Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Zombies, David Gates and Johnny Otis

The Secret Museum

By Michael Mooney and Jim Webb

David Gates & Bread vs. The Zombies: A Word of Caution

In the annals of Rock, one would be hard pressed to find two more prominent groups with greater self-esteem issues than The Zombies and Bread. Both were responsible for some of the mid-20th century’s most delicate and tuneful music (in Bread’s case, treacly so), yet were much too sensitive for their own good (in Bread’s case, falsely so.) And both bands displayed varying symptoms of mental illness, and in very different ways. As such, their musical message must be declared extremely dangerous to any potential listener who may be experiencing the slightest hint of emotional vulnerability. The behaviors demonstrated in the following songs are not recommended. Consider this a warning.

The Zombies got off to a good start in the late fall of 1964. Their debut single “She’s Not There” shot to Number Two on the Billboard Top Hot 100 chart and heralded them as strong contenders during the second wave of the British Invasion. The Zombies’ jazzy sophistication set them apart from other less polished chart invaders that autumn, such as The Kinks, Manfred Mann, The Honeycombs and The Rolling Stones. “She’s Not There” reveals the group’s innate sensitivity, but suggests, via Rod Argent’s alternating direct/nebulous lyric and the equally alternating resignation/fury of Colin Blunstone’s vocal, a reluctant indifference to the song’s subject (everybody sing):

Well, no one told me about her—the way she lied
Well, no one told me about her—how many people cried
But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother trying to find her
She’s not there

Well, no one told me about her—what could I do
Well, no one told me about her—though they all knew …

Well, let me tell you about the way she looked
The way she’d act and the color of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool, her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there …

This is a very peculiar song. The singer is compelled to describe details of the subject’s physical characteristics and behavior, perhaps indicative of the power she may still hold over him, meanwhile admitting his bewilderment that others (his friends?) had been aware of her deviousness all along, yet chose to keep the secret from him. His anger and confusion are obvious, and who can blame the guy?

Second single “Leave Me Be” (written by bassist Chris White) is a signpost for things to come: Blunstone admits his self-pity over her departure, and would like to be left alone, please, until he’s completely recovered. Alas, it is not to be, for The Zombies’ third single bears all the markings of full-blown psychosis.

With “Tell Her No” (another U.S. Top 10 smash), The Zombies’ psychological sickness (it should be noted that most of these songs are the work of Rod Argent; White’s songs, while occasionally lacking amour propre, rarely approach the self-loathing shame of Argent’s more autophobic material. And to be fair to Rod, not everything he’s composed is like this—how could it be?—but surely enough is like this to make you wonder) becomes fully manifest:

… And if she should tell you “come closer”
And if she tempts you with her charms
Tell her no …

I know she’s the kind of girl who’d throw my love away
But I still love her so
Don’t hurt me now, don’t hurt me now …

And if she should tell you “I love you”
Just remember she said that to me …

The lack of self-respect revealed in these words defies comprehension. Because he is still in love with his ex, Colin is asking her new lover to call off the relationship. The 63 “no’s” repeated during the song (second only to The Human Beinz in the Great Rock Negatives competition) probably won’t help his cause, but if anyone in the history of Planet Earth has ever succeeded in reconciling through the use of this uniquely masochistic method, I would be extremely interested in hearing the details.

Here’s more (from Chris White):

She told me she loved me
With words as soft as morning rain
But the light that fell upon me
Turned to shadow when he came …

Maybe after he’s gone
She’ll come back, love me again …
Once in a while, Rod acknowledges his illness:

… Can’t you see that you were wrong
Can’t you see I knew how long you’d lied and cheated …

If I worry that’s my business, anytime I want to cry
If I want to feed this sickness
Keep away from me
Cause I’ll keep trying till you come on home …
Keep trying till you come on home to me

Mostly, though, it’s more of the same (to differing degrees) forever and ever, or at least until, with the exception of “Maybe After He’s Gone,” of course, Odessey and Oracle.

