Suitable for Framing

September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment


“Welcome,” I suppose I should say…though due to the nature of this medium it’s likely this is not the first of these posts you are reading. I should nevertheless probably start by saying a few words about what you find before you. This is a blog about – or at least prompted by – that nearly-lost-but-now-being-somewhat-revived art form of the record cover. You can call them album covers, sleeves, or whatever you like, but you know what they are: often classic combinations of graphic design, photography, text, etc. enveloping and hopefully capturing something of the essence of the disc inside. I have probably too many of these non-compact discs – certainly more than I really have time (or even the desire) to listen to. But I don’t need to hear them all to enjoy them, for much of the time I am drawn to qualities that have nothing to do with what would come through the speakers: a striking or funny or moving cover, the elaborately spun liner notes on the rear, or perhaps some incidental detail that might catch the eye and then the imagination: an inscription or autograph, say, or the explanation of the recording process used, or the way a sleeve –  which may otherwise be pretty unexceptional graphically – can so completely evoke a different era.

A lot of people, of course, appreciate vintage record covers, and there are certainly many books, websites, postcards, etc. featuring them. Often they are grouped by the more or less typical subsets: vixen-like women, bad taste, etc. I appreciate all of that, of course, but also have other favorite themes that are perhaps slightly more off the beaten track. As a musician, for example, I have a particular soft spot for covers with photos depicting artists in the studio, especially as the way most records were recorded back in the past was so much simpler (and by that – yes – I do mean usually better). I like seeing everyone set up in the same room, the much more basic mic setups, etc. Not to mention the old mixing boards, outboard equipment and just the instruments themselves. I also tend to be drawn to things like truck-driving sleeves, evocative city scenes, plays on the space age, and (maybe partly because I am also a photographer who still uses film and old, large cameras) practically anything that is drenched in that beautiful, often Kodachrome, vintage color, especially if it is still in great shape. To name a few.

Whatever the particular covers and their appeal, though, what I want to at least attempt on these pages is to not always simply dwell on the sleeves, but – at least at times – take the records as a starting point for whatever more general musings they may inspire. Beginning with a cover, then, that may include the music as well, the artist, where it was recorded, what someone else may have added to the sleeve – and anything else that may spring to my somewhat rambling mind. I don’t know exactly where this may lead, but I think poking around a little may be fun. So sometimes I may just post a great sleeve with little commentary, and sometimes I may stray far afield.

To begin, then, I am going to feature a cover that I think many would be surprised by, in that it is pretty plain in most ways, is in fairly ratty shape, and the artist is someone I really don’t listen to much at all. It nevertheless has several small features I find intriguing. It also – however slightly – intersects with my own life. And finally, it’s on my mind partly because it is simply my latest acquisition.

Unfortunately I drive past Amoeba Records in Hollywood most days on the way home from work, and stop in probably too frequently to browse their $1-vinyl bins. I did that earlier this evening, and came away with about five records. I almost passed this one up, actually, except that just this week I had overheard a friend playing one of his more popular songs (that I actually quite like), and I also had sort of been thinking about him anyway off and on for a bit.

I have for many years played baseball in an adult hardball league in the Los Angeles area, and the last two years we have played many games at San Fernando High School. San Fernando is a city more or less on the northern edge of the L.A. basin, in the far reaches of the valley that bears its name. It also happens to be a very hot place a lot of the year, and being particularly  sensitive to heat I dread playing 3-hour-long games there during the summer. Anyway, as many people know, Ritchie Valens was from this area, which even in the 1950s had a fairly large working-class Hispanic population centered there and in neighboring Pacoima. Valens attended San Fernando High School, and was signed while he was, I believe, in his junior year there. After being alerted by a talent scout, a Hollywood record-company owner named Bob Keane (who earlier had discovered Sam Cooke) had heard him play at  a matinee in a local movie theater and invited him to do some demos at Keane’s home studio, which soon led to the recording of Valens’ first record in July of 1958 (as well as a quick name change from Valenzuela to ‘broaden his appeal’). Ritchie, after he had found success with this initial offering, “Come On, Let’s Go,” proceeded to drop out of school (which was probably much more common then) to concentrate on his music career. Everyone knows what happened soon afterward. The poor guy had a career of only about 8 months before he so tragically died in the famous plane crash at the age of 17 in February, 1959. Since then he has been cited as an influence by hundreds of musicians (including The Beatles and Led Zeppelin; Jimmy Page called Valens his “first guitar hero”), and has even been called a progenitor of punk rock by some. Probably hundreds of millions of people have heard his music. I have no idea how to estimate that, but it would have to be at least that many, right? And it’s still going strong over 50 years later.

