Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rick or Ricky?

Persons of a certain age, the first chunk of the Baby Boon generation, in fact, have a good part of their childhoods projected against television images of the "perfect family." These are almost entirely sitcom families, and the titles of the shows are chatchphrases: "Leave it to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," and "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," are the canonical Trinity. The movie "Pleasantville" over on my newsgroup, which hinges on a fictional TV program that is something of a distillation of these 50s sitcoms, but it is looking through a different end of the telescope, or maybe a different imaging system entirely, than what I'm using here.

The breakout star of "Ozzie and Harriet" was Ricky Nelson, sometimes billed as "Little Ricky Nelson." He was one of the prototypes for the "smart mouthed sitcom kid," who we see in practically every other family sitcom that has ever swam the airwaves. Then he became a teenager, and discovered rock and roll. Not all by himself, of course. There was an entire generation of kids discovering rock and roll at about the same time. But he was on television, his dad had been a bandleader, and "Little Ricky" got himself some regular prime time exposure. He was also gorgeous, and just enough of a rebel to make the girls swoon, but white/safe enough not to scare off the parents. Hell, Ricky was on television, as part of an ideal family.

There are all sorts of downsides to being a child star, one of them being that children take their responsibilities very seriously. And Ozzie Nelson used that as yet another tool in the parental control toolkit. There are literally hundreds of people who depend on us for their livelihoods, the father told his son. So don't screw this up for them. Keep in line. And so on.

I knew none of this at the time, and paid little attention to the O&H show, or, for that matter, "Leave it to Beaver," and "Father Knows Best," although there are a few episodes lodged in my head for each, so I must have watched them occasionally. I just didn't buy into the sitcom family notion, and I'm sure I had Ricky Nelson pegged as another incarnation of Pat Boone, translating real rock and roll into sliced white bread.

I'm not sure how I ran across "Another Side of Rick" and album released in 1968. Memory suggests that a cousin left it after visiting our house; perhaps it was too different from what she expected. As the name suggests, it was Little Ricky trying to grow up a bit, or out, or something. The song that struck me was "Dream Weaver," written, as were many of the songs on the record, by the producer, J. Boylan.

Little girl what's that look clouding over your eyes
Little girl what's all this about life tryin' to pass you by
Yes I'll listen and try to be kind
But remember I'm only a thought in your mind

And I'm a dream weaver
A love receiver and I get around
Yes I'm a dreamweaver
A word deceiver look up and down
Dream weaver's comin' to town

--J. Boylan

Sorry I can't find a video for it. So let's use this one:

Rick continued on his folk-rock trajectory with his Stone Canyon Band, which leaned heavily on the country side of folk, unsurprising for someone with rockabilly roots. But, bills to pay, mouths to feed. It was the same old sitcom grind, only this time it was also his own family to support. So Nelson came to one of the "Rock and Roll Revivals," at Madison Square Garden, and after playing "Hello Mary Lou," went into "Honky Tonk Woman." Oops. Boos and catcalls followed. Then he wrote "Garden Party" about the incident and scored his last Top Ten Hit.

If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I rather drive a truck…

And it's all right now, learned my lesson well
You see, you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself.

It strikes the right chord, and informed many a boomer caught between desire and duty. But, there were still mouths to feed, and alimony to pay, and by the 1980s, Rick was backed by neon that said "Ricky." Still, if you listen, you can hear more than memories in his singing. He loved rock and roll to the end, dammit.

There are still stories that the fire that caused the plane crash he died in were from freebase ether. The official FAA investigation suggested that it was really an electrical fire, probably from a defective heater. But when drugs enter the narrative, the narrative becomes all about the drugs. Rick Nelson deserved better than death at 45 and idiots making jokes about his demise.

Little girl I could tell you the places I've been
But my words are just whispers that lean on the wind
You must listen and try to believe
And I'll give you a dream I've been meanin' to weave

I could love you, if you want me to
That won't be what it seems
Yes I could love you, if you want me to
Then again I'm just a weaver of dreams

Yes I'm a dream weaver
A love receiver and I get around
Well I'm a dream weaver
A love receiver comin' to town


black dog barking said...

Late 60s / early 70s Rick released some commercial but, imho, credible Dylan covers. He faced a problem that Bob didn't in that Nelson's pop commercial readings stressed the lyric line and Dylan lyrics tend to end up in places outside the comfort zone of Commercial.

For instance, Rick's 1969 release of She Belongs to Me does a steel guitar country take on that ballad of infatuation and ruin for the infatuated. I just listened, trying to imagine how Rick was going to sell this verse to a Nashville audience:

She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks.
She wears an Egyptian ring
That sparkles before she speaks.
She's a hypnotist collector,
You are a walking antique.

Just seems a bit too hippie for the moonshine crowd. Solution was simple: he just left that verse out.

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