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Never Too Late

Out of the Back Room: Gerry Goffin

Legendary lyricist Gerry Goffin resurfaces with 'Back Room Blood'

By Nicky Baxter

FOR THOSE OF US who presumed that songwriter-turned-singer Gerry Goffin, now 50, had either died or disappeared from the planet, Back Room Blood (Adelphi/Genes) gives evidence of a welcome rejuvenation. Best known for his pop-making partnership and marriage to singer/songwriter Carole King (he wrote the lyrics for such hits as "Go Away Little Girl," "Oh, No, Not My Baby"), Goffin has returned with an album of his own material that roils with the kind of astringent emotionalism ordinarily reserved for brash and brutal youth.

The opening track sums up Goffin's comeback. Set to a implacably ragged Stonesian riff, "Never Too Late to Rock and Roll" cuts straight to the heart of things: "Some people may die of too much sex./Some people may die of a voodoo hex./Some people may die 'cause they're too damn fat./But I'm gonna live much longer than that." Goffin spits out the defiant verse with so much conviction that you wonder where the man's stashed that fountain-of-youth elixir. On track after track, Goffin proves he's got staying power.

Although Back Room Blood bristles with the passion of a gonna-be 21-year-old, its maturity could only come from an individual who's been around a while. The album occupies a kind of parallel universe where "modern" describes substance, not style. Perhaps intuitively, Goffin knows that there's nothing inherently unhip with resuscitating seemingly moribund musical idioms in order to talk about what's going on today. Listeners of any age would have to concede that Back Room Blood packs a sonic wallop, which is quite an nifty feat considering Goffin surrounds himself with old-and-in-the-way types like Bob Dylan, who co-wrote a pair of tunes.

The disc is a collaborative effort from front to back. The association between keyboard player Barry Goldberg and Goffin extends as far back as the 1970s, when they co-wrote "I've Got to Use My Imagination," the bestselling R&B single popularized by Gladys Knight and the Pips. (Interestingly, Goffin engages in an instance of "reverse cover-ism," proffering his own rendition of the Pips' hit; well, he needn't have, to misquote Thelonious Monk. Goffin may have conceived it, but "Imagination" is straight owned by Knight and her harmonizing cousins.)

Bassist Tim Drummond, a charter member of Neil Young's Stray Gators (the folky country-rock ensemble that worked on Harvest and Harvest Moon), multi-instrumentalist Ralph Shuckett (formerly with Todd Rundgren's proto-New Age posse Utopia); and drummer Gary Mallaber (Dylan, Van Morrison) supply the grizzle and grit. Ex-Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist Jack Sherman is the youngster of this wizened bunch, but his playing is as sharp as a pimp on Saturday night.

In graphic contrast to Goffin's classic pop tracks with King--think "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" "One Fine Day"--little passion is spent on romance. Previous (non)-analyses to the contrary, even "I've Got to Use My Imagination" is not just another dumbed-down black love lament. Instead, it was and is on Back Room Blood, a politically inspired exegesis of the black man's burden.

"A Woman Can Be Like a Gangster," the sole song on the new album that does concern itself with the "r" word (as in relationships), is reputedly a scathing look back at Goffin's marital and artistic split with King some 25 years ago. If this is true, Goffin, like the rest of us unforgiving bastards, sure knows how to nurse a grudge. From the spiteful sound and fury of "A Woman Can Be Like a Gangster," you'd think Carole ditched Gerry last weekend.

Much more often than not, however, the New Yorker's caustic rants tilt toward the triple-threatening nexus of religion, class struggle and race. Songs such as "Rough Theology" frame Goffin as graybearded Old Testament Bible-thumper out to convert the heathen--to a kinder, gentler form of communism.

The question of class animates several tracks, most notably "Tragedy of the Trade" and "Masquerade." Penned jointly by Goffin, Goldberg, Dylan and Harvey Brooks, "Tragedy of the Trade" casts a dim view of a social structure in which, to quote another Dylan tune, "Money doesn't talk, it swears." Here, working stiffs, laid-off factory hands and the poor are all victimized by the ruling elite. "Masquerade," a Goffin/Dylan number, is a blast at both the former Reagan regime and its tacit approval of white-nationalist tendencies.

THE THIRD DIMENSION of Goffin's tripartite rock hinges on race relations between blacks and whites. Even as he's raging like a Leninist back in the U.S.S.R., Goffin seems downright obsessed with the fate of North America's Nubian nutcases--driven out of their minds by racism--the folk formerly called colored.

The strikingly blunt "Elysian Fields" describes a dreamy scenario reminiscent of Randy Newman's sly abolitionist lullaby "Sail Away," sans the satire: "Elysian Fields ... /With no hope of returning/Dreaming of Bodies burning/They made us fuck ourselves forever."

Here, Kemet/Africa is the depicted as a wonderland to which blackfolk long (fat chance) to return. "Sacred Heart of Stone" is a seductive ghettocentric gumbo of muted trumpet, spiraling soprano saxophone and "blood"-warm vibes. The song boasts a chorus only narrowly less damning than the one in "Elysian Fields": "And if he really runs this planet/He runs it with dollars and a heart made of granite."

But if "Elysian Fields" and "Sacred Heart of Stone" address race and religion with something like saving grace, "Death to the Printed Word" comes across with all the finesse of a rampaging rock-club bouncer. The song is Uncle Tom's Cabin liberalism at its most hackneyed; even the most faithful of house nigras would probably cringe at the song's corny opening verse: "Four hundred years on a dead-end street/They wouldn't even throw you a coin to help you get on your feet/400 years and it still ain't finished/And your contribution can't be diminished."

Without diminishing Goffin's sincerity, these sentiments sound like something Hallmark could've come up with for the 1963 March on Washington. Stevie Wonder, the O'Jays, Gil Scott-Heron and countless others have said it better--and years before Goffin stepped to the plate. But at least Goffin is writing about race matters. And to think, 30 years ago, he was penning innocuous urban romance classics like "Up on the Roof." Now, those were the days, eh?

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From the June 6-12, 1996 issue of Metro

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