The Mystery Man of Steely Dan: An Interview with Singer David Palmer

david palmer_today

In 1971, David Palmer was working in a plastics factory in his home state of New Jersey. He’d recently left the rock band he’d sung with, the Myddle Class. For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Myddle Class were one of the most scintillating club groups in greater New York City. They were also on the same label and publishing company as ex-Brill Building songwriting team (Gerry) Goffin and (Carole) King.

Then, out of the blue, Palmer got a phone call. It was from an old friend, a guitarist named Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Baxter told him that a new band was forming out in Los Angeles. They were looking for a singer. Would he be interested in auditioning?

Palmer flew out to L.A., sang at the audition, and was eventually hired.  The group’s name was Steely Dan (Baxter was lead guitarist through the first three albums, then joined the Doobie Brothers). The leaders and songwriters were Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. These two would soon be the sole members of Steely Dan, and they enjoyed enormous success, racking up hit singles and albums through the 1970s, as well as critical adulation and hall of fame induction.

But what about Palmer? After only one album with Steely Dan [Can’t Buy a Thrill, on which he sang lead on two songs: “Dirty Work” (click here) and “Brooklyn (Owes the Charmer Under Me),”] he dropped out of sight.

can't buy a thrill

I love good rock ‘n’ roll and have always been intrigued by footnotes, and Palmer seemed like the perfect rock footnote. So I decided to track him down. I soon located him, running his own digital photography business in California. I was pleasantly surprised when he agreed to a short interview.

In researching, I learned that, in addition to Steely Dan, Palmer crossed paths with some of the greatest names in popular music: Carole King and Gerry Goffin, of course, and also James Taylor, the Blues Project, and even the Velvet Underground.

I figured Palmer was very busy with his work in visual arts, and I assumed he distanced himself from music for a reason. So I kept my questions rudimentary and brief. Although his answers were also brief, I think they’re still real informative. So here’s my interview with a guy who, like Forrest Gump, seemed to always be at the right place at the right time.

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Early publicity photo of Steely Dan. L to R: “Skunk” Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen, Jim Hodder

longitudes: You were an original member of Steely Dan, singing lead on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn,” as well as contributing harmony vocals on several other songs (and singing lead when the band toured).  What were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker like to work with?  Were they as demanding and perfectionist in the beginning as they supposedly were later on?

Palmer: Donald and Walter were The Dan. The rest of us were fortunate to be there. Brilliant writers both, and yes, demanding, but the result is on the record.

longitudes: Before joining Steely Dan, you were in a popular Jersey-NYC band called the Myddle Class. On December 11, 1965, you headlined an infamous show at Summit (New Jersey) High School, and your opening act was the Velvet Underground. It was their first gig under that name (occurring only a few weeks before the Velvets joined Andy Warhol).  Do you have any memories of that show, including meeting Lou Reed or the other Velvets?

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The Myddle Class.  L to R: Danny Mansolino, Dave Palmer, Rick Philp, Charles Larkey, Myke Rosa (image copyright Brett Aronowitz)

Palmer: No memories, really. I was only 19 and it wasn’t really a big deal to us. But that gig has become an urban legend of sorts, and you could probably fill Madison Square Garden with the amount of folks who claim to have been there that night!

longitudes: The Myddle Class did a classic garage-band rave-up, “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” (click here), which Al Kooper and the Blues Project included on their album Projections (under the title “Wake Me, Shake Me”).  Your version is tremendously more exciting.  The song is derived from an old gospel tune.  Who originally adapted it, the Myddle Class or the Blues Project, and how close were you to the Project and/or other New York-based bands?

Palmer: We definitely stole it from the Blues Project, who stole it from Public Domain. We actually had a run-in with (Blues Project guitarist) Danny Kalb at Palisades Park when we opened for what was left of the Project. I think what really pissed him off was that (Myddle Class guitarist) Rick Philp played a much better solo on our record than (Kalb) had on theirs!

Someone once sent me a version of that tune that Springsteen recorded with one of his early bands…very cool. We weren’t close to the Project at all. We were closer to Kootch (guitarist/songwriter/producer Danny Kortchmar) and The Flying Machine, when James (Taylor) was in the band.myddle class poster_cropped

longitudes: Your vocals on the Myddle Class songs “I Happen to Love You” and “Don’t Let Me Sleep Too Long” have that archetypical sneering, teen rebel sound so prevalent in mid-60s urban bands.  It’s hard to reconcile this with the sweet-sounding guy who later sang with the Dan.  Was this a difficult vocal transition, or did it come naturally?

Palmer: Actually, I’ve always had a split personality with vocals. But the sweetness was what I believed was called for on the Dan tunes. However, if you go to my website www.davidpalmerimages.com and click on The Lost Demos section, you’ll hear me morph again!

longitudes: The Myddle Class were managed by music critic Al Aronowitz, the man who introduced Bob Dylan to the Beatles.  He also wrote a classic article about the hit songwriting team of Goffin-King.  You eventually became close friends with Carole King, later co-wrote an entire album with her, Wrap Around Joy, and Carole married Myddle Class bassist Charles Larkey.  Are you in touch with Carole these days, or with any surviving members of Myddle Class?

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Carole King’s 1974 LP Wrap Around Joy, co-written by Palmer

Palmer: Carole is extremely busy with the Clinton campaign, I believe. The last time I spoke to her was to offer condolences on the death of Gerry Goffin. Before that, it was to thank her for the shout-out she gave me at the Gershwin Awards for having co-written “Jazzman.”

