Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dylan's Greatest Lyrics (in small caps)

1.just like a woman
2.desolation row
3.memphis blues again's all over now baby blue
5.girl from the north country
6.positively 4th street
7.i want you
8.ballad of a thin man
9.chimes of freedom
10.visions of johanna a rolling stone
12.sooner or later (one of must know)
13.crawl out your window
14.too much of nothing
15.tears of rage
16.all along the watchtower aint goin nowhere
18.the mighty quinn man
20.drifter's escape
21.farewell , angelina
22.gates of eden
23.simple twist of fate
24.just like tom thumb's blues minus/no limit
26.queen jane approximately
27.spanish harlem incident
28.when i paint my masterpiece
29.maggie's farm's alright man, i'm only bleeding
31.i shall be released
32.high 61 revisited
33.a hard rain's a gonna fall
34.absolutely sweet marie
35.i dreamed i saw saint Augustine

I do admire the work of artists who remain interesting as they get older, but it is a fact that many writers, poets, songwriters do their best , most compelling work in their early years. Dylan is one of these--the greatest songs , in my view, were those that combined equal elements of Surrealism, Burroughs inspired language cut ups, blues and rural south music vernaculars, and heady doses of French Symbolism by way of Rimbaud and Mallarme. This gave his stanzas a heightened, alienated feeling of sensory overload, making him  principle Lyricist of the bare existential absurdity that life happens to be. No one got to the infuriating heart of the sensation that life had ceased to mean anything after those matters that "mean" the most to us--marriages, friendships, tastes, financial security, spiritual or religious certainity--were changed, destoryed or simply vanished. Dylan's writing was of the individual suddenly in the choking throes of uncertainty , batting back encroaching gloom with the kind of swinging, poetic wit that reassembles existence. It is stance, a state,an aesthetic state of being that made it possible for him to fire on all cylinders for a good run of time. Generally, the poetic quality and intensity that Dylan produced in the longs on the list I made are substantial body of work that lines up perfectly with and matches the strongest work by Eliot, Pound, WC Williams, Burroughs, Ginsberg. It is also not the kind of work you can keep doing for a life time; like Miles Davis, he had to . His mature work has quite often hits the mark and offers the long view of experience in an especially moving way. Just as often, I think he misses the mark and overwrites or is prone to hackneyed phrasing. There is much quality to the later songs, but as a body of lyrics, they are not among Dylan's greatest.

Dylan is called more often than not a poet because of the unique genius of his best lyrics; I don't think he's a poet, but a songwriter with an original talent strong enough to change that particular art forever. I do understand , though, why a host of critics through the decades would consider him a poet in the first place. My list are the songs I think that justifies any sort of reputation Dylan has a poetic genius. I like most of the songs mentioned above for various reasons other than the ones on my initial 35 choices; the longs there manage an affinity for evoking the ambiguities and sharp perceptions of an acutely aware personality who is using poetic devices to achieve more abstract and suggestive effects and still manage to be wonderfully tuneful. No one else in rock and roll , really , was doing that before Dylan was. On those terms, nothing he's written is quite at the level of where he was with the songs on my list; this list consists of the body of work that substantiate Dylan's claim to genus.

"Just Like a Woman" is one of the finest character sketches I've ever heard in a song. What's remarkable is the brevity of the whole, how much history is suggested, inferred, insinuated in spare yet arresting imagery. I rather like that Dylan allows the mystery of this character to linger, to not let the fog settle. It is the ambiguity that gives it's suggestive power and there is the whole element of whether the person addressed is a woman at all, but rather a drag queen . It's an open question, it's a brilliant lyric.

