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The river swelled in forks and bends.

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News coverage of the Baton Rouge flooding suggests that climate change is going to make devastating storms a way of life … and meanwhile, down in the open water of the Caribbean, the first stirrings of this season’s Big Tropical Weather are starting to get people talking.

It’s enough to turn a man’s mind to floods and mayhem.

While surfing YouTube for footage of Hurricane Agnes, still the dominant historical flood in these parts, I came across a bit of local music history that cheered me up, testifying as it did to the resilience of the American do-it-yourself folk music tradition.

A few days after Agnes decamped, two married couples in hard-hit Elmira, N.Y., were relaxing with a singalong after a long day of hauling flood debris. (By their own description, they were strictly amateur singers and strummers.)

They decided the experience might make a good folk ballad. So they wrote one, called “It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured,” and brought a tape to the local radio station, WELM.

At the station’s suggestion, they recut a more professional version, while keeping the simple vibe and instrumentation of the original.

(The finished product sounds kinda like The Basement Tapes, though of course The Basement Tapes wouldn’t be released for another three years. Think of this, perhaps, as The Flooded Basement Tapes.)

“It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured” became a local hit of sorts, encapsulating as it did a widely shared community hardship. At least 2,000 records of the song were ordered, with profits donated to flood relief.

The male half of the songwriting team even got press-ganged into singing the song as openers for a Buck Owens show at Elmira’s baseball park, Dunn Field. It was, they said, their first live performance.

I’ve listened to the song a couple of times, and while I wouldn’t want to hear it every hour, I think it holds up pretty well in a Woody Guthrie voice-of-the-people kind of way.

While one or two of the rhymes might overreach, those are counterbalanced by the harder, punchier, more specific images. You don’t have to know anything about the city of Elmira to see things like this in your mind:

The old Chemung River was rising like hell
Fitch’s Bridge buckled and fell

or:

Twenty feet of water, muddy and dark
Swirled its way through Wisner Park

I also like that it doesn’t end on a high note. The last verse isn’t about plucky people rebuilding; it’s about damage and destruction.

I wonder if the writers gave any thought to taking the song in a hopeful direction — after all, they’d just spent their day doing flood cleanup — or whether the devastation seemed so total that they didn’t think of a morning after. Either way, I think they went in the right direction.

(Extra points, also, to the local dude giving it his best James Burton on lead guitar. He’s workin’.)

“It Sprinkled, It Rained and It Poured” fits not only into the American folk tradition — common people singing about common woes — but also into a contemporary musical zeitgeist.

The Seventies were the golden age of the story-song. And story-songs didn’t have to be cheery or uplifting: If they took a negative cast, that only seemed to make them more popular. (Think of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Angie Baby,” “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia,” “Delta Dawn,” “Cat’s In The Cradle,” etc.)

With its no-frills local production, “It Sprinkled…” probably wouldn’t have troubled the national pop charts. Still, you could put it in a mix with the aforementioned story-songs, and it would hold its own.

Perhaps I have finally found a new, less doomy earworm for those merciless times when the clouds turn thick and gray and stay that way.

Old Mother Goose, she’s on the skids.

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Another trip up my own ARSA.

The days when I would drop everything to see Neil Young perform are past, but I’m still willing to take a (Santa Monica) flyer on him if the terms are right.

The other day I bought a ticket to something called the Outlaw Music Festival, which will take place next month up in Scranton.

The main attractions for me are Neil and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The bill also includes Willie Nelson (seen him before, but sure, why not), Sheryl Crow (yuck), and a couple country-lookin’ people I’m not familiar with but am willing to give a chance.

I suspect Neil’s gonna fill his 40 minutes by playing a half-dozen screeds against Monsanto … which is not really gonna compare to the time I saw him strafe the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium with Crazy Horse, or the time I saw him hold Boston’s Orpheum Theater in reverent silence with an acoustic guitar.

But it oughta be a goof, anyway. Yet another chapter in the Big Book of Neil Being True To Himself.

The prospect of another path-crossing with Neil made me think of the times I’d seen him, and of the presence of his music in my life.

And, given my eternal interest in radio play, that led me to research a fitting question for the moment:

Just how much airplay did Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” receive at the time? Any at all?

