Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Vintage Articles:
'The first step in getting ahead is getting started.’ An interview with Bob Crewe. -
by Donald von Wiedenman //
The Advocate - April 7, 1976




Something to add on to the previous Disco Delivery post on the Bob Crewe Generation's Street Talk album - I found this interview back when I was researching through back issues of The Advocate for nothing in particular aside from anything that seemed interesting and relevant to my interests (and there was plenty). I had quoted a section of this interview in the previous post, but I figured I might as well post the entire thing here for posterity. The article, written by The Advocate's features editor at the time, Donald von Wiedenman - an interesting figure himself, descendant of Bavarian nobility footnoted in rock history for his brief marriage to the late Mama Cass Elliott - is perhaps one of the most vivid descriptions of Bob Crewe that I've read.

Although he's widely acknowledged as a gay songwriter now in his death and in light of his portrayal in the Jersey Boys musical and film, it's interesting to note that even while speaking to the leading gay magazine about a record that more than hinted at homoeroticism, he's nonetheless gently evasive about his own sexuality in print. Even when the topic of the gay community comes up, he never manages to implicate himself as part of that community, even while talking about it. Although one can fill in the blanks and realize that someone who speaks about it as knowledgably as he does has to have more than an outside passing familarity with it all.

Although he reportedly wasn't entirely happy with his Liberace-lite portrayal in Jersey Boys, having only seen the film thus far, what it does seem to do well, just as this article does, is portray the infectious charisma that Crewe seemed to have when in his element as a writer and producer. Taking inspiration from everything around him and in turn inspiring those around him; notwithstanding any camp liberties in the storytelling, his inspiring personality is one thing in evidence in the film, just as it is here, and just as it is when hearing old friends and colleagues speak about him.

Apart from producing the award-winning "Leader Of The Pack" cast album in 1980s, the volume of his musical credits seem to drop off after the disco era into the 80s. He appears, as many do, to have turned a new chapter and dedicated much of the last part of his life to his visual art and philanthropic efforts. Prior to his passing this past September 2014, Crewe's health had apparently been diminishing rapidly following a 2010 accident which left him in hospice care and suffering from dementia. The statement left by his surviving brother spelled it out quite grimly. Looking at this interview from 2008, which must have been one of his last, he nonetheless seemed determined to remain as active as possible as a creative person, well into his later years. If anything, this article captures him at a high point, as the quintessential dream-maker, to paraphrase the article, with a million things happening around him and all the connections to back it up...

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‘The first step in getting ahead is getting started.’ An interview with Bob Crewe.
By Donald von Wiedenman


         It is early in the morning (for me anyhow), and I am slouched on Bob Crewe’s leather-covered bed at his home high in the Hollywood hills. The house is a shambles. A bevy of workers are gutting, sawing, ripping, hammering and generally making pests of themselves as they tear out the inside of Bob’s house, making it ready for the new era to come. Down where we are, on the lower level that harbors his bedroom and makeshift office, we sit among the debris of a life lived in madness. Golden records here. Golden records there. Autographed photographs, record jacket designs, mislaid mottos and a bookcase that contains, among other goodies, Cities of Destiny and The Suicide Academy.

Bob Crewe is the man of the moment. One can’t dance at a disco these days without dancing to records that Bob wrote and produced. No overnight success, his career goes back to “Tallahassee Lassie” and “Daddy Cool.” Today, he is one of the most powerful and successful record producers in the wonderful world of rock-and-roll, and his recent hits include “My Eyes Adored You,” “Swearin’ To God,” “Disco-Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes Review,” “Lady Marmalade,” “Get Dancin’” and “I Wanna Dance Wit’ Choo.” He had created stars, made millions of dollars and exerted an influence that has definitely had an effect on all of us.

From upstairs-- almost drowning out the noise of the carpenters -- Bob’s latest 45, “Street Talk,” is blasting away on speakers that are bigger than a bathtub. The music is lush, sweeping and sensual. It is Wagnerian rock, an all-encompassing, third-world sensation of unearthly delights. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to lie down, take off your clothes and fuck your way to The Big Dance Floor in the Sky. It is, to put it quite simply, very horny music.

Crewe is talking about 10 things at once. His chatter is the patter of jumbled jargon, obscure references and the first names of the biggest names in the business. To listen to him is to be confused and elated at the same time. I have the feeling that everything he says is a special confidence intended only for me. So I listen and I watch, keeping careful track of all that surrounds me. Observations are what it’s all about and if it works for him, it’s bound to work for me.

