For this no-hit musical wonder, the Golden age may be just beginning

Whole Lotti sound
Whole Lotti sound

The award-winning actor insisted on my listening to his copy of an obscure record called “Motorcycle Michael” by someone named Lotti Golden, because he loved the album, and because we were in his living room talking about motorcycles, and perhaps, too, because, in his self-absorption, he must have thought my name is Michael.

This kind of thing used to happen frequently enough, when someone was paying me to do that kind of work. Wealthy, famous, ego-driven specimens were keen to show you they were just like all the other bike-riding proletariat, except they could afford to indulge in their tastes for the esoteric and the elaborate: hence the garages filled with vintage two- and four-wheeled vehicles, right down to the fine old Rolls-Royce with its Saskatchewan plates. Hence, too, the basement that had been converted in its entirety, zoning bylaws be damned, to the neighborhood’s largest bird-cage, rafters filled with rare songbirds and homemade guano.

Spun once, the title track of the record, running at eight minutes and 14 seconds, never entirely worked its way out of my mind. Lotti Golden had some set of pipes, and someone at the record company, maybe Ahmet Ertegun hisself, had plainly told her to get out there and sing like Janis Joplin. That was a trick for which Lotti was suited, since she could match Janis squeal for squeal, growl for growl, and 20 million Big Brother fans will tell you that ain’t exactly nothing.

Let Lotti go loose on a scat-line, and you’d swear she had a big future in the music bid’ned. Yes, the song was no “Piece of My Heart,” and not much like Lorenz Hart, either, essentially conveying the repeated message that Michael “let me ride his motorcycle.” Nothing more to add to that, no word on whether it was red or black, street- or dirt-bike, a Royal Enfield Bullet or your Uncle Cyril’s Whizzer, no descriptives beyond another minute or two of Lotti’s high-quality grunting and yelping.

But this quizzical song has a way of making itself at home under your skin, in spite of, or because of, the producer having thrown everything listed in the Record Producer’s Sourcebook into this track. Mussel Shoals horns; Ninth Ward hand-claps; Motown choirs; Memphis chords; bass lines from Cosmo’s Garage: you got ’em all, starting, stopping, repeatedly banging into each other, and then struggling to separate and do it again. The only reason a Moog synthesizer had been left out was probably because Mr. Moog was tied up in the lab, still trying to bolt his contraption together.

Crewe you: Bob produced Bobby Darin, who would have bopped him in the nose for trying the production tricks he pulled on Lotti
Crewe you: Fifties guys lost in the sixties, Bob Crewe produced Bobby Darin, who would have bopped him on the nose for trying the production tricks he pulled on Lotti

That’s what they used to call acid-soul, or even East Coast psychedelic. If you say this is the most over-produced record in rock-n-roll annals, kitchen sinks being hurled back and forth to no apparent purpose, that might sum it up. The genius behind the mixing board was Bob Crewe, who produced “Walk Like a Man” for Frankie and the Four Seasons, and recorded, under his own name,  the Herb Alpert-like “Music to Watch Girls By.” To contextualize, it was a time when young Republicans were scoring acid in the country club parking lot, Frank Zappa was mentor to the Monkees, and even Pat Boone had signed up for a community college course in how to get hep. Crewe was an old pro in his thirties, and desperately trying to prove something to the Love Generation.

The very same forces at Atlantic Records who ruined the Lotti Golden sessions by trotting in another dozen horn players, and another, and tambourine-shakers by the bus-load, pretty much did the same thing to Laura Nyro, and others. I guess it was the fashion of the day, in art and letters, and pop music.

But the thing about rock-n-roll is that the most disposable tune will resonate on and on, on and on. Lotti Golden, letting it rip, hollers and hoots that Michael’s her daddy, Michael’s her baby, and you know without being told that this little lady’s got more than just misspent ants-in-her-pants, but possesses the goods, the rare commodity that we astute critics call “talent.”

Actor-fella wondered what I thought of the selection. I told him I liked it a bunch, and, parading my astuteness, observed that the chick sounded pretty wild. I asked him what else she had recorded, and he said nothing of which he was aware. He added that, owing to her patently unbridled intensity, it would not surprise him to learn that Lotti had done checked out. I tsked, and headed off for my IBM Executive typewriting machine, where I wrote a profile for the motorcycle magazine, leaving out any mention of the subject’s musical tastes. Our readers were more the Aerosmith type. The LG LP was 15 years old when I first heard it, and long out of print. I spent some time looking for a copy here and there, and gave it up as a wasted effort. I did eventually locate and purchase a copy of Lotti’s follow-up album, released on GRT Records, a label that had quickly gone out of business. Second time around, her music was more conventional and approachable, but lacked that initial compelling insistence of the previous release, an allure one might interpret as, “Hey, buy me a coffee; I just signed myself out of the nuthouse.” Robert Christgau, the Village Voice reviewer, thought the sophomore record was a big improvement. He wrote: “Golden’s egregious overstatement registers as a strength – her passion, even if affected, is intense enough to embarrass you.” If you know about Christgau, you’ll take that as an honest complement.