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The Ditch Trilogy, for the uninitiated (I can’t assume everyone who lands here is a pop geek like me), is possibly the best-known and most-cited example of Neil Young being true to himself.

Repelled by the pop stardom visited on him by 1972’s Harvest, and reeling from various personal losses, Neil recorded a trio of dark, oblique, sloppily played, and deliberately uncommercial albums: 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s On The Beach and 1975’s Tonight’s The Night.

(In the liner notes to his compilation album Decade, Neil quipped that Harvest put him “in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Hence, the Ditch Trilogy.)

The Ditch Trilogy drew positive reviews when released, with music critics seeing the end of the Sixties’ hippie idealism in the albums’ parade of death, drugs, fatigue and broken promises. The records remain influential and well-regarded today, with Tonight’s The Night particularly honored.

And, despite its sonic raggedness and lyrical darkness, the Ditch Trilogy actually sold pretty decently at the time.

Time Fades Away reached No. 22 on the U.S. album charts, On The Beach No. 16 and Tonight’s The Night No. 25. Their performance would only have seemed disappointing when compared to that of Harvest, or to the gentler, better-groomed records of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

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Still, album sales are not quite what I want to know about. What I want to know is: Was there anywhere, other than the anything-goes world of college radio, where you could turn on the dial and actually hear this music?

Sure, Neil didn’t care about airplay when he made these records. But if they’re as good as everyone says, surely somebody must have caught on at the time and put them on the radio. Plus, Neil had already sung on several Top 40 singles, so American radio listeners had learned to accept his distinctive voice.

To the invaluable ARSA database of local radio airplay charts we go. We don’t find much, but what we do find is interesting.

The songs from Tonight’s The Night are totally absent from the ARSA database; there were no singles, and no program directors decided to jump on any album cuts. Even the listeners who sent “Seasons in the Sun” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” into the Top Ten in that general era weren’t game to dive into the album’s druggy Hollywood murk.

Time Fades Away produced one single in the title track, and only one station in the ARSA database grabbed it: WKXY in Sarasota, Florida, listed it as hitbound for the week ending December 7, 1973.

“Time Fades Away” — with its glum opening line, “Fourteen junkies / Too weak to work” — kept company in the hitbound category that week with Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle” and Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ In The Boys’ Room,” both of which would become massively more popular.

(Other songs on the chart that would have been a kick to hear back-to-back with “Time Fades Away” included “Who’s In The Strawberry Patch With Sally,” “Just You N’ Me,” “All I Know” and Neil’s fellow Canadians the DeFranco Family with “Heartbeat, It’s A Lovebeat.”)

That leaves my favorite of the three albums, On The Beach.

The album’s opener, the semi-funky, sorta-catchy and guardedly optimistic “Walk On,” was its only single. According to Wiki, it managed to reach No. 69 on the U.S. singles chart, a feat Neil would need four more years and nine more singles to equal.

(The song’s core message — haters gonna hate hate hate — would later be put to much more profitable use by Taylor Swift.)

“Walk On” appears on 26 charts in the ARSA database, all from around this time of year in 1974. It reached the Top 10 in Ottawa, the Top 20 in Cleveland, and muddled around the mid-twenties in cities like Dallas, Tempe, and Charlottesville.

Other songs riding the charts at the time included “The Night Chicago Died,” “Annie’s Song,” “Havin’ My Baby,” “Earache My Eye,” “Clap for the Wolfman” and “Please Come To Boston.”

It’s a pleasure to think of Neil, head down and shoulders hunched (like on the cover of After The Gold Rush), metaphorically walking on through the crowd of his musical peers, his eyes set on a different destination.

As an added bonus, the chosen B-side to “Walk On” was “For The Turnstiles,” a rickety, autumnal, unknowable duet between Neil and his longtime sideman Ben Keith.

Keith plays Dobro to Neil’s banjo, sings an improbable but gorgeous harmony, and generally fills his space so unobtrusively that I sometimes forget two musicians are playing.

“For The Turnstiles” doesn’t show up on any ARSA charts, but I find it marvelous to think that the “Walk On” single got it into broader circulation … maybe on the radio once in a while; maybe on some teenager’s bedroom stereo; maybe on the jukebox of a desolate barroom at two o’clock in the morning, or two  o’clock in the afternoon.

You can really learn a lot that way
It will change you in the middle of the day
And though your confidence may be shattered
It doesn’t matter.

