During an episode of the BBC’s recent dramatic series set in 1963, The Indian Doctor, Dr. Prem Sharma (he of the show’s title) proclaims his love of the latest sensation, The Beatles: “Mark my words,” he tells some smirking youth, “they will still be listening to them fifty years into the future.”
As the sly screenwriter suggests, it seemed far-fetched at that point to consider that the Fab Four’s output of 45 rpm vinyl might endure past a single summer, let alone a half-century. Their style of Teenage Music, as it was known, was meant to be regarded as outsider art. The idea that the larger culture might open the doors to this deviant sound was just plain preposterous.
Yet, here we are, as the doctor says, 50 years into the future, with fully one-half of The Beatles still shaking their shaggy heads and issuing forth new product. Ringo’s 17th solo CD has just been unleashed, to the usual mildly affectionate reviews of elderly rock critics, and accompanying sales of several dozen copies, mainly vended at his seasonal tours of Native American casino ballrooms. Meanwhile, Beatle Paul’s new collection of jazz standards, Kisses on the Bottom, sits atop the iTunes sales charts, and is being spun round-the-clock on the radio stations favored by non-teenagers.
I’ve played it. I hate it.
This is how the world has turned: We have Macca, the Fab Four’s alleged creative fountainhead, reduced to ripping off his band-mate, the supposed plodder Ringo. Or are we supposed to pretend not to remember that Ringo recorded his solo collection of standards from the ‘30s and ‘40s back in the autumn of 1969 – beating Paul to the punch by a mere 43 years?
Ringo’s “Sentimental Journey” nostalgia project is itself now dusty nostalgia. However, a quick inspection demonstrates that it is everything Paul’s “Kisses” is not, offering cleverly chosen material, briskly arranged and enthusiastically performed. It was a vaguely audacious undertaking for Ringo, who at the time explained his shift to a pre-war sound after the Beatles’ long stretch of musical experimentation, as something he did to please his old mum. McCartney, following Ringo’s four-decade lead, has been claiming he was inspired to record his “Kisses” CD by the music his father used to enjoy.
For these similarities, there’s one big difference. Macca has seldom sounded as lost and befuddled as he does on his current record. He comes across as a man forced against his better judgment to fulfill an unpleasant contractual obligation, or else have his Ford Cortina repossessed. When he trills Uncle Arvide’s big number from “Guys and Dolls,” the excruciating “More I Cannot Wish You,” you experience a wish of your own: that some essential entertainment figure of the ‘40s, say, Jimmy Durante, will happen along and demand, “Stop the music!”
All the same, here we are 50 years into the future, and for better or worse, still listening to The Beatles. What is even more surprising is that we’re also still listening to the knock-off Beatles, the Pre-Fab Four known as the Monkees. Since the death last week of tambourine-shaker David Jones at age 66, there has been widespread reassessment of the Monkees. It was fashionable to deride the group as the no-talent assemblage of pop music huckster Don Kirschner, but it’s now mostly accepted that the Monkees had considerable merit, notwithstanding their made-for-TV origin.
How much merit? That remains an issue of some contention. It’s ceded that Michael Nesmith was a bona fide force in the country-pop movement, and Mickey Dolenz is acknowledged as one of the notable rock ‘n’ roll voices of the 20th century. Some evaluators will grow quite animated in describing the subtle pleasures of the Monkees television show, as directed by acclaimed cinema auteur Bob Rafelson. Others assert that the Pre-Fab Four began and continue as actors impersonating rock musicians, and evidently this insistence has kept the group from being inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
My position is that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame should be regarded as the most dubious among a roster of dubious attractions offered to a credulous public, far exceeding the Criminals Hall of Fame Wax Museum in Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls, Canada. I have nothing against yokels handing their lunch money over to the operators of these places, but neither can I guess why anyone might wish to have their likeness displayed in such surroundings. Rock ‘n’ roll was fashioned as rebel art, intended to smash taboos — and there is something pitiable about the impulse to preserve its disposable prizes within a grandiose cliché.
Wrong lads at the time, perhaps. But not nearly so bad in hindsight, particularly when we regard the sorry assortment of schlock ‘n’ roll that followed the Monkees: callow boy bands, mincing talent-contest runners-up, inexpert lip-synchers, and drug-addled divas.
Speaking of the latter: Look, I’m ever so sorry whenever anyone drowns in a Hilton bathtub, no less so when that person is Whitney Houston. But we need a bit of clarity, amid this current outpouring of mawkish folly. Whitney Houston was a pleasure to gaze upon, but her music was much worse than not-good. The phrase “insidious crap” springs to mind, and we’ll just go with that.
Which is a pity — because could there ever have been a figure more ideally created to become the greatest soul singer of her generation? Daughter of Cissy Houston (of the Sweet Inspirations), first cousin to the Warwick girls, Dionne and Dee Dee, godchild of the almighty Aretha, toured the land from swaddled-infancy with Sweet Inspiration Doris “Just One Look” Troy — Doris, whose career was promoted by the Beatles, and was known as Mama Soul.
