Category Archives: music

Again with Allan Sherman

Allan ShermanI recently interviewed Mark Cohen, whose terrific new biography of Allan Sherman is Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. Sherman was the song parodist who sold millions of records briefly in the 1960s, Cohen’s contention is that Sherman’s work — My Son, The Folk Singer, etc. — helped invent the modern Jewish personality.

The article I wrote, based on the book and the interview, is Nothing to be Ashamed of. The transcript of the full interview with Mark is here.  You can read the profile I wrote of Allan Sherman a while back, Hail to Thee Fat Person.

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Hey Keith, ‘Hey Joe’

As I was leafing through Keith Richards’ new autobiography, Life, before diving in, I found this offhand mention of how one of rock’s great guitarists got his hands on one of rock’s great guitar songs:

“And then, so [Richards’ ex-girlfriend] Linda [Keith] says, she also picked up a copy of a demo I had of Tim Rose singing a song called ‘Hey Joe.’ And took that round to Roberta Goldstein’s, where Jimi was, and played it to him. This is rock-and-roll history. So he got the song from me, apparently.”

Tim Rose?

While I had never gone searching for the origins of “Hey Joe,” I always  knew Jimi Hendrix wasn’t the first to record it. Once when the song was playing on the radio, my mom told me she had heard an earlier version of the song.  She couldn’t recall the singer, or when she heard it.  But I’ve always kept my ears open for that mysterious other version. Could Tim Rose, who I had never heard of, be the singer my mom meant?

So I began my online search. It turns out that both “Hey Joe” and Tim Rose have complicated stories.

“Hey Joe” rose from a tradition of folk songs in which an enraged man shoots his two-timing lover down. The creation of the song itself is disputed, although it was registered for copyright in the U.S. in 1962 by Billy Roberts, according to Wikipedia. A number of uptempo versions were recorded in 1965-’66, including one by the Byrds.

Rose’s version, by contrast, was slow and brooding.  Rose, who recorded “Hey Joe” in 1966, always maintained that “Hey Joe” was a traditional song that he had arranged. He died in 2002.

If you know Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” by heart, see how powerful Rose’s 12-string guitar version was, in this 1969 performance:

Here is an older Rose discussing and performing the song.  And an opportunity to put Rose and Hendrix side by side.

My mom died in 1986. She would have been 91 today.

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A good shellacking.

ShellacPresident Obama said he took  “a shellacking”  from voters in last week’s elections. I’ve never used the term myself and, except for possibly one woodworking project at Roeper day camp in 1965 , I don’t think I’ve ever given anything a good shellacking.

But all that is changing. From now on,  I’m going to pepper my conversation with “a good shellacking.”  It seems enormously fun to say.

Shellacking, meaning to take a beating,  apparently grew out of 1920s slang. And shellac, that liquid finish I brushed onto my wood project in the 1960s, “is a kind of resin made from the secretions of a tropical insect known as the lac,” Ben Zimmer writes in “The Story Behind Obama’s ‘Shellacking’ “

If that isn’t creepy enough, according to “What is the wood sealer shellac made from and where does it come from?” those secretions are flaky.

You might be thinking that this is too much information, but there really is so much more to know. You can make your own shellac. And apparently those shellac 78 rpm records were not made entirely of shellac.

You can learn about shellac from a 2nd Amendment point of view at “The C&R Riflestock Cleaning and Preservation Forum,” where you’ll also become acquainted with the community’s lingo through comments like, “That would beat the heck out of the monkey tails the Ruskies are using to shellac some of those Albanian stocks I’ve seen lately!”

Finally, there is Shellac the noise rock, or maybe math rock, band.

And if you’ve read this far, chances are you feel like you’ve taken a good shellacking.

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Cranberry sauce.

The Beatles -- Abbey RoadI’ve always prided myself as a person who doesn’t fall for hoaxes or give way to conspiracy theories. But a recent article made me realize that I indeed had once been sucked in by one of these far-fetched rumors. It happened in October 1969, around the time I turned 11.

