It was thirty years ago today that Men Without Women by Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul was released.
“What? By who and the whaaa?”
Shaddap, siddown and listen.
If there was a place in America that was hermetically sealed against the influence of rhythm and blues music, it was rural North Dakota in the seventies and eighties.
Although that may have been a function of life in the Berg house. I grew up playing classical music – my parents liked that – and then switched to whatever bits and pieces of Rock and Roll leaked through in late junior high. Of course, R&B at the time – the mid-seventies – had more than a whiff of the sort of excess that was off-putting, for purely trivial reasons; bands with a dozen people in lamé suits and purple pimp-wear was a hard sell to a narrowly-focused Scandinavian kid. See The Ohio Players, and get back to me.
But bits and pieces leaked through. Long about eleventh grade, I was working at KEYJ, and some shards of R&B leaked through to me; the gleeful-unto-overflowing soul of Smokey and the MIracles, the naked pain of Levi Stubbs and the Four Tops, and best of all, the raw, unbridled, hormones-with-sweat groove of the Stax/Volt bands, especially my then and always favorites, Sam and Dave.
And along about my freshman year of high school, I ran into Bruce Springsteen. And if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you’ve read my writing about his music, how his music impacted me as someone who became a conservative, and the influence his band had on me when it came to music.
But in the days when only Al Gore had access to the internet, stuck in the middle of the prairie, it was hard to get news.
And I’ve never been more bummed about the slowness of news to reach North Dakota than I was about this time 29 years ago. In the summer of 1983, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was walking by a bar. I saw a poster for a band, “Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul”. I remembered the name, but kept walking; I didn’t know much.
It was months later, early in my junior year of college, probably in October of 1983, that I read Jay Cox – always one of the better music critics, in those days – doing his “Ten Best Albums of 1982″ piece, in the end-of-the-year edition of Time Magazine.
And #2 on the list was Men Without Women, by LIttle Steven and the Disciples of Soul – the first solo project by the erstwhile “Miami Steve” Van Zandt, Springsteen’s longtime second guitar player, recorded with a who’s who of obscure Jersey Shore and New York musicians. Cox raved about the album – a collection of Stax/Volt-style horn-driven soul with a hard, emotionally naked edge to it.
It was months before I read the Cox review in Time. The album couldn’t be found in Jamestown, of course. I conjured up a reason for a road trip to visit friends at NDSU in Fargo, went to Mother’s Records…
…and there it was.
I raced to Jamestown to find a turntable.
And it’s hard to describe how hard the album smacked me.
We’ll come back to that.
Men Without Women was a throwback in many ways. In musical style, it was horn-driven R&B, a genre that’d retreated to America’s self-styled roadhouses for years. Black R&B was ditching the horns for cheaper synths; white rock and roll (forget about synth-pop) was driven by the guitar.
But the bigger throwback was the recording style. In the fifties and sixties, most “Rhythm and Blues” and early Rock and Roll had been recorded by gathering the band around a few microphones connected to a tape deck, and playing until they got a cut they liked. Listen to “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen; it was recorded on a single microphone, with the band gathered around; one of the reasons the vocals in the song are so famously inscrutable is that the singer was literally yelling over the band to be heard. It was only a little more crude than the usual style of recording at the time.
In the mid-sixties, the Beatles led the rush to multi-track recording; Sergeant Pepper had been recorded using linked four-track tape decks, allowing musicians and engineers to layer many parts on top of each other. By the late sixties and early seventies, eight-track decks at Motown allowed musicians to record, overdub remix, and partially-re-record tracks; recording engineering became an art form unto itself, and that only accelerated as 16, 24, 48 and 64 track studios became the technical lingua franca of the music industry. By the mid-seventies, the Rolling Stones were able to recordExile on Main Street with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman laying down tracks in the Caribbean, ship ’em to Keith Richard and Ron Wood for guitar tracks in London, and thence to Mick Jagger in New York for vocals.
For Men Without Women, Van Zandt – who’d just left the E Street Band to try to establish a solo career – took a huge step back, stylistically and technologically. Recording the old-fashioned way – capturing a live performance – was risky. It depended on capturing a really, really good live performance. For the MWOW sessions, Van Zandt gathered the whole band around a couple of microphones (after a few rehearsals), and had them play the songs straight through; most of the cuts on Men Without Women were done in one or two takes. Van Zandt overdubbed a few guitar and wind tracks later – but it was a very sparing production job. Most of what you hear was exactly as it came out on the floor of the studio.
And it worked. It was huge, raw, sloppy in places, and just a glorious collection of music.
One of the reasons? What a band.
