Contact High

As I approach senility, I’ve managed to outgrow most of my childhood heroes.

Lucille Ball was the first and easiest one to get over. By the age of 10 I’d memorized every line of dialogue of I Love Lucy. Even though I knew what was going to happen when I watched an episode for the 100th time, how Lucy did it kept it in the now.

I was one of the last rats to leave the sinking ship in the post-Desi 1960’s. I willed myself to love her subsequent sitcoms but intense loyalty could not make them funny. When I learned about her John Wayne politics I soured on her.

As an adult, I watched her on talk shows and was surprised by the effort she had put into her craft. The diligence and intense concentration that created joy for millions of people did not provoke the same feelings in her. It was just a job to Miss Ball which, in the end, made her seem like a very sad person.

My Jackie worship started as transference through my Mother. As documented in this blog, it began as pure idolatry that moved on to a fascination for her perverse imagery. Then the tackiness of her as a collectible commodity gave me a hobby. I ended up liking her but with some reservations.

As for Mick, I think I’m over him but I’m never quite sure. It helped last summer when I was in Bloomington and was reunited with Susan after 40 years. She seemed annoyed when she remembered, “you were always trying to be like Jagger.” Then she added, “I thought you were limiting yourself.”

I first saw Ike & Tina Turner on American Bandstand in the mid-60’s. The Ikettes were doing their mini-hit, Peaches ‘n Cream. Dick Clark lavished praise on Tina during the interview and called her shows legendary. I’d never heard of her.

Tina didn’t perform that day and barely spoke. But she was so self-possessed and confident, I was beguiled and instantly obsessed.

My favorite Ike & Tina album back then was called In Person and was a live recording of their performance at Basin Street West in San Francisco. It was on MINIT Records and I could buy it for 99 cents in the Rexall discount bin. I know because I wore out and replaced about 10 copies.

It’s mostly covers of popular hits but there are two medleys where she talks extensively. During one 17 minute recitative she stops and starts the band repeatedly to wax on about love and hurt. Like a Baptist Preacher, she varies the volume and cadence for dramatic effect. It was the height of soul music and there’s nothing more soulful than a Sunday sermon from a southern pulpit. Which is basically what Tina delivered. Very effectively.

There was always a manufactured and meaningless rivalry between Tina and Aretha. They were really quite different and I loved them both.

Aretha had the better voice and was more musically talented. But she was what opera queens call park and bark, a diva who plants herself on stage and lets the voice be the show.

Tina had a great voice too with a more limited range. But she danced exceptionally well and, incredibly, sang and danced simultaneously. She constantly worked on creating new dance moves and on staging to highlight the movement. She wore long falls because she said they had “action.” As did the fringe on her costumes. Hers was one of the first acts to use strobes and fog machines.

Show business cognoscenti took note. I remember hearing Diana Ross say with astonishment “oh my god, she’s so bad.” (Back when that phrase was first used as praise.) In 1969 Dick Cavett asked Janis Joplin who she admired as a performer. She immediately responded, “Tina Turner.” And Lena Horne was quoted as saying she wanted to be reincarnated as Tina.

Listening to one of the Turner’s albums was always hit and miss, gems surrounded by mediocrity. Ike was a musical control freak and notorious for stealing from other acts. Even the “rough” part of Proud Mary was nicked from Fort Wayne’s own Checkmates. It was Phil Spector’s majestic uptempo production of the Checkmates version that made Ike’s recording.

He also controlled most of the stage act. Tina later admitted being embarrassed by things Ike made her do like the lewd, kabuki-esque fellatio she performed on the microphone. Or singing lyrics with heavy drug references (“she reached in her bag and she pulled out some coke!”) She may have been reluctant to do them but, again, it was so good because she was so convincing.

Make-up’s a little scary but the fringe flew.

I completely internalized her music and always played it when I needed a lift. In college I drank prodigious amounts of coffee and mimiced the way she splayed her thighs, sat her butt down in it and gyrated across the stage to get that fringe moving.

Later when I did her on stage I was never an impersonator. She was sui generis and impossible to recreate. But she inspired me as I tried to perform with her spirit and attitude. And I loved doing her songs because they were full of energy and so sexually provocative.

David Bowie said that being on stage next to Tina was the hottest place in the universe.  Rock ‘n Roll gods melted in her presence. A YouTube clip that has since been taken down showed Mick and Tina in Tokyo doing Brown Sugar. When he drops to his knees in a corny gesture she dismisses him with a look: “not on my stage.”