Not to disparage the recently deceased, but you’d snort to think of calling Whitney Houston “Mama Soul,” or even “Niece of Soul,” or practically any other blood-relation. Whitney’s music was a vast soul-free corpus, not necessarily always painful to endure, but setting the numb, dumb soundtrack for the Reagan Era, and the many worse days that would follow.
I do not, and would not, postulate that any person must declare their cultural heritage, and speak only to that experience. It was Whitney’s artistic and commercial choice to record a quarter-century of bombastic pop nonsense, rather than something that might be termed real, or true, or authentically soulful. If her mainstream audience happened to enthusiastically eat up her product, just like the family-cartons of Hostess Twinkies you buy at Costco, that is not a bad thing, and it is not suitable for music snobs to tell her fans that they are wrong.
But, you know, those audiences were wrong. Just as the great R&B recording artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s (James Brown, Sam Cooke, Otis, Mavis and Pops, Chicago’s mighty, mighty O’Jays) may have been viewed as diminished versions of the blues progenitors of the first half of the 20th century, Whitney happened along after the party had ended and the room had emptied. Clive Davis, the legendary head of the Columbia and Arista recording labels, caught a load of the comely teenager – perhaps, you might imagine, heard her warbling Aunt Doris’s “Just One Look” – and what he observed was a giant bag of money gesturing wildly in his direction. She resembled Leslie Uggams, rising young star of the old “Sing Along With Mitch” TV show! And just as Ms. Uggams was a perfect de-ethnicized entertainer for her newly-integrated era, all about perkiness and not feeling threatened in the malt shop, Clive could only have seen Cissy’s little girl as his budding princess o’ power pop, destined to be the next big thing, if only (and here’s a fitting challenge for the old music biz puppet-master) he could keep her appeal strictly mainstream.
Bombast and histrionics were the twin potions that Clive formulated and force-fed his protégé. If Sade exemplified grrl-cool, the Nigerian second coming of detached jazz chanteuse Astrid Gilberto, Whitney was the anti-Sade. Not merely a younger, slimmer, non-sweaty version of the Aunt Aretha, Whitney’s vocals were Teflon-coated feats of precision-engineering targeted squarely at the transitional phase of entertainment industry technology. The accoutrements of post-war soul, hand claps, honking saxophones, shouts and smashing drums were suited to low-wattage AM radio stations. The post-disco late ‘80s and the ‘90s were the time of FM and CDs, giant orchestras, synthesizers, multi-tracking – and big-screen 27-inch television machines to show the world what the artist looked like, on MTV, in low-definition. Whitney slipped into this niche, and was squarely in the right place to trill her inspirational ditty as our brave coalition troops went off to the Gulf Region the first time around. That made her the slacker version of Vera Lynn, in case anyone was looking for one.
But those carefree days of G.H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the first baby-boom president, were soon to end, and with that came the digital instruments of democratization in the entertainment world — Napster, and American Idol, the Pirate Bay, Rapidshare — and since that upheaval, the direction has just been down, down, down, down, down. If Whitney was the over-bowdlerized version of Aretha, now there were too many Whitney wannabes squealing their way through the nightly talent competition on television. Some were better than others, but they all emoted like R2D2, and sang like rabid coyotes, and you felt silly even pausing to take note of their names. This was the music business after the iPod, after the millennium, après-9/11, and it all sounded the same, and it all sucked. Whitney’s music never mattered for even a nanosecond, but in this new scheme of things, music itself just didn’t matter anymore, either. The talent shows were over-producing lesser Whitneys by the busload, without the spice, but with added grams of preserving agents. We had Asian Whitneys, tattooed Whitneys, over-sufficient quantities of shemale Whitneys and a full stable of equine Whitneys, whinnying and cantering their way through horsey versions of her repertoire.
That left very little for the Original Whitney to accomplish. Eventually, she might have been cast in the role of the wise, long-suffering mother to a houseful of rascally teenagers, on a Fox TV sitcom depicting the warm home life of a washed-up former singing sensation. America and the world surely would have re-embraced her as Bill Cosby for a generation that doesn’t recall the Huxstables. As executive producer of the theoretical “Whitney!” show, Clive Davis might have demanded that she be allowed to sing a number in every 4th or 5th episode, and there’s little doubt that she would have clawed her way back to the top, using qualities previously not required, such as heart and gumption.
Instead of which, there were pills and alcohol, which is the other, arguably less demeaning, alternative to starring in a smash hit sitcom on Fox. Junk-abuse was the proscribed exit route for the original wild outsiders, the bluesmen and jazzbo’s, the crowd that country-club America never fully embraced. We didn’t expect to see America’s Sweetheart nodded out with the water running, like Lenny and Elvis and all the other worn-out showbiz schleppers. Nonetheless: there she is, and here we are. And if you don’t like the picture, just stay tuned for “The XYZ Factor,” followed later tonight by “Ain’t You Got Any Talent?”
As a less-depressing viewing option, you may prefer to check out the first season of “The Indian Doctor,” providing you can figure out how to view the episodes from the BBC online, wherever you may be.