Realms of Gold
322 · 29 March 01
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: "Dancing in the Street"
Most of what I know about excess, I learned at the Harvard Lampoon. Also large amounts of what I know about human cruelty, borderline-legality drugs, typesetting, magazine production, drumming, noise ordinances, pornography, formal wear, careerism, other games you can play on a pool table, how much exothermic energy you can generate by burning an entire Christmas tree at once, the tensile strength of a suit of vintage Samurai armor, how far you can fall without breaking anything other than your nose, and the fact that as recently as 1989 there were still parents in this country who would let strange college students borrow their children in order to take photographs of them "pretending" to play with blowtorches. But mostly, excess. The Lampoon has a Castle that is small but intensely frivolous, an endowment that is small but wildly disproportionate to its undergraduate membership, and had, at least back in the mid-Eighties, a serene willingness to let students place themselves in serious physical and emotional danger. Harvard itself is several orders of magnitude larger and richer than the Lampoon, of course, but it was my experience that Harvard tried to spend as little money on me as they possibly could, while the Lampoon evidenced no such reluctance. The erratically-produced magazine was absurdly well-funded, the parties were always lavishly, if often incompetently, provisioned (a candle-lit hall full of dazed twenty-year-olds attempting to eat still-steaming lobsters with their bare hands is a heart-warming spectacle to me to this day), and never again do I expect to be allowed to destroy so many irreplaceable objects without legal repercussion. The two most expensive celebrations I have ever attended, in terms of money spent per attendee, were both Lampoon events, albeit neither of them while I was still an undergraduate staff member. One was our blow-out Millennial New Year's Eve party last year, about which my only lingering disappointment is the absence of the long-promised elephant parade.
The other one, this past weekend, was the Lampoon's 125th Anniversary party. I grew up in a four-person household operated on a professor's income, I went to college on financial aid, and I've never been or dated a millionaire or been invited to the wedding or inauguration of one, so I concede that my standards of scale for adult revelry are relatively modest. Still. The weekend began, Friday night, with the rental of the House of Blues for an epic staging of the traditional Lampoon theatrical Forbidden Fruits. For reasons lost to history, this play, nominally about a nuclear-plant mishap, is actually used as a frame-tale for the sloppy jam-session performances of a wearyingly interminable series of "classic" rock songs à la "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Freebird". When this event is staged at the Castle, it is done in a small, overcrowded room systemically unsuited for live music, so transferring it to the broad, well-lit stage of the House of Blues' upstairs performance hall was jarring enough in itself. Stranger was that although there was no shortage of competent volunteer musicians to play the instruments, and several people willing, after some alcoholic encouragement, to get on stage and embarrass themselves by dancing, nobody would get up and sing. Either they didn't know the words to enough old rock songs (this was my own excuse), or they feared that they couldn't sing them accurately (I knew I couldn't sing them accurately, but I wasn't afraid of that), or else there was simply something wrong with the dynamics, some way in which it is possible to play the guitar part to "The Joker" badly in front of hundreds of people with a straight face, but singing the words to "The Joker" must be done ironically, and it's hard to get irony right under professional lighting, with a muddy monitor mix, without any rehearsal beforehand. The only song performed in lyrical completeness the whole night was a spirited rendition of Run-DMC's "You Be Illin'" by a slight, Jewish television producer, who appeared to be so pleased that he could still remember the text that self-consciousness never became an issue. For the rest of the two-or-three-hour din, we danced to instrumentals. Many classic rock songs are better suited to impromptu jams this way, frankly, since once you finally get everyone in the same key you can simply cycle verse/chorus/verse until you get tired of it, instead of being gated by the capacity of the lyrics. "Sweet Home Alabama" was expansive and defiant. "Louie Louie" was a little bit desultory, to be honest; maybe that song has finally worn out. The one song whose words I knew by heart, "More Than a Feeling", never quite got underway, which is probably just as well, given the total lack of overlap between its melody and my vocal range. The two big hits of the night, revealing something about the average age of the crowd but also something about the recent evolution of non-electro dance music, were almost indistinguishable thrashings of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Song 2", both of which inspired frenzied pogoing, and the first of which prompted the quick flinging of about half the available hors d'oeuvres into the general atmosphere (just prior to the tragically not-quite-as-quick removal of the remaining half by the wait staff). The club bouncers, fearing structural damage (people don't pogo much to the usual House of Blues fare), rushed out into what had previously been an unchaperoned fray, but due to capture errors they ended up positioning themselves between the crowd and the band, the traditional antagonists, not immediately realizing that in this case the crowd and the band harbored a common animosity towards the furniture. I didn't see anybody carted away bleeding, which was sort of a let-down, and the only person I saw ejected from the club earned his dismissal by getting up on stage holding a lit joint, a charming moment of historical disorientation. Once the House of Blues finally ran out of patience with us (I don't think we'll be asked back), we retreated to the Castle for another few hectic hours of sitting on the backs of vintage armchairs reminiscing about the staff members we hated when we were in school, who obligingly took turns poking their heads into the room to be shunned.
