Growing up, the record continued to deliver, especially when my ability to read and comprehend improved. The record more or less served as my gateway to a whole ‘nother world of music beyond that which was served up on WI00, the local AM radio station. Each track served as a key, unlocking doors to songwriters; publishing companies; record companies; and most importantly performers, who were for the most part black. Black folks were an unknown and forbidden entity in my neck of the Central Pennsylvania woods. Hence, my fascination and drive to find out about all things related to black culture. Let me tell ya, that was some tough gig, especially in the early 1970s.
A track by track examination of the LP will most probably best show what I’m getting at.
1) Around and Around (Chuck Berry) BMI 3:00. This is where reading and comprehension kicks in. Alright, the parentheses below the title tells who wrote the thing. Chuck Berry. Who is Chuck Berry? At the time, the only way you could find out about Chuck Berry was through a much older family member or a purchase at the mall record store. For me that was Listening Booth, and thank God, it was run by a knowledgeable freak more than happy to help out the little weirdo with the bowl head hair cut who kept coming in and asking for records by black artists. The kind-hearted soul steered me away from the Mercury label’s rerecorded greatest hits comp and turned me on to the Chess two-LP gatefold Golden Decade collection crammed with all the good stuff. He also threw in Golden Decade volumes 2 and 3 free of charge. Like the Stones, he delivered, and he was also consistently one hell of a storyteller. And he did it quickly and to the point in less than 3 minutes. All that said, I preferred the Stones’ take on “Around and Around.” With my closer look at “Around and Around,” I began to see that one of Stones’ many talents was to take a so-so song, figure out what could make it better, and turn it into the second coming of Christ.
BMI? It seemed like all the black records had the BMI initials after the parentheses surrounding the names of the songwriters. BMI was all over the place on the Chuck Berry Golden Decade LP. Alright, so BMI is some kind of outfit that handles all the black songwriters. BMI was all over the place on the back cover of 12 X 5 as well. All the BMI songs were great. Hence, BMI is another thing to keep an eye on. For now, BMI definitely means something like a guarantee of quality.
2) Confessin’ the Blues (Shann; Brown) ASCAP 2:45. Whadaya know? This track was also on one of the Berry comps (and just for the record, nearly every Chess artist took a crack at it), but again, I liked the Stones version better. Through further conversations with the kind-hearted soul, I found out that Shann was Jay McShann, a popular Kansas City bandleader in the ’30s and ’40s whose band featured a very young Charlie Parker. Parker’s first recorded performance also resulted from his stint in McShann’s Band. Brown is Walter Brown, a vocalist for McShann’s band.
ASCAP? Again, gotta love that kind-hearted soul. It turns out that ASCAP was the organization that monitored performances and airplay of songs, collected royalties, and paid song publishers for the right to use the songs. Before there was BMI, there was only ASCAP. Turns out ASCAP was a little too snooty and a little too greedy with percentages, and that’s more or less how and why BMI came to be. BMI showed themselves to be less snooty, less greedy, and more than willing to take on the disenfranchised. Once again, everything fit together. And like “Around and Around’”s 3-minute time, you’re in and out. Your point is made, and it’s time to move on.
3) Empty Heart (Nanker-Phelge) BMI 2:35. What punk rock sounds like from a band with chops. Dr. Frankenstein’s exclamation of “It’s alive!” comes to mind here. Probably written and recorded as filler, but winded up being something a whole lot more than that: raucous, rhythmic, and definitely something different. That turned out to be the case for most of the Nanker-Phelge titles. I mowed a lot of lawns ‘til I finally raised enough money to find out Nanker-Phelge was what was in the parentheses below a song title when the whole band had a hand in the composition. Hence, Nanker Phelge (note they opted to go with BMI and remain in good company with their heroes) titles turned out to be a little more twisted than the usual Stones’ title. A nanker turned out to be Brian Jones’ moniker for turning your face into that of a pig’s by using one’s thumbs to pull one’s nostrils northward and one’s index fingers to pull one’s skin below the eyes southward. Not a pleasant site. James Phlege was a Stones’ Edith Grove flatmate in the early ’60s, celebrated for his his pig-like behavior as well.