I was close to Myke Rosa, Myddle Class drummer, for many years until his passing.

longitudes: Speaking of “Jazzman” (click here), the melody for that 1974 hit is real similar to Carole’s earlier breakout solo hit “It’s Too Late,” but it’s got some very smooth saxophone by Tom Scott. Do you know if Carole was consciously trying to replicate “It’s Too Late”?  Also, were you thinking of any particular jazz artist when you penned the words?

Palmer: Since Carole was so prolific, I doubt if she was even aware of sounding like earlier tunes. I mean it’s hard not to “resemble” yourself when it’s your style. And, yes, (John) Coltrane was the inspiration (for the song).

longitudes: In the late 1970s you joined a soft-rock band called Wha-Koo, which made three albums.  Can you please comment on that experience?

Palmer: Danny Douma and I put that band together. I loved the way he wrote, and I wasn’t too sure of what it was I was trying to do until much later. But I think some great tunes came out of that band, but things were changing, and we just missed the rising tide.

longitudes: After Wha-Koo broke up, what were your activities before becoming an artist/photographer?

Palmer: I stayed in the music biz far past my expiration date – as a writer, basically. Once again, I refer you to The Lost Demos on my website.

longitudes: You’re now a successful digital photographer.  Why did you leave music, and how did you get involved with photography?

Palmer: I woke up one day and, literally, couldn’t write, and knew it was over. And yet I also knew I needed a way to be creative. I fell in love with the process of creating images – from the initial camera work to the post in Photoshop. There seemed to be no limitation. And I didn’t have to ask the band what they thought!

longitudes: Thank you for your time, David.

Palmer: You’re welcome.

myddle class poster 2

Pearl

50 years

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All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy

1966: A Very Good Musical Year

50 years

Louie-Louie

Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

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The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

barbarians

The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

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The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

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The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

harrison

Do NOT Watch Alone! Five Great Chiller Movies for Halloween

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In my last blog piece I wrote about my hike on the Appalachian Trail. I talked about people’s fears of being in the woods at night, and I name-dropped a few scary movies with outdoor “creatures.” One movie I omitted was George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, about a bunch of zombies who terrorize a young couple. I also forgot to mention an eye-catching t-shirt I saw on my hike. It was worn by a bored-looking teenage girl who was hiking with her family. It said: “I Can’t Wait for the Zombie Apocalypse.”

Zombies are trendy these days for some inexplicable reason. By “Zombies,” I don’t mean the British rock band from the ‘60s. I’m talking about people who walk around in a daze, moaning, with their arms held straight out (kind of like Cleveland sports fans). I’m not sure why zombies are so popular. But I do know that scary movies never seem to go out of style.

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Janet Leigh in the now-classic shower scene of “Psycho”

The ball got rolling in the 1920s with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, starring Lon Chaney. In the 1930s came Tod Browning’s DRACULA and FREAKS, and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN. Monster movies became increasingly prevalent (and low-budget), hitting rock-bottom in the ‘50s with the movies of “The Worst Director of All Time,” Edward D. Wood, Jr. But Alfred Hitchcock, “The Master,” soon rescued fright flicks with psychological thrillers like PSYCHO and THE BIRDS. Most horror flicks today, unfortunately, spring from the Wes Craven and John Carpenter school of fright. They’re loaded with shocks and violent bloodletting, but have little Gothic or psychological horror.

Hitchcock and the 1960s were possibly a high-point for horror flicks. For this article, I’ve chosen five movies from the ‘60s that I consider some of the best horror flicks of all time, but which don’t get viewed much anymore. They’re very psychological. They start slowly and build in suspense, methodically drawing the viewer into the maelstrom. By the end of the movie, one feels drained. Some of them, like THE HAUNTING and REPULSION, can worm their way into your dreams.  Or nightmares..

So here they are, listed in order of their release. If you haven’t seen these movies and enjoy the stuff of nightmares, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Make sure you watch these at night. But a word to the wise: DO NOT WATCH THESE ALONE!

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VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960, starring George Sanders): Residents of a rural English village one day fall asleep at the same moment. When they awake, things are different. Women become pregnant at the same time. The children born to them all have blond hair, hypnotic eyes, and are emotionally frigid. As they grow, they begin to huddle together privately, away from the other children. But this is only the beginning of the horror.damned

The movie is adapted from a novel called “The Midwich Cuckoos.” I saw it as a kid and had to sleep with my parents for several nights (the kids in this movie were far scarier than the bully down the street). Most children are innocent and playful. But these “creatures” are just the opposite: they’re abnormally intuitive, and they never smile. Whoever said “blondes have more fun” didn’t see this movie.

NOTE: John Carpenter remade this movie in 1995, and there’s a sequel to the original called CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964). But the original’s the one to watch.

THE INNOCENTS (1961, starring Deborah Kerr and Michael Redgrave): All the right ingredients for a ghost story are here: a dark Victorian mansion, a neurotic English governess, rumors, mysterious deaths, plus the same disturbing child actor who led the homicidal brats in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. The story is adapted from Henry James’s classic novella “The Turn of the Screw,” written when Sigmund Freud was postulating his revolutionary theories of sexuality, dreams, and the unconscious (James’s brother, William James, is considered the “Father of American Psychology”). innocents2The casting of talented Deborah Kerr, as the governess “Miss Giddens,” is spot-on. Her saucer eyes and halting voice perfectly convey the paralyzing fear of a woman on the verge of a breakdown.

NOTE: Truman Capote co-wrote the script for this movie between publication of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood.” Capote was originally from Alabama, and he added a Southern Gothic aura to the film.

