Red On Blonde - Tim O'Brien
Hoodoo Man Blues - Junior Wells
Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 - Sam Cooke
From the early days of vinyl records
Astrud Gilberto has laughing eyes and when she sings, you’ll ‘hear’ them. For Astrud is that rara avis – the human vocal realisation of the dreamlike quality all men and women seek endlessly in their romantic notions and in their unsatisfied longings… Her singing projects shimmering images, like slow motion love-making, and whether she makes you feel ‘with it’ or ‘on top of it’ or drowned in the emotion of it, she saturates and satisfies.
– Astrud Gilberto’s The Girl From Ipanema, 1960
A lot of people are born slightly cross-eyed. Or slightly red-faced. Or slightly ugly. Anita Kerr wasn’t one of these. Anita Kerr was born Slightly Baroque. ‘Baroque’ does not rhyme with ‘barbecue’. If you think it does, or even might, you are seriously ineligible to touch this album.
– Anita Kerr’s Slightly Baroque LP, 1966
The Orchestra: always looking bored, as if they’d really rather be home watching Mr Ed re-runs. The arranger asks the trumpets if they can blow into their stands to get more of an organ sound. The third trumpet replies, in a tone like you’d hear from Wrigley if you’d asked him if he could spare a stick of gum, ‘I think so.’ Like a convention of movie extras, they seem to be practicing some sort of East Indian unbugability.
– Dean Martin’s Hits Again LP, 1965
‘How should I sing this?’ ‘Like a 16-year-old girl who’s been dating a 40-year-old man, but it’s all over now’... Five foot three and tiger eyes. A mouth made for lollipops or kisses… The power to exalt, or to destroy, wanting only the former, but unafraid to invoke the latter if the time comes. Unafraid to pull on the boots again, toss out a burnt-out thing with a casual ‘So long, babe’ and get.
– Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots are Made for Walking LP, 1966
THE TITLE of a classic movie puts 'the bad’ between 'the good’ and 'the ugly’, which is where you find Murder on the High Cs: Original recordings 1937-1951, by Florence Foster Jenkins and Friends.
In Amazon’s sales rankings, the CD, released in 2003, was recently struggling to hold on to a spot around 150,000. But who’s counting? Murder on the High Cs’ very existence is proof that some appreciation of the gloriously bad survives in a world based on the assumption that everyone wants the best of everything.
When 'Madame Jenkins' strutted her operatic stuff all those years ago, opinions varied. To some, the buxom, wealthy socialite was simply unlistenable. To others, she was delightfully hilarious. Her concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944 was New York’s ‘night of the year’, with tickets scalped at ridiculous prices – to Noel Coward among others.
The only previously available Jenkins recording was the 1962 RCA album The Glory (????) of the Human Voice (reissued on CD in 1992). It immediately converted David Bowie when he heard it at a party in the 1970s.
“She would grace the New York set with this monstrous voice once or twice a year with private recitals at the Ritz-Carlton. Be afraid, be very afraid,” Bowie said when listing 25 of his most prized vinyl records for Vanity Fair in 2002.
Absent from the list was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, although Bowie must have been tempted. Maybe he thought it was enough to recommend one artist whose fame came from being dreadful.
Bowie first came across ‘The Ledge’ in the late 1960s when signing to a United States record company which supplied him with a stack of singles by its other artists. His favourite was the The Ledge’s debut single, Paralyzed – a bizarre and probably unprecedented blast of amateur abandon – and Bowie paid tribute when he came up with the name for his Ziggy Stardust persona.
The Ledge was born Norman Carl Odam in Lubbock, Texas, in 1947. As a boy, he tormented family and friends with an obsession for making strange vocal effects. In 1968 he headed for New York with high hopes, inspired by seeing Tiny Tim performing Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips on television. Within days, two vacuum cleaner salesmen heard him busking and took him around the corner to a friend’s studio, where they cut Paralyzed.
The recording has featured in many ‘worst of all time’ radio polls, partly because most listeners wouldn’t have heard The Ledge’s other songs. They include I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship, which Bowie covered on his 2002 album Heathen.
Ordination by a cultural guru of Bowie’s standing elevates the likes of Jenkins and Odam to the level of trash aesthetics. It would be easy to dismiss the ‘so bad it’s good’ appeal as chic irony that quickly wears thin. But genuine ‘anti-genius’ has other attractions. Such artists, often described as primitive, naïve or merely devoid of talent, can be seen as striking a blow against trendiness, mainstream mediocrity and the conceits of professionalism. They literally speak volumes about stepping out and giving it a go with whatever talent you have. Or think you have.