I was recently looking for some basketball scores on the Internet, and blundered across a reference to the actor’s daughter, who is now old enough to be working on her second or maybe third career, and is still regarded as an up-and-comer. She told an interviewer that when she was growing up deprived, her family possessed only two records: one by Frank Zappa (well, of course), and, she said with a flourish, “Motorcycle Michael by Lotti Golden.” Poor kid. I heard the tune only once, and it flash-fried my brain. It never occurred to me that the actor might be forcing his family to listen to the record again and again. Grown-up children, freeing their repressed memories, have tried to send their parents to jail – and for lesser misdeeds.

Because one thing always leads to another on the web, I followed a couple of links, and it emerges that there now exists an entire cargo cult formed around Lotti Golden.

From Chuck Shepherd, the syndicated newspaper columnist, we learn that Lotti was written up in a September 1969 issue of Look magazine, where she declared she wanted to be just like Bob Dylan. Shepherd disproves the actor’s earlier guess that Lotti had split the scene, at least in 1982, when she was busy producing an electro-funk band called Warp 9, which released two singles. She has knob-twiddled for others – hopefully having learned restraint from the negative example provided by Bob Crewe – and written new songs, none of which I’ve heard.

Others have taken the Lotti Revival movement further. One enthusiast, taking the bull by the horns, has converted her original vinyl release to MP3s, and posted them for downloading. We’re in a murky area here, if you care about intellectual property protection, and I hope you do. Is this copyright infringement? Is it ethical for the fan to have done this, or for me to identify the download site? Perhaps we can pursue that avenue at a more appropriate time, when we discuss Kensington Market’s out-of-print recording, “Avenue Road.”

And while traces of Lotti herself are scarce on the web, as you’d expect, there are strong hints that she is around, and may be planning a re-emergence. A web domain has been registered in her name, apparently by her sister, who lives in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and seems to run a modelling agency. A radio station in Rhode Island has been playing Motorcycle Michael, and has tried to persuade her to appear on the air – without success to date. There is an e-mail address where messages may be sent.  A Google search also turns up the sad news that her father, “Sy” Golden, died on a New York City tennis court two years ago, at the age of 82. It sounds like he was a hell of a guy, and I offer my condolences.

So, yes, I downloaded the record, burned it on a disc, played it through the Bose speakers in my car this weekend. It sounded no less strange, and every bit as captivating, as when the actor was spinning the platter, and making the chatter, way back when. Atlantic Records never bothered to re-issue the album in CD release, which is astonishing when you consider all the dreck they’ve unloaded from the back catalog. Likewise, an official version on I-Tunes is a complete unknown, as Dyl would say. All the same, I’d like to think Lotti’s on her way to becoming an overnight success, 40 years in the making, thanks to the unusual persistence of her art, and the power of listeners’ preferences, unleashed by the Internet. I’m not sure I’ll ever need to hear her opus a third time, but I’d like to think she’ll turn up playing Hugh’s Room in Toronto, where I’d have the waitress send her over a pinot gris between sets, to keep the vocal folds lubricated. It’s all still a long way from happening, but don’t try to tell me this isn’t the age of miracles and wonders.

_____________________________

  • While some of the New Dylans struggle in the new century, the Old Dylan seems comfortable as Herb Jepko behind the golden microphone. See Mitch’s comments…

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17 thoughts on “For this no-hit musical wonder, the Golden age may be just beginning

  1. I enjoyed your well researched piece on Lotti Golden’s Atlantic Records “Motor-Cycle” LP. Golden was ahead of her time–an extraordinary talent. With lyrics set to R&B melodies that read like the prose/ poetry of Kerouac, William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, listening to Golden’s LP is like watching a movie–a la Tarentino, and the soundtrack already supplied in variety of genres from blues to rock and jazz to funk which Golden masterfully uses to heighten a sense of irony– not in short supply. I love her voice, and wonder if Amy Winehouse has done some listening. I agree it’s too bad Atlantic didn’t know what to do with Golden. Worse even, is that Atlantic is repeating the error by failing to reissue “Motor-Cycle” on CD. No wonder the music business is in the toilet–the industry has failed to capitalize on the Internet.

  2. Apologies regarding a typo in my previous comment (on Mitchell Shannon’s excellent piece on Lotti Golden). Correction: “a la Tarentino” should read, Tarantino (Quentin Tarantino) American independent film maker/director/writer. The comparison with Lotti Golden’s work is that both artists’ exhibit a sense of irony manifested in the extreme, i.e., funny and horrific, simultaneously. Plus, Golden’s lyrics read like a screenplay, Tarantino’s turf.