Maybe I was home from school that afternoon, or maybe it was a Saturday, but I remember being home alone when I heard the announcement on my favorite radio station, WKNR-AM (Keener 13) in Detroit. I don’t know precisely what the announcement said, or how long it lasted, but it was enough to propel me downstairs from my bedroom to pull out the most recent Beatles albums we had. I spent a good while tracking down the clues the radio had said pointed to the conclusion that Paul McCartney was dead.

Paul was said to have died two years before and the Beatles were using a McCartney double to hide the tragedy. Despite the cover up,  the Beatles had laced their recent work with clues that revealed the truth about Paul:  There on the back cover of Sgt. Pepper was Paul, his back turned to the viewer, separated from his front-facing, living bandmates. There he was on Abbey Road, crossing the street barefoot, past a Volkswagen whose license plate read “28IF” — Paul would have been 28 years old if he had lived. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” John Lennon seems to be saying, “I bury Paul.”

The house felt creepy, as if I had just woken from a bad dream.

Over time the Paul is Dead phenomenon faded, then ceased to be relevant. Along the way, John explained that he was saying “cranberry sauce” on the record, not “I bury Paul.” And a few years back I learned that Keener 13 (which in the early ’70s I abandoned for FM radio) was instrumental in spreading the rumor nationally.

In October, an article appeared in Michigan Today that detailed the role a mischievous University of Michigan student named Fred LaBour played in energizing the Paul is Dead rumor. LaBour wrote a full-page story in the student-run Michigan Daily, offering details of McCartney’s death in a car accident. He repeated the clues then circulating and offered more of them, saying the Beatle’s death was fact, not rumor. Many of the clues LaBour made up.

Today the whole thing seems like a quaint heirloom from the increasingly distant 1960s, nothing more than a feverish alternate reality no longer populated by truth seekers. The truth is pretty obvious now.

But I still don’t think John was saying “cranberry sauce.”

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Dylan’s 7 Mirrors

Bob DylanI  love to see you dress before the mirror
Won’t you let me in your room one time ‘fore I finally disappear?

–Abandoned Love


The palace of mirrors
Where dog soldiers are reflected,
The endless road and the wailing of chimes,
The empty rooms where her memory is protected,
Where the angels’ voices whisper to the souls of previous times.

— Changing of the Guards


Drinkin’ man listens to the voice he hears
In a crowded room full of covered up mirrors
Lookin’ into the lost forgotten years
For dignity

— Dignity


Equality, liberty, humility, simplicity.
You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear
At the back of your head as you drink
And there’s no time to think.

— No Time To Think


We live in a political world
Where mercy walks the plank,
Life is in mirrors, death disappears
Up the steps into the nearest bank.

— Political World


Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near
She’s delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna’s not here

— Visions of Johanna


“Go on back to see the gypsy.
He can move you from the rear,
Drive you from your fear,
Bring you through the mirror.
He did it in Las Vegas,
And he can do it here.”

— Went to See the Gypsy

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Gotta get my Fred and Wilma.

Fred and Wilma FlintstoneI wrote about Woodstock briefly earlier this month, and since then some more Woodstock news has crossed my desk. First is The Road to Woodstock, a memoir cowritten by Michael Lang, one of the festival’s creators. (Interesting fact: Bob Dylan, who lived nearby, was not invited to perform.)

Second item: A re-release of the Woodstock movie. It includes extra footage of performers shown in the original cut, plus performances of CCR and the Dead, who were not included in the 1970 film.

Now to Fred and Wilma.

I remember first seeing Joe Cocker perform around 1970 on the old Tom Jones variety show. It aired on Sundays around dinner time, and I remember Cocker’s spastic performance gave our digestive systems quite a jolt.

Cocker’s been easy to parody. John Belushi’s imitation of the bluesy singer was brilliant in its boorish eccentricity. But I’m also wondering if it was so effective because Cocker, especially in his immediate post heyday, was such an easy target — in the way that anyone visibly different makes an inviting target. (You’ve never seen a kid in a supermarket pointing and saying too loudly, “Mommy, why is that man standing so upright, and why are his features so average, and why is his face so symmetrical and pleasing?” — have you?)

Anyway, I came across this video again of Cocker’s Woodstock performance of “With a Little Help from My Friends.” It’s the video that hilariously tries to make sense of Cocker’s famously muddy phrasing. That’s where Fred and Wilma come in. Take a look.

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