Any analysis of Bread must begin with the manipulative pack of lies quoted below:

It don’t matter to me
If you really feel that
You need some time to be free
Time to go out searching for yourself
Hoping to find time …
To go to find.

And it don’t matter to me
If you take up with some
One who’s better than me
’Cause your happiness is all I want
For you to find peace …
Your peace of mind.

Lotta people have an ego hang-up ’cause they want to be the only one
How many came before, it really doesn’t matter, just as long as you’re the last
Everybody runnin’ ’round and ’round and tryin’ to find out
What’s been missing in the past.

And it don’t matter to me
If your searchin’ brings you
Back together with me
’Cause there’ll always be an empty room
Waiting for you
And an open heart
Waiting for you
Time is on my side

’Cause it don’t matter to me.

Yes it does matter, liar. David Gates is contemptible. He wants to get back into her pants, plain and simple. He uses words like “don’t” instead of “doesn’t” (and phrases such as “Baby, I’m-a want you” and “I wanna make it with you”) to show that he’s just plain folks, and not some slippery West Coast studio hack (or posh Home County boy like those Zombies.) The hippie sentiments expressed in this song are so unmistakably untrue it’s hard not to laugh: that you must have self-image issues to desire commitment in a relationship. Gates certainly has those issues in spades, as evidenced here:

I found her diary underneath a tree
And started reading about me
The words she’d written took me by surprise
You’d never read them in her eyes
They said that she had found the love she waited for
Wouldn’t you know it, she wouldn’t show it

Then she, confronted with the writing there,
Simply pretended not to care
I passed it off as just in keeping with
Her total disconcerting air
And though she tried to hide
The love that she denied
Wouldn’t you know it, she wouldn’t show it.

And as I go through my life, I will give to her, my wife
All the sweet things I can find

I found her diary underneath a tree
And started reading about me
The words began to stick, and tears to flow
Her meaning now was clear to see
The love she’d waited for was someone else not me
Wouldn’t you know it, she wouldn’t show it

And as I go through my life, I will wish for her, his wife
All the sweet things that she can find
All the sweet things they can find

Oh please. You’ve been made a fool, and that’s the best you can do? At least The Zombies would have gone straight to the other man and begged him to end the romance at once. This instant, my good fellow! Instead, David Gates wishes the both of them all the best “things” in life. Gates is no Gandhi. He probably realized the guy was too big to reckon with and went looking for another Top 10 hit instead (sorry, Dave: this one only got to number 15.)

Finally, in “Everything I Own,” after relating all the wonderful “things” his lady taught him (and I’m positive David Gates is precisely the type of chauvinist to refer to his partner as “my lady”), Gates declares that he would give the title of this song, plus his house, and his heart, and his own life in order to touch her body once more. Which begs the question: if she trained you so well, why did she go? David Gates won’t quite commit to admitting that he took her for granted, though he does go on to warn us against similar behavior. The Zombies would never do that.

1. She is a liar, my friends provided her cover, but I’d rather give a rundown of her physical attributes. (She’s Not There)
2. I won’t leave this room until I’m certain not to liquefy the next time I see the girl who jilted me. (Leave Me Be)
3. She doesn’t love me; she loves you. But I love her. So please, new boyfriend, don’t hurt me. Break up with her. (Tell Her No)
4. She took off with another. I hope she’ll return once it’s over. (Maybe After He’s Gone)
5. She’s a liar, plus she cheated on me. I admit that I am sick, but I will never give up on her. (I’ll Keep Trying)

1. If you love someone set them free, ’cause I’m easy like Sunday morning. Also, I’m better than everyone else, so I really don’t care if you never return. But if you do, that’s fine, too, because I’m also a liar. And horny. (It Don’t Matter To Me)
2. I’m not troubled by your “disconcerting air,” probably because I’m a sap. But all the best anyway, even though you’re marrying him when I thought you would be marrying me (because I’d like you to think that I’m easy like Sunday morning, but in reality I’m a sap.) (Diary)
3. You kept me warm, but left with him anyway. And I would die if it meant getting you back, which makes absolutely no sense, but I’ll try anything. Oh, and you people out there: let this be a lesson!
4. I wanna make it with you because life may be short, except it may also be long. (Make It With You)
5. I’m-a keep-a talking like-a this until I’m-a make it with you (apologies to Mark E. Smith) (Baby I’m-A Want You)

-Michael Mooney

Who Is This Man?

