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Can we talk?

 

Before Amy Schumer …

Before Sarah Silverman …

Before Bridesmaids …

Before Chelsea Handler …

Before Kathy Griffin …

Before Sex and the City …

Before Roseanne …

Before Gilda, Jane and Laraine and all their Saturday Night Live daughters …

Before The Golden Girls …

Before Rhoda Morgenstern …

Before Bette Midler …

There was Joan Rivers.

And when she walked out on a stage and said, “Can we talk?,” she wasn’t really asking for anyone’s permission to be loud. To be raunchy. To be abrasive, sexually forthright, honest, ambitious, Jewish, herself.

Most of all, she wasn’t asking for anyone’s permission to be funny, or to be a woman. And in telling, not asking, she became a being so powerful that some men in her field still deny that such a creature exists:  A funny woman.

Because of her, we’ll never stop talking.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robin Williams, 1951-2014

Courtesy HBO

Courtesy HBO

I always thought Robin Williams bore an uncanny facial resemblance to the double masks of comedy and tragedy.  With his prominent nose skewing toward his prominent chin, he could go either way, and he took you along with him, whether into the blazing, manic hilarity of his stand-up, or the unforgettable cry of grief that ends the 1986 PBS “Great Performances” film of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.”

Williams was a genius of comedy, agile, fearless and riffing at warp speed;  his 1980’s stand-up appearances on The Tonight Show, hosting Saturday Night Live and HBO specials were watershed moments in the era when comedians became rock stars. But his funny movies never quite did his rapid-fire, inventive, anarchic comic spirit justice, maybe because the camera always caught the hint of the tragic mask peering through. On film, he was better suited to serio-comedy, like Moscow on the Hudson and Good Morning Vietnam, or drama leavened by a flash of gentle humor (his Oscar winning role in Good Will Hunting). Ironically, the movie that really “got” Williams, that knew what to do with him, was one in which his own face didn’t appear — Disney’s animated Aladdin. Watching the blue genie is like mainlining the purest distillation of  Williams’ sly, exuberant mischief.

Robin Williams’ death has sent the Bay Area (where I live) into deep mourning. He was a long-time resident of Marin County, he worked the San Francisco comedy clubs (often unannounced), he was a regular out and about, at Giants’ games and rock concerts (I lost count of how many times I saw him at Springsteen shows) and lending his talent to just about every worthy cause in town. Right now, I can’t imagine San Francisco without him.

That such a large-hearted life-force was struggling with private despair and demons is almost too tragic to bear. So let’s end this on a laugh, and let the comic mask be the one we remember best.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

The story of “O”: Outlander comes to TV

The Scottish CosPlay: What they'll be wearing next year at Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)

The Scottish CosPlay: What they’ll be wearing at next year’s Comic Con (Courtesy of Starz)

HERE BE SPOILERS!  PROCEED WITH CAUTION! THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING!

You never forget your first spanking — of the literary kind. For me, it was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, Chapter 22, which will heretofore be known as That Scene.

I had innocently picked up Gabaldon’s sci-fi-fantasy-historical romance page-turner at my local library’s sale of used paperbacks. Eight hundred pages for $2 — what a deal! I knew nothing about Outlander except that it was some kind of best-selling genre series. Harry Potter had ended and all I wanted was another thick, juicy, reasonably well-written escapist read to take my head-space somewhere else. So I gave it a shot.

I settled into the tale of Claire Randall, a British Army nurse during World War II, who comes home from the war to a society, and a husband, with whom she has fallen out of sync. Independent, resourceful, passionate and stubborn,  Claire has been useful during the war, patching up casualties under the constant adrenaline-rush of danger. Now, she’s back in post-war England struggling to find a sense of purpose within the shrunken parameters of life as a respectable homemaker. Her husband Frank, a courtly Oxford professor who was a spy-runner for MI-6 during the war, wants to start a family, but Claire hasn’t been able to get pregnant.

The novel opens with Claire and Frank trying to get to know one another again on a post-war second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands. The atmosphere is foggy and pagan; they witness a Druid sun-worshiping ritual, the locals speak of ghosts. Then, Claire wanders off to pick wildflowers (she’s studying their medicinal properties), gets too close to some Druid standing stones and — whoosh!  She wakes up in the same woods, except it’s 1743, and there’s a Redcoat who looks just like Frank trying to rape her, but she’s saved/taken prisoner by a clan of Scottish rebels, one of whom is a big, ginger hunk named Jamie Fraser, and, merrily a-bodice-ripping we will go.

I don’t want to completely ruin the new Starz TV adaptation of Outlander (the first episode has been running on the Starz website and on various cable platforms for a while, but the series officially starts on August 9) for potential viewers, so let me say this one more time: SPOILERS A-COMING!

