The difference was Ray Charles.
And that happened in high school, here in Dallas, at Thomas Jefferson, somewhere in the late fifties. At that point my passion for jazz was pure, untainted, holy. Rock ’n roll was guilty of what then seemed to me that most evil of musical crimes – commercialization. The aim was to sell, to be played over and again indiscriminately, to appeal to our sappiest sentiments. It was junk music, I thought. It was not art.
Jazz, on the other hand, was improvisatory and difficult. Jazz handled melody subtly, not blatantly. Its lyricism required a refined ear – my refined ear – and its pleasures, while immense, were exclusive. So to love jazz, at least in the mind and heart of a fourteen-year-old boy, was to protect jazz from the vulgarity of popular taste. To love jazz was to stand the old cliché on its head: fifty million Americans had to be wrong. In this corner, Thelonius Monk. On the other side of the ring, Patti Page and her doggie in the window.
I remember hearing Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and not liking the fact that I liked it. It bothered me. It was obviously a hit, calculated to please in the easiest way. (And Great Art, I thought, must be achieved and appreciated, not merely enjoyed.) But it was not until “What’d I Say” that the roof caved in. The contradiction was painful. Was this a jazz player selling his soul for a hit? If so, it worked. The song was beautiful; the singing was beautiful. Or was this a classic blues singer getting un-classic for the sake of money? Who cared? Everything came together: dancing, pop, sex, rock, profit, blues, integrity, art. The most moving song – finely conceived, finely executed – could sell millions. The Great American Musical Thesis, then, was clear: that nothing was clear. If America was a political democracy, it was also a musical democracy, and the child in me which had been busy fantasizing an allegory in which Good Music triumphed over Bad Music was at once and forever put to rest. I remember that the lullabies I found most soothing were the ones played late at night by Jim Lowe on WRR’s “Cat’s Caravan” (or was it “Kat’s Karavan”?), the pounding theme of “Night Train,” Ray Charles drowning in his own tears, drowning in my own tears, my ear pressed to the radio as though those songs were dispensing the great lessons of life, telling me things I needed to know.
Sometime later, in my late teens, I met Harriet Schoch. We worked together in a hotbed of commercialism, an ad agency. We wrote copy, became friends, talked about music. We punned together. I couldn’t remember – I still can’t – anyone quite as brilliantly wordy as Harriet. Her sense of the world was rooted in her sense of language, the complexity of expression, the endless possibility of words. Like me, she had been raised in North Dallas. She had gone to Hockaday and then the University in Austin. Her model, as strange as it might seem, was Shakespeare. Her mode, though, was pop. She was headed for Tin Pan Alley, wherever that might lead. She was musical, could play the piano, sing and, most of all, write. In a peculiar way, she was moved by many of the same musical contradictions I had felt: She loved the slickness of the pop lyric, though she had the soul of an English major. Notions of literary irony came naturally to her; language was, by necessity, rich and inventive. She loved metaphor. She thought in terms of analogy. She was fascinated by paradox. She was intrigued by jingles. She was brilliant. And, more than anything, she was motivated to make it, to write memorable songs and clever lyrics, to create for herself a stable of hits.
Now Harriet Schoch has become Harriet Schock (so, she says, the disc jockeys won’t mispronounce her name). Now Harriet Schock has six or seven years of L. A.-living under her belt. She has freelanced at ad agencies, played guitar and sung at bars. She has never stopped writing songs. And now Harriet has an album, with her picture on the cover, with her at the piano, playing her music, singing the words to her own songs. It is not called Daughter of North Dallas, as I might have liked, but rather Hollywood Town. (20th Century Records, T-437). And that seems fair enough, an appropriate and accurate title, for Hollywood is the town where, at least at the deepest and truest point of our mythology, one goes to make a hit. Harriet knows that. Her record is about that. (The cover photograph has her sitting on one of the pink terrazzo stars on Hollywood Boulevard.) Harriet approaches Hollywood as Tinsel Town, and if her first album is weighed down by a bit too much glitter, it is also true that Harriet herself remains intact, a visitor to Hollywood rather than a native. She does a great deal of California dreaming, to be sure, but those dreams are literary, analytical and finally self-explanatory.
