Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
This week, for the 10th In The Dust, the author chooses to do something different, something special, something personal, and will, for this edition only, refer to himself as “I”.
This week, I will not be digging any crate or rack so much as I will be racking my mind and my memory to recall music with lasting impact, the records that shaped me, for better or worse, and the records that I will always remember. From classics to classy, astonishing to awful, I present this as a personal inventory, in chronological order from my earliest years to the age of thirteen, of the records, artists and songs tied by nostalgia, pride or love most strongly to me, the sounds that brought music and I together leading into my formative years and continue to serve as a base upon which my love for music, and much of my identity, is built.
1. The Beatles – “Yellow submarine” (1966) & “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” (1967)
The Beatles were my first love. A few days ago, I put on my Mother’s mono copy of Revolver and there I was, back in the passenger seat of her aged, milk-chocolate brown Volkswagon Rabbit, breathing the light morning air and nodding to the rhythm as we drive down 54th street on the way to my school. “Yellow Submawine” (as I pronounced it), was a fixture of our morning drives, a song that I knew by number, and not by name, on disc 2 of The Beatles’ Anthology.
Also a fixture, and a number to me, was “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” A song that I found at once strange, fascinating and unsettling, I would think, “What is wrong with Mr. Kite? What is the benefit for? Is he unwell? Why if he was so sick, sick enough to warrant a benefit, would he perform his own tricks that evening?” I never found the answers to these questions, but not for lack of trying. I listened over and over to that song, losing myself in its mystical circus world, watching, in my mind’s eye, Mr. Kite defy ill health to perform the most dazzling tricks, at the most dazzling spectacle, the world has ever seen.
2. Elton John – “Crocodile Rock” (1972)
Elton John’s Greatest Hits, featuring “Crocodile Rock”, is the second record I ever bought for myself, after the original soundtrack to the television program “Where In the World Is Carmen San Diego?” recorded by Rockapella. For a very long time, I listened to “Crocodile Rock” every night before going to sleep, dreaming of a life much like the one John chronicles in the song, one of long days and nights with Suzie, her dresses tight, trying to squeeze in as much joy as we can, terrified of the day to come when rock would die, Suzie leaving with some foreign guy. Today, I finally have that “place of my own,” but I still pine for that “old, gold Chevy.”
3. Queen – “We Will Rock You” (1977) & Greatest Hits (1981)
This song replaced “Crocodile Rock” as my go-to, pre-bed must-listen. The pure power of Freddie Mercury’s voice, the two-ton Goliath Brian May and his guitar and the earth-shaking stomps! Oh, the stomps. When I pushed the play button, I would feel ten feet tall. I would forget about Suzie and dream of conquering the world. I would dream of rocking everyone, the same way Queen was rocking me, and I wanted to bang on everything. This grand feeling kept me awake most nights, but I didn’t care. After skipping straight to “We Will Rock You,” I would backpedal to the first track and enjoy the album in full, one that still stands as a magnificent collection and, for me, a flower on the tombstone of one of most charismatic and talented front men in history.
4. Steppenwolf – “Born to Be Wild” (1968) & “Magic Carpet Ride” (1968)
I first heard “Born to Be Wild” at an Indianapolis Ice game. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a spell or some kind of trance. I stood up and quite literally freaked out, or maybe more accurately, for the first time, rocked out. Not since Queen, then my favorite band, had I heard such power! That sound! It was not of my Earth as I knew it. It was pure rebellion, pure love, pure exaltation. I needed it. My parents bought me Steppenwolf Live and I went to a lot more Ice games. It is some time during this course, after receiving Steppenwolf Live, that I discovered “Magic Carpet Ride”. I had always been a very active dreamer. Once, while half-asleep, I was convinced that my Father was not a lawyer as he claimed, but in actuality a French cowboy. My imagination was fanciful, unyielding and enthusiastically encouraged. This song gave me a motto.