Claire and Jamie strike sparks, even if he can’t understand half the things this uppity “Sassanach”(outlander) is saying. Jamie is, in his own way, a lost soul as out of sync with his times as Claire is with hers. He’s a deeper, more curious, thinker than his rough-hewn cohort, with a dry sense of humor. He’s also an outlaw, but it was all a misunderstanding, really. They spar; they bond; they make wild, passionate, dirty (as in, it’s 18th century Scotland and everything is filthy) love while the clan plays cat and mouse with Frank’s sadistic ancestor, British Army captain “Black Jack” Randall. Yes, Outlander (which is the first in an eight-book series) had me from page one. I was enthralled by the boldly insane plot, I adored thoroughly modern Claire and her sometimes ill-advised attempts to bring feminism to the kilted savages. Eventually, I got to Chapter 22 (“Reckonings”), nearly 400 pages into the book, where Claire attempts to find the time portal to get back home, and ends up endangering the safety of the clan and Jamie has to discipline her with a belt and HELLO, WHAT THE HELL AM I READING?

Surprised as I was by Chapter 22, I had an, um, intensely favorable response to That Scene’s extreme hotness. As a feminist, this sent me into a crisis of conscience. I put the book down, unfinished, for a few weeks. I searched my soul. I started the book over from the beginning. I liked it just as much the second time through. I finally said, Screw you, conscience, if this is my kink, so be it.

For years, there has been plenty of discussion in reader forums about That Scene, and there will be plenty of discussion when it finally airs somewhere down the line (executive producer Ronald D. Moore is on record promising that the series will be faithful to the book). Is That Scene violence against women, domestic abuse?  Or is it a sexy development that arises naturally out of the story, given the personalities of the protagonists?  My feeling about the way it plays out in the book is that it’s more the latter than former. Gabaldon sets her story in an overtly brutal and sexist era; a belt-wielding hero feels right at home in this milieu.

If your mind is going to the icky — and totally invented for TV — scene in Game of Thrones where a crossbow-wielding Joffrey orders prostitute Ros to spank, then gruesomely beat, another whore, stop. That scene was the reason I gave up watching Game of Thrones, although I have devoured all the books. It was gratuitous, demeaning and brutalizing to the female characters, and, at that point in the story, unnecessary — we already knew Joffrey was a sadistic monster.

On the pages of Outlander, by contrast, the punishment to which Claire finally acquiesces in much the same way a mutinous soldier accepts military discipline, is a complex act, more than just a one-sided male-titillation or hack “taming of the shrew” theatrics. It’s a face-saving necessity to keep the clan from turning on Jamie and meting their own much more brutal “justice” upon Claire for her recklessness. In That Scene, Gabaldon makes it clear that Jamie and Claire are in this together, the good and the bad, as a team.

For Chapter 22 alone, Outlander is often compared to Fifty Shades of Grey. But there is nothing sexy in the latter’s tedious BDSM-ish romance, mainly because Christian and Ana are not truly partners in their dom-sub contract; she enters into it only because she wants to Reform Him With Her Love, and he is a raving, damaged stalker who often crosses the line from S&M play to outright abuse. But it’s also difficult to give a crap about two characters as ineptly drawn as Christian and Ana, particularly when you can feel E.L. James blushing and saying “Ewwwww” behind every sex scene.

Diana Gabaldon is no blusher, which is part of what makes Claire such a robust heroine. Outlander is written from Claire’s intelligent, confident and adaptive perspective, and that perspective is deeper and more reflective than Ana prattling on about her inner goddess. Claire likes sex. She would prefer not to be stuck in a time warp while having it, but there you go.

It’s a relief to see how well cast the show is. Sam Heughan is suitably beefy as Jamie, but with a pleasing vulnerable cast to his good looks. He doesn’t appear until the first episode is more than half over, and the pace quickens considerably when he does. Heughan has a demanding role ahead of him, embodying a literary character who ranks up there with Mr. Darcy and Heathcliff in the eyes of some women readers. I wish him godspeed.

Irish actress Caitriona Balfe is Claire in soul and fiery, sensual spirit. There’s a scene in the first episode where Claire and genealogy buff Frank are exploring the ruins of a castle and she perches on a dusty table, opening her legs to reveal that, underneath her crisp traveling suit, she has gone commando. Balfe’s sexual confidence in this scene is breathtaking. But Balfe makes just as forceful an impression in the prologue of the first episode. Elbow deep in the gore of a wounded soldier in a battlefield medical tent, Claire barks orders to the men around her, and is obeyed. A beat later, peace is declared and she doesn’t know what to do with herself . As nurses, medics and soldiers celebrate, she stands apart, dazed and covered in blood, and hoists a bottle of Champagne to her lips.

The scene is a foreshadowing of the dirk-wielding, herbal healing “medicine woman” Claire is to become when she falls through the wrinkle in time:  Fierce, courageous, unflinching Claire is a warrior at heart, which is what draws her to Jamie. In post-war England, her wildness has to be tamped down, her promise stunted, but in her alternate universe with Jamie, it’s allowed to fly free. In turn, Jamie — who’s more civilized and thirsty for knowledge than he can let the clan know — recognizes Claire as a strong, enlightened mate, much more interesting than the local lassies.

