Don’t hire this guy.
“Marriage is For Old Folks” by Nina Simone
“I’m Not the Marrying Kind” by Elvis Presley
“Separate Ways” by Elvis Presley
“When Did I Stop Loving You, When Did You Stop Loving Me?” by Marvin Gaye
Tuesday’s paper greeted our front porch with the alarming news that later this year publishing giant HarperCollins will be offering Go Set A Watchman, a sequel to Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, possibly the single most beloved work in American literature.
And no, this unexpected continuation isn’t some Alexandra Ripley audacity, it’s a sequel by Harper Lee herself, although actually written before To Kill A Mockingbird and said to have been rejected by the publisher because what they found most compelling was the flashbacks to the thirties which were adapted to create her Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The authenticity of the authorship of Go Set A Watchman isn’t in question — its whether the book was ever intended by its author to be published at all.
“Main Title” from Elmer Bernstein’s score for the 1962 film To Kill A Mockingbird
The names are confusing: to be clear, there’s no relation between HarperCollins, the publishing giant with such class to have once commissioned OJ Simpson’s If I Did It and the legendarily reclusive author. HarperCollins issued a second press statement three days later assuring us the 88-year-old author — by the accounts of friends is mostly blind, deaf and suffering from severe memory loss — consented to the release of the manuscript she carefully protected for sixty years.
Lee started work on a second novel in the 60s, and on a non-fiction account of an Alabama serial killer in the 80s, only to abandon each. Aside from a few brief essays, she never published again after To Kill A Mockingbird. She has granted almost no interviews, once declining a speaking engagement by saying “it is better to be silent than to be a fool.”
This 2011 story in Australia’s Daily Telegraph puts it in perspective. Then eighty-one years old Reverend Thomas Lane Butts of the Monroeville Methodist Church describes visiting the author: “She’s 95 per cent blind, profoundly deaf, bound to a wheelchair. Her short-term memory is completely shot, and poor in general. She knows who I am. Every couple of weeks or so I load her up in my car and we, as she says, ‘escape’ for the day.”
Harper Lee’s legal battles haven’t made headlines in recent years, but they’ve likely led her worries. The author has successfully sued a former agent and a Monroeville museum, both for profiting from her legacy, as well as the author of a biography which she claimed was unauthorized, who violated the trust of Lee and her sister.
Harper Lee’s extraordinary sister, Alice Lee was an attorney who practiced into her 100s. Lee once described her sister as “Atticus Finch in a skirt.” Unfortunately, her protector passed away several months ago at the age of 103, leaving the author of To Kill A Mockingbird unprotected from literary agents and publishers who saw dollar-signs in the long-stored manuscript which we are nervously assured is being published with its creator’s consent.
We can only imagine what Atticus Finch would do — and shit, Gregory Peck’s not even around to fill in for him. We’re just certain that every account of Harper Lee suggests a vulnerable adult. It’s the reason that we, as record store owners, won’t buy some collections when it seems the owner has not consented. Its the sort of decency we learned when we we first read To Kill A Mockingbird as kids. Apparently, there are some people at HarperCollins who haven’t read it yet, and its best they don’t or they won’t enjoy their millions of dollars.
In the Australian story about Monroeville, the Reverend Butts shares the reason Lee gave for never writing another book when he finally asked: “Two reasons,” she said,
One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill A Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.
Looking into the long history of Rank Strangers, who played their first local show at the Uptown Bar’s “new band night” twenty-five years ago, isn’t as simply surreal as falling into Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole — its like trying the explain the experience to someone who thinks you’ve had too much to drink. And Mike Wisti, who has fronted the band since its inception, hardly helps since he seems to enjoy the unexpected as much as we enjoy the scattered albums throughout the band’s storied career.
Any conversation with Wisti might take convoluted turns and quickly end up miles from Die Tucke des Objekcts, the last Rank Strangers album, which was released in 2009. Reading interviews with Wisti, let alone speaking with him yourself (which Dave did for City Pages a couple years ago) offers something deeper than the absurd rabbit hole — even his most casual observations are laced with insight and wit that take far longer to work through your system than a cake which says “Eat me” and makes you big.
Wisti’s journeys into the unexpected have made him one of the most successful recording engineers in the Twin Cities — his Albatross Studio has lent its subtle immediacy and warmth to several of our favorite records of recent years. And its wound Rank Strangers up tight with three albums’ worth of new songs. The first, Lady President, was delivered to record shop just before the new year, and the band has begun an ambitious series of in-store performances (they’ll be here Sunday afternoon along with the Union Suits) with the remaining releases planned for this fall and winter. If it seems like a lot all at once, it may be because Rank Strangers haven’t released an new record for several years.
“When the Pendulum Swings”
The band has seven albums and a series of scattered singles under its belt — and was once said to have been scouted by major labels in those heady mid-90s when that might have actually meant something — hard as it is to imagine Mike Wisti as a big label character like Craig Finn, we sure would enjoy his Spin interview. Music writers have wondered why this band isn’t famous for years, all the way back to an epic 1996 portrait by Brad Zeller, one of our favorites critics. They responded by writing a song about it.