Weekends, as a child, always seemed like some magical time when everyone in the world was free to do as they chose, without limit. For my Father and I, this meant cruising in his silver 80’s Nissan Stanza Minivan, which we called “the ice box”, to the Busy Bee Donut Shop where I was the only one who could make the mean black lady smile, then driving to pretty much wherever the hell we wanted, which was often Ft. Ben and the eastern countryside beyond, the hardware store, and sometimes to the baseball diamond for catch. His car had a tape deck, and Buckwheat Zydeco was almost always in it. I would kick wildly, without economy of rhythm, to the unusual, crazy music, hopped up on maple donuts and chocolate milk. It seemed alien in all the best ways. It made me want to move and it fed my curiosity, a body-and-spirit communion that has permeated my life’s experience with music.
On these trips, the floor of his car was covered in old grungy tapes. One that always spoke to me was From The Mars Hotel by the Grateful Dead. It was beautiful. It was not until later that I would rediscover this record.
6. Dean Martin – “That’s Amore” (1953)
I can still hear my Father sing this song, his booming vibrato reverberating throughout the old, wooden halls of my family’s Tudor home, my Mother and I trading annoyed grunts, crossing our fingers white for him to stop. I always secretly loved this song, and Deano, but there’s no admitting it at that age, especially when appreciation for a great vocalist could be confused as appreciation for my Father’s vocals. So I would sit, in quiet, apparent displeasure, and strain through my Father’s voice to listen to who I thought was a drunken Italian womanizer sing more beautifully than I believed I had ever heard.
Later, I learned what Dean was really like, and I was doubly impressed.
Ughh. It still haunts me. Every Christmas, as a family, we would decorate our tree. My Mother, without fail, would have this playing before either my Father or I noticed. And once it was on, it was on. There was no taking it off or we would upset her. So much in the way my Mother and I struggled through “That’s Amore”, my Father and I would struggle through Mannheim Steamroller, and their God-awful synthesized holiday reverence. I can hear every note in my head. Still. It never goes away.
8. Aaron Neville – “Tell It Like It Is” (1967)
My first concert: The Neville Brothers. I remember it like it was yesterday. Butler. Starlight Amphitheatre. Beautiful night. I was so nervous. Crowds made me very uncomfortable when I was younger, as I was an only child, and so many people in one place just seemed unnatural. But as everyone settled into their seats and the Nevilles began to play, everything seemed right. Aaron astonished me.
The band struck into “Tell It Like It Is”. He looked like the guy you don’t want standing behind you in a prison shower, but he sang with such tenderness, attentive and devoted to every note, that he at once shrank in stature and grew to fill the theatre. He was a conduit for something, a vessel for a voice that was not human. In his rendition of this song, still one of my favorites to date, he was tapping deep into a well of emotion- sorrow, malaise and regret -so unfathomably deep, I could not comprehend fully what I saw, but I knew it was momentous. I knew I would never forget it.
9. Radiohead – “Airbag” (1997)
Growing up, I often vacationed at my Grandparents’ in South Carolina. I enjoyed the beach, I suppose, but was never attached to it. I really could take it or leave it. I spent most of my time talking them or playing games or abusing their piano, a wonderful instrument that is still my favorite (melodious) sound-maker.
One year, I think I was 11; I was sitting in the room at their house in which I slept. Everyone was napping. I hated naps. I still hate naps. I was bored, but I had just joined BMG and received my 25 free CDs, one of which was OK Computer.
This record had only come out less than a year prior, but it was generating what I noticed was unprecedented buzz. I had been hearing so much about them, how they are primed to change rock and roll, and how this record is nothing short of a watershed. So it put it on.
I picked up drumming shortly before this trip. First it was the guitar, then the sleigh bells and bass. By the time Phil Selway’s programmed beat kicks in, I was gone, lost to Radiohead and to OK Computer and the weird world they have constructed. A large part of me is still there, wherever that is, perhaps through a small door in some far off corner of that bedroom, lulling in aural bliss, hoping it never has to leave.
10. Bob Dylan – “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” (1971 Version)
My man. My musical idol. My favorite artist of all-time. The moment I first sat down to listen to Bob Dylan is one I will remember vividly for the rest of my life.