Episode One gave me faith that producer Moore (of the Battlestar: Galactica reboot) would at least give Outlander a fighting chance to transfer to screen with its spirit undiminished. Moore is no stranger to sci-fi with rich layers of subtext, and Outlander is bursting with possibilities. Is the Highland fling with Jamie a manifestation of Claire’s restless, war-excited and war-traumatized inner life made flesh? Is this her conflicted psyche working out her fear of/longing for motherhood? Her anxiety over subsuming her identity and independence to make a proper marriage with Frank? (Adding fuel to that psychological fire, the same actor, Tobias Menzies, plays both Frank and Black Jack.)

Outlander has already been called the feminist answer to Game of Thrones. But I think the more apt comparison is the feminist, gender reverse of Doctor Who. Claire is a time traveler who can’t go home, but minds her exile less and less; she roams through time and space, healing, enlightening and fighting the patriarchy with as much female love, hope and ass-kicking energy as she can get away with. Instead of The Doctor’s (almost unanimously) young, attractive female companions, though, Claire has a strapping lad in a kilt. And on this wild ride, knickers are optional.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

In the grooves, part three

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In parts one and two, inspired by the exhibit “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California History, I began revisiting the role that albums played in my life from my childhood in the ’60s until I stopped listening to the bulk of my music on vinyl in the early ’90’s. In the conclusion: Earthquakes, personal and geological.

College: 1975-79

I’d heard tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s first two records played on Boston’s FM station, WBCN, and I liked them. But, for some reason, I didn’t buy a Springsteen album until Born to Run, and even then, not until a year or so after it was released in 1975. But then something clicked and down I went into the rabbit hole of Springsteen fandom; I belatedly bought his earlier albums, and became enchanted by the cinematic story-songs and beatniks-on-the-beach vibe of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. I wore out “Rosalita” and “New York City Serenade” as I made up for lost time. So when “Prove It All Night” was released in the spring of 1978 as a teaser single for his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, I was like a stick of dynamite ready to explode.

I remember my junior and senior year of college as a blur of Bruce. I saw my first E Street Band show in May 1978, then spent the rest of the summer counting the days until he came back to Boston in September. Darkness was the first record that I instantly, viscerally, understood — the narrator’s despair at living a small life, his desperation to be his true self somewhere else, spoke to me in my circumstances as a girl from a blue-collar family, filled with ambition but not much faith in myself. I parsed every word of Darkness reviews by Dave Marsh (Rolling Stone) and Kit Rachlis (the Boston Phoenix), pieces that approached the album the way we approached classic novels in my English Lit. classes, and I knew that I wanted to write about music this way. You know how people say, “Omigod, this album changed my life”? OMIGOD, THIS ALBUM CHANGED MY LIFE.

So Much Music: 1979-81

In senior year of college, I started writing record reviews for the free music papers that showed up in record stores around town. I met a kindred soul named Holly Cara Price, a Bruce fan, poet, photographer and aspiring rock writer. She persuaded me to start writing music reviews for an unlikely publication, a feminist weekly called Sojourner. Somehow, Holly convinced the editors that their definition of “women’s music” should expand beyond Teresa Trull and Sweet Honey in the Rock (no offense to those pioneering artists), to include all strong female rock and punk voices. So we wrote about Patti Smith, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt,  Joan Jett, even — I swear — Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album, all for a Cambridge radical/feminist/lesbian audience. They drew the line, however, at our attempts to educate our readers about Bruce. But I did learn about some amazing traditional women’s music artists, including the charismatic Ferron, who was pretty much the Springsteen of lesbian folk music. So, all in all, I think it was a mutual broadening of horizons.

When we weren’t fighting the patriarchy one Blondie review at a time, Holly and I were obsessing over Bruce together. It’s because of Holly, and Bruce, that I made my first trip to New York City for the 1979 No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Garden. That’s when I first laid eyes on Bleecker Bob’s, the legendary Greenwich Village record store, where I bought this Springsteen bootleg. Geek details: It’s pressed on red vinyl, has no credits and lists then-unreleased songs we’d later come to know as “Thundercrack” and “Bishop Danced” under the titles “Angel from the Inner Lake” and “Mama Knows Rithmatic, Knows How to Take a Fall”.

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After I graduated college, I kept my job in the campus library (the journalism offers weren’t exactly pouring in), but I continued writing for the free music papers. I was paid in promo albums, which is how I accumulated a Who’s Who of “Who’s that?” Do you remember Moon Martin? How about Horslips?  Yep, if there was a record that nobody else wanted to review, give it to the new kid. I didn’t care. I was getting a byline and trading in the crap promo records for albums that I really wanted.

And there was so much music to want in 1979 and 1980. This was as formative a period as 1970-1971. One part of me was all about Bruce. The other part was in an Anglophilic swoon over British new wave. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces and Get Happy!!!, with their dazzling wordplay, sealed the deal on a deep admiration that has lasted through Costello’s many changes of persona and genre. The Clash’s London Calling launched a passion equal to that of my Bruce fandom; I remember buying their Sandinista! on my way to a December 1980 Springsteen show at the Boston Garden, stashing it underneath my seat and feeling like my musical worlds were colliding.

