A Gem At The Library Sale

It was a pretty typical Saturday assignment for a weekly newspaper: Go to the library and get a few pictures of folks looking at books, records and anything else the library might be offering during its annual sale.

So I drove out to Eden Prairie that November Saturday and spent maybe an hour trying to be inconspicuous and stay out of everyone’s way. There was a crowd over by the shelves of children’s books, which was good. Shots of kids are almost always winners, especially if they’re so engrossed in something that they don’t notice the camera, and the kids at the library sale were focused on the books on the shelves and nothing else.

So I shot around and over the crowd, and I also got a few shots of adults poking in the mysteries and the cookbooks. Then I backed off and got some wide-angle shots. After an hour and a roll of film, I figured I had at least one shot that would work for the next week’s paper, so I let my camera dangle on its neck-strap and began to dig into the books and records myself.

I don’t remember if I bought any books that day, but I did grab one LP. Now, I’ve been to a lot of library sales and dug through many, many boxes of surplus records that libraries often keep on hand regularly. You can find some interesting titles, but rarely do you find anything really good. But on this Saturday, I came across a keeper, an LP titled Cover Me, which was a collection of songs by Bruce Springsteen as performed by other folks. Some of those performers were Southside Johnny, Gary U.S. Bonds, the Patti Smith Group, the Pointer Sisters and Johnny Cash.

The record was from the library’s collection, not from the donations that local folks brought in, which meant it might not have been treated gently by those who checked it out, so I scanned the record for scratches and hacks, and it looked pretty clean. It went home with me, and there was in fact only bad spot on the record: during Johnny Cash’s take on “Johnny 99,” the needle jumps into the air and moves ahead about an eighth of an inch. So I put the record on the shelves, used some of the tracks when I made mixtapes for friends and told myself I’d get a clean copy of it someday.

I think that record was the first time I’d run across a phenomenon that’s gone crazy in the past ten years or so: the tribute record. Maybe there were similar releases earlier, but I don’t recall running into any of them. In the case of Cover Me, the producers pulled together – for the most part – recordings already done of Springsteen songs. I can’t find any earlier listing for two of the performances – the Reivers’ take on “Atlantic City” and the Greg Kihn Band’s version of “Rendezvous” – but the other thirteen tracks had been previously released. (The Reivers and Kihn tracks might have been also, but I’ve dug around a little, and I can’t find anything that says so; if someone knows, enlighten me, please.)

Having resumed the digging after returning home from a baseball game late last evening, I can now say that the Greg Kihn Band released “Rendezvous” on “With the Naked Eye” in 1979, as I noted in a comment, and the Reivers’ version of “Atlantic City” was recorded and released  as a twelve-inch single in 1986, when that band was still called Zeitgeist.

As I said, the vinyl had one bad spot on it, and in the early years of this decade, as I made a mental list of LPs that I wanted to duplicate on CD, Cover Me was one of the first titles I listed. For about five years, I’d check four or five times a year at the website named for a South American river, seeing if any copies of the CD – long out of print – were available.

There often were one or two copies available, but for prices running from $50 to $100, which was far more than I was going to pay for a CD. And then in May of this year, it was like a switch flipped somewhere. I checked for copies of Cover Me, and there were a few for the exorbitant prices I’d regularly seen, but there was one for something like five bucks. I grabbed it. And in the months since, used copies of the CD have regularly been available for less than five bucks. (There are still some high-priced copies out there; this morning’s listings at Amazon for a used copy range from $3.47 to $60. It makes no sense to me.)

Anyway, once I got the CD and ripped it into the RealPlayer, it reminded me that among the very good performances gathered for the album, there was one track that’s among the best things I’ve ever heard, and hearing it again pointed out to me how easy it is to lose track of music I like when it’s awash in a sea of tunes.

The tune is “This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds, taken from his 1981 album, Dedication, an album produced for Bonds by Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt. I was a little chagrined to realize I’d kind of forgotten about the track, as the album was one of those I shared during the first iteration of Echoes In The Wind. And as I think I said then, although “This Little Girl” is the standout track to me, the entire album is worth a listen. I do have one caveat: Given the deep involvement of the E Street Band –all of the members circa 1981 were involved in the project: Gary Tallent, Max Weinberg, Danny Federici, Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan, Van Zandt and Springsteen – the effect is sometimes like listening to a Springsteen album with a different vocalist.

