Candlestick Memories

As you might have heard even if you don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Candlestick Park is going to be demolished soon. Paul McCartney pretty much gave it a send-off on August 14, playing a concert that was as much closure for him (since the Beatles’ last official show was at Candlestick on August 29, 1966) as the city and its residents. I have to admit I hadn’t been to Candlestick for about fifteen years; the Giants moved away at the end of the 1990s, and though the 49ers stayed, I’m not a football fan. The imminent departure made me think about some of the most memorable moments in baseball games I saw in person there, all between the late 1980s and late 1990s.

I’m a firm believer that the most interesting things you see at the park are not what are usually blown up as such in the media. All-stars and Hall of Famers setting records, getting retired in sentimental pregame ceremonies, getting standing ovations, winning their twentieth game, or hitting their fortieth homer are actually not the most dramatic occurrences within the games themselves. Those often belong to uncelebrated players in mid-season contests that, in the scheme of who makes the playoffs, are meaningless. I’m celebrating some of those in this post.

The most exciting game I ever saw came in the midst of a hugely disappointing season for the Giants — 1996,  in which they finished in last place (though they somehow won all five of the games I saw at Candlestick that year). On June 18, they were beating the Florida (as they were then called) Marlins 8-1 going into the bottom of the eighth inning. The Marlins tied it with a huge rally, sending the game into extra innings — the Giants working without Barry Bonds, then in his prime, as he’d been taken out in the eighth inning, the game seemingly in the bag. After a half-dozen scoreless see-saw frames, the Giants won with two outs in the bottom of the fifteenth — on an intentional walk by Pat Rapp.

Pat Rapp

How can that happen, you say? Well, it wasn’t exactly on an intentional walk, but in the middle of an intentional walk to slugger Matt Williams. There was a runner on third, and, unbelievably, Rapp threw a wild pitch while giving Williams a free pass. Marvin Benard scampered home, and the Giants were winners, 9-8.

Benard

How many others times has that happened in major league baseball history? Any? It’s not even the kind of thing you can look up, as it’s simply marked as a wild pitch in the box score, without any note that it was in the midst of an intentional walk. Trying to research this, I couldn’t come up with any other examples, though I did find a somewhat similar incident in a college game between Auburn and the University of Mississippi in April 2014, where an extra-inning game ended when a hitter smacked what was meant to be a pitch from an intentional walk for a walk-off homer. It’s proof of the old adage that no matter how many baseball games you watch, you’re bound to come across something you’ve never seen before.

The play at home was close enough, by the way, that had it happened today, the Marlins certainly would have used a replay challenge. I’m not as down on expanded replays as some fans are, but waiting around for a few minutes for the umpires to get the verdict sure would have made the game more anti-climactic than that instant “safe!” call. As it was, I had the suspicion the home plate umpire (it was a day game) was getting hungry and tired, and wanted any excuse to get the thing over with. I would have had a closer view (these being the 15,000-strong-crowd Candlestick days when ushers actually didn’t mind if you sneaked into empty front rows at long games like these), except the guy I was with hadn’t dressed properly for the Candlestick chill, and insisted that we had to stay in seats that were catching some sunlight.

Such wet blankets were a factor in another memorable game I saw — the first one I ever saw at Candlestick, actually. On the night of September 19, 1989, the Giants beat the Dodgers 3-2 on their way to the National League pennant, beating one of the top pitchers of the era, Orel Herschiser. All three runs scored on a three-run double by one of their least heralded bench scrubs, Mike Laga.

Mike Laga

Laga, who only had twenty at-bats for the Giants that year, was one of those classic AAAA (four-A, quad-A) hitters. With 16 homers in 449 major league ABs, he had some power, but not much else, batting .199, striking out 115 times, and taking only 22 walks. He cranked out 220 homers in the minors, but by 1991 he was playing in Japan, hitting 32 homers (but batting just .236) before getting cut loose after just a dozen games there the following year. But for that one night, he was the big hero. Not that it impressed the out-of-town friend I went with, who spent much of the game (as did many visitors, or even San Francisco residents) complaining about how cold it was.

In 1990, I went to about a dozen games, having a job where I worked at home and could often take off for things like this during weekdays. On July 31, the match against the Astros ended on a walk-off pinch-hit single by…Don Robinson, a pitcher. That’s gotta be a rarity, too — a game ending on a pinch-hit by a pitcher. But Robinson was known as one of the very best-hitting pitchers of his time, hitting .231 lifetime with 13 home runs.

Don Robinson

Robinson’s nickname was “Caveman,” and the friend with whom I attended the game had brought — no joke — a caveman bat into the park the day, on the chance that Robinson just might be pinch-hitting. When Don came to the plate, he waved the stick with gusto. And gleefully took the credit for the win, which was dampened a bit when enthusiastic spectators leaped onto the field to scoop up the ball Robinson had hit, only to be escorted off by police.

One of the weirdest plays, and weirdest games, I saw was on June 13, 1996, again against the Astros. On a third strike to Steve Scarsone, catcher Rick Wilkins failed to catch it on the fly, but had an easy play to throw out the runner at first base. He threw it way down the right-field line, allowing Marvin Benard (there he is again) to score all the way from second, and Scarsone to go all the way to second. It was the most Little League-like play I’d ever seen at a big-league game. That helped stake the Giants to a 9-0 lead, which they almost blew before recovering to win 12-8. More astonishingly, the Giants actually acquired Wilkins later that year, apparently unbothered by his shaky defensive skills.

Rick Wilkins

Far better defensive play at the plate was showcased back in 1990 by Steve Decker. I can’t pin down an exact date for this one (even now, when detailed box scores and even play-by-plays for MLB games are on the Internet), though it may have been September 24 against the Padres. As a runner tried to score from third on a flyball, Decker nonchalantly stared ahead as if the ball was nowhere near him — and then grabbed the throw from the outfield and slapped the tag on the runner for an out.

Steve Decker

As a September call-up, Decker had a good month, also hitting .296 with three home runs. Great things were expected of him, but he became one of the biggest Giants busts, hitting just .206 in an extended shot at the regular catching job the following year, and never managing to become a regular in the bigs despite playing parts of seven years for four teams. For that one night, though, he looked like an all-star.

Candlestick was not a good place to see a game, usually. It was often windy and cold, public transportation to the stadium was sparse, and the surrounding neighborhoods were dilapidated (and still are to no small degree). Many locals and out-of-towners greeted the news of its demolition with “it’s about time” or some equivalent. But don’t let anyone tell you that you couldn’t have a good time there if you were a baseball fan (and brought several layers of clothing). Not to mention how you could get a fairly good bleacher seat for $2.50-4.00, almost always get into the park on game day (even if it was sometimes so cavernously empty that you could hear what the players were saying during batting practice), and usually sneak down to better seats on the third-base line without the ushers minding. It might be less windy at the Giants’ current home, AT&T park. But you can’t do any of that there, and probably never will.

Candlestick Park as it looked on August 14, 2014, right after the finale of the Paul McCartney concert, the last major event to take place in the stadium.

Candlestick Park as it looked on August 14, 2014, right after the finale of the Paul McCartney concert, the last major event to take place in the stadium.

Liner Notes in the Golden Age of Vinyl

Sound file storage technology seems to be changing, upgrading, and taking up less space by the hour. So it might seem questionable whether we — as individuals or as a society — should be archiving vinyl record sleeves. They take up so much more room than those sound files, and the whole concept of such things taking up “space” might be forever altered if they can be stored in the “cloud” or some such thing anyway. Why hold onto what are, after all, just glorified pieces of cardboard?

Even leaving aside the issues of artwork that would be lost and whether it’s possible to create files that sound as good as the original vinyl, there’s another vital component to many LP releases that’s of great historical importance, and often entirely overlooked in these discussions. Many of them came with liner notes that contained crucial writing and information that’s often never been reprinted. Even some notes that didn’t benefit from the much deeper research available in later decades contain perspectives and criticism of great value.  At the very least these should be digitized, and archives be careful not to eliminate duplicates if vinyl editions contain entirely different annotation.

The surprise winner in my choice for vinyl release that contains the most valuable historical liner notes unlikely ever to be reprinted.

The surprise winner in my choice for the vinyl release that contains the most valuable historical liner notes unlikely ever to be reprinted.

It would be impossible to list, let alone review, all the vinyl reissues from the pre-CD era that had fine liner notes. Here’s a selection of some of my favorites, however. In a good number of instances, I don’t think they were ever reprinted in CD editions (though I admit I’m not going to buy the records all over again in a different format to find out). Some are thorough artist histories; some are artist appreciations; and some are, for lack of a better description, something else.

The Yardbirds, More Golden Eggs. Bootlegs usually don’t come with good notes; often they don’t come with any notes of substance. Even back in the 1970s, however, there were exceptions. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and declare this bootleg compilation of then-rare Yardbirds tracks (most have come out on official CDs) to have the most historically important liner notes that have never been reprinted anywhere, to my knowledge — and aren’t likely to, considering the unauthorized nature of this LP.

For the album came out with an extensive interview with Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf — the longest interview he ever gave about the Yardbirds, as far as I know. Running seven pages, and covering various aspects of the band’s career, not just the songs on the LP, it was exhaustive enough for Relf to declare at the end: “You guys have given me the roughest night of my life.”

The back cover of More Golden Eggs had the first part of the interview with Yardbirds singer Keith Relf featured in the liner notes, continued on an insert inside the sleeve.

The back cover of More Golden Eggs had the first part of the interview with Yardbirds singer Keith Relf featured in the liner notes, continued on an insert inside the sleeve.

It is not exactly common practice for band members to give extensive interviews for bootlegs, and the full story was told about twenty years later in Clinton Heylin’s book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. As cover designer William Stout (who did the artwork for numerous early rock bootlegs) told Heylin, “I was really proud of the Yardbirds’ More Golden Eggs because that was the first semi-legitimate bootleg. Keith Relf of the Yardbirds was living nearby. He was just forming Armageddon, and he needed rent money. So we paid his rent that month and in return we were able to interview him and play him the bootleg record and he commented on each of the songs as they were being played…We printed the interview on the cover and as a four- or five-page insert as well, and got his signature on the cover too.”

Within a couple days of arrival at college as a 17-year-old in 1979, I happened upon a used copy of More Golden Eggs at a campus record store, in excellent condition, for the unbelievable price of $2.50. There was a catch, though — it was missing most of the interview. The first page was printed on the back cover, but the insert with the rest of it was gone. I wasn’t able to obtain a copy of the insert until almost thirty years later.

The Move, The Best of the Move. When this double LP appeared in 1974, it was early days for archival reissues of groups that never had a hit in the US, to say the least. Yet it was packaged with uncommon sense and quality, pairing the Move’s 1968 debut album with a dozen A-sides and B-sides from 1967-70. Best of all, the inner gatefold featured extensive, well-written liners by drummer Bev Bevan that commented on every song, penned in July 1973. How many other occasions were there when a member of a major ‘60s band wrote in-depth historical liner notes about his own group just a few years after the material was actually recorded? Any?

Move - Best Of The Move FRONT

Much more recently, Bevan contributed some of the notes to another archival Move release, 2012’s Live at the Fillmore 1969. A few years ago, I heard he was shopping a proposal to write a book about the Move, but there’s no deal for that yet, as far as I know. It would be a shame if someone as obviously interested in his own band’s under-documented history wouldn’t have a chance to write a memoir before time runs out.

For all its other qualities, however, The Best of the Move did boast a cover that wasn’t exactly on par with its contents. Adorning the front was a drawing of a moving van — one of several instances when early best-of comps for British Invasion bands (like the Zombies, Animals, and Yardbirds) had artwork which illustrated the name of the artist all too literally.

Them, Them Featuring Van Morrison. It’s terribly unhip to declare this, but I’m not the biggest Lester Bangs fan. At his best he was very good, however, especially when he seemed reined in by some nominal space limitations that forced him to focus more than usual. You find this in the chapters he wrote for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. And he never wrote anything better than the notes he penned for this 1972 double-LP Them compilation on the London label, crammed into the inner gatefold with barely a line to spare.

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It’s a masterful balance of zealous enthusiasm and sharp, disciplined description, with joking asides that are funny, not excessive. Bangs on “Gloria,” for instance: “It was the first distinct rock’n’roll classic to come from the pen of Van Morrison, and perhaps still the greatest. I mean, ‘Doctor My Eyes’ is fine and all, but it shore ain’t ‘Louie Louie.’” On Them’s cover of James Brown’s “Out of Sight”: “Its instrumental break isn’t going to give Brother JB any sleepless nights (although these days, it should).”