Crewe tells me that he is deep in the midst of expanding the theme of “Street Talk” into what he terms the world’s first trisexual rock ballet. “I don’t know whether to spell it with an ‘i’ or a ‘y’ “ he muses. “I suppose it should be trysexual, as in try anything.” He laughs, pleased at the sound of yet another undiscovered secret. He knows that everything he says--everything he thinks--is only the fragment of an idea that can be developed later. The world is an adventure to him: Everything leads to something else.


         Bob goes back a long way, and for a man somewhere near the age of 40, he is remarkably young. Tall, goodlooking, he has a boyishly lived-in face that is handsome in the classic sense. In many ways, he is as immediate as his music, yet he has a kind of timeless quality, as if he’d be just as much at home dancing the Hustle as he would the Madison. Today he is a vision in blue. Faded jeans, a blue pullover, blue suede sneakers, and shades of the ‘50s white socks. His body seems to light up, as if his energy can actually be seen by the naked eye. Even when he is calm, he never sits still.

He is telling me more about his trysexual rock ballet. As he talks, he pulls out a copy of After Dark, flips through the pages until he comes to a drawing of a lustily innocent boy with his underpants coyly pulled down over one hip. It is unmistakenly the work of Los Angeles artist Toby Bluth, a lusty young man in his own right.


         “This,” says Crewe, “is how I see the hero of ‘Street Talk’.” He smiles. “I call him Cherry Boy. The ballet--or rock opera, film, stage musical, whatever--begins with Cherry Boy going into a disco. He is young, naive, never made it one way or the other. He’s hot. He’s street talk. Everyone notices him, wants him, desires him. Of course, he gets picked up, by a guy and a chick named Rod and Selma. Rod is for Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Selma is Selma Avenue in Hollywood. The music we hear is called ‘Menage a Trois,’ a very sensual understatement, not sordid at all. These two people keep him.

“The mood shifts with ‘Back Alley Boogie,’ a really funky sound.” Crewe pauses, thinking of the next logical step. “At the end of the piece, we see Cherry Boy with a chick on his arm going into a disco and picking up another boy, the new street talk. It’s a very circular piece. The hunted becomes the hunter. It’s a microcosm of our own lives.”

Of course, this all hits home. From the hunted young man to the hunting older man, the story is universal; a come-to-grips-with-reality morality play that never knows a final curtain.

Crewe decided to call Toby Bluth and discuss all this with him to see if Bluth will do the illustration for the album jacket. I am amazed at the speed with which Crewe works. Right in front of my eyes an unfocused concept has taken on a definite form. I feel as if I am in the middle of rock & roll history.

As Crewe talks avidly on the phone, I notice a sign on the wall that reads, “The first step in getting ahead is getting started.” My heart stands still. It is the very core of reality for those of us who dozed through the last decade in a haze of smoke and a pile of pills.

Crewe is off the phone. He starts “Street Talk” from the beginning again, takes the phone off the hook and tells me that he first came to Hollywood in 1960. At that time he wanted to get into acting. He already had a long string of hits behind him, and he wanted to try something new. But the meatmarket approach to acting in Hollywood was too much for him. Although he was attracted to the glamor of it all, he was too afraid of failing to really pursue it very far. So he went back; back to producing records, back to New York, back to the safety of doing what he knew best.

“Those were incredible days for me,” he confesses. “I had so much fun doing what I wanted to do that I didn’t know it was work. Do you know what I mean?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “I always thought work was something dreary, something that was alien to one’s being. It took me a long time to realize that I was actually working when I was having such a great time. I guess that is what it’s all about--getting paid a lot of money for what you like to do best. I used to think that I wasn’t suffering enough.” He pauses, throws a jaded shrug at the work ethic, and adds somewhat obscurely, “I was more daring then. I guess it was the time. I often think that a lot of that was just so much shit. Or was it? I mean, I got dressed-up in an ape costume, for example, and went to Philadelphia to plug Frankie Valli’s ‘I Go Ape.’ Can you imagine? And another time, I took a bunch of my friends back to Newark, where I grew up, to see my humble beginnings.” (I can only think of Diana Ross in Rock Dreams, her eyes scanning the darkness of the past.) “And do you know what?” Crewe asks. “Everything was gone. Nothing was like it had been before. I felt saddened because no one would ever see it again.”

We talk about the popularity of his music--and disco music in general--in the gay clubs. The hot records break first in gay circles, leading the way for the non-gay world to follow. Crewe knows his business very, very well. He answers without hesitation.

“I think gay clubs are the most honest forum for determining the success of disco music. First of all, the patrons are very affluent--more affluent and more independent than the men and women who go to other bars. Most of the gay men that I know are very proud. They work for a living (unless they’re kept), and they have a lot of money to spend. And they spend it on themselves--whether it’s buying drinks or paying a cover charge.

