Saturday, September 11, 2010

River Deep, Mountain High

Youtube is a trove for old people like me, looking for long-forgotten old songs. The commenters can be a pain in the ass -- I've had some acrid exchanges with vicious old farts who say, falsely, that there's no talent or ability in pop music these days. It's ironic, of course, since that was exactly what their parents said forty years ago, often attacking the same people that my fellow geezers are celebrating now. (I was especially entertained by the person who said that in the Good Old Days, people sang, they didn't scream and yell. That would be news to James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, Jim Morrison, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and all the other great rock'n'roll and r&b screamers.) In short, they still make stupid old people the way they used to. But I digress.

One classic whose greatness has always escaped me is "River Deep Mountain High." I like Tina Turner and I like Phil Spector, but this summit of the Wall of Sound has never worked for me. In the 1970s or 80s I finally bought a vinyl Ike and Tina lp with the song on it, and remained mystified. The sound was terrible, overcompressed and muddy, and I still think the song itself is weak. Of course, the right performance can elevate a pedestrian vehicle, but it wasn't happening here, either in Spector's production or Turner's singing. Part of the legend, I suspect, is that the record didn't do well on the charts; frankly, I can see why. So I forgot about "River Deep, Mountain High," bought Private Dancer and enjoyed it.

Then, last week, a certain blogger posted this video clip:

The blogger seemed to think it was a live performance (it's just a lipsynch to the studio recording -- did he think Ike made all that music with one acoustic guitar?) and praised the filmmakers (no disrespect -- most older filmed promos for pop music are this badly done). The sound quality was worthy of an old monaural transistor radio, the kind you'd listen to with a single earphone. But it made me wonder, so I browsed around for other versions. Celine Dion's was weird: she enunciates weirdly, and is trying ineffectually to sound soulful; I don't hate Dion as many people do, but I don't find her interesting. Eric (be still my heart!) Burdon's showed rather drastically the limitations of his own early white-soul project.

Then I found this, a pickup version from (apparently) a Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in the late 80s:

Which reminds me, it would be interesting to hear Little Richard (lurking there behind Tina) have a shot at this song. The sound and video quality are very poor, but it was fascinating to see what she could do with the song outside a studio. (Lots of stupid comments, though. Can't you people like one singer without hating everybody else?) Notice that Paul Shaffer is leading the band (foreshadowing).

Then I stumbled on this clip -- not really a video, just the song with a single still picture to look at.

This one, the original 1966 recording, got my attention. Even on my laptop the music was pretty clear, with depth and detail I don't remember from my old vinyl copy. I could begin to see why the song had struck many people so forcefully. But something still was missing.

Finally I found a rumor that Darlene Love (of the Blossoms and the Crystals) had been bumped aside from the original session in favor of Tina Turner, so I looked to see if Youtube had a version by Love. They did, from 2007 on the David Letterman Show, with Paul Shaffer leading the orchestra, and it has been running through my head ever since I watched it last week.

For one thing, against Turner's trademark hair-shirt anguish, Love sounds exalted: instead of grabbing at your ankles and begging you to let her follow you around just like that puppy, Love knows she's giving you something wonderful, and aren't you lucky? Shaffer was clearly trying to recreate Spector's wall of sound, and he's hampered by improvements in technology since 1966 -- it's hard to get that monolithic effect when every instrument and voice is clear -- but it's still okay, and the orchestra are having a great time here. It's like the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth, if Beethoven could really have put joy into his music. (European, and especially Teutonic, art music can't really let loose. And sometimes you need to let loose ... but that's not right either. These performers aren't letting go: it must have taken a lot of rehearsal and hard work to make this song work the way it does, but they're still having fun. The paradoxes of art.) I still don't see "River Deep, Mountain High" as a great song or record, but at last I finally appreciate it.