Monday, December 16, 2019

Aaron Neville On The Kennedy Center Honors | Lefsetz Letter

People have no idea how big Linda Ronstadt was in the seventies.

Unless they were alive in that era.

Unlike Carrie Underwood, who stunk up the joint on this show. She’s a star with no soul. This is what TV competition shows wrought, back when they still counted. This is why so many Berklee graduates don’t top the charts. They can play, but that inner mounting flame…it’s not there.

Stars are born, not made. Oh, of course you need someone championing your cause, but to leave home at eighteen to make it in L.A…takes chutzpah and drive and a sense of destiny, that success is in your future.

And Linda Ronstadt had success very soon, with the Stone Poneys. Back in the era when FM was just starting to burgeon, when those on AM were seen as one hit wonders. As for Linda’s “Long, Long Time”…it charted in 1970, when the screw had already turned, when those in the know were all listening to albums on FM, and AM was an afterthought. Linda Ronstadt was on Capitol, the worst major, she was seen as just another singer, kicking around the scene.

And then came Peter Asher and Andrew Gold.

We’ve got to start with Kenny Edwards. You see Linda Ronstadt needed songs and players to make it. She had the voice, but that was not enough.

But despite languishing in the wilderness, David Geffen believed. He extracted Linda from Capitol and released an Asylum album where she and her boyfriend J.D. Souther could do what they wanted and…she was lambasted by the cognoscenti for singing Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” straight.

But then came “Heart Like A Wheel.”

“You’re No Good” wove a web on the radio, captured you and then exploded with Andrew Gold’s solo and…

You couldn’t wait to hear it on the radio.

So the album became a hit. And everybody who had a song on it suddenly gained attention.

I don’t think most people had heard Lowell George’s “Willin'” until “Heart Like A Wheel.”

And speaking of the title track, I didn’t even know who the McGarrigle sisters were, but I immediately had to go buy their album.

Some say a heart is just like a wheel
When you bend it, you can’t mend it
And my love for you is like a sinking ship
And my heart is like that ship out in mid-ocean

You can’t get back together. Usually they don’t want to get back together, but you still pine for them. The greatest truth is embedded in songs, and Linda Ronstadt popularized the work of so many. J.D. Souther may have failed behind the board, but his “Faithless Love” became a standard after inclusion on “Heart Like A Wheel.”

Which was on Capitol. The label had an option for an album of their choice as part of the Geffen deal.

But then Ronstadt reverted to Geffen and…

Became only bigger.

I’m not a fan of that documentary released in theatres recently. Because it was a survey, it didn’t contain the essence. Yes, it got Linda’s formative years right, that was insightful work, but it equated her later work with that of the seventies, and that’s just plain wrong.

So she was in “Pirates of Penzance.” So she sang Mexican songs. Even did albums of standards. They were all successful, based on her talent and brand, but the peak was…

The seventies.

She was the one everybody wanted. She was the girl who could hang with the boys. She was the one who dated Jerry Brown. She may not have written the songs, but she certainly lived them. She was the biggest female star on the planet.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Because there’s no secrecy, no privacy, no magic.

And it’s not coming back.

We could not reach out and touch these stars, they were far removed, and when we went to the show…if you weren’t there, you missed it, but if you were there…you never forgot.

So now Linda Ronstadt is on a victory lap. Too late. The Rock Hall snubbed her for years, because if a girl rejects you, boys disdain you, if you’re the biggest, you cannot be the best, but that is untrue.

And now we’ve gotten a peek into her personality. Have learned that Linda is both very intelligent and ornery. That’s right, the biggest stars have to have it their way, they can see the essence, they can’t be compromised, just like Don Henley, who introduced Linda’s segment tonight.

And another change is that we have contempt for today’s overexposed stars. There’s nothing wrong with Dave Grohl, but we see him everywhere we go. Same deal with Tom Hanks. As for his wife, tell me what she’s done again?

Are you getting the attitude?

This is what those who made it in the past can’t understand about the present. The public has torn down all the pedestals, the hoi polloi believes it is in charge. And if you’re fake, or look like you’re working it too hard, you’re gonna be excoriated. Being a star in today’s world…no one’s really figured it out yet. How much should you interact with your fans, how much should you reveal, should you air your dirty laundry?

And then Aaron Neville comes on stage and knocks it out of the park.

No, this is not an Aretha moment. “Don’t Know Much” is subtle. And it was released in 1990, as part of Linda’s album “Cry Like A Rainstorm,” a return to her prior paradigm after her hejiras elsewhere.

And the album was not a gigantic hit. Sure, it went triple platinum, but in that era albums could go diamond.

Still… You knew “Don’t Know Much.” Maybe because of airplay on VH1.

So that brings us to Aaron Neville.

Fats Domino lived in obscurity in New Orleans for nearly half a century. Allen Toussaint, a certified genius, was touring when most people didn’t know they knew his work, and ignored him. Yup, Toussaint did the horns on the Band’s classic live album, “Rock of Ages,” and wrote classics like “Mother-in-Law” and “What Do You Want the Girl to Do,” never mind “On Your Way Down,” which Lowell George and Little Feat hit way over the fence on “Dixie Chicken.” People remember the title track, but the dark Toussaint cover is the essence of the album.

Which brings us to tonight.

What does LL Cool J have over CBS? Or maybe it’s vice versa, CBS wants to play it safe. That’s what’s wrong with this show, the youngsters, trying to drive ratings, everything’s about popularity these days, but it’s usually that which is not initially popular that lasts.

I mean can’t you give somebody else a chance?

That’s the nature of the pop chart, as Paul Simon sings, and is now so often quoted: “Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”.

So, seventy eight year old Aaron Neville comes out on stage, to duet with Trisha Yearwood, who unlike Carrie Underwood knows that you can exhibit power with nuance, that you just can’t blast, that you’ve got to feel the song and then sell it.

And Aaron Neville has been around forever.

But tonight you found out why.

He’s still got that sweet voice! His body has aged, he moves slower, but when he opens his mouth…

Your soul is touched, you’re stunned there’s such beauty on this earth.

But Aaron Neville has never been honored by the Kennedy Center, never mind the Neville Brothers.

And there you have the modern paradigm. If you’re not selling yourself, most people don’t know, you’re not top of mind, but when you appear…WHEW!

Believe me, if the Neville Brothers had a better manager, they’d be honored, and in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s how it works, you need a champion, to work the room.

But what if you’re just a singer?

Despite what you see today, most artists are not good at selling themselves, maybe that’s why most of today’s “stars” do not qualify as artists.

But you know it when you see it.

And tonight we saw genius honoring genius.

I don’t know much, but I know that Aaron Neville killed on the Kennedy Center Honors tonight.


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