Rock critic tends the flame

by Jordan Green

On Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon this semester Parke Puterbaugh’s “Rock and Roll Study Hall” fills the airwaves of west Greensboro and beyond, and on this particular morning the ecstatically produced Righteous Brothers track “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” surges from open car windows, pastoral ranch houses and dorm halls on WQFS 90.9 FM.

The show serves as a kind of auditory supplemental to the class Puterbaugh teaches on popular music history at Guilford College on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This particular segment focuses on producer Phil Spector, and before the show’s over he’ll segue into a selection of hits and lesser jewels from the Motown catalogue accompanied by a running commentary.

Just now the critic-turned-teacher is preparing listeners to experience the 1966 Ike & Tina Turner side “River Deep – Mountain High.” He marvels at the two major ironies of the song: Although it was credited to both, “River Deep”marked the first time Ike was sidelined and Tina effectively stepped into her own as a solo artist; and it pushed Spector’s “wall of sound” approach as far as humanly possible but turned out to be a spectacular commercial flop. As is his habit, Puterbaugh talks about the song in an unassuming conversational tone that is simultaneously elegant and interested enough to sound like the prose a music writer might commit to print.

In fact, Puterbaugh’s commentary today bears a startling resemblance to an article he published in the Aug. 23, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone. To wit: “Spector attempted to top ‘Lovin’ Feelin’ a year later with ‘River Deep – Mountain High,’ wherein the full fury of Tina Turner’s voice was cast into a raging vortex. The single’s failure to break the Top Forty remains a hotly debated controversy. Was the record too far ahead of its time or too far behind the times? Was it too busy, too intense for the Top Forty? A paranoid Spector believed, perhaps correctly, that the industry had conspired to blackball him for his unconventional ways and seeming arrogance.”

Is Puterbaugh referring to notes or has he completely internalized the lore of this dramatic and revolutionary period of pop culture? Only the audiophile in the cramped college radio studio can say for sure, but it’s clear that he is as steeped in his subject as one man can be.

The next day he welcomes a typical procession of Guilford students – among them bearded males, wearers of dreadlocks, a woman dressed in jeans and galoshes, another female clad in a Clash T-shirt – into the classroom in the basement of Dana Auditorium. Wearing respectably trimmed sandy brown hair, a rumpled pinstripe shirt and Vans sneakers, his eyebrows raise at a student’s question.

“You wrote music reviews for the Rolling Stones or the New York Times?”

“For Rolling Stone magazine,” Puterbaugh replies.

Then he goes to school.

“Once again, due to vaulting ambition I’ve tried to cram too much music in too little space,” Puterbaugh says. “The Beach Boys and surf music will have to wait until next week.”

Today’s session is devoted to Motown, and the teacher races through the subject with minimal give-and-take, hewing to a thematic organization required of anyone audacious enough to propose covering rock and roll from 1945 through the present. He divides the Motown roster into five essential acts: the Temptations, the Supremes, the Miracles, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. The Temps and the Supremes receive top billing as “flagship artists”; the Miracles’ Smokey Robinson is presented as a “heartbroken romantic” and as the gentle counterbalance to label head Berry Gordy’s more hard-charging style; Gaye and Wonder are the “two mavericks.”

Puterbaugh, who splits his time between writing about travel and music (the beaches of Florida and the defunct jam band Phish are among his current subjects), came of age musically in the 1960s. He arrived in Greensboro with his family in 1964; his father would head UNCG’s chemistry department.

“If you were going to teenage junior high parties like me, these are the kind of albums you’d be carrying around,” he tells the students, propping copies of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Temptin’ Temptations and The Supremes A Go-Go on the dry-erase board.

As a member of the second generation of rock critics, following in the footsteps of mentors like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus and Jon Landau, Puterbaugh found his place at Rolling Stone in 1979, and for a time claimed the distinction as its most prolific record reviewer. He wrote off and on for the magazine until 2004. At 52, he retains the essential joy that drew him to his rarified vocation.

“I can’t wait to play ‘Louie Louie’,” he says. “To me, it’s like the national anthem.”

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