Friday, December 02, 2016

adam gopnik | bill shakespeare, working playwright

As the ordinary poet of a working company of players, he sought plots under deadline pressure rather than after some long, deliberate meditation on how to turn fiction into drama. "What have you got for us this month, Will?" the players asked him, and, thinking quickly, he'd say, "I thought I'd do something with the weird Italian story I mentioned, the one with the Jew and the contest." "Italy again? All right. End of the month then?"

the new yorker
oct 17, 2016

Saturday, July 16, 2016

fifty years ago today | week ending july 16 1966 | billboard hot 100

click to expand

4. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, Dusty Springfield

If you discovered Dusty Springfield in 1968 like I did, you'd know she was a Southern girl from Erskine Caldwell country. Son Of A Preacher Man had the same backwoods grit as Bobby Gentry's southern gothic masterpiece Ode To Billie Joe. But you'd know wrong. Roberta Lee Streeter was bona fide Mississippi, born and raised in Chickasaw County: Mary Isolbel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien hailed from much further north, and a ways east - Hampstead, North London, in fact.

A lot of people made that kind of mistake. Just hearing her sing, you'd easily think Dusty was black. She worshiped Aretha Franklin, her landmark LP "Dusty In Memphis" was the product of an iconic soul studio backed by seasoned rhythm and blues session players, and she was often the only white singer featured in black R&B revues. She hosted a UK program that spotlighted Motown stars.

But Dusty was white. Very white. The evening gown, the make-up, the bouffant hairdo - to look at her, you'd peg her as a Lulu or Petula Clark. And this week's #4 tune has her in full pop diva mode.  

"Pop diva" - I guess that sounds dismissive. It's not meant to. As much as Springfield was a chameleon (her first incarnation was as a folkie, in The Springfields, a pop duo with her brother), there's nothing ersatz in a single moment of this, her highest-charting single ever. Or anywhere in her recorded oeuvre, as far as I'm concerned. This girl's legit.

But "diva" fits. Certainly for the operatic scope, style, emotion. Also for the melodrama that was her life. Also for her artistry, the control she wielded in the studio or theatre: completely untrained musically, she knew precisely what she wanted, what pick the bass player should use, where the microphones should be placed. She found the acoustics of the Philips Studio wanting, and recorded her vocal for You Don't Have To Say You Love Me in a stairwell. Forty-seven times.

She discovered the tune in January 1965, competing in the Italian Song Festival. Pino Donaggio stepped up to the microphone and sang Io Che Non Vivo Senza Te, and Dusty wept - though she couldn't understand a word of it.

A year later her friends Vicki Wickham (the producer of Ready Steady Go!) and Simon Napier-Bell (manager of The Yardbirds) would quickly pen lyrics over dinner and in a cab ride to a London discotheque, though they'd never written a song in their lives. The next day Springfield was in the studio (and the studio stairwell) recording it.

The original Italian version of the song was featured in the Luchino Visconti film Vaghe Stelle dell'Orsa ("Sandra Of A Thousand Delights"), that placed Claudio Cardinale in a retelling of the Electra myth that mixed incest and Italian guilt about the Holocaust. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Here's a clip that gives a feel for the film: unfortunately, no Io Che Non Vivo Senza Te.

Back to Dusty. You HAVE to listen to Guess Who, the b-side of a 1964 single that never climbed higher than "Bubbling Under" status on the Billboard charts. The ominous guitar riff, the extraordinary string and horn arrangement, the Motown-ballad background vocals. And that voice. Just go ahead and tell me she's not black.

This is a song you could get obsessed with. I did.

53. Summer In The City, The Lovin' Spoonful
41. Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind, The Lovin' Spoonful
42. Younger Girl, The Critters
59. Younger Girl, The Hondells

How's this for a change of pace? From the dark romanticism of Italian film and tormented love affairs to the sunshiny summer pop of The Lovin' Spoonful.  Okay, there's some heft to Summer In The City, which debuts this week in the #53 slot and will pretty much end up the theme song of the summer of '66. It's gritty and urban the way Preacher Man is gritty and rural.

But it's the least Lovin' Spoonful of any Lovin' Spoonful tune. Too serious, too electric. That said, there's more "girlfriend pop" in the breaks, "But at night it's a different world, go out and find a girl...", and if you jump in around 1:10 you'll get a taste of the goofin' around vibe of John Sebastian and especially guitarist Zal Yanovsky (a Canadian, dontcha know? Just thought I'd point that out). "Yup, we're lip synching. Anybody see any trucks or taxis on the stage? Let alone autoharps? Who cares!" As seriously as Dusty Springfield took everything, that's exactly how seriously the Spoonful didn't take anything.

It's Billboard tag-team this week for the Greenwich Village boys - as Summer in The City shows up, Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind slips out the back. It entered the charts back in early May, and held the #2 position (behind Paint It, Black - the Stones were the anti-Spoonful) for a couple weeks in mid-June.

Okay, I'll admit, the attitude toward chicks gives me the willies. Always has. Call me a feminist or call me old-fashioned, I always cringe at this stuff.

"Sometimes you really dig a girl the moment you kiss her
And then you get distracted by her older sister
When in walks her father and takes you in line
And says, You Better go home, son, and make up your mind."