"Drifter's Escape "was on twice and is now a single entry. There is a concentration of detail in the lyric, a compression of Biblical cadence and sequence that makes the song telling and vivid not in it's piling on of stanzas , but in its brevity. He does the same for "All along the Watchtower", which i regard as a condensed "Desolation Row," a commentary , perhaps, from the tour bus just passing through; the tour guide finally tells the driver "there must be some kinda way outta here." What I regard as the true "poetry" of Dylan's music is in the earlier music, where he is spectacularly original in how he forced his influences to take new shapes and to create new perspectives. Post JWH, I just find too much of his lyric writing prolix and meandering, time-filling rather than revealing; the surreal, fresh, colloquial snap of his language has gone and is replaced with turns of phrase that are trite , hackneyed, ineffective;' they strike my ear as false. Even "Blind Willie McTell" , a song  that has been persuasively  defended by intelligent fans of Dylan's later work, strikes too many false notes for my tastes  Musically it  drags  and philosophically seems a victim of convenient  thinking,  a PC version of Song of the South; some of the imagery is simply cloying and seems more suitable more for Gone with the Wind than a poet of arguable worth
...See them big plantations burning
Hear the cracking of the whips
Smell that sweet magnolia blooming
See the ghosts of slavery ships
I can hear them tribes a-moaning
Hear that undertaker’s bell...

Really, that is awful, a dreadful presentation of atmospheric detail meant to create historical context and mood, but it trades on so many received ideas of slavery, racism,the south, et al, that the intent no longer matters. It strikes as more minstrel show than tribute. Had anyone submitted this to a serious  poetry (or lyric) writing workshop, it would have been handed back to us for revision, with the advice that we rid the narrative of the creaky, questionable window dressing. "When I Paint My Masterpiece", in contrast, works wonderfully because of its lack of any messages about social justice. It works because it is a sharp, terse, vivid travelogue, vague and evocative in equal measure. The ambiguity and absence of relevance to anything other than Dylan's need to speak off handedly about a in interesting time in the life of a particular character is what makes this song memorable.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

Perfectly natural language here, good and unexpected rhymes, telling use of local detail that give us color and history without sagging qualifiers to make it more "authentic", the lyrics are recollection of a trip, of places visited, of perspectives changing, a nice string of incidents in a language that sounds like a real voice telling real things, with genuine bemusement .
Well, I had a feeling that the general good feeling this album conveys is that Dylan wasn't trying too hard to prove he's a genius. The record is straight forward and the language is remarkable free of affectation , a tendency that has plagued him, post JWH. I especially like "Sign in the Window"; it has the sincerity an actual and momentary acceptance of where one happens to be in a certain part of life, and offers a new set of expectations.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014


I’m a sex writer with a secret shame — hoarding -

Salon has always been editorially obsessed with sex-talk, convinced, perhaps, that the prosaic writings of those engaged in the continual grinding of genitalia constitutes a literary form who's time has come. It is , of course, porn for the nervously middlebrow, a poor sister to travel writing. 

Now we have a sex writer who is more interested in doing field research than keeping a clean household. Salon, we thought, was supposed to be covering the culture in a smart and literate way, but these stories are tiresomely shallow beyond a certain point, being neither things we can relate nor shocking nor insightful . I am not , of course, a mental health expert, but I find it ironic that someone who is interested in lifestyles that push back the boundaries of sexual expression , so to speak, has come up against a literal wall in their real   world domicile. There is , in fact, scarcely any more room  for clutter in the space provided. 

Our writer, seeking to cram as much life into the years she has on the planet, perhaps has used up her psychic space allowance for ignoring larger issues both the clutter and the sex drive might be symptoms of. Again, I am not a mental health expert, but I can sling a metaphor or two.

 Sometimes the metaphors are apt.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Black people and white people are different -

Black people and white people are different -

Elon James White is trying to be the Supreme Irony Monger of America's racial divide, but he spends so much time stopping, digressing, changing gears and repeating some rather obvious insights, borrowed from decades of past comments on matters ethnic and bitter, that it's near impossible to know if there's any real point he's trying to make. Does anyone really think that his take on Haley Barbour's selective recollection of his college days is fresh, insightful or expressing a bottom line no knew was there? Doubtful. 