Unusually, Bangs comments on a number of songs that didn’t make the 20-track compilation, including such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “All For Myself,” and “Don’t Start Crying Now.” You have to dig into Phonograph Record Magazine’s coverage of Them Featuring Van Morrison to find out why, as Richard Cromelin’s review, highly unusually, included quotes about the LP and notes from Bangs himself. Regarding the track selection, he admitted, “I don’t feel real good about it. For one thing, they didn’t include ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and ‘Don’t You Know.’ But it’s not London’s fault. English Decca came up with the idea and the package, so don’t make it sound like I’m knocking London.”

If his quote here is to be trusted, however, his methodology for the liner note writing conformed to the Bangs legend: “They called me and asked how soon I could have the notes for them. I said tomorrow and stayed up all night and banged them out and stuck them in an envelope the next morning.”

The Velvet Underground, 1969 Live. Not all liner notes have to be historical or lengthy to be memorable. Elliott Murphy’s annotation for this double LP of great live Velvet Underground recordings is just ten paragraphs, some of them very short, taking up one column on the right-hand side of the inner gatefold. But this was a time when the Velvet Underground’s cult was just starting to take off, and their place in history just starting to get reassessed. It was unusual enough for a band that had never entered the Top 100 to get a lengthy double album of previously unreleased recordings in 1974, just four years after they’d broken up. (For the full story behind that release, read Mercury A&R guy Paul Nelson’s entertaining summary in Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson.) For an emerging singer-songwriter (as Murphy was) to trumpet the VU’s importance in no uncertain terms was no small declaration.

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“It’s one hundred years from today, and everyone who is reading this is dead,” Murphy’s notes began. “You’re dead. And some kid who is taking a music course in junior high, and maybe he’s listening to the Velvet Underground because he’s got to write a report on classical rock’n’roll, and I wonder what that kid is thinking.”

Now the very notion of the Velvet Underground getting studied in 2075 or whatever would have seem absurd, even laughable, to most academics and cultural pundits in 1974. Today, it’s not so laughable. In fact, it’s already happening. As I’ve written a book on the Velvets myself, a 12-year-old actually called last year to ask me questions for a school report she was doing. And that’s no joke.

“Rock’n’roll people tend to live on the edge,” Murphy wrote. “That’s what this album is all about. Rock’n’roll has always been and still is one of the few honest things left in this world. That’s what this album is about … I hope parents will still get scared when they find their daughter listening to this music.”

Murphy was asked to do the notes by Paul Nelson, the famed rock and folk critic who was working in A&R at Mercury. “Paul’s taste was wonderfully eclectic,” Murphy explained to me. “He told me that Mercury had bought the rights to some live Velvet Underground tapes from around the same period as Loaded and invited me to come to the Mercury Studios and listen to them with him. Then he kind of offhandedly asked me if I wanted to write the liner notes for the album, which came as a big surprise. Paul made acetate copies for me to bring home. I’m still not sure why he asked me, but maybe it was because of something I said while listening to the tapes with him, something about that music lasting for 100 years.

“I knew that Lou Reed was from Long Island like me, so I was comparing myself to him and looking to his music for strength and reflecting on how rock’n’roll was both saving my life and destroying my innocence and forcing me to cut with my suburban roots. What pleases me most about my liner notes or the album is that I wrote them when I was still purely a fan; I hadn’t recorded my first album [Aquashow] yet, and knew little of the soul-splitting machinations of the music business. My ears were pure in a manner of speaking, and those notes were coming from an excitement and passion for rock’n’roll that was totally uncorrupted. It’s both a wonderful and dangerous place to be when you’re 22 years old, for you hear the glory calling and you see none of the pitfalls, of which there are many. Regardless, I knew it was the world I was determined to enter, and those notes were my calling card to get in the high gates.”

At least one member of the Velvets appreciated what Elliott had to say about the music. “I don’t even know if the band had ever heard the tapes before Paul,” Murphy told me. “But I know he was in touch with Lou Reed and eventually sent my liner notes to Lou, because a few months later Lou called my mother in New York City to speak to me. I was out and he had a nice chat with her, because when I came back to her apartment she said a nice boy named Lewis Reed had called for me.”

Brief commercial break: Murphy’s original handwritten liner notes for 1969 Live are reproduced in my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day.

vucover

The Easybeats, Absolute Anthology. In the early 1980s, it was enough of a miracle to find a two-LP, 43-song collection of a band that had just one hit in the US (“Friday on My Mind”), and most of whose records were almost impossible to find, particularly those that had only been issued in Australia. But to truly set it apart from the run-of-the-mill reissue, the inner gatefold had a stitched-in, LP-sized twelve-page booklet (itself a concept something that’s largely vanished in the 21st century) with an authoritative history on Australia’s biggest ‘60s band, complete with quotes from band members. (No, the quotes weren’t first-hand, but where were you going to find those back then?) In fact, it stood as pretty much the best history of the band until the 2010 book Vanda & Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory (University of New South Wales Press, Australia), over half of which focuses on the Easybeats, though the title emphasizes their primary songwriters Harry Vanda and George Young.

Absolute+Anthology

Getting back to Absolute Anthology, the liner notes also had a stupendously detailed discography before those things were common in rock reissues. It did come out on CD, and I guess there’s a good chance the liner notes were printed in that too, if in much smaller size. (As it turns out, I learned shortly after posting this that the liner notes on the CD version “are just a very basic overview; a huge disappointment compared to the LP”; see comments section.) That LP-sized stitched-in format remains neat to behold, however, and was also used on a few other reissues whose notes this post will discuss.

Gene Vincent, The Capitol Years ’56-’63. Monstrous box sets have become a fact of life these days, at least for those of us either foolish enough to spend the money on them, or clever enough to get comps. Even as recently as the mid-1980s (as recently as a good thirty years ago, in other words), they weren’t such common fare, at least in my household. They were sometimes accompanied by magisterial liner notes, such as the ones in one of the few boxes I did spring for (with store credit of course), a 10-disc UK box of Gene Vincent’s Capitol output.

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For not only was there an LP-sized 36-page booklet with the kind of ridiculously detailed sessionography only the British seemed to able to summon the energy to do in those days. Icing the cake, each of the sleeves for the 12-inch discs had detailed notes on the musical contents, none of them duplicating the text found within the main booklet. That format was also used on at least one other box of a major ‘50s rock pioneer (see next entry), and it’s something not often duplicated these days, when box sets of vinyl 12-inches are still pretty rare, even with the vinyl revival of the last few years.

No doubt there were other such boxes that I missed from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, when CDs started to overtake vinyl as the dominant format in record sales. There have been yet more extensive Vincent CD boxes, and for all I know, those have yet more extensive notes. I still value this relatively “modest” vinyl counterpart, however, and more for the notes than anything else. It’s a pity that nothing Vincent recorded after 1956, however – i.e., most of this large box set – comes near the stratospheric rockabilly brilliance of his best early sides, on which Cliff Gallup played lead guitar.

Buddy Holly, The Complete Buddy Holly. It’s hard to believe that until relatively recently, there wasn’t a box set with most or all of Buddy Holly’s recordings. That meant that for many years, this 1979 six-LP package – issued at a time when major labels seldom did such things for rock artists – was coveted, even by people who’d largely stopped buying vinyl in favor of CDs. A terrific bonus was the 64-page LP-sized booklet of liner notes and photos – and, as with the Gene Vincent box detailed above, more music-specific notes on one side of each of the sleeves containing a vinyl disc. Indeed, aside from Jon Goldrosen and John Beecher’s superb biography Remembering Buddy, it’s the best source of information anywhere on Holly. Uncoincidentally, Beecher co-wrote the notes to this box as well.

Holly

Universal’s 2009 six-CD box set Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More filled the digital gap in Holly’s discography, and the notes in the 80-page accompanying book aren’t bad. The graphics are certainly better than those on the notes on this comparatively ancient vinyl box set. But I’m not getting rid of that vinyl box, in large part because of those notes.

Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield (1973 double-LP on Atco). Not to be confused with their self-titled debut LP, the left side of the inner gatefold of this compilation featured a basic band bio by Jean-Charles Costa. In a less frenetic manner than Lester Bangs’s Them notes, it combined some basic factual overview with passion that kept, just, from teetering over the edge into fanzine-type zeal.

Buffalo

There’s been lots more written about the Springfield since then that’s drawn on the much greater wealth of biographical detail that’s subsequently surfaced in books. Some is even on the generally disappointing booklet in the Buffalo Springfield box set, which at least contains a thorough list of concert dates. But it’s still great to browse Costa’s contagiously enthusiastic he-was-there praise, with such how-did-he-fit-so-many-words-into-that sentences as this description of their shows at the Whisky A Go Go:

“With Richie bouncing all over the stage on tip-toes backwards, Bruce with characteristic back to the audience pose cranking out amazing bass lines from an old warped instrument strung with four bottom E guitar strings, Neil spitting out ferocious and economical lead guitar lines, Stephen smoothing everything out with beautiful integrated harmonies and sinuous guitar, and Dewey providing the right dose of Memphis back-up funk on drums, the band meshed right away, sounding as if they’d been playing together for years.”

Or this:

“Neil Young’s ‘Mr. Soul’ stands out as the most chillingly accurate portrait of the rock-‘star’ syndrome ever put on vinyl, with lines like ‘the race of my head and my face is moving much faster’ making the listener do psychic slow takes throughout the song. Shotgun imagery, totally on target that now turns up in other people’s books as ‘found poetry’ and so far beyond a lot of the mundane flatulence that passed for ‘heavy’ lyrics in the mid-sixties that it established him in the eyes of many as the real poet of rock.”

There’s one other reason not to get rid of this anthology, and a good reason you might  even want to seek it out. Though most of the well-selected tracks are easily available elsewhere, one – a nine-minute version of “Bluebird,” the last part of which is a long jam – has never appeared anywhere else.

The Merseybeats, Beat and Ballads. When Britain’sEdsel Records emerged in the early 1980s, few other labels were packaging the kind of relatively obscure ‘60s rock they did at all, let alone packaging it well. Many early Edsel releases came with a detailed four-page insert with thorough small-print artist histories and rare vintage illustrations. You really can’t fairly single one or two out for the highest praise, but I liked their fairly extensive Merseybeat series, whose liner notes (by still-active Liverpool rock historian Spencer Leigh) often drew on first-hand interviews.

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Anthologies such as this one for the Merseybeats not only made the best of a band’s work widely available in LP form for the first time (certainly in the US), but also served the first true sources of hard information about many second-line British Invasion groups – not just the Merseybeats, but also the Mojos, the Artwoods, and the Creation. In the cases of some of the more mediocre Merseybeat bands like the Escorts and the Big Three, dare I say, the liner notes were much more entertaining than the music.

There have since been more extensive CD compilations for the likes of the Merseybeats and the Mojos, but the liner notes on these thirty-year-old-or-so collections remain the best. I especially like this quote in the Mojos’ Working: “When I asked one Mojo if [the name of manager Spencer] Lloyd-Mason was hyphenated, he replied, ‘Yes, and I wish the hyphen was between his head and the rest of his body.’”

Del Shannon, The Vintage Years. Sire’s extensive series of double-LP anthologies titled The Vintage Years are still fondly remembered by those who were around in the 1970s and early 1980s as among the best, and sometimes the only, way to get the most essential recordings by important hitmakers whose work wasn’t all that accessible. It’s hard to believe there was a time when that was true of the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, and the Troggs, not to mention the Nuggets compilation (originally on Elektra, and reissued by Sire). But all of them were given Vintage Years volumes. Some of the Vintage Years comps were already making it into the $3.99 and $4.99 cutout bins by the time I entered college in late 1979, making them affordable to 17-year-olds like myself. I even remember getting the Troggs and Nuggets anthologies at the small cutout bin at Urban Outfitters!

Shannon

Also in the Vintage Years series were pre-British Invasion hitmakers like Duane Eddy who, although they might have had skimpier best-ofs in print, didn’t have anything with the kind of in-depth historical liner notes Sire’s writers provided. Another such entry in the Vintage Years honored Del Shannon. Maybe the CD era has seen Shannon packages with more extensive annotation, but if so, I’m not aware of any. Bomp editor Greg Shaw crammed in as much microscopic-sized text as both panels of the inner gatefold could allow, save a right-hand column with a useful discography listing all his singles (A-sides and B-sides) and LPs.