It’s 10 p.m. in Wichita Falls.

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Some pop-history errands, one comes to regret.

Like the time I thought: “What could a pop song about a rapist nailing his wrist to the wall of his cell possibly sound like?”

This unlikely question grew from a seasonal seed — one that the pop historians in my readership have probably already seen coming.

It was in July of 1969 that a pair of Nebraska-born singers, Denny Zager and Rick Evans, hit paydirt with the single “In The Year 2525” (grandiosely subtitled “Exordium & Terminus.”)

The song, a gloomy, strummy portrait of man’s decline and eventual rebirth over the centuries, has never done much for me.

But it resonated with baby-boomer record buyers in a big way. It zoomed from No. 35 on the Billboard chart to No. 8 to No. 1 over a three-week period, and stayed at No. 1 for six weeks.

An astounding array of classic songs made the Top 10 during those weeks — among them “Spinning Wheel,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “My Cherie Amour,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “Sweet Caroline,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and Three Dog Night’s “One.”

None could bump Zager and Evans’ dystopian single from the top of the chart. It took no less than “Honky Tonk Women,” possibly the finest, rawest, lustiest single in the entire Rolling Stones catalog, to finally dislodge “In The Year 2525” from the No. 1 spot.

Zager and Evans were never able to repeat that success, or anything close to it. Within a few years they were fodder for DJs’ trivia questions and lists of curiosities — perched alongside the Silhouettes and the Singing Nun on the roster of acts who hit No. 1 and then disappeared.

Nowadays, the Internet knows all, and pop fans who wonder what happened to Z&E after their big hit need only do some searching.

What came next is usually summed up in a single sentence, something like this one from the duo’s Wiki entry:

Despite the record’s massive success, follow-up singles such as “Mr. Turnkey” (a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall as punishment for his crime) went largely unnoticed by the public.

Somewhere in the labyrinth of the Internet, there’s probably an interview in which Zager or Evans explains why they chose such a horribly bleak song for their follow-up single.

Maybe they were committed to what they perceived as telling-it-like-it-is realism. Maybe they were concerned about being typecast as stargazers and skywatchers, and felt a first-person lament from a jail cell would be a good contrast to the century-jumping flights of their first hit.

Or maybe they’d already grown sick of being pop stars, and were looking to chase the whole thing away with a song they knew would never land them on “American Bandstand.”

I didn’t care enough to dig into the backstory. But after a while, I got to wondering about the music.

Was there a worthwhile tune there that America had failed to discover? Some nugget of inspiration that maybe had gone overlooked because of the subject matter? Did they make an honest attempt to push boundaries, only to find listeners weren’t willing to go that far? I wondered.

If I could enjoy nine minutes of Mick Jagger mugging and strutting through “Midnight Rambler” from the fall of ’69 — and I have — I couldn’t turn up my nose at “Mr. Turnkey” on any kind of moral principle. So I figured I’d check it out.

God knows I’d never heard this song on the radio, and probably never would.

(I was surprised to find “Mr. Turnkey” on 42 local radio charts in the ARSA database, suggesting that it did find pockets of airplay here and there in the autumn of ’69. It rose as high as No. 10 at the radio station at the State University of New York at Oswego, and No. 5 as part of a two-sided single in Wausau, Wisconsin, though I question which side got most of the spins. Still, 42 charts is pretty paltry, given that “In The Year 2525” appears on more than 650.)

Anyway, the song must be on YouTube, right?

Yup, afraid so:

I’m not sure where to start reviewing this one; but I suspect if I started I wouldn’t stop for a while.

So, suffice it to say I found “Mr. Turnkey” musically bland and forgettable, and lyrically charmless, gauche, heavy-handed, wrong-headed and repetitive (I counted fourteen mentions of the title in 2:21).

Just … no.

For a master class in how to make a criminal interesting, human, and believably regretful through the use of detail and figurative language, listen to “Folsom Prison Blues.” In fact, if you sat through “Mr. Turnkey,” you probably ought to go ahead and do that, a couple of times, just to clear your palate.

So, yeah, I wasn’t missing any hidden treasure, and the program directors who took a pass on “Mr. Turnkey” in 1969 (and those on oldies stations who continue to do so today) were probably doing us all a solid.