I was in 8th Grade. We were staying after school to work on our 8th Grade musical, a tradition. We were to perform Bye Bye, Birdie. I was to be the drummer in the orchestra, as well as the diegetic high school marching band, and Dad #3 in the “Kids” number. I could care less about anything but the drumming. I got to play a drum set. A really nice one, a Pearl Masters, infinitely better than my own, and in front of a packed theatre full of people, many of whom were young girls. Why do guys start bands, after all?
I was very excited, and in music mode. I recently purchased the newest, double-disc version of Dylan’s Greatest Hits, The Essential Bob Dylan. I had heard so much from my parents about how I might hate his voice, how it’s weird, unpleasant and at best an acquired taste, but I should try it anyway. I put it on and in no exaggerated fashion my life was changed. He escorted me into a moment so intense and so deep I remember every detail, from what I was wearing to the exact seat in the exact row of the theatre, who was next to me and the time.
By the time I reached this track, I knew he was, and would always be, my favorite artist. I wanted to know everything about him. I wanted to see Gunga Din. I wouldn’t stop until I had heard everything, read everything, seen everything, known everything. I identified with him, his style, his words and his music so strongly that in many ways he has shaped everything that I am as a writer, as a musician and as a man.
To this day, every time I listen to him, I can see his photo on that album cover. I can see the Orchard School Auditorium, my disc man in my hands, the expression on Katie Cline’s face and her posture in the chair next to mine. It is a moment so completely etched into my memory, the fabric of my personality, that it and I are inseparable, as am I with the works of Bob Dylan.
When I asked my parents to help me in remembering this list, they tried but ultimately stopped. They concluded that music was always a very big part of my life and even as a young child I was in love, fanatical and devoted, in a very unique and special way, with that which I found to be beautiful. If I loved it then, in some distant center I love it now, and all I would have to do is feel that love to find it.
Today, I put on Revolver and I wrote this article.
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
Enough said, right? If you’re still reading at this point, let me say that this is not the bloated, bacon-banana-peanut-butter-fried-donut sandwich King that the name draws to mind. This is Elvis Aaron Presley, an aspiring young singer from Memphis, Tennessee, moonlighting as a truck driver just to keep his head above water.
Presley, at the age of 13, moved with his family to Memphis where he immediately immersed himself in the music scene, absorbing country, honky-tonk, western swing and, most notably, R&B and the blues. Throughout high school, Presley was berated and discouraged by music teachers claiming that he had no aptitude for music, but by the time Presley graduated he was determined to pursue a career in music regardless. With blind confidence, he scrapped up $3.98 and went to Sun Records to record two sides. This is the point in the story where, for other artists, one would say “and the rest was history,” but that’s not the case.
On July 18th, 1953, Presley recorded his first two sides, “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”. The receptionist, Marion Keisker, upon Presley’s arrival, asked him what he sang. He said “all kinds.” “I don’t sing like nobody,” he continued. After recording his sides, Keisker recorded his name on the acetate and added, “Good Ballad Singer. Hold.” Presley received one copy of the recording, which he gave to his mother, who, at the time, did not even own a record player.
Early the next year, on January 4th, 1954, Presley recorded two more sides, “I’ll Never Stand In Your Way,” and “It Wouldn’t Be The Same Without You”. These, much like the first two sides, were flops. It appeared that no one was interested in Elvis Aaron Presley the ballad singer.
After several failed auditions as a vocalist for local bands, Presley told his father, “They told me I couldn’t sing,” echoing the words of his old teachers. It is then Presley got a job big-rigging at the Crown Electric Company. He continued to try out for other local groups but was rejected every time, bandleaders citing that Presley should stick to being a truck driver “because you’re never going to make it as a singer.”
Sam Phillips, Sun Records President, saw what he believed to be a hole in the market, but could not find the right man to fill it. Keisker remembers, “Over and over…Sam saying, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” Phillips had acquired a copy of “Without You”, and he could not identify the vocalist. Keisker reminded Phillips of the young truck driver, the one from Memphis, the good ballad singer, and Phillips invited Presley back to Sun Records for a tryout of sorts.
