Straight From the Heart

Jackie DeShannon has enough feathers in her cap to make a duck: her 1964 song "When You Walk in the Room" ushered in the '60s folk-rock sound; she was the Beatles' hand-picked opener on their first U.S. tour; she had memorable hits with her "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" and Bacharach and David's "What the World Needs Now Is Love"; she has won a Grammy and heard her songs performed by Van Morrison, Ella Fitzgerald, Bruce Springsteen, Al Green and scores of others; and these days, she picks and chooses her infrequent gigs, at showcases like New York's Bottom Line and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—not to mention the "Pet Place" telethon on little KDOC-TV.

And that's one of the qualities I like about DeShannon—that she does things that aren't exactly career moves, like appearing on OC's obscure pet-adoption show just because it feels like a good thing to her. She pretty well gave her career the heave-ho a couple of decades ago out of frustration with the music business and to raise her son (she's married to film composer Randy Edelman, whose countless scores include the upcoming Vin Diesel vehicle XXX). These days, she just does what she wants.

I had lunch recently with DeShannon and OC's eternal rocker Greg Topper at the Crazy Horse, where Topper is helping produce her show Saturday. The last time DeShannon played OC was probably decades ago at the long-gone Golden Bear. She has always written—with more than 600 songs to her name—but she only recently came back with a new album, You Know Me. New listeners will find an artist who might remind them of Aimee Mann's more evocative work. To older listeners, it will only remind them of Jackie DeShannon because she's had it all along.

"To me, rock and roll is about passion and fun, from Buddy Holly on. If you don't do it with passion, don't bother. And I'm from the old school where you actually have to sing onstage," she said, though too nice to name the current girl acts who lip-synch through their choreographed shows. She's proud that back in the day, she recorded "What the World Needs Now Is Love" in just two takes with no overdubs.

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You Know Me doesn't want for passion, but the fun is muted by many of the songs' lyrical concerns, which deal with the ravaging of the planet, the dimming of the American dream and such. I half-jokingly asked if she was bringing back "protest rock."

"I hope not. I don't want to preach to anyone. But I wanted to make an album that was close to my heart, and you can't look at the world and ignore these things. From Exxon to Enron, they're tearing the world apart," she said.

"The song 'Vanished in Time' is about the loss of hope in our country. When I came up, you might start as a waiter, but there was the real hope you'd own the restaurant someday. Now hope seems reserved for people with a $40 million trust fund. What I call the stuffof America is vanishing: the small farms, the little stores where they know your name, the steel mills, the world you see in The Deers Hunter where everyone's gathered in the bar singing 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You.' That's all been eaten up, and the textures of life are gone.

"And I think the world's soul and originality has gone with it. Where's the new Bob Marley? Where's the new Van Morrison? Where's the new Bruce Springsteen? I rest my case. I don't think we have the soul to do it anymore. I've heard snippets, someone who maybe gets it for one song, but nothing sustained, nothing that takes you to a different place."

Thoughtful stuff for a person whose first songwriting hit was Brenda Lee's 1961 "Dum Dum." DeShannon waxes rhapsodic about those Golden '60s: collaborating with fellow unknown Randy Newman; writing classics like the Fleetwoods' "The Great Impostor" and Irma Thomas' "Breakaway"; having sessions interrupted by Brian Wilson careening through on a skateboard; spending downtime on tour trading songs and having pillow fights with the Beatles; and, rather than corporate media conglomerates calling the shots, being able to hand-carry a new record into any of hundreds of local radio stations, where, if the DJ liked it, it went right on the air.

On the downside, she said, "None of the artists were paid what we should have been, and we still haven't. I'm still waiting on the residuals for 'Dum Dum'! And artists today, particularly women, have much more leverage. Carole King and Ellie Greenwich were on the East Coast, but I was alone on this coast as a singer/songwriter. If a woman dared voice an idea in the studio, she was 'being difficult.' I loved writing songs and producing demos, but the finished records were out of my hands."

One of the rare times she prevailed was "Put a Little Love in Your Heart." Even that No. 4 hit didn't buy her much leverage. DeShannon doesn't mind that her songwriting Grammy win was for someone else's version of her song—the 1982 Kim Carnes hit "Bette Davis Eyes" (co-written with Donna Weiss)—but she wonders how her own version might have fared if her producer hadn't forced a dopey arrangement on it.

"That's why recording You Know Me, to finally make a record just like I wanted, was like being let out of the corral to run free in the canyons," she said. "It's what I've always wanted to do. Good, bad or indifferent, you don't have to like it, but at least it's straight from the heart."

Jackie DeShannon and Greg Topper perform at the Crazy Horse Steakhouse & Saloon, Irvine Spectrum, 71 Fortune Dr., Ste. 864, Irvine, (949) 585-9000. Sat., 6:30 p.m. $20-$30. All ages.

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