THE HAUNTING (1963, starring Julie Harris, directed by Robert Wise): The classic New England haunted house movie, adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson entitled “The Haunting of Hill House.” I saw it with my daughter when she was about 13, and she says it’s one of the scariest movies she’s ever seen. hauntingNow, that’s a plug! (She normally hates black-and-white movies). But THE HAUNTING is a movie that could only have been filmed in B&W. The gray, shadowy cinematography gives the film depth and atmosphere, and accentuates the oppressiveness of mounting fear. Like Deborah Kerr in THE INNOCENTS, Julie Harris gives a standout performance as a young woman veering toward insanity. Is it the spooky house, or has she always been unstable, or is it both? You have to watch this movie to find out… but DON’T WATCH IT ALONE!

NOTE: this film has hints of Lesbianism between the characters played by Harris and Claire Bloom.

NOTE 2: the movie was remade in 1999. I haven’t seen it, but it supposedly stinks.

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON (1964, starring Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough): A domineering wife and her caspar milquetoast husband devise a plot. They will kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom so the woman can get publicity for her psychic abilities. In the beginning, they have no intention of harming the girl. But the woman, haunted by the early death of her son Arthur, slowly begins to crumble mentally, and contemplates murder. Her meek husband is the only thing standing in her way.seance

SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON is a tour-de-force of acting, direction, and atmosphere. This was only Stanley’s second movie, and she didn’t make many afterwards. She was most known for theater work and for doing the narration in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But hers is a powerful performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Richard Attenborough is also great as the submissive husband. The subject matter is sensitive, but it’s handled with care. And the movie title, well… let’s just say they don’t write ‘em like this anymore.

NOTE: the part that Kim Stanley eventually got was turned down by both Deborah Kerr and Simone Signoret (famous for her role in DIABOLIQUE, a sort of French take on Alfred Hitchcock)

REPULSION (1965, starring Catherine Deneuve, directed by Roman Polanski): A definite pattern has developed in this list. Why stop now? Catherine Deneuve’s character in REPULSION makes the mental instability of Kerr, Harris, and Stanley seem like a walk in the sanitarium garden. I saw this movie for the first time two years ago. All I can say is “Wow.” And not just for the shimmering beauty of Deneuve. RepulsionDirector Polanski crafted a movie about a sexually repressed young woman whose older sister leaves her alone in their apartment for a week. At first, the woman’s behavior is just a little odd. But over time, we realize she’s slipping dangerously downstream. When she finally cracks, it’s a shocker. Watch this movie through the last camera shot, which is a close-up of a photograph of the woman as a young girl. Very unsettling.

NOTE: REPULSION was Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. It’s ranked #14 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of best-rated films.

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After making this list, I noticed four out of five of the movies have a woman in the central role. Even PSYCHO and THE BIRDS feature a beautiful woman at the center of the plot. It was purely accidental on my part. But I’m glad I could strike a blow for women’s rights, even if all of these femmes are a little “off.” Maybe because women’s psyches are more vulnerable? Or have more complexity?

Whatever the answer, I hope that, if you do watch these movies, you’ll agree that one doesn’t need a lot of violence and blood to convey horror. On the contrary, psychological horror is far more riveting than monsters, aliens, or comic-book figures like Freddy Krueger. The greatest horrors are intangible: they lurk inside the human mind.

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It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Leaving): Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown

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I cross the Fond Du Lac Reservation on Highway 2 and approach the little town of Floodwood. The road’s empty save for one car about a football field behind me.

I wonder if the driver sees my out-of-state plates. It’s a long way from southern Ohio to northern Minnesota. The driver’s probably rolling his eyes right now. Another tourist wanting a piece of the local celebrity.

I’m in Minnesota to do the popular Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, located north of Minneapolis on the western rim of Lake Superior. Only a short distance northwest is Hibbing, a small mining town tucked away in the piney woods. Hibbing is also the hometown of one Robert Zimmerman, who later became Bob Dylan. It’s ironic such a musical giant emerged from this tiny, isolated place. And also a bit surreal, like the man’s songs. Dylan was a reluctant pied piper for a generation. Much of his appeal stems from the fact that the man and his music can be difficult to grasp. That, and because he was writing song-poems in his twenties with the wisdom of one who’d lived a hundred years.

When did Robert Zimmerman become “Bob Dylan”? At one time he was just a pudgy Jewish kid whose dad worked in an appliance store. There must’ve been some kind of epiphany here in Hibbing. Maybe I can conduct my own mining expedition and unearth it. But I feel more than a little self-conscious about invading this town, half-asleep with ghostly memories. Hibbing was, at one time, a major exporter of iron ore. But the mines dried up long ago.

Interviewer at 1965 press conference: Do you consider yourself a musician or a poet?

Dylan: I think of myself more as a song and dance man.

I make a right onto route 73. “Hibbing: 38 miles” reads the road sign. Now I have the road to myself. I only see two cars the rest of the journey to Hibbing.

The first thing I notice when I enter Hibbing is the usual nauseating commercialism: a Home Depot, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, an Apple computer store, etc. Then I see a sign pointing to “Downtown.” Yeah, this is what I want. The town as it was in the 1950s, when Bob Zimmerman was chewing bubble gum underneath a streetlamp.

The buildings grow closer together, and I start seeing people on the sidewalks. I’m looking for a restaurant I read about in my old Rand McNally road atlas. It’s a tourist trap with Dylan memorabilia plastered on the walls. But it supposedly has good food. Maybe I can locate someone who knew Dylan as a kid. Not sure what I would ask him, though.

I drive slowly down First Avenue, but no signs about the “Z Man.” Then I make a right on Howard Street. Lots of old, dirty buildings with large, painted letters stenciled on the brick and which have faded over time. A few restaurants, but nothing related to Dylan. Half of me anticipates a huge billboard announcing Hibbing as “Hometown of Bob Dylan.” I’m surprised I haven’t seen this yet, but also a little pleased at the town’s restraint.

