Coming to the Canyon

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(Pictured: record producer Terry Melcher, at left, with Denny Doherty, Cass Elliott, and John Phillips, plus record mogul Lou Adler.)

I’ve recently read a book called Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family by Jeffrey Melnick. It’s only peripherally about the 1969 Tate-La Bianca murders, and much more about how Manson and his “family” were perceived at that time, and their impact on the culture in the years since.

I was particularly interested in Manson’s connections with three young men who called themselves the Golden Penetrators. Dennis Wilson was one of the Beach Boys; Terry Melcher, son of actress Doris Day, was a successful record producer; Gregg Jakobson was Wilson’s songwriting partner. They called themselves the Golden Penetrators for exactly the reason you would expect them to, as young, handsome and rich men in the garden of earthly delights that was Los Angeles in the last half of the 1960s.

The canyons of LA—Laurel, Benedict, Topanga and others—were the place to be for movie stars, musicians, and those who aspired to be one or the other, and the Golden Penetrators lived in the heart of that scene. Many in the canyons opened their homes to people who had come to town with showbiz dreams. Part of it was fashionable hippie-era selflessness, but part of it was precisely the opposite. The Golden Penetrators frequently took sexual advantage of young women seeking acting or singing careers. (This was often a two-way street, however. Record producer Kim Fowley, who took advantage himself, said many young women came with their eyes open: “Hi, folk-rock musicians! I’ll clean your house and fuck you and I’m vegetarian and I can make you macrobiotic stuff as you’re shooting heroin.”) Aspiring musicians like Manson could provide songwriting ideas or inspiration, as Manson did for Wilson. If they turned out to have real talent, they would need help navigating the record business—and would pay a commission or royalties to those who could provide it.

And so it came to pass that both Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher ended up with members of the Manson family living in their houses, and eventually outstaying their welcome.

Manson may have been a kindred spirit of the freaks, as that term was defined in the late 60s, but his musical dreams were straighter. He did not want to break rules and go his own idiosyncratic way, like canyon resident Frank Zappa (with whom Manson once tried to connect). Instead, he wanted to be part of Melcher’s scene, which included the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, and other canyon-based folk-rockers. Melcher eventually realized that Manson didn’t have talent enough to make it (although others disagreed, including Neil Young). And that’s where the trouble began.

At the time of the Tate-La Bianca murders, the media tossed around multiple potential motives, including a drug deal gone wrong and hippie rituals gone mad, as well as the idea that the killings had something to do with Terry Melcher. Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, had recently moved out of the Benedict Canyon house occupied by Sharon Tate, and it was speculated that Manson may have intended Melcher to be the victim.

After the murders in August 1969 and the arrest of the Manson family that December, the canyon scene changed. Melnick says, “A major effect of the killings was to draw a much firmer border between the freaks and the famous.” People whose houses had always been open to hippie visitors installed deadbolt locks and barred their windows. Nobody wanted to take in strangers who might turn around and slaughter them.

Melnick goes even further, noting that the music made by denizens of the canyon changed, too. The scene described by the Mamas and the Papas three years earlier, in “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” was no longer something to celebrate; instead, the new model was Graham Nash singing to Joni Mitchell in “Our House.” Melnick says of “Our House,” “The secure private home has replaced the dream of porous boundaries. The freaks have been sent on their way.”

The stuff about the music business is but a small part of Creepy Crawling. The book makes clear that even though Manson is dead and his family a part of history, (though three convicted in the Tate-La Bianca case are still alive in prison), they remain an influential force in American culture today, just as they’ve been across the half-century since their famous crime.

A new edition of The Sidepiece went out this morning. Check your spam filter. 

The Guys

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(Before we begin: Another edition of The Sidepiece went out yesterday. I do not intend it to be a weekly thing, but it has been so far. You can subscribe to The Sidepiece here.)

So now then:

Earlier this month, I wrote about “Maggie May,” touch football, and the coming of autumn. In addition to a pic of Rod Stewart, I included another photo with that post, a newspaper clipping my mother saved. I’m not going to post it again, as I think some of the guys in the picture would not want their 11-year-old selves repeatedly broadcast over the Internet, but you can go back and look at it

On the subject of old pictures, I should say here I do not consider myself a saver, although I am an accumulator. I have boxes of stuff from high school, college, old jobs, other places we have lived, boxes of pictures and boxes of newspapers and boxes of junk, but they’re not organized. I cannot go into a closet or walk down to the garage and pull out a specific piece of memorabilia on demand. (I could not even tell you where our wedding pictures are.) 