That's not exactly what I would have said to the two-timing lad. (Where's my shotgun...)

But I only cringe a little. Mostly, I just want to be up there with Zal and the guys, getting a kick out of everything.

Big week for the boys. Big summer. Big couple of years. They released their first single the year before (Do You Believe In Magic), and by the end of 1966 they would have charted seven top ten tunes. In spring '67 Zal pulled a Kazan and named names (drugs, not communism) and just that quick the band started to pull apart. But they had a heck of a ride.

Big week. As well as two Spoonful singles on the Hot 100, you've got two covers of their tune Younger Girl. If you grew up on the east coast, you know The Critters' version, recorded by a bunch of Jersey Boys. (Though they don't look nearly as tough as anybody from Jersey. And they don't seem to be having as much fun as anybody from Greenwich Village.)

If you grew up on the west coast, you're partial to version by The Hondells (not to be confused with the Rondels, or the Rhondells). (Or with a real band. The Hondells consisted entirely of L.A. studio musicians, pulled together initially to cash in on the vehicular sub-genre of Beach Boys music, and now looking to get their own spoonful of pop chart cash with a John Sebastian cover.) (Not to gainsay the musicianship: the players are mostly recruited from the ranks of the Wrecking Crew, top players who graced an infinitude of California hits in the Sixties. Curiously, the lead vocalist on several Hondells tunes (including their debut, Little Honda) was Chuck Girard, who later became a fixture in the burgeoning Jesus Music scene. Gary Usher is the guy who pulled together the Crew members for any given record, and they didn't just change personnel over the years, they changed monikers, recording as The Sunsets, The Four Speeds, Gary Usher and The Usherettes (aka: The Honeys), The Competitors, The Go-Go's, The Devons, The Ghouls, The Super Stocks, The Indigos, The Revells, The Kickstands and The Knights.

Younger Girl first appeared on the Lovin' Spoonful's debut album "Do You Believe In Magic", but was never released as a single. I'll admit, theirs is my favourite version, but that may only be because it's the one I heard first - which is likely the determining factor for Critters and Hondells fans, as well. To my ears, the autoharp gives it a nice propulsive rhythm right off the top, and when they shift down into the B section the tune finds a new loping energy. The others sound a little slick (Hondells) or earnest (Critters) to my ear, and neither has the light touch of Sebastian's original vocals. But you can make up your own mind.

You can also make up your mind about the lyrics;

"A younger girl keeps rollin' 'cross my mind
And should I hang around, acting like her brother
In a few more years, they'd call us right for each other
And why? If I wait I'll just die..."

If you're in grade eleven, and she's in grade nine, maybe that's just fine. If you're as old as Gary Puckett, and the Young Girl is "just a baby in disguise," it's full-on creepy. "Better go home, son..."


One last musicological footnote about the provenance of Younger Girl. You'll read things like "The song is basically Prison Wall Blues (1930) by Cannon's Jug Stompers, with a few lyrical changes." Well, that greatly overstates the case.

"Now my head is hanging down with these prison wall blues
The white mule made me act a pop-eyed clown
Now I've got no time to lose
When they bring you through that gate
You wish you hadn't 'a done it, but it's just too late
But you might as well laugh, good partner, when you fall
Now hollerin’ won't get you from behind these walls.

"These prison wall blues keep rollin' 'cross my mind
I can't get a pardon, looks like the governor won’t cut my time
I once was lost, but now I'm found
I'd leave this place running, but I'm scared of them flop-eared hounds
These prison wall blues keep rollin' 'cross my mind.

"This is the first fence I ever saw in my life that I can't climb
This fence will make a high yellow girl turn dark
It’ll make a weak-eyed man go blind
When I leave these walls, I'll be running dodging trees
See the bottom of my feet so many times, you'll think I'm on my knees
These prison wall blues keep a-rollin' 'cross my mind."

Notwithstanding the possibility of prison for the Older Man in Younger Girl, there's not a lot of overlap between the two lyrics, apart from the "keep rollin' cross my mind" bit. (Which also puts me in mind of The Peppermint Trolley's Baby You Come Rollin' Cross My Mind. But that doesn't come along until 1968, so we won't head down that particular rabbit trail for a couple more years.) But musically you can definitely hear it in the bridge (0:33 "These prison wall blues keep rollin'..." etc = "A younger girl keeps rollin'..." etc), and when you get to the instrumental section around 1:01, you can sing the John Sebastian lyrics over the jug band music just as slick as a whistle.

Last word about Younger Girl. Has there ever been a better lyric than this?

"I remember her eyes, soft, dark, and brown
Said she'd never been in trouble, even in town..."


