The 33 1/3 Odyssey: Ebony and Ivory

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33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each book focusing on a single album. This is the third installment of one reader’s quest to read all 55 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s just one opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!

Part 5 of 55 Live at the Apollo (James Brown), by Douglas Wolk (#13 in the series)

When most people think of James Brown, they conjure up the hyperspeed grooves of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” and “Cold Sweat.” Live at the Apollo was a coupla years before “Papa” and the frantic, syncopated funk that Brown made his trademark. This album is JB as a soulful, bluesy crooner — a stage of his career that folks often skip right over nowadays.

That isn’t to say he took it easy in ’62; even then, a James Brown stage show was one part adrenalin and two parts crackling sexual charge. Can a scribe capture that in print? Obviously Douglas Wolk thought he could — and he does. The book doesn’t skimp on facts and figures (what was on the charts when, and who re-recorded it later and how it fared…) but Wolk captures the energy of the show as well. Or rather, of the shows; the recording is actually made up of takes from more than one show during a week-long stint at the Apollo in Harlem. Brown had rented out the hall himself to record a live album after his record company refused, saying it was a bad idea and a waste of money.

“James Brown screams and sweats and implores,” Wolk writes. “His path is a jagged slash… James Brown is a vector of chaos.” Come on — that’s some good sh*t right there. And if the book occasionally gets a bit florid, so what? James Brown was not about subtlety; why feel bound to use it when describing him?

The book is full of stuff you might know, and some you may not — for instance, the recording was made smack dab in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wolk uses the political play-by-play to help build tension, and it sure adds to the screaming crowd’s sense of abandon, at least in theory. This is probably the only book you’ll ever read that lays out an evening’s timeline that includes both James Brown and Nikita Khrushchev. Let’s get it on, people — for tomorrow we may die.

Part 6 of 55: Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), by Jim Fusilli (#19 in the series)

I’ve avoided Pet Sounds for ridiculous reasons. As a musician who’s spent plenty of time in recording studios, if I had a nickel for every time someone busted out a Brian Wilson genuflection I’d be pretty well off. Yes, I do know this is irrational, but from listening to the radio growing up and from reading countless magazine articles on this album, it feels as if I’ve sat and listened to it all the way through many times, even though I hadn’t — not once, in fact — when I read this book.

Part of the avoidance is also the Mike Love Factor. Do you know any Mike Love fans? Me neither. Love fought Brian Wilson to keep the band’s “formula” intact, grinding his brilliant but fragile cousin to a nub. For an encore, he’s done a pretty thorough job tearing down what Brian Wilson built up in terms of public perception of and respect for the Beach Boys. To music geeks, the Beach Boys mean Brian Wilson and his uncanny ability to hear full arrangements in his head and to bring them to fruition using the best players available. To the casual listener, the face of the Beach Boys is Mike Love, still slogging around pot-bellied in a Hawaiian shirt — using the Beach Boys name — singing “Surfin’ U.S.A” at casinos, private corporate events and the occasional state fair. When he’s not suing all his former bandmates, that is, or gifting us with wretched turds like “Kokomo.” This shouldn’t matter, but somehow it does. I mean, The Fall and Belle and Sebastian both took swipes at him in song, so it can’t just be me. If anyone out there is truly waiting for his postponed Mike Love, Not War solo LP to appear, I’d sure like to meet ‘em. Heck, even Beach Boys completists have their limits. I digress.

Back to the book (or rather, maybe it’s about time we got to it.) It’s obvious that author Jim Fusilli is in awe of Brian Wilson. He spends most of the book detailing either Brian’s genius in the studio or the endless obstacles Wilson faced in trying to complete his visionary recordings. No pretense of objective critical analysis is even attempted; the author got goose bumps sitting next to Wilson at a music panel, and is still downright giddy when recalling it. Take-home message: Jim Fusilli thinks Brian Wilson is a genius, and so should you. He’s a fan-boy, albeit with the killer vocabulary you’d expect from the Wall Street Journal’s music critic.

But is he right? Yeah, probably. After digesting Fusilli’s meticulously detailed notes on the Pet Sounds recording sessions, there was a sizeable stack of musical moments I wanted to check out on the CD. The gorgeous “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, for instance. “With sections in G minor, E Flat major, C minor and B flat major, the structure is eminently logical and fluid.” I mean, doesn’t it make you want to check that shit out to see if it is… uh… eminently logical and fluid? Fusilli saves “God Only Knows” for last, which is nice. I don’t consider too many songs transcendent — it’s an overused term — but this one truly earns that shingle. Just reading about it made me want to pull on the headphones immediately and listen to it again, in all its symphonic wonder. And, joyously, that can be done without distraction — Mike Love doesn’t sing it. Good call, Brian. He isn’t worthy.

Footnote: Agree? Disagree? Want to suggest which two get the scribble treatment next week? That’s what the comments thread is here for — let us know!

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3 Comments

  1. Posted February 27, 2008 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    As a Beach Boys o-phile, I appreciate your comments. So much has been written or said about BW, especially in the last 10 years, that there seemingly is nothing left. Once you have your photo taken with George W. Bush in the White House, where do you go from there? Just ask Elvis. I too see Mike Love as predatory, destructive and someone, who now in his 60’s, just cannot let things alone from decades ago. Perhaps nine (?) marriages will do that to you emotionally and financially. But, wasn’t meditation supposed to cure that? In saying all that, I (get ready to throw rotten vegetables…) do see Mike as an important contributor to the band. He is 1/6 of the greatest group America produced during the rock/pop era. He has had some important moments, notably Warmth of the Sun. I saw Mike, Bruce and the fakebeachboys again last summer at a casino. They ran through the traveling juke box, gave props to Carl, and insulted Al. Pretty much the same schtick of the last 25 years. But even with John Cowsill and one of Mike’s sons singing lead, I still found myself enjoying the evening. I did feel bad on the drive home– a little dirty, a little guilty. But, I’ll undoubtedly go again. Just like with Brian, you never know when it will be the last time.

  2. Anthony Lombardi
    Posted February 27, 2008 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    The James Brown one is among my favorites in this series as it does a great job of breaking down James Brown the costumed character and gives you insight into James Brown the virtuoso perfectionist who strived to make a live record as perfect as one from the studio.

    Pet Sounds… Wilson is lauded for this and should be, and Love is perfectly cast as the villian for bridging them all the way to Kokomo and a minor league ballpark near you.

    With that said, I often wonder why all the Beach Boys “fans” out there never discuss some of the not so genius moments of Wilson on Friends, 20/20, Wild Honey, Sunflower and Surf’s Up. Not to mention the completely botched original version of Smiley Smile which later became Smile. Candidly, this record is one that waters down this series of books.

    Not that the original poster, the author or the above commenter is doing so, but namechecking the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds means as much these days as Republican presidential heopfuls namechecking Ronald Reagan. There’s some iconography involved, but little else that means much.

  3. Posted February 29, 2008 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    Great work, Spike! Truly awesome reviews. Even when I disagree with you, you still make me laugh at your very funny writing (I like the Bruno book, for example, but you did a swell job of expressing your viewpoint in the final paragraph and using his lackluster quote).

    By the way, HATE comics creator Peter Bagge is a major defendant of Mike Love — and has an interesting argument why he’s undervalued by Beach Boys fans (good voice; kept the band going when it was falling apart; some other things). Pete also thinks the band was at their best when doing garage pop, before they started doing coy art songs cum teenage symphonies to gawd. I would elaborate myself, but I don’t care that much about the Beach Boys either.

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