Artistic risk and Gene Sculatti’s Binary Theory of rock ‘n’ roll

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Usually I write something it’s pretty much over, unless I’m on the elliptical and my mind wanders, like the other day at the gym. For some reason I thought back to my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece from May. And then I was reflecting further on the definition of rock ‘n’ roll, and what “makes it so great.”

To recap, the RockHall, in responding to Steve Miller’s criticisms during his post-induction press conference, stated that what makes rock ‘n’ roll so great is that it can “ignite many opinions”–a characterization that I ignited as one big crock of shit.

I then took issue with Ice Cube, who said, also in his acceptance speech, that rock ‘n’ roll is neither instrument nor style of music, but “a spirit that’s been going on since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop.” I didn’t care much for this definition, either, especially since he pointedly left out country, not to mention polka.

Like I said, not many country stars are in the RockHall, with Johnny Cash the only one coming quickly to mind outside of Bill Monroe and Jimmie Rodgers-both inducted as “Early Influences.” Seymour Stein always argued for Conway Twitty, whose career began in the 1950s with the rock ‘n’ roll chart success of hits like “It’s Only Make Believe.” I’ll always remember my late, great friend Dave Nives, who held various marketing and a&r indie label gigs and correctly ascertained, after I brought him a CD by polka legend Eddie Blazonczyk, “This is real rock ‘n’ roll.”

What is real rock ‘n’ roll, then, or what we have called since the l970s, “rock”? I have little idea from looking at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I thought, as I realized, with deep disappointment and mounting bitterness, that I’d only been on the machine for three minutes.

Then I drifted further into considering one of the main tenets of rock ‘n’ roll criticism, which these mostly old boys likely lifted from art criticism as a whole, that the rock ‘n’ roll artist must always take risks. As in crossing the street without looking? I wondered. As in throwing a pass from the one-yard-line on first-and-goal?

This is why I was never part of that old boys club. I never wanted my favorite artists to take risks. The Beatles could do it, for sure, but who else, besides, say Kenny Rogers?

Did I just say Kenny Rogers? Yes! By risk-taking criteria, Kenny Rogers is arguably the greatest rock ‘n’ roll artist of all time! The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand. Dropping out of the U. of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group–out of which the First Edition formed.

With the First Edition, Rogers scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” hit in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,”
“Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored “Ruben James”–the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written and produced by the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb. He also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and mainstream pop producer David Foster. Besides Parton–who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”–Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, Carnes and James Ingram, Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He’s been represented on the charts in one way or other the last six decades, while spinning off a successful acting career–most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”

Really, the guy’s done everything any critic could ask for and way, way more.

But otherwise, lets look at The Ramones, for example. Sure I like the Spector-produced End of the Century as much as the next guy–that is, if the next guy likes it–and I always loved Road to Ruin‘s country-flavored “Don’t Come Close.” And don’t forget, I wrote the fist book on The Ramones (Ramones-An American Band, if I remember correct)! But really, I and you really just want to hear “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Beat on the Brat.”

Or Elvis Costello: Sure I love the country album Almost Blue produced in Nashville by Billy Sherrill, or The Juliet Letters with the Brodsky Quartet and Painted From Memory with Burt Bacharach, or any number of other artistic excursions beyond “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” But I always hope that when he performs with the band in concert, he goes back heavy on his second album, This Year’s Model, his first with The Attractions, and far and away his most intense rock record.

Which brings me, circuitously-and I’m off the elliptical and back home now-to Gene Sculatti and the Binary Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Gene Sculatti, truly one of rock’s great theorists, is credited by U.K. author Jon Savage, in 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, as one of the writers for the seminal rock magaine Crawdaddy who actually began using the word ‘rock’ to describe the new mid-‘60s experimental rock forms manifest on albums like The Beatles’ Revolver and Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. But what brings us to him here is his most brilliant Binary Theory.

Right up there with gravity, relativity and evolution, the Binary Theory—and I hereby admit that I’m pretty much a layman here, in terms of understanding such scholarly rock stuff—addresses the deceptively simple elemental principle that a rock artist initially does whatever he, she or it does (roots-rock, let’s say) and becomes successful doing so. They keep doing it the first few albums and tours, and then the success wanes. So they announce with great fanfare a new direction (dance music, let’s say), and enlist the top songwriters and producers in the field—but the ensuing record stiffs. So they announce a return to form (in our example, back to roots-rock) with even more fanfare (a.k.a. hooey), either admitting to the mistake of the failed new direction or more likely, blaming the record company and/or just-fired management.

“That’s the riff, yeah,” says Sculatti, taking a moment out of deep study in his ivory tower to talk down to a relative ignoramus.