Saturday's lunch, alarmingly soon after, was my first first-hand experience with serious fund-raising pressure. The Lampoon has money and a Castle, but has decided it wants to have more money, and an even nicer Castle. A cynic might suggest that these desires, and not the inherent celebration-worthiness of the organization's 125th Anniversary, were the chief inspirations for the weekend party. After a long pre-noon cocktail session in a hallway (which the schedule of events referred to, elegantly, and with some loose architectural justification, as a "transept"), we filed into the impressive expanse of Memorial Hall, which I knew in college only as the site for beginning-of-the-semester registration (a day-long window of opportunity I nonetheless once managed to sleep through) and distribution-requirement finals. Ornate food was consumed while mandolin-playing minstrels skipped merrily among the tables, a seemingly small touch that grew in impressiveness as the hours of the meal wore on and the minstrels continued skipping with apparently undiminished merriment and mandolins that, suspiciously, never seemed to require retuning. When the food ran out, a stream of dignitaries, including Harvard's departing president and several Lampoon trustees, stood to address the crowd. I believe they were describing how lonely the Lampoon's money is, and how happy we could make it by sending it company, but in a reassuring demonstration of the fundamental folly of cost-cutting, the rented PA system proved capable of amplifying the speakers' voices only in conjunction with mangling them into unintelligibility, so this portion of the afternoon had the approximate character of having several stern pages of the Wall Street Journal read aloud to us by Charlie Brown's parents.
The rest of the afternoon was given over to the elephant parade. I have been promised an elephant parade so many times, by now, that it has assumed the status of a running joke, or a euphemism for mild, predictable disappointment. A second-order joke, and the Lampoon tends to like jokes better the more orders there are to them (which explains why so few people outside of the organization think the magazine is funny), would be to have just one or two elephants, when everyone knows it takes at least three to constitute a parade. So when the money murmurs turned strained, and the person holding the microphone began gesturing with it instead of speaking into it (a use for which it was better suited, anyway), I thought nothing of it. Even when some people at the next table began muttering "Elephants? Elephants!" to each other, I expected only the build-up to yet another poorly meta-leveled joke in which the punch line is that there isn't a punch line, or an elephant. But as people started pouring out the far doors of Memorial Hall, I went along. Lunch, at any rate, was obviously over.