I’ve read the genesis of “Runaway” described several ways, but the way these notes tell it remains my favorite: “Nobody remembers what song they were in the midst of when Max Crook, who sometimes sat in with the band on the musitron (an odd sort of modified organ that made a sound like an electric ocarina, never failing to fascinate audiences) hit on an appealing chord sequence in the course of his solo. ‘Hit those chords again!’ commanded the singer, while the band kept up the rhythm and the people in the club looked on, bemusedly. For the next fifteen minutes, singer and musitronist worked on those chords, which were merely A-minor and G, until an entire new song had been constructed around them. Nobody there was quite sure what had happened, least of all the singer.”

The Troggs, The Vintage Years. One more cheer for the Vintage Years series, this time for the Troggs installation, written by the estimable Ken Barnes. Barnes also wrote good notes for the 1992 double-CD Archeology (1966-1978) compilation, which has a lot more tracks (52 to the “mere” 28 on Vintage Years). I still like the Vintage Years notes, however, including a rundown of each of the 28 songs, the one lyric in “The Raver” hailed as “doubtless fraught with mystic significance as regards the human condition.” Also funny are his memories as playing bass for San Jose’s “most sluggishly-rising bar band, the Savage Cabbage,” in which he’d sing “I Can’t Control Myself” in “my gruffest, toughest Reg Presley growl.”

Troggs

The Kinks, The Kink Kronikles. It’s hard to believe, but to quote James Brown, “there was a time” when much of the Kinks catalog wasn’t easily available. This double-LP didn’t quite wave a magic wand to instantly rectify the situation. But it was a smart combination of well-known hits (starting from “Sunny Afternoon” onward) and LP tracks with singles, B-sides, and rarities that were surprisingly hard to find in the US when this came out in 1972 (like “Dead End Street,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “Big Black Smoke,” “Mr. Pleasant,” “She’s Got Everything,” and “Days”). Also fine were John Mendelsohn’s notes, which crammed as much text (accompanied only by two small photos) as possible into both sides of the inner gatefold.

Kinks

Mendelsohn’s observations were sharp on both musical description and the origins of the more obscure cuts. Best of all, however, was this amusing paragraph, itself worth a buck or two if you find the album these days, even if the vinyl’s trashed:

“Ray Davies, who at most times seems incapable of injuring the proverbial fly, in April, 1971, blithely reported the following to Rock’s Anne Marie Micklo, ‘I tried to stab Dave [his brother/Kink guitarist] last week. Stab him. With a knife. We were having eggs and chips after a gig and he reached over with his fork and took one of my chips and I…I could have killed him.’”

And again, let’s raise a glass to those days when one-sentence paragraphs like these escaped the editor’s pruning:

“As is the case with ‘Strangers,’ one of his two endlessly intriguing contributions to the Lola album, the literal meaning of Dave’s ‘Mindless Child of Motherhood’ is decidedly elusive – while its individual images are all so intensely personal as to be impenetrable, they add up to an enormously powerful expression of rage whose potency is greatly heightened by the fury and anguish of Dave’s strange strangled voice (which, if you hadn’t noticed, is quickly becoming as expressive an instrument as Ray’s).”

In his notes, Mendelsohn also, with refreshing candor, lamented the absence of rare B-sides like “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” and “Sittin’ On My Sofa.” The first of these (though not, oddly, the second) would soon be included on 1973’s The Great Lost Kinks Album, which combined rarities with unissued material. It is most notorious, however, for notes on a double-sided insert devoting about half their space to savage criticism of the then-current-day Kinks (who’d just left the label that issued this comp, Reprise). Those notes were by…John Mendelsohn.

Sample: “In the recent Everybody’s in Show Biz, there’s hardly a trace of my own favorite Davies, the immensely-social-conscienced champion of the forgotten ordinary people. Instead, it’s a bitchily egocentric Davies who dominates the work, one whose primary interest is making clear to his listener the agony he must endure to stay on the road entertaining us.”

Which is followed by another one-sentence paragraph special:

“To which this kronikler’s own response is: if it makes him so miserable that he can think of little but the insufferable cuisine of the motorway and how he’s compelled to consume maximum portions of same in order to retain sufficient strength to come onstage to perform for us, he certainly and we probably would be better off in the end if he’d retire from touring and get back to sensitizing us – with some of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written – to aspects of the world that few other writers even perceive.”

The Great Lost Kinks Album was soon unavailable, and here’s betting its liner notes have never been reprinted with commercial CDs (and never will). But now that its quite rare and fine tracks are not all that hard to find, those notes give you one more reason to snap this up should it show up in the used bin – in which case, alas, it will probably be a lot more expensive than vinyl copies of The Kink Kronikles.

Jan & Dean, Anthology Album. For a time in the early 1970s, United Artists inaugurated a conscientious reissue program that actually gave some early rock artists double LPs with respectful packaging and lengthy stitched-in LP-sized liner notes. There were a few good entries in this series, like the ones for Eddie Cochran (with liner notes by Lenny Kaye) and Ricky Nelson. My favorite entry was the one for Jan & Dean, with liner notes by both Dean Torrence and a young Dave Marsh, then of Creem magazine.

anthology

It’s kind of hard to think of Marsh now as a more or less underground rock writer, but that’s more or less what he was at the time. And giving Jan & Dean major praise for both their music and comic talents, as Marsh does here, was not exactly the safest path to take at a time when pre-Beatles rock such as this was just starting to get taken seriously by a critics, rather than getting dismissed as childish tripe. There are also, oddly, two columns of type about Marsh himself – about the longest writer bio I remember seeing in liner notes, now that I look at it — though I couldn’t say whether that was Marsh’s decision.

Also valuable is a chart, taking up the whole right inner gatefold, of most of Jan & dean’s most notable songs, detailing not just date recorded, studio, equipment, lead vocal, label, and highest chart position, but also number of background vocal overdubs; Jan’s girlfriends at the time of each recording; Dean’s girlfriends at the time of each recording (anyone ever notice that Dean’s late-‘60s squeeze was Patty Findlater, one of the Palisades High School students profiled in the popular 1976 book What Really Happened to the Class of ’65?); Jan and Dean’s respective cars at the time each track was cut; and the number of records each tune sold (the last one, a 1968 cover of the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables,” is simply noted as “not released,” though it made its first appearance on this compilation).

Yet I must admit my favorite feature on Anthology Album is not in the liner notes. It’s talented graphic artist Dean Torrance’s cover, whose five panels present drawings of the pair as they change from crewcut teenagers to mod surfers and – poignantly, in the last one – Dean alone, Jan Berry having been sidelined by a terrible car accident.

The Byrds, Preflyte. Some liner notes aren’t serious contenders for the most scholarly works or the most entertaining, feverishly enthusiastic prose, but have endearing historic value anyway. Like this one for Preflyte, a collection of fine early Byrds demos that was one of the first (the first?) serious archival collections of previously unreleased work by a major rock band. The liner notes are by someone who knew them well, publicist Billy James. He puts things in perspective as follows with honesty unusual for a ‘60s release of outtakes: “If you enjoy works in progress, if you like to watch growing things, you will like this album – but bear in mind they are work tapes only, recordings for rehearsals. Jim Dickson, who with Eddie Tickner was the Byrds’ manager and who produced these recordings and a few other things in his good time, says these are sort of like baby pictures – and it takes a while before you feel comfortable showing them.”

Byrds

As it turns out, the music was not just historically interesting, but quite good on its own merits, perhaps enduring for far more years than even associates like James thought possible. Billy lapses into earnest sentimentality that gives a more personal touch to his recollections than most such annotations when he writes, “‘You Won’t Have to Cry’ really gets to me; damned if I know why. It just seems so poignant; there’s this peculiarly serious aura about the whole thing.”

Preflyte would eventually be expanded to a whopping forty tracks (from its original eleven) on a 2001 two-CD reissue, with a fifty-page booklet of historical liner notes. You still need to find the original vinyl edition (whether on its original Together label or subsequent reissue on Columbia), however, to read Billy’s notes.

Love, Best of Love (1980 compilation on Rhino). Though it soon became the leading reissue label in the world, in its early days, Rhino usually had to squeeze all its liner notes onto the back cover. Such is the case with this early Love compilation – it’s a measure of how “early” it was in the reissue game that most of Love’s catalog was unavailable. Even by liner-notes-printed-on-the-sleeve standards, this one has teeny-tiny type, the kind that makes friends with worse vision than mine ask me to read the menu to them at restaurants.

love-best_of_love(2)

These particular notes are not a serious contender for the Top Ten of liners from the vinyl era. Yet they’re an interesting example of how even such rather unprepossessing packages can contain text that generates its share of interest and controversy. In particular, Elektra engineer/producer Bruce Botnick states that Arthur Lee “was real unusual – on acid 24 hours a day. In fact, everybody in the band was out-of-it.” He also reveals that their 1967 classic Forever Changes “started out as a project that Neil Young and I were originally going to produce,” and that “I was prepared to record the album with Arthur singing and playing on his songs, and Bryan singing and playing on his songs, with backing by studio musicians,” two tracks being recorded that way before a shocked, crying band got it together to play on their own material.

These observations have been amplified upon and given different perspectives by other participants in the subsequent decades. But at the time, they were of great interest to Love fans, to say the least. Little information was available about the group then, and this and less controversial quotes on the sleeve from Botnick and Elektra chief Jac Holzman were part of the start in getting more knowledge about Love into circulation. It took thirty years, but eventually a 300-plus-page book about the band – John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love – would come out, a circumstance unimaginable when this LP was issued back in 1980.

Lee himself, it should be added, offered some of his own prickly memories of the band in the notes. “We used to work every night,” he remembered. “After we started making money, the more we made, the less we worked, the less we were a unit, and Love deteriorated. People’s personal habits started to come before the music. Initially they would listen to me because I wrote 90% of the songs. After we became successful, they got big heads. Everybody had money, everybody had a house, a car, a flash Cadillac. They didn’t need me. Money spoiled them – it spoiled me too. It was a strange time. I thought I was gonna kick the bucket.”

Ian & Sylvia, Four Strong Winds. Lastly, our sole entry that was not a reissue, but a contemporary LP, issued in 1964. This and several other early Ian & Sylvia albums, however, had liner notes that almost could have been for reissues, such was their scholarly detail. That sort of approach – a lengthy delineation of the origin of each song (even the original compositions), along with detailed biographical notes that read more like a newspaper article than an album sleeve – weren’t that uncommon in early-‘60s folk. But Ian & Sylvia were the king and queen of the format, Four Strong Winds in particular covering almost every inch of available space with type.

Ian&Sylvia

As I wrote in my book Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk-Rock in the 1960s, “The lengthy liner notes to numerous early-1960s folk releases now seem stilted and over-serious in their minute details of the multitudinous sources of these ballads, blues, and broadsides from North America and around the world, like entries in an unspoken competition for who could range over more territory than anyone else.” Looking back at such sleeves now, however, you almost feel pangs of nostalgia for the days when liner notes like these wore their influences on their sleeves, unafraid to emote with all the diligence of a master’s thesis. These days, such an approach would either be laughed at as ridiculously earnest, or mistaken for tongue-in-cheek satire. In the CD era, the innocence of such seriousness has been lost.

Coke After Coke: Rock Music Commercials in the Late 1960s

Early this summer, I prepared materials for my upcoming community education course on the Who at the College of Marin. The Who Sell Out are a big part of week two, and that got me thinking about the relationship between major rock artists of the era (the LP came out in late 1967) and commercials. Not only does it seem like more bands than not did a commercial at some point; there are so many such commercials that it seems that very few groups refused an offer. The Who, of course, were at the forefront of this interchange, not only on The Who Sell Out (which featured the band-composed-and-played commercials between many of the tracks), but in “real life” as well.

The cover of The Who Sell Out was as famous as the record itself.

The cover of The Who Sell Out was as famous as the record itself.

The relationship between recording artists and commercials goes back to the very beginning of recording (and radio), of course, with many top blues, country, and rock musicians singing jingles when they appeared on the airwaves. Certainly it goes back to the beginning of rock; Elvis Presley cut a commercial for Southern Maid Donuts on November 6, 1954, a surviving tape of which, remarkably, still has not been found. Here follow the lyrics:

You can get them piping hot after 4pm, you can get them piping hot,

Southern Main Donuts hit the spot, you can get them piping hot after 4pm.

Elvis Presley's jingle for Southern Maid Donuts hasn't been found, but one that Johnny Cash did has, and is included on this compilation.

Elvis Presley’s jingle for Southern Maid Donuts hasn’t been found, but one that Johnny Cash did has, and is included on this compilation.

Never were commercials and rock as artfully combined as they were on The Who Sell Out, programmed to mimic a UK pirate radio broadcast (though they blew it by suddenly discontinuing the commercials a little into side two). There were even unused commercials that have showed up on the two-CD expanded edition and bootlegs. Obviously the jingles for Heinz and Charles Atlas referred to real products, but dummy me didn’t know until recently that the longest “commercial,” for Odorono, was a real deodorant. The name was so ridiculous that I figured it was a satire of a nonexistent cosmetic; turns out the joke’s on me.

