Rashod Ollison — RIP

Doing research for my 2018 MoPOP Pop Conference paper on Angela Winbush, I found the following bit published two years earlier:

It’s a shame the St. Louis native, who’s a successful producer, arranger, songwriter and musician in addition to being a powerhouse vocalist with a five-octave range, isn’t more well-known outside of R&B. But some of the fault lies with Winbush. Steeped in the holy waters of gospel, like many soul sisters who preceded her, her style was perhaps too black. And given the culture erasure of the Reagan era, that was too much.

“The cultural erasure of the Reagan era” — a phrase fraught with significance. So vehemently do we despise the GOP and Donald Trump that we have allowed media elites on cable shows to use Ronald Reagan’s appropriation of John Winthrop’s figure the city on a hill as an example of What We Have Lost; so swiftly do we mythologize our presidents that the evil is oft interred with their bones. To millions of gay men and black Americans, the white straight dudes who endorsed an assault on state and federal power lived in a beautiful city on a hill; the rest of us were condemned to shacks at the foot of the hill.

Not until a week before the conference did I understand that the author of this Winbush piece would sit on my panel — beside me. This intimidated me. Reading a paper on the power of Chaka Khan, Rashod Ollison seduced the crowd from the moment he played a clip of her marvelous hit with Rufus, “You Got the Love”; he held their attention with the precision of his insights, read in a silken purr that rumbled when confronted by an obscenity. Black and gay, Rashod Ollison, the columnist and reporter who died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma two days ago, could not be bullshitted. I sensed he would not bullshit me either. After my presentation, he looked me in the eye, nodded, and mumbled, “Thank you.” I demurred. He said, “Now I’m goin’ back to my room to blast me some Angela.”

Other tributes have praised Rashod’s warmth and the depths of his commitment to music as soul power. Because she gave us permission to “dream and build,” Aretha Franklin “will always be a revolutionary act,” he wrote two months ago about the R&B and gospel singer-pianist. A life like Rashod Ollison’s was also a revolutionary act. Men like Rashod don’t wear out their recti muscles looking for cities on a hill — they make do with what they have, describing it as ruthlessly as their imaginations allow.

‘Nico, 1988’ presents the last days of an icon

Until the moment of her 1988 death in the most banal of accidents, Nico had earned her distance from the Velvet Underground material that turned the model into a camp and often transfixing chanteur in the seventies: like any star, would-be and real, the costumes that the poor girl wore and the hand-me-down dresses from who knows where she also wove into challenging self-presentations. Continue reading

Doom averted!

My first question for the Braman Honda salesperson three weeks ago was not about mileage or maintenance: “This Civic doesn’t come with a CD player, right?” He looked at the asphalt, shook his head sadly for my sake. Three years earlier, signing the paperwork on my first leased car, I was delighted that I had a working player instead of the Discman and tape adapter I’d used in my 1998 Ford Explorer since the Breeders’ Title TK pretended to be Excalibur and jammed itself. In the last fourteen days I’ve been burning music into a USB drive. I was one of those Luddites who kept archival stuff on CD and relied on my phone for new music — music I still often bought on CD, mind.

Turns out Best Buy has delayed the inevitable:

Best Buy officials say the chain has decreased its focus on CD sales, but denied multiple reports it had ended sales entirely as of July 1.

“The way people buy and listen to music has dramatically changed and, as a result, we are reducing the amount of space devoted to CDs in our stores,” the company said in a statement. “However, we will still offer select CDs, vinyl and digital music options at all stores.”

….The statement from the company was its first comment since reports emerged in February that it told music suppliers about plans to pull CDs from stores on July 1, which resulted in a some confusion

CVS still sells tape adapters, in case you wondered.

‘Even the mysteries/It’s all me’

With deep respect to Dusty in Memphis, my Supremes comp, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Exile in Guyville, these albums I submitted to NPR’s Turning the Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women survey. The first album will get enough mentions but if I were being honest myself I couldn’t ignore it. The other four I worry will get no votes. What links these albums across decades is an experience with role playing: accepting with a cold eye the projections of male listeners even when – especially when – these projections fit; discomfort with yielding to the emotions that men expect from women; the arranging of clothes and makeup as creation of self. “Sometimes it’s hard to move, you see/When you’re growing publicly,” Erykah Badu sings on “Me.”