And so, blinking, I emerged from the stained-glass calm of the interior into the courtyard that separates Memorial Hall from the Science Center, the sun shining brightly and the temperature suddenly turned Spring-like, to discover not only a parade of elephants, but whatever you call it when there are so many elephants that they can no longer effectively travel in single file. The space was filled with elephants. No doubt somebody will dourly inform me that there were only eight of them, or something, but I am reporting the experience, not the bill of lading, and the experience was that in all directions stood elephants. Stolid, gray, swaying slightly as they waited to start moving again, they surrounded us as if gathered for a benediction, as if in the middle of every March the elephant population of North America gathers outside of Memorial Hall for the annual blessing of the herd. In my memory they are all facing us, although probably that's wrong, too, as I don't remember them turning around before we set off. However it was accomplished, though, all of us, the endless elephants and the two hundred or so well-fed, poorly-supplicated Lampoon graduates, somehow got ourselves into a serviceable marching formation, crossed the footbridge into Harvard Yard (it's a measure of how stupefied I was by the elephants that the weight-bearing abilities of this bridge didn't enter my mind at the time), swarmed past the University's administrative headquarters, traversed two short blocks of Massachusetts Avenue against the direction of traffic (in my memory there are neither police nor car horns during this stretch, although there had to have been one, if not both), turned down Plympton Street, passed the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and the entrance to Adams House and whatever else is on that street, crossed Bow, turned right around the back end of the Castle (which entailed going the wrong way up Mt. Auburn, the other half of Cambridge's central traffic artery), and concluded in a huge, swirling mass in the wide delta of Mt. Auburn where the Castle sits. Here an enormous wooden crate was produced from the bowels of the crowd (I found out later that it was meant to be conveyed atop one of the elephants, but it turns out you aren't allowed to put things on the backs of elephants in this country any more), carried up the front steps of the Castle, and ceremoniously broken open with purple crowbars, revealing the enormous metal ibis stolen from the roof of the building several years ago, apparently recovered from the anthropology department of an obscure Chinese provincial university by the intervention of a former member who had the foresight to acquire a position of international power just in case we ever needed it (where by "foresight", here, I mean being born into a family that happens to operate a global media empire). There is a long story about how the stolen Ibis ended up in China, but I don't know what it is, because as I found out later, it was recounted during one of the unintelligible speeches that I thought were all about the endowment.
At some point during the ceremonial restitution of the Ibis to its perch at the peak of the Castle, the elephants were taken away, re-loaded into whatever you use to cart a parade of elephants (OK, it's vaguely possible there were no more than six of them) (oh, all right, maybe just four) (but four elephants is still a lot of elephants) from profligate fund-raiser to profligate fund-raiser, and the energy level of the crowd dropped precipitously. Some milling about ensued. You hire an elephant parade, you accept certain logistical constraints. Evidently the parade was expected to take longer. After a somewhat awkward delay, the mixture of stretch limousines and antique Cadillacs we'd hired for dinner transport began to arrive, we duly piled in (my first ride in such a vehicle turning out to have a distinct carpool flavor, as my limo was also filled to capacity with current undergraduates), and were shuttled to the Park Plaza Castle. As an organization with an actual Castle as its headquarters, we are poor people to try to impress with a building called a "Castle" that is really an airport-hangar-sized convention hall with a couple trumpet players standing in front of it, but at this point I was really too drained from the elephants to complain. The fire-eater restored some of my spirits, the appetizers helped, and when I finally ran into the organ-grinder, a desiccated, limping old soul gamely cranking his organ with a small, frightened-looking monkey clinging to his neck, I was back in the mood for decadence.
The dinner itself certainly qualified, five courses (including a discrete cheese course, which I had previously only ever read about) presented by a horde of waiters under the direction of a headset-wearing traffic controller doing his best to act like a cut-rate Martin Short character. Dessert entertainment was provided by a professional a cappella group that somebody had had the brilliant idea of hiring and teaching to sing polished versions of all the stupid, obscene, traditional songs we usually croak out, tunelessly, ourselves. The group had not been fully briefed, however, and made the horrifying mistake of inserting one of their own compositions into this set while the chocolate mousse was still in play, which as anybody could have predicted, resulted in some of it being flung at them. It was pretty decent mousse, though, so a significant minority opted to keep the mousse and throw their spoons. One of the singers, after dodging a spoon in between songs, turned towards us with a glare and said "If one more spoon lands up here, we're leaving." A stunned silence suffused the room as more than three hundred people who consider a disrespect for authority to be an integral part of their personalities struggled to overcome our collective incredulity, and then someone near the front, almost apologetically, underhanded a spoon onto the lip of the stage.