There were many, many commercials cut at the time that weren’t satires, however — some even by the Who themselves. There have been enough, indeed, to fill up many CDs assembled by private collectors — eight volumes, in fact, in a series titled Psychedelic Promos & Radio Spots (though these also include commercials for records and commercials not sung or played by credited recording artists). That’s way too many to cover in a blogpost, but here I’ll mention some of the ones I’ve found most interesting.

The Who did a couple commercials for Coke: a relatively (for them) conventional variation on the “Things Go Better with Coke” jingle with Beach Boys-like harmonies, and a far more satisfying grungy one where they chant “coke after coke after coke after coca-cola” with enough force to put you in a diabetic coma. (There were, incidentally, enough ‘60s rock commercials for coke alone to fill up a few CDs worth of jingles.)  They also did one for the forgotten Great Shakes soft drink that used the rhythm of a song from their first LP, “La-La-La Lies.”

A compilation of Great Shakes commercials, highlighted by contributions from the Who and the Yardbirds.

A compilation of Great Shakes commercials, highlighted by contributions from the Who and the Yardbirds.

As a greater stain on their discography, Pete Townshend did a most politically incorrect public service announcement for the US Air Force, at a time when opposition to militarism was heating up as death tolls from the Vietnam War skyrocketed. As “Happy Jack” (!) plays in the background, Pete gushes, “I just want to say that the United States Air Force is a great place to be. A great place to learn a space-age skill and serve your country too…see your United States Air Force recruiter.” Townshend doesn’t mention this in his recent autobiography, though according to Dave Marsh’s 1983 Who bio Before I Get Old, “Today, of course, Townshend is mortified that he ever did such a thing.”

As karmic balance, the Who did an anti-smoking commercial, “Little Billy,” for the American Cancer Society. They were asked to do it by an agency that handled publicity contracts for both that organization and the band, and even considered issuing it as a single, if Townshend’s introduction to the number at an April 6, 1968 concert at New York’s Fillmore East is to be trusted. According to that intro, the society specifically requested it after hearing “Odorono.” Do these places have no sense of irony?

A complete song in the vein of the tunes about odd characters that populated their early repertoire (a la “Happy Jack,” “Whiskey Man,” “Silas Stingy,” and “Mary Ann With the Shaky Hand”), “Little Billy” never was used as a commercial. But it found a place on their 1974 outtakes collection Odds and Sods about a half dozen years later, and some fans got to hear it in concert shortly after it was written:

The Who's live version of "Little Billy" can be heard on a tape of their April 6, 1968 concert at New York's Fillmore East, long available on bootlegs like these, and the best-quality live recording of the band prior to 1969 that's circulated.

The Who’s live version of “Little Billy” can be heard on a tape of their April 6, 1968 concert at New York’s Fillmore East, long available on bootlegs like these, and the best-quality live recording of the band prior to 1969 that’s circulated.

On February 6, 1964, the Rolling Stones cut a brief Rice Krispies TV commercial at a get-it-over-with tempo wholly in keeping with their early frenetic R&B style, complete with wailing harmonica and sneering Mick Jagger vocal. It’s been reported this was co-written by Brian Jones with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, but it certainly isn’t a sell-out musically, though the old-time blues guys probably wouldn’t have written songs about reaching for breakfast cereal first thing in the morning.

Rare disc containing the Rolling Stones' 1964 Rice Krispies commercial.

Rare disc containing the Rolling Stones’ 1964 Rice Krispies commercial.

The Yardbirds did a commercial for Great Shakes that was a little more creative than most, part of it using  a variation of the “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” riff. Some sources report that this is one of the few recordings done by the lineup featuring both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar, with a recording date of October 19-20, 1966, but I haven’t been able to verify this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Want harder stuff than Coke or Great Shakes? Cream did a commercial for Falstaff Beer that, like some of the nuggets detailed in this post, eventually found release on an archival collection. It’s built around something like the “Sunshine of Your Love” riff twisted into a pretzel, though Jack Bruce’s vocals are characteristically rich.

Jack Bruce sang his heart out on Cream's commercial for Falstaff Beer.

Jack Bruce sang his heart out on Cream’s commercial for Falstaff Beer.

Getting back to Coke, the Moody Blues did more than one commercial for the world’s most popular (if hardly its most healthy) beverage. In fact, the first of these was done with their initial, far more R&B-inclined Denny Laine lineup, with stuttering Mike Pinder piano and their typically haunting vocal harmonies. “It’s workin’ out fine, whoa-whoa” improvises (I assume) Laine at one point, perhaps digging up inspiration from Ike & Tina Turner’s similarly titled hit to fill out the minute. The post-Laine jingles draw, as you’d expect, heavily on the mellotron that was such a primary feature of their late-‘60s sound.

This Moody Blues bootleg has commercials they did for Coke in 1965 and 1967.

This Moody Blues bootleg has commercials they did for Coke in 1965 and 1967.

Rounding out our British Invasion citations, the biggest group of all, the Beatles, never stooped as low as to do a commercial to my knowledge, perhaps needing neither the exposure nor the money. It doesn’t exactly count, I know (especially as it aired on a radio network that didn’t even broadcast commercials), but they did do a half-minute in-house jingle for one of the BBC shows on which they appeared, Saturday Club. Sung to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” it’s been written that the chugging musical arrangement was based on Heinz’s then-recent (and only big UK) hit “Just Like Eddie.” That could be, though to me it sounds like a generic Eddie Cochran-inspired approach, Eddie being the then-recently-deceased rocker being paid tribute to by “Just Like Eddie” itself. Recorded on September 7, 1963, this was finally officially released last year on On the Air: Live at the BBC Vol. 2, though it had been bootlegged for decades.

The Beatles' "Happy Birthday" jingle for the Saturday Club program appeared on this bootleg, about 25 years before it was finally officially released.

The Beatles’ “Happy Birthday” jingle for the Saturday Club program appeared on this bootleg, about 25 years before it was finally officially released.

Although anti-establishment sentiment was supposedly a hallmark of much psychedelic rock, some of the most countercultural psychedelic stars did commercials for very commercial products. The most famous of these might be the ones Jefferson Airplane did for Levi’s, a couple finding official release on the 2400 Fulton Street compilation. As with the Who’s “Coke After Coke” jingle, one does wonder if they were taking the opportunity to subvert the whole process by producing as strange an advertisement they could manage while getting paid for it. One of their Levi’s ads features Grace Slick’s unmistakably strident vocals hailing white Levi’s over a heavy raga-rock drone; another is an almost Mothers of Invention-like chaotic sound collage.

This rare disc includes not only a couple Jefferson Airplane Levi's commercials, but a couple done for the same company by a much more obscure San Francisco group, the Sopwith Camel.

This rare disc includes not only a couple Jefferson Airplane Levi’s commercials, but a couple done for the same company by a much more obscure San Francisco group, the Sopwith Camel.

Among the Airplane’s psychedelic peers, Quicksilver Messenger Service did a commercial for Chevrolet’s Camaro cars. The most political of the major Bay Area psychedelic bands, Country Joe & the Fish, did a commercial too — but not for a commercially available product, putting a brief spoof ad for LSD on their second album.

country1

And though the Lovin’ Spoonful (from New York) got into hot water with Haight-Ashbury when two of their members cooperated with authorities after getting busted for pot in San Francisco, they were among the apparently few groups to turn down a Coca-Cola commercial, for the same reason they’d turn down the chance to be the star band in The Monkees. As Spoonful bassist Steve Boone writes in his new memoir Hotter Than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful: “We might have made more money, or been able to trade off our name a bit longer due to the visibility of the show, but we probably would have sacrificed some self-respect and critical respect too. A similar argument came up later on when we turned down the opportunity to do what would have been a very lucrative, very high-visibility commercial for Coca-Cola.”

Contrast that to the attitude of one of the earliest San Francisco groups to have a rock hit, We Five of “You Were on My Mind” fame. Incredibly, after contracting with the McCann-Erickson agency in late 1965 to do some Coke ads, they spent “hundreds of hours attempting to provide what the agency requested, with each spot being rejected as either ‘too from contemporary middle of the road’ or, conversely, not ‘teenage’ enough,” according to Alec Palao’s liner notes for There Stands the Door: The Best of We Five. Says We Five bassist Pete Fullerton in the notes, “All they wanted was ‘when I woke up this morning, Coke was on my mind,’ and we just wouldn’t do that. That’s probably the biggest reason We Five split apart, because of the amount of work we put into it.”

A couple previously unreleased attempts at supplying Coke with a commercial are on this 2009 compilation of We Five material.

A couple previously unreleased attempts at supplying Coke with a commercial are on this 2009 compilation of We Five material.

This doesn’t strictly count as a commercial, I suppose, but I was unaware until a few months ago that before they had a recording contract, the Doors did the incidental background music for, of all things, a Ford training film geared toward improving the customer service by employees at its sales outlets. Aside from periodic washes of instrumental music (there’s no singing or evident participation by Jim Morrison), it’s a positively excruciating 25 minutes, in line with the skeletal production values and dated do-gooder ethos of industrial training movies. There is one bit near the end where they go into a passage similar to the tune of a song on their fabulous 1967 debut album, “I Looked At You.” And it’s easily accessible now that it’s one of the extras on the Doors’ R-Evolution DVD in 2013, which compiled their promo films and TV appearances.

The Doors were indeed credited for the music they provided for a 1966 training film for Ford employees.

The Doors were indeed credited for the music they provided for a 1966 training film for Ford employees.

Another recording that isn’t really a commercial, or at least meant for the general public, was “cut” by Bob Dylan on May 12, 1965. This wasn’t a “song,” but a tape for a Columbia sales convention in Miami. Dylan plays it fairly straight, though some chuckles indicate he has a hard time taking this business obligation entirely seriously, declaring, “This is Bob! Uh…thank you very much for selling so many of my records. I wish I could be there with you right now at this minute, but unfortunately I’m all tied up.” Actually he was in London, attempting, quite unsuccessfully, to record “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” backed by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, with Eric Clapton on guitar. “God bless you all, and keep selling a lot of records!,” he concludes.

Bob Dylan's 1965 greeting to a Columbia Miami sales convention has appeared on bootlegs like these.

Bob Dylan’s 1965 greeting to a Columbia Miami sales convention has appeared on bootlegs like these.

Moving to some artists who weren’t particularly known for their sociopolitical stances, one of the most entertaining psychedelic ads was waxed by the Electric Prunes for Vox wah-wah pedals. “You can even make your guitar sound like a sitar!” exclaims the overexcited salesman, the commercial introduced by a bee-buzzing riff all but identical to the one that launches “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Unlike many vintage rock ads, this has been in fairly wide circulation for more than 30 years, since its appearance on the ‘60s garage comp Pebbles Vol. 2. The first volume of that long-running garage series had already excavated the Shadows of Knight’s silly rave-up “Potato Chip,” a combination interview/musical performance on a cardboard disc included in bags of Fairmont potato chips.

The Shadows of Knight sang for Fairmont potato chips.

The Shadows of Knight sang for Fairmont potato chips.

Also in the Chicago area, the city’s best psychedelic group, H.P. Lovecraft, did a one-minute ad for Ban deodorant that made rather effective use of the precise sort of haunting vocal harmonies and eerie organ heard on most of their 1967 debut LP. I was quite excited to find this a few days ago, only to learn that it came out more than 20 years ago on the official compilation Oh Yeah: The Best of Dunwich Records. Well, you know, I haven’t heard everything.

H.P. Lovecraft's commercial for Ban deodorant was officially issued on this compilation.

H.P. Lovecraft’s commercial for Ban deodorant was officially issued on this compilation.

The Left Banke did at least three commercials for three different products — Coke (in the “Things Go Better with Coke” format), Toni hairspray, and, less expectedly, Hertz Rent-a-Car. These are not so notable for any oddity within the commercials themselves, but for their very existence, since the group’s lifespan was so short that they only recorded a couple of LPs and a few odds and ends. These were even bootlegged on a three-song seven-inch a long time ago, each side playing the exact same three commercials.

A bootleg seven-inch with three Left Banke commercials.

A bootleg seven-inch with three Left Banke commercials.

The great British folk-rock singer Sandy Denny is most known to the general public via her cameos on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (where she appeared on “The Battle of Evermore”) and the orchestral version of Tommy (where she sings two lines as the nurse in “It’s a Boy”). A much less celebrated cameo was her vocal on a brief late-’60s commercial titled “We’re All Better for Butter.” This didn’t even make it onto her recent 19-CD box set, though it didn’t escape the attention of one of the leading UK music papers of the time (see below).