On May 26th, 1954, Presley returned to Sun Records. In his audition, he failed to do the recording justice. Phillips asked Presley to run through a few other songs in his repertoire. Phillips was less than enthused, but Presley expressed a spirited interest in finding a back-up band and Phillips obliged. He contacted two Memphis, western swing musicians, Winfield “Scotty” Moore, guitar, and Bill Black, slap bass. It is at this point in the story where, for other artists, one would say “and the rest was history,” but that is again not the case.
Presley was set for another audition, one with Moore and Black, at Moore’s house. Again, like Phillips, Moore and Black were less than enthused, but Elvis expressed a spirited interest in a recording session with the two, and they obliged. The session was held on July 5th and lasted late into the night. With exception of what was then considered a mediocre country ballad, “I Love You Because,” the session was largely felt to be unsuccessful. That is until Moore and Black were packing to leave. Elvis struck into Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama,” and started “acting the fool”.
“All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open … he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.”
And the rest was history.
Phillips had found the sound he was looking for, and frantically began checking levels and taping. “Damn. Get that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town,” Black remarked. Phillips did just that.
It premiered three days later on a local radio show to such a response that the DJ played it repeatedly for the last two hours of the show and later had Elvis himself in for an interview, in which he asked him to identify his high school so listeners could identify his color. Sun Records received over 6,000 advanced requests for the record, with a pop, 4/4, rock and roll version of slow waltz, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to be pressed as the b-side.
So began the career of Elvis Aaron Presley, some would say with an act of minstrelsy, others would say with pure dumb luck and raw, unrefined genius.
Presley recorded more than twenty songs between 1953 and late 1956 for Sun Records. Of them, 18 “Elvis Presley” sides survive, two are lost, and the rest are billed to The Million Dollar Quartet, of recent Broadway fame. Of the songs credited solely to Presley (with Moore and Black), several the author believes to be among the finest of his career. It is no surprise, when listening to these recordings, that so many have had such issue with Presley’s singing. It is unique, ahead of his time in many senses, and strangely contemporary in others.
“That’s All Right,” Presley’s first hit, a slippery, top-down, walking-bass country blues bears moments of clear attraction to a young Roy Orbison (later to record with Sun Records), Presley’s silky vibrato wafting above of the slap-clang pound of the bass and thin, lick-heavy guitar, which, when taking the two together, appear to inspire the unrestrained grunge-wop, western rock and roll of a “Maybelline” era Chuck Berry to-come. When taken as a whole, the effect is a sound reminiscent of Johnny Cash in his days with the Tennessee Two (also later to record with Sun Records). “That’s all right, mama,” Presley sings, foreshadowing his own breaking stardom, overarching influences and legions of followers and imitators, “I’m leavin’ town, baby / I’m leavin’ town for sure / Well, I didn’t want you to be a-bothered with me a-hangin’ ‘round your door / Well, that’s all right / Well, that’s all right now, mama,” the acetate a fitting gift for his mother, a gesture of reassurance that he will make it, and a prescient stiff-arm to those who come after, inviting them to play in his wake, because he’ll be watching from the top, shaking his head, knowing they can’t do it like the King.
In 1955, a young Buddy Holly saw Presley perform in Lubbock, Texas. This left a sizable impression on Holly, as he then began to incorporate the country, rockabilly for which much of his music with The Crickets is known. Chances are very good that Holly’s attention was most closely drawn by, “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine,” a song that sounds as if it could’ve been recorded by Holly himself and simply mislabeled as Presley. “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine” exhibits the archetypal, up-and-down slap-bass of the Sun Records sound, coupled with bright, cutting guitar chords, occasional finger-picking and well-bent, Holly-esque solos of classic rock and roll simplicity. Presley rarely visits his lower register, singing of love for his baby in a high, dizzying vibrato akin to Holly’s performance of “Modern Don Juan”, bridging the gap between Presley’s newfound fame as a young, pop sensation and his earlier ballad-driven sensibilities, ostensibly eliminating doubts of his ability to adapt “all kinds” of music for the current market, simply because he “don’t sound like nobody else,” yet.
