I can remember the first time I heard Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town. I was in the Grand Union supermarket in Smithtown NY. My memory is that I was buying a box of a new popcorn product that came in a black box (radical design back then) with lots of smart-alecky copy on it, but I can’t recall the product name (turns out Smartfood wasn’t introduced until 1985) and who really knows. But the song is a fact. It’s really an amazing song, catchy, spare, with a narrative that his expansive, as much not said as is said and implied, almost epic yet also close up and exact. Kenny Rogers didn’t write it, Mel Tillis did, and Waylon Jennings first recorded it in 1966, but it was Rogers and The First Edition who made it a hit in 1969. Ruby wasn’t The First Edition’s first hit. That was Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In), which is a pretty excellent example of commercial garage rock. Moyer would note the excellent face-making of the guitarist during his solo, and the excellent chops of the tambourine player. The First Edition eventually broke up and Rogers went on to have a long career as a MOR singer, bit actor, award-winning celebrity. His two No. 1 songs were Lady and Islands in the Stream, the latter with Dolly Parton. He also sang on We Are the World, for what it’s worth. He died earlier this week.
He played piano in John Coltrane’s great quartet in the early 60s. You can hear other great tracks here.
I spent a couple of days in Miami back in the 70s with a friend, visiting a woman who said this song was written about her. I had my first Cuban sandwich that week, too. I’ve always wondered why it wasn’t the Lefte Banke? EDIT: This Wikipedia entry suggests my friend’s friend wasn’t being truthful. Or was mistaken.
Neil Peart, who wrote the lyrics for this one plays drums, too, died this week. This is probably Rush’s biggest hit, and I can’t say I know them well enough to get subtle. But he was a giant.
Sometime in the late 80s I had, with partners, a film company. People would send us tapes of their films, in hopes that we could find a way to help them get their film distributed. In any case, a guy from Chicago sent me a film, I think it called Reconstruction, and I think I liked it just fine. I think that now because I got to the end credits, under which played a simple song simply arranged sung in an innocent and tuneful bleat. I watched through the credits to find out that the singer was Daniel Johnston. The song wasn’t this one: Johnston went on to have an interesting career as an indie artist, one known for his struggles with bipolarity and the charmingly appealing art he made, as well as many collaborations and tributes by admirers such as Kurt Cobain and Tom Waits. For more you can read his obit in the Guardian here. My period of Johnston fandom was fairly short, the sound of innocence and wonder wear down after a while, but this song is a keeper:
Frank created a book of photographs called The Americans back in the 50s. It’s a terrific book of strikingly straightforward and revealing images full of, um, Americans. Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to The Americans, an obvious choice at the moment On the Road ruled the world. Kerouac also wrote and narrated Frank’s first film, a shambling tale of New York City’s bohemian lives, called Pull My Daisy. You can view it here. Frank, of course, took the photos that made up the collagey cover of the Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street. Frank also made a tour documentary with the Stones at about the same time. It is called Cocksucker Blues and the Stones, who have said they thought the film was excellent, sued to keep it from being released because its explicit sex and drug scenes were too much even for them. A deal was reached that allowed Frank to show the movie five times a year provided he was in attendance. I remember one year leaving the Rolling Stone magazine Christmas party early to see the film at the Anthology Film Archives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. You can find the film in pieces on You Tube, from time to time. Frank clearly wasn’t policing the copyright, nor were the Stones, as evidenced by this music video that uses some of the film. Frank also made some dramatic films that drew notice, though the only one I saw was a shambling road picture featuring a who’s who of cool rock dudes in the late 80s (I’m talking guys named Johansen, Waits and Strummer, plus Leon Redbone). This seems to be the whole film with German titles. Final bonus video with Frank’s Super 8 film of the Stones.
I’m always feel badly when I learn way too late about a songwriter who wrote a song I really like. Donnie Fritts wrote Breakfast in Bed, which was recorded by Dusty Springfield, with Eddie Hinton. He also wrote, with Hinton, the Box Tops’ Choo Choo Train. There is an obit here, an interesting guy who led an interesting life, never finding the fame but being famous all over.
I didn’t know Duncan by name, but he was a vocalist and guitar player in the Quicksilver Messenger Service, one of the great San Francisco bands of the late 60s. Quicksilver made a great impression on me with the brilliantly adolescent and epic first song on their first album. QSM were nothing if not quintessential hippies, living on a commune, jamming constantly, living on health food and drugs, as this obit describes. But Duncan had an earlier incarnation as a musician in The Brogues, whose I Ain’t No Miracle Worker was included on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets collection.
I seem to have posted only once about Dr. John here, back in 2014, when Mac Rebennack played piano at Louis Armstrong’s old house in Corona, Queens, NYC. But Tom wrote a piece about him, which he reposted today, because Dr. John has died at 77. Too young for sure. There were many Dr. Johns over the years. The original was a Mac construction that he wasn’t even supposed to perform, but when he did it stuck. It led to hits, like Right Place Wrong Time, and the theme to the Curious George movie, but the shtick didn’t always serve the elegant and weird music Mac was making at the beginning, like Danse Fambeaux, and made throughout his career. Voodoo? Sure. But also lovely music that avoided the anthropological labels the Dr. John persona brought with him..
I first admired Tony Glover’s writing in Rolling Stone in the early 1970s. He wrote a great story about a man who claimed to be the world’s oldest man, a story I think of often. In his obituary in today’s New York Times Glover’s writing is mentioned, and he’s quoted saying of Jimi Hendrix: Hendrix plays Delta blues for sure — only the Delta may have been on Mars. Glover reviewed the first New York Dolls album for Rolling Stone, too, which certainly turned me on to that great band. It’s a review that ranks the Dolls with the Allman Brothers as great real bands of the time, which is very true and not at all obvious, which is what we look to writers to do. One of my favorite obscure records, one of those that not many know, is Ashes in My Whiskey, the record Glover and Dave Ray made in 1990.