He is a member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm n’ Blues Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame. This musician was the driving force behind 17 Top Forty R n’ B hits between 1950 and 1969, and during 1950 he had 10 songs appear on the Billboard Retail Rhythm n’ Blues lists. His job duties have included being a singer, writer, producer, band leader, performer, author; TV & radio show host, club owner, community organizer, painter and preacher. Not only has he drummed for The Count Basie Orchestra, but he has also played with everyone from jazz legend Charlie Parker to bluesman T-Bone Walker, R n’ B great Big Joe Turner, and Rock icon Frank Zappa. He discovered and nurtured many great singers like Etta James, Hank Ballard, Jackie Wilson, Big Mama Thornton and Little Willie John. In 1945, his big band had a huge hit with “Harlem Nocturne,” and in 2000 he headlined the San Francisco Blues Festival. The person in question has been described as one of the great unknown renaissance men of the 20th century. His parents were Greek immigrants; with the last name on his birth certificate listed as Veliotes. Known as a great ambassador for African American culture, he just happens to be white.

I’m describing the legendary Johnny Otis, and his remarkable life is the subject of a recent biography by George Lipsitz, titled “Midnight at the Barrelhouse, The Johnny Otis Story.” The Barrelhouse was a music club that Johnny opened in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1947, and he was instrumental in shaping the sound that was to become Rhythm and Blues. Big Band jazz groups were finding it too expensive to stay together in post World War II America, and Johnny was at the forefront of creating music for small combos that played for the black community. Early on, he repeatedly experienced many different forms of racism as a musician. He saw black musicians’ songs that wouldn’t be played on mainstream radio stations become massive hits when inferior versions by white singers were recorded and released. As an olive-skinned ethnic Greek, Johnny passed for being a light-skinned black, but the various problems that he had in the Jim Crow Deep South were truly unique. He always ate and slept with his band members in the black side of town, but Otis tells a poignant story that occurred in 1952 after playing in Memphis, Tennessee. He was refused a hotel room in the black part of town for being white, so he proceeded to a nearby all white neighborhood, only to be refused a room there for being black. You might already know Johnny from his big hit “Willie and the Hand Jive,” but he is much more than just another name on an oldies radio station. The book touches on all phases of his life, including his thoughts and experience of living through the L.A. Watts riots of 1965, as well as becoming a minister late in life. 

Johnny Otis doesn’t shy away from making negative comments about White America and their acceptance of the racial status quo that had African Americans treated as third class citizens. His anger and at times bitterness might be too off putting for some people, but are examples to me of his complete honesty in recalling his experiences in life. Johnny retired in 2006, after almost 70 years as a professional musician. George Lipsitz should be commended for such an intimate portrait of a unique individual, and we are lucky that Johnny is still with us today at 88 years of age.

Mr. Otis found a way to connect with many different people—through his music, his social work, and the church pulpit he spoke from. Today’s entertainers think success is measured by how large their bank account is, or how many paparazzi trail them around town. Johnny Otis has consistently shown what it means to be committed to your work, to try and help others in need, and to always give back to the community that has nurtured you. Who is this man? I think the best answer is that he’s a real success.

Jim Webb

Suggested listening: “Midnight at the Barrelhouse” 5-CD box set, JSP label.
Further reading: “Upside Your Head, Rhythm and Blues on Central Ave.” by Johnny Otis.


Joanne Casey said...

So many bands I haven't properly listened too. *Youtubes some Zombies*

Michael Mooney said...

If you haven't encountered Bread, you are one lucky lady.

Joanne Casey said...

Michael, I'll not be Youtubing them, then :-)

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