This smug  rant is a trite  wallow in what's already been said in work places, bus stops, cable tv talk shows, newspaper columns , and certainly on innumerable blog entries. It's not that the topic, the differences in perspective between white and black people, is tired or solved or without urgent need of honest discussion. White isn't the one to lead anyone out of the forest, though, as he's too busy strutting in front of the peanut gallery playing that only tune he knows on that banged up trumpet he carries around.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Bunk rock

I gave up hope for rock criticism developing into a respectable form of criticism when I realized that it was, for the most part, a pissing contest for most of the guys who decided to try their hand at it. For every Bangs and Young, there were dozens of lesser lights who proved, at length, that they could make noise aplenty but offer little or no light on the subject. Much of it has to do with how well the current state of the music happens to be, of course, but pop music criticism did come to the point where everyone was recycling what everyone had already written, and the two trajectories  offered readers by the end of the seventies was incomprehensible Greil Marcus/Dave Marsh obscurantism, which insisted that the music they listened to in college dorms was the Spenglarian peak of civilization and that every note played afterward was an inferior facsimile of the authentic, or the knee jerk Bangs imitations where wave after wave of typing nitwits missed out on Lester's capacity for feeling deep emotion and his brand of self-criticism and instead freight us with jabbering sarcasm by the carload. Jim DeRogatis , rock critic for various outlets , author of the Lester Bangs biography "Let It Blurt", rounded up a slew of younger, Generation X pop writers and invited them to select a classic rock album, an album, by consensus, considered to be Canonical and there for inarguably great and then to debunk an older generation of critics' claim for the lasting greatness of those records. It's an interesting idea, I admit, but the result, an anthology called "Kill Your Idols" is a miserably strident, one-note mass of pages dedicated to puerile dismissals of a lot of good, honest music. "Snotty" doesn't do that particular disaster justice.

The problem with the generation of rock critics who followed the late Lester Bangs was that too many of them were attempting to duplicate Bangs' signature and singular ability to write movingly about why rock and roll stars make terrible heroes. Like many of us, Bangs became disillusioned with rock and roll when he discovered that those he admired and was obsessed by--Lou Reed, Miles Davis, and Black Sabbath--were not saints. The discovery of their clay feet, their egos, and the realization that rock and roll culture was a thick cluster of bullshit and pretentiousness didn't stymie Bangs' writing. It, in fact, was the basis of Bangs transcending his limits and finding something new to consider in this. Sadly, he died before he could enter another great period of prose writing. "Kill Your Idols", edited by Jim DeRogatis, is an anthology that is intended, I suspect to be the Ant- “Stranded”, the Greil Marcus edited collection where he commissioned a number of leading pop music writers and asked them to write at length about what one rock and roll album they would want to be left on a desert island with; it's not a perfect record--then New York Times rock critic John Rockwell chose "Back in the USA" by Linda Ronstadt and couldn't mount a persuasive defense of the disc--but it did contain a masterpiece by Bangs, his write-up of Van Morrison's album “Astral Weeks”. His reading of the tune “Madame George” is a staggering example of lyric empathy, a truly heroic form of criticism. "Kill Your Idols", in reverse emulation, assigns a group of younger reviewers who are tasked with debunking the sacred cows of the rock and roll generation before them; we have, in effect, pages full of deadening sarcasm from a crew who show none of the humor or sympathy that were Bangs best qualities. Bangs, of course, was smart enough not to take himself too seriously; he knew he was as absurd as the musicians he scrutinized.

"Kill Your Idols" seemed like a good idea when I bought the book, offering up the chance for a younger set of rock critics to give a counterargument to the well-made assertions of the essayists from the early Rolling Stone/Crawdaddy/Village Voice days who are finely tuned critiques gave us what we consider now to be the Rock Canon. The problem, though, is that editor Jim Derogatis didn't have that in mind when he gathered this assortment of Angry Young Critics and changed them with disassembling the likes of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, the MC5; countering a well phrased and keenly argued position requires an equally well phrased alternative view and one may go so far as to suggest the fresher viewpoint needs to be keener, finer, sharper. Derogatis, pop and rock music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, author of the estimable Lester Bangs biography Let It Blurt, had worked years ago as record review editor of Rolling Stone and found himself getting fired when he couldn't abide by publisher Jan Wenner's policy of not giving unfavorable reviews to his favorite musicians.

His resentment toward Wenner and Rolling Stone's institutional claims of being a power broker as far as band reputations  is understandable, but his motivation is more payback than a substantial refutation of conventional wisdom. The Angry Young Critics were too fast out of the starting gate and in collective haste to bring down the walls of the Rock Establishment wind up being less the Buckley or the Vidal piercing pomposity and pretension than, say, a pack of small yapping dogs barking at anything passing by the backyard fence. The likes of Christgau, Marcus, and Marsh provoke you easily enough to formulate responses of your own, but none of the reviews have the makings of being set aside as a classic of a landmark debunking; there is not a choice paragraph or phrase one comes away with.