That one clipping, however, I have saved. 

Everyone has seen it, a famous photo of the Vietnam War: the South Vietnamese officer executing a prisoner by shooting him in the head. But there is also video of the moment. The officer raises his gun, shoots the man, he falls down dead, and the camera moves on.

While shocking, the film packs a lesser punch than the still photo. On film, the shooting is an incident, a ripple in the river of moving time. In the still photo, the moment is frozen. It is always happening, and it will never stop happening.

On an October afternoon in 1971, another film is made. It’s a home movie of the city park-and-rec sixth-grade touch football championship game, pitting the Northside Browns against the South Raiders. I get into the game briefly, which is by no means a certainty on that day, for I am the scrubbiest of the scrubs. Although I like to play football and other recess games, it is obvious from the way I move that I am no athlete and I am never going to be one. I gamely chase after the ballcarrier even though I have no hope of catching him.

Now the film cuts to a postgame scene. Excited, laughing Browns form up so the photographer from the local paper can take our championship picture. One boy, the team’s alpha dog, holds the trophy. We stand still and the photog snaps, then we break up to accept the congratulations of parents, siblings, friends. I am aware that I am being filmed, so as I walk away, I throw up a jubilant gesture at no one in particular, an upraised index finger into the sky, we’re number one.

The movie is no more than a few seconds, an incident, a ripple in the river of moving time. In the still photo, the moment is frozen. There is time to tell its story, what happened before and what happened after.

One of the guys is a banker.

One of the guys was my mother’s boss at her office job.

One of the guys runs his father’s company.

One of the guys taught me how to swear.

One of the guys was the best athlete of us all, but he stopped playing after one year of high school and I never knew why. 

One of the guys has a copy of this picture framed on the wall in his home office.

One of the guys I have beers with every once in a while. 

One of the guys came up to me a few years ago and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

One of the guys dated a girl I wanted but couldn’t speak to, yet I hated him for it anyway.

One of the guys I knew from the school bus and rarely saw anywhere else.

One of the guys I knew from church.

One of the guys I have no idea what became of. 

One of the guys is dead.

One of the guys is a writer who looks back at his young self with fondness and regret, thinking of roads both taken and not. 

In the still photo, the moment is frozen. It is always happening, and it will never stop happening. There is time to tell its story, what happened before and what happened after.

The Yiddish Are Coming

It is said that on the night of November 22, 1963, Lenny Bruce went through with a previously scheduled club date. (Nobody seems to know exactly where.) He walked on stage, looked at the audience for a moment, and then said (again, nobody is precisely sure, but this is a cleaner version), “Poor Vaughn Meader.”

Meader was the voice actor famed for his John F. Kennedy impersonation, the star of two wildly successful comedy albums written and produced by Bob Booker and Earle Doud. Cadence Records nearly scrapped the planned release of The First Family in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but going ahead proved to be a wise decision. The album spent three weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s monaural album chart in December 1962 and won Album of the Year at the 1963 Grammys. The First Family Volume Two, recorded in March 1963 and rushed out to capitalize on the success of the first, went to #4. But after Kennedy was assassinated in November, the label pulled the First Family albums from stores, and even went so far as having the unsold copies destroyed out of respect for the Kennedy family.

Meader wasn’t the only person involved with the First Family project whose career was derailed by the assassination. Bob Booker was also left figuring out what to do next. In 1965, Booker and a writing partner, George Foster, hit upon You Don’t Have to Be Jewish. The cast included Jack Gilford and Lou Jacobi, whose faces you would likely recognize; Bob McFadden and Frank Gallop, whose voices might be familiar; Betty Walker, a character actor and comic who had released a couple of albums featuring a one-sided telephone routine; and Arlene Golonka, then a Broadway actress who would later appear on practically every famous TV comedy show, including a co-starring role as Millie on Mayberry RFD. Booker and Foster didn’t duck the fact that most of the routines were based on material that was ancient even in 1965. As Allmusic.com puts it, “Those with a lowered tolerance for nagging-mother jokes should consider themselves warned.”