After the singers, came the toasts. I don't attend toasting events any more often than I ride in limousines or eat cheese courses, so I wasn't prepared to participate, and it seemed that not very many other graduates were, either. A few older ones stood up and insulted the younger ones. A couple of the younger ones stood up and botched conceptual jokes that wouldn't have been funny if done right, either. Conan O'Brien climbed unsteadily onto the stage to provide the evening's token celebrity appearance (the Lampoon has an incredible number of graduates with influential behind-the-scenes entertainment jobs, but for on-screen talent we're pretty much left with Conan, George Plimpton (absent) and old publicity stills of the late Fred Gwynne, who played Herman Munster), spending much of his brief rant abusing the service workers recovering spoons. And then came one of the two things that would have justified the entire weekend, for me, even without the elephant parade. My friend David Mirsky, whom I've written about before, went up to give a toast. For context, you must understand several things: 1) Mirsky is probably the funniest human being ever; 2) he is nearly impossible to shut up, and not very good at telling the difference between his best material and incomprehensible junk; 3) like me, he has gained weight and lost hair since college; 4) he has never been able to parlay his comic brilliance into a real job in entertainment; 5) he had insisted on participating in all the weekend's events wearing a Wal-Mart stock-clerk's vest in place of a suit-vest; and 6) maybe as many as fifty people in the audience of three hundred or so have the power to hire him into his dream job without having to consult anybody else first. His toast consisted of reporting, soberly, on his compiled list of the fifteen funniest Lampoon graduates ever (including giving the number two spot to a guy a couple years ahead of us whose main organizational role, when we knew him, was yelling at us whenever we screwed up some infinitesimally obscure detail of one of the initiation rituals), and while I'm in no position to tell whether he overcame his traditional hurdle, which is that people who aren't already convinced of his genius often can't tell what the hell he's talking about, I thought he was great, and I want to think the toast will turn out to have been a weirdly-timed job interview that he aced.
The toasts eventually trailed off, and it was time for the big finale. One of the graduates owns a laser-light-show company, and for this occasion he had covertly installed the mirrors and lasers and other apparatus into the corners and catwalks of the space. Laser light shows, however, lean towards lameness in the best of times (where by "best of times" I mean "when your audience consists of stoned teenage Pink Floyd fans"), and here, where the wall against which the most intricate designs were meant to play was only a semi-opaque, half-height curtain, the effects were much diluted. The music was thumping and generic, the glitterball sprayed green dots down on the tables, and after a few minutes it was over.
And then things begin exploding. We are, I have to reiterate, inside at this point. Inside a large, open-plan building composed of modern materials, to be sure, but still inside. I have never seen indoor fireworks before. Let me restate that: I have never seen "indoor fireworks" before, and I still haven't. These are outdoor fireworks, going off inside. There are sparklers mounted along the ceiling and across the edge of the stage, tracer rockets fire across the space (after the third one I realize these are on wires, but they are still plenty alarming), pinwheels spin high on the walls. Fire. Little tiny bits of fire, carefully calculated to burn themselves out before touching anything, admittedly, but fire all the same, and quite a lot of attendant smoke. And then, when we're all looking around with twenty percent fear and eighty percent reflexive bright-lights wonder, the flashpots go off. There are half a dozen of them, and I'm sitting something like a hundred feet from them, just about at the crowd's median distance, the nearest people more like fifteen or twenty feet away. The blast of heat that reaches my position isn't quite of hair-singing intensity, but it's heartbeat-disrupting, and inverts the fear/wonder percentages, at least. I do not believe the appropriate authorities were consulted before the rigging of this effect. Maybe the tolerances were well-understood and scrupulously observed, but I'm betting they weren't. We all got out (the doors were opened the instant the fireworks stopped, whether that was the original schedule or not) (I don't think we'll be asked back), but I have the palpable feeling, valuable even if illusory, that I have survived a serious misjudgment for the sake of entertainment, and was thus vividly reminded of the oft-forgotten power of danger, which was very much a part of my Lampoon education, and rarely part of what I've learned from other sources since. The limo fleet reappeared, we retreated to our own Castle again, and I spent several pleasant hours sitting on a recently-restored and soon-to-be-redestroyed sofa in one of our secret rooms, inventing grotesque thought-balloons for grown-ups who had wandered in and then fallen asleep in their chairs. Upstairs, the kids danced ironically to songs I hate.
