What a Real Singer Does

Top: Sasha Allen, who sang with the Stones on the No Filter Tour and did justice to “Gimme Shelter.” Above: another real singer.

One of the things that drives me nuts at Walmart is “Walmart Radio,” a broadcast that’s always playing, Monday through Friday, with “live” (canned) DJs and call-ins from company employees across retail land, requesting songs. I mean, gag me with a spoon. Right. We’re one big family, enfolded in community by His Benevolence Himself, Holy Ghost Sam, may he rest in peace chewing straw in his big barn in the sky. And some of the music makes me puke. Bad commercial country, the same bullshit patriotic statement sung the same dumb-ass way by some no-talent schlub about his gal and gun rack and six-pack at quittin’ tahm and who cares. Or insipid religious music (I think the Jews have done the best Christian music: Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”). Or chick singers so into showing off their lungs and octave span you get a headache.

The music plays all hours. Graveyard shifts. All the time.

The best Walmart Radio music is at five thirty a.m., when the station format nervously slides into aesthetic coherency. You’ll hear a Canned Heat or an Eric Clapton or a Linda Ronstadt and it’ll put you back together as you’re using a carton knife to liberate twelve boxes of Lucky Charms, and all is forgiven.

But it’s got me thinking about singing and how one attains chops as a real singer. Someone with an iconic voice, a voice that has urgency, that must be heard.

Janis Joplin, raspy and raw, was a bona fide singer. Cyndi Lauper, with that almost-joke of a voice — that was a real singer. Chrissie Hynde said she wished she could sing like Karen Carpenter, but Chrissie, with that shaky, earthy, ethereal voice, is a singer.

I’m not living in the past. I heard a song on Walmart Radio, and I’d heard it elsewhere, called “Begging for Mercy” by a Welsh woman, Duffy, a true singer, a rocker who sings from the hips, a performer who’s sexual without trying to be cute. Quirky Amy Winehouse, channeling Billie Holliday, was a magnificent talent and is a painful loss. Joni Mitchell, whose voice alternated between sexy barroom nymph and witchy vibrato, grabs you, to some extent because her words are poetry. Joan Baez is one example of a meaningful, urgent singer who possessed, technically, remarkable pipes. But technical proficiency alone, hopping the scales, delivering pop clichés, fails to inspire. Joan inspired. Listen again to “Joe Hill” the old union song or the a cappella marvel “Amazing Grace” off the Woodstock album. I’ve got her greatest hits CD, and I’m here to tell you, there is no female singing performance more full of love and ache and exquisite irony than “Diamonds and Rust,” which I still think is about Bob Dylan.

Ah. Good segue.

Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger are not known as great vocalists in any kind of technical sense. I mean, they’re not Caruso, or Tom Jones for that matter. But it’s worth studying what they did to become the legends they are. They went into a room and when they came out they were Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.

Bob Dylan was an adenoidal nerd with a fixation on American folk music. He was looked on as weird when he dropped out of school and went to New York like some damn fool. He was laughed at. But he went into a room and listened to Woody Guthrie and old blues and other inspirations … and came out Bob Dylan. Cosmic, ruminative now, he faintly recalls the explosive punk Jeremiah of yesteryear, with his uncanny superannuated wisdom. This is a reedy, at times hoarse, even damn near garbled excuse for a voice – and John Prine is right when he says “Dylan is a great singer.” He delivers poetic statements, for which he rightly received a Nobel Prize.

I posted about the Stones concert, which threw me out of my intellectual mind-traps and into an ecstatic experience. And I’ve been following up by playing over again my Stones CDs. You can hear Wilson Picket and James Brown in every one of those yawps and wildcat yowls of Mick’s. He stole from everybody; he truly was the Monkey Man, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. He once said (he’d heard this from, I think, Fats Domino) one should never sing the words too clearly, and, if you listen to the “lyrics” to so many of his songs – even “Gimme Shelter,” which I partly reproduced in my post, copying from online — you wonder if they’re right. Listen to the crazy vocalizing on “Slave” off of Tattoo You, or when Mick comes to Keith’s rescue at the end of “Happy” off of Exile. The words are subservient to the sound, the feel. They may be downright unintelligible. Jagger is channeling black soul and R&B singers, scatting really; he’s in a zone of his own. This is true singing. Many have commented he can’t sing for shit – he probably would agree. But he is a singer, par excellence.

Dwight Yoakam, with his unabashedly high, lonesome sound, is a true singer, and a host of more commercially successful products of the Nashville establishment are not.

I like to think I’m being myself when I’m writing this blog. If I’m imitating someone – as, I think, all writers do – I cannot but deliver an authentic statement if I’m being honest. And being honest is more important than craft in the final reckoning.

Maybe I thought this blog up because I went to an AA meeting last night where we talked about humility. I think it safe to say that Dylan and Jagger have egos the size of Texas, but I also know in my heart that each studied at the altar of genius before his own meteoric fame. I believe they must feel they are keeping alive something sacred to them, something they were humble enough to learn from artists who were their betters, at the crucial threshold of their own trajectory across the firmament of world culture.

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