Sunday, December 1, 2013

Chasing Phantoms - From Del Shannon to Neil Young: "Runaway" and "Like a Hurricane"

When I was six and driving in the car with my parents, the radio often provided comfort either by giving me voices in the larger world beyond the roads we travelled, or music that could take me inside the world of the singer. For myself, the rock & roll I heard in 1960 was about finding a place, to paraphrase John Lennon, where I could go when I felt low. The songs of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly could reach out to the friendless and disenfranchised and invite us to to be part of something larger than ourselves. Even if their tunes were about heartache and loss, the mere sharing of that pain gave credence to the idea that one could transcend it because the music was about giving pleasure. In one of his last recorded songs, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," Buddy Holly playfully teases himself about how foolish he was to be driven crazy by the woman who abandons him. Not only does the singer survive the loss, he understands the price he was willing to pay in the process so he could move on. (It was only in real life, unlike in the nowhere land of the song, that Buddy Holly could lose his life in a plane crash he couldn't control.)

But not all of rock and roll's voices are about the sharing of community. Whenever Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou" or "Only the Lonely" came on the radio, the desolation that's part of being friendless and disenfranchised gets forever invoked. With his sad eyes hidden behind dark shades, Orbison showed us what it cost to fail in one's quest to find community. Yet you could get so lost in the operatic pining of his theatrical voice that his songs never left a residue of despair. That wasn't the case, however, with rock's other desolate loner: Del Shannon. Born as Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Shannon's songs had a stark power emanating from the paranoia brought on by unrequited and lost love. In his best songs, including "Runaway," "Stranger in Town," "Hats Off to Larry" and (his last one) "Walk Away," Del Shannon sang in a friendless voice. Listening to Shannon, who would ultimately commit suicide, is akin to getting periodic bulletins from a desperate hitch-hiker aimlessly cruising from town to town, chasing phantoms and hopelessly seeking answers for why his loved one is now lost to him. His famous high falsetto voice, which cried out in wonder on "Runaway," didn't express longing, as the doo-wop vocalists of the Fifties did in their songs. Shannon instead carried the anguish of never finding a release from the pain.

As the counter-culture of the Sixties emerged with its literal quest for community, first through the folk movement that had allied itself with the Civil Rights struggle, and then later with the hippie communalism and freak culture that broke from the mainstream, Del Shannon was abandoned on his lost highway. Although he continued to play Fifties reunion concerts and would write songs and practice at home, Shannon had no place in a counter-culture breaking with the past. But his voice did somehow still find its way into the work of new artists who would continue to reach the ears of the alienated loner. Canadian artist Neil Young often wrote about loners while becoming one himself. Maybe his solitary stance is one reason why he could be a patron saint of the Sixties as well as be claimed by the grunge culture that would emerge some thirty years later. In his high-pitched tremolo voice, Young has a way of reminding you that the hippie dream brought forth some haunting nightmares (as he would document in songs like "Ohio") and that the quest for community could also be the search for a false utopia (as he accounted for in the chilling "Revolution Blues"). His piercing voice cuts through the tenor of the times whether he's alone on his acoustic guitar or piano, sharing the stage with Crosby, Stills and Nash, or in full throttle with his electric band Crazy Horse. If he chooses to travel the lost highway, whether (as he once put it) in the middle of the road or in the ditch, you can sometimes hear Shannon's spirit in the reclusive ache of "Expecting to Fly," the quiet pining of "I Believe in You," and the desperate craving of "Lookin' For a Love." But he perhaps never touched the deeper solitude of Del Shannon better than in his epic track "Like a Hurricane" which he recorded in 1974 and was included on his 1977 record, American Stars 'n Bars.