4) Time Is On My Side (Norman Meade) BMI 2:50. Killer. You hear it, you love it. If you don’t hear it, you need to get checked out. Norman Meade? Again, the kind-hearted soul helped me out here. Look, I know you’re sick and tired of hearing about the guy, but there was nowhere else to go for info. At that time Central Pennsylvania was all about fur trapping, spotting deer, Sea Breeze, Wonderbread, Farrah Fawcett (never understood that creepy Barbie thing), feathered hair, greasy hair, Skoal, Wrangler and Lee jeans (definitely not Levis), Fun Dip, the Redskins coming to town to train at Dickinson College’s sports grounds, hot tuna surprise, etc. In a word: hell. Simply put, Mr.Hossenfeffer, one of the clerks at Otto’s Hardware, was not going to know that Norman Meade was a pseudonym for Jerry Ragavoy, who produced gazillions of great soul records, including this winner, which was first done by Irma Thomas. Again, even now, I prefer the Stones track for the same reasons I brought up during my discussion of track one. That said, I actually think I might be in the wrong here. I’m not perfect. And yes, the Stones were always the ultimate cover band, but they were smart enough to know they couldn’t make a career out of that.
5) Good Times, Bad Times (Jagger, Richards) BMI 2:28. Once again, opting for BMI. Very nice, early acoustic blues songwriting effort, effective change of pace, well placed on side 1, right before the final track confirms the Stones’contention that they are indeed the worlds’ greatest rock and roll band. Years later, I wondered whether the song title served as the impetus for Led Zeppelin’s first track on their first outing, but decided the research wasn’t worth the effort. Zeppelin? No thank you.
And here’s a fair question: At what point did critics decide it was time for Zep’s critical upgrade? During my high school years, me and my Costello-, Jam-, and Specials-loving buddies would have never ever owned up to having a taste for Zep. When asked, the pat response was, “I don’t listen to that crap.” And you know what? I still don’t listen to that crap, best summed up as talking loud and saying nothing. That said, I gotta give credit where credit is due. “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Communication Breakdown” never fail to please. And I’d probably put “Misty Mountain Hop” on my list of favorite rock songs of all time. Lady Gergely and others may disagree, but as far as the rest of their catalog is concerned, I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone dropped a bomb on the vault where the master tapes are currently being stored.
6) It’s All Over Now (B.&S. Womack) BMI 3:20. Probably the ultimate track proving the Stones are the ultimate turd polishers. Despite what the Marcuses and Christgaus of the world think, the original, by Bobby and Shirley, blows. It wraps a decent story around a very awkward stiff beat that sucks the life out of the thing. The Stones dropped all that and turned it into shit-kicking redneck monster that got airplay regardless of the fact that Mick chose to describe his woman’s games as “half assed” instead of “high class.” As a kid, I thought, “Wow, they got away with that!” They continually upped the ante.
By the way, Bobby later redeemed himself when he wrote and recorded “Sweeter than the Day Before,” in 1966, (yet another Chess release – could they do no wrong?) with The Valentinos and “Up on 110th Street,” in 1972, which marked the high point of his solo career. Undeniably powerful stuff.
1) 2120 South Michigan Avenue (Nanker Phelge) BMI 2:08. It was real good back then, and it’s even better now because it served as the initial background music for my first date, 4 years ago, with Lady Gergely. Despite the fact that I’ve told the story before, I’m gonna tell it again whether you want to hear about it or not. I’m less of an ass these days because of her, and that’s why it’s worth a second hearing.
I broke just about every rule in the book when I started dating Lady Gergely. More about that later. I knew I had to make her mine the day I met her. On our first date, I got all gussied up, tried to make myself look like Paul Newman in The Hustler, a flawless movie that’s definitely in my Top 5. I also spent a good hour or so agonizing about what music I wanted for the trip. For some reason or another, “2120 South Michigan Ave.” had to be the track playing in the background when I picked her up. I thought it would work.
Anyway. I hop in the car, drive to the corner (we’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years or so, but never met each other; that all changed after a chance meet up while walking our dogs, recently gotten from the SPCA), and she’s drop-dead gorgeous, looking like Annabella Sciorra during her Jungle Fever days. My confidence went right down the john, and I stuttered while saying hi to her when she got in the car. God only knows how I was going to pull this off. I think she realized pretty quick that I was a nervous wreck so she started asking me about the music I was playing, that she liked it, and that her and her older son, the Dylan obsessive I told you about earlier, were really enjoying Freaks and Geeks. Then she tells me that she’s not a Deadhead, that she doesn’t get that whole thing, but she loves the song “Box of Rain.” Right then and there, I knew I was going to ask her to marry me, which I did about a month or so later. Right away, she said yes, and I decided that there may indeed be some kind of god after all.
I was right; it worked.