Anyway, it’ll be a combination of these finalists:

1. Pretenders – Pretenders
2. Rosanne Cash – King’s Record Shop
3. Angela Winbush – Sharp
4. Sinead O’ Connor – I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
5. Belly – Star
6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott — Supa Dupa Fly
7. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
8. Britney Spears – Femme Fatale
9. Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
10. Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice: Compilation

If you lose your faith: the best of Everything But the Girl

“Tracey Thorn has always been one of those singers who sounded dandy on other people’s records, notably Massive Attack’s,” Robert Christgau wrote at the dawn of the 2000s, and he was right. But for a critic who has admitted to preferring livelier and noisier pleasures the implied condescension of the praise is no surprise.

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She’s got herself a universe – ‘Ray of Light’ at twenty

Happy birthday to Ray of Light, Madonna’s shrewd attempt to position herself as an older woman whose newborn conferred Wisdom and Experience. The other day I remarked that the production – mostly by William Orbit but Marius de Vries and longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard get credits too – is the aural equivalent of the sleeve’s aquamarine backdrop. It’s like a soap bought at a high end resort hotel store: delicious, sure, but your body sweats it off in hours. This was said about Ray of Light at the time: her voice, strengthened by coaching, was stiff if not inflexible on otherwise strong material like “Mer Girl” and “Drowned World” (I still giggle over Rob Sheffield’s comment on the latter: “She enunciates the word lovers as if she’s never met any”). Perhaps the ubiquity of those awful Victor Calderone remixes in gay clubs was an attempt at redress. There was a sense in which Music and its return to dance floor insouciance was the Real Comeback; I thought so, despite liking ROL a lot. Now I can barely listen to most of Music‘s non-single filler while ROL boast her most bewitching album tracks after Erotica, as my list below acknowledges.

So, accept the plaudits, girl. Orbit’s dense rhythms, many of which with faint psychedelic tints, complement your vocal melodies; he’s got unexpected instrumental filips too, like the harsh guitar on “Swim” and the piano line on the chorus of “Sky Fits Heaven,” the best of the album’s spiritual plaints. Savor Ray of Light. Appreciate Oprah’s mom dancing to a live performance of the title track.

1. Skin
2. Sky Fits Heaven
3. Swim
4. Candy Perfume Girl
5. The Power of Goodbye
6. Drowned World/Substitute For Love
7. To Have and Not to Hold
8. Ray of Light
9. Nothing Really Matters
10. Frozen
11. Mer Girl
12. Shanti/Ashtangi

‘The sun comes/Like a god into our room’

Longtime readers know my affection for INXS’ singles. Last week I had the chance to write a few hundred words about Kick, reissued in an absurd multi-disc edition but with a phenomenal sound. Here’s the list I drew up last April of their best tracks:

1. Original Sin (Extended remix)
2. Shine Like It Does
3. Don’t Change
4. Kiss the Dirt (Falling Down the Mountain)
5. What You Need
6. Devil Inside
7. Listen Like Thieves
8. Not Enough Time
9. Disappear
10. Bitter Tears
11. The One Thing
12. Suicide Blonde
13. This Time
14. Same Direction
15. Need You Tonight
16. New Sensation
17. Guns in the Sky
18. The Swing
19. Biting Bullets
20. Just Keep Walking

David Cassidy — RIP

The variety show star as teen phenomenon, without the talent to make the leap into pop that reflected contemporary values until I remember that Terry Jacks and The Carpenters reflected the Nixon seventies as surely as CSNY and Alice Cooper. I was too young for The Partridge Family, the only episode of which I remember is when the kids are sprayed by a skunk, but “I Think I Love You” was in the ether, like refrigerator exhaust. Cassidy sung it with the conviction of a Broadway kid playing a greaser. That was all I knew until in 1990 he emerged with a pop metal song called “Lyin’ to Myself,” for which he got songwriting credit, presumably for the apostrophe/contraction; at best it sounds like solo Lou Gramm. This is the Forgotten Eighties — the eighties of Boogie Nights‘ Dirk Diggler recording “You Got the Touch” in a studio that looks like a karaoke bar after 6 p.m. Cassidy’s kind of idolatry soothed; no libido was necessary.

Worst songs ever: “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”

Like a good single, a terrible one reveals itself with airplay and forbearance. I don’t want to hate songs; to do so would shake ever-sensitive follicles, and styling gel is expensive. I promise my readers that my list will when possible eschew obvious selections. Songs beloved by colleagues and songs to which I’m supposed to genuflect will get my full hurricane-force winds, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take shots at a jukebox hero overplayed when I was at a college bar drinking a cranberry vodka in a  plastic thimble-sized cup.

