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Saturday, 22 March 2008

Written in granite: Dory Previn [1] - On My Way To Where

Dory Previn is an artist of such importance here at The Granite Shore that we're going to be looking at each of her albums individually and we may also look at other aspects of her work. I first came across her work through by far her best-known LP, Mythical Kings And Iguanas, at a girlfriend's. At the time people like myself were frequently accused of having male-centric record collections, although I generally defended myself with the fact that although I might have fewer albums by female solo artists than males, I still had several times more records by female artists than most of my accusers. I'd then take stick (not in a good way) when it emerged that one of the female artists whose work I owned was Dolly Parton. Country music in general was not cool at this juncture (the early 1980s). People used to assume I was engaged in that emerging art-form, irony, when they discovered half a dozen or so Johnny Cash albums. Gram Parsons was only just about barely acceptable, though mainly because nobody had heard of him and you could point out that he'd been in The Byrds (who were on their way to becoming extremely hip, although their haircuts made comebacks before their music, of course). I was accused of liking Dolly "for two reasons" and was left to infer that I would not be believed if I claimed that these were her extraordinary songs and her voice. But then these were polarised times. Having said that, although I did own more records by female artists than said girlfriend, there was always room for plenty more and I am indebted to her, and her sister, for introducing me to the work of Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday but most of all to Dory Previn. By Christmas that year she and her sister still only had Kings but I owned at least four of Dory's albums and as soon as I could find the rest I had them all.

Last time we looked at another late starter, John Cowper Powys, who was around 43 when Wood And Stone, his first novel, was published. Similarly, Dory Previn was 41 years old by the time she released her first solo album, On My Way To Where, in 1970. Way too old to compete with the emerging Jonis, Lindas, Caroles whose appeal was not damaged by them being clearly young and attractive. Now don't get me wrong, exactly the same can be said of many a male performer and I'm a huge Joni Mitchell fan, although give me Court And Spark or The Hissing Of Summer Lawns over Ladies Of The Canyon any day. Joni became genuinely exciting when she began to move beyond her own demographic. Dory never seemed to have one. The surname came from the fact that she'd been the work and life partner of conductor, composer and Morecombe and Wise sidekick André Previn, until his head had been turned by Mia Farrow. More about that in a moment. She had recorded one album under her maiden name of Dory Langdon, in the late fifties but, like Lucinda Williams 30 years later, she started her career again a decade on. I shan't go into too much detail about Dory's biography, there's no need as it's documented in almost terrifying detail on the LP. Like so many of the greatest writers, Previn knew what her subjects were and mined them for all they were worth. And they were worth an extraordinary amount. Well, really it's just one subject, with two subdivisions. The subject is the male of the species and the subdivisions are her father and her husband and lovers. There's a wonderfully self-deprecating moment on the later double live set At Carnegie Hall when, after delivering I Ain't His Child (from this album) she introduces the next number, I Dance And Dance And Smile And Smile with: "this next song is about my father which... I guess two in a row tends to constitute a hang-up but there it is".

On My Way To Where opens with Scared To Be Alone, a wonderful example of her ability to take a then-obligatory subject which has dated and become hackneyed since, and to give it a new slant, there are so many songs from this period invoking Marilyn Monroe but there's only one which then brings Jesus Christ into it ("were you jealous of your father? Were you short when you were fully grown? Did you like to walk on water? Were you scared to be alone?") That's then followed by I Ain't His Child, apparently based on fact. It's a desperately terrifying subject dealt with hilariously (I think the title pretty much sums up the plot). Then comes Esther's First Communion, in which Jesus makes his second appearance in three songs. Unlike so many other albums made at this time, and right up until the eighties, this is the work of an adult. This is a theme we'll be looking at in more detail later on, how so little pop and rock music (and particularly the lyrics) was grown-up until the very end of the eighties, but Dory is the exception that proves the rule. After becoming a Bride of Christ, Esther decides "...that if he sees us/we ought to get a look at Jesus/So she began to see the one she'd wed", to her parents' horror when she announces the fact. This leads to the wonderful pay-off that "so instead of seeing Jesus/she began to see a lot of other men". The lyric is perfectly constructed, full of Dory's trademark detail.

Side one ends with something truly chilling, With My Daddy In The Attic. Again, apparently based on fact, as Mr Langdon apparently did board the family up in the attic for a long period. However the song takes on even darker overtones, and the jauntiness of the music makes it one of the few genuinely scary things I've ever heard. That and Helen Reddy's Angie Baby. If Mr L is the star of side one, then it's André and Mia who get star billing on side two with Beware Of Young Girls. Other than actually naming names it couldn't be a lot clearer. Side two is slightly weaker overall, there's a fairly standard end of the sixties song anti-war piece called Veteran's Big Parade (still far subtler than most such offerings, of course)... The other highlight is the wonderfully funny Twenty Mile Zone in which Dory is engaging in a little primal screaming, as you do, to the displeasure of the local constabulary who insist on driving her away... sirens screaming.

As debut albums go it's fully-formed. All Dory's primary concerns are here. It is all about the words though, the music is beautifully done but it's purpose is to act as a vehicle for those words... Daddy In The Attic is the zenith of this, with its ragtime feel and clarinet solo at the end accompanying the "Oh God, she doesn't mean... Does she? Oh God, she might, you know..." last line "...and he'll play his clarinet when I despair". Even forty years on there are few albums with words like this. It's nice to see Dory's name starting to crop up a bit... Back in the mid to late 1980s when I met Nick Currie, better known as Momus, one of the things we had in common, besides a love of Brel and Gainsbourg, was that we were both Dory fans. I don't think I'd ever met another man who'd even heard of her before Nick. I could hear her influence on Nick's own lyrics, of course, and it's no surprise to learn that Jarvis Cocker is also a fan (Jarvis' own debt to Momus is fairly obvious, compare the lyrics to I Spy on Different Class to those of Nick's The Homosexual on Tender Pervert. Notice any similarities? Yup...) Ms Previn is now very nearly 80 and hasn't made a record for more than 30 years. She only made six studio albums and one live double, but her legacy is assured.

We'll be looking at her other albums over the next few weeks, or whenever I get around to it. You can buy On My Way To Where as part of a 2CD set together with the later Mary C. Brown And The Hollywood Sign. Admittedly Mythical Kings And Iguanas probably is the best place to start, and is her masterpiece, but in my book this one comes a fairly close second. She's certainly one of the major influences on my own work and I'm proud of the fact.

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