Sandy Denny exposed in Melody Maker article.

Sandy Denny exposed in a Disc article.

There were a whole lotta soul singers doing commercial back then, naturally, and one of the strangest was done by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. In mid-1968, they proudly advertised their home town on “I Care About Detroit,” a promo single unavailable to the general public. He certainly wasn’t representing the true sentiments of the label he recorded for (and served as vice-president at), Motown Records, which even then had begun the process of moving from Detroit to Los Angeles.

robinson_detroit

There were also many instances in which acts appeared in a filmed commercial, or in some association with a product or organization — even unlikely ones like Pink Floyd, who did a recently unearthed video for “Jugband Blues” (with Syd Barrett) for the Central Office of Information, the UK government’s marketing and communications agency. Or David Bowie, who was in a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial in the late ’60s, when he was struggling to even have a record deal. That’s a whole other can of worms for another time and, perhaps, a different blogpost.

On the Road to Paradise Beach Park

I’ve bicycled on Paradise Drive, the long and winding stretch that runs along the water in Marin County’s Belvedere and Tiburon, a few times over the years. I’ve passed the entrance to Paradise Beach Park on those rides, but never gone into the beachside park until yesterday. A time comes for everything if you bicycle the San Francisco Bay Area enough, and with the weather unseasonably warm, I made the 20-mile trek from San Francisco in the morning.

The pier in Paradise Beach Park, near the San Pablo Bay.

The pier in Paradise Beach Park, near the San Pablo Bay. Way in the background is the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge.

Is it a “destination” park? Not really, unless you live nearby or might want a place to rest and lunch while you’re on a long ride. It’s quite small, and unless you’re making a semi-day of it with a picnic, takes just a few minutes to walk through. Which, incidentally, will cost a $2 entrance fee if you bike in or even walk in (though I can’t imagine too many people enter on foot, unless they live very close by). It’s $10 per vehicle if you drive.

The entrance to Paradise Beach Park.

The entrance to Paradise Beach Park.

What Paradise Beach Park does have going for it is the quiet. Even up in this affluent enclave — you wouldn’t take Paradise Drive to get anywhere by car, unless you live there or indulge in a pleasure drive — it’s hard to escape at least some of the noise that’s part of the price of living in a big metropolitan area. Go down the road from the drive to the beach, though, and it’s almost as silent as anywhere I’ve been in the San Francisco vicinity. And while the views in the park aren’t plentiful, they’re pretty.

Looking toward the park from the pier.

Looking toward the park from the pier.

Stairs in the park, near the picnic area.

Stairs in the park, near the picnic area.

This open grassy part of the park actually comprises a good percentage of its acreage.

This open grassy part of the park actually comprises a good percentage of its acreage.

From the pier, you can see some beachside homes that give you a glimpse of how the other half, or perhaps of how the 1%, live:

Park visitor perched on the pier, with beachside home in the background.

Park visitor perched on the pier, with beachside home in the background.

Half the fun is getting there, of course, though you’ll need to be in reasonable shape if you’re coming all the way from San Francisco (taking the nearby Angel Island Ferry back is an option if you’re not up for the steep climb from Sausalito to the Golden Gate Bridge on the return journey). And Paradise Drive really is a long and winding road, no matter how long of a stretch you ride, a bonus being the near-absence of cars, especially early in the morning. Bicyclists outnumber cars by a wide margin, especially on the weekends.

The long and winding road that's Paradise Drive.

The long and winding road that’s Paradise Drive.

On your way back to Tiburon’s small downtown, check out this enigmatic tower just north of the ferry, and take in a distant Golden Gate Bridge view:

Lyford's Stone Tower, built in 1889, on Paradise Drive just a few hundred yards or so past downtown Tiburon.

Lyford’s Stone Tower, built in 1889, on Paradise Drive just a few hundred yards or so past downtown Tiburon.

The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen as you leave Paradise Drive to enter downtown Tiburon, though it's sometimes shrouded by clouds.

The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen as you leave Paradise Drive to enter downtown Tiburon, though it’s sometimes shrouded by clouds.

Cycling the Bay Bridge: A Path Not Far Enough

To those of us who’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years, it’s still a shock to drive across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge since its east span has been reconfigured. Starting last September, instead of driving under an upper deck for its entire length, all of a sudden you emerged into the open air halfway en route to the East Bay. Not only could you see the sky and the water on each side, but there were also pedestrians and bicyclists on the south side, a new path having been constructed for just that purpose.

The family-friendly Bay Bridge bike/pedestrian path. Baby strollers and dogs are not uncommon sights either.

The family-friendly Bay Bridge bike/pedestrian path. Baby strollers and dogs are not uncommon sights either.

It seemed like there was a mini-boom in bikers and walkers right after the path opened, but it seems to have cooled off a little as the novelty’s worn off a bit. I cycled the path ten days or so after it opened in September 2013, but only went back for the second time this week, helping a friend to celebrate her birthday. I didn’t have my blog the first time I rode it, but I do now, so it’s time to make it the subject of a post.

Though it’s well worth doing, know this: the path, especially the two miles or so before you reach the bridge proper, is never going to compete with riding over the Golden Gate Bridge in the glamour sweepstakes. The most convenient entry point is right across the street from the entrance to IKEA in Emeryville; on the way to the bridge ascent, you pass all manner of industrial facilities that, no matter what renovations are in store for the far-off future, seem pretty entrenched for the near future. I’m not sure who will take advantage of a pathside bench we saw in the midst of this quasi-industrial park en route, except if you really need to stop and take a breather.

Easily visible from many points on the Bay Bridge (and even on the BART ride from San Francisco to Oakland), these giraffe-like structures are actually among the more aesthetically pleasing features of the industrial area of Oakland near the approach to the bridge on the bike/pedestrian path.

Easily visible from many points on the Bay Bridge (and even on the BART ride from San Francisco to Oakland), these giraffe-like structures are actually among the more aesthetically pleasing features of the industrial area of Oakland near the approach to the bridge.

The oddest sight as you pedal by the water, however, is the yet-to-be-demolished old bridge portion on the south side of the path, standing all by its lonesome with no vehicles or human activity save construction workers. It’s a bridge to nowhere, inhabited only by birds the day we took our ride. Looking at the east “entrance,” such as it is in mid-July 2014, makes you feel like you’re in one of those post-apocalypse horror movies:

A bridge with no entrance and, on the day we saw it, no people.

A bridge with no entrance and, on the day we saw it, no people.

The biggest frustration, of course, is that you can’t ride all the way across the bridge to San Francisco (or even ride anywhere on the bridge from San Francisco). Imagine if you could only ride or walk halfway across the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, the Bay Bridge is much, much longer than the Golden Gate Bridge — about four-and-a-half miles, where the GG Bridge is a little more than one-and-a-half miles. Funding for a west span path being so costly and subject to government/public policy debates, I’ll consider it a triumph if I’m able to bike the bridge from bay-to-bay in my lifetime.

You can’t, however, even bike to Yerba Buena Island, which would give you something of a destination, and theoretically enable you to continue to San Francisco by mounting your bicycle on the front of a public bus (though those only have racks for two bikes at a time). As of this writing, the path stops just a little short of the island.

Yerba Buena Island (in the background) isn't too far from  where the bike path ends.

Yerba Buena Island (in the background) isn’t too far from where the bike path ends.

Though it seems not much more than a stone’s throw away, again funding/policy issues might be a lot more costly and complicated than you’d think. For one thing, a remaining portion of the original bridge has to be dismantled before the path can even reach the island. It was reported that the path should connect to Yerba Buena Island a couple years after the east span opened, which would have made it open for business by the end of 2015, but no definite ETA seems available at the moment.

For San Franciscans, it’s an odd experience, taking the BART train to the East Bay, riding from there to the middle of the bay, and riding back to a BART station to take a train back to San Francisco. That makes it a bit more than a casual getaway, but it’s worth doing, once or twice a year at any rate. It’s a bit of a slog to ride the windy uphill section to its current endpoint, but be consoled by the knowledge, as one rider shouted to us on our way up, that it’s all downhill once you turn around. As long as you’re going, though, try to check out other sights on the path that runs from Emeryville to Richmond, like the Berkeley Marina:

Sailors just off the Berkeley Marina.

Sailors just off the Berkeley Marina.

The Bay Bridge bike/pedestrian path is generally open from around dawn to dusk, though hours change according to the season. Check the Bay Bridge Bicycle and Pedestiran Path site for specific opening/closing times, as well as general information about the path.

John Fahey Documentary Review

Just as the last couple decades have seen more music reissued than anyone expected, so have the last few years seen documentaries that no one could have predicted on cult artists of all stripes. Like John Fahey, for instance. For all the respect he’s given throughout the alternative music spectrum, he wasn’t filmed or interviewed all that much, which must make constructing a full-length feature a challenge.

The new documentary on John Fahey.

The new documentary on John Fahey.

The hour-long In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey has actually been out a year and a half, and I have to admit I missed it the first time it passed through the San Francisco Bay Area for the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival. Fortunately it screened at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater last night (July 9), and here’s guessing there aren’t many other cities that could draw 75 or so paying customers to a Fahey documentary (shown with a doc of similar length on Bill Callahan).

It speaks well of a documentary, I suppose, when it leaves you thirsting for more. While some people unfamiliar with Fahey might think an hour’s plenty of time to cover a guy who never sold many records, actually his achievements were diverse enough, and his character so quirky, that you want the music and stories to keep on flowing. That’s especially the case because the movie’s well done, interviewing several associates and critics — including Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento, who met Fahey when both were studying ethnomusicology at UCLA), fellow guitar virtuoso Stefan Grossman, third wife Melody, and Nancy McLean (who plays flute on his early track “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill”) — who are interesting figures in their own right. Star power’s supplied by Fahey fan Pete Townshend, a testament to how far up the pop ladder Fahey’s impact reached on occasion.

There’s not much vintage Fahey performance footage to draw from, but a few clips from various phases of his career are quite entertaining. The excerpts from a 1969 TV show hosted by one Laura Weber showcase some spectacularly skilled pieces. I know little about Weber, but she seems rather straight-laced and out of her comfort zone with John, especially when he explains the real-life origin of the title of “The Death of the Clayton Peacock.” After Fahey goes into the actual death of the slain peacock in more detail than Weber probably wished, the host observes what a sad incident it was; Fahey then quips, with no apparent remorse, that the creature’s expiration made for a good song title.

Five Fahey performances from the 1969 program "Guitar, Guitar," hosted by Laura Weber, are on the DVD In Concert and Interviews 1969 and 1996.

Five Fahey performances from the 1969 program “Guitar, Guitar,” hosted by Laura Weber, are on the DVD “In Concert and Interviews 1969 and 1996.”

Renowned for his enigmatic, at times surreal humor (especially as manifested in his song titles), Fahey could be acerbic as well as funny. One of the lower-fi concert clips captures him likening Stefan Grossman’s playing to that of a dainty lady with long fingers — and the jibe doesn’t seem entirely complimentary. John even titled one of his tunes “The Assassination of Stephan Grossman,” managing to misspell his rival’s first name in the process; Grossman responded by naming one of his compositions “The Assassination of John Fahey.”

As feuds go it’s not exactly up there with the Hatfields and McCoys (or even the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground), and the animosity doesn’t seem to have run that deep, since they even planned a tour capitalizing on the assassinations. Unfortunately Grossman couldn’t do the tour for health reasons, and was hapless to prevent Fahey from claiming he’d actually assassinated Stefan when fans asked why the other guitarist wasn’t around.

A kinder side of Fahey is praised by Townshend, who remembers with fondness how John bothered to write him a letter (shown onscreen in the documentary) after hearing Tommy. Alas, according to the Who guitarist, it was obvious Fahey wasn’t a Who fan. I’m not so sure about that; Fahey was more open-minded to contemporary rock than some might guess, praising Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Country Joe McDonald, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper in a 1967 interview first published in Dust-to-Digital’s awesomely packaged five-CD Fahey box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years [1958-1965].

This box set features the rare recordings Fahey made for the Fonotone label between the late 1950s and mid-1960s.

This box set features the rare recordings Fahey made for the Fonotone label between the late 1950s and mid-1960s.

