Songs for swinging monkeys

©SaWi, Pixabay
©SaWi, Pixabay

Gung hay fat choy! It’s the Year of the Monkey according to the Chinese zodiac, and to celebrate the Lunar New Year (February 8), I’ve put together a playlist of the greatest songs about apes, gorillas, monkeys and Monkees. There are so many primate-referencing songs, I had trouble winnowing the list down to ten. Monkeys! Who doesn’t love ’em?

10. “(Theme from) The Monkees,” The Monkees. Stupid and catchy in all the right ways and a formative part of my childhood. If you were a nine-year-old in 1966, hopped up on rock and roll, sugar and Davy Jones, this song would be on your monkey list too.

9. “Apeman,” The Kinks. Ray Davies at his droll best, stripping off the trappings of human sophistication and superiority to make the point that we’re the real beasts on this planet. “I don’t feel safe in this world no more/I don’t want to die in a nuclear war/I want to sail away to a distant shore/ And make like an apeman.”

8. “Monkey Man,” The Specials. It was a toss-up between the original by Toots and the Maytals and the Specials’ version, but I chose the latter because LOOK AT THIS AMAZING VIDEO!

7. “Too Much Monkey Business,” Chuck Berry. A motor-mouthed list of life’s botheration that inspired songs from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to Springsteen’s “Open All Night.” And when the guitar solo kicks in, it sounds like sweet freedom.

6. “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show,” Big Maybelle. The B-side of Big Maybelle’s 1955 recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” is a bawdy blues in which Maybelle washes her hands of a jerk who thinks he can just come and go. The verses are delivered in a sleepy drawl (“He left me at three in the morning/ I got me a man at four”), the choruses in a mighty roar. There are several songs with this title. Accept no substitute.

5. “The Monkey Time,” Major Lance. Most animals go through life never even inspiring  one hit single based on a dance craze. In 1963, there were two primate-referencing dance songs on the charts, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey” and Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time.” “The Monkey Time,” written by Curtis Mayfield (!),  is a chugging, swinging joy to dance to. It’s one of my guaranteed mood elevators and you do not get between me and this song, understand? (I’m also partial to the version by Laura Nyro and Labelle from their Gonna Take a Miracle album, done as a medley with “Dancing in the Street.”)

4. “Mickey’s Monkey,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.  Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ tune gave us the irresistible “lum de lum de la iiii” refrain and one of Smokey’s most infectious performances.

But when Martin Scorsese put “Mickey’s Monkey” on the astute, legendary Mean Streets soundtrack, the song gained a whole new level of cool. The name of the following clip is “Bobby D Dancing,” which is pretty much all you need to know.

3. “The Monkey,” Dave Bartholomew. Also known as “The Monkey Speaks His Mind.” New Orleans producer/bandleader/composer Bartholomew takes the perspective of a monkey surveying humankind with a critical eye in this satire that still cuts deep. Bartholomew talks the lyrics over a jumpy repeating guitar riff, his simian narrator distancing himself ever further from his murdering, debauched, money-hungry cousins. The punchline is a killer: “Yes, man descended, the worthless bum/But, brothers, from us he did not come.”  The Kinks’ “Apeman” owes a debt to “The Monkey Speaks His Mind,” and Elvis Costello wrote a stinging sequel called “Monkey to Man” for his 2004 album The Delivery Man.

2. “Porcelain Monkey,” Warren Zevon. Fun fact: Zevon has four songs with simian titles, the others being “Leave My Monkey Alone,” “Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse” and “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado.” But “Porcelain Monkey,” from Life’ll Kill Ya (2000), is one of the finest songs Zevon ever wrote. The titular figurine refers to the statue that sat on the coffee table in Elvis Presley’s TV room in Graceland. Zevon uses it here as a symbol of the excesses of fame and the tragedy of greatness squandered: “Hip-shakin’ shoutin’ in gold lame/That’s how he earned his regal sobriquet/Then he threw it all away/For a porcelain monkey.” The lyrics may read sarcastically, but Zevon sings them with a tender, sympathetic catch in his throat. He saves his bullets for the entourage that watched it all happen; “Left behind by the latest trends/Eating fried chicken with his regicidal friends” is surely one of the top five couplets Zevon ever wrote.