If nothing else, the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce is probably still breathing a sigh of relief that Zager and Evans didn’t put their city permanently on America’s pop-culture map.

The good life in Minnesota.

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News item: Former Minnesota Gov. and U.S. Senator Wendell Anderson is dead at 81.

Wendell Anderson appeared on one of the great Time magazine covers of the Seventies — in my twisted estimation, anyway — and it is for that, not his political achievements, that I recall him.

I am not old enough to remember this cover in real time (no pun intended.) I found it quite by accident while researching a Hope Street post, and it’s stuck in my mind ever since.

(For copyright reasons, I won’t post an image here, but you can click here to see it in a separate window.)

What makes it memorable?

The lurid cherry hue of Anderson’s turtleneck. Doesn’t look like he’s run that thing through the wash more than once, and it certainly doesn’t look like he’s made a habit of wearing it in the great outdoors. (The shirt’s color does match the red of Time’s cover almost perfectly; I can’t imagine he planned that, but it was a fortunate accident.)

The complete absence of any fight, flop, jerk or twitch in Anderson’s fish. Either it’s stuffed, or the governor’s been holding that sumbitch proudly aloft for at least 90 minutes.

The presence of a mysterious Bob Dobbs-ish smoking man in the background. Not only is he enjoying his pipe in close proximity to the boat’s gas tank, but he’s dressed in a way that contradicts the governor (baseball cap instead of bareheaded; short sleeves instead of flannel and turtleneck.)
He raises more questions than he answers; I wasn’t even 100 percent sure at first glance that he and the Gov were captured by the same click of the camera lens at the same time.

Anderson landed on that week’s cover thanks to some sort of economic upturn in his state. But I think the real impetus behind his appearance — or at least his appearance in an outdoor setting — was the perpetuation of an ongoing American myth:
When things are going sideways in New York, D.C. and L.A., as they were in 1973, people there like to imagine there are still places in flyover country where upright Americans are wrestling fish out of pristine lakes and drinking grape Nehi from the bottle on the front porches of general stores.
(Not at the same time.)
I don’t know if that myth still has any purchase today; maybe nowadays we figure meth and the Internet have dragged small-town America into the same cesspool as everywhere else.
But I can imagine a magazine editor in Richard Nixon’s America touting “The Good Life In Minnesota” as a tonic for the times — a cheering, restorative, all-American break between two Watergate covers — while muttering to himself, “Nice to know someone’s leading the good life.”

For all the posey corn inherent in this photo, Anderson’s expression has a certain degree of charm; he seems genuinely happy.
(Of course, if I knew I were being photographed for a Time magazine cover story that was going to boom my state’s success to millions of Watergate-sodden readers, I’d be pretty jazzed too.)

Wendell Anderson, in this summery moment in 1973, might not quite have the whole world on a string; but he has more than just a prop fish.

Of time and the canal.

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Today is the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Bicentennial, and a fair amount of 1976-themed popular culture content has been crossing my path.

(I don’t personally remember the big day; wasn’t quite old enough. But maybe if I have grandkids, I’ll make something up to tell ’em, just because. I’ve got some years to work on these stories.)

Not every lingering image from the Bicentennial involves queens, and presidents, and fireworks, and tall ships on the Hudson River. Some are humbler.

Like this one:

What we have here is a half-hour special produced for Syracuse’s NBC affiliate (then WSYR, now WSTM), offering a ride-along down a stretch of the Erie Canal with one Kay Russell as host.

Ms. Russell appears to be making up the script as she goes along, and she hesitates, mis-speaks and repeats herself at various points. (Did you know Rome, New York, was a strategic city? After watching this, you’ll know — twice.)

Some of the footage from the beginning of the trip shows up again at the end. And the whole thing is set to a backdrop of historical music that isn’t loud enough to establish itself as part of the ambiance. It comes off sounding like Ms. Russell taped her voice-over in the same room as a transistor radio.

That’s why you, my Three Readers, might enjoy watching this.

I enjoyed it for other reasons. It stirred memories — not quite Bicentennial memories in my case, though if I presented them as such to my future grandkids, they would be perfectly believable.

Central New York, in my occasional travels through it, has always seemed full of three-stoplight towns where nothing much ever happens.

Towns like Little Falls and Oriskany and Herkimer don’t have Finger Lakes to draw people in. They don’t have destination colleges. They don’t have whatever critical mass it took to lift places like Syracuse or Utica into citydom.