For all his oddness, Fahey took a lot of things seriously, and they’re treated with appropriate respect by the documentary. He was one of the first white fans to delve seriously into early blues recordings, and even helped track down one of the great country bluesmen who’d fallen off the radar, Bukka White, in the 1960s. He, along with similar free spirits like dedicated collector Joe Bussard (the first figure to record and release Fahey discs, and also interviewed in the film), even went door-to-door in black Southern neighborhoods to offer money for used records. As another interviewee points out, there was a real risk of getting roughed up or worse for doing that at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, when segregation was severe and their hunger for rare records could have been misinterpreted as something far more threatening or devious.

Too, the financial and health problems Fahey weathered near the end of his life were no laughing matter. A motel room he ended up living in is remembered by a visitor as “a dump”; he wouldn’t even bother to scrape off pennies that stuck to his back when he rolled over in his bed. He retains some intelligence and humor in snippets of interviews conducted in his latter years, at one point observing how his music somehow got categorized as “gothic industrial ambience.” The way he enunciates the term projects both amusement and faint incredulity, and perhaps a whiff of disgust as well.

For all its merits, In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey could have been more comprehensive. I would have liked more on how he founded and ran the Takoma label, which issued both his own best work and notable records by other adventurous acoustic guitarists like Robbie Basho. His pioneering DIY ethic is properly lauded — if Fahey wasn’t the first musician to do things entirely himself in the name of art above all else, he was certainly one of the earliest and most influential such innovators — but it would have been good to detail some of his major-label ventures as well. Some notable associates, like ED [sic] Denson, fellow Takoma acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, and producer/manager Denny Bruce, were not among the interviewees. [Since I first posted this, Bruce told me that the filmmakers were planning to interview him, but canceled it when they ran out of money to do more filming.]

Hopefully some gaps are filled in by the new biography Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, which I hope to read soon. I also want to see In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey on DVD, as according to the film’s website, it “includes extra performances and interviews with Fahey, Townshend, [Chris] Funk of the Decemberists] & more.” If nothing else, I want to be able to freeze-frame those shots of the letter Fahey wrote to Pete Townshend, which zoom by too quickly to digest in the theater.

The new John Fahey biography, just issued by Chicago Review Press.

The new John Fahey biography, just issued by Chicago Review Press.

Postscript: A few weeks after I put up this post, I did see the  DVD. As is sometimes the case with extras, they’re actually not too extensive or vital.  There are just two songs performed by Fahey, though those clips are okay. The extended extract from the Pete Townshend interview holds some interest, but — not too surprisingly — Townshend often talks more about himself than Fahey, sometimes in a way that strays from the question or the documentary’s actual subject.

 

Strawberry Fields Memorial — Please Turn *On* Your Cell Phones

Like many Beatles fans — and, indeed, many visitors to New York — I’ve been to Strawberry Fields in Central Park, most recently on my trip to the city last month. Memorializing John Lennon near the building where he was shot in 1980, it’s a pretty peaceful spot, though there are usually a few musicians there busking Beatles/Lennon songs.

The Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, June 3, 2014.

The Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, June 3, 2014.

That’s in spite of the sign below:

QuietZone

“No amplified music or musical instruments; no bikes, rollerblades or skateboards; no organized, active recreation or sports,” it reads. I haven’t heard any amplified live music on my visits, but there have certainly been plenty of guitars a-strummin’, played by musicians of widely varying abilities. Perhaps in acknowledgement that you can’t keep cell phones out of anyplace these days, there’s also this sign:

Yoko

I seldom carry cell phones except when I travel. But here I was with a cell phone in my backpack, and minutes to use up before my next $20 payment. So why not dial the number to hear Yoko Ono’s commentary, even on my cheap Virgin Mobile that’s hard to hear in public places?

Ono’s nearly three-minute message is a straightforwardly factual description of the space and its purpose; the text is printed almost verbatim here. New to me is this explanation of one of “Strawberry Fields Forever”‘s key lyrics: “His aunt, who raised him, disapproved [of the young John Lennon going to Strawbrery Field], but he insisted it was, ‘nothing to get hung about.’ Hence, the song’s famous lyric.” More than 120 countries, she states near the conclusion, have endorsed Strawberry Fields as a Garden of Peace, as listed on a bronze plaque near the memorial’s black-and-white mosaic.

The Dakota, where John lived for the last few years of his life (and was shot in front of), is nearby at 72nd and Central Park West. And not exactly easy to capture without a wide-angle lens, though this is what you’ll see as you exit the park:

Dakota

I passed by Strawberry Fields on my way to the Lincoln Center, on the Upper West Side less than half an hour walk away. To my surprise, there was a visit on the ground floor of the Library for the Performing Arts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964. To my greater surprise, it displayed some items that were illegal to manufacture and distribute:

An early bootleg of the Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearances.

An early bootleg of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearances, as seen in the case of an exhibit at the Lincoln Center  Library for the Performing Arts.

I never thought I’d see the days when Beatles bootlegs were exhibited in one of the world’s most prestigious venues for the arts. The disc in the case labeled “Kum Back” in the picture below,  by the way, is one of the first Beatles bootlegs, issued around late 1969/early 1970, featuring some then-unreleased outtakes from their January 1969 recording sessions (which eventually spawned the bulk of the Let It Be LP, as well as the Let It Be film).

KumBack

I’m very familiar with Kum Back. It was the second album I ever owned (at the age of eight, believe it or not). The LP in this exhibit wasn’t the actual record I had, of course. But the inner label of the one I bought back in 1970 (which I still own), complete with my handwritten name, is reproduced in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film. While you’re in the area, check out some of the other beautiful spots nearby, especially if you’re lucky enough to get the beautiful early June weather I had:

Rowboat3

On the lake in Central Park.

The Central Park reservoir.

The Central Park reservoir.

Oddities at the Baseball Hall of Fame

My friends find it hard to believe since I’ve followed the game so long, but it wasn’t until last month — at the age of 52 — that I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame. You’ve got to admit it’s in the middle of nowhere, or, at least, very hard to access by public transportation from New York City, which is usually the closest I get to Cooperstown. On my last trip to the East Coast I finally bit the bullet, rented a car for a couple days, and made the pilgrimage in early June.

I’m not so big on bats, balls, gloves, and uniforms belonging to historic feats and players, though if that’s your thing, the Hall has plenty of those. I’m more drawn to the offbeat items on display, like these:

Fernando_cover.preview

That’s a real record, which has to be heard to be believed (and can be easily heard online). Musically it’s an average mariachi-flavored tune, but the lyrics are something else, delivered by Lalo Guerrero in a strained, proudly melodramatic, operatic bellow:

He walks out to the mound, like a matador, without a suit of lights,

The crowd lets out a mighty roar, as he steps out of the night

His baseball is his weapon, deadly to his foes

His screwball is his (), this every hitter knows!

Fernando!, you’re a breath of fresh air to us all

And when you’re pitching the ball

You do it with style and grace

You’ve got us all back in the race!

(I admit my Spanish isn’t good enough to make out the description of his screwball, though I’m sure it’s highly complimentary; corrections welcome at this address.)

A silly novelty, yes, but also a testament to just how huge Valenzuela’s impact was in his 1981 rookie season. He won his first eight games (four of those wins were shutouts); the Mexican was a huge draw for the huge Southern Californian Latino community; the Dodgers won the World Series; and he even hit pretty well, for a pitcher. He had a pretty good career, but he didn’t make the Hall of Fame, unless you count this piece of vinyl.

It’s in one of the Hall’s best sections, devoted to Latino players. Here’s another part of the exhibit that caught my eye, though the reflection on the glass case makes it hard to photograph with perfect definition:

Venez

I admit I didn’t know there were baseball cards in Venezuela. Here you see 1996-97 cards, not much different in design than their US counterparts, of big league stars who were playing winter ball in the country: Bobby Abreu, Omar Vizquel, Maglio Ordonez, Andres Galarraga, and Ozzie Guillen, here identified as “Oswaldo Guillen.”

To the Hall’s credit, it has solid sections on minorities who haven’t always (or to this day) gotten a fair shake in the majors: Latinos, African-Americans (including players in the Negro Leagues), and women. Here’s something I didn’t know about a contribution to our pastime from a woman musician:

NancyFaust

So that’s how that started. The weird history of the band who made it a #1 hit in 1969, Steam, is too lengthy to recount here. But basically it was a studio-only group who thought of the tune as a throwaway B-side, only to see it become such a megasmash that another group of musicians was enlisted to tour under the Steam name. Thanks to Chicago White Sox organist Nancy Faust, it’s now had a far longer life than even many #1 hit singles, though I think its use as the crowd’s kiss-off to George W. Bush’s helicopter at Obama’s inauguration trumps any occasion at which it’s been sung at a sporting event.

Steam

Faust, by the way, wasn’t the only woman organist of note at the ballpark. Gladys Gooding was the organist at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and her “Follow the Dodgers” disc is also on exhibit, though most of the woman’s wing is properly devoted to their athletic feats on the field.

What about the many controversies that have threatened the game’s image and integrity since the 1800s? The Hall doesn’t entirely skirt those, though in the case of the baseball’s biggest recent scandal, it kind of mumbles. This smallish card near the entrance to a section devoted to some of the game’s most revered records (of the statistical kind, not the musical sort) might easily be missed by many visitors:

Peds

If you want to read the text without squinting, here’s what it says:

“In documenting baseball history, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) cannot be ignored, although a complete list of players who have used banned substances throughout time may never be known. In this museum you will find artifacts, images and stories of players who have either admitted to or have been suspected of using banned substances. Even though you will not always find specific references to this issue, this museum is committed to telling the story of PEDs within the game’s historical context.”

At least there’s something, even if it’s buried as deeply as those warnings not to operate heavy machinery on the medicine your primary care physician prescribes for persistent coughs.

Ending on a more upbeat note, here’s a guitar whose design is customized to honor the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. Can’t tell you how it sounds, though, as like virtually everything else at the Baseball Hall of Fame, it’s under glass and out of reach:

FenwayGuitar

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: An Alternate Top Ten

Now that my two weeks of research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives are finished (thanks to the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation), it’s time to address an issue that often comes up when the Hall’s discussed. It’s not one that relates to my visit, but I sometimes get asked about it all the same, even though I don’t have a formal relationship with the Hall. Which is: why aren’t some rock artists in the Hall of Fame? Who should be in it who isn’t already?

First off, I should note that I don’t vote in the Hall of Fame elections (and haven’t been asked to). Of more importance, it’s my feeling that musical passions are subjective enough that it’s impossible to apply objective, or even somewhat objective, criteria to an award like this. If someone isn’t in the Hall of Fame whom you really like, what matters most is that they’re in your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It shouldn’t cause distress if other people haven’t voted them in yet.

Still, sometimes I’m lobbied to sign petitions for some artists to get into the Hall. I don’t remember all of them offhand, but I know Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson were two. Those are cultish artists who are frankly a longshot to get in soon or at all. But it’s not just hip underground types that are being championed — at one of my presentations, I was asked why Connie Francis wasn’t in.

I certainly wouldn’t mind if Sahm and Erickson made it (and don’t think Francis should be in there), but really, you’d have to build another wing or two to accommodate everyone in my personal Rock Hall of Fame. They’d include at least a few hundred bands and solo artists who aren’t in yet, and the Hall isn’t going to induct that many new honorees in the next few years (or, most likely, in my lifetime). That’s not even counting all the producers and vital non-musicians who rate consideration.

The Sir Douglas Quintet, led by Doug Sahm (left).

The Sir Douglas Quintet, led by Doug Sahm (left).

For what it’s worth, I do have opinions on my favorite acts who aren’t in yet. What follows is a list of the ten artists I’d most like to see in the Hall. I took into consideration their quality, longevity, and impact on the whole of rock. Let me be upfront, however: this is a very subjective list, guided by my personal tastes, not one which tries to take into account how many fans musicians have, how many records they sold, and how critics regard them. It’s what I like, not a consensus of what everyone likes. My personal Hall of Fame, even if the adjunct is only in my mind.

Rated in rough order of preference, here we go:

1. Love. One of the great folk-rock bands of the mid-1960s, Love generated one of the all- time classic rock albums with their third LP, Forever Changes. That record has performed better on critics’ all-time best-of lists that almost any other, and their first two albums, though not on the same level, had their share of good-to-greatness too.

An ad for Love's "My Little Red Book" single.

An ad for Love’s “My Little Red Book” single.

I don’t know if the Hall of Fame’s voters and nominators sit around discussing fine points of qualification, like many fans and sportswriters do for the baseball Hall of Fame. If they do, however, my guess would be the major strikes against Love are that their peak was brief — just those three albums, in 1966-67 — and their commercial success was limited, though they did have two small national hits with “My Little Red Book” and “7 and 7 Is.” I do feel — though some fans vociferously disagree with me — that Love’s quality fell off drastically after Forever Changes, and that none of their subsequent records (on which principal singer-songwriter Arthur Lee was the only remaining member from their mid-‘60s heyday) were very good or distinctive, let alone on the same plane as their mid-‘60s work.