In my day, I say, courting revisionist nostalgia, we played better dance music. I graduated from college in 1989, so the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video hadn't happened yet, and a whole generation of kids hadn't been taught that dancing involves mainly belligerence and jumping motions. The Castle didn't get a CD player until late in my stay, so our parties ran on dance tapes. There were two basic types of dance tapes, the first being the ones that my friend Bill made, which included all the traditional Lampoon dance-tape songs and were enjoyed and danced to by everybody. The other type were the ones that I made, which involved a mixture of songs nobody but me knew, songs you couldn't dance to if you tried, and things I wanted people to shut up and listen to. I still have one from October of 1997, labeled "Dance tape #1 (gpm)", whose contents I will list here mostly without artists to demonstrate its essential perversity. Side one: "In a Big Country", "Holidays in the Sun", "Black Cars", "Downtown Train" (Patty Smyth's cover), "Papa Don't Preach", "Sex as a Weapon", "Watusi Rodeo", "Yes or No", "Lonely Night", "Kiss the Bride", "Tracks of My Tears" (Big Country's cover); side two: "Waltz the Halls", "Celiba Sea", "Sex Talk", "Good Girls Don't" (note the anti-sex theme of this last trio and a few on side one, always an extremely popular line of argument to introduce into a drunken college party), "Faraway Nearby", "Call Me Names", "Trashed" (good to pick on the drunks explicitly, too), "Does Your Mother Know", "Ways to Be Wicked", "Queen of Hearts", "Gimme Shelter" (the floor-clearing Sisters of Mercy version).
Which leads me, and maybe you thought I wasn't going to get there, to Motown. The column about my uneasy relationship with black music, a few weeks ago, assuaged my guilt, but piqued my curiosity, so despite having concluded that I didn't need, in any moral sense, to try to consciously increase the racial diversity of my music collection, the more I thought about it the less likely it seemed to me that my tastes were really as monochromatic as I represented them, so the very next day I went to the record store and bought the first dozen things it occurred to me to suspect I might already actually like: a couple Marvin Gaye reissues, sprawling Donna Summer and Temptations anthologies, Tricky's Pre-Millennium Tension, the two M People albums I didn't have, and then, because I remembered a few old songs from Bill's dance tapes, everything I could find from the Motown Ultimate Collection series where I recognized more than one song title. As soon as I started playing the Motown discs, I realized that it there weren't just a couple songs I knew, there were lots of them. Bill must have been working from earlier incarnations of these same collections, because an entire era comes flooding back as I work my way through them. Learning Motown from the Lampoon might be considered a grim irony, since the organization has not, to this day, found an effective way of translating its success in recruiting women into any notable success in recruiting minorities, especially black people. I think there were three black staff members during my entire tenure, and only one of them put in an appearance at the 125th (and that one, perhaps oddly, is now one of the world's most mainstream music critics). And if the aesthetic center of black music, reckoning from 2001, is hip-hop, then many of these old pop songs might as well be Barry Manilow. But you make a start where you can, and this is mine.