And don't forget to check out...

the week ending july 2 1966
1. Strangers In The Night, Frank Sinatra
2. Paperback Writer, The Beatles
7. Cool Jerk, The Capitols
24. Rain, The Beatles
29. When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge
53. I Saw Her Again, The Mamas & The Papas
55. Solitary Man, Neil Diamond
59. The Work Song, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
74. When A Woman Loves A Man, Esther Phillips
90. I Want You, Bob Dylan

the week ending july 9 1966
2. Red Rubber Ball, The Cyrkle
6. Wild Thing, The Troggs
17. I Am A Rock, Simon & Garfunkel
33. Sweet Talking Guy, The Chiffons
44. A Groovy Kind Of Love, The Mindbenders
83. See You In September, The Happenings

the week ending july 16 1966
4. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, Dusty Springfield
41. Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind, The Lovin' Spoonful
42. Younger Girl, The Critters
53. Summer In The City, The Lovin' Spoonful
59. Younger Girl, The Hondells

Thursday, July 07, 2016

fifty years ago today | week ending july 9 1966 | billboard hot 100

2. Red Rubber Ball, The Cyrkle

Coming in at Number Two this week fifty years ago (as Frankie slips to Number Three and the Fabs ascend to Number one) are the lads from Lafayette College in sleepy little Easton Pennsylvania. Having the year of their lives, as you can see in the video.

Last fall they got signed by none other than Brian Epstein, who changed the band's name from The Rondells – not to be confused with the Rhondells, the brass-boosted Bill Deal band who'll show up on the charts in a couple of years with terrific covers of beach music standards like May I and What Kind Of Fool Do You Think I Am). In consultation with none other than John Lennon, Brian dubs them The Cyrkle. (That's just how they spelled thynges in the Sixties...)

The band with the fresh-minted moniker got temporarily sidetracked when Tom Dawes (the guy with the double-necked guitar) started 1966 by heading out on Simon & Garfunkel's "Sounds Of Silence" tour – this week they hit Denmark and the UK. But somewhere between New Rochelle High School and the Ithaca College Gymnasium, Paul wondered if Dawes and his band might want to record an old song he had kicking around, one he'd written with a guy from The Seekers, and that set the stage for stardom.

On May 25 1966 the first Cyrkle single hit the charts, and this week it peaks in the Number Two slot, right behind Brian's other band. Appropriately enough, as Cyrkle's next big adventure is to head out on tour with none other than The Beatles. (Any time you mention anyone connected with The Beatles, you have to say "none other than.") Fronting the Bravo Blitztournee in Germany, playing the first pop concert ever in Tokyo's Budokan, snubbing Imelda Marcos, apologizing for being more popular than Jesus, dodging the Klan in Memphis, and playing their last-ever public concert in San Francisco on August 29. (Who can blame them? "Them," in this case, being none other than The Beatles. The Cyrkle continued touring for some time. Without The Beatles. Which probably affected attendance figures.)

As I said, the year of their lives. As you can see in the video. Which is conveniently subtitled for the deaf and hard of hearing – which I guess means they didn't care too much about the sound quality. If you want a better-sounding video, here's a link. But this one's more fun. Note the proliferation of red rubber balls.

17. I Am A Rock, Simon & Garfunkel

Yup, it's S&G all over the place. Writing songs for oddly-spelt nascent pop groups, touring high schools throughout America, and placing their own tunes on the Hot 100. I Am A Rock peaked at Number Three back in June, but now it's in its second-last week on the charts. Don't worry, the lads will be back in a month with a track from their next album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

My introduction to the earnest and iconic Sounds Of Silence album (from whence the Rock song hails) didn't come until the fall of 1969, when the new kid showed up in my Grade Eight class at Fairview Junior High. Exotic, he'd spent Grade Seven at some private school, snowshoeing in the far north. Also some kind of chess genius. Also sophisticated, music-wise; he had a big sister, who had albums.  Not just 45s.  Albums.

So one day after class I went over to Mike's house, and he put a stack of LPs on the automatic record player, and before long we were lost in conversation. About snowshoeing and chess and stuff, I guess. Maybe about sasquatches and yetis (which was the correct name for the so-called "Abominable Snowman") - eventually we would mount an ambitious Science Fair project presenting compelling evidence in support of the existence of these elusive, controversial bipeds.

Whatever the topic, we were immersed in it when abruptly my new friend lifted his hand to stop the conversation. A thoughtful pause, as though he were listening to the sounds of a distant drummer. Then... "I have tended my own garden much too long."

Holy smokes. This guy was Deep. I was blown away. I mean, what kind of Grade Eighter says things like that? I knew I was going to have to up my game in the profundity department.

I don't know how much later it was that I got my own copy of The Sounds Of Silence, and the penny dropped. Mike wasn't listening to the sounds of a distant drummer - except, I suppose, the uncredited studio drummer who was backing Paul and Artie on Side I, Track Three of Liz's copy of the first S&G LP to crack the Billboard album charts.  "Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers / O Lord, Why have you forsaken me? / I have tended my own garden much too long..." He was quoting, not disclosing. Still...  Not bad for an eleven-year-old. I had to wait another 47 years to learn (from Mike's pal Will) that Paul Simon himself may have been quoting, something of a pop-music rejoinder to Voltaire's Candide. And wouldn't that be just like Paul Simon. "I have my books and my poetry to protect me..."

6. Wild Thing, The Troggs

To tear ourselves away from Simonized folk-pop profundities, let us turn our attention instead to the musical stylings of The Troggs - short for Troglodytes, one would assume. This stuff's heavy, man.

"Wild thing,
You make my heart sing,
You make everything groovy."

Well, it rhymes.

A note on the word "groovy," which was in 1966 ubiquitous.  Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that the term is strictly Sixties. But you would be mistaken.