When I first heard “Porcelain Monkey,” without the lyrics in front of me and not knowing the story of Elvis’s porcelain monkey, I thought the song was about Jeff Koons’ unexpectedly moving and magnificent porcelain statue “Michael Jackson and Bubbles.” Once seen in person, it cannot be unseen.

©Hakon H, Flickr/Wikipedia
©Hakon H, Flickr/Wikipedia

 

1.”Brass Monkey,” The Beastie Boys. That funky Monkey. The swaggering, delinquent ode to a cheap cocktail in a can has become one of the Beasties’ most enduring tracks. In the future, when the apes inherit the human-free rubble that was once Earth, they’ll find a Licensed to Ill CD, a working Discman and a few 40s in the undecayed detritus of a landfill. And hip-hop will be reborn.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Alan Rickman: A deep dive

AlanRickmanPictures

Most people have seen Alan Rickman in Die Hard, the Harry Potter movies, Love Actually. In Sense and Sensibility and Galaxy Quest. On The Tonight Show doing hits of helium with Jimmy Fallon.

But Alan Rickman had a long career, and he was game for pretty much anything. As someone who has spent the past 25 years or so in the throes of Rickmania, I’ve seen it all. Here’s a deep dive into some of You Tube’s choicest Rickman obscurities and oddities.

The Four Yorkshiremen. In 2001, Rickman, Eddie Izzard and British TV comedians Vic Reeves and Harry Enfield recreated Monty Python’s immortal “Yorkshiremen” skit at the Secret Policeman’s Ball, held in London to benefit Amnesty International. When Rickman delivers his first line, a huge roar goes up from the arena crowd and Izzard ad libs, “I think Jesus has just come in.”

Revolutionary Witness, “The Preacher,”  1989

Rickman and British playwright Peter Barnes were close friends and frequent collaborators. This short TV film is part of a series of monologues written by Barnes to celebrate the bicentennial of the French Revolution. I know, sounds like a rollicking good time. But I promise, you’ll be hooked from the moment Rickman, as Jacques Roux, a revolutionary and churchman, opens his mouth. This is one of his greatest, most magnetic performances; if I had to choose one video to explain why Alan Rickman mattered, this is it.

Music video, “In Demand,” 2000

The Scottish band Texas’s video has become the stuff of legend among Rickmaniacs. Enjoy.

Girls on Top, “Four-Play” 1985

Girls on Top was a British sitcom written by and starring Tracey Ullman, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders (later of Absolutely Fabulous) and Rickman’s protege, American comedian Ruby Wax. Always ready to help out his friends, Rickman donned a blinding white disco jacket to guest as a Greek con man.

“Plots and Proposals”, Victoria Wood with All the Trimmings, 2000

British comic Victoria Wood, another of Rickman’s friends, wrote a blisteringly funny spoof of Jane Austen in particular and BBC period dramas in general, then got Rickman to essentially send up his Colonel Brandon role from Sense and Sensibility. There are many familiar actors here, including Imelda Staunton and Richard E. Grant, and they all do a bang-up job of keeping a straight face through exchanges such as, “Fetch me my writing mittens, I have letters that will not wait till the warm weather.” “Could you not stick your hands in your muff?” Rickman manages to get through his scenes with Grant without breaking up, but only barely.

Victoria Wood, “All Day Breakfast,” 1992

Rickman proves what a good sport he is in this short send-up of TV morning shows.

