SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 21, 2008

UPDATE

The editors here at Electron Press felt it might be a good idea for me to provide a brief follow-up to a recent cliff-hanger of a column. So in the spirit of public service and Good Citizenship during this holiest of seasons, I offer the following.

            On November 30th, a column appeared here in which I described in excruciating detail my vain effort to obtain the solid evidence required to prove that I had, indeed, earned a graduate degree. Without that evidence, I would not be allowed to teach a course at a local college this coming fall. Without proof of the degree, the job offer would be rescinded, I was told. Unfortunately all evidence of that degree seems to have mysteriously vanished, almost as if the second half of my official file had been erased.

            Well, after I explained the situation in equally excruciating detail to the president of the school and the chairman of the department in which I was supposed to teach, they decided to let me teach anyway, which I think was a very generous and kind gesture on their part.

            Meanwhile, the increasingly frustrating search for answers grinds on. But I won’t bore you with that.

            I’ll bore you with this instead:

 

Confessions of a Late Sixties Philistine

A package arrived in the mail the other day. Inside the package were two musical compact discs (I still adamantly refuse to download music): The MC5’s first album, Kick out the Jams, and a disc containing two albums Ed Ames recorded in the late sixties, Who Will Answer? and My Cup Runneth Over.

            The MC5, of course, are considered by many (incorrectly) to be the godfathers of punk rock. They, along with The Stooges, came out of Detroit in the mid-sixties. They were loud, angry, politically revolutionary and vulgar—the album’s title track in fact, opens with the lead singer screaming “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” which, if nothing else, immediately guaranteed they would receive no radio airplay whatsoever. Still, they went on to become legends, and continue to be a major influence to this day.

            I wanted that album for the simple reason that I’d never owned it before and felt that I needed to fill that gaping hole in my record collection.

            I wanted the Ed Ames for purely sentimental reasons. Ames was a great American crooner who came out of the same school that provided the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones and a host of others. He was never quite as popular as any of those others, but he was always my favorite.

            Back in the late eighties, his hit “My Cup Runneth Over” became the one and only cover song The Pain Amplifiers (the band Grinch and I were in) ever performed. With a chorus that included the line “my cup runneth over with love,” how could we resist? (Admittedly our version wasn’t quite as sweet and heartfelt as Ames’.)

            Shortly after we played our last Pain Amps show and I moved to Philadelphia, I picked up a vinyl copy of another Ed Ames album, Who Will Answer?, for another reason.

            See, there was a period which lasted from about 1966 to about 1971, during which aging crooners like those listed above, at the urging of record company execs, began reaching out to the younger generation. Times were changing after all. Branson didn’t exist yet, and so if you didn’t tap into that exploding youth market you were doomed.

            This is why Sinatra began recording Beatles songs and “Mrs. Robinson,” and “It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green.” Sammy Davis, Jr. recorded “MacArthur Park” and other recent hits on a psychedelic album entitled Now. Lots of people covered songs by Dylan, the Mamas and Papas, the Byrds or the Lovin’ Spoonful.

            (Except for Dean Martin, who never had anything to do with any such nonsense.)

            There’s no evidence that they actually did tap that younger audience, but I must say, I think “late sixties crooner desperation” is my favorite musical genre of all time, and over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection.

            Apart from the cover songs, though, the real highlight of the genre came when the crooners in question recorded new songs bluntly reaching out to the hippies. The most embarrassing example of this kind of pandering, I think, was probably a track off that Sammy Davis album called “I Am Over 25, but You Can Trust Me.”

             None of these new songs quite tops Ames’ “Who Will Answer?” Co-written by Ames in 1967, the song was regarded by many to be an anti-war song, but apart from one short verse (in a very long song), it’s far more than that.

            Using hippie language and hippie references, the song—with a central musical theme lifted from the Catholic mass (complete with horns and a killer rhythm section)— is actually a profound existentialist condemnation of the emptiness of the hippies’ lifestyle and lack of faith.

            Here’s a brief sampling:

 

In the rooms of dark and shades,

The scent of sandalwood pervades.

The colored thoughts in muddled heads

Reclining in the rumpled beds

Of unmade dreams that can’t come true,

And when we ask what we should do,

Who . . . Who will answer?

 

‘Neath the spreading mushroom tree,

The world revolves in apathy

As overhead, a row of specks

Roars on, drowned out by discotheques,

And if a secret button’s pressed

Because one man has been outguessed,

Who will answer?

 

Is our hope in walnut shells

Worn ‘round the neck with temple bells,

Or deep within some cloistered walls

Where hooded figures pray in halls?

Or crumbled books on dusty shelves,

Or in our stars, or in ourselves,

Who will answer?

 

            In the end, he provides no answer to his own question—merely points out that the hippies didn’t have any answers themselves. It’s really quite a rousing song, in spite of it’s ultimately hopeless message. (Come to think of it, that may be why I find it so rousing). What amazes me is that, in spite of its message, it became a big hit for Ames in ‘67. Who was latching onto the song back then—was it disillusioned hippies, or their parents? I really can’t say.

            Anyway, I unwrapped both compact discs with great anticipation, slapped the MC5 onto the stereo, and cranked the volume.

            Why it’s become such a legendary recording was obvious—it was nastier and more raucous than anything else that was going on in pop music at the time.

            When the album was finished, though, I put it back in its case, thinking, “Yeah, I suppose that was okay.” Then I set it aside and put on the Ed Ames. I’ve been listening to it ever since, and haven’t even considered giving Kick Out the Jams another spin. Ed Ames is so much cooler than the MC5.

            Something in my head tells me I probably shouldn’t admit that to anyone, but oh well.

 

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