John Ayto's 20th Century Words: The Story of New Words in English Over the Last 100 Years dates the first usage of the word circa 1937, and offers these definitions; "1) MARVELOUS, WONDERFUL, EXCELLENT. 2) HIP." The earliest recorded use I've managed to find is in the Anita O'Day / Roy Eldridge patter that leads into Gene Krupa's recording of Let Me Off Downtown from May 5, 1941;

"Hey Joe!"
"What do you mean Joe? My name's Roy."
"Well come here Roy, and get groovy!"

Other non-Troggs to employ the term prior to July 9 1966 include Charles Brown, Slim Gaillard, Earl Bostic, The Hal McIntyre Orchestra, Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, Webb Pierce & His Southern Valley Boys, The Chet Baker Sextet, Bill Haley & His Comets, Red Prysock, Red Garland, Bobby Rydell, Cannonball Adderly, Joe Brown (in A Picture Of You, later covered by none other than The Beatles), Billy Abbott & The Jewels, George Kingston, George Clinton & The Parliaments, Herbie Mann, The Beach Boys, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Ric-O-Shays, Simon & Garfunkel (see Blessed, above), James Brown, The Mamas & The Papas, and... (See below; Mindbenders, The) (And for more on this and other Groovy Greats, click here)

But back to the song at hand.  One has heard few less convincing protestations of love than in Wild Thing.

"Wild thing, I think I love you.
But I wanna know for sure.
Come on and hold me tight.
I love you..."

Colour me skeptical.

Bit of a dumb song, but it gets at something primal. And how 'bout that crazy recorder solo? Or whatever it is. And, actually, the video's pretty awesome....

44. A Groovy Kind Of Love, The Mindbenders

Leaving the charts this week is a slow dance for the end of the sock hop, by one of England's grooviest beat groups. This one also rhymes. A lot.

"When I'm feeling blue
All I have to do
Is take a look at you
Then I'm not so blue..."

The band hailed from Manchester, named for a 1963 Dirk Bogarde movie about brainwashing; A dedicated British scientist tests the possibility of brainwashing. If the experiment succeeds, he will stop loving his wife" (IMDb).

BBC, Sounds Of The Sixties: "It's an almost courtly record, with its martial snare rolls suggesting a formal dance, maybe in a tea garden." Also pretty sexy. But sweet.

"When you're close to me
I can feel your heartbeat
I can hear you breathing in my ear..."

A Groovy Kind Of Love and Wild Thing. Could there be two more opposite love songs? Not insignificant that AGKOL was written by what may have been the Sixties' only female song-writing duo, Toni Wine and Carole Bayer Sager. It was recorded by a bunch o' lads, but written by a pair o' birds, and that makes sense. Wild Thing's got a whole other thing going on. (And if I remember right, Chip Taylor thought WT was actually kind of a joke. I'll look it up when I get home and let you know.)

I always thought it was Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders. Turns out Wayne stormed off stage in the middle of a 1965 Wembley concert, and from that time forward his name was stricken from the records. Appropriately enough.

And yup, Phil Collins covered the tune a couple decades later. But we won't mention that.

33. Sweet Talking Guy, The Chiffons

Last week on the charts for this one as well. And I'm like, what? This is still on the radio!? It sounds like it debuted in, I don't know, maybe 1963?

It actually debuted May 7, 1966, though the Chiffons did place six singles on the Hot 100 in 1963 - He's So Fine, One Fine Day, and four others you've never heard of. And really, this is one fine record. Classic Girl Group sound, but still making the Hit Parade in 1966. I do love the mashup of sounds in 1966 - from Sinatra and Alpert to Simon and Garfunkel to Troggs and Stones and Beatles to Soul to The Chiffons.

I guess there's something timeless about this record. For whatever reason it was re-issued across the pond in 1973, and made it's way back to the Top Of The Pops at #4.

83. See You In September, The Happenings

New this week, this entree in the Lovers Torn Asunder During Summer Camp oeuvre was the wistful heartfelt yearning tune for the Class of '66 - not to be confused with the perennial pop platter Sealed With A Kiss...

"I don't wanna say goodbye for the summer,
Knowing the love we'll miss,
So let us make a pledge to meet in September
And seal it with a kiss"
Bryan Hyland, 1962
Gary Lewis & The Playboys, 1968
Bobby Vinton, 1972
Jason Donovan, 1989...

I do love the innocence of the tune, and the squeaky-clean video is a nostalgic treat. But reading the comments below, I'm reminded that 1966 wasn't all sunshine and lollipops. "Popular when I headed off to Viet Nam in September 1966. I didn't see my girlfriend the next September. Marine Corps tours were 13 months..." And I realize it wasn't just teenyboppers who may have found the tune poignant. More than a few of the 382,000 Americans who were drafted in 1966 may have connected with the song's sentiments.

"Bye, baby, goodbye...
Have a good time but remember
There is danger in the summer moon above
Will I see you in September
Or lose you..."

And don't forget to check out...