“It’s important to distinguish the binary move, though, from such things as organic progressions like The Who evolving from lean, mean mods to arena-ready pomp-rockers, or mere trend-hopping, like the Beach Boys doing a 10-minute disco version of ‘Here Comes the Night’ off of Wild Honey, or the Grateful Dead doing disco on Shakedown Street. And it’s different from polymaths like Prince or Bowie, who could slip into new and different musical togs monthly and always wear them well.

“Then there’s the Stones, who pulled the binary as a canny, if brief, career move: ‘Oh, you think you know us only as noisy young rowdies? We’ll show you!’ Hence ‘As Tears Go By,’ ‘Lady Jane,’ maybe even ‘Play with Fire.’ And Elton, who starts as an earnest Band follower, all Americana’d up–but eventually realizes what a cul-de-sac that is and lightens up into the pop guy he really always wa,s i.e. ‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ ‘Island Girl.’”

But “the real blatant binary cats are Kiss,” contends Sculatti, “who snag their biggest hit ever by momentarily abandoning bludgeon-rock for the reflective ‘Beth,’ and Alice Cooper. He starts out as a good solid rocker, gains some rep emphasizing the horror-show bit, but then–I’m almost sure pointed in this direction by management, who knew that songs about nightmares and dead babies wouldn’t get him into the Top 40–suddenly makes a complete U-turn and starts doing, and succeeding with, housewife-friendly ballads like ‘Only Women Bleed’ and ‘I Never Cry.’ I’m pretty sure I remember an interview with him later when he’d semi-retired and was doing the golf bit with Groucho: He said he could never go back to doing the immature shock-rock he’d become known for. Then, lo and behold, a few years later–and continuing well into the present day–he’s out there with the guillotine and all, right back where he started from.”

Sculatti kindly recaps.

“The binary is most often done by the act that dead-ends with whatever it first came to prominence with, so someone decides an about-face is the only rational move. Maybe it’s like Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’: Stuck for inspiration in the studio? Leave, go outside and stand on your head for 10 minutes or play hopscotch with the neighborhood kids–just do something different and your muse will return!”

Meanwhile, Sculatti, who’s also written for Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Creem, Billboard, Mojo and other publications while authoring books including The Catalog of Cool, San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, Too Cool and the Kindle book Dark Stars and Anti-Matter: 40 Years of Loving, Leaving and Making Up with the Music of the Grateful Dead, is issuing Tryin’ to Tell a Stranger ’bout Rock and Roll: Selected Writings 1966-2016, in both paperback and Kindle editions on Sept 21. The book collects more than 60 pieces from his prolific career. He’s also a featured participant in the just-released documentary Ticket to Write: The Golden Age of Rock Music Journalism.

In memoriam, 2015

Once again I’m looking back at the little “appreciation” pieces I wrote in 2014 and recall those who moved me then and now–here, however, on a more personal basis.

And that there are so many means there will only be that many more next year, for the older you get, the more you lose—unless, that is, it’s you who are lost.

It started early last year on Jan. 2 with Little Jimmy Dickens, whom I didn’t really know, but met a few times and was in his presence backstage at the Grand Ole Opry many, many more. Andrae Crouch came next: I didn’t know him either, but had seen him live at least once, on a Gaither Homecoming show.

Ervin Drake I did know quite well. And even though he died at 95, I was still surprised. I used to run into the Songwriters Hall of Famer (“It Was a Very Good Year,” “I Believe”) and his wife Edith a lot, at ASCAP and songwriters functions and at Christine Lavin shows–where he’d usually perform and always seem forever young.

As for the notorious Kim Fowley, I’m not sure if I ever met him, though I think I did, and I’m not sure I’d have been so kind to him had the piece by Jackie Fuchs—formerly The Runaways’ Jackie Fox–about being raped by him at 16, with band mates Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Sandy West allegedly looking on, come out before mine. But let me say also that I had problems with that piece and a more recent one where she talked about the impact of the first one, particularly the charges against Jett and Currie. I found both pieces then and now way too confusing—same with those who corroborated her. And admittedly and not unashamedly being a Joan fan, I didn’t feel she deserved the contempt and willingness among so many to summarily erase her positive contributions based on one person’s recollection of a horrible incident of which the only certainty I found was that it happened a long time ago when all but Fowley were teenagers, and if the other girls were there, likely not sober—though in no way does any of this absolve Fowley.

I did meet Dixie Hall, the great bluegrass songwriter–and wife of Tom T Hall, but never met Ernie Banks, though there was no one who did not love either—especially Mr. Cub, whom I followed as a Milwaukee Braves fan in the state next door. I was a huge fan of Ward Swingle’s Swingle Singers, and used to run into legendary New York TV talk show host Joe Franklin a lot—and will always regret never taking him up on his invitation to come visit him.