You Don’t Have to Be Jewish was a hit, going to #9 on the Billboard album chart in a 34-week chart run that started in September 1965. A sequel was inevitable: When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish reunited most of the cast of the first album with the exception of Gilford and Golonka, who recommended a young New Yorker named Valerie Harper to take her place. Phil Leeds also joined the cast, another character actor who did literally every TV comedy from the 50s to the 80s. When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish did not equal its predecessor’s performance but it did OK, making #22 in an 18-week run starting in April 1966. It also produced an actual hit single: Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad of Irving,” which is at the top of this post. It became a top-10 hit in Seattle and Denver, and it made #34 on the Hot 100 in May 1966. Valerie Harper got her own spot on the album on “A Call From Greenwich Village,” a telephone routine also featuring Betty Walker, which foreshadows the relationship between Rhoda Morgenstern and her mother (played by Nancy Walker) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Much of the same cast went back to the well in the fall of 1967 for The Yiddish Are Coming, the Yiddish Are Coming. This one scraped up to #165. One last album, The Jewish-American Princess, with Jacobi, Gallop, McFadden, and a Broadway veteran named Bea Arthur, came out in the fall of 1971. It made #183, and after that, the Booker/Foster Jewish comedy boom was good and truly over.

Some comedy is timeless, and some is timebound. These Jewish comedy albums are definitely in the latter category. Even in 1965, the audience often seems to be laughing in recognition of a particular sort of reality and not because the stuff is straight-up funny. Even the “The Ballad of Irving” doesn’t have much going for it beyond the amusing premise of a Jewish gunfighter in the Old West. A listener in 2020 may wonder why people are laughing at all. But 50 years ago, in a time not far removed from Allan Sherman’s heyday, when a great deal of stand-up comedy was heavily Jewish in outlook and the Borscht Belt was still a thing, the You Don’t Have to Be Jewish Players were right on time.

My Love You Didn’t Need to Coax

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(Pictured: young Rod Stewart hangs out.)

(Optional soundtrack for this post.)

This happened just the other day, on the kind of afternoon we get in September, warm, a lovely breeze, beautiful light. I stop by my neighborhood convenience store, step inside, and all of a sudden I’m not there anymore. That is because the in-store music is playing Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.”

I have an annual rendezvous with Maggie, the first time I hear her every fall, when she takes me back to the first time I ever heard her. It is 1971. I am back at Northside School for the sixth grade. I have been in love with pop music and the radio for a year. But an equal passion at the moment involves the organized city park-and-rec touch football games after school. At Recreation Park, we play on the field where our fathers played high-school ball in the 40s and 50s. Occasionally we play on a half-grass, half-gravel field across the street from Lincoln School, which I attended until halfway through second grade. Each game is a rabble of boys, running and yelling and grabbing and falling and getting back up again in the September light, soft and golden then as now, which crowns the trees and slowly lengthens the shadows. “Maggie May” brings back those images of 1971; it isn’t the only song that does it, but it’s one that has never left me. And it was probably late September, like in the song, when I went to the store and put down my 94 cents to bring Maggie home.

The 1971 Northside Browns, champions of the Grade Football League. I am in the back on the far left, and how my mother let me out of the house dressed like that I do not know. (Click to embiggen.)

WMEX in Boston and KRLA in Los Angeles, both rock-leaning Top 40 stations, were playing “Maggie May” as an album cut in early July 1971, and it was #1 in Boston as July turned to August. It was issued on a single with “Reason to Believe,” which was the original plug side; “Reason to Believe” is listed alone for its first four weeks on the Hot 100. On August 14, 1971, it appears for the first time as “Reason to Believe”/”Maggie May,” and the next week, as “Maggie May”/”Reason to Believe.” That’s the way the record is listed through five weeks at the top of the Hot 100, beginning on October 2, until it drops off the chart following the week of December 4, 1971. WLS, the only station that mattered to me, charted both sides of the record during the week of August 30, just as we went back to school, ranked both at #1 for four weeks starting September 27, and listed it through November. WLS ranked it at #4 for the entire year; Billboard had it at #2 behind Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” “Maggie May” was the #1 record for all of 1971 on radio stations in New York City, Buffalo, and San Jose; WFIL in Philadelphia listed “Maggie May” and “Reason to Believe” as co-#1s.