The song previously felt to be mediocre and difficult to market, “I Love You Because,” shows a particular interesting side of the “good ballad singer”. Elvis adopts a languid, melancholy croon that would later be heard issuing over audiences at the Copa Cabana and all over Vegas, Atlantic City, and other destination hot spots from the microphone of Dean Martin. Presley’s delicate, sliding vocal line is complemented by the striking, metallic and swinging jazz-cum-reverberated rock fingerpicking of Moore. Presley, in a sense, lets it all hang out, expanding to fill the sonic space, and putting his own unusual styling so strongly in the forefront that when he warbles, “No matter what the world may say about me / I know your love will always see me through / I love you for the way you never doubt me / But most of all I love you because you’re you,” it is distinctly as if he is in conversation with himself, echoing the same blind confidence that he first took with him to Sun Records, refuting the opinion of countless music teachers and bandleaders and even Phillips himself, continuing that, “No matter what the style or season / I know you’re heart will always be true.”
Over the course of the Sun Recordings, Presley successfully tackles a multitude of genres from sentimental ballad, to western swing, to country and country blues, to rockabilly, to even bluegrass waltz and blues standards like “Milk Cow Blues”, reworked into the boogie-woogie “Milkcow Blues Boogie”. With each song we hear a different, but equally poised and unyielding Elvis, singing unlike no one else in his day. It is apparent that Elvis is still finding his voice, but he is in no hurry. He is making everything his own, and as he does so cycles through vocal performances that will inspire countless singers for decades. Many have claimed Buddy Holly to be the single most influential figure in rock and roll. Others have said Roy Orbison or Chuck Berry. Perhaps, those with that claim did not go back far enough.
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost, but not forgotten. (Listen via Spotify)
Most of you probably know Sam Cooke best for his seminal classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Some of you might know Sam Cooke best for his 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News. A few of you might even know Sam Cooke best for his active role in the American Civil Rights Movement. No matter how you know him, the fact is, you do.
He is commonly known as The King of Soul, widely regarded as a pioneer, if not a founder, of American Soul music. His brilliant career was cut short at the age of 33 when he was shot to death in an altercation with the manager of the Hacienda Hotel in Los Angeles. His legacy and unsurpassed talent continue to shine, perhaps brightest on his 1963 classic, Night Beat, an album that was well received when it was released but is now routinely overshadowed by others in his oeuvre.
Night Beat is named so for a reason. Much like In The Wee Small Hours (possibly Sinatra’s best album and arguably the first concept record), Cooke’s blues-tinged Night Beat is composed largely of carefully selected standards. It begins as a stoic, dimly lit expression of woe and the difficulties of life, as if delivered at midnight from a favorite chair at the end of a long, trying day.
The album’s opening track, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen“, offers an immediate look into the soul of this set: positivity in the face of despair. Cooke croons, “If you get there before I do / Oh, oh yes lord / Don’t forget to tell all my friends I’m comin’ too / Whoa, oh yes lord / Still, nobody knows the trouble that I’ve seen / Nobody knows my sorrow / Nobody knows the trouble that I’ve seen / Glory, hallelujah”. In the face of everything, when all one knows is tumbling down, there is peace on the horizon for those with the constitution to persevere, a message Cooke expounds piece by piece throughout the album as a salve for the wounds of a much-maligned and mistreated fanbase, a message of faith with roots deep in Religion and deeper still in the blues.
“Lost and Lookin’”, the album’s stark, arresting second track, features the refrain, “I’m lost / And I’m lookin’ for my baby,” a phrase Cooke delivers with such emotion that it is clear his ‘baby’ is his only hope for a life worth living. “Mean Old World”, the next track and possibly Cooke’s finest vocal performance on the album, furthers that narrative with the refrain, “This is a mean old world to live in all by yourself.” Cooke howls with abandon, jumping from note to note with desperation, as if frantically trying to escape the impending darkness of a solitary future. The album proceeds in a similar vein with morose, shuffling “Please Don’t Drive Me Away”, a Chicago-blues plea for love and loyalty, followed by “I Lost Everything”, Cooke’s woozy, teary-eyed lament for desire fallen on deaf ears.