But that mid-‘60s work was brilliant — and certainly, especially in the case of Forever Changes, influential. And not just on cult artists of subsequent decades — ask Robert Plant. Cult artists haven’t fared too well in Hall of Fame voting, but some groups with limited commercial success have gotten in, like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. If there’s room for them, there should be room for Love.

As to which members of Love should be inducted, that will be even more of an imbroglio than other disputes over inductees from bands with multiple lineups. Even in the course of their first three albums, Love had seven members. I’d go with the five guys on Forever Changes (Lee, guitarist/next-most-important songwriter Bryan MacLean, guitarist Johnny Echols, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummer Michael Stuart), perhaps adding Snoopy Pfisterer, who played drums and keyboards on their first two albums. I wouldn’t take in anyone from the post-Forever Changes lineups save Lee.

2. The Zombies. One of the great British Invasion groups, ranking near the very top of the tier once you get beyond the best half-dozen or so (the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Yardbirds, Kinks, and Animals). And besides the Beatles and maybe the Beach Boys, the most inventive melodicists of their time, especially in their use of minor keys.

One of the Zombies' numerous fine mid-'60s flop singles.

One of the Zombies’ numerous fine mid-’60s flop singles.

The Zombies have gained considerably in popularity among critics and fans in the past decade or two. It’s a little mysterious that they’ve been passed over so far, especially since lead singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent are keeping the flame burning with regular and pretty well-received touring. My guess is that there might still be a perception — an unfair one, but one that is held by some listeners — that their impact was limited to their three big hits: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season.” One friend (not a voter) even insisted to me that having heard those three songs when he was growing up, he felt no need to investigate the rest of their catalog.

But the point is that the Zombies had a lot of other good songs in their catalog, even if none of their other singles made the Top Forty, and many of them bombed commercially. Not only that, those singles (and some of their LP cuts) were quite diverse. And at the end of their career, they did prove capable of making a strong album that expanded their lyrical parameters beyond melancholy romance, Odessey and Oracle.

It probably shouldn’t sway nominators and voters one way or the other, but all of the Zombies save guitarist Paul Atkinson are still alive, and would likely be very appreciative of an induction while they have their health. Unusually, there will be no controversy as to who should be inducted — during their 1964-68 lifetime, the Zombies were the quintet of Blunstone, Argent, Atkinson, bassist Chris White, and drummer Hugh Grundy, with no personnel changes.

3. Them. Like the Zombies, a band that ranks just below the top half-dozen British Invasion bands in quality and originality. Plus they had a future star in their ranks, singer Van Morrison, who also wrote their original material in the two-and-a-half years or so he was in the group.

Them's first US album had one of the great British Invasion LP covers.

Them’s first US album had one of the great British Invasion LP covers.

The problem Them faces, I would surmise, is that their peak was brief, and their commercial success even a bit less extensive than the Zombies’. It’s really the explosive 1964-66 R&B/rock recordings with Morrison that matter, though they did hang on for four more LPs in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Van-less lineups. They had just four hit singles of varying degrees, none of which made the US Top Twenty: “Here Comes the Night,” “Mystic Eyes,” “Gloria,” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

A couple of these were much bigger in the UK (“Baby Please Don’t Go” hitting the Top Ten and “Here Comes the Night” soaring all the way to #2), but great UK popularity hasn’t seemed to manage much to the Hall, overall a pretty US-centered institution. Though I wouldn’t buy this argument, it might also be contended that since Van Morrison’s already in the Hall, there’s no need to induct Them, which he fronted for a small if significant part of his lengthy career.

But Them’s legacy, even limited to the Morrison years, isn’t really all that slim. There are about 50 tracks, many of them superb. Their impact was greater than their chart performance, even in the US, where many musicians were fervid Them fans, from the Doors and Iggy Pop to Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. Plus they did the original version of one of the all-time, and most-covered, rock standards with “Gloria.”

Do they deserve their own, separate induction? Yes. Will it happen? Probably not, perhaps in part because, even by the volatile standards of who to induct and who not, the process of selection for Them will be a nightmare. Bassist Alan Henderson is the only guy who was in all their lineups, and even during Morrison’s time with the band, there were a dozen or so lineup changes (even the estimates of how many lineups there were varies according to the source). I’d go with Morrison, Henderson, original guitarist Billy Harrison, and Harrison’s replacement Jim Armstrong — though leaving out a drummer is problematic (I’d go with John McAuley), as is leaving out a keyboardist (I’d go with Peter Bardens, though he wasn’t in the band too long), especially as spooky organs were a big feature of Them’s distinctive sound.

4. The Pretty Things. Let’s be honest here — these guys aren’t going to get in, at least during my lifetime, unless the usual criteria for selection radically change, or the Hall radically expands in size. But they should get in. It’s almost a cliche to state this by now, but the Pretty Things were the best British band of the ‘60s not to have a hit in the US. It’s almost as much of a cliche — but true — to note that at their outset, they were very much like the Rolling Stones (and Pretties guitarist Dick Taylor had even been in the Stones in 1962), but rawer. They also evolved into an important psychedelic group, and recorded one of the first rock concept albums, S.F. Sorrow (1968), whose release predated Tommy by about six months.

A pioneering psychedelic single by the Pretty Things, even if it pictures a previous lineup than the one that recorded these tracks.

A pioneering psychedelic single by the Pretty Things, even if it pictures a previous lineup than the one that recorded these tracks.

What works against the Pretty Things? Well, though they’re way, way better known now than they were in the 1960s, they’re still not very well known in the US. Even in the UK, their commercial success wasn’t that great, and mostly experienced near the very beginning of their career, when “Honey I Need” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” were British Top Twenty hits, and their debut album did well. There are few rock bands that inspire as passionate cult devotion as the Pretty Things, and justifiably so. But the fact is, most Americans still don’t know who they are — and even many knowledgeable rock fans and critics who’d like them, given half a chance, don’t know much about them, and have heard little of their work.

Electing the Pretty Things would strike a great blow for honor based on quality, rather than the usual yardsticks of sales and fame. Deciding who to induct would be the usual challenge. Singer Phil May, who’s been on the ride almost all along, is a no-brainer, as is guitarist Dick Taylor, who was there for all their finest ‘60s work. The other guys in the quintet that made their early recordings (bassist John Stax, drummer Viv Prince, and rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton) should probably get in too. But so too should other members who figured strongly in their recordings later in the ‘60s — drummer Skip Alan, multi-instrumentalist Wally Waller, keyboardist Jon Povey, and probably even drummer Twink, who played on S.F. Sorrow. I don’t feel passionate about putting in various other guys who played on post-S.F. Sorrow albums.

5. The Moody Blues. Now here’s a band that not only stands a fair chance of getting in, but has had armies of fans knocking on the door for quite a while. It’s not a secret that the Moody Blues are among the most popular of artists not currently in the Hall. In polls asking rock listeners which acts should be inducted, the Moodies regularly score near or at the top.

The Moody  Blues' first UK album, when Denny Laine was still their lead singer.

The Moody Blues’ first UK album, when Denny Laine was still their lead singer.

So why aren’t they included? The Moody Blues did not fare especially well among critics, although the albums during their 1968-1973 commercial prime were huge sellers, and included some fair-sized hit singles. To many, they epitomized the pretentious pomp of progressive rock; to some more serious underground aficionados, they were too twee and pop to stand comparison with more experimental prog rockers. Art-rock in general hasn’t fared that great among Hall voters, perhaps in part because of its dominance by UK acts; although Genesis made it, Yes, for instance, are still waiting, in spite of their huge global popularity.

But for me, the Moody Blues have a strong case based on their 1964-1968 recordings alone. Few fans know much about their pre-Days of Future Passed recordings aside from their one mid-‘60s hit, “Go Now.” But their mid-‘60s British Invasion-era discs — featuring future Wings-man Denny Laine as lead singer, guitarist, and (with keyboardist Mike Pinder) co-songwriter — are quite strong, with a haunting R&B/pop feel quite distinct from their peers. While Days of Future Passed introduced some of the bloat and bombast they’ve been lambasted for, it was one of the first notable quasi-concept rock albums, and (when the orchestral passages took a break) had some genuinely fine, soaring rock songs. Their albums got steadily less impressive from that point onward in my view, but made their mark as some of the most popular progressive rock LPs of their day, even if they leaned toward the poppiest and most romantic side of that spectrum.

It seems like only a matter of time for the Moody Blues — but then again, people have been saying that for about twenty years. There will be no dispute that the quintet on their late 1960s/early 1970s recordings (original Moodies Mike Pinder, drummer Graeme Edge, and singer/flautist Ray Thomas, as well as guitarist-singers Justin Hayward and John Lodge) should be on the plaque. But look forward to lively arguments as to whether to include Denny Laine (whom I would say absolutely has to be part of it), though it’s likely few will care whether the bassist in their mid-‘60s lineup, Clint Warwick, will be part of the discussion.

6. Fairport Convention. There are a number of acts, I think, who would undoubtedly be in Rock Hall if it was based in London and the music’s history was approached from a British perspective. Cliff Richard, the Shadows, the Jam/Paul Weller, T. Rex/Marc Bolan, the Smiths, Kate Bush, and others all would have been in for quite some time if that were the case. That’s fodder for a different article, but Fairport Convention are another band I think would have been enshrined long ago. Their importance to the British strain of folk-rock looms larger than any other artist’s does, and some might even contend the style wouldn’t exist without them.

The US cover of Fairport Convention's second album, featuring their best lineup.

The US cover of Fairport Convention’s second album, featuring their best lineup.

But in the US, Fairport were never big sellers. Not that they were huge sellers in the UK either, but (like their early peers Pentangle, another band deserving of consideration), they always had a much bigger presence in the British scene, on the charts and otherwise. On their US tours, they were more bill-fillers or support acts than headliners. They’re another act that have a white-hot US cult following, but the great majority of US citizens still remain largely or wholly unfamiliar with them, historical importance be damned.

This is just speculation, but if Fairport ever got far in the nominating process, there might be genuine concern over the uncertainty over which members to induct. They shifted personnel so often that their style changed quite substantially as well, from the West Coast folk-rock-influenced tone of their early records to the staunch rocked-up traditional British folk approach they’d settled into by the early 1970s. That style’s much less to my taste than their earlier efforts, but they’d deserve a place in the pantheon for their four late-‘60s LPs alone.

If it was up to me (it isn’t), I’d make sure to include the quintet from their second and best album: singer Sandy Denny (who deserves strong consideration for induction as a solo artist), bassist Ashley Hutchings, drummer Martin Lamble, singer Iain Matthews, and guitarist Richard Thompson. I’d also include original woman singer Judy Dyble and the three Daves who were crucial in their shift to more traditional British folk — drummer Dave Mattacks, fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and bassist Dave Pegg. There have been a number of other musicians in this still-active band, but those are really the names that matter, even to the majority of Fairport fanatics.

7. Mary Wells. Motown stars have done pretty well in the Hall voting, so it’s another mystery to me as to why Wells hasn’t gotten in the door. She had a good number of good-to-great hits in 1960-64, including one of the label’s biggest, 1964’s chart-topping “My Guy.” At that point — which has often been forgotten — she was Motown’s biggest star. It was also at that point, unfortunately, that she left the label, never to recapture much commercial success.

An overseas release of "My Guy," with better cover art than most of Motown's LPs of the period.

An overseas release of “My Guy,” with better cover art than most of Motown’s LPs of the period.

If I can draw a loose parallel to the baseball Hall of Fame for a moment, perhaps Wells’s case has suffered because there’s a wide disparity between what some baseball experts would call her “peak value” and the rest of her career. There are numerous ballplayers who perform at a superstar level for three or four years, but whose case for Hall induction suffers by the relative ordinariness of the rest of their time in the big leagues. Wells performed at a superstar or near-superstar level — commercially and, much more importantly, artistically — for such a period of time. She made some fair records during the rest of the ‘60s for other labels, but was really just another soul singer after leaving Motown, in part because she was no longer produced by Smokey Robinson, who also wrote her best material.

Yet the best records Wells made while at Motown — and there were quite a few good ones, not just the hit singles — were really good. Her voice has been criticized by some historians as lacking when compared to dynamos like Gladys Knight, but for me, personality’s always mattered much more than conventional lungpower. And Wells had vocal personality galore, projecting shy sexiness better than almost anyone.