But that’s something to consider when listening to the entire album. Track by track, mixed in with other things, that’s less of a concern. And in the Ultimate Jukebox, “This Little Girl” – which spent the last two weeks of June and the first week of July of 1981 at No. 11 – meshes right in with the rest of the tracks.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 37
“Every Breath I Take” by Gene Pitney, Musicor 1011 [1961]
“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, Dunhill 4134 [1968]
“Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, Hi 2194 [1971]
“Disco Inferno” by the Trammps from Disco Inferno [1977]
“Giving It Up For Your Love” by Delbert McClinton from The Jealous Kind [1980]
“This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds from Dedication [1981]

Though it wasn’t one of Gene Pitney’s biggest hits – it topped out at No. 42 – “Every Breath I Take” has solid credentials. It was written by the team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector, coming in the years when Spector was just beginning to formulate the Wall of Sound. There are hints of that sound in “Every Breath I Take,” but it’s not quite there. I’ve tried to figure out in the past few months what I hear that elevates this record above the rest of Pitney’s work – sixteen Top 40 hits with four in the Top Ten (“Only Love Can Break A Heart” earned Pitney his highest rank when it went to No. 2 in 1962) – but I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the contrarian point of the lyrics. Maybe it’s the “dit-dit” background vocals. I dunno. I just know it belongs here.

I think “MacArthur Park” is one of those records that has no middle ground. Folks either love it or find it ridiculous. Obviously, I’m I the first group, and have been from the first time I heard it. (One day in the summer of 1968, my sister called me to the radio to hear “this stupid song that goes on forever about leaving the cake out in the rain.”) I recognize its flaws: Harris’ vocals are overblown. The lyrics – even without the cake in the rain – are overwritten. The backing, with its lengthy instrumental passages, is too big for the song. But you know what? From where I hear the record, every one of those things – the over-reaching vocal, the over-written lyrics, the overwhelming backing – is a virtue for a record that went to No. 2 during the summer of 1968. Baroque and excessive “MacArthur Park” may be, but it’s also brilliant.

I don’t have a lot to say about Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.” From the instant it starts, the record – like much of Green’s early 1970s output – rides on the signature sound that Willie Mitchell crafted for his performers at Hi Records. Mellow and sharp at the same time, it’s a sonic formula that worked well enough for Green alone to record thirteen Top 40 hits on Hi between 1971 and 1976. “Tired of Being Alone” was Green’s first hit, peaking at No. 11.

“Disco Inferno” was released first as a single in 1977 – the 45 labels I’ve seen show a running time of 3:35 – and went to No. 53. When the album track was used in the film Saturday Night Fever – clocking in at 10:52 – the single was re-released and went to No. 11. The long version might get a little tedious unless you’re on the dance floor channeling your best Tony Manero, but even just listening, it still works for me. (The single edit is here.)

I’ve told the story before: I was driving one day in early 1981, maybe from one reporting assignment to the next or maybe to lunch, and I was listlessly pushing buttons on the car radio, trying to find something I liked, anywhere. Then I heard the chugging guitar riff and horns of Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up For Your Love” coming from the speaker, and at least for the next few minutes, I was happy with the state of Top 40 radio. The record went to No. 8, providing the Texas singer his only hit. (It should be noted that McClinton played the harmonica part that figures largely on Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 in 1962.)

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4 Responses to “A Gem At The Library Sale”

  1. “This Little Girl” is a fantastic pop song. It lodges into the brain almost instantaneously.

    I’m almost positive that the Greg Kihn song was on one of his early releases (though which one I couldn’t tell you).

    And, for as many wonderful covers there are of Springsteen songs, Bruce has also done his fair share of recording songs by other acts (his version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped” being a personal fave)

  2. whiteray says:

    As it turned out, “Rendezvous” was on “With the Naked Eye” from 1979. I’m not sure whythat didn’t turn up on my earlier searches, but . . .

  3. Paco Malo says:

    The matter of Springsteen covers is important to me, so let me note several fine covers of Springsteen songs not mentioned already.

    — Emmylou Harris covering the “The Price You Pay”, available now on her collection “Portraits”. Emmylou’s version is, for my money, more powerful than Bruce’s original.

    — The Mavericks covering “All That Heaven Will Allow” — again, stronger than the original.

    — Everything But the Girl, on their “Acoustic” album, covering “Tougher Than the Rest”. It’s a gem.

    — Steve Earle’s live cover of “State Trooper”, the only cover on Earle’s Austin City Limits live DVD from 1986. I don’t know that it’s made it to an album, but Earle comes close to matching Bruce’s intensity performing this song on “Nebraska”.

  4. […] Amazon and other online retailers, as I’ve done for other elusive albums over the years. I wrote not long ago about doing the same with Cover Me, the Springsteen tribute. And, as happened with Cover Me, it was […]

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