1. Strangers In The Night, Frank Sinatra
2. Paperback Writer, The Beatles
7. Cool Jerk, The Capitols
24. Rain, The Beatles
29. When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge
53. I Saw Her Again, The Mamas & The Papas
55. Solitary Man, Neil Diamond
59. The Work Song, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
74. When A Woman Loves A Man, Esther Phillips
90. I Want You, Bob Dylan

2. Red Rubber Ball, The Cyrkle
6. Wild Thing, The Troggs
17. I Am A Rock, Simon & Garfunkel
33. Sweet Talking Guy, The Chiffons
44. A Groovy Kind Of Love, The Mindbenders
83. See You In September, The Happenings

4. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, Dusty Springfield
41. Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind, The Lovin' Spoonful
42. Younger Girl, The Critters
53. Summer In The City, The Lovin' Spoonful
59. Younger Girl, The Hondells

Sunday, June 26, 2016

fifty years ago today | week ending july 2 1966 | billboard hot 100

click to enlarge

1. Strangers In The Night, Frank Sinatra

The Number One song this week, fifty years ago, was Frank Sinatra's "Strangers In The Night." To my nine-year-old ears, this is what the grown-up world sounded like. Sophisticated, sad, lush, baffling. It would be a couple more years before I started mainlining pop music, but this song was everywhere - you didn't have to listen to top forty radio to know it. Once I did get the bug, I quickly learned to despise Sinatra, and by the time I had lists for everything, Frankie was near the top of my Bottom Ten Musicians Of All Time. Until we used songs from "This Is Sinatra!" between scenes of J.P. Allen's play The Casino, and I was chagrined to realize that the guy is, in fact, pretty good.  He's now a favourite. That's the thing about growing up: some of one's prejudices relax. (Or standards erode: you be the judge).

"Strangers" is famous for Frank's sad little nod at scat singing during the fade out. "Doobie doobie doo, do do do dee ah, dah dah dah dah yaw yaw yaw..."  His heart just wasn't in it. 

The pop charts were different then. Mom-And-Dad music duked it out with one-step-short-of-psychedelic rock. A Sinatra ballad slips from #2 to #1, bumping the Beatles from the top slot to second place...

2. Paperback Writer, The Beatles
24. Rain, The Beatles

Rubber Soul (December '65) and Revolver (August '66) revolutionized the Beatles' sound. This double-sided single comes between them, and would be right at home on either album.

Paperback Writer. Listen to the bass. First that gorgeous a cappella opening, into the great guitar hook (John: "Son of Daytripper"), and then just as it's finishing, a volley of high notes from Paul's Rickenbacker and the bass never stops moving. Right off the bat, it's "Forget roots and fifths, listen to THIS!" The last time that high note motif kicks in, he messes with it, it's more intricate, but it still drives. From this point on, you can cue up any Beatles record and just listen to the bass line, beginning to end, and you've got your money's worth.

Geoff Emerick, recording engineer: "Paperback Writer was the first time the bass sound had been heard in all its excitement. For a start, Paul played a different bass, a Rickenbacker. Then we boosted it further by using a loudspeaker as a microphone. We positioned it directly in front of the bass speaker."

Rain. Even more bass astonishment. But give Ringo's drumming your other ear. "My favourite piece of me is what I did on Rain. I think I just played amazing. I was into the snare and hi-hat. I think it was the first time I used this trick of starting a break by hitting the hi-hat first instead of going directly to a drum off the hi-hat. I think it's the best out of all the records I've ever made. Rain blows me away. It's out of left field. I know me and I know my playing, and then there's Rain."  And that from the most self-effacing guy ever to sit behind a drum kit.

And of course the Beatles' first ever backward tape loop, on the fade out. I don't think a pop song could get any better. Though I never heard either tune until they turned up on my cousin Neil's copy of Hey Jude / The Beatles Again, a Canadian LP released early in 1970. I figured the tunes were brand new.  Why wouldn't I?

7. Cool Jerk, The Capitols

Speaking of bass...  Bit of a fore-runner to 1968's Tighten Up, by the euphonically monikered Archie Bell & The Drells. (What's a drell?)  Peaking this week, Cool Jerk is one of those "Let's introduce the band" tunes, sort of a rocking great-grandchild to Peter And The Wolf. But it had a good beat and you could dance to it - so much so, it became a bit of a fixture in the Northern Soul scene that flourished in the late Sixties and through the Seventies in all-night Mod clubs like The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Blackpool Mecca and the Wigan Casino. High energy rhythm and soul singles, the more obscure the better, for amphetamine-fueled dancers copping moves from Jackie Wilson or Little Anthony & The Imperials. Check out Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked."

And yup, that's the Funk Brothers, of Standing In The Shadows Of Motown fame. Smokin'!!!

29. When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge
74. When A Woman Loves A Man, Esther Phillips

Back when sixties soundtracks weren't yet a cliche (but well before they became passé), The Big Chill featured Percy Sledge's monumental tear-jerker. A few years later, when such lists weren't a news stand constant to bolster sagging sales (and Rolling Stone was still a big deal, more or less), the mag published its picks for The 100 Best Singles of the Last Twenty-five Years (Sep 8, 1988) and pegged the record at #33.

"In 1965, Percy Sledge was working as a hospital orderly when his former music teacher asked him to sing at a Christmas party. He hadn't sung in years, but the gig paid fifty dollars, so Sledge agreed to do it. He made up the lyrics to When A Man Loves A Woman - the first soul song ever to hit Number One on the pop charts - onstage that night. 'I thought a girl I was dating had left me for another guy. I had a couple of Jack Daniels, and my eyes were as big as hen eggs. I was feeling light as a feather, and I just wanted to speak my mind.'"