The Disciples featured a group of musicians that were household names among obscurantists and music wonks. The horn section was borrowed from Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – and is best known today for having been, mostly, the horn section from the Max Weinberg Seven, of the old Conan O’Brien show. Bassist Jean Bouvoir, a black guy in a striking white mohawk, had just left the seminal shock-punk band The Plasmatics. Drummer Dino Danelli was most famous as the drummer for The Young Rascals, a sixties-era “white soul” band; organ player Felix Cavaliere was also a former Rascal (and was only involved in the recording sessions, not the touring Disciples). A few other players – percussionist Monte Ellison, and cameos from the Gary “U.S.” Bonds and the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg and Danny Federici on a few cuts – rounded out the lineup for the big, beefy, breakneck recording sessions.
The result? Men Without Women was compared to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Mainstreet – both were raw, horn-driven, R&B drenched sets. But while the Stones album exuded cynical dissipation, and sounded like a hangover set to a rave-up (and before you jump all over me – it’s my favorite Stones album), MWOW was eagerly earnest, with a big, sincere heart right out on its leather sleeve.
Videos below the jump.
The album opened with “Lyin’ in a Bed of Fire”, a raw, horn-and-guitar driven sprint that would have sounded at home on Exile – in this case with a later version of theDisciples:
“Until The Good Is Gone” is an almost-gospel rock and roll rave-up featuring a raw, throaty call-and-response with Bouvoir:
“Angel Eyes”, on the other hand, is a love song that’d sound at home on a Smokey and the Miracles record:
And for my money, the best song on the album, “Save Me”, which borrows from everybody and owes nobody:
Or “Forever”. Good God, “Forever”. I’d almost forgotten. This version is done with the Asbury Jukes:
If you can find the album? Do.
The album combined unrefined Stax/Volt soul with punk energy and Jersey Shore sincerity, beat you over the head with Van Zandt’s attitude but diluted it with enough little moments of unpolished brilliance that you didn’t care. The whole album played like that first bit of rock and roll or R&B you caught on the skip on an AM station from somewhere else; loud, all out on the sleeve, dripping in adolescent desire sanded down with a little bit of grown-up grit.
It was one of the most glorious forty minutes of music I’ve ever heard.
Unfortunately, whatever Van Zandt’s talents as a writer and performer, he lacked a bit as a marketeer, or maybe as a fortune-teller. In 1982, as the rest of the musical world was producing videos for the brand new toy MTV, Van Zandt opted instead to put his entire video budget into shooting a feature-length movie based on the album. Van Zandt shot a few miles of footage, including a few cuts that’ve escaped (and been ceased and desisted by various record company lawyers, I guess), but never came up with a script. Or much of anything. “Forever” topped out at 40 on the Top 40 for one week, supported by grainy, incoherent video clipped from the “movie” footage; the album came, got great reviews, and then went.
And that was about it for Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul.
Men Without Women was a shooting star. Van Zandt never tried to repeat the format; maybe he could never have done it. The followup, 1984’s Voice of America, featuring a stripped-down, horn-free, guitar-driven band, was garage-rock with anthemic ambitions; the album veered between bludgeoning guitar rock and reggae, and slathered on a new element, leftist sloganeering. It had some good moments – the garage-reggae “I Am A Patriot” still gets played around and about – but it was marred by Van Zandt’s over-emoting and a live tour that was noted for its almost un-musical, jackhammer-to-the-forehead volume; it was music for people that thought The Alarm were too subtle.
The next two albums, Freedom No Compromise (1987) and Revolution (1989) were loud, bombastic “world music” marinaded in far-left dogma that made my drummer at the time, also a huge fellow fan of Men Without Women and as eclectic a musical completist as I’ve ever met, lament “doesn’t the guy have more than one musical idea anymore?” Just as Van Zandt always struck the same pose – the Italian tough guy (his birth name was Steven Lento; Van Zandt came from his adoptive stepfather) in every single photograph ever taken in his solo career (which would seem to have been a great audition for his most famous role, as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos), he seemed to have a limited musical vocabulary.
But whatever that vocabulary was, he used it all to heart-wrenchingly glorious effect on Men Without Women.
Van Zandt returned to the E Street Band for the 1999 reunion tour, and has been with the band ever since. And that’s all good. No knocking Nils Lofgren, whom I idolized as a guitar player long before he joined the band, but Bruce and Steve are the way things oughtta be, especially with Clarence Clemons gone. And as monochrome as Van Zandt’s solo career got with and after his sophomore effort, his “Underground Garage” is the single coolest program on music radio today.
But for my money, there’s never been a better album to capture the sheer, unadorned joy of black and white rock and rhythm and roll and blues, playing without a net at the edge of sheer transcendence, than Men Without Women.