While most of American Stars 'n Bars is an eclectic brew of the same kind of country material that made Harvest (1972) a popular and best-selling album, "Like a Hurricane" lives up to its title. Taking its melody from Shannon's "Runaway," where the singer is obsessed by the lost love of his life ("As I walk along I wonder a-what went wrong /With our love, a love that was so strong/And as I still walk on, I think of the things we've done/Together, a-while our hearts were young"), "Like a Hurricane" comes to terms with the primal power of what brings lovers together and what also tears them apart. Paul Simon in "Slip Slidin' Away" once touched briefly on men's fears of being consumed by a woman's emotional power ("My love for you's so overpowering/I'm afraid that I will disappear"), but it was just a glance in a softly sung pop gospel ballad. A few years after the release of Young's song, Pete Townshend went even further than Paul Simon in his passionate confessional, "A Little is Enough," from his 1980 Empty Glass album. Dropping the character armour that he sometimes donned proudly in The Who, Townshend sings a love song that is as nakedly honest about his fear of vulnerability as he is about the romantic passion that consumes him ("Just like a sailor heading into the seas/There's a gale blowing in my face/The high winds scare me but I need the breeze/And I can't head for any other place"). But "A Little is Enough" is a powerful testimonial where "Like a Hurricane" pulls us right into an emotional maelstrom for almost nine minutes and doesn't let go. Young's voice shifts, from line to line, between fear and curiosity until the chorus lays out the singer's terror.

You are like a hurricane
There's calm in your eye.
And I'm gettin' blown away
To somewhere safer
where the feeling stays.
I want to love you but
I'm getting blown away.

In Shannon's "Runaway," one of the most haunting qualities is Max Crook's solo break on the clavioline, a keyboard instrument that was the forerunner to the analog synthesizer. With it's eerie high pitches, the clavioline (which The Tornadoes would employ a year later in their hit, "Telestar," and Jack White would resurrect to great effect in The White Stripes' "Icky Thump") seems to express the latent hysteria beneath Shannon's desperation. In "Like a Hurricane," Frank "Poncho" Sampedro's organ does likewise for Young and resembles a steam engine underscoring the piercing and wailing notes from Young's guitar. (In his 1993 MTV Unplugged appearance, Neil Young played "Like a Hurricane" solo on a pipe organ as if it were a steam engine.) 

Over the years, many people who couldn't shake the terror of "Runaway" still tried to catch its lightning, but they barely lit a spark. Bonnie Raitt sounded so quaint in her rather opaque 1977 rendition from Sweet Forgiveness that you forget by the end of the song that there was even a lost lover to pine over. In another instance, Tony Orlando & Dawn came up with the bizarre idea of matching the song with The Turtles' "Happy Together." No one came close to plumbing the neurotic depths of Shannon's original. As for "Like a Hurricane," it also had many comers including Roxy Music who went for the haunting melody, but lost the core by turning the song's desperation into a gigolo's passing fling. But if Young pays full tribute to Shannon in "Like a Hurricane," he manages to keep his sanity in the high winds of his song. Del Shannon was not so fortunate. If those early tracks revealed the wounds of a man lost in the wilderness, Shannon would return from that exile in the late-Seventies after a bout of alcoholism. Tom Petty would produce his album Drop Down and Get Me which featured the single "Sea of Love." But on his last release, Rock On! in 1990, produced by Mike Campbell (of Petty's Heartbreakers) and Jeff Lynne, his final single, "Walk Away," brought him full circle from "Runaway."

If "Runaway" was about a man haunted by the mystery of his lover's departure, "Walk Away" reverses the roles. In "Walk Away," Shannon seems to finally find the lost lover that alluded him in his early hits. But instead of being fulfilled by what he's found, he ultimately comes to break the promise that first brought them together ("Every time I have to lie it tears me apart/Every time I see you cry, it takes a piece of my heart/ I know that I said, never, never, walk away from you/I know that I said, I'd always be there my whole life through"). Instead of being the victim of the "runaway" this time, Shannon becomes one himself ("I got to walk away, walk away"). And walk away he did. Neil Young sometimes get to the bottom of a depressive funk, but Del Shannon lived out a life of clinical depression. Shortly after the release of Rock On!, Shannon committed suicide with a .22-caliber rifle while he was on a prescription dose of Prozac. 

Art can sometimes build the means to confront the pain of being a solitary figure, but the phantoms we chase – or run from – never really go away. The ghosts that Bruce Springsteen once stared down and ran from in his Seventies hit song, "Born to Run," would catch up to him almost a decade later in Nebraska. Kurt Cobain once tried to stare down the haunts of Leadbelly's tale of horror when he sang "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?," a year before would be taken by them. Like Shannon, Cobain took his own life with a gun. Pop songs can often be as mysterious as detective novels. But Del Shannon's "Runaway" and Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" aren't on a mission to solve the riddles of the contingencies of love and loss. That mystery remains the enduring part of why we continue to listen and always carry within us the traces of a conundrum that no song, or artist, has yet to solve.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on Robert Altman.  

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