2) Under the Boardwalk (Resnick-Young BMI 2:45. So, I’m 10 years old, and I enter this Father’s Day contest at the mall called “My Pic of My Pop.” Win and get a free LP from Listening Booth and a free pastel portrait from local artist Paula Pucci! I enter. I draw my dad, and it’s one of hundreds hung up all over the walls between a multitude of stores like Feel Fine, Woolco, and Kinney Shoes, that is, stores that went bankrupt when they refused to believe that your everyday run-of-the-mill Central Pennsylvanian would no longer piss away his/her hard-earned dollars on inferior products such as NBA basketball sneakers, a “ditch the leather and use vinyl” Adidas rip off, which steered clear of copyright infringement by adding a fourth stripe. I win, and my little brother, who also entered the contest, has a meltdown because he’s supposed to the one who’s the family artist. The solution to the problem? Ms. Pucci agrees to two pastel portraits. She successfully morphs our faces into those of monkeys, and over the years, her work is sporadically brought out at family get-togethers by my sister for the sole purpose of humiliation. She continues to have a ball with all this. Know that my little brother and I still dread the moment during coffee and brownies when she says, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
I used the gift certificate for the recently released Band on the Run, by Paul McCartney and Wings, hands down the best of the solo Beatle records. It still holds up, something that can’t be said of most of that other solo dreck. Anyway, after the kind-hearted soul gave me a thumbs up for my taste, he asked me if I was still digging the Stones LP. I was indeed, and I was especially enjoying “Under the Boardwalk.” “Yeah?” he asked. Miraculously, my gift certificate somehow or another covered the additional cost of The Drifters’ Greatest Hits. I went home, played both LPs continuously with a needle and heavy tone arm that destroyed them, but the Drifters LP won out. The Stones “Boardwalk” was a pale imitation of the real thing. Hard to admit but true. You just can’t win ‘em all.
That was good though. Through the Drifters LP, I eventually learned about the Drifter variations, the Ben E. King-led group (he was a Drifter in an earlier version of the group. He didn’t sing lead on “Boardwalk,” but his Drifters tracks were on the LP as well) and the even earlier one led by Clyde McPhatter, which in turn led me to his tracks with The Dominoes, the ones that make the hair stand up on the back of your head: “60 Minute Man,” “That’s What You’re Doing to Me,” “These Foolish Things Remind Me of You”….The next time I have to suffer through one of those hipster bozos telling me doo-wop is boring, I’m gonna reward him for his monologue (there is no back and forth with those clods) with a 2 X 4 across the bridge of his nose.
3) Congratulations (Jagger-Richards) BMI 2:25. The first of the folk-rock Stones songs. Granted, at that point, songwriting was not their thing, especially something in this vein, but they got very good at this type of writing very quickly, and eventually produced a catalog of folk-rockers much better than the work of the so-called masters of the genre. I equate their work in this regard to Elvis, who really wanted to be Dean Martin more than anything, but wound up being the King of Rock and Roll due to the fact that he was encouraged by producer Sam Phillips to continue that which was more or less a comedy act for his buddies Scotty and Bill during a recording break. God bless Andrew Loog Oldham for telling the Stones to write or die. We would never have had “Blue Turns to Grey,” “The Singer Not the Song,” “I’m Free” (just writing that title gives me goosebumps; one of the all time great B sides), “Take It or Leave It,” “Sittin’ on a Fence,” “Out of Time,” nor the Flowers album, thrown together by Andrew Loog Oldham and Lou Adler as a grab for a chunk of that Mamas and Papas market…Again, it wasn’t them, and they may have been (they probably were) laughing all the way to the bank, but a good record is a good record regardless of what’s really behind it.
4) Grown Up Wrong (Jagger-Richard) BMI 2:04. “Empty Heart” is to “Grown Up Wrong” as Frankenstein is to Son of Frankenstein. Anyone who’s actually taken the time to see Son of Frankenstein knows what I’m getting at. It just doesn’t work. Even the guitar solo is weak, and a weak solo is something you never expect to hear in a Stones song. Believe me, admitting this hurts like hell, but it’s time to let go. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one truly flawless album, Revolver. You can’t win ‘em all.