Cutting Crew – “(I Just) Died in Your Arms”
PEAK CHART POSITION: #1 in May 1987 (two weeks)

In the late eighties, Virgin Records was flush with dough. While spending money  promoting Bryan Ferry, why not sprinkle dollars on regrettably haired British acts? Cutting Crew fit the bill; like Boys Don’t Cry and, uh, Pet Shop Boys, they sported a meaningless name that looked great in Japanese teen mags. The first single from debut album Broadcast peaked in the UK top five in late 1986 but took several months to climb here, helped by MTV and staggering airplay*. It finally topped the chart for two weeks in May 1987.

From the opening synth fanfare to the inappropriate guitar raunch burping over singer-guitarist Nick Van Eede’s vocals, there isn’t a single promising element in “(I Just) Died in Your Arms.” But I get why it besotted its audience: listen to “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” as a mishmash of the hair metal peaking on the Hot 100 in 1987 and the dying sound of glum British kids stabbing their Emulators. Cutting Crew were Tears For Fears imitating Whitesnake or perhaps Mr. Mister. As if these phenomena weren’t enough to bring heaves, savor the following: “The actual words ‘I just died in your arms tonight’ originally came to Van Eede while he was having sex with his girlfriend,” Van Eede told Fred Bronson, and I just died of gross.

But Cutting Crew hadn’t finished yet. After the fascinatingly titled “One For the Mockingbird” did no business, they managed another top ten and MTV hit with the billowing, “Your Wildest Dreams”-era Moody Blues flatulence of “I’ve Been in Love Before,” an improvement in the sense that a C raises your GPA after a string of F’s. In Chris Heath’s chronicle of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s Asian tour called Pet Shop Boys Literally, Tennant theorizes that “I’ve Been in Love Before” boasts the worst line he’d ever heard in a song: ‘I’ve been in love before/The hardest part is when you’re in it” (he imagined a deep Greek voice following that with INNIT? INNIT?).

* I didn’t use “staggering” out of a weakness for hyperbole. Although I don’t have the numbers, “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” has not gone away; I hear it on terrestrial radio eighties and adult contemporary stations, at CVS, at Starbucks, all week, every week, every year.

Crawling back to him: remembering Tom Petty

Between bouts of Kelela and Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, I’ve listened to a lot of Tom Petty the last eight days. Perhaps too much listening – I missed my deadline to contribut to The Singles Jukebox’s Petty tribute. Among a fine miscellany, two blurbs stood out. First Anthony Easton, writing about the title track to Southerhn Accents, covered by Johnny Cash in the mid nineties:

I wonder whether the oranges in Orlando would be picked by someone less pale than Petty. Whether the drunk tank would be as hospitable if he weren’t white — or to someone who is quite local, whether all the accents of the south are as laconic as Petty’s. He had the Stars and Bars decorating the tour for this album, and he apologized for that oversight (and oversight is a politeness) more than a decade later.

All of that said, maybe the most southern thing about the song is that the South is constructed as a narrative of nostalgia. That one always seeks to return to a South, if one is white, if one can afford that desire. It is a song that was written, in a grand historicised style, by a man from Florida who was living in Los Angeles. It is about the idea of Florida as a metonym of the South, of the South as a metonym for this swamp of nostalgia that can only be written about outside of the actual, material swamp.

For Anais Mathers, writing about “American Girl” means also reckoning with ghosts:

I could tell you about being eight years old and seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with my parents at the old Miami Arena in 1995, long since torn down for a newer, shinier building. I could tell you about how my dad let me climb onto his shoulders when they played “American Girl.” I could tell you how I waved my arms in the air while my dad sang along in thickly accented English. I could tell you about how Tom Petty records often played in our house not just because it was good music but because it was some of the music my dad listened to in order to learn English when he came to the US; Tom was clearer than most. I could tell you how I tried to keep my eyes open in the backseat of the car on the drive home as my dad hummed.

I could tell you about being a college freshman in Gainesville, Florida, sitting on the floor of some guy’s dorm with him as we mixed vodka with Gatorade. I could tell you about how hot it was that night and how his AC window unit was doing us no favors. I could tell you how we listened to the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self titled album and when we got to “American Girl”, when it got to the end, this guy told me about how the song was about a girl who jumped off her balcony in the same dorm we were sitting in and swan dived right into traffic on 441. I could tell you how he was pretty annoyed that I was more interested in hearing about this urban legend (the dorms didn’t even have balconies!) than I was in hooking up.

“Crawling Back to You” was my song. I got Wildflowers as a Christmas present from an aunt whose approximations of my taste, demonstrated when she got me Poison’s Open Up and Say…Ahh! in 1988, had been variable over the years. Opening with a theremin that heralds a piano ticking out the top line, “Crawling Back to You” has a Petty “so tired of being tired,” resigned to being abject.

This would have been the start of what I’d have written.