's car while he is talking with a possible witness to a murder, an unemployed Vietnam veteran who spends his days sitting outside his invalid mother's apartment, watching the world go by.  

Strange invites the vet to sit in his car – it's starting to rain – and they talk about Vietnam and the DC riots that broke out after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The new Stylistics song, "People Make the World Go Round," was on the radio and playing low, Russell Thompkins Jr.'s angelic vocals an apt, melodic narration to the life they were seeing, tableau-form, through the windshield.  On 13th, a tired woman shuffled down the sidewalk, carrying a bag of groceries.  A group of young girls double-Dutched on the corner, and on a nearby stoop a man was pleading with a woman, gesturing elaborately with his hands to make his case.
"City ain't all that different since I been back," said [the veteran].  "Little burned around the edges, maybe.  But still the same rough old ghetto."

"People Make the World Go Round" is an apt song for this scene.  Musically, the song is a dead ringer for a Burt Bacharach-Hal David song – right down to the tricky rhythm and the sound of the horn section.  It's easy to imagine Dionne Warwick singing this song. 

 But the song's lyrics have little in common with those of most Bacharach-David songs.  The first two lines set the tone for "People Make the World Go Round":
Trash men didn't get my trash today
Why? Because they want more pay

In the chorus, the singer sounds more resigned than angry:

But that's what makes the world go round 
The up and down, the carousel
Changing people, they'll go around 
Go underground, young man
People make the world go round

If life is a carousel, you may go round and round, up and down – but you always come back to the where you began.  

Horace Greeley said "Go west, young man," but the singer of this song's advice is "Go underground, young man."  Is he saying the best strategy for dealing with life in the ghetto is to give up and drop out?  Become a drug user or even a drug dealer to escape the frustrations of ghetto life?

Derek Strange rejects that advice.  His hard-working, God-fearing parents raised him right.  Unlike some of the kids he went to high school with, he never succumbed to the attractions of drink, drugs, and crime.  As What It Was demonstrates, he is far from perfect, but he at least tries to do the right thing.

Here's what Strange says to a client who asks him why he spends money to rent an office for his fledgling private-investigator business instead of simply working out of his car:

Kids in this neighborhood watch me open that front door every morning.  I think it's important for them to see a young black man going to work each day, building his own thing.  Don't you?

Click here to listen to "People Make the World Go Round."

Here's a link you can use to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Isley Brothers -- "Love the One You're With" (1971)

There's a girl right next to you 
And she's just waiting for something to do . . .
And if you can't be with the one you love 
Love the one you're with

Stephen King once wrote that George Pelecanos is "perhaps the greatest living American crime writer."  

George Pelecanos
Pelecanos modestly notes on his website that "Mr. King used the qualifier perhaps."  Yes, King qualified his opinion -- I wouldn't have.

I also would have left out the other qualifier (crime) as well.  If there's a living American writer whose body of work is more impressive than the 18 novels Pelecanos has published in the past two decades, I haven't discovered him or her.

Those 18 novels are full of music.  Every time a character is driving in a car, Pelecanos tells us what song is playing on the radio or the eight-track.  Every time two characters are plotting their next moves in a neighborhood bar, we know what's on the jukebox.  And every time a man and a woman are alone in an apartment late at night, having a drink and engaging in the conversational foreplay that will eventually lead them to go to bed with each other, he tells us what record is playing on the stereo.

Pelecanos's novels include references to hundreds of rock, punk, blues, R&B and hiphop records.  If any one genre predominates, it is classic 1970s soul and funk music.  That is especially true of his newest book, What It Was, which is set in 1972 in Washington, DC -- which was once called "Chocolate City" by its predominantly African-American residents.

What It Was features at least a couple of dozen 1972-era soul and funk tracks.  Some of the artists who are mentioned (Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Isaac Hayes) are well-known.  Others -- like Ollie and the Nightingales -- are less familiar.

"Love the One You're With" was a top-20 hit for Stephen Stills in 1970.  I wasn't familiar with the Isley Brothers' 1971 cover of the Stills song, which not only was a top-20 pop hit but also reached #3 on the R&B chart.  It's one of several covers on their 1971 album, Givin' it Back.

Derek Strange -- a private investigator who is the protagonist of What It Was -- is sitting in his black '70 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and listening to the Isleys' version of "Love the One You're With" on the radio one fine morning when he sees his client, a sexy young woman named Maybelline Walker, come out of her apartment building.

"Damn," said Strange, an involuntary reaction, his mouth going dry at the sight of her, swinging her hips in a short strapless dress . . .

Later that day, Strange calls Maybelline and says he needs to see her so they can discuss the job she has hired him to do.  He goes to her apartment, where one thing leads to another.  Pretty soon, it looks like Derek Strange -- who is 26 and involved romantically with a pretty young nurse named Carmen -- is going to follow the Isleys' advice to "love the one you're with."