At the end of Howard Street, on the corner, I finally see something. A large sign, “Zimmy’s,” with a huge photo of early ‘60s era Dylan. I quickly swing into the side street and find a parking spot.

But it turns out that, although lunchtime on a weekday, Zimmy’s is closed.

Bob Dylan's Boyhood Home

Bob Dylan’s Boyhood Home

I need to talk to a local. Someone who might know where the Dylan sites are. I duck into a Goodwill store. Too crowded. I don’t want the customers to hear me ask the clerk “Excuse me, where can I find…?”

I find a sporting goods store with one employee. She’s a teenage girl. An easy target. When I ask her, she says there’s a street named after him, but that’s all she knows. I pretend to be interested in the Hibbing Bluejackets t-shirts that are on sale. Then I thank her and saunter out the door.

Feeling hungry, I decide to find a restaurant for a burger and beer. Walking down Howard Street, though, I glance down a side street and see an odd sight: a white camper trailer sandwiched between buildings, with a patio table and blue-and-white striped umbrella in front. A sign on the trailer advertises “GYROS.” This gyro trolley seems so out of place, I just have to give them some business. I approach an elderly man and a young girl who are chatting underneath the umbrella. When the girl sees me coming, she jumps up excitedly and asks if she can help me. I order a gyro. Then I start a conversation with the man.

Hibbing Gyros Trolley

Hibbing Gyro Trolley

“Nice little restaurant you have here. I didn’t know there was a Greek restaurant in Hibbing!”

“Yep, yep. We got ‘em all. Yessir, anything you want.”

He has a thick Minnesota accent, reminiscent of one of the extras in the movie Fargo.

“I’m up here from Ohio to run the marathon in Duluth” I tell him. “But I had to stop by Hibbing to see Bob Dylan’s hometown.”

“Oh, that’s a big race, yeah, real popular. You gonna win it?” he asks with a chuckle.

“Well, I doubt it, but I’ll try!” I laugh. Then I get back to the subject at hand.

“Are there any Bob Dylan sites in town?”

“Oh, I think there might be something in the Memorial Building. I was never a big fan. Not my type of music. I was more, uh, sort of…”

“Country?” I venture a guess.

“Yep, yep. Country. Dylan just wasn’t my cup of tea. I was in the Air Force, then on the police force. Can’t say I’ve heard much of his music.”

The girl hands me my gyro, which is gigantic. She’s been smiling the whole time. Despite making very little progress regarding Zimmy, I like the people in Hibbing.

“Does he ever return to Hibbing to visit?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think he ever has, at least that I know of. He sort of turned his back on us.”

“He’s pretty private, from what I hear,” I offer. “Maybe he’s tired of being a spectacle.”

“Yep, yep. That’s probably it.”

“Well, guess I’ll check out the auditorium. Nice talking to you!”

“Yep, nice talkin’ to you too! If you win that race, bring back some of that prize money to Hibbing!”

I tell him if I do, I’ll buy a dozen gyros, which gets him laughing.

I soon find myself on another side street, where a cop is getting out of a car. He looks like he’s in his late ‘30s or so. I walk up to him.

“Excuse me, sir, do you know where I can find Hibbing Memorial Building?”

He gives me a quizzical look. “Straight down this street, then left at the third intersection. What exactly you want there?”

Typical suspicious cop. “I was told there might be something there about Bob Dylan.”

“Oh. Well, the historical society’s in the basement. They might have something.”

“Are there any other sites in town associated with Dylan?”

“Well, there’s 7th Avenue – or Bob Dylan Drive, the street he lived on. There’s also Zimmy’s, a restaurant. But they closed down for some reason. I don’t think the owner was paying taxes. Other than that, I don’t know of anything. I was never a fan.”

“Ok, thanks.” I can’t understand the indifference of these people. Even if you don’t like his music, HE’S BOB DYLAN FER CHRISSAKES!!

(People) walk up, they think they know me because I’ve written some song that seems to bother them.  So they walk up as if we’re long lost brothers or sisters or something.  Well, that’s got nothing to do with me.  And I think I can prove that in any court.

On the way to the Memorial Building, I see the town library. I make a beeline for it. If they don’t have anything on Dylan, it’s a lost cause.

The library is small, just one floor. There are scattered posters in the glass lobby, including one advertising Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, scheduled to appear at Memorial Building in July. A smaller poster advertises a Bob Dylan Exhibit in the library basement. Hmm.

I wind my way through the glass in the lobby and find a staircase. Down I go. In the basement, there’s a long hallway with a wooden door at the end. I follow the hallway, past a room with three or four people seated in front of computers. They glance up at me as if I shouldn’t be here. They must be either hunting for jobs, or wasting time on Facebook.

I reach the door. In the center at eye level is a shabby photo of Dylan with the words “Bob Dylan Exhibit” taped underneath. I turn the door handle. Locked.

I climb back to the main floor and shyly approach the woman behind the main desk. She’s 30-ish, gangly, long black hair, thick black glasses. Very librarian-ish.

“Yes, I’d like to see the Bob Dylan exhibit, but the door is locked.”

“Oh. Ok, just a second.”

She picks up a phone. “Chrissy, could you please unlock the exhibit room?”

She looks at me and says “Chrissy will let you in.”

I go back downstairs, past the Facebook people, down the long hallway, and stand in front of the door. Soon, the door opens, and I see an attractive blonde girl.

“You must be Chrissy!” I say.

“Yes!” she responds with a smile.

Chrissy lets me in, then disappears into another room. I wander around the exhibit room. On the walls are about 50 or so photos of Dylan during various phases of his life, from the time he was in kindergarten on up to his being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. There’s also a life-size dummy, a giant Dylan-and-guitar scarecrow. A large rectangular conference table occupies the middle of the room, but nothing’s on it except a small binder with identifiers that describe the photos.