Ah, Sandinista!. This is what albums could do that CD’s and MP3’s can’t. The Clash packed an entire world, a movement, a community inside that album sleeve. Not only did the package contain three records for the price of two (including one side of dub reggae and electronica that sounds startlingly contemporary now), there was a tri-fold, punk ‘zine insert with lyrics, credits, notes and hand-drawn cartoons crammed onto every inch of its six pages. Sandinista! was a manifesto and a world-music party that you could hold in your hands.

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And then there was Chrissie Hynde . . . When I first heard the Pretenders’ debut album,  it was Tapestry all over again;  I felt like Hynde was speaking to women who loved rock and roll in our own language. Although she fronted a male band, she wrote from an aggressively female perspective, about sex, love, pregnancy, birth control, rape. The melodies were swervy and the rhythms jagged and hard, but Chrissie’s achingly beautiful voice, her singular phrasing and cooing vibrato, put her femaleness front and center. She didn’t wear dresses, though, and she didn’t flirt; she played a rhythm guitar as sharp as her cheekbones and bristled at being included in the condescending “women in rock” stories that filled the media in ’79 and ’80. Chrissie was everything I wanted and needed her to be. And the album cover shot of her in a bright red leather jacket, her kohl-rimmed eyes staring defiantly out from under Carnaby Street bangs, was, to me, the epitome of cool.

 

Rock Critic: 1981-1987

In 1981, I landed my dream gig — I was on the roster of regular music writers at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix. And one of the first lessons I learned there about writing rock criticism was this: Do your research. Don’t worry about looking stupid in front of a colleague for asking a question about a band or record. It’s better than looking stupid in front of your readers.

I hate to be all “Back in my day …” about it, but, do you know how hard it was to do your homework on an unfamiliar artist or genre before the Internet, before Wikipedia, You Tube, iTunes, Amazon and Spotify?  Your fellow critics were your Wikipedia and record stores were your iTunes. If the LP gods were kind, you could find the pertinent albums of any artist’s back catalog in one of the many used record stores in Boston and Cambridge. The juicier my assignments got, the bigger my record collection grew.

I loved research (still do). Artists and records that had been just names in Rolling Stone became indispensable favorites the deeper I dug. If there was a buzz around the office, I wanted in. That’s how I got turned on to Richard and Linda Thompson. I bought a last minute ticket to their show in 1982 at the tiny Paradise in Boston, knowing almost nothing about them except that they had a new album called Shoot Out the Lights and my editor was high on it. (It turned out to be their last tour — their marriage was pretty much dead at that point.) I came out of that show ravenous to hear more of their dark, droll British folk, which led me to their back catalogue, which led me to Thompson’s previous group, Fairport Convention, which led me to Sandy Denny, which led me to British folk nerd heaven. A depressing ballad elates me. A hurdy-gurdy throws me into a frenzy. I once counted up my souvenir ticket stubs and, to my surprise,  it turns out that I’ve seen Richard Thompson in concert more than any other band, more than Bruce, more than Elvis Costello. And it all started with this record.

A pile o' British folk.

A pile o’ British folk.

At the Phoenix, I became friends with a twinkly-eyed elf named Mark Moses, who was a computer programmer by day and one of the finest rock critics of his generation by night. (He eventually wrote the pop music column for the New Yorker.) Mark and I both loved bad puns, wicked gossip, lost 45’s from our childhoods and the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We never thought of ourselves as collectors. We combed through used album stores because we were completists, hungry to hear more. We couldn’t leave a copy of a record we loved to sit unappreciated in some suburban discount department store bargain bin, even if we already owned it. It’s because of Mark that I started to appreciate Gram Parsons, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight, the Mekons. He also introduced me to the enriching, sustaining beauty of Aretha’s gospel records and Al Green. He came up with the single funniest rock and roll pun I’ve ever heard: “Little Richard Thompson, the manic-depressive R&B-folk singer”. He died of AIDS, 25 years ago this month. I wish I had a photo of him, but who went around taking pictures of their friends before cell phones? I have the music he gave me, though. And it makes me laugh every time I look at that copy of Dusty Springfield’s A Brand New Me and see the price sticker  — he liberated it from a going-out-of-business sale at a New Bedford Zayre’s.

 

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1987-now: California Soul

In 1987, I was offered a job as the daily TV critic for the San Francisco Examiner. My husband and I figured that we’d move out to the Bay Area for a few years, make some real money, then move back to Boston and have a kid, settle down. We pruned the record collection, sold some, gave away some, but still loaded more than 1,000 records onto the moving van for the trek west. I was uncertain, having never lived anywhere but Greater Boston. The records (and my washing machine — don’t ask) were like a security blanket. I really believed that we could just pick up our lives in one place, set them down intact in another and carry on, just as if we were still living in Boston, but, you know, further west.