A black '70 Chevrolet Monte Carlo
What It Was is about a violent criminal named Red Jones, who is wreaking havoc on the mean streets of Washington, DC, in the summer of 1972.  Jones takes no particular pleasure in killing, and he's not looking to get rich.  Like Achilles, he is motivated by the desire for fame:

[M]ostly his focus was on work.  He aimed to leave behind a name that would be remembered.  That would be something.  Maybe the only thing.  The one way you could win.  'Cause everyone was bound for a bed of maggots in the end.

Jones and the two men who are hunting him -- a veteran DC homicide detective named Frank Vaughn and Derek Strange, an ex-cop who knows Vaughn from his days on the police force -- are all in long-term relationships with women, and Pelecanos spends considerable time discussing those relationships.

Red Jones and his lover, Coco Watkins -- she's a madam -- are fiercely loyal to one another.  As Red's crimes begin to pile up, the two really have to stick together to survive.  But theirs is not just a marriage (albeit a common-law one) of convenience: the two have a deep physical and emotional attachment to one another.    

Coco chauffeurs Red to a local bar one evening where he plans to assassinate an enemy in broad daylight -- a reckless act that will undoubtedly be witnessed by more than one bystander.  As she drops him off, Red lets her know that she is free to drive away and leave him without a getaway car, which would enable her to avoid becoming an accessory to the murder:

"I'm goin' in there," said Jones.  "You can leave me here if you want to.  I'll understand.  And I'll be all right."
"You think I'd leave you?"  Her eyes had grown heavy.  She brushed tears away with her thumbs, carefully, so as not to disturb her makeup.
Jones could see that he'd cut her.  He leaned across the seats and kissed her on the mouth.  "You're my bottom, girl."

Colt .45
When Jones walks out of the bar after emptying two Colt .45s into his victim, Coco is waiting for him.  She calmly drives Jones away from the scene of the crime.  Like Bonnie and Clyde, the two will stick together until the end.

Jones is faithful to Coco, but Frank Vaughn and his ally, Strange, are not faithful to their women.  Vaughn -- the only important character in the book who is white -- is quite a bit older than Jones and Strange, but still has an eye for the ladies:

She was in her fifties . . . . From the way her bottom half filled out her slacks, he could see that she was young where it counted.  Vaughn liked her manner and her looks.

Vaughn is married, but has been having an affair for some 15 years with a never-married law-firm secretary named Linda Allen.

[Frank's wife] was on his mind often while he worked.  Much as she annoyed him when he was home, and as little romance as they had between them, she never left his head for too long.  As for Linda Allen, he only thought of her when he felt a stirring in his trousers.  Funny how that was.   
I guess I love my wife, thought Vaughn.
Done reflecting, he got into his Dodge.

Vaughn doesn't spend much time reflecting on his relationships, and spends even less time feeling guilty.  But Derek Strange is bothered by his inability to stay true to Carmen, who is everything that he or any other young man could desire.

After wrangling an invitation to visit Maybelline Walker's apartment, Derek hesitates before he knocks on her door:

There were many ways a young man could ruin things with a good woman, and this was the most thoughtless.  But he was here, right now, and he had come here deliberately and with determination.  Later, if confronted, he would make excuses, but there weren't any valid ones, not for real.  He wanted what he wanted.  He had been thinking on it since the woman had walked into his office, swinging her hips.

It turns out that Derek is following in the footsteps of his father:

Derek recalled the day he had sat at the Three-Star Diner when his father Darius was still alive and working the grill.  Seeing a moment pass between his father and the diner's longtime waitress, Ella.  Recognizing the familiar look between them that suggested intimacy and maybe even love. . . .

His father, like all mortals, was a sinner, fallible.  In matters of the flesh he was downright weak.
The Isley Brothers
I am my father, thought Derek, as he knocked on Maybelline Walker's door.  No better than any other man.  Just a man.

After the two engage in a perfunctory discussion of the work he is doing for her, Maybelline gets them a couple of beers and puts Luther Ingram's "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" on her stereo.  (When George Pelecanos mentions a particular song title at a particular moment, he usually has a reason.)  Finally, after Maybelline has made it clear that she's ready to get it on, Strange makes his move:

He didn't even like Maybelline Walker.  But he moved to the sofa and sat beside her. 

They kiss, he cups her breast, and then he puts his hand between her legs.  Maybelline is ready and willing to receive him.  But he suddenly loses his desire for some reason.  What that reason is, ain't exactly clear (to paraphrase another Stephen Stills song), but it may be a mixture of his guilt and Maybelline's sexual aggressiveness, which he seems to find offputting:

The image of Carmen had flashed in his mind, but it wasn't just his conscience that had thrown cold water on his intent.  After all, he'd been unfaithful to Carmen before; because of his nature, he would probably cheat again.  But not today. 
Strange slowly got to his feet. . . .
"What the f*ck is wrong with you," said Maybelline.
"You talk too much," said Strange.