Even on albums that, I think, are over-rated, such as John Lennon's Double Fantasy, you think they're hedging their bets; a writer wanting to bring Lennon's post-Beatles reputation down a notch would have selected the iconic primal scream album Plastic Ono Band (to slice and dice. But the writers here never bite off more than they can chew; sarcasm, confessions of boredom and flagging attempts at devil's advocacy make this a noisy, nit picky book whose conceit at offering another view of Rock and Roll legacy contains the sort of hubris these guys and gals claim sickens them. This is a collection of useless nastiness, a knee-jerk contrarianism of the sort that one overhears in bookstores between knuckle dragging dilettantes who cannot stand being alive if they can't hear themselves bray. Yes, "Kill Your Idols" is that annoying, an irritation worsened but what could have been a fine idea.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


Man oh man, what a band. They were a band of technically competent musicians who came up with one good production, their inspired production of "You Keep Me Hanging On". It was an inspired move to slow down the Supremes' most jacked-up hit . Instead of the ringing -telephone shrillness of the original, this became instead a mock-fugue, building tension and releasing it effectively erotic explosions. Sometimes I still thrash around the living room with this song in my head, miming Vince Martel's clanging power chords with broad sweeps of my hand. VF's arrangement of this song became the standard approach for the most part; Rod Stewart did a credible take of his that borrowed heavily from the Fudge's initial recasting. Sadly, though, the band relied too much on that one idea, too often. 
Their songs, original or reinterpretations, tended to be dirge like and down right pompous, dullsville, a drag. And their album "The Beat Goes On" beat Yes to the punch , producing the single most pretentious and bombastic concept album years before the British band mustered up that three disc Hindenburg they titled "Tales from Topographic Ocean." Vanilla Fudge has a mixed legacy, but the one thing they did well, the storm and thunder that comprises their version of "You Keep Me Hanging On", they did brilliantly. It is a thing forever and so few of us accomplish that even in our most inflated fantasies.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks: Americana Sublime

Song Cycle -- Van Dyke Parks
Purchased for a buck at a garage sale, an over-busy if an often inspired bit of Sixties art-pop. The ambition is the attempted embrace of the width and breadth of American popular music, and though Parks fails to accomplish this, the disc is admirable, with the embrace of Gershwin, ragtime, and Charles Ives being nicely enveloped within a semi-scored album where the "concept" album achieves what other rock art music fails to get; the concept meets up with continuity. Always interesting, though Parks' voice is nasal and over-enunciated. His lyrics have been described as "esoteric Rod McKuen", which is fine if that's all you can think of when poetry comes to mind. It reads more like if James Merrill rhymed consistently in his elongated stanzas. Fantastic job on Randy Newman's "Vine Street". "...But, in truth, more often I just reach for Harry Nilsson...." is what critic Miles Milo said in an online forum when the chatter dwelled on this disc for a few postings. Point taken, in as much as Nilsson was as hooky as he was the musically brilliant; he was as much a wise guy as a whiz kid. That said, I am getting more into Song Cycle the third and second time I gave it spin today, and for all the obvious trappings of Sixties simulacra when it comes to replicating older regional styles, ala Sgt. Pepper (a curse a few survived when they tried the album-as-art business), this particular disc has integrity and some guts under the esoterica. Parks' version of this exotica is lusher, more loving, and akin to what E.L. Doctorow had done in his period novels Ragtime and World's Fair: the resplendent vision of a more elegant and simple time is made odd and unfamiliar as contemporary psychological crises emerge from the tasseled finery. His perversions, his dissonances are delightfully bracing, if such a thing can be; the smart move is that he goes after Ives and molds the orchestrated and grandiose Americanism into something large, a little insane but not evil by any means. The ideas work as a unified whole. His grasp of orchestration and classical composition exceeds what Frank Zappa brought to the public. Plus, "Vine Street" is simply one of the best covers of a Randy Newman tune I've come across in my years. An additional plus is his deconstruction of "Donovan's Colours"; the original melody is all but obscured and obliterated outright by Park's inspiring pile-ups of sound and overt virtuosity. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Shann Palmer

