The Complicatist: Johnny Devlin

Johnny Devlin, Atlas Sound and a new take on “Save the Last Dance For Me”

by Gordon Campbell

CD reviews tend to be consumer guides, a few paragraphs that boil the music down to a buy/don’t buy advisory note. At The Complicatist, we’re pointed in the opposite direction. Each month, this column will be featuring a song or album or genre that’s as complicated as anyone cares to make it be.

Click to enlarge photo

Style followed sound. We know that because as the American writer Greil Marcus once pointed out, there’s such a weird disjunction in the photos from rock’n’roll concerts during the 1950s. Most of the audience don’t look like the rockin’ rebels on stage – they look exactly like the bank clerks and typists they were in daylight hours. Which probably explains why Marcus himself reacted – on first hearing Little Richard sing “fool about my money/don’t try to save’ – by thinking hmmm, now that attitude is foolish. Everywhere was squaresville.

That also explains why this photo of Johnny Devlin, New Zealand’s first rock’n’roll idol, is such a treasure. Devlin looks nothing special, just a friendly kid with a guitar. And sure, the people in the audience are reacting to him, but they’re mainly delighted at themselves, at their own giddy ability to surrender to the moment. Fancy that !

One other thing : if you look at the people in this picture one by one, they go a lot way to refuting the stereotypes of dull and staid New Zealand in the 1950s. Many of these faces are flat out beautiful, and transported. Look for instance, at the woman with the large white starry ear-ring in the front of the picture, or the two young women in the centre – she in the striped shirt and (especially) the woman to her right in the picture. Meanwhile, the guy on the upper far right looks like a Toy Love fan teleported in from the 1980s. The happy mixture of young and old is also pretty wonderful.

I can’t tell you anything about this picture – which I found in a second hand shop about 20 years ago – beyond saying that it seems to have been shot in a sewing machine shop, probably around about 1958. These days, you see the same sort of people at the Kings Arms or San Francisco Bathhouse every week. They could be the grandchildren of the people in this picture.

Quite some time ago, ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ by the Drifters became one of those pop records embalmed in its own time and place. Very hard to hear such a song afresh…or so it seemed, until I came across Lonely Street, a biography of the late songwriter Doc Pomus, who wrote the lyrics. In childhood, Pomus was crippled by polio, and he spent the rest of his life either on crutches, or in a wheelchair.
According to his Lonely Street biographer Alex Halberstadt, Pomus got the idea for ‘Save the Last Dance For Me’ on the night of his wedding. He had been watching his wife Willi dance at the wedding reception, with a succession of his friends. Most people hear the subsequent record, on which Ben E. King took the lead vocal, as simply a lilting love song :

But someone who listened closely to the lyrics would have heard a more ambivalent story. The very verbs Doc used – don’t forget, you must tell him no’- demanded, but also pleaded, revealing the narrator’s trust in the woman, but also his powerlessness to secure her fidelity….. The words whispered of suppressed jealousy and anxiety…Anyone who knew Doc couldn’t have missed the song’s meaning.

Conferring in the control room before the session, [Atlantic Records boss] Ahmet Ertegun told Ben E. King that Doc had written the lyric after watching Willi dance at their wedding. The story haunted the young singer. As he waited before the microphone, he fought back tears. Moments later, he laid down one of the most sympathetic and exquisitely soulful performances of his life… [The producers] Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller surrounded him with an appropriately spare arrangement, all thrumming Spanish guitars and quiet percussion, using strings to accent the melody…”

Having got this masterpiece in the can, Atlantic completely lost faith in it. It ultimately issued ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’ only as the B-side of a mediocre track called ‘Nobody But You.’ It took the much reviled Dick Clark to turn the record over, and create a hit….out of a timeless love song written by a man on his wedding night facing the fact that much as he and his wife were in love, they would never be able to dance together. Yikes.

On a lighter note, you could take a look at this footage of Prince in his bathtub. That’s right – Prince in his bathtub, with a rubber duckie.

Atlas Sound happens to be the experimental outlet for Bradford Cox of Deerhunter. Cox, in his Atlas Sound incarnation has been working with Panda Bear from Animal Collective, on a song called ‘Walkabout. ” Like a few other solo efforts by Panda Bear, this is the kind of thing that Brian Wilson – or Prince – might have chosen to sing in his bubble bath.

Its also great, and will be on the next Atlas Sound CD called Logos, due in October. All together now : “What did you /want to see//what did you want to be/when you grew up…?

Not a question that Michael Jackson ever resolved. In recent weeks you may have been trying to dodge the MJ ghoulathon…. so to repeat the latest news : there is a new TV special coming in September, a new concert film in October, and new live CDs anytime after that. All of them have been culled from the 100 hours of rehearsal footage shot during the week that Jackson died, in preparation for those ill-fated concerts in Britain.

Clearly, the serious task of milking the heritage is well under way. Randy Phillips, CEO of the agency behind both the cancelled Brit shows and the marketing of the rehearsal tapes, put it this way to ace Hollywood reporter Nikki Finke : ‘He was our partner in life. and now he’s our partner in death.’

Just before we drown in MJ cynicism though, there’s the footage that Cory Doctorow originally retrieved, and put on Boing Boing.

Probably, this was the last time that Jackson seemed truly happy with who he was. – by Gordon Campbell