Saturday, January 4, 2014

Phil Everly

"Siser Suzie ... Brother John ... Martin Luther ... Phil and Don ..."

I suppose Paul McCartney could have done better if he'd wanted to give a shoutout to the Everly Brothers than to include their names in a bit of a doggerel song whose only serious lasting historical significance is the rather comic sight of ex-Moody Blues vocalist Denny Laine marching around the stage, banging away on a snare drum. But at least he felt strongly enough about Phil and Don to include them in his bicentennial musical pastiche of people and images.

Phil Everly died Friday, and I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that he, along with his older brother, Don, were two of the most significant and enduring pioneers in popular music.

No, they weren't Elvis, with his aggressive sexuality; or Jerry Lee Lewis, with his over-the-top, menacing countenance.They weren't even Buddy Holly, whom they most closely resembled musically, but who had a bit of swagger all of his own.

They were, as Tom Hanks might have said in "That Thing You Do," "nice boys ... with nice suits." They made rock 'n' roll a lot less threatening than it had been when, say, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard,, or the aforementioned Elvis and Jerry Lee were performing it. There was none of that pent up, unspoken (but very obvious, just the same) sexual hostility that fueled some of the early rockers.

They were middle America ... they fell asleep at the drive-in and then wondered what the 'rents would think (or, if you wish, that was the story they were dishing up for the 'rents). Either way, they were every awkward teenager in America. You want to talk about those "awkward teenage blues," as Bob Seger sang about in "Night Moves?" There was nothing, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more awkward than explaining to your folks why you blew curfew.

There wasn't a song Phil and Don couldn't sing ... and sing well. "Wake Up Little Susie" was just one of a bunch of songs that just bore their way into our heart of hearts. In less than 24 hours from the time Phil Everly died, I've read more tributes from fans, and none of them mention the same song. "Let it Be Me," "Cathy's Clown," "Bye Bye Love," "All I Have To Do Is Dream ..." Doesn't matter.

Their biggest legacy, however, comes from the type of music that came after them. To wit: The Beatles may have loved Elvis, but they sang like Phil and Don. Which is why, so many years later, Paul McCartney acknowledged that ... even if it was in a throwaway little ditty like "let 'em in." It hurts my ears to hear that song even now. I even tried to play it before I wrote this ... and had to shut it off.

Brian Wilson, who is perhaps the musical genius of my generation, paid tribute to Phil Everly and said that he and his brothers listened to their music all the time. It's not hard to imagine the Wilsons saying to each other, "hey! we can do that!"

I will always credit the Everly Brothers for influencing the Beatles into adding the one component in their music that put them over the top and made them accessible to moms and dads as well as their teenage offspring: innocence. By the time the Beatles came to America, and had been cleaned up and re-made into the embodiment of Swinging London as opposed a leather-clad hooligan bar band, what ultimately happened with them in the sixties may never have come about.

By then, Elvis was in and out of the Army and making harmless movies; Chuck Berry had a hornet's nest of legal problems; Lewis had married his 13-year-old cousin and was a virtual opprobrium; Richard Penniman was a mess; and Charles Hardin Holly was -- sadly -- dead. If the genre was going to survive, it needed a real serious shot in the arm.

Along came the Beatles, who came to America less than three months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The country needed something to smile about ... and it was them. But it wouldn't have been them had they come to the U.S. clad in leather from head to toe and doing Little Richard covers. It was them because they borrowed from everyone ... but borrowed from the Everly Brothers more than most.

Phil and Don sang about falling asleep at the drive-in (well, use your own interpretation on that), and the innocence of dreaming about unrequited love. The Beatles sang of holding their girls' hands while telling them "something ... I think you'll understand." I guess you could call it boyish, perhaps even impish, innocence. All it would take to get the real meaning would be a wink or an arch of the eyebrow. But even then, all you could really do was smile, because there was something so wholesome ... so non-threatening in it that you had to love it.

If you need anymore proof, listen to a vintage Everly Brother song ... and then listen to the close harmonies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney ... the Beach Boys ... Simon and Garfunkel ... and you'll detect a common denominator ... Phil and Don Everly.

There's no getting around the fact that the Everly Brothers belong in the pantheon of rock 'n' roll. If there's a "Top Five" of early, pioneering rock 'n' roll acts, they are in it. Maybe it's because they made rock 'n' roll more accessible to mainstream kids who might have been put off in the beginning by all that unspoken sexual aggression. Nobody ever accused anything Phil and Don ever sang of being "the devil's music." They were fun. You could dance to them. Or swoon. Or gaze into your girl (or boy) friend's eyes and dream. They were probably more representative of average kids than some of the other acts from the era were.

That might also be a reason they're continually given the short shrift when people talk about the early days. There was Elvis, Richard, Jerry Lee, Buddy ... and, oh yeah, the Everly Brothers.

But before anyone dismisses them out of hand, remember two things. First, when Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel first got together, and still had crewcuts and sang as "Tom and Jerry" they were emulating not Bob Dylan, not Elvis, and not Buddy Holly. They were going for the Phil and Don sound.

Second, when George Harrison figured it was time that he put his feelings about the messy menage a trois with his wife Patti and Eric Clapton to music, he chose the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" as the vehicle. Those were the songs and the musicians who had meaning to these guys!

I remember in 1969 my mother being almost inconsolable when Judy Garland died. I couldn't figure out why. All I ever remembered about her -- when she was alive -- was that she was Dorothy. I never saw the old Micky Rooney films, never saw "Meet me in St. Louis," never really followed her as she battled all her various demons, and never realized how much she meant to an entire generation of people who loved music. I was still only 15. What did I know?

Obviously, I understand it now. My generation is getting old enough now so that all these fifties and sixties rockers who die are taking pieces of our childhoods with them. But every now and then, one of the greats go, and all it does is remind us of how old we're all getting too. Phil and Don were two of the greats. Now there's just Don.

You wonder, in this non-stop nostalgia loop that permeates music in the 21st century, how much different it would have been for the Everly Brothers if they hadn't spent a decade feuding with each other (they didn't talk for 10 years). They ultimately reunited, and found some success, but the sin of it all is that there were 10 golden years where we heard nothing from them as a duo.

What a shame.

But what are we gonna tell your mama ... what are we gonna tell your pa ... and what are we gonna tell our friends when they say "Oooh, la la." 

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