The centerpiece of the record, “Get Yourself Another Fool”, signifies a change in Cooke’s woebegone psyche. Cooke, in a delicate melody, cheery but not overjoyed, content but not satisfied, and with all the bitter-sweetness of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, refuses to be played by anyone any longer, floating willfully over the gospel-smacked organ styling of a 16-year old Billy Preston (later a massively famous keyboardist/organist and the only non-Fab Four ever to receive a musician’s credit on a Beatles album).
With “Get Yourself Another Fool”, the spirit of the album changes and begins to rise, growing stronger with each remaining track. “Little Red Rooster”, an infectious, twelve-bar, AAB standard, echoes “Get Yourself Another Fool” and supposes that it’s the rooster’s time to do what he wants, everyone else be damned. The rooster does exactly that, despite anyone’s wishes, but as “Laughin’ and Clownin” shows, for newfound resolve like the rooster’s to stick, it needs constant reassurance. Cooke bemoans the difficulties of keeping a brave face in the mouth of heartbreak. “Laughin’ and clownin’,” he sings with shame, “just to keep from cryin’ … I keep on laughin’ and clownin’ / just to take my mind off you.”
“Trouble Blues” speaks directly to the struggle of “Laughin’ and Clownin’”, maintaining from beneath an ominous swath of reverb that while things seemed bright at first, there is turbulence now, there will be ahead and it takes yet even more will to see change through. He revisits his cycle of sadness, anger, acceptance and near relapse and surmises, “…You leaving, baby / you know that’s wrong / But oh, someday, someday darling / I won’t be trouble no more.” To achieve this, Cooke holds firm, saying, in his bouncy, swinging cover of the Mississippi Fred McDowell delta classic, “If you keep on mistreatin’ me, baby / You gotta move”.
Finally, Cooke is fed up, and on “Fool’s Paradise”, over a tinkling, broken-finger piano that seems to be shaking its head right along with him, he looks back on a life of mistakes, “I often think of the live I’ve led / And oh, It’s a wonder, I ain’t dead / Drinking and gambling, staying out all night / Living is a fool’s paradise.” With a melancholy but grateful air, he emerges from his various stages of grief to conclude that things can and will be different, and they are his to change.
And now, he celebrates.
“Shake, Rattle and Roll”, the album’s closing track, is a joyous, rollicking boogie-woogie step out in which Cooke severs the ball from the chain of his emotions and approaches the world with wisdom, rather than self-pity. “Get out of that bed,” the song begins, “wash your face and hands.” Life begins now, the pain and darkness of recent working as propulsion to reach above and beyond the old ways, which are always looming. “When you’re wearing them dresses / the sun come shining through / I can’t believe my eyes / all of it belongs to you.”
Cooke, in the course of this suite, never sought to change his instincts or his urges, only his behavior. In the face of this temptress, he reflects a new way of responding to his carnal side. “Now I believe to my soul / you’re the devil in nylon hose / O, you won’t do right to save you / not your soul.” All she wants to do is, “Shake, rattle and roll.” She can do what she pleases, but Cooke won’t be any part of it. He was done dirty, but is washed clean. He chooses to dance and sing along rather than so soon be bogged down in the same sludge.
This is the message at the core of Night Beat. In the short 37 minutes of this 12-song suite, we followed Cooke down, cringed as he was pushed there and wanted nothing more than to pull him out, but this is not a be-there-for-your-brother story. Cooke found himself alone at the bottom, as most do, and so Night Beat is a guide to redemption, delivered in a methodically sequenced, soulfully crafted, soothing embrace for the lonely and low. For those alone on the bottom, with difficulty imagining what it looks like above, Sam is there to show you, to put hot soup in your cold winter hands and assure you that there is no hole too deep when there are always the tools to build a ladder.