They’re just there … part of a broad belt of communities that still seem to be searching for their meal tickets in the Revolutionary War, the women’s suffrage movement, or the days of canals.

She doesn’t mention it, but if you follow Ms. Russell’s path down the canal, you’ll notice that all of the sights and destinations she mentions are well over 150 years old (as of 1976; they’re even older now). There’s a whole lot of Revolutionary War, a little early 19th-century, and that’s about it.

There are also several classic moments where Ms. Russell says some town or another — I think Rome — was once “famous” for having the biggest lift-lock in the United States. (Near the end, she rhapsodizes that it was a shame anyone ever built a larger one.)

Claiming a faded distinction of limited public interest is a classic small-town marketing move, at least in the small towns I know, and it made me smile when I spotted it. Do you suppose anyone but the occasional civil engineer ever really cared about America’s largest lift-lock?

Watching the show brought back memories of my seventh-grade social studies teacher, Mr. Brainerd, a flat-topped, no-nonsense sort who might have time-traveled directly from 1965 to teach the students of 1985. (I once heard him complain that students’ behavior had gone downhill since rock n’ roll music became popular.)

He used to say our parents should take us to see Revolutionary War battlefields on vacation, instead of Disneyland. He had slide shows from these battlefields he would show us in class — faded shots with Ford Falcons and men in fedoras.

The soul of Mr. Brainerd lives in this doughty documentary. In fact, I would expect he took this very same trip at least once. He was definitely one to see the value in a historically large lift-lock, and one to be stirred by the sight of a replica packet-boat drawn by two horses.

Lest I seem too snarky, I should say that I don’t dislike these towns; in fact, I kind of relate to them. They seem like places where a person could make his life about as still and silent as he wanted it.

They have lots of old-growth trees and character-filled old houses that can probably be had for a song. And I’m sure the people who live there work hard and don’t get paid enough for what they do, in the manner of blue-collar Americans everywhere.

Still, I can’t contemplate these places for too long without thinking about the come-see-our-history blues … the restored one-room schoolhouses (they all look the same), and the horses that plod back and forth on the same well-worn paths, and the empty sweep of grassy battlefields with solitary granite obelisks, and the feeling that time has stopped as it waits for something to happen.

Back to Memphis.

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As I watch tonight’s YouTube viewing of choice, I’m watching a man whose life in the spotlight is about to fall away from him.

I’m also looking at his boss, Elvis Presley.

For context: This week marks the anniversary of the last week Elvis ever worked.

After the June 19 show in Omaha, the King stumbled for another week through the Midwest, playing shows in Lincoln, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati and, on the 26th, Indianapolis. (Two of those shows were filmed for a regrettable — and, as it turned out, posthumous — network TV special.)

After the June 26 show, Elvis went home to Graceland. He hadn’t held a recording session since the prior October, and he didn’t hold any more before his death in mid-August.

This, then, is the anniversary of the last week Elvis spent at his principal occupation — making music.

I’ll withhold most judgment on the quality of the music he was making at the time, except to say the June 19 Omaha concert is a less depressing experience when you can watch the film. I’ve had a recording for years, and it’s a hugely dispiriting listen. But the sight of Elvis’s porky smirk and the remnants of a gleam in his eye redeem things a little bit. Although he’s in dismal shape, he doesn’t look as bad as he sounds.

This week in ’77 also would have been the last week in the arena spotlight for Elvis’s longtime crony, Charlie Hodge.

Hodge, a diminutive Alabamian, had sung in a gospel quartet and picked a little guitar as a young man. He’d had the good fortune to meet Elvis backstage in 1955 and the even greater fortune to be stationed near Elvis in the Army, where he used their shared showbiz experience to strike up a friendship.

(Hodge’s Wiki entry, which appears to have been given a thorough scrubbing by the Charlie Hodge Appreciation Society, claims that Hodge appeared on network television before his famous future boss. Perhaps he did.)

When Elvis filmed his legendary 1968 comeback special, Hodge’s musical ability and place in Elvis’s inner circle landed him a spot in the show’s rowdy small-band jam sessions.

And when Elvis returned to live performing that year, Hodge was again at his side — fetching towels, bringing drinks, holding mics, strapping Elvis into his guitar, and singing backup and strumming unmic’d acoustic guitar when not otherwise needed.