Not sure if I met Don Herron, but I hung out a lot on the set of Hee Haw and might have. Most definitely enjoyed his Charlie Farquharson newscaster bits. And most definitely did meet the great Rod McKuen, at a Songwriters Hall of Fame awards dinner.

I’d seen Don Covay, but knew him first from covers of his songs like the Stones’ “Mercy, Mercy” and Aretha’s “Chain of Fools.” Lesley Gore, on the other hand, was such a dear, dear friend and music hero that when I learned of her death on Feb. 16 while at Toy Fair, of all places, I really did burst into tears. I wrote an appreciation piece for at examiner.com and then two more personal pieces here. She was “one tough broad,” as Lou Christie didn’t say, exactly, but surely meant. I know I’ll always be haunted by her loss.

Same with Bob Simon. Bob was my hero as a broadcast journalist for CBS, a poet of truth in the midst of blathering self-promotional idiocy. I actually wrote him a fanboy letter after he was captured and released during the Gulf War, and he responded.

I met him on the street once and he gave me his email. I tried for years to get him to feature Dengue Fever, and came close the second time I met him, at the secreening of a Bob Marley documentary the night of one of the Obama-Romney debates, which we watched together at a bar during the post-screening party. Bob had worked in Jamaica and Cambodia, not to mention Vietnam and the Middle East—where he earned much of his reputation. He was into Dengue Fever conceptually, and I was about to email him again about the band when he tragically—and ironically—died in a car crash on the West Side Highway, having survived decades of work in the world’s most dangerous places. Another irreplaceable loss to the world.

I knew Nashville photographer Alan Mayor. Sam Andrew I knew as guitarist in Big Brother & the Holding Company and then with Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues Band—the one and only Joplin being the first rocker I ever saw in concert.

I’d met the great jazz writer/producer Orrin Keepnews, and know his esteemed journalist son Peter quite well. I interviewed the pioneering “direct cinema” documentarian Albert Maysles several times over the years; he was the nicest guy.

I knew promoter/songwriter/record producer/artist manager/session drummer/record-label entrepreneur/bandleader/recording artist/music journalist Billy Block ever since he moved form L.A. to Nashville at least 25 years go and started writing for Music Row, where I had my notorious Gotham Gossip column. Billy went on to befriend just about everyone in the business and promote many of them by way of his weekly Billy Block Show/Western Beat Barn Dance.

I posted a fab video of The Chanteys performing their 1963 surf-rock classic “Pipeline” on The Lawrence Welk Show after their writer/guitarist Brian Carman died on March 1. I must have met beloved New York trumpeter Lew Soloff, but never really knew him. And I feel truly lucky to have met Michael Brown (March 19 at B.B. King’s, wehn he showed up at a show by the then recently reformed Left Banke. The creative genius behind the band’s landmark “Baroque Pop” 1960s recordings—among rock’s most beautiful ever–Brown was obviously in poor physical shape and had to be assisted to the stage to play keyboards on “Pretty Ballerina.” He left immediately, but I ran after him and caught him on the steps and told him who I was and how thrilled I was to see him and meet him and how much he meant to so many music fans everywhere. He thanked me and seemed genuinely touched.

The Bitter End’s Kenny Gorka was the most wonderful guy to New York musicians—and me. He always welcomed me with open arms—and a bottle of beer—whenever I came down to the club. And I’m forever in debt to Samuel Charters, not just for his important blues and jazz books but for producing my favorite Siegel-Schwall Band and other great acts including Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, James Cotton, Charlie Musselwhite.

I knew and loved Tony Bennett’s longtime pianist/bandleader Ralph Sharon, and we’re all indebted to him for giving Tony “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” I’m indebted to May Pang for a lot of things, including introducing me to Cynthia Lennon. Percy Sledge needs no introduction.

Andre Smith was particularly sad in that he was only 57 and had been such a great host of Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 years. He had a wonderful gospel funeral send-off in Harlem.

Jack Ely, as the comparatively anonymous voice of The Kingsmen’s classic rock ‘n’ roll hit “Louie Louie,” is immortal. Ben E. King, too, had an immortal voice; I met him several times, with Allen Klein, and at parties in Lynnfield, Mass., thrown by Wes Reed, an old Dr. Bop & The Headliners fan who would bring the band in to play private parties, with his other hero Ben E. also on the bill.

I met B.B. King once, at a press gathering many years ago when his manager of over 40 years Sidney Seidenberg was still alive. I remember B.B. saying how they never had a cross word in all that time.

I must have known Ren Grevatt as long as I’ve been in New York, since 1982. I knew him as an indie publicist who worked with The Dead and handled PR for promoter John Scher. Such a nice guy, and even in his ‘90s, ageless. I knew the great record company executive Bruce Lundvall almost as long, and haven’t forgotten how he let me stay in his office while he took a call and tried to convince a prospective artist to sign with him.