(Note bene 11/28/18: a friend and devoted reader found the clip. What I wrote was on memory. Who knows what they were actually thinking. But at approximately 2:00 the look is there. Thank you Mimi.)

There is a video of Keith Richards in a group jam of Keep A Knockin’. He takes his vocal turn and nervously sings two lines. He’s palpably relieved and shows such affection when Tina steps up to rescue the verse.

And when Paul McCartney does Get Back with Charles and Diana in the audience, his look of anticipation as Tina makes her entrance and the thrill in his eyes as they harmonize are unmistakable ardor.

My generation grew up with a Bill Murray sneer for show business. We mocked every gimmick and show biz cliche there was. I kid you not. But the happiness Tina exhibited on stage was impossible to deride. There was joy in every performance she gave.

On New Years Eve 1982 she was gearing up for her return to the lime light. No one knew it was in the works but I thought at the time her stunning visual presence needed to be captured in the new medium of music video. Although she was technically still down-and-out in this appearance on Johnny Carson, watching it again she obviously was not going to be denied a comeback. And with a piano player like she had I’d be attempting one too.

Happy Birthday Tina.

Tina and the Spoken Word

My stylized version of Tina, 1981. Probably the only thing we had in common was that fringe flew.
My stylized version of Tina, 1981. Probably the only thing we had in common was that fringe flew.

Gary and I were friends in Bloomington and we both moved to San Francisco about the same time. He told me recently that one of the reasons he moved here was to see good music. It wasn’t the reason I moved but in retrospect it has been one of the great benefits. I’ve attended hundreds of performances over the last 40 years.

Among the best was Patti Smith in 1976. It was my first month in this apartment and she was on my block, at the Boarding House around the corner on Bush Street. It was torn down in 1980 so they could put up luxury condos (sound familiar?) I was also at Winterland for the Sex Pistols the night of “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated.”

Along those lines and two decades later I saw Loretta Lynn in Santa Rosa. She had a cold and did the whole set seated in a chair. At one point she talked to the audience and apologized, “I’m just sorry you folks had to pay to see this.”

One of the most startling performances I ever saw was Tina Turner at the Old Waldorf around 1979. I was going to say electrifying but she’s always that. She went well beyond her norm that night.

She was in her fallow period, after Ike but before Private Dancer, and she was playing smaller clubs to pay off her debts. I was doing my part to keep her name before the public by performing her numbers like Heard it Through the Grapevine (from her 1969 Live at Basin Street West) or Contact High (from Come Together). They were kind of obscure, not sure how much help I really was.

At the Old Waldorf she did Proud Mary. The 15 second introductory speech on the record became a three minute (pleasurable) ordeal in person. Her basic premise was “I know what you want but I’m not giving it to you.” It went on and on, she wouldn’t let go. I’ve never seen a crowd, which was frothing at the mouth, teased and controlled like that.

That version of Mary is in this clip from 1982. It’s a couple of years later so the patter sounds a little more set, not raw and fresh like the night I was 20 feet from her. The clip captures her wonderfully incongruous, Bell’s Palsy facial expressions. What it doesn’t capture is the tension that was in that room. Everyone wanted the big payoff, the uptempo finish and the dancing. Like a skilled dominatrix she edged us for an eternity.

One of the few embarrassments in Tina’s career was a 1960’s single called A Letter from Tina. It’s a junior high school-ish recitative about how much her man means to her. She is completely devoted and acknowledges that when things go wrong it’s her fault because she hasn’t taken the time to understand him completely. Obviously it was written by Ike.

Some of my favorite moments are the awkward transition from spoken to sung verse in “you control every movement.” It could have been a commercial for Ex-Lax. Then she has trouble with the word heartily in “I trust you heartily.” It sounds like “I trust you hardly” which may have been a subliminal message to her husband. Finally there’s the sign off, “yours, lifetime.” You know she means it.

If your heart has a warmth for the perverse like mine does, please click this link for A Letter from Tina. She can make even bad material memorable.

(p.s. I thought of Tina’s Letter because I had to write one to my landlord about the entry system not working and started wondering if the art of correspondence was dead. It took everything I had not to end my letter “Yours, lifetime.”)

Next: Go Ahead and Call it Frisco, What the Hell Do I Care
Previous: The Great Un-Quashed
The complete saga, From the Beginning

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