My other beef is a common belief of the unenlightened that “Grown Up Wrong” is the very epitome of what the Stones are all about, irresponsible loud slop, which led to the unfortunate formation of countless, embarrassing, calculated Stones rip off bands who never got it and whose living members continue not to get it, including the Chocolate Watch Band, the New York Dolls, the Dead Boys, the Chesterfield Kings, and yes, the almighty Stooges, whose only listenable album, Raw Power, is dissed because there’s an actual stab at craft within the grooves. And just for the record, the Iggy fans are the absolute worst, even worse than Deadheads, something I didn’t think was possible. The younger ones can be forgiven because they haven’t listened to enough music to figure out what’s really good or bad and right or wrong musicwise, but the older ones should know better. I saw a few of them a year ago, when Sloan played at the Haverford music festival (now there’s a band I don’t particularly care for, but they ended up being a real treat). They’re still wearing some leather, drain pipe pants, and a rock like hair cut still sits atop their heads. It’s a dumb look. It’s a look that says, “Here’s hoping the day finally comes when I can drop all this crap and sing along unashamedly to ‘Your Song’ should I hear it while driving.” Honestly, next time you’re stuck at a party with one of these lost souls, ask them specifics about the Iggy masterworks. They’re always at a loss because there’s never been anything memorable enough on those albums to file in anyone’s long-term memory.
5) If You Need Me (Bateman-Picket) BMI 2:00. Bateman is Robert Bateman (who also wrote “Please Mr. Postman”) and Pickett, of course, is Wilson Pickett. There’s a variety of great black versions of this song, and the Stones’ take is on par with the best of them. I found out about nearly all the versions of “If You Need Me” through my dad’s sisters, my aunts Jane and Paula, who still lived at home in Baltimore (to this day, they swear they saw the Velvet Underground in a club in Philadelphia called the Classroom, which had an elementary classroom decor, but I have yet to find any info anywhere that proves this to be true). Whenever our family paid my dad’s family a visit, I brought my Stones LPs with me. The sisters, too, were big Stones fans, and up in their shared attic room were two twin towers of nearly every decent pop and R ‘n B 45 released in the ’60s. I told them I liked “If You Need Me” a lot. They told me to go through the towers and grab every record that had a red and black label with the word “Atlantic” on the label’s top half. And that’s more or less how I found out about and fell in love with Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Don Covay, Percy Sledge, Solomon Burke, etc. The sisters were particularly sold on Burke’s “Stupidity,” which hit in Baltimore, but never seemed to click anywhere else. That didn’t make sense to me after I heard it. After I picked out all the Atlantic stuff, they told me to go upstairs and pick out all the records on a light-blue label called Arctic. I thought they were just joking around, but that’s how I found out about and fell in love with Barbara Mason, The Volcanos, and Honey and the Bees. For some reason or another, the sisters had all those records as well, and they weren’t even Baltimore hits. They all came out of Philadelphia, and many of them met the same inexplicable fate as “Stupidity.” Lesson learned: never underestimate the stupidity of the American public.
6) Susie Q (Broadwater-Lewis-Hawkins) BMI 1:59. While I was picking out the Atlantic and Arctic 45s, I found another: “Susie Q,” by Dale Hawkins on Checker, a subsidiary of Chess. The experience was best described as epiphanous. All the twists and turns were coming together, not unlike the solution of a Rubik’s cube. Here was the original version of the song, with a strange chunky, sludgy rhythm and wicked distorted guitar. While I was playing the record, my Uncle Charlie walked in during the guitar break. “You like that? The guy that’s playing the solo is Roy Buchanan. He used to live around here.” At the time, Roy Buchanan was one of my older brother Em’s favorite guitar players. Em was super cool. He was one of those “give me 5 minutes, and I’ll be the best at it” guys. To see him in his element, skating backwards, pirouetting with a perfect landing at the Midway Roller Rink, winning fly fishing competitions over and over again, playing Outlaws‘ solos note for note as the featured guitarist of Appalachia (they backed The Ramones at Dickinson College at one point; yet another case of truth being stranger than fiction; that’s a story in itself) at the Carlisle fair… As far as he was concerned, I was nothing more than an embarrassment. A week or so after we returned to Carlisle, he heard the Buchanan solo from “Susie Q” cranking out from my white and orange General Electric powerhouse. “What the hell is that?” he asked. “That,” I replied, “is your hero Roy Buchanan. It’s the first record he played on. He’s on another cool record I have by a guy named Bobby Gregg. It’s called ‘The Jam.’ I think that’s the second record he played on. You wanna hear it?”
For the first time in my life, I got Em to hang out with me for 5 minutes. At that point in my life, it was my single greatest accomplishment. One last thing, I’m known for being very, very cheap. My beer of choice? Genesee. Why? It’s one hell of a deal: 30 cans for $13.99. My need to make the most of a buck probably began with 12 X 5. Honestly, who’d have ever thought a beat-up old freebie would garner all that?