Whether or not Wisti would still go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, Rank Strangers are as inventive as ever on Lady President, “unconnect[ing] the dots and utiliz[ing] the element of surprise,” as they say. To our pleasure, the album is less rooted in the Guide By Voices less-is-more/more-is-better lo-fi foundation, and built upon surprisingly familiar bases. “Its a Riot,” for instance, starts like an outtake from Armed Forces but becomes a striking recreation of a 70s Kinks song.
The maddeningly dense lyrics — typed out on an insert which looks like a lost section of “Industrialized Society and Its Future” — find the band less confrontational than on Die Tucke des Objekcts, almost a little weary with the opening two tracks, “When the Pendulum Swings” and “Children of the Czar.” The first introduces a “Burn Down the Mission” mentality which returns on the second side with “The Last Piranha,” and the second seems downright resigned. Both are built on bright melodies which belie the often oppressive alienation in the lyrics.
Like Feste, the clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night who “is wise enough to play the fool,” Rank Strangers don’t follow the same rules as the rest of the cast. Free to say anything without consequence, the band subtly mocks herd mentality in “Ringtones” and outright dismisses the King’s authority in our favorite track on the album, “The Governor.” Its joyous declarations accented by unexpected angular changes and a at one point an interplay between a guitar perfectly fuzzed and another magically, mysteriously melodic.
Duality drives much of Lady President, in lyrical references to the birds and the bees, shirts and skins and the Tin Man, but also in arrangements like “The Governor.” For a band which rarely follows conventional song structure, Rank Strangers seem consistently in tune with the concept of counterpoint — employing it in an almost-baroque tradition, for instance, with the relationship between Wisti’s vocal and bassist Davin Odegaards’ line in “Its a Riot,” while at the same time telling us in the chorus “its so old its new.”
“Ivan After 5″
Last year the band put out a sampler CD, and posted the cover art for Lady President and its two sequels, Ringtones and The Box. We’ve already posted on the precarity of releasing multiple albums at the same time (or in sequence), and increasing your total catalog by 20% seems audacious (we estimated there, but we expect Wisti is going to do the math and let us know the actual number). We just don’t believe the next two records will be as this one — they must have stacked all the best tracks on this first album!
Rank Strangers second record shop performance to promote the release of Lady President is here at Hymie’s this Sunday at 4pm. The Union Suits will be playing an opening set.
One of our favorite Fats Waller melodies, recorded in 1942. Along with Count Basie, Waller was one of the first keyboardists to use the Hammond organ on a jazz recording, a full decade before Jimmy Smith’s Blue Note recordings popularized the form.
“Jitterbug Waltz” by Fats Waller
The Hammond was originally intended as a low-cost alternative for cash-strapped churches, but players found its sound very different from that of a pipe organ — tones an octave apart are in synch with each other, rather than the subtle variation natural to traditional organs. Ethel Smith, of no relation to Jimmy Smith, popularized the instrument with easy-listening audiences, and was called the “first lady of the organ” on albums.
Jimmy Smith played the bass lines with the organ’s pedals, and his trio established a subgenre of jazz which eventually crossed over into rhythm & blues and rock recordings.
Fats Waller was an accomplished organist, beginning his career at fourteen with a gig playing in a theater. He made jazz recordings for Victor on pipe organs in the 1920s, and was known to play Bach’s preludes and fantasies for friends.
That’s the theme from Welcome Back Kotter, written by John Sebastian for the middle-70s television series. While with the Lovin’ Spoonful Sebastian had written seven top 10 hits, this TV theme was his only successful single as a solo artist.
Welcome Back Kotter was one of the first sitcoms to present a lighter version of the Norman Lear format established with All in the Family, and it ran successfully for four seasons on ABC. The show centers around Gabe Kotter, a teacher played by comedian Gabe Kaplan, who returns to his alma mater, James Buchanan High School in Brooklyn, to teach a group of outcasts known as the Sweathogs (because they have the hottest room in the building). While Kaplan was the star, the series is best remembered for having launched the career of John Travolta, who you might remember from such films as The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and Phenomenon.
Folks often have a laugh at the John Travolta’s tidily quaffed hair on LP jackets in the shop, assuming his musical career started with Saturday Night Fever or Grease – but in fact his first hit, “Let Her In,” was released when he was still starring on Welcome Back Kotter. His first ever appearance on an album was even earlier than that — he had a role in the 1974 Sherman Brothers musical Over Here! which also featured two of the Andrews Sisters.
Comedian Gabe Kaplan’s 1974 LP, Holes and Mello Roles, was the inspiration for the television series. It was first released by ABC Records with an image of popsicles crashing into the moon on the jacket. After the success of the series, the album was reissued with an image featuring Kaplan with the Sweathogs.
“Holes and Mello Rolls”
The Sweathogs made an goofy appearance on this 1976 TV-marketed oldies compilation, Fonzie’s Favorites. The back of the album (which includes a die-cut stand so you can put the Fonz on your piano next to the kids’ school pictures) promises “the Fonz has not taken to singing on this album. Better!! He has chosen his favorite 50s records to share with you.”