Carmen is nobody's fool.  Later that night, she reads Derek the riot act.

"Look at me, Derek."  Carmen had folded her arms across her chest, and her jaw was set.  "You got the smell of a woman on you.  Don't you know by now that you can't get that off you?" . . . 
Strange said nothing.
"Why'd you do it?" said Carmen.  "Am I not giving you something you need."
Strange spread his hands.  "Look, I didn't . . . I'm sayin', it didn't go to where you think it did."
"You mean you didn't f*ck her.  And I'm supposed to, what, give you credit for that?"

With that, she shuts the door in his face.

The next day, Vaughn notices that Strange is distracted, and quickly guesses what the problem is:

"Women troubles," said Vaughn.  "Am I right?  What'd you do, dip your pen in the wrong inkwell?"
"I made a mistake," said Strange. . . . "I should know better.  I'm a grown man."

Vaughn says exactly what you would expect him to say, given the way he lives his life.  

"Exactly: you're a man.  It's damn near impossible for a man to be faithful.  It's not natural.  Humans are the only species who even try.  When animals mate, the males move on."
"Men aren't animals," said Strange.

The next lines catch the reader by surprise.

Vaughn's mind flashed back nearly thirty years, to when he'd carried a flamethrower on Okinawa  His nightmares could not even approach the horrific reality of what he'd seen and done. . . .
"Yes, we are," he said.

Marine using flamethrower on Okinawa
Strange is still feeling guilty for cheating on Carmen a few days later when he visits his mother.

"Everything all right, son?" said Alethea.
"I'm fine."
"Don't lie to me.  You never could.  Not too well, anyway."
"I been wrong, Mama.  I've done some real bad things.  Broke every important commandment and some that ain't been wrote yet."
"Only the Lord is without sin. . . . Pretend you just got born, this minute."
"You mean make a new start."
"Today, Derek.  Do something right."
"Yes, ma'am," said Strange.
His mother always did know what to say.

Pelecanos stages this scene in the living room of the house that Derek Strange grew up in.  He and his mother are sitting "near his father's old recliner and his console stereo."

Did Derek's late father, Darius -- who cheated on Derek's mother with the waitress at the diner where he worked -- ever have a similar conversation with Alethea?  Did he confess his infidelity to her in that very same room?  And did she forgive him, telling him to "make a new start" and "do something right"?

I'm guessing that Darius was more like Derek than he was like Frank Vaughn -- that he felt guilty for his infidelity, and that he did confess his sins to Alethea.  And I'm guessing that she said the same things to him that she said to Derek.  But did Darius change his ways?  Or was his attraction to the waitress too strong to resist?  

The day that Vaughn and Strange track Red Jones down, Vaughn explains why he is going into the killer's hideout all by himself rather than calling in for backup:

Vaughn stared at the house.  "You know what a man is, in the end?  You know what defines him?"
"I'm guessing you're about to tell me."
"His dick and his work.  It's no more complicated than that. . . . When a guy's equipment doesn't function anymore, it's all over.  When he has no job, he has no purpose.  There's no reason to get up in the morning.  He's done."

Strange doesn't understand Vaughn's point at first.

"Far as I know, you're still there in the manhood department, Vaughn.  And you do your job."
"[My bosses] think I fell down on this Jones thing.  They think I've lost a step."
"And, what, you're gonna prove 'em wrong?"

Yes, Vaughn is going to prove them wrong -- more importantly, he's going to prove something to himself.  The answer he gives Strange shows that Vaughn and Red Jones aren't so different after all.

"The clock ticks.  You get toward the finish like, you realize that what's important is the name you leave behind. . . . Red Jones gets it.  You don't, because you're still young.  But you will."

Derek Strange may have learned what it means to be a man in the summer of 1972, but it took him a long time to learn what it means to be a good man.  What It Was ends with an epilogue set in 2012 -- four decades after Red Jones committed his crimes and Frank Vaughn and Derek Strange teamed up to pursue him.  In that epilogue, a friend asks Derek if he and Carmen ever patched things up:

Strange nodded.  "We got back together.  And then I did the same thing I did to her before.  I was just like that, Nick.  Fact is, I was in my fifties before I got right with one woman."

Derek Strange is featured in four other novels by George Pelecanos:  Right As Rain (2001), Hell to Pay (2002), Soul Circus (2003), and Hard Revolution (2004).  I thought that What It Was might be the last Pelecanos book that focused on him, but according to the author's Facebook page, Strange will be back.

The next 2 or 3 lines will also feature a song from What It Was.

Here's the Isley Brothers' cover version of "Love the One You're With":

Here's a link you can use to buy the song:

And here's a link you can use to buy What It Was: