Richard Goldstein Bemoans the Transformation of Judy Collins
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December 22, 1966, Vol. XII, No. 10
By Richard Goldstein
This is going to be a cop-out column of short ends and gristle. I hope you find it digestible:
Judy Collins' transition from Joan Baez's kid sister to Barbra Streisand's chambermaid is regrettable. Judy used to be a formidable folk-warbler, and her successful "ethnic" purity shows on the new album, "In My Life" (Electra). The best cut pits the Collins style against Bob Dylan's melancholic "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues." This lyric of down-and-out despair invites melodramatic overvocalizing but Judy skirts the Wagnerian trap by singing it crisp and sweet and letting the words provide bitter roughage.
In "Hard Lovin' Loser," the new single, she takes the whiplash to Richard Farina's folk-hero, and the result is a rollicking musica brawl. An old-timey piano runs wild in the background to give the whole thing that commercially salable camp appeal, but the ragtime rendition makes "Winchester Cathedral" look like a storefront.
Those two successes give "In My Life" a mighty initial shove, but the rest of the album is an unending succession of green Lifesavers. You keep tolerating that awful pseudolime in hopes of finding something interesting. But it never happens.
Judy Collins lacks the vocal breadth and emotive depth to sing Brecht well. So do a lot of folk singers. But Judy gives us a version of "Pirate Jenny" that Lotte Lenya wouldn't tolerate in the shower. Her rendition of incidental music from "Marat/Sade" is like the Emancipation Proclamation carved on a bar of soap. Even if you manage to carry it off what can you do with it but wash your face?
The rest of "In My Life" suffers from rampant theatricality. Suddenly our folk-lass comes bounding out of that tarnished Judy Garland trunk shouting -- "Hey, man, my name's been on lights all along." She gets no help from producer-arranger Joshua Rifkin. His "Baroque Beatles Album" remains an engaging exercise in expertise. But when he backs Judy with more orchestration than five philharmonics could produce, the result is a lot of soaring superbass, and little feeling. An anti-war cant sounds like the overture to some New Left "Sound of Music." "Liverpool Lullaby" would turn any red-blooded baby colic. And "In My Life," the Lennon-McCartney ballad, might as well have been written as background music for Winston Churchill's wake.
All of which means Joshua Rifkin should stop belching orchestration and Judy Collins should take a deep breath of country air and a long look at her guitar -- just her guitar.
The most unexpected chart-sore since "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" is a glitsy patriotic chant called "Gallant Men." Its singer is no country-preacher, no battle-scarred war hero (between Don Duncan and Barry Sadler we've run out of marketable Green Berets), but the senior Senator from Illinois. Everett MacKinley Dirksen, hair respectably long around the temples, has taken time out from his legislative duties to record an album and a single of the same name. At last count, 250,000 copies of "Gallant Men" were on the racks in record stores all over the great society, and the song has been inching its way past the pretty ballads and boogaloos. Its rise has two possible explanations: since charts reflect airplay as well as record sales, Dirksen's popularity may only mean disc jockesys are programming "Gallant Men." In fact, the song has made the air lists of all three New York pop stations, even though it clearly lacks the sound of Top 25. The narration, solemnly intoned like a Fourth of July address, reminds "tyrants" of today that American readiness lies dormant, but not dead, under all that hippie hair. The music -- a billowing crescendo of marching drums, whining strings , and soaring vocal vibrato -- makes the "Hallelujah Chorus" sound like an after-dinner serenade.
Which brings us to the second possiblity: that the success of "Gallant Men" may actually be a logical step in the maturation of rock 'n' roll. Early reports indicate an adult market for the Senator's debut. If chicken rock is leading us down the primrose path to Dirksen's doorstep, someone ought to warn us before the garden gate clanks shut.
Slowly, but suspiciously, and with all the cool it can muster, the New York Times has turned its eight-column head toward the world of pop. The Sunday Magazine occasionally breaks its mold of memorabilia (eight pages of economic reform in outer Mongolia spaced out between the bra ads) with a series of pop profiles. In the section loosely labeled "Entertainment," the Times has given a gray-headed nod to such nowniks as Andy Warhol and Timothy Leary. The quality of reportage has been spotty (the Times usually gets its facts straight but often fails in the greater accuracy of mood and meaning). The paper has yet to make adequate use of its influential folk-turned-rock critic Robert Shelton. In his stead, the scene hsa been quasi-dissected and semi-ignored. Most notably tasteless was the recent coverage afforded the "psychedelic revolution." The article gave the man=on-the-parkway a condescending glimpse of what's happening without disturbing his Sunday comfort. It made it all seem far away and funny, and it missed entirely the roots, the potential, the reality...
But no one is putting the old gray lady down yet. She may be a little slow on the dance floor but she keeps the fuzz away...
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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