Front cover of Ritchie Valens' 2nd album

When I came across the record, like I said I almost just kept flipping through the stack. But it looked old – like from Valens’ time perhaps – and something about it spoke to me, so I decided to pick it up and examine it a bit more. It turns out it was released shortly after his death, in 1959, and consists of what has been termed “scraps” from his debut. From Steve Leggett, All Music Guide:

The resulting LP, “Ritchie,” actually turned out better than perhaps it had a right to, and while it didn’t yield any huge hits, and was essentially cobbled together, it has an internal coherence that is pretty remarkable given the circumstances. Tracks like “Cry, Cry, Cry” and the fiery “Fast Freight” sound polished and finished, while the obvious solo studio demos like “My Darling Is Gone” and “Now You’re Gone” have a kind of poignant intimacy.

One of the first things I noticed upon turning it over was a small note at the bottom left, saying, “Cover: Suitable for framing as portrait of Ritchie.” And it is. Or was, in the case of this well-worn sleeve. Perhaps this one had been at one time; who knows. It is a nice shot of him, with his guitar strap slung over his left shoulder. But something about the simple reminder (did people need to read that to realize they could frame a record cover?) and maybe the way it is phrased, with his first name, struck me as moving. Maybe it’s also partially the expression on his face. In the text on the back, Bob Keane (spelled “Keene” here; apparently he changed the spelling later) talks about Valens’ music having “a certain melancholy which has become his trade mark.” Perhaps there is a touch of that in his eyes and smile. I don’t know. But he had what was probably not an easy life. His father passed away, he lived with various relatives in different locations. And as Keane says, he was “born in comparative poverty.” Who can say (perhaps a surviving relative or friend…) – I know virtually nothing about his life except for the Hollywood movie and what I’ve been reading since I bought the record. Maybe any melancholy he may have possessed was simply the typical strain you often find in sensitive artists. Or maybe it was just something in his music and was not necessarily present in his actual personality. In any case, it is a photo that seems to have a presence to me.

But I thought of this album being released so soon after his death, and fans – and of course family and friends – being able to gaze at such a large picture of Valens (perhaps even on their wall). I mentioned that I play baseball fairly regularly at his old high school. Well, my team lately hasn’t been very good, and I have spent a lot of time standing in center field while the other team bats. My mind tends to wander, and many times while standing out there I have thought of Valens walking around the campus. And even just what it must have been like to have been a student there as your former classmate or friend became famous overnight, was suddenly on TV and the radio and was off touring with figures like Buddy Holly … then so quickly was gone. What a cruel joke it must have seemed: Finally someone from their community defies huge odds to rise to the top, and almost before it all sinks in he is taken away. What must the atmosphere of that school have been in the days and weeks after the crash? How robbed – of course – must his family and friends have felt, in so many ways? Even on merely an artistic level, he was only 17, and had so much potential. Buddy Holly was young too, or course, and similarly a huge loss, but he was 22, and had had at least a little more time to write and record and tour. And just live. Valens was so young. What talent he must have had, though, especially to be able to do what he did at that age. Keane says that when he saw him that first time, Valens had a beat-up amp but was “in complete command of the audience.” That’s a rare commodity. I go see young bands in L.A. somewhat regularly, and am constantly reminded of how difficult it is to find a really compelling front-person.

