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Posts from the Crate digging Category

Big Star, “I’ll Never Be Sane”
From Whammy Bar (1976)

Another Chiltonesque enigma is the fate of Big Star’s fourth album—one oddly untouched by Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. (I’ve not yet read A Man Called Destruction, so I can’t comment on its treatment of the subject.) Perhaps some things are simply too bound up in skeins of myth, drunkenness, pain, and foggy memory to untangle.

My introduction to the possible existence of the album came in a lively email discussion concerning the Replacements in the late 1990s. I was a mere spectator of that virtual roundtable, which centered around what my friend Greg Sager called “one of the pivotal moments of ’Mats lore; the band’s breaking into the Twin Cities offices of their former label (Twin/Tone), stealing the masters to all of their old albums, and subsequently dumping them into the Mississippi River. It’s an event shrouded in mystery and rich in the nose-thumbing ethos of the band.”

From one correspondent (posting under the moniker of “Tom Thrift”) came this equivocal yet tantalizing reply:

If I wanted to be held accountable for my facts, I’d be a journalist (okay, maybe that’s a bad example in 1998). The whole point of the Web for lazy asses like me is that stylishly expressed bullshit will always trump gray flannel facts—the eggs benedict of opinion will always be preferable to the shredded wheat of accountability. My theory is that the ’Mats dumped not their own master tapes into the swirling eddies of the Mississippi, but the long-lost masters to Big Star’s little-known, never-released, now-lost fourth album, Whammy Bar, which were given to them by the great man, Alex Chilton, himself in Memphis during the recording of Pleased To Meet Me. Cut by Chilton and a backing band made up of former Elvis sidemen (Jerry Scheff on bass, James Burton on guitar) in the fall of 1977, it was a concept album about the recently deceased King and was, from all who heard it, the crowning achievement of Chilton’s career—despite the country disco song, “Tupelo Bunny,” that Chilton insisted on including. The fate of the album hinged on that song: Chilton came to regret writing it, recording it, playing tambourine and clavinet on it, and denied knowledge of the tapes until he met a scruffy band of post-punkers in the early 1980s. When they were in Memphis, he played them the tapes and handed them over to Paul Westerberg, saying, “Dump these for me, boy. They ain’t never gonna be right.” The ’Mats debated whether or not to make a dub of the album, but finally their loyalty to Chilton triumphed; just before they reached home, the van swung over to the side of the road and the tapes went over the bridge.

The well-connected Sager (who “had the Paul Harveyesque ‘rest of the story’ explained to me one night over a round of Hamm’s by a former ’Mats roadie in the CC Club in Minneapolis”) responded to this post thusly:

I heard roughly the same story Tom did about the Replacements reluctantly disposing of the long-rumored fourth Big Star album Whammy Bar. However, Tom’s eggs benedict did not have enough Tabasco sauce on them. Truth is stranger than fiction … and what I am about to tell you is stranger than either one.

After Big Star’s third album (initially released in ’78 as Big Star 3rd but subsequently released as Sister Lovers) failed to land the band a record deal in late 1974, the band broke up. Actually, it wasn’t really much of a band at that point; there was the increasingly eccentric and cantankerous Alex Chilton and Chilton’s producer-guitarist-keyboardist-engineer-Sancho Panza Jim Dickinson. Even stalwart Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was replaced on some of the third album sessions by Ardent studio engineer/drummer Richard Rosebrough.

Chilton then disappeared for an extended period of time, leaving only the spotty 1975 EP The Singer Not The Song (recorded at Ardent in Memphis with the usual suspects, including his current bass player Tommy McClure) as evidence of his existence.

He next assumed a public profile in early 1977, when he moved to New York City and assembled a backing band that consisted of future dBs founder Chris Stamey on bass, Fran Kowalski on keyboards, and Lloyd Fonoroff on drums. They regaled Big Apple audiences with loose takes on songs like the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and the Seeds’ mid-1960s psychopunk classic “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine.”

He would break this band up by the summer of ’78 to return to Memphis and enter into his full-blown wacko-lounge-lizard phase, when covering KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” and the saloon chestnut “Volare” seemed to be logical career moves in his mind.

The missing piece of the puzzle is 1976. What happened then was that Chilton, hearing about the rise of a new and exciting scene in New York City centering around the seedy Bowery nightclub CBGB, made his initial foray to Manhattan at that point. Bringing back Stamey and ousted Blondie co-founder Gary Valentine to Memphis with him, he reassembled Big Star for one last go at Ardent Studios. This group consisted of Chilton and Valentine on guitars and vocals, Stamey on bass and vocals, and Stephens on drums and his requisite cameo vocal appearance (a la “Way Out West” and “For You”). Dickinson sat behind the board and filled in on keyboards and brass (along with his fellow former Rolling Stones sideman Bobby Keyes). The resultant double album Whammy Bar was, contrary to Tom’s description, not a tribute to Elvis but rather a freewheeling masterpiece of offhand power pop gems recorded by a bunch of has-beens, not-yets, and never-weres.