Last week on the charts for this one, as well as Esther Phillips distaff treatment, which showed up seven weeks after Sledge's debut on April 9.

Johnny Otis signed Little Esther Phillips (surname from a gas station sign) in 1949 to tour with his California Rhythm and Blues Caravan. She had five Top Ten singles on the R&B charts in 1950, but didn't brea into the Hot 100 until 1962. A really nice cover of The Beatles And I Love Her (also gender-flipped) preceded this one in spring of '65.

She's only 31 here, but she sounds plenty older: there's a lot of miles on the odometer by this point, with a decade and a half of drug addiction and hard living behind her. She was in the room when Johnny Ace accidentally shot himself on Christmas Day, 1954, between shows at Houston's City Auditorium. "Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table." Ace pointed the gun at his girlfriend and another woman who were sitting nearby, but did not fire. "Someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ Big Mama Thornton ran out of the dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!'"

"I was reading a magazine
And thinking of a rock and roll song
The year was nineteen fifty four
And I hadn't been playing that long
When a man came on the radio
And this is what he said
He said "I hate to break it to his fans"
But Johnny Ace is dead, yeah, yeah, yeah
Well, I really wasn't, such a Johnny Ace fan
But I felt bad all the same
So I sent away for his photograph
And I waited till it came
It came all the way from Texas
With a sad and simple face
And they signed it on the bottom
From the late great Johnny Ace, yeah, yeah, yeah.."

The Late Great Johnny Ace, by Paul Simon
Hearts & Bones, 1983

53. I Saw Her Again, The Mamas & The Papas

Three great chart debuts this week. First up, The Mamas & The Papas, who first made the Hot 100 in January of 1966 with California Dreamin'. It was still on the charts when Monday Monday debuted on April 9. It finished its run last week: this week, the utterly cheery I Saw Her Again, which would play all summer long. Three more M&P tunes would follow before the year's end.

And yup, one of the Papas was a Canadian. Just thought I'd point that out.

59. The Work Song, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass

Chart debut #2. We forget how Herb Alpert dominated the charts in the Sixties. We think Beatles, we think Rolling Stones, we maybe think The Mamas & The Papas or Neil Diamond or Andy Kim (and yup, Andy Kim was a Canadian...), but what's with Herb Alpert? He wasn't on The Big Chill Soundtrack. Rolling Stone never listed his tunes among any of their Top 50,000 of all time. The spawn of boomers don't grow up listening to "Whipped Cream And Other Delights" at their parents' turntables. I guess time heals all wounds.

But I include Herb's tune here as a sobering reminder of the reality of the soundtrack of the Sixties. Also because the track...

...leads us to a surprising source. Work Song was composed and recorded in 1960 by Nat Adderley, legit jazz horn player and kid brother to Cannonball Adderley, of Milestones / Kind Of Blue fame. Here's a great recording featuring the two brothers alongside Yusef Lateef, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes.

90. I Want You, Bob Dylan

The albums of Robert Zimmerman (now a news reporter for CBC Vancouver) had pretty much all placed on the Billboard album charts, but his first single to chart was Subterranean Homesick Blues in 1965, with its follow-up (Like A Rolling Stone) rising to Number Two in summer of that year. The sixth single starts on the charts this week, one of my five or so Dylan favourites. From the landmark album Blonde On Blonde, to be released three weeks later and also including Just Like A Woman. Now THIS is the soundtrack of the Sixties...

55. Solitary Man, Neil Diamond

Still...  Dylan charted fewer tunes in the Sixties than this man, who makes his first chart appearance ever on this first week of July, 1966. Still to come, Cherry Cherry and Girl You'll Be A Woman Soon (cf Fiction, Pulp) and Kentucky Woman and Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show (I've got the 45) and Sweet Caroline and Holly Holy and a re-release of Solitary Man and...  Lots of others.  Introducing...

And don't forget to check out...

the week ending july 2 1966
1. Strangers In The Night, Frank Sinatra
2. Paperback Writer, The Beatles
7. Cool Jerk, The Capitols
24. Rain, The Beatles
29. When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge
53. I Saw Her Again, The Mamas & The Papas
55. Solitary Man, Neil Diamond
59. The Work Song, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
74. When A Woman Loves A Man, Esther Phillips
90. I Want You, Bob Dylan

the week ending july 9 1966
2. Red Rubber Ball, The Cyrkle
6. Wild Thing, The Troggs
17. I Am A Rock, Simon & Garfunkel
33. Sweet Talking Guy, The Chiffons
44. A Groovy Kind Of Love, The Mindbenders
83. See You In September, The Happenings

the week ending july 16 1966
4. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, Dusty Springfield
41. Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind, The Lovin' Spoonful
42. Younger Girl, The Critters
53. Summer In The City, The Lovin' Spoonful
59. Younger Girl, The Hondells

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

angel facts #1 | mike mason

Q: How many angels can dance
     on the head of a pin?
A: We don't dance on the head,
     we dance on the point.
     Besides: the real point
     is not how many angels
     but what we are doing:
     (Somehow this fact
     gets lost in the math.)

excerpt from a novel-in-progress by Mike Mason

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

jubiracy filho | art matters

Monday was truly a memorable day at Regent College. In addition to the student presentation on The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot that I've already posted, here is a second paper that was given for The Christian Imagination class, as heartfelt and deeply moving as the first.  Jubiracy Filho is from Brazil.

