Steven Wishnia played in bands in New York City in the 70s and 80s. He played with our friend Gene at some point, or points, I don’t really know any of the story, but I know about the scene. Partly because I arrived in New York in 1976, I like to say that I was drawn after hearing Horses in a record store in San Francisco, and partly because Gene has written about some of it here. And now, more so, because Wishnia has written a collection of stories about a guy and his bands.
There is no character named Steven, so this isn’t avowed memoir, but the voice is strong and singular. I trust that all of it happened, except maybe a few of the jokey turns of phrase, which sometimes work, sometimes don’t. But that’s the only criticism I’m listing here.
Wishnia ferociously recounts the tales of tours and police actions, too much drinking and some times when the vibe worked and the sex was good. Or the music was great. If you don’t like stories about a life in rock and roll, the sacrifices made for it, and the scant rewards that came from it—yet how important those rewards were—Exit 25 Utopia might not be for you.
But if a book that has a long list of permissions for the quoted lyrics in the back, which starts with More Fun, by the Blenders, We Are the Road Crew by Motorhead, and Book of Love by the Monotones, and ends with Queen Majesty by Ranking Trevor and the Jays, intrigues, find it, buy it and read it.
Here’s a quote from one of the later stories that is a good excuse to show Wishnia’s style and concerns (which are social as well as musical), and end with a song clip.
“Some people think being near death is romantic, like grabbing onto something before the nevermore. I don’t know about the white roses and wasting-disease shit. Yeah, but part of me still wants something that’s gonna make my heart beat like the drums on “Be My Baby,” wash over me like a wall of violins and reverb. When I fall in love with someone I even love her old zit scars. And part of me remembers waking out of a deep hangover in 1985 to find all my stuff piled on the living room floor of my old girlfriend’s apartment. She had the windows blacked out with black construction paper. She arrayed red candles on the table and was sitting there in a white nightgown with a glass of whiskey and a cigarette in one hand and a kitchen knife in the other. Marianne Faithfull was on the stereo purring with icy wrath. If you know the song you know what my sin was. The final touch was that she had been knitting.
In 1958, I was first really hit by pop music and the radio. That is when I first heard Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, at the tender age of five. There are other tunes from around that period of my life that I remember–Gypsy Woman, Little Star, Sorry, I Ran All the Way Home, Come Softly to Me–but at that age I also played with army men and cowboys and well, I did not own a radio. Not to mention the radios we did have were controlled by my parents.
But, it was in the summer of 1962, when I was 10 and we were at a family camp near Lake Tahoe, I heard the incredible machine gun drums and droning saxes of what was the huge hit that summer, The Locomotion for the first time, and if Buddy Holly was the first nail of my rock and roll coffin, that moment was second.
The Locomotion was penned by Carole King and her then husband, Gerry Goffin, and was the first hit for their Dimension record label, but in reality, the team of Goffin and King had been cranking out hits as members of the Brill Building for years.
The Brill Building was the songwriting haven for luminaries that included Lieber and Stoller, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, all of which is documented beautifully in the book Always Magic in the Air by Ken Emerson.
The Locomotion led to a request for a radio for the bedroom I then shared with my brother, and that Xmas we were given a white Packard Bell. As if that were not enough, our family also got a Motorola phonograph which played all speeds–16, 33.3, 45, and 78 RPM–of records.
We also got a copy of The First Familyalbum, a political parody of the Kennedy family that was a huge hit at the time, and that started me on my path to collections of records and CDs along with a room full of musical instruments and playing in bands and pretty much a lifelong love of music in all forms. It started me on parodies, too.
Though I would have probably been hooked by music pretty soon anyway (I’m thinking had it not been The Locomotion, it would have been the Rockin’ Rebels Wild Weekend a few months later).
Wild Weekend was not written by Goffin and King, but it was a seriously rocking aong and one that hit me at the time like my mate Steve here notes KISS hit him. Don’t forget, I was just 11-years old then.
But, back to Goffin and King, among the wonderful hits the pair wrote are:
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? (The Shirelles)
Take Good Care of my Baby (Bobby Vee)
Might as Well Rain Until September (The Shirelles/Carole King)
One Fine Day (The Chiffons)
Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees)
Up on the Roof (The Drifters)
I’m into Something Good (Herman’s Herrmits/Earl-Jean)
Don’t Bring Me Down (The Animals)
(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin)
Now, you have to remember that at the time a lot of the rock and roll was laughable by today’s standards. The wonderful and visceral and sexual Little Richard, for example, was sanitized by the awful Pat Boone for white kids (remember too this music was burgeoning around the time of the Civil Rights movement in the early).
But, much like Hip Hop was developed by the African American community, and the form was then “appropriated” for even broader commercial exploitation (and believe me, I am not talking the Beastie Boys here) earlier, rollicking rhythm and blues was swiped a la Richard to Boone.
At the time, though, Tutti Fruitti as performed by Little Richard was akin to Jimi Hendrix humping his Strat-O-Caster, or Wendy giving Prince a quasi blow job in the Purple Rain film (she does play a Rickenbacker, though), or anything current from Beyoncé on out.
Still, pop music, which was not necessarily rock and roll, was similarly tamer, and more orchestrated, an off-shoot of Broadway and tin pan alley largely still without the dominance of the electric guitar. Though that was indeed coming.