Everything begins, irrevocably and inevitably, with "Dancing in the Street". During the week-long Lampoon initiation process, when I went through it, every morning began with a combination public-humiliation/morning-calisthenics routine performed out in Bow Street to the sounds, blasting out of an upstairs window, of this song, and later on, when the ordeal was done, it was reused as an anthem of deliverance. Perhaps no piece of music is more firmly associated, in my mind, with a specific set of physical sensations, of the smell of Cambridge on an early-winter morning and the puzzled (and, we thought at the time, probably correctly, envious) looks from passing morning commuters, of climbing onto a table and smashing two-dollar bulk-purchase china plates into the sides of priceless antique wooden furniture (which the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum people only keep offering to buy from us because we haven't let them into the building to see what condition it's in in a really long time), of kicking lobster carcasses and bowls of butter into the Delft tiles, turning the floor of the hall into a combination of broken glass and low friction almost guaranteed to necessitate stitches for somebody before the night is over. (In recent years they've started sweeping up this debris right after the smashing, which, as a non-drinker who came to think of the injuries as meet punishment for anybody who let themselves get too drunk to walk steadily, seems like a regrettable development to me.) The drums at the start are as indelibly etched on my mind as the intro to "In a Big Country", the first six notes as unmistakable to me as the hook to Beethoven's Fifth. The kettle-drum rolls and implacable pace seem, in retrospect, to prefigure a spectrum of clattering pop from 90125 to So to The Downward Spiral. The massive snare-crash and the tiny tambourine rustle, paired on the downbeats, are at once epic and intimate. I am almost constitutionally unable to listen to this song without breaking into a jerky dance-walk, one foot forward on each crunch, bouncing the heel of the other foot on the off beats as you swing it forward for the next step, a slow way of traveling, but perfect for groups more concerned with moving in style than with moving far. If the Army marched like this, I think the military would be a lot more popular as a career option.
Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: "I Can't Dance to That Music You're Playing"
I like quite a few Martha Reeves songs, but my suspicion that they aren't actually expanding my horizons is nowhere stronger than on "I Can't Dance to That Music You're Playing", which isn't one of the ones I remember from college. The piano hook is the ancestor of the Hill Street Blues theme and Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, the quick, twitchy drums could be transplanted straight into any fey indie-pop song you'd like, the dry vocal production (and these Ultimate Collection albums opt, brightly, to use the 45 versions even when they don't have pristine masters to work from) has come around again, and only a slinky sax and some transitional scat cadences show where the line between r&b and pop used to run. Plus, I'm hopelessly enchanted by a song that complains about that new noisy music, blissfully oblivious to the fact that by the time I hear it, thirty-two years later, it will still be making the same point.
Diana Ross & the Supremes: "Stop! In the Name of Love"
The biggest surprise from this round of investigations, to me, is discovering that I like the Supremes. Without a track-list for reference, I would have guessed that I disliked Diana Ross for all the same reasons I can't stand Whitney Houston. And maybe I do detest her solo work, I haven't tried to find out yet. But I like the Supremes. In fact, I like the Supremes a lot. It's possible that I like them not just as history, or as Lampoon nostalgia (although they're excellent for that; at least seven of the songs on their Ultimate Collection installment sound familiar to me), but just as a band, the same way I like Mascott or Gay Dad or bis. The song with the most old resonance is "Stop! In the Name of Love", which might have been song two on the morning tape and certainly figured into the dancing, coy and theatrical without the Jacksons' squeakiness. Anybody inclined to idealize the relative musical sophistication of the mid-Sixties or Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting would do well to note that this song uses a single invariant drumbeat straight through the verses and the chorus, not a fill or cymbal splash to be found. Anybody inclined to fault pop songs for their simplicity should note that one drumbeat serves this song's needs just fine.
Diana Ross & the Supremes: "I'm Livin' in Shame"
My new favorite Supremes song, though, is this post-H/D/H melodrama, somewhere between that song about teen pregnancy in Grace of My Heart and the family-origins reconciliation of Elaine Mar's Chinese-American childhood-memoir Paper Daughter, which I just happened to read. "In a college town / Away from home a new identity I found", Ross hisses, and I'm not sure that's exactly what I did, but the feeling that it was possible was clearly a large part of the thrill. How it took another eight or nine years to get from these crisp verse/chorus transitions and sweeping string pads to disco, I have a hard time imagining.
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: "Tracks of My Tears"
The Motown song it's hardest to believe I've never owned before now is the original version of "Tracks of My Tears", which I've loved in Big Country's New-Year's-Eve-concert-recording b-side form for what is now more than half of its lifetime. I'll always hear this one backwards, Robinson's fluttery falsetto a bizarre contortion of Stuart Adamson's bleary, end-of-night reticence, but that's OK, history runs in both directions. And Big Country's version lacks these spiraling multi-part rondos and harmonies.