Zimmy and Me

Zimmy and Me

I spend about 45 minutes here, concentrating mainly on the pictures of Dylan while he was in Hibbing. It turns out he led two rock bands as a teenager, the Cashmeres and the Golden Chords. He was also a big Little Richard fan, judging by the remarks in his high school yearbook. Also a member of the Latin and Social Sciences clubs.

There’s also a photo here of a beautiful, Nordic-looking woman with creamy blonde hair. She looks a little like the French actress Brigitte Bardot. I soon learn this is Echo Hellstrom, whom Dylan dated. They spent a lot of time watching movies together at the Lybba Theatre, which was named after Dylan’s grandmother. In fact, his mother’s side of the family lived in Hibbing as far back as his great-grandmother.

I wonder what this icy beauty saw in young Robert Zimmerman, who wasn’t exactly the handsomest teenager. She must have seen a few kernels of genius beyond those chubby cheeks.

I spend about 45 minutes reading the “exhibits,” then sign my name in the visitors’ register. “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.” I peek in the back room to ask Chrissy a few questions, but she’s nowhere to be seen. No other visitors have joined me.

I leave the library clutching a pamphlet, the “Hibbing Historical Walking Tour.” I learn that Boston Celtics center Kevin McHale, Yankees great Roger Maris, Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who started Greyhound Bus Lines, and various distinguished politicians and hockey players are also from Hibbing. Most importantly, the pamphlet has a mapped walking tour of Bob Dylan sites: the aforementioned Zimmy’s and Lybba Theatre; his boyhood home; the synagogue where he worshipped with his parents; the Androy Hotel where he had his Bar Mitzvah party; even the bowling alley where his bowling team, The Gutter Boys, won a local competition.

The walking tour makes my Hibbing visit worthwhile. The townsfolk may be short on information, but the pamphlet guides me through Dylan’s past. “Positively 4th Street” wafts through my head as I gaze at the odd-looking blue house where Dylan lived as a kid. I stand on the street corner and stare at a second-floor window. Here, 60 years ago, the budding poet/singer was tuning a cheap radio to a distant Southern station, picking up the alien sounds of Blind Willie McTell and Dock Boggs.

***

The volunteer at the historical society is a rugged-looking ex-miner wearing a red and white plaid shirt.  He has little to say about Hibbing’s most famous citizen, but he gives me an informative lecture on the importance of the mineral taconite to the area. Although I greatly respect people like him, who worked so hard for so long at a dangerous trade, I’m not all that eager to honor his request that I visit the large open pit at the edge of town.

Similarly, the elderly tour guide at historic Hibbing High School is extremely knowledgeable. He’s anxious to explain the architectural history of the building, called the “Richest Gem in Minnesota’s Educational Crown” when it was built in 1924.

The volunteer peppers me with information about the school’s architectural opulence, as we watch a video about the building in the principal’s office. This is all very impressive. But isn’t the main goal to educate young people?

The only time he mentions Dylan is when we enter the ornate school auditorium.

“This is where Bob Dylan was booed offstage” he wryly notes.

The tour guide looks to be about Dylan’s age. And he definitely knows a lot about this school, almost as if he has firsthand familiarity.  Hmm.  It’s certainly possible. I take the plunge.

“Did you attend school here?” I begin my query.

But he shoots me down midstream.

“No. I’m from Minneapolis.”

Hibbing High School

Hibbing High School

Ladies and Gentlemen, THE BEATLES! Let’s Bring ‘em Out!

50 years

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U.S. Press: Are you embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?

John: No, it’s great.

Paul: No.

Ringo: Marvelous.

George: (giggling) We love it.

John: We like lunatics.

Thus started the first of many U.S. press conferences for the Beatles.  John’s witty remark “We like lunatics” was typical of the cheeky humor the band used to win over so many Americans, both young and old.  But the humor wasn’t necessarily strategic.  Although different personalities, all four really were fun-loving and outgoing, and excited as can be to be in the home country of their rock ‘n’ roll idols.  And throughout their career, they never let success get to their heads (just a few illicit drugs, that’s all).

The stamp of approval in middle America came when Ed Sullivan introduced them on Sunday night to a then-record setting 73 million television viewers.  Sullivan was respected and admired around the country.  If someone of his age and stature could showcase four long-haired English musicians with their amps cranked… well, they must be alright!beatles6

Before Sullivan could even finish his introduction, he was drowned out by the screams of the New York studio audience (their biggest fans, at least in the beginning, were 94.3 percent young and female).  Those of us watching on TV at home were transfixed.  Finally, we get to see them.  And they’re more exciting than we’d anticipated.  Dressed in tight-fitting, matching suits.  Paul beaming and bobbing.  George a little nervous, but harmonizing with Paul (he was actually recovering from the flu).  John stoic and in command.  And Ringo sitting high in the back, tossing his mop of hair to the beat.

The first song was “All My Loving.”  Next came “Till There Was You,” a tune from “The Music Man,” and which further endeared them to parents.  Then “She Loves You.”  Later in the show they did “I Saw Her Standing There,” and closed with their No. 1 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles’ first live appearance in America was an unequivocal smash.  A week later they did a second show in Miami Beach, where they posed with another cultural icon,  Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali), who was training for a fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.  A third show was aired on February 23 (though it was actually taped early in the day of their February 9 show).

***

A lot of people, primarily of the World War II generation, considered the Beatles a fad.  How could four kids from Liverpool with a fan base of fainting girls sustain any kind of artistic credibility?  The naysayers can’t be faulted too much, though.  Musical fads were around going back to the 1920’s and the Charlston, and they happen today every few years.