I never got to meet poet Shann Palmer , who passed away yesterday , but I did get to know  her at Slate's now defunct reader forum, Poems Fray. There was a loyal group of us who, as forums tend to be, were passionate  , insightful, sometimes angry and excitable to varying degrees, and we opined at length on matters of poetry, poets, poetics and ,yes , poetry again. Many of us were poets on the forum and a few of us were actually good. Shann, though, was not "actually good" at writing poetry; she was bloody superb and had a way with building a series of sentences that formed perfectly etched stanzas, the stanzas in turn following a thought through its permutations in the real world, remembered and current, and her conclusions were nearly always the perfect summations of  a poet, a person who , though perhaps cranky, tired, in love, angry or joyous, knew what she didn't know and looked forward to investigating the next incident, the next adventure. Her images were clear and uncluttered, beautifully spare, her voice was the plain speaking but literate combination of someone thinking out loud and telling you what there is in her world . She was one of the most intimate poets I have read--in my readings there nearly always seems to be a confidant, a husband, another person being spoken to, or rather , spoken with. Shann's gift, her gift to us, was that hers was not a poetry of conclusions, summaries or getting things nailed into place. It seemed more like a conversation she was having, in progress.  Her passing brings me sadness because there is not just one less friend, of a sort, in my life, but one less significant poet in the world to inspire me to write another poem, to fill another page. God speed, Shann.

Two poems by Shann Palmer, originally published by

fat-bottomed girls you make the rocking world go round
how much is too much?
how much cake and condiments
chocolate decadence crushed
nuts on whipped cream dreams
sugar wafers extra sugar salad
on the side hell on both sides
cointreau soaked fresh fruit
panne bread garlic butter spread
all the way to the edge of the toast
cinnamon and sugar coffee latte
mint cookie not to mention
entrees wellington well done
spanakopita shepherd's pie
en crustade layered lasagna
mozarella moshed ricotta
enough to make an angel weep
kate smith sing another song
liz let out another inch shelley bed
another star-struck boy rosie bite
a dog vanessa stop watching

a Boston ballerina dies
for want of bone Paris models
with sunken eyes shoot horses
in a world where children starve
there are no easy menus no
compassionate cuisine only
secrets in every house in every
kitchen in every heavy heart.

You can't spit
around here without hitting
a poet or novelist these days
dime a dozen like my daddy's
cheap detective magazines
back in the fifties as if any of 'em
know what the hell I'm talking about.

we used to have integrity once
or twice a month shit I knew I would
never be left alone or without a drink
there was always something
jumpin' somebody laying low
someone to sleep with course
that had another set of problems
there was that woman in Tucson
used to say her crabs had the clap
she was telling the truth too.

we'd put on the Doors or the White album
smoke weed until we were comatose
watching the candle dance on the adobe
as if it meant something maybe Gilman
would have some sweet hash there was
that time Pfieffer jumped the train with
a couple of Black Panthers on the run
standing out on the porch watching
the stoplight change talking about the whole
goddamn universe being a celluloid
moebius strip slept on the floor
landlady came by the next morning
said we were all pigs but didn't throw
us out we were fine buncha crappa
always paid on time in spite of our
intense recreational illegal activities
we weren't dopers we were intellectuals.

reading poems with gravity Jim would blow
smoke in my face but I never cracked if Steve
wasn't there he'd try other things that sometimes
worked but that's better left unsaid my words
transcended thought he told me I'd tell him the future
none of it came true except we never
married and I'm still writing poetry
pulling lint out of my navel and calling it art.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Great American Novel

Greatest American novel is a subject that exists along side such topics YouTube topics who the fastest guitarist is , or the fan boy delights of slinging invective at each in the course of ruminating on the image of Superman v The Hulk. The fun in all that is that it inspires everyone to put on their Expert Pants and invent conditions, causes and criteria for their favorite --guitarist, Super Hero, novel--and use them as bludgeons against a legion of other equally engorged enthusiasts who, in turn, have their individual favorite and wield rhetoric devices no less bludgeoning.