“Play,” written by Samuel Beckett,  directed by Anthony Minghella, 2001

And now for something completely different. Rickman, Juliet Stevenson and Kristin Scott-Thomas play a man, his wife and his mistress, squabbling out Beckett’s venomous lines in double-time, while crouched in large urns with their faces painted into a state of decomposition. I didn’t get this play until I saw it performed in this video. Rickman believed that no playwright was too “difficult” to communicate to an audience, and if it was, the actors hadn’t done their jobs.

Painting with Light, in-house commercial for Turner Classic Movies

Rickman talks about his favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, while drawing with a light pen in one of a series of ads TCM was running in the early ’00s.

“Dust,” a short film by Ben Okrent and Jake Russell, 2014

Rickman was generous with his time and mentorship, often appearing in young filmmakers’ projects just for the asking. In this film, which also stars Jodie Whittaker, he is a silent, menacing and unshaven presence, but wait — there’s a twist.

American Cinematheque Salute to Bruce Willis, 2000

That time Alan Rickman did stand-up comedy as the host of a prime-time TV awards special. And you know what? He killed.

Closing credits, “The Search for John Gissing,” 2001

Rickman donned Peter Sellers glasses and a wardrobe of impeccably cut suits to play the title character in this uneven screwball comedy by director/writer Mike Binder. The ensemble cast performed a dance routine over the closing credits. Rickman, who idolized Fred Astaire, may not have those kinds of moves, but he throws himself into the dance like a hyperactive kid, wholeheartedly abandoning himself to goofiness. There are no traces of the intimidating antagonist, Thinking Woman’s Crumpet or distinguished thespian here. It made me laugh to see it again, the day after his sudden and heartbreaking demise. I hope he’s dancing wherever he is.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

Truly, Madly, Deeply

 

©Guardian
©Guardian

He was an actor of elegance and menace. He looked and sounded like nobody else. He hit the Trifecta of perfect screen antagonists: Hans Gruber, the prototypical charming European bad guy of Die Hard; the Sheriff of Nottingham, rock star as pantomime villain, in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; and Harry Potter’s inscrutable nemesis Severus Snape, that solitary conundrum. After a relatively late start (he was pushing 30 when he was accepted to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art),  Alan Rickman forged a distinguished career as a stage actor, movie actor, director, mentor and, finally, a most unlikely member of the gigantically-grossing Harry Potter movie franchise, which he likened to being in the Beatles.

But I’m not here to write Alan Rickman’s obituary. I’m here to tell you a different story. The death of this particular actor has hit a lot of women harder than you can imagine, because Alan Rickman wasn’t just an actor — he was our secret celebrity boyfriend.

The voice, like deep, dark molasses. The gangly, awkward beauty. The forbidding, intriguing hawklike profile. From the moment I saw Alan Rickman on screen as a ghost in Truly, Madly, Deeply, gazing at his leading lady Juliet Stevenson as if there was no one else in the universe, I was a goner. I was pregnant at the time, and I thought, maybe it was my hormonal state. Uh-uh. My Rickman thing stuck, for years. Sometimes it flamed brighter than others, but it was always there, simmering on a low flame. For a while, I thought I was alone, until a friend mentioned Alan Rickman in passing and I thought I detected a little something extra in the way she caressed those four syllables. I was right. She had it too. We passed a VHS tape of Rickman in “Murder, Obliquely,” an HBO film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, back and forth to each other across the country, sharing our celebrity crush like a couple of pre-teens mooning over a copy of Tiger Beat.

There was a name for our affliction, but I didn’t learn it until the Internet came along. It was called “Rickmania,” and women had suffered its pleasures ever since he first slinked onto the stage as the silkily decadent Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1986. Lindsay Duncan, his costar in the play, famously remarked that people were leaving the theater wanting to have sex, “preferably with Alan Rickman.” One British newspaper columnist tagged Alan “the thinking woman’s crumpet,” which was a nice bit of validation and reassurance for us grown-up women with satisfying real-life relationships who nonetheless inexplicably, sheepishly, fancied a bit of Rickman on the side.

