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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

To Be, Or Not To Be: That Is The Question

Exhibit A: It’s an act. The Box Tops mime their version of “The Letter.”

It would be easy to explain the unease the Box Tops exhibit in that video by the bizarre circumstances. They’re supposed to mime their popular recording on TV so fans of the tune can get a look at them. But that’s not what adds falsity to the proceedings. They don’t know how to act, because their act is not based on their actual personalities. They’re just trying to be famous, or rich, or get more something-something from cuter girls than they could pull if they were vinyl siding salesmen instead of vinyl record salesmen. They’re willing to do whatever is required of them to shinny up the greasy pole of musical notoriety, even if it’s only halfway up. They don’t know how to act, because it’s entirely an act.

Exhibit B: It’s not an act. Sloppy Joe Cocker sings “The Letter.”

Many people see video of Joe Cocker, and figure he’s putting us on. That no one could possibly act like that naturally, could they? They figure he’s projecting a false front, trying anything he can think of to present a compelling image. I’m telling you it wasn’t an act. To me, it’s the difference between music, and art, and architecture, and any number of other disciplines that incorporate personality into technique, that makes it really matter, as opposed to the mundane stuff. I want the real deal, and don’t care what corner of the compass it hails from.

Joe Cocker is possessed with the idea of singing that song. He is working himself into the frenzy he feels (intuitively) that the song requires. It’s weird, but Leon Russell, the piano player and bandleader of Joe’s band of mad dogs and Englishmen, is exhibiting the same sort of inner compass that his art requires from him. His deadpan isn’t an act. To him, a song is a trance, while to Joe, it’s whirling dervish time. But dervishes spin to go into a trance, too, or go into a trance to spin like that, I’m not certain which is which. I’m not sure they are. Joe and Leon are both drinking out of the same cup, artistically, and after the show, literally, I imagine. And the punch is spiked like you wouldn’t believe.

The Box Tops didn’t write the song, and neither did Joe. A country songwriter named Wayne Carson put it on a demo tape he pressed into Chips Moman’s hand in Nashville. Carson got famous, if that’s the right word for people who only appear in small print on 45 record labels, for songs like “You Were Always on My Mind.” Moman and Dan Penn had escaped from the Muscle Shoals orbit, and settled in Nashville to make about ten thousand hit records. They handed it to a local group called the Devilles. Penn, the producer, told the keyboard player to play some form of “I’m a Believer” riff, and told the singer to sound gruff, which is usually hard for a sixteen-year-old. Then they went to the local library, and checked out a sound effects record, and overlaid the sound of a jet plane on the record, a kind of audio spackle, and the first example of sampling I’ve ever heard of. The band changed their name to the Box Tops because there was already a band called the DeVilles in New York City.

And what does it matter what you call your band, or what you play, if it’s all an act? If the Devilles turned up ten years later, they would try to look like Marc Bolan and dress 50 percent in women’s clothing if that’s what was required. It’s not exactly a knock on them. But it does make them disposable.

No one was going to tell Leon Russell to play like the Monkees, or heaven help us, tell Joe Cocker to sound more gruff. Hell, Leon Russell had a short stint in the Wrecking Crew, the loose agglomeration of musicians who recorded about 75% of all pop song hits for decades, so for all I know, he did play the organ intro to “I’m a Believer.” It was the Monkees who would be told to play like Leon Russell, not the other way around.

When it comes to true art, it’s all baked in the cake. And the cake is not a lie.

4 Responses

  1. Hello Bill- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    The Box Tops version is a great piece of pop. Made it to #1 on the Billboard chart in ’67. Songs in heavy rotation on the radio like that are instantly able to conjure up memories of a certain time and place for listeners, a phenomenon that has lost a bit of its impact with streaming services nowadays. I hadn’t thought of it, but a song about going home must have resonated strongly in theater.

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