For the first couple of years, we lived in a kind of limbo, rooting for the Celtics from afar, hanging out with people we knew from Boston, making frequent trips back. But as much as I resisted, California got under my skin. I loved looking into the horizon and seeing mountains, not gray flatness. I loved the dreamy quality of the sunlight on the green Pacific. I loved the unfamiliar flowers and the trees that never went depressing and bare. I was weirded out at first by the friendliness of the people, who actually said hello on the street, but that, too, grew on me. As did National League baseball, the lack of weather extremes, real Mexican food and (gasp) the Grateful Dead. Gradually, the East Coast ties loosened.

One October day, I got home from the office in the late afternoon, looking forward to watching the Giants and A’s World Series game. I puttered around with Kate Bush’s The Sensual World on the stereo. And then the earth began to shake. I ran under the doorway between the living room and kitchen and hung on, while the rented, wood-framed ranch house shook around me like a chew toy in a dog’s mouth. I closed my eyes and listened to dishes rattling in the kitchen, the top-heavy album shelving thudding against the walls of the living room, and the needle bouncing on the record. When I opened them, the first thing I saw was a pile of albums, hundreds of them, all over the living room floor. I keep the ruined Kate Bush record as a souvenir of the day I really became a Californian.

Because I wrote occasional music reviews for the Examiner, I was on record company mailing lists for a long time, but by the early ’90s, they had nearly all switched over to sending CD’s. Which was fine with me, because, by then, I’d had my son and portability of music was crucial if I was going to ever have time to listen at all. We bought a house (never moved back East after all), pruned the record collection again, stored the rest in boxes in the closets. I framed some of the artier album covers — Layla is now hanging in my bathroom. (What? I never claimed to be a decorator.)  A few times a year, I would get an urge to hear something that I only owned on vinyl, but I had long since stopped buying albums.

I never considered selling my remaining records, though — too many memories. And I’m glad that I didn’t. My son has claimed a good chunk of them for his own. His generation is buying vinyl again, making their own memories to the warm sound of (to quote Elvis Costello) “every scratch, every click, every heartbeat.” The circle is unbroken, the turntable spins.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

Gerry Goffin, 1939-2014

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Their marriage was turbulent, his struggle with mental illness well-documented, but out of that volatile partnership, Gerry Goffin and Carole King managed to write some of the most beautiful, canonical songs in the gospel of pop music. Their compositions encapsulated what it was like to be young and yearning — for love, adventure or just a quiet place to dream — in New York City in the ’60s. A mix of R&B and Broadway , much of Goffin and King’s music was soul music, as felt and articulated by two Jewish kids. It remains a melting pot of shared passions and experience as enduring as New York City itself.

As Brill Building songwriters, Goffin and King composed many of the hits that shaped the girl group sound. Some listeners might bristle at the pre-feminist sensibilities of Goffin’s lyrics to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,”  “Chains” and “One Fine Day,” songs in which girls worried about landing and keeping the boy of their dreams, of standing by him no matter how possessive or unfaithful he may be. But it’s wrong to judge these songs as if they were written today, and dismiss them as sexist.  There’s a world of difference between Goffin, who lived in a “Mad Men” culture, writing, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and, say, Robin Thicke writing “Blurred Lines” in 2013.

Besides, the trembly uncertainty of a girl losing her virginity in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” grew into aching poignance when King sang it from the perspective of a wistful and wise liberated woman on Tapestry. And when you’re listening to Aretha Franklin tearing joyfully into “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” are you really thinking, “Oh, figures, a man wrote a song about a woman made whole by love”?  Please say no.

Here are some of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s greatest hits.

1. “Up on the Roof” (originally recorded by the Drifters, 1963). Urban poetry: “When this old world starts getting me down/ And people are just too much for me to face/ I climb way up to the top of the stairs/ And all my cares just drift right into space …”

2. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (originally recorded by the Shirelles, 1961). The sexual frankness (for its time) is breathtaking. “Is this a lasting treasure/ Or just a moment’s pleasure/ Can I believe the magic of your sighs/ Will you still love me tomorrow …”

3. “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” (originally recorded by Aretha Franklin, 1967.) “When my soul was in the lost and found/ You came along to claim it/ I didn’t know what was wrong with me/ Till your kiss helped me name it …”

4. “Goin’ Back” (originally recorded by Dusty Springfield, 1966; version below by Carole King). One of those songs that hits you harder the older you get. “Now there are no games to only pass the time/ No more electric trains, no more trees to climb/ Thinking young and growing older is no sin/ And I can play the game of life to win …”

5. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (originally recorded by the Monkees, 1966). Concise social commentary in lyrics that propel  the melody forward. “The local rock group down the street is trying hard to learn their song/They serenade the weekend squire who just came out to mow his lawn …”

6. “Oh No, Not My Baby” (originally recorded by Maxine Brown, 1964; version below by Merry Clayton was recorded in 1972, with Carole King on piano and backing vocals). Goffin was famously unfaithful; he had a baby with the lead singer of the Cookies while married to King. All of which puts an ironic spin on these lyrics. “When my friends told me you had someone new/ I didn’t believe a single word was true …”

7. “Some Kind of Wonderful” (originally recorded by the Drifters, 1961). Lush romanticism. “When I’m in your embrace/ This world is a happy place/ And something happens to me/ That’s some kind of wonderful …”