It could also be argued that they help us laugh at the eternal, potentially tragic gulf between human aspirations and human shortcomings.
A feature of the famously bad is a lack of irony about themselves. They tend to have generous natures and a sincerity that makes them hard to dislike. They also have the eccentricity or bluster not to care what anyone else thinks. In her own mind, Madame Jenkins was a great diva and not a parody of one. Even when she got carried away and not only threw flowers into the rapturous audience, but threw the flower basket after them.
So there you go: Florence Foster Jenkins and the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. If you’re going
to have the worst, you may as well have the best of it.
[First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, May 2003]
WHILE I gently weep, my guitar continues to do nothing. I found the sales slip from the music store the other day. It was in the filing cabinet under 'D'. For 'Dreams'.
As friends, and especially former friends, will tell you, I've never minded trying to sing a bit. And when I bought that guitar (cripes - the slip says 1985), I thought I'd taken a big step towards being able to belt out Beatles hits around the barbie. A long life filled with happy singalong faces stretched out in front of me. At times I could picture whole stadiums full of them.
"You're looking at the best $200 guitar on the market," the man in the music store assured me. "A Goya - an authentic Korean copy of a Martin."
I nodded sagely. The only Martin I knew owed me two month's rent on the back room. He did play guitar though. We called him Startin' Martin because he would sit on his bed for hours, beginning song after song, but never finishing anything.
He had the added peculiarity of hating four-time. He said it was the rock beat, and he had hated rock since his schooldays when a famous rock star had heard a tape of his school show, stolen the only song he had ever written and turned it into a huge, apparently four-time rock hit.
Martin didn't have a filing cabinet, but he had the experience filed away anyway. Under 'D' for 'Defeat'.
Mostly I just wished I could play four-time.
ON THE day I arrived home with my new Korean Martin, there was a moment when anything seemed possible. I sat on the sofa clutching my new marbled-burgundy guitar pick and opened my new folk-guitar-made-easy book.
Lesson One was how to hold the guitar, which, in a nutshell, was precisely how Keith Richards doesn't do it.
In Lesson Two each of the strings was named after a letter of the alphabet and each of the fingers on one of my hands was given a number.
In Lesson Three I was told to put certain numbers on certain letters and strum with the other hand.
After about 20 minutes, nothing resembling music had been made and I had sore numbers. The book said this would keep happening until I lowered my frets. They were ahead of me. The fretting would come later.
Fortunately, the guitar looked good leaning against the living-room wall by my record collection. It was, with a stretch of the imagination, a link between me and all those other guys on the records with guitars – Keith, Jimi, Eric, George, B.B., Muddy...
Over the next few years I did pick up my guitar from time to time, dust it off, get sore numbers. At one stage something like the bit from The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald that goes "when the main hatchway caved in, da de dum da dum dum" was emerging, and I played that a couple of thousand times.
SINCE I was moving in and out of shared accommodation quite regularly, it was inevitable that my guitar would eventually fall into the hands of an actual guitarist. His name was Ian.
"Nice acoustic," he said within minutes of me moving in. "Mind if I dust it off?"
When he started to play, it was as though a dead thing had been plugged into the socket of life. Any ingrained tunelessness was expurgated.
"It sounds like a Martin," he said. "Mind if I get the frets lowered?"
Ian was broke and "between guitars", so in a eunuch-like gesture, I made mine the house guitar, effectively for him to pick up whenever he felt the urge. By the time the flat split up three years later, the shiny finish was buffed to dullness, the fingerboard resembled a kitchen chopping board and a tatty taekwondo club sticker hid a dent above the sound hole.
I was overjoyed. My guitar looked like a seasoned instrument at last.
It looks all the better for it now, leaning against the wall by the CD collection, where it immediately caught the eye of a new neighbour visiting for the first time.
"Mean old guitar," he said. "Why don't you play something.”
"Actually, I don't play," I said.
"Then how come you have the guitar?"
I told him it could tell a story or two. I told him it was embedded with the memories of a glorious heyday.
I told him it used to belong to Eric Clapton.
FOOTNOTE: In an eventual romantic twist to the story, my Goya became Curly's first guitar. We still have it, love it and use it for unamplified gigs.