  3. Very interesting piece-I’m not surprised it ranked high in readership. My older siblings played Lotti Golden’s “Motor-Cycle” non-stop, so it’s emblazoned in my brain (psyche?) as well. Golden deserves credit for one of the greatest (and most original) LPs in the rock pantheon, probably the first “concept” LP recorded by a female artist. See:http://issuu.com/yrheartout/docs/yho_4

  4. I very much enjoy your blog. And I loved your article on Lotti Golden. I heard “Motor-Cycle” as a teenager, and I was blown away by Golden’s autobiographical/confessional approach. Golden’s story and characters captured my imagination, and her lyric-vocabulary was nothing like I’d ever listened to before—and since! (In 1969 The Who released “Tommy” one of the first concept LPs.) Golden is probably the first female artist to release a concept album, and a groundbreaking one at that, which deserves so much more credit—it’s totally unique in rock, and I’ll go as far as to say, “Motor-Cycle” is brilliant. Music critic Nat Hentoff really liked Golden’s work and included “Motor-Cycle” in the New York Times along with a list of top artists like Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited) and Arlo Guthrie (Alice’s Restaurant) as the best albums of the era.

    1. Didn’t know about the praise from Nat Hentoff, but it makes sense, since I recall that he was open to anything original and true. Lotti’s American songwriting contemporaries, Janis Ian and Karla Bonoff, trudge on, but I still find it amazing that Lotti has kept such a low profile for 40 years. I think that if she re-emerged now, she would gain recognition as something more than a proto-Kate Bush. I’ve noticed steadily increasing web traffic to this post about Lotti, since it appeared a year ago, and I continue to believe she is an artist worth championing. Thanks for the kind comments about the blog.

      1. Thanks so much for replying! Yes, I too hope Ms. Golden will surprise us with a reemergence. If I’m correct, I believe Patty Smith disappeared for fifteen years (or so) then resumed her career; now she’s bigger than ever. Not that it’s a parallel, but I wish that kind of success and recognition for Lotti Golden. “Motor-Cycle” was pretty radical, even for its time; we certainly don’t know the whole story, what happened with her record company, etc. I agree a reemergence would be very special, and would bode well for Ms. Golden.

  5. Great piece on Lotti Golden, a wonderful talent. Ms. Golden’s “Motor-Cycle”album on Atlantic is unique in the rock pantheon. The lyrics are incredible–you can visualize Golden’s stories like watching a film.The music works brilliantly, punctuating Golden’s intent. Overall, the LP is a gift, providing insight into the New York art scene in the late 1960’s early 1970’s. I enjoy listening to Golden the way I enjoy reading Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.” I’m transported.

  6. Lotti Golden’s “Motor-Cycle” on Atlantic was revolutionary even in the relaxed climate of the late ’60’s—probing issues that were not the typical musical fodder of the day. Perhaps when the pendulum swings toward the more conservative end of the spectrum, certain artists like Ms. Golden find it hard to obtain the financial backing they originally received. I imagine any artist as talented as Ms. Golden would welcome another record deal– another chance. But Atlantic failed to promote Golden’s first LP, and then GRT went out of business. It’s a shame. Thank you for your wonderful article—it gives me hope that we will be hearing from this talented artist.

  7. Great article!
    Ironic, the mention of a R.I. radio station as that’s where I 1st heard “Michael” on the college station WBRU which played it constantly as if it was a hit, which it was as far as I was concerned…L8R, found it in the cut-out 3-4-a-buck bins, played the hell out of it, fell in love w/her & the record then got the GRT w/Pam Sawyer, then years L8R sold it w/the rest of my collection, then recently re-acquired it to sell on e-bay but decided 1st to give it a listen to see if the old magic was there–& it was, tho my memory had forgotten about how over-produced it was, tho even that adds to the larger-than-life aspect of the rock opera that it really was.
    That said, converted it to MP3 from the vinyl & decided to hit the net to see “where is she today?”
    & here I am.
    Cult Status Indeed!!

  8. Great journalism by Mitchell Shannon right here! Mr. Shannon’s article is one of the best pieces written about Lotti Golden on the Internet. The piece is now cited as a reference in the recently posted Wikipedia article, Lotti Golden. Golden also appeared on Wikipedia’s Main Page, in the daily “Did you know…” section on April 10: “Did you know…that the debut album by American singer-songwriter Lotti Golden was listed by New York Times music critic Nat Hentoff as one of the most influential albums of the late 1960s?”

    1. Holy smoke, magdalamar, that is some generous praise, and I thank you. But, look, if we can draw some attention to Lottie Golden, an under-regarded genius, we’re happy enough. Merci beaucoup, magdalamar.

  9. Mr. Shannon, the pleasure is all mine! Your article on Lotti Golden is wonderful and your style/ personality shines through. You are both witty and respectful. And…ha ha…I’m laughing, the “Holy smoke,” part of, “Holy smoke, magdalamar” can’t be a coincidence! You figured it out: magdala=place, mar=sea. Which brings me to another reason I’m a fan of “Motor-Cycle.” Ms. Golden’s work contains intriguing biblical references that are often overlooked. Best regards, Mary of Magdala. 🙂

  10. I was listening to my 8 1/2 minute original version of “Motorcycle” today. It’s been on my iPod since 2004 when I found the original disc while packing to move. Lottie Golden’s recording was released about the same time I was beginning a career in the music industry. During 28 years in the record business, a post-record business journey through graduate school, and 5 years of teaching college students, this record has stayed with me. Today I did a web search and found a link to this May 2009 story. I’m glad I landed here. Many memories and the recording still keeps me a fan 42 years after it was released. Thanks Mitchell.

    David Steffen

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