Ten years ago, in Eastern Canada, Ontario. If I were to welcome that time as it arrived, I’d quote Job as I opened the door to it: “what I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me”.

I was living in Toronto with my younger brother Thyago. Those were my early twenties, we were both international undergrads then. And I vividly remember, before leaving our hometown, to have shared my fear with him: that after spending most of the family’s savings, after investing precious time, and precious energy, not without leaving precious opportunities behind just to embrace this extravagant international venture, that it would prove to be, as we were about to complete it, no longer viable; that, against our will, it would ultimately need to be left unfinished. Unresolved.

And it so happened. In our second year, our parents went drastically unable to support, or help us. We had no access whatsoever to student loans; and tuitions for international students were three times higher than standard. Therefore, regardless of our efforts to work – night shifts in 24-hour coffee shops, manual labor in factories and farms, waitering on tables, cleaning toilets, dog-walkings! – we just could not afford to live and study anymore. After much reluctance, and much to my shame and sadness, and the family’s, we decided to simply go back home without our degrees.

So now I was shortly leaving the city, and it dawned on me that I had not enjoyed it! Well, when even the smell of cinnamon buns meant unaffordable luxury, there is only little much you can do to savor the city, really. But suddenly it came to me: a museum! Let’s visit a museum!

So we did. The Art Gallery of Ontario. I was now stepping into the Canadian Impressionism collection, yes, distracted. That’s when, for the very first time, I saw it. Ah, I love impressionism… I love that impressionist painters resolved to paint outdoors, en plein air, in order to recapture true effects of light, to recover colors as they were by nature! Could apples be merely yellow, or the sky whiter than just blue, or rivers, sincerely gray; brown even? Please allow me. I also love it that they used short, seemingly hesitant brush strokes, as if only their delicacy could prevent beauty from crumbling; or only their shyness, along with their togetherness, could present real beauty. In fact, whether they were barns, bridges, golden haystacks or dark rivers, I love to think these were, not one of them, the actual object in their paintings – but only light, and color itself. And if they would paint the same thing in different times of the day, in order to grasp light moving from the East to the West, weren’t they also painting… time? The fleeting shadows of it? Now, I was still contemplating it.

The rather famous, nationally celebrated, perhaps much studied, painting of Tom Thomson. I learnt that it was even printed on Canadian stamps once; and that Thomson, if not others, was not only interested in the wonders of light, but also of other phenomena, like the wind. And when you learn this painting was named “The West Wind”, you immediately respond to its invitation: “look again”. Then you see the waters of the river, being curled by it, and the clouds in the sky, being dragged by it, and the branches of the trees, as though resisting it, and the rocks and the mountains, that will simply not move to it, and you realize Thomson was not merely painting landscape. He was painting the wind. And it did move me.

At the museum shop, I took a very precious twenty-dollar bill, and used half of it to purchase the smallest possible copy of “The West Wind”. Little did I know that this was also Thomson’s last painting; that he died mysteriously, unexpectedly, in the prime of his life and career, leaving it too, unfinished, unresolved. Maybe that explains why I was leaving Canada empty of a degree, but with that copy in my bag, not completely empty.

As I was leaving the museum, I saw an interesting thing by the doors. A large tube, filled to the top with lemon-green buttons, each one containing the slogan: “art matters”. Now that pierced me: does it really? I grabbed one of them and pined it to my backpack. Does art matter? I’ve worn that button quite proudly around Toronto those days, which seems to answer the question a little.

But if art really matters, why would a museum need to affirm it? After all, aren’t the important things evidently important, in a way affirmations as such would only sound needy – which could even make people question the thing’s real importance, as it so desperately needs affirmation?

Or, maybe the question is: is everything that matters so easily and promptly valued as such? After all, aren’t we creatures that need to be constantly reminded of what really matters? For why would I decide to visit a city’s museum, in order to capture the city’s life? And why would I do so only after realizing that that very life was soon to end?

I took the copy home, hung it on the walls of every apartment I lived afterwards, and grieved over my failure for some years. What I dreaded happened indeed; what I feared did arrive… Yet, much to my amazement, so did the joy I was not expecting, and the happiness I had never, ever anticipated.

Ten years in the future, here I am, living in Vancouver, as a Regent College student; not only contemplating “The West Wind”, but actually feeling it on my face, everyday, as if to be reminded of something. That loss and failure, however long and harsh might be their strokes, that they too can mark only but fleeting shadows in time. That even unaccomplished, unresolved and unfinished stories like mine, and maybe yours, unworthy of Light and Color and Wind, that even they can be illuminated, and recovered, and moved altogether, at once, by the three of them combined. Now that matters.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

michael yang, the last days of judas iscariot

Yesterday I was a guest in The Christian Imagination, a course on faith and the arts offered by Regent College. I talked about my story as a theatre artist who's also a Christian, about my aesthetic and values within the art form, the theological significance of various aspects of acting and playwriting, and what it's been like to run a professional theatre. Before I started speaking, one of the students presented a very moving reflection on the impact of seeing The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot four years ago. There couldn't have been a better or more moving introduction to what I had to say - and the remarkable thing is, when he signed up to do his presentation, he didn't know who the guest speaker was going to be.