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But the Beatles had sustainability because they wrote their own music, it was pioneering, ever-changing and had popular appeal, and they wrote a lot of it.  And, they had a visionary leader in John Lennon (and producer in George Martin).  Their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sent a shock wave throughout music and popular culture that continues to this day.  Folkies like Bob Dylan and the Byrds suddenly bought electric guitars.  Leonard Bernstein started dissecting their musical structures.  And thousands of kids across America started garage bands to emulate the British musicians that, after February 9, 1963, U.S. record companies were signing to contracts right and left.  Here are just a few of the musicians who followed the Beatles to American shores in the “First British Invasion”:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Kinks
  • The Who
  • Petula Clark
  • Gerry and the Pacemakers
  • Herman’s Hermits
  • The Yardbirds
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Peter and Gordon
  • The Small Faces
  • The Troggs
  • The Zombies
  • Tom Jones
  • Chad and Jeremy
  • The Moody Blues
  • The Spencer Davis Group
  • Van Morrison and Them
  • The Animals
  • Lulu
  • Dave Clark Five
  • Donovan
  • Georgie Fame
  • The Hollies

***

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it (and reliving my childhood).  If you don’t have any Beatles records (hard to believe, but I guess it’s  possible), I urge you to treat yourself to some great music.  The Beatles are one of only a few artists whose music can be said to be “timeless.”  They appeal to all genders, ages, cultures, socio-economic classes.  The one message they stressed over and over was Love.  That’s really what it’s all about.

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love you make.

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How a Teenage Girl from Maryland Helped Launch the Beatles in America

50 years

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The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released).  They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.).  They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe).  They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.

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Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles

On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour.  He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls.  Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis.  He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.

The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963.  First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band.  Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan).  Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S.  It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”

james_albert

WWDC-AM disc jockey Carroll James, with fan Marsha Albert (later photo)

But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz.  She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?”  James was impressed by the letter.  He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.

Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley.  It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll.  Well, the same thing happened now.  Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C.  Then other U.S. stations took the cue.  Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow.  They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule.  The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country.  The freight train was now out of control.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell.  After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears.  Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)

And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before.  After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion.  The Beatles provided it.  All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top.  And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”

with the beatles

The Origins of BEATLEMANIA

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John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr… collectively, The Beatles.

I wasn’t sure how to begin this essay about the Beatles’ debut appearance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964.  There are so many clichés.  The two biggest are probably “You just had to be there,” and “A watershed moment.”  Both are true, of course.  Even the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers can agree with the latter statement.  I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t think of another artist more important to 20th century music.  That includes Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Haircut One Hundred.

But I don’t think today’s youth can begin to understand the “You just had to be there” sentiment.  In 1964 there were no i-Tunes, MP3s, or YouTube.  No PCs with internet.  No texting or tweeting.  No cable television flashing repetitive images of the latest industry-groomed pop sensation.

elvis

Elvis, during rehearsal with Steve Allen in 1956

Instant global communication was decades away.  All we had were some still images, a couple pinup-style fan publications like “16 Magazine,” AM radio, and word of mouth.  If you were lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a musical act on variety television, like the shows hosted by early TV legends such as Sullivan, Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

***

When rock & roll took off in the mid-50s, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others made limited TV appearances.  But these earliest rock performers were typically treated like baubles whose popularity would soon fade.  And there was often friction between the hosts and performers.  For example, Steve Allen was a jazz snob who took a dim view of rock music.  So when Presley performed “Hound Dog,” Allen poked fun at the song by dressing The King in a tuxedo and having him serenade a basset hound.

Sullivan, famously, had issues with Diddley and Buddy Holly.  He confronted Holly backstage over the choice of his performing “Oh Boy!,” which he thought was too wild.  Holly stood his ground and insisted on performing it, however.  Sullivan’s response – believe it or not – was to mispronounce Holly’s name as “Hollered,” and to deliberately turn off the mike to his electric guitar.

holly

Buddy Holly, looking away from Ed Sullivan in 1958

Sullivan’s confrontation with Bo Diddley was even worse.  He wanted Diddley to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s “Sixteen Tons,” but Diddley instead did his own R&B hit, “Bo Diddley.”  According to Diddley, Sullivan afterwards told him “You are the first black boy that ever double-crossed me.”  Diddley came close to physically attacking Sullivan, but his manager held him back.  Diddley never again appeared on Sullivan’s show.

After the first wave of ‘50s rock & rollers, there was a lull in rock music.  Elvis had joined the army, Holly had died in a plane crash, and the hits were drying up for Lewis,  Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others.  So for a few years, the charts were dominated by crooners and girl groups like the Shangri-Las, Shirelles, Ronettes, and Crystals, who didn’t play instruments nor write their own material.  Many of the singles were written by “Brill Building” partnerships like Goffin-King, Lieber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich – and the greatest of all, Bacharach-David. (and, weirdest of all, infamous “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector).

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Brill Building songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin

The male singers were mainly vanilla pretty boys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Vinton.

Folk music was bubbling out of Greenwich Village, but it had yet to shed its collegiate, coffeehouse veneer and hybridize with rock.

Surf music had a little excitement, but other than the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and a few others, it was primarily instrumental and had difficulty catching fire nationally.

So the stage was set for something new.  A band that looked and sounded different.  Whose members played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, who were also physically attractive and had personality.  Who combined the vigor and danger of early, electric rock & roll with catchy melody and clever harmony.

But absolutely nobody could’ve predicted the cultural explosion that occurred soon after Pan Am Yankee Clipper Flight 101 landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964.  Two days later, on Sunday evening, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to hear these words:

Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.

Don’t touch that dial!