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles: "Tears of a Clown"
The original I like even better is the Miracles' only dual r&b/pop #1, "Tears of a Clown", which I know from the English Beat's version. In this case the original is arguably more pop than the cover, especially by comparison, the Miracles treating the clown parts like clown parts but playing the rest straight, without the squawky dub-reggae edge of the remake. Again here, the drum part anticipates later pop perfectly, and the horns and whistling sound to me like the beginnings of what would later carry "MacArthur Park" from Donna Summer through the Negro Problem.
The Four Tops: "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)"
I didn't know I was a Four Tops fan, either, and from title-memory I thought this song was one of the ones I'd have to skip in the interest of finding out what the others sound like, but although the "Sugar pie, honey bunch" lyrics make me feel a little queasy, the details of the production are unexpectedly mesmerizing. The unison piano/violin hook sounds like the inspiration for "Come On Eileen", the lead vocal is more nuanced than I expect from a synched-hand-movement vocal group, the drums combine a metronomic quarter-note snare with a crinkly every-other-beat tambourine, and the backing arrangement is layered and intricate, with string blasts, mallet chimes and sax bleat intermingling with the gurgling bass and choppy rhythm guitar.
The Four Tops: "Walk Away Renee"
The definitive version of "Walk Away Renee", in my opinion, I would have thought, is the Left Banke's velvety orchestral-pop swoon. The Four Tops' version has slithering strings, too, but Holland and Dozier reuse the drum tricks from "Dancing in the Street", one of the Tops switches into full-throated Tom Jones mode for the verses, the harmonies are more oblique and guarded, and in the end this treatment sounds less cartoonish and thus more satisfying to me. The Left Banke sound like they're singing to themselves about a girl. The Four Tops sound like they're singing to the girl. I'm still not certain what they're trying to tell her, but I'm sure it's more hopeful as entreaty than soliloquy.
The Four Tops: "7 Rooms of Gloom"
My backwards-history experience for the Four Tops is this H/D/H romp, released on my one-month birthday, redone many years later by Pat Benatar. The Four Tops' version starts with some barking James Brown-ish funk, which is hardly my idiom, but it settles into a groove in the second half, and the shifts and dynamics of Pat's version now make a whole lot more sense.
The Temptations: "My Girl"
I'm not going to argue with the public utility of the title of the double album of Temptations songs I got, Temptations at Their Best, but for my personal purposes the Temptations are at their best on their performance of Smokey Robinson's "My Girl", the opening track, and spend the next thirty-nine songs putting distance between themselves and their best, a process that results in the entire second disc being filled with spiky electro-funk that makes me anxious and irritable. "My Girl", though, is still nearly perfect, that same drum cascade from "Dancing in the Street" again, two of the most basic bass and lead-guitar riffs in music undergirding shiny horn and string fusillades that foreshadow ABBA, the harmonies hushed and soulful. The melody, sweeping up and down the scale, is at least as elemental as the tunes to "Do Re Me" and "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", and the lyrics aren't any more meaningless. If we ever have to explain pop to the aliens, this might be the place to start.
Marvin Gaye: "What's Going On" (album version)
I kind of guessed that I don't really like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder, but my weakness for deluxe editions weighed in on Gaye's side, and I bought two-CD versions of both What's Going On and Midnight Love. I was right, I don't really like either album, but I do find one moment to salvage from each. The one from What's Going On is the album version of the title track (the single and Detroit versions leave out the goofy, stereotype-reinforcing party dialogue ("Right on, baby!", "What's happening?" "Yeah, I can dig it."), without which the song isn't quite the same), which of course I also know from Cyndi Lauper's cover of it on True Colors. The lyrics haven't all held up so well ("Don't punish me with brutality" seems a little tautological, and "Oh, but who are they to judge us / Simply because our hair is long" ran out of gravity a long time ago), but the opening lines, "Mother, mother, / There's too many of you crying; / Brother, brother, brother, / There's far too many of you dying", are still haunting and essential, Gaye's weightless delivery promising redemption through compassion, and the fact that they emerge from the party chatter as the album opens suggests a reluctant but important interruption. Which is sort of the attitude I expect all musicians to take, pausing to think, for a moment, before presenting their litany of good reasons to want my time.