(“Reason to Believe” is a pretty potent memory trigger itself, with its piano chords tolling out the years.)

Rod and guitarist Martin Quittenton wrote “Maggie May” about how Rod lost his virginity to an older woman, but before I knew what it meant, I loved it for the sound of it on the radio. After many years had passed, I started associating it strongly with how it felt to be alive in the fall of 1971: not just hearing it on the radio, not just experiencing band practice and enjoying touch football, but being truly conscious of the change of seasons for the first time in my life, the sights and sounds of crops being harvested, the need to wear a coat to school, the earlier coming of sunset, and the welcome weight of an extra blanket at night. I also hear “Maggie May” as a song about the pull of home, our reluctance to let the days of our lives slip away—how we hold tight to the good ones and even a few of the bad ones—and how we are compelled to revisit them. We love those days and the songs that soundtracked them because they tell us about ourselves: who we have been, who we are, and now that we’re older, who we’re going to be.

And there’s something else about how much that song means to me, something I’ve said here before: The Mrs. and I have no children. But if we’d had a daughter, I’m pretty sure she would have been named Maggie May.

The Heights of ’75

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(Pictured: Elton John gets airborne, October 25, 1975.)

I’ve written here before about Elton John’s best year ever—from the release of his Greatest Hits album and bringing John Lennon back to the stage at the end of 1974 to playing the Pinball Wizard in the Tommy movie to a pair of #1-debuting albums at a time when nobody had ever done it. The summer of ’75 also featured the fabled Midsummer Music show in London, at which Elton and his new band played all of the new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.

That’s not even a whole year. That’s six months.

It’s hard to fathom the pressure Elton was under during the summer of 1975. After making Captain Fantastic, he fired his longtime bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, who had been with him since he was living in his mother’s house. On June 21, the Midsummer Music show was his new band’s first live gig, and in Elton’s words to the crowd at the end of the show, “We were shit scared.” Back in the States a week later, Elton appeared onstage with the Doobie Brothers in Oakland. One night in July, as the band finished Rock of the Westies at Caribou Ranch in Colorado, he came on with the Rolling Stones at their show in Fort Collins, and, as he admitted in his autobiography, he overstayed his welcome onstage thanks to loads of cocaine.

Elton’s brief West of the Rockies Tour opened in San Diego on September 29, 1975. That show, at the San Diego Sports Arena, has been extensively bootlegged, and it recently turned up at the fabulous ROIO. On that night, the band played for nearly 3 1/2 hours (although the show would get shorter as the month-long tour went on). Elton opened with “Your Song,” and the setlist had all the classics Elton fans of ’75 would have expected. He played several cuts from Captain Fantastic and two from Rock of the Westies, including “Island Girl,” his new single, which Elton said from the stage had been released just that day. He played some deep cuts: “Dixie Lily” from Caribou, “Harmony” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and “Empty Sky,” the title song from his 1969 album, which had gotten its first American release earlier in 1975. The bootleg closes with “Pinball Wizard,” although some shows on the tour ended with “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” (I have a bootleg of the October 14 Portland show, and it ends with “Pinball Wizard” too.)

It is not unusual for a band on the road to require a few dates to warm up, and at this show, the band sometimes comes off awkward and lumbering. Elton is strong and clear but he sometimes struggles to hit high notes, and he occasionally launches into a painful-sounding falsetto. But it’s by no means a bad show: the Captain Fantastic and Rock of the Westies songs are reinvented minus the Cheez Whiz slathered on them in the studio, and Elton alone at the piano, as he was at the beginning of the show, playing some of his earliest songs, is always worth the price of admission.

The bootleg contains a lot of Elton’s stage banter. At one point, a fan who sent him a gift is thanked by name and seat number: “She got my hat size wrong but I’m going to wear it anyway,” he says. He’s almost obsequious sometimes, as if he were begging the audience to like him, as if he were not already the most popular rock star on Earth.

The West of the Rockies tour consisted of single shows in San Diego, Tucson, Las Vegas, Tempe, Salt Lake City, and Portland, and two-night stands in Denver, Seattle, and Vancouver. The first 12 shows were at indoor arenas, but the last five were in baseball stadiums: three nights at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and two nights at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles shows, on October 25 and 26, 1975, featured opening acts Emmylou Harris and Joe Walsh, plus a gospel choir and a crowd in excess of 55,000 each night. If there’s a moment when Elton John went from #1 to whatever’s higher than that, the Dodger Stadium shows, and the end of the West of the Rockies tour, were that moment. But there’s only one direction you can go from the highest high. Elton would again play in America during the summer of 1976, score his biggest hit single to date (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) and release another album that fall, Blue Moves. But he’d never again scale the heights of ’75.