Reportedly, the members of the Memphis Mafia spent much of their abundant free time coming up with reasons to be jealous of one another. Hodge was a particularly ripe target: Alone among Elvis’s entourage, he got to be on stage every night, in close proximity to the King, sharing the attention.

Watching the Omaha film, it’s difficult to tell just how much he enjoyed the privilege by the end.

His smile seems genuine enough at times … but then there are times when he reaches for the mic and Elvis won’t give it to him, or when Elvis pantomimes kicking him in the rear end, and the cruelty under the boys-will-be-boys routine seems to show itself.

(Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of Elvis says that, about two weeks prior to the Omaha show, Elvis hit Hodge in the nose forcefully enough to draw blood during a discussion of cars Elvis had given to some of his lieutenants. It could be, then, that Hodge’s relationship with Elvis was more strained during these last shows than it had been previously.)

Elsewhere, Hodge can be seen standing apprehensively in the background while Elvis launches into flannel-tongued between-song monologues. Even after many nights of watching Elvis embarrass himself onstage, that couldn’t have been pleasant.

And then there’s the start of “And I Love You So,” where Hodge dispenses his usual supplies and retreats to the background. He wrings his hands briefly, pulls up his pants, and finally settles into a sort of subservient parade-rest posture, unable for the moment to escape the fact that he is 42 years old and makes his living handing out towels and water to a former friend he can now scarcely recognize.

I wonder if Hodge ever thought, at moments like that: “I could have been my own boss. I could have stayed in the Army and been an officer by now. I could have married the local Chevy dealer’s daughter and gone into the business. Instead I run like a squirrel around the stage of the Omaha Civic Auditorium, trying to stay two steps ahead of a guy who swears at me when the mic feeds back. But what else can I do with myself at this point?”

Whether he liked the setup or not, it had almost run its course on that night in Omaha. Less than two months later, Hodge would be trimming and coloring his boss’s sideburns in preparation for his funeral.

In addition to co-writing the obligatory book, Hodge spent some of his remaining years as an onstage gofer to Elvis tribute artists — doing the same things he did for Elvis, on much smaller stages, for performers who presumably treated him humanely and with respect, and in front of audiences who bought tickets as much to see him as to see the Elvis impersonator.

I suppose that passes for a happy ending, when you’ve gone that far down the road of professional subservience.

I still like to imagine Hodge clad in ’70s polyester, killing time during soundcheck in Springfield or Tuscaloosa or one of the other second-rank ports of call where Elvis played at the end, mulling the eternal question:

Is it better to be renowned for your fetching than to be anonymous for your bossing?

Rear View: Attacking the Vatican.

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Uncle Meat is the new Astral Weeks.

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Uncle Meat includes more harpsichord than any post-Chuck Berry pop album you’ve ever heard. Its decks are positively awash in harpsichord. For you harpsichord freaks in the crowd, it is a sure-shot must-own.

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Uncle Meat, its fondness for 18th-century keyboard instruments aside, is also a record where a whole lot of stuff sounds disorientingly unlike what it’s supposed to. The skies are purple and the trees are blue in Uncle Meat’s alternate universe.

Some of these sonic variations are low-tech — like bassist Roy Estrada’s prodigious dude-sounds-like-a-lady falsetto, or the unexpected cameo appearance of operatic soprano Nelcy Walker on “Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague.”

Others are the result of studio tomfoolery. Clarinets sound like trumpets. Voices sound like chipmunks. Electric organs sound like theremins. Unprocessed horns gibber like tropical birds. Something swings like a loose door in the wind on the ominous “We Can Shoot You,” and flickers and trills like a piccolo on “A Pound For a Brown On The Bus.”

(Speaking of things that depart from the norm, the fade at the end of “Pound For a Brown” isn’t quite as advertised either.)

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Uncle Meat is somewhere between a slap and a Bronx cheer, delivered simultaneously in five languages you do not speak.

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Uncle Meat is the last album the notoriously fastidious Frank Zappa recorded with average musicians.

The Zappa/Mothers narrative says that Zappa emerged from the California desert with a head full of doo-wop, R&B, Varese and Stravinsky. He brought with him an ex-bar band that could cover the first two influences in their sleep, then added hired guns more familiar with the latter two.