Here's what Michael had to say.

In April of 2012, the Cultch Theatre in East Van was showcasing this provocative play called: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
 The official synopsis of the play says:
“Halfway between Heaven and Hell, in a place called Hope, history’s most infamous sinner [Judas Iscariot] stands trial. In a court room that’s as much ghetto as gospel, the witnesses are called – Mother Teresa, Pontius Pilate, Sigmund decide questions of forgiveness, mercy, and eternal damnation.”
Now, who wouldn’t want to see that?

So, my friends from church and I found out about it, and we knew we had to go.
 Also, you see, there was a lot of controversy around that time about a certain book regarding Heaven and Hell, written by an author whose name rhymed with....Bob Fell.

My friends wanted to check it out because they were curious about God.

I, on the other hand, was going because I was furious at God.
Unbeknownst to them at the time, I went to see that play on hell, because my life felt like hell. In the months prior to the play, a series of incidents involving betrayal, a close friend being assaulted, and a family tragedy...compounded together to shatter my life into bits and pieces.
 This suffering left me questioning what I thought was good and true, who I could trust and rely on, it left me questioning who I was and who God was.
I wasn't sure how I was going to recover from this.

And so we show up to the Cultch.

According to Facebook the exact day was Saturday April 14, 2012. And I’m going to show you a picture to help you visualize the situation.

Yes. That’s me, along with a poster of Judas.

You can say I definitely felt a certain affinity with Judas that day.
Now, Some people, when they go through suffering or crisis––they soothe out their suffering through drinking, drugs, partying––they commemorate their crisis through getting tattoos or buying something ridiculous.
I, God only knows why, decided to triple bleach my hair blonde.
I perhaps dyed my hair to change who I was on the outside, to mask how I felt on the inside. 

So we get there to the Cultch, we watched the play, and...I was never the same again.

Because, intellectually speaking, this play was stimulating.
 For example, it suggested that the greatest sin of Judas was not betrayal, but despair. Quoting the words of Thomas Merton, Mother Teresa says in the play:
MOTHER TERESA: “ the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute mystery of damnation rather than accept happiness from the hands of God.”
Hmm Hmm.

And then there’s one of my favourite scenes, which explores God’s potential saving work after we die. In the scene, Satan is called to court (which is situated in purgatory), as a witness, and in the process he sees souls from hell who are now somehow in purgatory. And he is angry because, quote:
SATAN: What? I don’t got enough to contend with?––now I gotta deal with God cruisin’ the barnyards of Hell poaching condemned poultry like some kind of silver-fox-tailed thief in the fuckin’ night??”
As for the aesthetic impact, it did what theatre does best: the liveness of it all.

I could hear the despair in Judas’s voice, as he refused to accept the forgiveness and love of Jesus. I could see the pleading in Jesus’s eyes for Judas to accept that forgiveness and love. I participated, along with my fellow audience members, in gasping at the sacrilegious language of foul-mouthed Saint Monica.

And of course––the words, the words, the words––so well-written and spoken with such fury, intensity, and charm––they left-ringing in our ears long after the play ended.
 All this, best experienced in a live-setting.

Lastly, the emotional impact, is what stood out most to me. The whole play felt like the emotional externalization of my interiors. All the anger, despair, bitterness, questions, and doubts I harboured––were set loose and on display in the theatre. My emotions had names, faces, voices, and they paraded on stage. They took on flesh and blood.

This is perhaps best summed up in the last scene of the play, a monologue by a college professor named Butch Honeywell, played by the brilliant Ron Reed. He is speaking to Judas, and reflecting on the mistake of sleeping with one of his students while married to his wife, and how that started a path down a life of emptiness and regret. He closes the play with these lines:

BUTCH HONEYWELL: Do you know who W.H. Auden was, Mister Iscariot? W. H. Auden was a poet who once said: “God may reduce you on Judgement Day to tears of shame, reciting by heart the poems you would have written, had your life been good” ... She was my poem, Mister Iscariot. Her and the kids. But mostly ... her ... You cashed in silver, Mister Iscariot, but me? Me, I threw away gold ... That’s a fact. That’s a natural fact.

Betrayal. Regret. Throwing away gold.

And you know what the final kicker was?

I saw the play on a Saturday.

And I sometimes wonder if that play...served as a kind of Holy Saturday for me.
 Like Jesus was coming into the depths of my hell, the depths of my catatonic despair and reaching out to me, through this play, through His Real Presence...
 to save me.

It was also this most Holy of Saturdays that prepared me, on an intimate and visceral level, for the Sunday of Resurrection, of new life. Where betrayal and heartache and despair do not have the last word. Where I realized:

I’m going to be okay.

Yes, it feels like hell right now.

Yes, I’m bloodied, beaten, bruised, broken and nearly buried.

But I’m also blessed, being brought back to life, and bursting forth with the vitality of second-chance-ness.

In many ways, experiencing The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, brought about the last days of my Old Self.
It felt like a death, but also a rebirth.

It felt like dying, but also––being born again.