8. “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad About My Baby” (originally recorded by the Cookies, 1962). Tough girls in love. Also, see “Oh No, Not My Baby,” above. “He’s true/ He’s true to me/ So girl, you better shut your mouth …”

9. “One Fine Day” (originally recorded by the Chiffons, 1963). The essence of the girl-group sound and happily-ever-after hopefulness. “One fine day/ We’ll meet once more/ Then you’ll want the love/ You threw away before …”

10. “I’m Into Something Good” (originally recorded by Earl-Jean MacRae of the Cookies, 1964;  Herman’s Hermits had the hit, also 1964). The sunny side of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”: “He walked me home and he held my hand/ I knew it wouldn’t be just a one night stand …”

And a personal favorite that Goffin wrote with Barry Mann, “Something Better” (originally recorded by Marianne Faithfull, 1969).

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

 

 

In the grooves, part two

Instructions from vinyl exhibition, OCMA ©Joyce Millman

Instructions from vinyl exhibition, OCMA
©Joyce Millman

In part one of this post, a visit to “Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records” at the Oakland Museum of California got me thinking about the records that meant the most to me during my childhood in the ’60s up until I stopped buying vinyl in the early ’90s. This isn’t meant to be a “best-of” list, but rather, a personal history told through records. All albums pictured below are from my collection. Those who are fastidious about the condition of their vinyl might want to look away.

Pre-history: 1960 to 1964

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The copy of West Side Story, above, used to belong to my parents. I found it while going through the boxes of hundreds of albums I’ve relegated to a back closet. Inside the sleeve, I found, sans cover, the Julie Andrews-Rex Harrison Broadway soundtrack of My Fair Lady. How did it end up there?  Needless to say, both discs were scratched beyond playability. Clearly, I’m not a very good curator.

From as early as I can remember, I was listening to my parents’ show tunes albums on their blonde wood hi-fi. West Side Story, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Kiss Me Kate … you name it and I had a song-and-dance routine ready to perform for any captive audience. How I wasn’t stuffed in a sack and dropped in the river before my sixth birthday remains a mystery.

Childhood: 1964-1969

 

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And then came the Beatles, the Supremes, the Rolling Stones. I fell hard for all of them. But until I was old enough to buy my own records, I had to get my fix from a transistor radio and Ed Sullivan. The first record I bought with my own money (Chanukah gelt? Tooth fairy?) was the 45 of “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine” in 1966, when I was 9. I can’t remember where I got it;  there were so many places to buy records, from five-and-dimes like Newberry’s and Woolworth’s to discount stores like Bradlee’s and Zayre’s. My corner drugstore even had a rack of records in the back next to the pharmacist’s counter.

Usually, I could only afford to buy singles — the largesse of relatives and babysitting money only went so far. My favorite source of 45s was the record department annex (entered via weird subway-type turnstile) of the old Jordan Marsh department store in downtown Boston. To buy a single, you stood at a long counter and the clerk would fetch your choice from the 45s slotted alphabetically, their titles written in black marker on long white plastic place cards that stuck out above the rack. When I was around 11 or 12, I would take the subway into Boston with my girlfriends and  spend Saturdays buying love beads and penny candy before hitting the singles counter at Jordan’s. To pass through the enchanted turnstile only to find an empty rack beneath the place holder for “Love Child” by the Supremes was like … I still can’t talk about it.

My most-played album of this period was the 5th Dimension’s Age of Aquarius. The 5th Dimension were an elegant pop-soul quintet — two girls, three guys and all amazingly fashion-forward — who were a favorite of Ed Sullivan. They’re often lumped under “easy listening” now, but you have to admit, they had impeccable taste in songwriters; their long string of Top 40 hits included songs from Jimmy Webb (“Up, Up and Away”), Laura Nyro (“Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Wedding Bell Blues”) and Ashford and Simpson (“California Soul”). I played the Age of Aquarius album constantly;  as an 11-year-old in 1969, I was fascinated by the title medley of “The Age of Aquarius”/”Let the Sunshine In” from the hippie musical Hair, which I was too young to see. So I thank the 5th Dimension for allowing me to fly my freak flag in an age-appropriate way. Also, for turning me on to Laura Nyro and Jimmy Webb long before my critical sensibilities kicked in. The variety and quality of what was on the charts during this whole period of AM-radio-driven pop music history still blows my mind. (The “Age of Aquarius” video below is audio only, but this is what the record sounded like to my 11 year-old ears.)

A word about equipment

I can’t remember exactly when, but I seem to have acquired my own record player in the mid-’60s. I have vivid memories of playing my 5th Dimension album on a rectangular red and white portable plastic phonograph; it had a carrying handle and a turntable that was the size of a 45, so when you played an album, it would hang off the sides.  There was also an AM radio in it. This record player was my most beloved possession. I don’t remember the brand or what became of it when I got a real stereo with a turntable and speakers for my 13th birthday. But I can close my eyes and picture The Age of Aquarius and my Monkees records wobbling on that tiny turntable. I can almost hear the tinny scritch of “I’m a Believer” coming out of its speaker. I tried Googling portable record players of the era to find a picture of mine, but the closest I got is this Columbia model made for the Japanese market, which has become quite a collectors’ item, I guess. I’m sure my record player was a knock-off of a knock-off; it definitely didn’t play upside down (and, believe me, I would have tried). But it looked very much like this. Can anyone help identify my record player?