I met the great Anne Meara once, at a Broadway show opening party, back in the early or mid-1980s. She was clearly lit, but I’m sure she’d have been just as sweet and friendly any time. What struck me was that when I introduced myself she immediately apologized that husband Jerry Stiller wasn’t there—as if I’d been their pal forever.

Like Sam Charters, Guy Carawan was an important music historian, in his case, of folk music. A major figure in the historic Greenwich Village-based folk music revival of the 1950s, he was also a folksinger and played a big part in bringing “We Shall Overcome” to the Civil Rights Movement.

Johnny Gimble was one of country music history’s greatest fiddlers, while according to the American Folklife Center, no one was more important to the survival, appreciation, and revival of traditional Appalachian folk music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries than ballad singer, songwriter, folksong collector, Fulbright scholar, and champion of the Appalachian dulcimer Jean Ritchie.

I’m so glad I got to interview Jim Ed Brown on the occasion of his last album In Style Again, and so glad he held cancer back long enough to complete it. I knew him from years of hanging out at the Opry, but always remember how he first put me off when I met him in the late ‘70s at a rural Wisconsin country music festival, when he thought I was a songwriter trying to pitch him a song after I told him I was a writer.

Ornette Coleman was so significant I had to write about him, whereas Patrick Macnee—one of my true TV heroes as The Avengers’ John Steed–I was lucky to meet and interview and find that he was as nice as his character.

Ernie Maresca was one of those unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll, having had a hand in writing such landmark hits as Dion’s “Runaround Sue” and “The Wanderer,” not to mention recording his own classic “Shout! Shout! (Knock Yourself Out).” Dave Somerville was also an obscure name, but his voice is cherished by doo-wop fans for leading The Diamonds on the huge hit “Little Darlin’,” and my personal fave, “She Say (Oom Dooby Doom).”

I’m pretty sure I met Louisiana musician Jillian Johnson, but I know I’ll never forget her. She was one of two who were randomly shot to death (nine others were injured) by a hate-filled lunatic at Lafayette’s Grand 16 movie theater on July 23. My Cajun music pal Wilson Savoy’s words bear repeating: “She changed my life forever. She inspired me more than anyone else in my younger years, and I wish I had told her what an amazing person she was before it was too late. Before her show last Saturday, before she jumped on stage with The Figs, we stood together on the side of the stage at Blue Moon and chatted all about the past and the future, about her grand plans for projects, renovations, exciting new stuff. Never a dull moment with Jillian. I never said it in the past, but I’ll say it now. Thank You Jillian. I love you.”

I met the great country vocalist Lynn Anderson several times and especially loved her hit versions of songs by the late, great Joe South. I never met or got to see Cilla Black, but I sure wish I had—and was touched by the outpouring of love for her in England when she died.

I think I met Billy Sherrill, but I certainly knew his classic country music hit productions. Of course I knew indie publicist Jeff Walker, who was as much a part of the Nashville music community as Sherrill, closely for nearly 40 years.

I might have let Frankie Ford go out quietly had it not been for my pal Rockin’ John McDonald demonstrating on his Madison, Wis., WORT-FM show I Like It Like That that Ford was much more than a “Sea Cruise” one-hit wonder. My friend Billy Joe Royal, on the other hand, didn’t need Rockin’ John’s help, having shared with Lynn Anderson a goodly amount of Joe South’s hit songwriting catalog.

I’d run into Allen Toussaint now and then, especially after he moved to New York following Hurricane Katrina. He never really remembered me until I invariably brought up how my favorite production of his was Take It, the regrettably obscure 1986 album by genius Minneapolis no-guitar/keyboard rock-polka band The Wallets, upon which Toussaint, ever the refined gentleman, waxed sentimental.

Legendary songwriter P.F. Sloan’s death in November was a personal blow, even though I’d only met him once, when Donna Loren brought him to Bessman Bash 2015 in L.A. in August. Of course I was a huge fan of a songwriter so significant—and elusive—that none other than Jimmy Webb wrote a song about him. Turned out that not only could he not have been nicer, he seemed at least as humbled to be at the party as we all were having him there.

As for John Trudell, I only met the Native American activist/poet/recording artist twice and interviewed him once, but the effect was immense. One of the great artists/humanitarians I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and a real loss to the world. His album Wazi’s Dream was my No. 1 pick for 2015.

I was hoping John’s death would be the last, but it was only Dec. 8. Historic Aussie ‘60s rock band The Easybeats’ frontman Stevie Wright followed, and then Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead. I don’t think many in America knew of Wright, as The Easybeats’ had only one hit in the U.S., though “Friday on My Mind” is immortal. Remarkably, the intense love and grief for Lemmy, while deserved, was quite astonishing in that he was a heavy metal/punk rocker, from England, with limited mainstream success.