Ironic, of course, is the fact that the ex-suburbanite finds herself at home and, at the same time, far from home in that most absolute, that most primal of all suburbia: Los Angeles. Hollywood is far from Dallas – more glamorous, more significant in the mind of the nation – but nonetheless it is close to Dallas. It was there first, as the original model, as the first alternative to urban New York or Detroit or Cleveland. (Sometimes driving around old Highland Park I feel as though I am in the Beverly Hills of the twenties. It becomes a backdrop waiting for Gloria Swanson to emerge. I look at those huge and decadent mansions and see, in my mind’s eye, the brash American who, as a tourist in the Parisian suburbs after World War I, promises his honey that he will build her such a palace back home, on Beverly Drive or in Bel Air.)
Suburbia, then, for Harriet, for the Texan or Californian in Paris, for all of us who are children of North Dallas, has no past, only a freaky present and an open future. The culture is being invented as the music is being produced, as the music finds its way on the AM airwaves. It is ongoing. It happens inside an automobile with four-seasons air conditioning.
The musical genre is by now a clear and successful one. Harriet sings as a woman in her early thirties looking at what is weak and strong in herself. This is the genre of Carole King, of Carly Simon and, at least as far as her most recent album goes, Joni Mitchell. These, too, are women who have come to the “city of fallen angels,” as Joni Mitchell puts it. (The title song of her latest record, by the way, “Court and Spark,” utilizes that same freaky Hollywood landscape. Like Harriet, her singing is breathy, her songs a little nervous and loquacious. But the result with both singers is scintillating rather than chatty.) They are professional women, professional musicians. They are also romantics. They each, in a similar way, sound as though they are nearing the end of a prolonged period of psychotherapy. They have passed from adolescence, through college and culture, through their uncertain twenties, out of naivete into a certain tough self-assurance. (The most moving song on Carly Simons’ Hotcakes album is, for me, “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain.”)
They are middle-class in the best sense of that term; they are successful women making it in America, smart, introspective, hip and wiser for it all. They are making a hit, singing out of the cradle of the suburbs while, at the same time, overturning the cradle and moving away from too much of that easy comfort and cushioning. They are on their own. (One of the best, strangest and certainly most seductive songs born out of this sensibility is Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis” which, like all great hits, is irresistible. Unlike all great hits, it is metaphorically original and ingenious. The rest of the album becomes too campy for its own good and moves toward the Bette Midler syndrome. There are pleasures to be found in that camp, of course, but different from Simon, King, Joni or Harriet in that sincerity and self-examination are replaced by what too often seems an ingenuous sense of show biz flash and trendiness.)
Hollywood Town, then, is a very bright record. And its value is naturally the value of its creator: It is intelligent. But the tinsel seems to sparkle too much. The songs are overproduced. And the elaborate production takes us too far from Harriet’s own voice. Her words are fine. Just a few brief examples: a song called “Straight Man:”
Your passive sense of humor lays you prey
To the clever, the cruel, the hip and the witty
You’ve tried to find your way through circuitous city
But you haven’t a clue Straight man, how do you do?
And one entitled “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady:”
I was busy bein’ a picture With all the colors I know While you were busy lookin’ into wide, blue mirrors And lovin’ the show.
But the production, like the singing itself, seems too tightly controlled, too calculated. It is overdone. And the songs are too un-differentiated, building along similar lines, crescendoing into the same sorts of obvious resolutions. They want a little too badly to be hits. (“Standin’ In The Way of the Music” is the best, or rather the worst, example of this.) But when Harriet lets loose, the result is powerful, less strained and more soulful. (Her best singing is on “Could It Be” where she loses inhibition and breaks down a bit.) The instrumentation is also all of the same mind. I wish that a singular flute or a lonely tenor would have wandered in and out of the arrangements.
But if the record is too slick, it is also charming. That charm belongs to Harriet. These are her songs. They are ambitious, biting, perhaps overworked, sometimes overwritten, but, like authentic pop songs, they are meant to be remembered, to be digested and swallowed whole. Like pop songs, they are sometimes thin. And like pop songs, they often touch deep, hit the responsive chord, forcing us back to the same track. Taken together, these are songs which convey Harriet Schock’s presence, her sense of the surprise of language. It is the record of an immensely talented woman, and if the work suffers from overproduction, as I believe it does, I cannot help thinking that precisely the same annoying extravagance flaws the recent albums (which at times drown in too much sweetness and syrup) of another singer/piano player/pop artist: Ray Charles.
The difference was Ray Charles.