And, whether it floats your boat or not, or if the songs sound horribly dated and silly, the tunes of Goffin and King, I think, are still just lovely little masterpieces, much in the same league of Phil Spector. In fact, John Lennon noted that he wanted his songs with Paul McCartney to of the same ilk as those of the Dimension duo.
I still feel Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow is among the sweetest of love songs.
One of the things that always nailed me about this production is the beautiful tremoly rake of the electric guitar on the “one” of each measure. Such a simple and sweet effect, and one that has impressed me to the tune that I try to employ it often when I am playing rhythm guitar.
By the time Pleasant Valley Sunday hit it, the Beatles had come and guitars were happening and even Hippies were here, criticizing the plastic life of the suburbs, so Goffin came up with this:
Oddly this is a song I always kind of wanted to cover in some band or another.
So, last week, Goffin passed away at the age of 75.
Though I have been so remiss at contributing here at the site–it is hard once my work week begins to find time for much else, but, well, 185 more calendar days–I could not let his passing go without honoring and thanking just a great songwriter and influence on my life.
So, I will close with one other tune from the pair, and the one that introduced me to the voice of Carole King:
Rachel Kushner’s novel about life in New York in the late 70s is really lively. Her protagonist lived on Mulberry Street in the late 70s, between Spring and Prince. I lived on Mulberry between Prince and Houston. This is a book with historical resonance for me, and dissonance when something is wrong, since Rachel Kushner most definitely was 10 years old when the action was going down.
Not much is wrong, but there is a subplot about a revolutionary group called the Motherfuckers that pushes credulity. A chapter is devoted to their “actions,” including robbing banks, that seem appropriately cool rather than outrageous. Except for this one action:
“Beat up a rock band from Detroit called the Stooges. Beat the shit out of them for not being tough enough, and having a reputation for intensity though it was unearned. The Stooges had played at a rock club on Second Avenue, and just after their set ended word spread that the band was piling into their limousine and heading off to Max’s Kansas City for dinner with rich people and celebrities. The crowd became enraged, dragged the singer and his bandmates from their limousine and forced them back inside the club. The Motherfuckers concentrated on pummeling the singer and then pissed on his satin pants. Which he was still wearing as he lay on his side, groaning. Not quite in the same way he had groaned and yowled onstage, trying to peddle his fake intensity to the young girls, among them Love Sprout and Nadine, Fah-Q’s and Burdmoor’s respective womenfolk. Fah-Q and Burdmoore crossed streams of urine over the body of the singer, and Burdmoore knew that brotherly pacts ended badly. But he was in it to the end. He was ready for badly.”
I’m reading this book, called Beatles vs. Stones, by John McMillan. It’s been a fun telling of the times when the two bands overlapped during their histories.
The New York Library is having a debate, with Mike Meyers and some other folks facing off on this hot issue, on February 27th, at Lincoln Center.
In anticipation of that, Gothamist has a post today declaring the Beatles clear winners, by comparing three truly awful late Stones songs no one has ever heard of to Revolver, Abbey Road and The Beatles. It’s worth listening to the Stones songs just to make the question somewhat more interesting.
For my part, I listen to the Stones much more than the Beatles, even records I played out decades ago, but without specific criteria it’s a tough choice between them. Seems likely the Beatles were the more creative while bridging the transition from early 60s pop forms to rock, while the Stones were more influential twisting blues and r’n’b forms into rock and pop music going forward into the future.
In any case, giving the Stones demerits for continuing to write material, no matter how crappy, long after they could have stopped trying, doesn’t seem fair. Especially when the other guys, the non-aligned Beatles, made plenty of crap music as solo artists. But it does make me wonder why the Stones they didn’t recognize how awful so much of it was and have the self-respect to bury it. Could their taste have become that rotten?
Back when I was in college, someone–a relative, I don’t remember which one–gave me a book called Album Cover Album for Christmas. I was a record-shop hound and loved album art, but at first didn’t really see the appeal of a book of album covers. I mean, sure, nice, but I’d rather have music. Plus this was put together by the guy who did those fairly hideous covers for Yes. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I didn’t get it at first.
But as I returned to Album Cover Album its influence began to grab hold of me. The odd juxtapositions, the albums (usually old) I’d never seen before, the paintings of Mati Klarwein, which I loved, and a myriad of other delights offered me a chance to browse the record store from the comfort of my own bed. Not better than music, perhaps, but in the end a gift fully appreciated.
In today’s New York Times the music critic Ben Ratliff writes about his youthful encounter with Album Cover Album, in a warm appreciation that also provokes him to say: “Over the next 15 years or so I made my way toward most of the records in the book, consciously or not. As I started to learn something about what a Cecil Taylor record sounded like, as opposed to, say, a Ted Nugent record or a Michael Nyman record, the spaghetti of musical style represented on each page would accelerate my blood, as if each grouping represented a question you had to answer within yourself: What do these different entities have in common? How can you hear them all and think all of this has something to do with you?
“I distrust lists of records you ought to hear, even though making them is part of my job. When you see them, you’re usually reading someone with a well-meaning desire to protect and restrict the understanding of music; you’re reading a subtext of fear and anxiety as much as one of pleasure.”
Which seems to get up into the throat of our arguments about the Remnants’ Essential Albums list.
Album Cover Album, Ratliff concludes, “had no fear or anxiety.”