 Even Norman Mailer, who was honest enough to admit that he actually wanted to write something called the Great American Novel admitted , after decades of brilliant books, that such a thing, a single entity,does not and cannot exist. The American Experience, or any historically collected National Experience, is too complex and changing too fast for one set of qualifications to set permanently. The greatest American novel, I think, will only be decided, finally ,when we are extinct and someone else , something else assumes the job of figuring out who we were, what we did, and what of that is worth a damn thing.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Beckett trashes the Supreme Fiction

"What is that unforgettable line?” 
Samuel Beckett

Existentialism is when I discover that I'm the private joke .I think Beckett would appreciate those who can pierce through that psychic prophylactic against comprehension and grasp the humor he observed and recorded. I have the idea that Beckett permeated the membrane that divides  this reality from the metaphysical one, in Plato's sense of the term (and Wallace Stevens as well with his theories about the Supreme Fiction) and instead of finding Ideal Types as promised, he found an empty room.This can be a comedy Kierkegaard and Bergman can also get behind, a God who is silent and likely engrossed in anything apart from what's going on in the human situation. People, his creations, are pretty much treated as laundry or broken toys or anything else he refuses to deal with, repair or restore. 

I always found it comic that the Idiot God we think is wise and all knowing is something human personalities entreat with prayer, mythology, art, poetry to give the world a sense of order, albeit an invisible one, and that there is meaning  and purpose to the mostly terrible and tedious events and fates that befall us; the punchline is that we modify the dynamics of the imagined , purpose-giving narrative we think we assign the world as a means of making it seem as if there is reason and a greater purpose served no matter how ugly, inane and repetitiously tragic like actually turns out to be.

  Our conversations and our actions become bizarre and baroque, symbolic of nothing in particular. Man continues to entreat God for wisdom, and God keeps playing with the remote control for something else to distract Him. Meanwhile , some of us would insist that there is indeed something arguably in place and permanent in a universe that that adheres to the 20th century paradigm of expanding attention-deficit randomness, love, and music. Those two items are permanent items in the storage closet of words and the things they represent that have been dedicated to tripping us up and making us step on the rake yet again. But permanent in what sense? Like everything else already touched on in this compacted rant, it depends on who you talk to and whose theoretical alibi you're willing to suspend disbelief for. Yet let's cut to the quick, slowly:
Love and music are not perfections of any sort, but rather, at their best, a brilliant crafting, or blend, of imperfect motives and tenuously played sounds. They are processes, albeit enjoyable ones. Perfect things are "done" and advance no further, and are dead. 
Perhaps we should not settle for the cover letter that comes with our world and choose rather to live as long as we can do so, creatively, fruitfully, happy as we can make ourselves.

a belated blurb for a great Norman Mailer novel

Ancient Evenings
a nove
l  by Norman Mailer

Mailer once remarked that his intention with writing Ancient Evenings was to compose a long sequence of novels telling the history of the Jewish people through the experience of one family, beginning in Ancient Egypt before the arrival of Christ, onward through time past various diasporas , persecutions, genocides, successes and setbacks, with the concluding edition of this fictional saga being somewhere in the future , in outer space, with the eyes of the protagonist trained outwards still. As it happens, Mailer was so engrossed in the profound mysteries of Egyptian religious ritual, culture and mythology that he never made past the river Nile. All the same, this is a breathtaking read, generations of magic, politics, reincarnations and aggressively ambiguous sexual engorgement roiling through centuries of particularized vanity. This is ,as others have correctly asserted, an overlong book , and one suspects that had Mailer been less known and an good editor had applied the blue pencil on those passages that were merely lugubrious , we would have had a tighter, punchier novel. But Ancient Evenings is one of those exotic expressions of unexpected genius that the passages that threaten to sink under the weight of all that sexual energy being put forth don't become tedium, but rather the texture of a fantastically realized fever dream; there are fantastic battles, eroticism beyond gender, magic in the ancient ways as men and women seek power and dominion over their own soles against mysterious and powerful forces that have placed them in impossible states of yearning.  This is a brilliant novel by a writer who , I believed, is one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. That last assertion is a debate that won't be resolved here, but I do encourage anyone with a taste for ambitious historical fiction with a  skewed sense of the supernatural to read this book.