Marvin Gaye: "Sexual Healing" (original vocal version)
But the most remarkable single track in this entire pile, to me, is also a version of the one I would have been most exasperated to encounter when I was twenty and moralizing (as opposed to almost-thirty-four and moralizing), "Sexual Healing". Although biographer David Ritz, who had a hand in writing the lyrics, treats it as a time-honored classic in all facets, I don't think it should be that controversial if I contend that lyrically, "Sexual Healing" is awful. The rhymes are aggressively banal (oven/loving, longer/stronger, feeling/healing, tonight/right, morning/storming), the sentiment is superficial, the implied relationship dynamics are unbalanced. He doesn't need sexual healing, he needs to stop expecting that sex, which is at best a way of expressing emotions, will create those emotions. If you need to have sex to relieve your mind, you've got mind problems, and maybe sex problems, too.
But disc two of the set, The Sexual Healing Sessions, has an assortment of alternate takes and demos, and track three is Gaye's original three-tracked a cappella version of "Sexual Healing". The lyrics sound even more stupid without instruments to distract from them (and the album version has the sense to fade out before Gaye rhymes "procrastinate" with "it's not good to masturbate", which this version doesn't), but the performance is so breathtaking that I cease caring whether the words even qualify as language. Whatever I do or don't like about his musical style, Gaye was a magnificent singer, and this skeletal rendition, the backing parts muted and meticulous, the lead totally unrestrained (it sounds like he could be singing along with the full arrangement in headphones, but I think he's not), makes me wish a lot of things had been different. Perhaps if Gaye had set out to be a cross between Nick Drake and Bobby McFerrin, instead of Stevie Wonder and Barry White, I'd like his albums better and he'd still be alive. Sexual healing didn't cure him; what other treatments might a better support network have proposed? The gravest danger of excess, I suspect, is not that it jades or corrupts you, it's that it contaminates your understanding of success. If the Lampoon were really as careless and out-of-control as we'd like you to believe, like if we'd really hired a herd of elephants to march the Ibis past the Crimson on a cold, rainy day in March, I hope I wouldn't be bragging about it. I will remember the heat of the flashpots on my face, but in the same way I remember falling and hitting the back of my head on the floor during a roller-skating party when I was nine. Mirsky's toast was less visceral, but much more important. Seeing my old friends and enemies, and making some new ones, could have been done without the spoons, or the cheese course, or Conan O'Brien. We could easily have just stayed up talking, sequestered in the Castle, until the sun came back, and then dragged the kids outside for a history lesson. Bow Street still smells the same. The upstairs windows still open. We could teach them how you're supposed to walk while "Dancing in the Street" is playing. Maybe they'd grimace. I spent ten years thinking I didn't like this music, and perhaps they will, too. Maybe we can't do much more, ever, than to prepare people for later discovering how they've been wrong. "Backstreet's Back" is so much bigger than any of this, it's hard to argue or compete. But maybe the Lampoon doesn't need as much money as it thinks. Maybe I don't need as much money as I think, either. There's a reason I didn't follow all those people to LA, after all. The Lampoon was an incredibly important part of my life, a font of experiences I wouldn't otherwise have had, and am glad I did. But it's not how I want to live. Many of the things I learned there were bad, and the majority of the morals were cautionary. Arguably my affinity with "Dancing in the Street" is Stockholm Syndrome. I hate getting up early, I hate calisthenics. I see limousines cruise by, normally, and think "You pathetic asshole, just take a cab". For a night, I was that pathetic asshole. Do I excuse one night, or is the sum of one-time exceptions exactly the substance of the problem? Is social disintegration the work of a handful of dedicated nihilists, or every one of us, forgetting our principles for a few minutes at a time? Nobody wants it to be the latter; eternal vigilance is grueling. We want pogoing, and exploding, and the elephant parade. We get walking up stairs, and a weird click from the next room that doesn't correspond to anything when we go look, and dreams of elephants. We want triumphs and trophies, and we get traumas and, if we're lucky, a few good songs to help us remember that we survived.