Why Alan Rickman? I’ve asked myself that for years. Maybe it was his other-ness. He wasn’t movie-star handsome. His voice and his accent were singular and a bit affected. He wasn’t low-hanging fruit, that’s for sure. You had to appreciate subtlety to appreciate Alan Rickman. And once you did, you found that he was a big, deep Bronte novel of a crush. No other actor could go from utter stillness to pouncing leonine passions like Alan Rickman. Consider the way suave Hans Gruber (really, Valmont with a gun) leaps at Holly McClane near the climax of Die Hard, when she suggests that despite his bespoke suit and political terrorist pretensions, he is just a common thief: “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite!” Or the way his refined Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility suddenly betrays the depth of his feelings for the gravely ill Marianne, begging her sister to, “Give me an occupation Miss Dashwood or I shall run mad!”

He was never very effective playing average Joes. That beguiling, larger-than-life presence begged for a waistcoat and breeches, a Goth wig and a cape; period dramas and fantasies were where he looked like he truly fit in. And we wouldn’t want him any other way, really. Imaginary boyfriends shouldn’t be ordinary, and Alan Rickman was decidedly not.

Rickmania was a persistent bugger. It struck without warning and before you knew it, you were bidding for obscure British radio plays on eBay and watching a lot of bad movies, of which Alan was the best thing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Close My Eyes, an impenetrable British indie film in which Rickman has a small role as the husband of a woman who’s having an affair with her brother. (The brother is played by Clive Owen, and I’ve fast-forwarded over him to get to Alan, which is saying a lot.) When you’re a Rickmaniac, you catalogue his movies by shorthand and CME was a  “good hair role”. Listen to me: There was no actor more handsome than Alan Rickman was from 1988-1992, preferably in a good hair role.

As a first-wave Rickmaniac, I was fortunate to have been able to see him in his prime, in real time. I got to watch Sense and Sensibility in a movie theater (good hair role, a bit pouffy, lightened to the color of a Palomino’s mane), and gauge the Rickmania intensity level by the low murmurs that bubbled up out of the dark whenever he appeared on screen. I got to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and imagine him as Snape, before he was even cast as Snape. And Snape is the reason Alan Rickman in middle-age gained his most unlikely Rickmaniacs, adolescent girls who fell under the Potion Master’s spell. Speaking of Snape, I was sure I outed myself as a Rickmaniac when I wrote this tentative little piece about Harry Potter adult fan fictionof which I was reading a lot. That piece turned into a longer, kinkier essay called “To Sir, with Love” that was collected in the anthology Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which turned into a whole book.

For a long time, Alan Rickman was my secret muse. And I’m not the only one. I met some funny, great, talented women on Alan Rickman fan boards who have become dear friends. We came for the hair porn, we stayed for the companionship. And now we’re virtually holding hands and consoling each other because the crush we shared is gone.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

 

Ashes to Ashes

david-bowie-1976-billboard-650

 

Please forgive the brevity of this post. I have a shoulder injury and typing is painful. But I wanted to say this:  Of all the mind-expanding, culture-leading magic tricks David Bowie performed in a career of serial rebirths, his last one is his most audacious. Blackstar is a self-penned epitaph, a swan song, a gift and a requiem all rolled into one. It’s heartbreaking, but also, in its meticulous planning, secrecy and sudden, sad unveiling, brilliant. In making his death a performance piece and a work of art, Bowie left on his own terms. And in doing so, he left us with one final example of how to turn and face the ch-changes. His last work both honors and transcends death.”Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sings on “Lazarus”; the Starman is still waiting in the sky, whenever we need him. Of course David Bowie is eternal. Did you expect anything less?

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Every one of the songs below, though completely different in genre and execution, sounds like it could have been recorded today. At his restless, transformational best, David Bowie led pop music to places it might not have gone without him. He contained multitudes and we will never hear the end of him.