“The Fonzarelli Slide”
One side of this collection of familiar favorites by the likes of the Coasters, the Elegants and the Five Satins ends with a couple novelty songs — notably “The Fonzarelli Slide,” which inexplicably has the cast of Welcome Back Kotter meeting the Fonz, who would of course be older than Kotter by the middle seventies.
This wasn’t the only connection between the two hit sitcoms — when Pat Morita, who played Arnold, left Happy Days it was to star in a short-lived Welcome Back Kotter spin-off, Mr. T and Tina (which was, incidentally, the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as the lead). Sitcom spin-offs were all the rage and Happy Days itself produced six of them. Arnold’s replacement, Al, later married the mother of Fonzie’s cousin Chachi, who was played by Ellen Travolta, sister of actor John Travolta. Still with us? She first played Arnold Horshack’s mother on Welcome Back Kotter. And this concludes the least interesting paragraph ever posted on the Hymie’s blog.
Travolta’s albums were the most successful, but he was not the only of Kotter’s Sweathogs to make a record. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington not only sang back-up on Rick James’ Street Songs but made two albums of his own in the late 70s. A 1981 Halo single produced by Hilton-Jacobs is one of the rarest modern soul/boogie records you’ll never find (and is a pretty good party jam), selling for more than $1500 on any rare occasion when it appears online.
Hilton-Jacobs turned in a well-received performance as Joe Jackson in the 1992 TV movie based on Katherine Jackson’s autobiography, The Jacksons: An American Dream. He had a recurring role as a hard-nosed detective on the series based on Alien Nation, and has many screenwriting credits as well.
None of the remaining Sweathogs made records, although Ron Pallilo, who played Arnold Horshack, once portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart off Broadway.
A couple years back we posted a compilation of the weirdest, dumbest Beach Boys songs for a friend of ours, who often comments on the blog under the name Monkey Bunghole. He doesn’t like the Beach Boys. This promoted a series of increasingly irate messages from a fanatic out there on the internet, who reminded us at first that the Beach Boys were the greatest band in the history of rock and roll, and that people would assume we were ignorant for posting otherwise, before actually threatening us if we did not remove the offending remarks.
We could probably draw a parallel to the terrible events in Paris last month, but we at your friendly neighborhood record shop are hardly heroes of free speech for leaving our collection of bad Beach Boys songs intact. We politely asked our critic to keep his opinions to himself, and the entire episode reminded us of George Carlin’s comment on the Tennessee housewife who was so offended by the reference to masturbation in Prince’s “Darling Nikki” that she and her minister contacted their dear friend Al Gore and set into motion the PMRC hearings: “There’s two knobs on the radio, one turns it on and the other changes the station.”
Eventually we replied with a polite request to discontinue his messages and never heard from the #1 fan of “America’s Band” again. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t find this post in which we offered the heresy that Carl Wilson was our favorite Beach Boy.
We’re used to stepping in poo by expressing our views. When we wrote that Jack White had taken all the fun out of rock and roll, a half dozen people came in to comment. We’re not the only people unimpressed by his pig-in-lipstick, overpackaged publicity stunts masquerading as albums, but saying so somehow left us feeling like the little boy at the end of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Either way, bands without a bass player always suck. That’s just the way it is.
When we posted the five goofiest songs by Lambchop, Kurt Wagner himself thought it was good fun. It helps an awful lot that we’ve been telling people for years Lambchop is the most creative, consistently-awesome band still making records. The lesson, we suppose, is that some people can take a joke. Ironically, Lambchop once released a tour EP called Pet Sound Sucks.
You know you’re a fan of a band when you have all their oddball discs, which in the case of either the Beach Boys or Lambchop are difficult to find. We read once that the record collectors are most likely to have “doubled-up” in their collection is Pet Sounds. After reading that we were surprised to find three copies on our shelves at home. Of course, one could justify the redundancy because a fan will want to have the album in both its mono and stereo mix — an impulse that’s justified by the fact that Capitol Records once released a double-LP with each version on green and yellow vinyl.
Another strange double album in the Beach Boys’ catalog is the original release of Carl and the Passions — So Tough!, which Warner Bros. packaged with a reissue of Pet Sounds in 1972. While it take the form of a solo album for Carl (and takes its name from a band he led in high school), it’s actually just a continuation of the Beach Boys’ evolution with the youngest Wilson brother at the helm. Brian contributes some songs, including the first track, which Carl sings. We’ve always thought those few recordings from Surf’s Up through Holland are some of the Beach Boys’ most compelling.
“You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone”
Any artist with more than three dozen albums is sure to have made a few stinkers, but hopefully has a gem or two in their catalog as well. Maybe somewhere in the next dozen albums Jack White will record something that isn’t generic and derivative, but we’re not holding our breath. We’ve never liked the sacred cow status given to so many subjects in a record shop — there’s nothing wrong with the fact our friend doesn’t like the Beach Boys, and nothing wrong with the fact we don’t like the White Stripes. There is, however, something very wrong with being told you have to appreciate something.