Included alongside “Tupelo Bunny” (not, as Tom indicated, a song about the King but rather a snide riposte by Valentine to his former bandmate/ingenue vocalist Debbie Harry, whose mad crush on Van Morrison was an open secret in the mid-1970s New York punk scene) were such classics as Chilton’s “I’ll Never Be Sane,” “No Pets” (later reworked in the 1980s as “No Sex”), and the title track. An early version of Stamey’s and Peter Holsapple’s dBs single “Dynamite” also appeared on the album—with Bobby Keyes’s honky-tonk saxophone replacing the whirling organ of the dBs version.

Covers abounded, most of them recorded during warm-ups to the sessions. They included Big Star concert staples such as the Kinks’ “Come On Now,” T. Rex’s “Baby Strange,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “Motel Blues,” and, of course, The Box Tops’ “The Letter”—as well as “Can’t Seem To Make You Mine” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

Like the third album, Whammy Bar had no takers in terms of labels willing to release it. The band disintegrated, Chilton went back into hibernation, and Stamey and Valentine returned to New York. But while Dickinson and Chilton managed to get the third album released on the independent PVC label in ’78, Whammy Bar faded into the ether.

Chilton accompanied the Replacements on the fateful day in the mid-1980s when they broke into Twin/Tone’s offices and stole the master tapes to their old recordings. In fact, it was his daring them to do it that led Replacements roadie/driver Carton to pull the van over on that fateful Minneapolis bridge. When they actually went through with the caper and dumped the masters into the Mississippi River, Chilton had to live up to his end of the dare. He reached into his travel bag, pulled out a reel of tape containing the long-lost Whammy Bar, and tossed it over the side into the swirling waters that had already sucked in Hootenanny, Let It Be, Sorry, Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, and The Shit Hits The Fans.

Some time later, the surviving trio of Replacements—Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars—felt so guilty about their complicity in destroying what may very well have been the high-water mark (pun intended) of 1970s rock-n-roll that they went to Ardent Studios to see for themselves if any other copies of Whammy Bar remained. Whether Dickinson had (or has) his own copy remains a mystery, but the band did end up recording Pleased To Meet Me at Ardent (with Dickinson producing) while they were there—an album which includes their tribute to the only man alive apart from Brian Wilson with enough moxie (or bad craziness) to destroy his own masterpiece … Alex Chilton.

Sager later polished and published a version of this tale on the late, lamented Seattle-based music site PandoMag, but that, too, is now lost to the ever-flowing river of the digital past.

Clearly, as this post proves, copies of at least some of songs from Whammy Bar survived. As with all such “grey-market” material, the wheres and hows of how they came into my possession cannot be revealed.

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The Box Tops, “I Met Her in Church” (1968)
From Super Hits
Bell 6025

With the publication of A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man and my belated viewing of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, I’ve been thinking about the enigma that was Chilton. I saw him once at the Cubby Bear in Chicago during his “Volare”–“No Sex” period, a performance highlighted, if I recall, by his cover of the Rip Chords “Hey Little Cobra”—and one that offered no insight into the man aside from his taste in oldies.

He performed no Box Tops (or Big Star) songs that night, and if he had, I doubt he would have done my favorite, “I Met Her in Church.” (Though did once say from the stage that it was the best song the Box Tops ever did.) While a haze of irony hovers about Chilton and his reputation (e.g., covers of “Volare” and “Hey Little Cobra”), it certainly not what earned his place in music history or our hearts. Songs like “Thirteen” and “September Gurls” capture an unguarded vulnerability—or at least project it. The question, then, about songs like “Jesus Christ” or “The Ballad of El Goodo” (“And at my side is God”)  or “I Met Her in Church” (even though it was written by the estimable Dan Penn and not Chilton) is: it is a joke? Or is it something truer, deeper? Or simply a matter of reflex, instinct, habit—the old-time religion bubbling up from the Southern soil Chilton and Penn both sprouted from?

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Tony Bennett, “Here’s That Rainy Day” (1972)
from With Love
Columbia KC 31460 

I have a friend who argues that Tony Bennett is a superior artist to Frank Sinatra. I think she’s wrong—Tony Bennett would say she is wrong—but there are times when I see what she means. Like when I listen to this cut, which may be the finest in his long career. Amazingly, it had been out of print for 40 years until Sony released Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection last year.