Mary’s prospects for Hall of Fame induction have also likely been hurt by the lowering of her profile since her death almost 25 years ago, and the absence (to my knowledge) of a strong campaign on her behalf. While her career itself was not cut short by death, we have to wonder what might have been had she stayed at Motown and continued to work with Robinson. Had that been the way things played out, there’s probably no doubt she would have been in the Hall a long time ago.

8. Link Wray. While it seems ridiculous to categorize such an innovative early rock’n’roll guitarist as a one-hit wonder, it has to be remembered that most fans have heard just one song by Link Wray: “Rumble.” As much as that classic did to pioneer the imaginative use of electronic distortion, it’s hardly all there is to his legacy. He recorded many great instrumental records in the late 1950s and early 1960s; in fact, he was quite prolific. Not all of his releases were great, of course, but he had a higher batting average than most pre-Beatles rockers, including some in the Hall of Fame.

A compilation of classic Link Wray tracks.

A compilation of classic Link Wray tracks.

And he wasn’t just all weird and wacky effects, using the guitar in many manners of thrilling ways, often with original material. Not that Duane Eddy and the Ventures don’t deserve their plaques, but I’d rank Wray way ahead of them, and he was certainly way more fearlessly experimental. The raw, often savagely wild power of those late-‘50s-to-mid-’60s records is the foundation of his case, but he also made some good vocal roots rock discs in the early 1970s, if far lower-key ones.

Wray’s influence on at least one much more famous guitarist is unquestioned, Pete Townshend testifying to it in liner notes he wrote for one of Link’s releases. He has far fewer hit records than the few other primary instrumental acts in the Hall, however, and I’d guess he has to be considered a longshot for induction anytime soon.

9. The Shangri-Las. One of the greatest girl groups, the Shangri-Las also had some huge hits, particularly “Leader of the Pack.” I’d wager their short career has worked against them in Hall voting, however. There were only three other big singles (“Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”), and they were really only strongly in the public consciousness for a year and a half or so in 1964 and 1965. Like Wells, they were hurt with the loss of their support team at their label, in their case when Red Bird Records went out of business in 1966.

Although Betty Weiss was part of the original Shangri-Las, by the time of the photo on this release, they were down to the trio of her sister Mary Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser.

Although Betty Weiss was part of the original Shangri-Las, by the time of the photo on this release, they were down to the trio of her sister Mary Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser.

That brief recording career, however, was enough to produce more great records than many acts manage in two decades, let alone two years. And not just the hits mentioned above — “Past, Present and Future” was an amazing mid-charter, “Dressed in Black” a phenomenal B-side, and “He Cried” and “Out in the Streets” also possessed of great drama. Some of their other tracks were merely good or okay, but a Shangri-Las compilation (virtually everything they did can more or less fit on one CD) makes for much stronger listening than most single-artist girl group anthologies.

As archetypes of fetching teenage angst, the Shangri-Las could not be beat. Sadly, the Ganser twins who comprised half the group are not around now. But lead singer Mary Weiss is, and having upped her public profile drastically in recent years, one imagines she’d be very pleased to accept the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honor.

10. Scott Walker. Like the Pretty Things, don’t let this listing get your pulse racing too fast — he’s never going to get in, not unless the very nature of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame changes. There aren’t many other figures in popular music, however, who’ve made such a heavy mark with two quite different styles — one as a pop-rock balladeer (and quite a good one) as lead singer of the Walker Brothers, and the other as an increasingly serious, almost arty singer-songwriter and interpreter as a solo artist, especially in his early career. That’s not even counting his way-avant-garde excursions from the late ‘70s onward — not ones to my taste, but efforts that are wholly uncompromising, and have an avid if specialized cult of their own.

Scott Walker's best album, from 1970, entirely featured original compositions.

Scott Walker’s best album, from 1970, entirely featured original compositions.

Walker did have some US hits as part of the Walker Brothers, but he really isn’t all that familiar a figure Stateside, even though he was born and raised in the country. The Walker Brothers, though all were American (and none were brothers, or even named Walker), were much, much bigger in the UK in the mid-‘60s than the US, briefly inciting teen adulation almost on the level of Beatlemania. Scott had some British hit singles and albums in the late ’60 after leaving the Walker Brothers, but they were virtually unheard in the US. Like the Pretty Things, he’s much, much better known (speaking of his work as a solo artist) in the States now than then. But all those Mojo magazine huzzahs notwithstanding, he’s still very much a cult, if a pretty large one.

If his profile ever raised to the point where his induction was seriously considered, his style might work against his success. To some listeners, he’s far more a pop singer than a rock one, especially in his late-‘60s/early-‘70s records. To me, he’s enough of a rock singer to make such distinctions unimportant. To take the point just a little farther, if a singer like Bobby Darin’s in the Hall (he is, and made a lot of discs that were as much or more pop than rock), Scott Walker is certainly “rock” enough too.

Here’s one consolation to any rock voters or nominators feeling pangs of guilt. Though Walker’s alive and in good health, he — unlike most of the quality artists not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — almost certainly does not care whether he gets in or not, having made clear his disdain for the usual trimmings of industry success for many years now.

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There’s my Top Ten of sorts. Remember, again, that I’ve never been involved in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination or election process, or been approached to do so. So arguing these choices, or lobbying for others, will not have an effect on who gets selected. This is just a personal list.

There were many names who also received strong consideration, and just missed the cutoff. Sandy Denny, as mentioned in the Fairport listing, was one, as the greatest British folk-rock singer. Robert Wyatt, who’s had a lengthier career in more “underground” genres than almost anyone, was another, and someone else who likely would have been in the Hall had it been administered from a British perspective. John Mayall’s records were uneven (though often very good) and often overshadowed by his star guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, but there is hardly any other figure as influential in helping to launch significant careers, and for helping to ignite the British blues-rock explosion in general. I’d like to see Francoise Hardy in the Hall, not only for her excellence during much of her first decade as a recording artist as a singer and songwriter, but as a step toward “internationalizing” the Hall beyond performers from English-speaking countries. She’s likely the longest shot of any artist mentioned so far.

francoise-hardy-dis-lui-non-say-it-now-disques-vogue

My books, and lists on my website, give you a good idea of some of the other artists I’d like to see in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as I keep saying, there are many). Maybe I’ll go through numbers 11-20 in a subsequent post. I’ll end by just listing a few other favorite artists who seem to me to have very strong cases:

Nick Drake; Procol Harum; Jonathan Richman/The Modern Lovers; the Marvelettes; Tim Buckley; the Collins Kids; Harry Nilsson; the Beau Brummels; Bobby Fuller; Lesley Gore; Jackie DeShannon; Big Brother & the Holding Company; Pentangle; the Soft Machine; the Troggs; Judy Collins; the Move; Nico; John Cale; Doug Sahm/The Sir Douglas Quintet; the Searchers; Marianne Faithfull; Phil Ochs; Free; King Crimson; Irma Thomas; Dick Dale; the Spencer Davis Group; Arthur Alexander; Barbara Lewis; Jan & Dean; the Outsiders (the Dutch ’60s group); Dionne Warwick; Mike Bloomfield; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; the Wailers (the reggae group); Johnny Kidd; Nina Simone; Ian & Sylvia

Blues artists (as influences on rock): Junior Wells; Otis Rush; Sonny Boy Williamson; Slim Harpo; Bukka White

Country artist (as influence on rock): The Delmore Brothers; Patsy Cline

Jazz artists (as influence on rock): Dizzy Gillespie; Lionel Hampton; Slim Gaillard; Wes Montgomery; Mose Allison

Folk artist (as influence on rock): John Fahey

Producers/Engineers/Songwriters/Managers/Label Owners/Journalists: Joe Meek; Lee Hazlewood; Giorgio Gomelsky; Shel Talmy; Paul Rothchild; Jimmy Miller; Joe Boyd; Tom Wilson; Tony Visconti; Norman Whitfield; Peter Asher; Mickie Most; Burt Bacharach & Hal David; Bob Johnston; Norman Petty; Bert Berns; Fred Foster; Norman Smith; Geoff Emerick; Chet Helms; Estelle Axton; Carol Kaye; Lillian Roxon; Graham Gouldman; Nicky Hopkins; Pete Frame; Paul Williams (the Crawdaddy founder, not the singer/songwriter); Shadow Morton

The Move's "Blackberry Way," a #1 UK single in 1969, but (like most of their releases) unknown in the US.

The Move’s “Blackberry Way,” a #1 UK single in 1969, but (like most of their releases) a flop in the US.

Greg Bollo: He Bowled ‘Em Over With His Fastball

Things might have changed now that they’re such collectibles, but when I was real young in the late 1960s, baseball cards were often considered wasteful frivolities. Maybe the stale bubblegum sticks that came with them were, but in my own case, the cards themselves were greatly undervalued aids for teaching me how to read. When I was five and six years old, the kids’ stories in textbooks weren’t really sparking my appetite for learning. No, the first things I avidly read on my own were Peanuts cartoons and — the backs of baseball cards. You’ve got to start somewhere, and while I probably would have learned to read (and write!) with the moralistic kiddie tales in first-grade lessons, nothing stokes the hunger for knowledge as much as subjects in which you’re actually interested. Peanuts, and baseball, were those things (the Beatles wouldn’t come until about two years later).

Looking back at the backs of the cards, you can tell how relentlessly optimistic the brief text was, as if every day was the first day of spring training, hope not so much springing as gushing eternal. The term “media spin” wasn’t in use then, but the concept was certainly used, and frequently, in building up every single player who’d been granted a Topps card, no matter how marginal their chances of becoming a regular. You knew someone was really marginal when Topps’ anonymous writer-cum-PR-person really didn’t know what to say in the little cartoons that accompanied the one or two sentences of text. Like this 1966 card for White Sox pitcher Greg Bollo:

BolloBack

Even back then, that struck me as a weird and kind of creepy image, like Greg Bollo had actually thrown a bowling ball at the hitter instead of a baseball, leaving the batsman with an irreparable hole in his soul. Topps’s loss for words was a pretty good indicator that Bollo might not stick at the big league level, and indeed he didn’t. Now that the Internet’s at hand more than 50 years later to fill in the gaps, though, Bollo’s story — and those of who knows how many other on-the-cusp players — turns out to be more interesting than the print that could fit onto the back of his baseball card.

After pitching very well at the single-A level in 1964, Bollo was promoted to the big club and spent the entire 1965 season with the White Sox. It might be more precise to say that he didn’t play in the minors that year, since he somehow appeared in just 15 games. With no wins, no losses, and no saves, it’s safe to assume he was mostly or wholly used in mop-up roles. Was he injured for part of the year? Was he carried on the big league roster to give him experience, but not thought of as truly ready for the big time, and thus relegated to what we would these day call “low-leverage” situations? It’s pretty rare for a pitcher to be used so seldom over the course of a full year (and downright unknown these days) at the major league level.

The front of Bollo's 1966 baseball card.

The front of Bollo’s 1966 baseball card.

Bollo spent most of 1966 back in single A, where he had a fair — not great — year for Lynchburg. You’re riding a strange yo-yo when you’re called up from single A to the bigs and sent back down to single A, a string made stranger by Bollo’s return to the White Sox in September. After a couple more no-decision relief appearances, someone took pity on the poor fellow and let him start the final game of the year on October 2, against the Yankees. He didn’t do too badly — giving up one run in four innings (though he walked three) — but that was enough to tag him with the loss, in a game the Sox lost 2-0. And as Bollo never got into another major league game, that was also enough to tag him with a permanent 0-1 lifetime record.

(As an aside, on the very last day of the season the previous year, the Yankees had dealt the only decision — a loss, again — to another hard-luck picture, Arnold Earley, who had managed to get into 56 games without a win, loss, or save before losing the final game of 1965 for the Red Sox. Read about that story here.)

Only 22 at the time, Bollo kept at it in the White Sox organization until 1970. He spent two years and part of another in triple A, but never did conquer his control problems. He wasn’t quite bowling them over with his fastball. But his brief time in the majors did generate that one indelible image, left behind in a closet or drawer by an older brother, and doing its share to cultivate literacy in a place where mainstream culture least expected it.

In contrast to Greg Bollo, the pitcher who shared his 1965 rookie card, Bob Locker, enjoyed a fairly long and successful career, appearing in 576 games (all as a reliever) and pitching for the Oakland A's in the 1972 World Series (which the A's won).

In contrast to Greg Bollo, the pitcher who shared his 1965 rookie card, Bob Locker, enjoyed a fairly long and successful career, appearing in 576 games (all as a reliever) and pitching for the Oakland A’s in the 1972 World Series (which the A’s won).

 

Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.