I always thought Dionne  Warwick was a vocal original. The going tradition for black pop and soul singers had been a very gospel, shout to the rafters approach that required range and training. Warwick had the training, obviously, but not the vocal range, and managed to work spectacularly well within her limits. She had an interesting, offbeat sense of when to sing a lyric, a subtle tone of sadness in the lower register; there was a magical sense of her speaking to you directly, softly, after a good cry. This is shown in the video of  Walk on By, a song that begins with the pacing of someone trying to hurry down a street, trying to avoid eye contact with a former lover they can't bring themselves to see, a perfect mood, at the edge of the frantic, as Warwick movingly, slowly sings the opening words of her imagined speech to her ex-paramour :

If you see me walkin' down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by
Make believe that you don't see the tears
Just let me grieve in private 'cause each time I see
I break down and cry, I cry
Walk on by, don't stop
Walk on by, don't stop
Walk on by

This is one of the great heartbreak songs of the era, and it shows Warwick's particular genius for softly dramatizing a lyric by underplaying the emotion. Leslie Gore, Patty Duke, and a myriad other pop proto-divas would have raised the roof beams with this song, but Ms. Dionne finds the right pitch. The sorrow, self-pity, and resignation are all there, but the quality of Warwick's singing places her not in a sort of hysterical moment of solipsistic self-pity. Still, someone, actually, is more the Hemingway stoic, shouldering the pain and the grief and dealing with what everyday life demands. Of course, there is that sweetly sad piano figure in the chorus that presents an effective change in tempo and mood, a circling keyboard figure that halts the forward motion of the narrative and stops the narrator, our singer Dionne, dead in her tracks, briefly and sharply remembering the pain of breaking up.

These are rare and beautiful attributes in a singer, the capacity to emote on such a small scale; she was the exact opposite of the late Gene Pitney, who turned every sad song into an aria of teen heartache. Both singers, incidentally, were blessed to have sung many songs by the Bacharach/David team, two men who knew how to write songs for a singer's vocal strengths.

Bear in mind, I was a big fan of Pitney's. For comparison, above is Pitney singing "I'm Gonna Be Strong," written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (later covered by Cyndi Lauper in her early band Blue Ash). An extreme bit of heartache here, with the perfect singer for the sad tale. The tempo is the same throughout, but as it progresses, subtly but quickly, Pitney's voice is stronger, filled with more self-aggrandizing emotion, a man turning in his sleep and trying to burn his way through his loss with nothing but stoicism, but who, in the final hour, alone, will just weep as hard and as loud as he is able. The way Pitney's voice climbs to his highest register is chilling, equaling the grandiose swell of the orchestration. 

Tortured high notes were precisely what Pitney's music was about, observable in the operatic, compressed, grandiose, and florid teen angst songs he sang with a voice that could start out low, smooth, slightly scratchy with restraint, and then in the sudden turn in tempo and a light flourish of horns or sweeping, storm-bringing violins, slide up the banister to the next landing and again defy gravity to the yet the next level as he his voice climbed in register, piercing the heart with melodrama and perfect pitch as the banalest love stories became the raging of simultaneous tempests. It was corny on the face of it, but Pitney had the voice, and he had the songs to pull it off and make records that still have that stirring hard-hitting effect; "Town Without Pity," "It Hurts To Be In Love," "Twenty Four Hours to Tulsa," "I'm Gonna Be Strong." A substantial string of other hits ( 16 top twenty hits between 1961 and 1968) took the tearjerker to the next level. As mentioned by someone the other day in the British press commemorating his music, his tunes weren't loved songs; they were suicide notes. Pitney's multi-octave sobbing qualified as Johnny Ray turning into the Hulk, wherein the sadder he was made, the stronger his voice became. All this was enough for me to buy his records in the early Sixties when I was just making my way to developing my own tastes in musicians and their sounds.
Most of the early stuff I liked--The Four Seasons, Peter Paul, and Mary--I dismiss as charming indulgences of a young boy who hadn't yet become a snob, but Pitney? I kept a soft spot for his recordings in my heart and defended him in recent years when those verbal battles about musical tastes found his name impugned in my presence. The Prince of Perfect Pitch deserves respect for turning the roiling moodiness of teenage love into sublime expressions of virtuoso emotionalism.