Here’s Bowie doing an amazing “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” on The Tonight Show in 1980. Johnny Carson’s intro is remarkable. He got it.

“Young Americans” live on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974, Luther Vandross leading the backing singers. My favorite Bowie song.

“Starman,” 1972, Top of the Pops. Ziggy Forever.

“Suffragette City” live, 1973 (from the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars movie)

Acoustic “Heroes” from Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit, Mountain View, CA, 1996.

“I’ll be free/Just like that bluebird/Oh, I’ll be free/Ain’t that just like me?” “Lazarus”, from Blackstar.

“I never wave bye-bye.” The original “Modern Love” video that ruled MTV in 1983.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016

The year in guns and music

Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)
Lin-Manuel Miranda as the Father of the year. (Photo © Joan Marcus)

 

Music normally provides a refuge from and a response to the sorrows of the world. But in this bitter and broken year, even music became a war zone. Which makes it even more imperative that we continue to support live music, continue to go to shows, continue to choose art, joy and freedom over fear.  U2’s stunning Paris concert, which HBO aired live on Dec. 7, was a powerful antidote to the vile “keep Muslims out of the U.S.” posturing of Herr Trump that coincidentally dominated the news cycle that day. But, more important, it was a healing gesture — as far as gestures can go — to the city of Paris and to musicians and music lovers shaken by the horror that took place at the Bataclan.

I’m sure I’m not the only fan who once believed to my core that a rock concert is hallowed ground. How can anything bad possibly happen when you’re dancing to the music you love? But it did, and we have to acknowledge that dark cloud. We in the U.S. also have to contend with domestic terrorism wrought by the NRA’s insane GOP-enabled perversion of the Second Amendment. But you know what? Life goes on. Music goes on. Thirty-five years ago this month, John Lennon became a gun violence statistic, murdered by someone who should never have been able to obtain a gun. We thought the dream of peace and love died with a Beatle, but it didn’t. It lives on, even stronger, in the increasingly angry and emboldened response of sane Americans to the mass shootings that have taken place almost daily, and to the racist, xenophobic, gun-humping, misogynistic filth spewing from the mouths of the fringe crackpots the Republicans are trying to pass off as presidential material.

On the night of Dec. 7, after a scrolling remembrance of Paris casualties and shouts of “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite,”  Bono brought an emotional Eagles of Death Metal onstage to sing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” It was a moment of pure rock and roll joy. The audience jumped, cried and howled along on Smith’s progressive battle cry — “The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools” — like a great wounded animal stirred. And you never want to underestimate a wounded animal.

Much of the music on my best-of list reflects my state of mind this year, probably more than it does the musical moment. The news was frequently so depressing, I found myself gravitating towards music as an uplifting escape. My Top Seven albums of 2015:

