Saturday, September 05, 2009

Death Notice: Ellie Greenwich,  Dead this August 26


-by Sandy Pearlman

A life of firsts. She beat Pat Benatar to the punch with the pixie slut haircut. Signaling that feminine power source, the union of opposites. She came down from Levittown on Long Island, that Levittown, first of the planned post war suburbs. She was first among equals in the triumvirate of Ellie/Carole/Cynthia, Great Girl Songwriters that ruled the Song Generator of the Brill Building in the 1960’s. First (and last) time that girls ruled America’s culture in general, only to be overthrown by the British Invasion. A crucial 1964 setback for feminism, that. The first line she gave Mary Weiss to sing (as opposed to speak) in Leader Of The Pack:


Is she really going out with him?

Well, there she is. Let's ask her.

Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?


Gee, it must be great riding with him

Is he picking you up after school today?


By the way, where'd you meet him?

                          I met him at the candy store

He turned around and smiled at me

You get the picture? (yes, we see)

                  That's when I fell for (the leader of the pack) 

“I met him at the candy store.” That line is underwritten by the most authentically anguished music since Puccini wrote Vissi d’Arte for Tosca. That line and its music inflate emotional affect not through the easier gambit of cognitive dissonance, but, rather down the far more difficult neural pathway of cognitive unification. A mystic union of form and function. Reflexive inflation of text and music. Absolutely no trace of ironic distancing here. Here and always her music would simultaneously refuse and overpower the cynically attractive opportunity for corrosive irony. That’s how great a composer she was. Brian Wilson, Beach Dude himself, said of her: “She was the greatest melody writer of all time”. He said her song Be My Baby was “the perfect rock and roll song.” It was his favorite record  “of all time.” In his house once stood a jukebox, with 100 hundred selections in all, all of them Be My Baby. So he must have meant it. So perfectly anguished is the music of this quatrain, which begins with “I met him at the candy store” and ends with “I fell for the leader of the pack,” it cannot be followed by any more music. Apparently that would be impossible, not merely anticlimactic. No, such an extreme of anguish in music is only to be followed by an utterance so prehistoric, so primordial, so prehuman as to invoke our deepest genetic intimations of original chaos and the birth of tragedy. Of the time before there was any music: The pre-recorded roar of a specially modified (i.e. miked) 1960’s Harley-Davidson Ironhead engine. Harley Rex, sui generis. It is here that the dialectic of the (Eternal) Feminine is fully engaged. As the reptile brain confronts the ethos of suburban America c. 1964. “Goin’ to the Chapel (of Love).”

“She was an accordion player…” said Shadow Morton. As definitive as Tom Petty’s “She was an American Girl.” Since she composed on the accordion, she automatically became (yet not merely by default) the most important accordion babe since Edith Piaf. Through the accordion, she met both Shadow Morton, Producer of Leader of the Pack and Jeff Barry her husband and Brill Building partner in song genesis. The latter at a Thanksgiving family dinner, as she slaved not over a hot stove, but rather over a hot accordion: Playing tunes to the family. Even then as a teenager, so true was she to be to herself-- as her very own muse in the mirror, that no turkey could ever dominate her image. With Jeff Barry she wrote "Be My Baby," "River Deep Mountain High," "Going To The Chapel," "Leader Of The Pack," "Baby I Love You," "And Then He Kissed Me," "Baby I Love You," "Hanky Panky," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Doo Wah Diddy" and more. Of these latter three songs, she thought them equivalent to Nursery Rhymes. A powerful insight, that. With their archaic looping indelibility, these songs invoke the primordial metrical power rhymes of trochaic tetrameter, the speech of Puck and fairies. “Everybody of every age can sing them,” she said, “because they are so easy to remember.”  Apparently they are so easy to remember because we humans are almost born remembering them. As if we were never without these indelible loops. Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time included six by her and Jeff Barry-- more than by any other songwriting team. They had 17 singles in the pop charts of 1964, the year the Beatles conquered America and the feminine fell.  Only John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Holland, Dozier and Holland of Motown surpassed their total. So for a long time now, we have never been without her indelible music. Which is itself a loop and the way the culture works.

“She was an accordion player at Levittown High or maybe East Meadow... down Wantagh Avenue, just before Southern State Parkway. There was a lot of excitement and energy then. We thought every town was like that. The energy coming out of Hicksville, out of Bethpage was unbelievable…” said Shadow Morton. He “thought every town was like that.” But they weren’t.  In the 1960’s these Long Island towns were the center of the Universe. Not Gatsby’s Long Island, but Thomas Pynchon’s LI. The land of V. On the Map of Long Island, there’s a line drawn from Hempstead on the West to Bethpage on the East. Just East of midway on this line is Levittown, where she grew up on the corner of Starlight and Springtime Lanes. This line is called Route 24. It’s a ten-mile line. Not very long at all as maps go. And yet in the mid 60s here’s what was going on down that line: In Hempstead, Shadow Morton was getting ready to launch Heavy Metal from Ultrasonic Studios with the Vanilla Fudge and Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.  In Bethpage, on the other hand (or was it?) Grumman was building the Apollo’s Lunar Excursion Modules, Heavy Metal, which would take us to the Moon. When Shadow Morton needed music he “ went to The Farmer’s Market across from Grumman and went through the record pile.” You can’t make this stuff up. Both Thomas Pynchon and Shadow Morton, both of them great Long Island artists of the 1960s, knew they inhabited a geocultural even a geophysical singularity, an energy terrain, an inexplicable confluence of influences which somehow wound up all tied up.