Past Masters

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The Beatles released their last album of new material, Let It Be, in April 1970. But by that time, the re-purposing of Beatles content (not a phrase anyone would have used, but an idea whose time had come nevertheless) was underway.

—Even before Let It Be, in February 1970, Apple released Hey Jude, a compilation mostly of singles and B-sides that had been hard to find in America since their original release, thanks to Capitol’s practice of reprogramming Beatles albums for North America. Although it’s completely forgotten today, Hey Jude went to #2 on the Billboard 200.

—In 1973, in response to the success of a copyright-violating Beatles compilation called Alpha Omega, came the fabled “red” and “blue” releases: The Beatles: 1962-1966 and The Beatles: 1967-1970. During the week of May 26, 1973, the two albums sat at #3 and #1 respectively on the Billboard 200. They were critical in the musical education of kids who had missed the 60s. Young me bought the blue one; the young Mrs. bought the red one.

—In 1976, responding to the success of a couple of Beach Boys compilations and a cresting wave of nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s, Rock and Roll Music hit the stores. It was boosted by an honest-to-goodness hit single, “Got to Get You Into My Life,” repurposed from Revolver. Rock and Roll Music went to #2 on the Billboard 200; Wings at the Speed of Sound kept it from #1.

—A year later, some sketchy 1962 recordings made at the Star Club in Hamburg and released on a couple of obscure European labels started getting some traction, to the point at which the Beatles sued to keep them off the market. Capitol dipped into its vaults for The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, recorded in 1964 and 1965. Although prominent critics praised it, what listeners heard most clearly was the frenzied screaming of the audiences. It went to #2 on the Billboard 200 during the summer of 1977, but was quickly forgotten and fell out of print for 30 years. (The album was reissued in 2016, remixed to clean up the sound.)

—At the end of 1977 came another two-disc compilation in the mold of Rock and Roll Music: Love Songs. (In his book Dreaming the Beatles, Rob Sheffield differentiates the two albums as the one with fast songs and the one with slow ones.) It hit record stores just in time for Christmas, but made it only to #24—the first Beatles album of any sort to place below #3 on the American charts since Capitol’s first repurposing effort, the 1964 album The Early Beatles.

—In 1980, Rarities collected songs that were, for various reasons, hard to find in America, including alternate versions and rare mono or stereo mixes. Most notable among these were “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” which had been the flipside of “Let It Be,” and the German-language version of “She Loves You,” “Sie Liebt Dich.” Rarities went to #21 in Billboard.

—In 1982, Reel Music collected songs from the soundtracks of A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be. Several songs appeared in stereo for the first time in America. Released with the album but not appearing on it was “The Beatles Movie Medley,” a cheesy and overlong montage that rose to #12 on the Hot 100 mostly on curiosity value at the height of the medley craze. (On the whole it’s not good, but some of the transitions from one song to another are well done.) This was Capitol, and its British parent company, EMI, scraping the bottom of the Beatle barrel: the band remained the most popular of all time, but EMI was running out of ways to monetize them.

—At the end of 1982, purportedly to celebrate the 20th anniverary of the band’s first hits but also just in time for holiday shopping, came 20 Greatest Hits which, in pure Capitol/EMI fashion, was released in separate UK and US configurations. Perhaps America was Beatled out at that point, as the album made it only to #50.

—In 1987, the Beatles’ original albums began coming out on CD, in their UK configurations. This necessitated a series of albums to catch up on the non-album singles: Past Masters Volumes 1 and 2, which were released in 1988.

—In the CD era, Beatles compilations remained thick on the ground. Three volumes of Anthology went to #1 in 1995 and 1996; the compilation titled simply 1 went into millions of Christmas stockings in 2000 and was Billboard‘s #1 album of the year in 2001.

Fifty years after the Beatles’ breakup, with streaming the main mode of musical consumption, this kind of catalog chopping and channeling will happen no more. (At least not at the behest of a record company. Playlisting is another thing altogether.)