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There is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set…

50 yearsouter limits2

… Do not attempt to adjust the picture.

We are controlling transmission.

These were the ominous words of The Control Voice.  They were delivered with the authority and cold austerity of an Orwellian manipulator or Soviet Gulag director.  You did not dare touch the TV and defy The Control Voice.  The monsters and terrors encountered during the coming “great adventure” were intended for you and you alone.

Some people have Star Trek.  Others have The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, or The X Files.  For me, the most intriguing science fiction and/or horror show ever on U.S. television was the original run of THE OUTER LIMITS.

THE OUTER LIMITS was a black-and-white, hour-long show that ran for two seasons on ABC in 1963-65.  It returned sporadically for syndicated reruns, and was resurrected (disappointingly) in 1995 as a totally new, colorized series.  Because September 16 is the 50th anniversary of the airing of the pilot of the series (“The Galaxy Being” starring Cliff Robertson), I’d like to pay homage to this offbeat but very influential TV show.

What was happening in September 1963?  Well, John F. Kennedy was U.S. president.  Nikita Khrushchev was Soviet Communist secretary.  Civilization was only 18 years from WWII, Nazism, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The U.S. had fought a war in Korea, undergone McCarthyism, and was jacking up a military presence in Vietnam.  The superpowers were also beginning to explore the frontiers of space.  Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had completed the first orbit of the Earth in 1961.  A year later, President Kennedy promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon “in this decade.”

So while there was heady excitement over the space race in 1963, there was also concern about the nuclear arms race.  The U.S. and Soviet Union were at the height of their Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only narrowly averted in ’62.  It was against this backdrop that creator Leslie Stevens and producer/writer Joseph Stefano unveiled THE OUTER LIMITS.

galaxy being

The Galaxy Being

Stevens, a one-time night attendant at a mental hospital, had been writing for theatre and the screen since 1954.  He envisioned a show that had the acuteness of “The Twilight Zone,” but darker, with less plot-twisting and a larger dose of science-fiction, horror, and social commentary. He wanted to explore issues like warfare, atomic energy, totalitarianism, mind control, space exploration, etc. in the guise of a small morality play.  Like “The Twilight Zone,” THE OUTER LIMITS would be an anthology, and with alternating writers, directors, and actors for each show.

Stefano had written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film “Psycho,” so he knew horror.  He led a cast of scriptwriters that included sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).  The other key ingredients were Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who specialized in the shadowy camera techniques of film noir, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose creative music scores provided bold dramatic coloring (his music has since been released on CD; AllMusic critic Bruce Eder called it “the best music ever written for television”).

A number of young actors used THE OUTER LIMITS as a launching pad.  They included future stars Martin Landau, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Ed Asner, etc.

Martin Landau as Andro in "The Man Who was Never Born"

Martin Landau as Andro in “The Man Who was Never Born”

Others had been major stage and film stars and were on a career downswing, such as 1930s-40s star Miriam Hopkins, B-movie queen Gloria Grahame, and venerable actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose last role was in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” The big attraction for an impressionable kid like me was the monsters.  Although the costumes and makeup were primitive by today’s standards, some of these creatures could be literally nightmarish.  In fact, the monster created for one episode, “The Architects of Fear,” was considered so frightening by some ABC affiliates that they blackened it out!  Stevens and Stefano deliberately utilized these creatures, which they collectively called “the bear,” to create atmosphere and as a springboard for plot development.

A total of 49 episodes were created over the show’s two-year span, with the best airing during the first season.  After this, ABC in its infinite wisdom decided the show was too opaque and cynical for audiences, so they dumbed it down with simpler plots, more low-tech sci-fi and less true horror.  They also replaced Frontiere’s majestic scores with more mundane music and added a gimmicky Theremin sound device.  Producer Stefano, not surprisingly, resigned in disgust.  There are a few second-season shows that stand out, however, notably the Ellison-written “Demon with a Glass Hand,” the space-themed “The Invisible Enemy” (with Adam West), and “The Duplicate Man,” which features a good “bear” in the alien creature the Megasoid.

Here are a few of my favorite episodes (all from the first season):

Nightmare (starring Martin Sheen): a coalition of international astronauts lands on the black planet Ebon, hoping to rescue an earlier flight crew with whom Earth lost contact.  eboniteThey immediately become imprisoned by frightening Ebonites, and start behaving very strangely.  Are they truly prisoners of the Ebonites?  Or are they guinea pigs for sadistic torture experiments guided by their own leaders?  Does Dick Cheney know the answer?

The Guests (starring Luana Anders and Gloria Grahame): a drifter stumbles into an old house where the inhabitants never age.  Upstairs lives a massive alien blob that searches their brains for the “missing part of the equation.”  guestsWhat is the missing part?  Will the drifter and his new love – Tess – escape from the house?  Or will they forever be playing cornhole in darkened hallways?

The Zanti Misfits (starring Bruce Dern): a runaway criminal and his moll tumble upon a spaceship in the middle of the desert.  The craft is filled with hideous insect creatures, prisoners shipped from the planet Zanti, who escape and go on a rampage.  Is Zanti using Earth as its own little penal colony?  zantis2How should a society deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons?  Has Zanti ever considered decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana?

Note: TV Guide selected this episode as one of its 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

The Sixth Finger (starring David McCallum): a scientist creates a machine to speed up human evolution.  A dim-witted coalminer becomes his first test case, and evolves into an arrogant creature that has the ability to read people’s minds.  sixth fingerHow far should science go before man is playing God?  If the human hand does eventually develop a sixth finger, what new gesture will we use when someone cuts us off in traffic?