Uncle Meat, released in April 1969, was the last album the Mothers recorded with Zappa’s desert cohort — Ray Collins on vocals, Estrada on bass, Jimmy Carl Black on drums and Euclid James “Motorhead” Sherwood on saxophone — alongside the hired guns.

Zappa broke up the band later that year, and when he relaunched the Mothers in 1970, they were fully staffed by skilled players like George Duke and Aynsley Dunbar.

By the mid-’70s, Zappa’s lineups had acquired their now-legendary status — studio-quality players who could turn out 17/8 riffs in unison, when not executing their boss’s twisted idea of a stage show.

And yet, things were never quite the same without the bar-band contingent.

Maybe Zappa’s eternal ’50s steals sounded more convincing being delivered by guys for whom that style hadn’t always been an ironic joke.

Or maybe the presence of the dudes from the desert was the last thing grounding Zappa … once they were gone, he was free to disappear into a black hole of hemidemisemiquavers.

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 “You guys listen to the worst shit.”

-one of my oldest and dearest friends, upon walking into the room where my brand-new CD copy of Uncle Meat was playing for only the second or third time, circa 1989.

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 Uncle Meat, on a certain level, is one of the friendliest and most accessible records out there.

How so? Well, it’s full of people talking. And nothing’s warmer or more natural than the sound of people talking, right? Moreso even than singing.

Everywhere you go you hear people talking. It’s the most common and comforting sound there is. (Its absence, in contrast, can be highly discomfiting.)

Three of the album’s tracks are entirely spoken-word, while a fourth, the deathless “Ian Underwood Whips It Out,” begins with a lengthy monologue.

Elsewhere, spoken bits pop up at the beginnings and ends of songs. Best is the apparent interview segment at the end of “Electric Aunt Jemima,” which captures Zappa’s contrarian attitude more concisely than any other five seconds of audio.

Uncle Meat, along with the other early Zappa/Mothers albums, takes a sledgehammer to the notion that a “pop” album has to consist of 10 to 14 tracks of shined-up, conventionally orchestrated pop, presented in an uninterrupted row.

Instead, it argues, there’s a place for the people who conceived and performed the music to express themselves, without having to craft a song to do so.

(One could say the same for Having Fun With Elvis On Stage. If you want to make the argument, go right ahead. I’ll read it.)

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Uncle Meat reached No. 43 on the Billboard album chart.

This is not at all bad for a double album with a thoroughly unattractive cover, portraying some sort of baroque dental exam …

… an album on which jazz, pop, R&B, and modern classical music collide haphazardly and not always tunefully …

… an album with no hit single, and indeed no single at all, whose leadoff/title track sounds like a military march from behind the Iron Curtain until it dissipates into tape-wavery coughing noises.

For all his kvetching about America’s plastic culture, and his constant lampooning of people not hip enough to understand “real music,” Frank Zappa sold a bunch more LPs than he might have.

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Uncle Meat was very nearly the name I convinced my son to call my brother, when my son was a toddler and easily influenced.

My brother escaped, but it was a near thing.

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Uncle Meat in its CD form contains 40-plus minutes of dialogue from the unfinished movie of the same name, plus an early-’80s “bonus track” in which an Italian journalist (whose voice resembles a particularly stroked-out Zappa) boasts in Sicilian about the size of his John Thomas.

These are not part of the original album and around here we tend not to speak of them.

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Speaking of the Iron Curtain, as we were a few grafs ago, we know Vaclav Havel was a Zappa fan of many years’ standing, and Czechoslovakia’s foremost underground band named itself after a Zappa song.

Imagine, then, dubbed copies of Uncle Meat in the hands of the few brave Czech longhairs, back in the day.

Imagine the weirdness of Uncle Meat, amplified a few hundred times by geographical and cultural distance. Imagine what colorful images arose in the minds of the Plastic People as they contemplated what “The Legend of the Golden Arches” could possibly mean.

Imagine Uncle Meat not as a sprawling, self-important, impenetrable mess … but as an inspiration, and a rare cultural ray of daylight in a repressive sea of gray.

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Uncle Meat bent my mind like a five-cent coathanger when I was maybe 11 or 12 and starting to sort out my notions of what grown-up rock n’ roll music might be.

I have maybe been a little disappointed in everything else since.

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