When you think about all this, in the light of the perfect union that her music attained, that she grew up at the intersection of Starlight and Springtime Lanes does make all the sense in the Universe. Of her partnership with Jeff Barry, she said, "Wherever our heartbeats were, they were kind of all beating together. We thought along the same lines. We were hopeful romantics, and our songs came out that way."

She was Ellie Greenwich: On August 26, 2009, Greenwich died of a heart attack at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, New York City, where she had been admitted a few days earlier for treatment of pneumonia.

After Ellie Greenwich’s death I found some interesting posts in the blog tail to Rolling Stone’s online Rock&Roll Daily death notice. Amongst them these three following:

Naz | 8/28/2009, 2:45 pm EST
Man yall a buncha losers. I saw this post and wondered who the hell is Ellie GRenwich, never heard of her. I read the story and listened to tha song clipz, and man this is some old, old, tired-ass shit. Not one song thats half as good as anythin by Lil WAyne ROFLMAO

Barry Miller | 8/28/2009, 12:31 pm EST
I knew Ellie and her sister in 1960 when I worked at Captree Day Camp on LI which I believe her aunt owned. You could tell what a great talent she had when she sang and produced talent shows. I have enjoyed folowing her career.

Mark | 8/27/2009, 3:21 am EST
Credit where credit is due-- we have lost the greatest songwriter of all time.

Sandy's one of my oldest friends in the world, the president of the student body when I was a freshman. He persuaded me to run for president of my class and explained the Vietnam War to me... and the Rolling Stones and The Byrds. I've been trying to get him to write for DWT for years. Stuff about him:
Schulich Distinguished Chair, McGill University. Woodrow Wilson Fellow in the History of Ideas. New School Fellow in Sociology and Anthropology. Over the last few years, at McGill, Pearlman,  has taught and created, often in collaboration with Dean Don McLean of the Schulich School, a boat load of provocative new courses in the Music, English, Religious Studies, Law and Management Faculties. Recently appointed to the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress.  Relentless brainstormer of the ever-tightening embrace of Music by Technology and Technology by Music. Producer, creator, songwriter, manager and theorist for many of the most important bands and musical trends of the last 25 years: Blue Oyster Cult, Clash, Black Sabbath, Dictators, Pavlov’s Dog, Dream Syndicate… Described by the Billboard Producer’s Directory as “the Hunter Thompson of rock, a gonzo producer of searing intellect and vast vision.” Gonzo enough to be played by Christopher Walken in Saturday Night Live’s infamous skit on the making of The Reaper(which Pearlman produced for Blue Oyster Cult).

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At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Lee said...


I've come to view my go to blog for all things unexpected. A blog post about Elie Greenwich..thank you for the pleasure.

First I grew up wanting to sing like Darlene Love. I always thought she had the best most under rated voice in rock and roll. And Elie Greenwichs songs..oh my god..the womans songs have given me more pleasure than just about any other song writer.

Have you ever seen the movie Grace of my Heart?

At 3:11 PM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

I never get out so I miss all the movies. It sounds like the kind of thing though that Sandy Pearlman is considering writing a book about.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Volly said...

Nice to know something good came out of Levittown - for me, it was always the place to escape from.

As Stephen King said, in his description of Derry in the novel IT, in Levittown, "it was always thirteen o'clock."

The lame-ass comment from the Generation Y Neanderthal lends an especially apt touch. Sounds like someone from L-town, actually.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger James Lynch III said...

I met Sandy with some friends at the SF Music/Tech Conference a few years ago... one of my true heroes, he inspired me to start writing about music, and I've followed everything he's ever been involved with...

At 9:42 AM, Blogger D. said...

This is a beautifully written assessment of the greater genius of a woman reflecting her lovelife and times.

As for Grace of My Heart, I was a fan, I love Allison Anders' work, but I was ultimately bewildered by its unreality, the whole roman a clef nature of it - Ileanna Douglas seems most definitely to be cast as a version of Carole King ... but is Turturro playing Phil Spector? And why is there a Brian Wilson-like character? That said, the cameos and the original songs written for the film make it fun to play spot-the-culture-reference...

At 2:32 PM, Blogger ellynlvx said...

Sandy is writing a book? About what? Frisson?


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