We now return control of your television set to you… until next week at the same time, when The Control Voice will take you to…

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Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part Two

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Despite all the computations
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station,
And it was alright

               (Lou Reed, from the Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll”)

Last month I inducted five bands into the longitudes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and promised there would be five more.  These, then, will wrap up the Top 10 artists I feel should have already been inducted, but so far been shunned by that other Hall.  You know, the one whose museum is in Cleveland but whose VIP induction ceremonies are usually shifted to the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Sorry about the sarcasm.  I should try to keep things upbeat, especially when it comes to music.  Anyway, this induction is a time to celebrate!  A time to be happy! 🙂  And one of the best things about this ceremony is the total absence of self-congratulatory music biz backslapping, cronyism, and sloppy post-induction onstage “jamming” by bloated, bag-eyed, half-drunk, over-the-hill millionaire rock stars wearing ill-fitting dinner jackets.

Well, I tried.

The next five acts being inducted are… (Paul Shaffer, please leave the building):

New York Dolls: how can longitudes induct a band that made only one great record, and one very good follow-up?  Well, the Sex Pistols made only one great record, and there would be no Sex Pistols – and therefore nobody to label the RnRHoF a “piss stain” – had it not been for these proto-punk nasty boys.  Led by Mick Jagger look-a-like David Johansen (aka “Buster Poindexter”), the Dolls’ music was often ramshackle, but it was delivered with in-your-face panache. dolls Songs like “Personality Crisis,” “Subway Train,” “Frankenstein,” “Trash,” and “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown” are stripped-down rock & roll before the fall, straight out of a Staten Island garage or Bowery basement.  Classic New York City hard rock, with exaggerated androgyny just for humorous effect.  Iggy and the Stooges made it to the RnRHoF, as well as the cartoonish Alice Cooper, so why not these guys, three of whom are already dead??  I’d ask record exec and RnRHoF guru Ahmet Ertegun, but he’s in rock & roll heaven too.

Todd Rundgren: the “Runt” seems like a 180-degree turn from the Dolls.  And like the Moody Blues from last month’s induction, he polarizes opinion: you either love him or hate him.  But Rundgren actually produced the Dolls’ classic debut album, as well as successful albums by Badfinger, Patti Smith, XTC, the Tubes, the Band, Hall & Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Psychedelic Furs, and many more.  He’s also famous for his groundbreaking work in media technology.  But his induction rests on his own solo records, including his masterpiece, Something/Anything?, a double album filled with golden pop nuggets all written and sung by Rundgren and where he played almost all the instruments (long before the artist formerly or presently known or not known as Prince ).  Bravely changing direction, Rundgren followed with the kaleidoscopic A Wizard, A True Starrunt2Like many prodigies, Rundgren was erratic, and his philosophic excursions with his band Utopia didn’t help his case with RnRHoF.  But he’s one of the pop renaissance men, along with Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder.  And even more than the others, he was unafraid to risk failure or ridicule.  Songs like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,”  “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “A Dream Lives on Forever,” “Can We Still Be Friends,”  “Time Heals,” “Bang the Drum All Day,” and others only scratch the surface of his significant contributions to rock.

Fairport Convention: similar to Love (see first induction), Fairport Convention is unknown to many rock fans.  They’re more familiar in England than America, where many hail them as Great Britain’s greatest folk-rock band.  Like the Byrds in America, Fairport covered a lot of Bob Dylan songs when they started, but they soon found their own muse, plundering English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s archives to create their own British Isles brand of psychedelic folk-rock.fairport  Singer Sandy Denny is regarded as having one of the best voices in rock or folk, sort of a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Judy Collins (her beautiful song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by Collins).  Fairport also included critically respected guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson.  If you haven’t heard this band, I encourage you to check out the albums What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege and Lief, which form the core of their catalog and earn them a spot in longitudes’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Procol Harum: yet another English progressive rock band.  What doesn’t RnRHoF like about these groups?  Are they too Caucasian, or European, or musically proficient?? (I’m convinced Genesis was inducted due to their Phil Collins-era pop molasses, not Peter Gabriel’s earlier, more intriguing influence).  But even critics of progressive rock are fond of Procol Harum.  Their lyricist, Keith Reid, didn’t play an instrument, but wrote clever gothic poems with references to rusted sword scabbards and haunted ships.  He had the perfect partners in pianist/arranger Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher.procol  This axis was ably assisted by Hendrix-styled guitarist Robin Trower and thunderous drummer B.J. Wilson.  All of them gave Procol a sound like no other group, one that veered between crunching blues and soaring symphonic rock.  Last year they were nominated by RnRHoF but missed induction (“Sorry boys, maybe next time”).  A slap in the face to a great band that did “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” and made some very cool albums.  Longitudes hereby corrects the injustice.

King Crimson: here is a British band that wrote long, complex songs with flute, violin, saxophone, and keyboards.  And the keyboards included a Mellotron, a modified tape replay keyboard, no less. Oh my God, what heresy!  What would Elvis say!  Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is rolling in his grave (wherever his grave is located).  Despite RnRHoF’s misgivings, longitudes recognizes Crimson’s importance in stretching the boundaries of rock, with their bold explorations into free jazz, classical chamber music, and dissonance.  Led by erudite guitarist Robert Fripp, the only permanent member, King Crimson in the beginning included talented vocalist Greg Lake, later crimsonone-third of the supergroup, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and multi-instrumentalist and tunesmith Ian MacDonald (who later went for the bread and formed Foreigner).  Pete Townshend of the Who called Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, “an uncanny masterpiece.”  King Crimson influenced a lot of musicians, from Genesis to Rush to Nirvana.  More than just a band, they were a forward-thinking musical aesthetic.  But RnRHoF evidently prefers the group Heart.  ‘Nuff said.

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians