Even Bob Dylan knew he could learn something new about songwriting from Doc Pomus. It was the summer of 1988. Already Dylan had written enough great songs to merit a Nobel Prize for Literature, which would come 28 years later, but at the time Dylan was suffering from writer’s block. As Dylan would put it, he needed advice from someone who could tell you fancy and tell you plain. Pomus, who had written the lyrics to “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” “Little Sister,” and many more hits, had also taken time to advise and assist Lou Reed, Shawn Colvin and Dr. John with their songs. Doc was available whenever a songwriter wanted to discuss the art, the craft, and the creation of a song. Darryl Rhoades, wildly popular in Atlanta with his Hahavishnu Orchestra, came to New York City and he too found Pomus to be a willing teacher. Pomus also impressed upon Rhoades that a songwriter should apply self-discipline to his work: If you say you’re a writer, then don’t waste your time, keep writing. And as the decades have passed, Darryl Rhoades has followed Doc’s advise.
Given how Rhoades and his band packed the Great Southeast Music Hall, the Bistro and the Electric Ballroom in the last half of the ’70s, he had every reason to believe he would hit nationally with his unique brand of theatrical and satirical rock. Applying Donald O’ Connor’s approach, Rhoades would make ’em laugh with his musical send-ups. Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve” became the Jaws -inspired “Surfin’ Shark.” He dolloped his “Burgers from Heaven” with ’50s teenage heartache. The audiences would roll in laughter over his parodies of songs by the Allman Brothers Band and Chicago. No one in show business or politics was safe from Darryl’s acerbic wit. He wanted to poke at everyone and everything, all the while being so likable about it.
But it takes only a minute to skim (and groan) over a list of the top ten novelty/comedy hits of all time. Oh yes, some were popular and momentarily amusing, but then quickly forgotten. For perspective, please remember the Chevrolet Vega was the 1971 Motor Trend Car of the Year. Besides, Rhoades never wanted to be Ray Stevens. There was too much music to write and too many important things to say, so as the days and years passed, he kept writing, just as Doc Pomus instructed.
Darryl Rhoades has recorded thirteen albums since taking direction from Pomus. That’s a mess of writing, and as the days and years have passed, Rhoades expounds on the mess known as life. Those of us now in our seventh decade probably realize that no matter how good we feel, we’re still in the season of death. We hope to see more decades pass, but many family members, friends, and colleagues aren’t around to share them with with us. Rhoades acknowledges that by dedicating his new album, The Last Goodbye, to Doc Pomus, Joel Dorn, Col. Bruce Hampton and other friends who’ve left the planet. Hampton always wanted to encourage a friend, just as much as he enjoyed making a friend. One can just hear Bruce, between plates of appetizers at a Buford Highway eatery, declaring The Last Goodbye as Rhoades’ best album yet. And Bruce would be right.
Rhoades isn’t pushing the comedy or theatrics this time around. Instead, as he told Atlanta Loop, his focus on The Last Goodbye is “the ticking clock and what we do with it.” Backed by a stellar group of musicians and singers (all hail Deborah Reece and Martina Albano), Rhoades fulfills the promise that lurked underneath that big shark mask in the ’70s. To those really paying attention back then, it was obvious he had the musical chops, and when talking with him, it was obvious he had a keen eye on what was happening out there and why it was happening. On The Last Goodbye, Rhoades, some four decades later, again observes, reveals, and redeems. It’s even a step up from his solid 2008 album, Weapons of Mass Deception.
The Last Goodbye covers much ground musically; jazz and country inflections abound and the straight-ahead rock approach is also intact. One of the album’s best songs,”The Little Hand Was On Goodbye,” has an early Byrds’ influence. Their recording of Dylan’s “My Back Pages” comes to mind. Though not as probing as Dylan’s masterpiece, “The Little Hand Was On Goodbye” imparts a series of one’s recollections and summations. Covered are second thoughts, remorse and the valley of recriminations, all based on the protagonist’s experiences. Looking back while saying goodbye is a theme that comes up repeatedly on the album. The season of death is given its due.
Interestingly enough, I gave The Last Goodbye its first listen shortly after watching the second-ever episode of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling and Darryl Rhoades, together at last, so to speak. In “One For The Angels,” Mr. Serling has us consider one Lou Bookman, a street peddler, working the lower-middle class streets of New York, hawking ties, lotions, and various trifles. It’s July 1959 and on his next birthday, Lou, played by Ed Wynn, will celebrate his 70th birthday, but not if Mr. Death, who’s been stalking Lou most of the afternoon, can help it. Mr. Death sees the affection Lou and the neighborhood kids have for each other. That’s all in the “record” but he watches, unbeknownst to all, as Lou gives away a couple of toys from his case. Lou promises the kids ice cream later as he walks up to his room. There he sees Mr. Death making himself at home. Lou is so good-natured that he’s hardly bothered by the well-dressed stranger, the same one he saw while pitching his wares. But it’s another thing when Mr. Death tells Lou his time is up. Departure will be at midnight tonight. Both hands will be on twelve o’clock and Lou has to wave goodbye. Yet Lou won’t hear any of it, his will is too strong. So he makes a deal with Mr. Death, but it goes awry minutes later. So Mr. Death makes other arrangements. Just outside Lou’s building, 8 year-old Maggie, whom Lou adores, is hit by an old pick-up. Maggie will die at midnight. Lou can stay but Maggie has to go. Mr. Death has a quota to maintain. Lou determines he’ll keep Mr. Death out of Maggie’s apartment until after midnight. Then she’ll be in the clear. Mr. Death takes most of the evening off but returns at a quarter of twelve. Then Lou decides to make a “truly big pitch” to Mr. Death. The pitch will make “the skies open up;” it will be “one for the angels,” the kind of pitch he never made before. He presents whatever he pulls out of his case, ties, spools of thread, no matter what the item, Mr. Death is enthralled. “I’ll take all you have,” he tells Lou. Finally, with the clock about to strike twelve, Lou proffers himself to Mr. Death. Whatever services are needed, Lou will provide. Mr. Death remains impressed, “Mr. Bookman, you are a persuasive man.” But when midnight arrives, Mr. Death realizes he’s been had. He can’t take Maggie with him, but he reminds Lou they made a deal. Mr. Death can’t leave empty-handed. That’s acceptable to Lou. He grabs his sales bag, telling Mr. Death that he may need it “up there,” if that’s where he’s headed. Mr. Death responds, “Yes, up there. You made it.”
And that brings us to our familiar dimension, more predictable than the dimension of imagination, as described by Mr. Serling. It’s the one where we have our own ticking clock and the choices of what to do with it. Darryl Rhoades, seriously contemplating and seriously rocking, covers all that very well on The Last Goodbye.
(Darryl Rhoades, Thermos Greenwood and other stellar musicians will appear at The Great Southeast Music Hall Reunion at Smith’s Old Bar, August 4. You got to be there.)