 

Hormones: 1970-1971

It happened overnight. Puppy-eyed Davy Jones was no longer man enough for 13-year-old me. In his place ambled a more grown-up type of heart-throb, a sensitive singer-songwriter dude, with patched jeans and hippie hair, singing of broken hearts and wild worlds, hinting of darker pain. At pajama parties with my girlfriends, we’d play James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu and rank the guys in order of cuteness. Usually, James Taylor won. But a young girl’s heart is fickle. Yes, that is a mustache drawn on Sweet Baby James.

babyjames

 

But not even James Taylor singing “Fire and Rain” could top the saddest, most sensitive hippie-hunk of them all. Behold, the greatest rock-opera ever recorded. My Broadway geekiness reawakened, I spent many hours in my room singing my heart out (quietly) to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and wishing I was Mary Magdalene. For a Jewish girl, this felt very daring.

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1970 was a big year for big albums. Jesus Christ Superstar was a double record set. But the soundtrack to the movie Woodstock was a triple. Just as I had been too young for Hair in 1969, I was too young to actually go to Woodstock. This was a source of much frustration as I plunged deeper into my wannabe-hippie adolescence. I received the Woodstock album for Chanukah, 1970;  I was so eager to open the shrink wrap to get at the live Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tracks inside that I sliced three fingertips on the side of the sleeve, resulting in wicked paper cuts. In hindsight, I’m not sure it was worth it.

woodstock

 

Back to the hormones … Looking through my albums, I realize that 1971 was a pivotal year. My musical tastes, driven by maturing sexual curiosity, were changing. The tender singer-songwriters had given way to full-on, howling golden gods, testosterone-dripping guitar-rock, whammer-jammer dirty blues. These are a few of my best-loved records from that year.

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I was also listening to Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, the Faces’ A Nod Is as Good as a Wink to a Blind Horse and the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers (of course). This music was dangerous and sexy — not that I knew all that much about sex. In the ’80s, when Tipper Gore went on her nutty campaign to put warning stickers on albums, I thought about myself at age 14, swooning over Robert Plant and Mick Jagger, thrilling to the dirty mysteries of black dogs and midnight ramblers. I’m grateful that I was permitted a Tipper-free puberty.

Who Am I?: 1971-75

I was listening to a lot of albums made by men. Sometimes, there were female backup singers, but more often, women existed on these records only in the lyrics, as gin-soaked barroom queens or ethereal muses with love in their eyes and flowers in their hair. I was boy-crazy, for sure, but deep down, I knew the women those boys sang about were not me. Where did I fit in? Was there a place for me in the rock and roll paradise of my imagination?

It’s hard to convey exactly what Carole King’s Tapestry meant to me when it came out in early 1971. Here was a woman who didn’t look like a rock star — no make-up, unruly hair, imperfect features, perched on a window seat with a cat in sun-dappled serenity. She (co-)wrote the songs, she played the piano, she sang in a white-girl soul voice that made up in immediacy and longing what it lacked in polish. Though King was singing about subjects that were years beyond my experience (marriage, breakups, balancing career and family), the female-ness of Tapestry spoke to me. I understood that King was working out her place in the world, just as I was, even if she was further up the road. I was looking for a possibility of the woman I wanted to be, and Tapestry (and later in 1971, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and the following year, Bonnie Raitt’s Give It Up), were my guides. I played the hell out of Tapestry, so much so that when I pulled it out of the box a few years ago, the scratched disc fell through the disintegrating cover. I replaced it with the CD, which is why there’s no photo.

But as much of a rock and roller as I was, old habits die hard. The inextinguishable Broadway trooper in me was just a teeny bit obsessed with Liza Minnelli, who was at the height of her career after starring in the movie version of Cabaret. I was very into the soundtrack album to Liza with a “Z”, a (still awesome) TV special from 1972. I used to hang out on the front porch with the boy next door — who was as big a Liza fan as me — and we would reenact the show, song for song, in all its Bob Fosse-sway-backed, jazz-handed glory. Every lyric, Liza-ism and audience interaction on this record is burned into my brain. If you ever need a Liza impersonator on short notice, I’m your girl.

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Throughout high school and continuing into my first two years of college,  I listened to music constantly, and I read the record and concert reviews in Rolling Stone, Creem and the two local alternative newspapers, the Phoenix and Boston After Dark. I was picking up the vocabulary that would later allow me to write about music for a living. And that was my nascent ambition — to be a rock critic. But as many records as I bought, I didn’t really have an absolute favorite artist. I wanted to feel passion and inspiration but, instead, I was strangely adrift.

Until I heard this album.