  1. FFS. Franz Ferdinand and Sparks morphed into a defiantly off-kilter entity, serving up an album “so harmonious it enhances the distinct charms of each element, while becoming something entirely new and astoundingly delicious” (as I wrote in June). There was one song on the record that diverged from the upbeat mood, Alex Kapranos’s atmospheric ballad about a man with a gun, “Little Guy from the Suburbs” (“I’m just a little guy from the suburbs/ Who learned to kill better than the others”). As the year went on and the mass shootings by terrorists both domestic and foreign piled up, the song took on a grave kind of prescience. But FFS didn’t let that weigh them down. Their jubilant, inclusive concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland was also my show of the year.
  2. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Album). No, I haven’t seen it (I’m hoping for a West Coast tour). But the album, oh the album. Hamilton stands on its own as a hip-hop/pop opera, with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s take on Alexander Hamilton — Founding Father, guy on the $10 bill, famous duel victim — a work of straight-up genius in so many ways. Listening to the album reminds me of how, as a kid, I locked myself in my room with Hair and didn’t come out for a year.  Hamilton brings popular music to Broadway in a more original way than jukebox musicals like Motown: The Musical, harnessing the power of rap as storytelling form (and connecting the dots backward to Shakespeare in the process). The show’s electricity comes from how star and creator Miranda frames Hamilton as an outsider with a vision of democracy and equality (“just like my country/ I’m young, scrappy and hungry”). Its heartbreak comes from the audience’s knowledge that the show’s big ideas — the abolition of slavery, the right of women to determine their own destinies, the creation of a strong central government (“Are we a nation of states? What’s the state of our nation? I’m past patiently waitin’ “) — are still regarded as open to debate by a large swath of the population. At the very least, the boundary-crossing popularity of Hamilton might make American history sexy again for a country that often seems sorely in need of a history lesson.
  3. Colleen Green, I Want to Grow Up. Achingly lovely and lonely pop from a performer for whom weed, wisecracks and meals alone in front of the TV no longer seem to be enough. The haunting “Deeper than Love,” in which she details her discomfort with intimacy and her fear of aging and death, is as wrenching a piece of confessional songwriting as you will ever hear.
  4. Grimes, Art Angels. Colleen Green works in tight-focus; on Art Angels, Grimes (Claire Boucher) blows her music up to IMAX. This is a big record, in sound, intention and the talents of its creator, and it mostly succeeds. Producer/arranger/songwriter/beat-creator/musician/performer Grimes moves confidently from sugar-voiced yet tough-edged dance pop (“California”) to savage electronica full of other-worldly mystery (“Kill V. Maim”). On Art Angels, Grimes emerges as the spiritual daughter of Madonna in her prime and Yoko Ono at her wildest.
  5. Hot Chip, Why Make Sense?  Glorious electronic dance music about the challenge of growing older without letting the world turn you bitter. My review is here. 
  6. Shamir, Ratchet. This young, agender Las Vegan delivered the debut album of the year, featuring sublime dance hits “On the Regular” and “Call It Off.” On their sassy delivery of those two primary-colored tracks, Shamir calls to mind a cross between Sylvester and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. On a downcast song like “Vegas,” the bright lights fall away, revealing a willingness to acknowledge ugly truths: “You can come to the city of sin and get away without bail/ But if you’re living in the city, oh you already in hell.” Shamir’s combination of playfulness and darkness raises the ante for future work.
  7. Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink. Not actually an album (though there is a companion playlist), but reading Costello’s memoir was exactly like listening to his lyrics. His writing here is dense, assured, filled with dazzling turns of phrase and tricky — unfaithful — when it comes to narrative structure. This is a book of memories that unspools like both a memory and a melody, moving back and forth in time, often steeped in self-loathing, but always returning to Costello’s main refrain and reference point — his beloved, often-absent father, the big-band musician from whom Elvis inherited his sense of showmanship, among other things. This is a deep, rewarding tale, beautifully sung.

And this was my song of the year. I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but the power of it is, still, a comfort.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

 

 

Salon.com turns 20

salon-logo

The trailblazing web site Salon.com celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. I was proud to have been on staff for its debut in November 1995, and it was my regular gig until 2001. From the beginning, traditional media didn’t know what to make of this “left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker,” as Rolling Stone called us in 1996. Since we actually did think of ourselves as a left-coast, interactive version of The New Yorker, the line felt like a compliment — as long as we ignored the rest of the review, which likened Salon (then called “Salon1999,” because we had not yet been able to wrest the Salon.com domain away from its owner) to the doomed “flying boats” at the dawn of commercial air travel in the 1920s.

Salon’s demise was predicted early and often. And yet, it’s 2015 and Salon lives on. Sadly, a lot of the content from its early years as a webzine has vanished into the ether. It’s still possible to find early issues (Salon published weekly at first) via the Internet Archive, but it takes some sleuthing. [The Internet Archive is in the process of building a search engine for the Wayback Machine, but it won’t be ready until 2017.]