But I also think about what it must have been like for him. These days San Fernando High is tucked right next to the intersection of two large freeways, the 5 and the 118, and is only about a half hour drive from downtown L.A., at least as long as there is no traffic. Back then, though, before the freeways, it must have been much more of a trek into Los Angeles and Hollywood. Who knows, he may have rarely even come into town before his career took off. It certainly seems that the gigs he was doing at the time were very local rather than – as is common today for bands from anywhere in L.A. – in Hollywood at all. It just must have been a whirlwind for a minority kid from a hot and dusty corner of L.A. I know what it’s like to hear your band’s song on the radio, especially for the first time; how exciting it of course is. And I was much older. I imagine he must have felt like the whole world was being laid out before him. And again, so quickly. His records were recorded at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, with Earl Palmer – literally one of the world’s best drummers – and Carol Kaye on bass. These were the cream of the crop of session musicians, who played on hundreds if not thousands of pop and rock songs during that golden age. Gold Star itself turned out an incredible number of classic records, from most of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” girl-group recordings to things like “Good Vibrations.” Apparently it had a great echo chamber, which was part of the key to its sound. The place is unfortunately now long gone; the location is the parking lot for a strip mall on Santa Monica Blvd. just east of Vine.

I also, though, like the box with the address for the Ritchie Valens Memorial Fan Club – which is housed not in an office, but simply at Muriel Williams’ house in Van Nuys (according to zillow.com it is still there – a typical (for the Valley) small box of about 800 sq ft.). Van Nuys is not that far from San Fernando – perhaps she was a friend of the family? If she was just a fan she may have been young at the time, and may well still be alive. It might be interesting (to me, anyway, as I tend to be curious about odd things) to know what kind of mail she received. Perhaps expressions of sympathy for the family, or requests for a photo or more music, but of course the standard fan letters meant to be read by the star, or requests for an autograph, were not in play at this point.

Another element that caught my eye was Bob Keane placing Valens in the context of America being a place where “a young man, through his talents alone, can achieve  … acceptance and fame.” I found it interesting, when reading a little about Keane himself, that his life had what one could see as having an “American” thread running through it. Born in 1922 in the L.A. area, he serves in the Army Air Corps during WWII, comes back to Hollywood as a musician,  and ends up starting a label with a partner who later rips him off after Keane discovers Sam Cooke. So he decides to dust himself off and, on the advice of his wife, starts another label, comes up with the  hip name Del-Fi (cleverly derived from Delphi, the location of the most sacred of the temples to Apollo, Greek god of music), and discovers one of the founding figures of rock and roll. But his talent doesn’t stop there; he also initially records Valens himself at his home in Silverlake, then later, in pondering how to follow up “Come on, Let’s Go,” decides to go in an inspired direction. As Billy Vera writes: “Ritchie might easily have gone the way of dozens of other “one hit wonders,” had he and producer Bob Keane not come up with his remarkable double sided follow-up. Going against conventional wisdom, which says that you must always follow a hit with a similar sound, Keane instead chose a doo-wop ballad Valens had written for his girlfriend, Donna Ludwig.” Keane continues the label after Valens’ death until 1967, afterwards (what a different world!) selling accordian lessons door to door. As well as burglar alarms… But while running the label he operates an “open-door” policy whereby anyone can walk in and get a hearing. “We were right there on Record Row at Vine and Selma,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “They all came up my stairs. Zappa walked in, Bobby Fuller, Leon Russell.” Another time he reportedly said, “I’ll listen to anyone, even if they bring ’em in on a stretcher.” What a great character. Bob Keane passed away less than a year ago, in December 2009, at the age of 87.

Valens and Bob Keane

So I hope I have conveyed some of what drew me to this record in the first place, and maybe passed along a few observations of interest. I also like that it has been taped together by someone who obviously valued it, as well as Keane’s description of “Delphonic Sound” – though was it that, or was it “Gold Star” sound? If you want, you can read the liner notes below. I will end (or nearly so) with a quote from the late Lester Bangs, a preeminent rock critic who wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone. He was a big fan of Valens and his music, and once spoke of him this way, in writing about Valens’ posthumously released Ritchie Valens In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High album:

“It would be hard to find a recorded rock concert in which the performer displays more honest, humble warmth than Valens does here . . . It has always seemed to me that [Ritchie] is also the type of star that Bob Dylan would have liked to be, had his audience let him.”

I am honored to play at his high school, despite how hot it usually is there. I have also had some of the best tacos of my life right down the street after a game – though strangely, the next time I went they were kind of terrible. Sometimes it seems you can’t rely on anything…

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