“Another big factor about gay bars is that everyone there is into dancing, much more than at a straight bar. As a rule, you can’t bullshit gay men and women. They’re looking for music that will make them move, and if the music doesn’t get them onto the dance floor, it’s no good. The club closes down. It’s very much cause and effect.”


         The door opens. Lou Ann (sic), his right hand woman, comes in with assorted messages that need to be dealt with. Someone upstairs starts “Street Talk” all over again. In the middle of discussing a check for the architect, which needs to be sent right away, Crewe smiles at me and tells me that when he was eight, he was one of Lippel’s Cutie-Cutes.

Cutie-Cutes? Oh yes, he tells me, it was a school for dancing for bright young things like himself. Even today, I realize, after time and the tides have taken their toll, Crewe is still one of the Cutie-Cutes, just a kid out on the boards trying to make his dreams come true. Get down, get back and get dancing--life can be just as fun as you make it.

The next day I bop down to Cherokee Studios where Crewe is laying down the tracks for his Street Talk album. I walk into the pounding, grinding, tantalizing sound of “Menage a Trois,” a perfect melody, I think, for the collection of lovelies around me. First there is Cindy Bullens, who is co-arranging this opus with Crewe. She is slight, boyish, determined, loose and immensely likeable. Then there is AJ, the Great DJ, his hair the color of a dye job gone wrong, his face looking suitably dragged out after being up all night, one supposes, playing the music that brings happy feet onto the disco floor.

Toby Bluth comes in, portfolio under his arm; a tall, thin, jaded young man named Jock (or possibly Jacques) in tow. They smile at the multitude. The multitude smiles back. The studio receptionist, who looks as if she won the Philadelphia David Bowie look-alike contest, swoops in, listens to a few heady bars and floats out. All around me--converging on the plate of shrimp with the lusty gusto of those who live under only the darkest of rocks--there are assorted technicians, artists, musicians and hangers-on.

Crewe, noting in the confusion that Bluth needs to be tended to, heads in his direction, asking AJ on the way if he’s seen Cherry Boy. “Seen him?” AJ grins back. “Darlin’, I’ve had him.”

Somehow in this dialog, complete with jaded smiles and a thinning air of decadence, flashes me back to London in the Sixties. Again, I am reminded of how much things stay the same, of how the same lessons I learned years ago are the lessons people are still learning today. I have the feeling, as one often does in the windowless world of recording studios, that I am in a time warp. Yes, that’s it. It’s straight from the “Ed Sullivan Show,” but the emphasis is not on straight.

In the midst of all this craziness, Crewe, with a cigarette constantly in his hand, is in control of everything. Working the complex controls of a million buttons and levers on the magic dashboard of the rock & roll spaceship, he is definitely the mastermind behind the mastermind. He punches up the piano, punches out the violins, turns this knob to get that effect and no one knows that all that hard work is really a piece of cake to the man who can’t understand why everything is so much fun.


         In front of me, there is either a woman or a man undulating to the music, a thin, androgynous shape that is at once yesterday’s unisex and tomorrow’s way of life. Crewe comes over to me. The music in the control booth is so loud that it is impossible to concentrate on anything else, the very purpose of it all, I suppose. He starts to sing, and, cliche or no cliche, the room stands still. He sings the words that only he knows, the words that hatch as he thinks, the words that follow will form the shape and content of the world’s first trysexual rock ballet.


         I am thinking that all of this sounds a little far-fetched, that it smacks of being just a little too unreal to be believed. But then I look around the studio at smiling faces and good-time graces, and I know that only a dream-maker can make a dream come true. Bob Crewe and street talk--they are the very heartbeat of the music in our souls.

All things considered, that’s not bad coming from a Cutie-Cute who never grew up ■

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PREVIOUS RELATED ENTRIES:
disco delivery #66: the bob crewe generation - street talk (1976, elektra) (sunday march 15, 2015)
disco delivery mix #4: disco pride '14 - street talk (saturday june 28, 2014)

LINKS:
discogs: bob crewe
frontiers media: bob crewe, gay music legend, dead at 82 (by karen ocamb) (september 11, 2014)
the advocate: #tbt: the gay jersey boy (by christopher harrity) (september 11, 2014)
jersey girls sing: bob crewe - the master and the music
the new york times: bob crewe, songwriter for frankie valli and four seasons, dies at 83 (by william yardley) (september 12, 2014)
the guardian - music: bob crewe obituary (by richard williams) (september 17, 2014)
bob crewe.com - at this time
ann ruckert: an update on the health of bob crewe (november 19, 2011)
about artist and writer donald von wiedenman
jersey girls sing: bob crewe - the master and the music


CATEGORIES: VINTAGE ARTICLES, IN MEMORIAM

1 comment:

VanceMan said...

What a great unearthing! Thanks for sharing.

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