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More to come …

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

In the grooves, part one

 

©Joyce Millman

©Joyce Millman

I recently visited an exhibit about “the sound and culture” of vinyl, as in record albums. It was mounted by the Oakland Museum of California, a wonderful and feisty museum that I adore and that really needs your support, so please go see its eclectic wonders sometime. The vinyl exhibit was set up in one large room with a half dozen turntable-and-headphone listening stations and numerous milk crates of albums “curated” by notable Bay Areans like author Michael Chabon and music journalist Sylvie Simmons. Each crate featured a written blurb explaining the story the curator intended to tell through the records. Some were personal lists of albums that meant something to the curator at various milestone moments of his or her life. Others attempted to track genres of music from a California angle, from folk-rock to L.A. punk to Oakland hip-hop. The idea was that the visitor could flip through those albums, listen on the turntable and maybe hand the second pair of headphones to someone else so they could  share an old fave or new discovery.

The problem was, to get the full story of any curated crate, you would have to hog a listening station for the duration of 20 albums. Because in the heyday of vinyl, artists created and people listened to and talked about rock albums as a whole, as a thematic work. It’s certainly the way people still listen to jazz and classical records. Yes, there were singles released from albums, but they were teasers for the greater story the album told. To stand at a listening station and only play “Hot Burrito #1″ from The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, or “Idiot Wind” from Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” from X’s Los Angeles, is to hear only a frustrating fragment of the story. Ironically, the listening stations simply enabled, in analog form, people to consume music the way they do in digital form: one song at a time, often at random, downloaded with no album context.

I visited the exhibit on a Sunday, but it seems like Friday nights and Saturday afternoons are the better way to go, when DJ’s and guest speakers play records to the room and talk about the music and about collecting. That’s a great idea, to bring people together as a community to share and think about recorded music. I wish that communal aspect had been better represented in the standing exhibit.

I also wish that, instead of having the albums in crates and record-store bins, there had been an installation of what, say, 1,000 record albums looks like on shelving. Without that, visitors who don’t collect records or are of an age where they missed the vinyl era entirely, have no sense of the physical, palpable challenges that come from storing and displaying a large collection of 12″X12″ albums. It’s no joke; my friend Milo Miles had to move because the floors of his rented apartment were bowing under the weight of shelf upon shelf of albums. The visceral impact of what it was/is like to live with this unwieldy art form could have been more strikingly communicated.

The exhibit’s overall effect on the Sunday I visited — the beanbag chairs in the middle of the room, the “sleeve face” selfie station, the detailed operating instructions on the turntables, the “pick 5 albums that tell a story and write them down on a postcard” station — reminded me of an interactive exhibit in a children’s museum. Except that most of the visitors were middle-aged folks who seemed pretty happy amid the nostalgic jolt of coming across albums they once owned, before they gave them all away to Goodwill and bought a CD player.

Am I being a crab? Probably. My family and I did have fun digging through the crates. And I have no doubt that, because of this exhibit, someone will visit their local record store in search of an old album they heard at one of the listening stations, or to buy the new St. Vincent on vinyl rather than download it. There’s nothing bad about that.

I guess I just expected more from the exhibit, when, in reality, I should be doing a better job of appreciating my own vinyl collection. I have a closet full of albums, hundreds of them, winnowed down from the 1,000+ that moved to California with me in the ’80s. Once upon a time, I had the furniture in which to store and display these albums, purpose-built record cabinets and shelving that lined the walls of the living room and my office. But when we moved to our current house, we gave away the cabinets and stacked the albums in alphabetically labeled boxes, in the big closet in the den. There they remain, among the extra blankets, old jackets and scrapbooks.

My millennial son made off with stacks of my records, which he listens to on a suitcase phonograph; his interest in vinyl and in album cover art seems in line with the vinyl renaissance among his peers. But while I still have my old turntable in working order, I don’t play my albums as much as I should. I’ll admit it: I do most of my listening on CD or iPod while I’m driving, cooking or working out. But whenever I do play a record album or old 45, that warm, flawed, scratched and popped quality of sound (I’m not an audiophile, far from it) takes my breath away. There is nothing more immediate and intimate than that sound; it makes you stop whatever else you’re doing and LISTEN. There is no multi-tasking while a record is playing. It’s all about the music.

A while ago, I got the urge to hear Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. I don’t own a digital copy, and when I dug out and played the album, all the tactile and cerebral pleasures of listening to records came back to me. I opened up the gatefold sleeve and got lost in the lyrics (deciphering the teensy lyrics on CD’s, if they’re even included, requires getting up to find my reading glasses), and in Norman Seeff’s icily beautiful black and white photos of Joni in black, skating on a snowy pond, the embodiment of the album’s themes of female independence, artistic isolation and solo flight. Inspired, I went looking through the other boxes and found albums I forgot I owned, and albums that were constant companions in my youth, and albums whose covers were held together by now-brittle Scotch tape. It was like unwrapping a mountain of Christmas presents inside a time machine.

In part two of this post, I’ll open up the closet and put together my own (virtual) exhibit of records that mean something to me. For now, take a look at a Pinterest board of my favorite album covers. (Click “See on Pinterest”.)

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014

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