I was Salon’s TV critic from 1995-01, which coincided with some great television; I was privileged to have been able to write frequently about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, NYPD Blue and arguably the finest cop drama in TV history, NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street, which was adapted from David (The Wire) Simon’s true stories from Baltimore’s homicide squad.

The first piece I ever wrote for Salon (it ran in the startup issue on Nov. 13, 1995) was about Homicide. The link is gone now, but, pack-rat that I am, I saved hard copies of all my pieces. I guess I didn’t totally trust this Internet thing to be around forever. I’ve scanned the column and posted it below; I’ll try to post others from time to time. For me, Salon was an exciting leap into the unknown. I’m glad it outlived its obituaries.

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© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

Allen Toussaint, 1938-2015

Photo © Glade Bilby II
Photo © Glade Bilby II

To say that songwriter, pianist, producer and singer Allen Toussaint was prolific is an understatement. The gentlemanly giant of New Orleans R&B had a list of performing, composing and producing credits that’s almost hard to take in. If you grooved to an R&B song sometime in the past half-century, chances are good that Toussaint had a hand in it (often under the songwriting pseudonym “Naomi Neville,” a tribute to his mother). A partial list: Lee Dorsey’s “Working in the Coal Mine,” Ernie K. Doe’s “A Certain Girl,” Benny Spellman’s “Fortune Teller,” Irma Thomas’s “It’s Raining,” Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can,” Boz Scaggs’ “What Do You Want the Girl To Do?,” Robert Palmer’s “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley”. He wrote the rollicking “Whipped Cream,” which was recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and became the theme song for “The Dating Game.” He produced Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” as well as albums for Dr. John and the Meters. Glen Campbell had a huge hit with Toussaint’s song “Southern Nights.” Toussaint wrote the horn arrangements for the Band’s “Cahoots” and “Rock of Ages” albums. He produced and recorded a post-Katrina duo album with Elvis Costello, “The River in Reverse.”

And that’s only scratching the surface.

My first (unwitting) exposure to Toussaint came through the Dave Clark Five’s cover of “I Like It Like That” and Lee Dorsey’s version of “Working in the Coal Mine,” which I loved as a kid glued to my AM radio in the early ’60s. Later, I wore out the grooves to Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and the Pointer Sisters’ drop-dead funky “Yes We Can,” both released in 1974; I took enough notice of the album credits to connect Toussaint to both of these ferocious expressions of female political engagement, sexual and otherwise.

Toussaint wrote often about race and class divisions in songs unflinching (“Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,” “What Is Success?,” “On the Way Down”), prayerful (“Freedom for the Stallion”) and uplifting;  his inclusionary and triumphant “Yes We Can Can” was a movement in itself, even before it found its spiritual echo in the 2008 campaign that elected the first black President of the United States.

It’s only a small exaggeration to say that everyone covered Toussaint’s songs. Any decent record collection that includes a representative sampling of releases from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s will include songs written or produced by Toussaint. He brought New Orleans R&B to rock and country audiences. Listen to some of Toussaint’s solo recordings today and you can hear what other artists were referencing in their own classic songs: The whooshing, paranoid tremors of a guilty conscience that float through “From a Whisper to a Scream” are echoed on Hall and Oates’ “She’s Gone”; the easy-rolling baseline of “Soul Sister” turned up a year later on Steve Miller’s “The Joker.”

I’m tempted to say that Toussaint’s sudden passing at age 77 on Nov. 10 leaves a great void, except that his work is so pervasive, he’ll always be here, an essential flavor in the savory gumbo of American music he helped create.

Allen Touissaint performing “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further”

The Pointer Sisters on “Soul Train”, “Yes We Can Can”

Lee Dorsey, “Working in the Coalmine” (audio)

Elvis Costello and Allen Touissaint, “Freedom for the Stallion” (audio)

Labelle in full otherworldly attire, “Lady Marmalade”

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015