It was on Tony’s last album for Columbia before his contract lapsed and he launched his own label and wandered in the pop wilderness for a decade or more, which may explain why it got lost. Sublimely supported by Robert Farnon’s arrangement, Bennett embraces softness after a career spent to a large degree sending his voice up to the third balcony. (Bennett was a much more operatic a singer than Sinatra ever was.) This may have been a necessary strategy: Tony’s pitch wavers a bit throughout the album, suggesting vocal problems or perhaps rocky confidence at a point of career crisis. But it works here, and it was an understated mode he would turn to with increasing success and frequency when his career bounced back in the 1990s.

Then there’s the Van Heusen-Burke song—really, the perfect Valentine’s Day song if you’re a glass-half-empty type of person. I’ve never heard a version of this classic that wasn’t moving, but this one, for all its brevity, plumbs its depths like no other I know.

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Bobby Darin, “Sail Away” (1972)
from Darin 1936–1973
Motown M5 813V1

It takes serious stones to cover “Sail Away.” The song is such an ethically, aesthetically, morally, emotionally fragile creation, the slightest miscue can send it off into severely unintended territory.

It takes something beyond serious stones for a white man to cover “Sail Away” with a gospel choir. On Motown.

Yes, Bobby Darin is what we might call a fearless interpreter of song. He’s the type of artist who makes taste seem like some sort of effete ornament, something as obscure and outdated as the code of chivalry. What is taste—or even conveying an understanding of a lyric—when compared to the sheer force of his personality? (In this, he anticipates much subsequent popular culture.)

And thank God for him, for Darin’s indiscriminate—well, let’s be kind and say inclusive—approach to material does produce some rare gems. “Mack the Knife” was only the beginning of his left-field exploration of the canon. His “Nature Boy” has nothing to do with nature or boys or poignant spiritual messages; it’s louche backing suggests instead the title character might be a pot dealer on Sunset Boulevard. And yet … Darin’s steamrollering of the song causes one to question the sincerity of the lyric and the whole backstory of its author, proto-hippie eden ahbez. That’s a neat trick of unintended textual criticism. (And you can dance to it.)

Just as you begin to think that the pleasures of Darin are of purely a kitsch variety, out pops a version of Jagger and Richards‘s “Back Street Girl” that blows away the original. Seriously. It’s more knowing, sadder, and the accordion is a perfect touch.

Bobby Darin is one of the singers that taught me to keep digging to the bottom of the crate. You never know what you’ll find. Is that version of “While We’re Young” by Mike Douglass a hidden gem? (No!) Is that Jimmie Lunceford album worth checking out? (Yes! Yes! Yes!) Is there anything redeeming on that Olivia Newtown John disc? (We’ll see….)

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Bobby Goldsboro (The Webs), “Dizzy Boy” (1959)
from Today’s Scene!
Pickwick RPM 0102

I suspect a fairly comprehensive history of larceny and the role of organized crime in the music business could be told through no-name compilations like Today’s Scene!: the tilted contracts, the stolen copyrights, the disappearing masters. But then, as some wise person once said, “God invented the music business to make the movie business look ethical.”

This one—“produced for General Electric by PIckwick International,” meaning perhaps that it was a freebie when you purchased a refrigerator or  stereo (or hi fi!)—plays a little fast and loose with the details. “Annabelle” is not, in fact, a song by Simon and Garfunkel but rather “Anna Belle,” a nice doo-woppy tune from 1959 by a solo Paul Simon performing as Jerry Landis. Why lie when it’s a giveaway anyway?

“Dizzy Boy” was the first release of Bobby Goldsboro’s career, but it was recorded for Heart Records in 1961 by his band the Webs and was a local hit in their Alabama stomping grounds. This was before they became Roy Orbison’s backing band and while they still wore all-black outfits and had a spider’s web graphic on the drum. For anyone who thought the naked emotionalism of Goldsboro’s biggest hit, “Honey,” was an anomaly, “Dizzy Boy” proves it was there from the start. Indeed, the low-fi, just-barely-beyond-amateur tenor of the record makes it seem even more vulnerable a performance. It also features the cheapest guitar sound this side of Big Brother and the Holding Company—though to be fair, what the guitar is doing is pretty nifty, especially for 1961.

A hit like “Honey” can make a career, but it can also distort one, can make an artist seem one dimensional. Imagine my surprise, then when, digging through his past, I discovered this latter day Goldsboro hit. It’s no less naked or emotional than “Honey” or “Dizzy Boy,” but it‘s more subtle and all the more effective for it:

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