STREET-CORNER SERENADE: David Lasley leads us on

Unless you're accustomed to reading the fine print on album covers, you probably have never heard of David Lasley, so here are a couple of handles: he's something like a male Laura Nyro, and his debut Missin' Twenty Grand (EMI-America) is the finest blue-eyed soul album since Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees. A falsetto singer and a stylish pop composer, Lasley has been an industry pro for almost a decade. Besides making two records with a trio called Rosie, he has sung backup for countless other performers, most notably Jams Taylor. And he has written dozens of songs, often in collaboration with people like Allee Willis or Peter Allen, including Maxine Nightingale's "Lead Me On," Crystal Gayle's "The Blue Side," Patti Labelle's "I Don't Go Shopping," and the pop-gospel standard "Roll Me Through the Rushes." These are respectable credits, but they hardly prepare you for Lasley's solo album; anything but a typically bland session-player's showcase, Missin' Twenty Grand is a quirky, personal work that balances commercial pop-soul with the self-revelation familiar to the currently unfashionable singer-songwriter tradition.

The album tells a presumably autobiographical story, and the narrative is strong enough to make such covers as Taylor's "Looking for Love on Broadway" and Clyde Otis's civil-rights anthem "Take a Look" as pertinent as Lasley's originals. The opening "Got to Find Love" establishes the romantic nature of this odyssey, which begins with the breakup on the second cut, the sumptuous semi-hit single "If I Had My Wish Tonight" (written by Dave Loggins and Randy Goodrum). The funny thing about Lasley's falsetto is that it sounds curious, even affected, for about 10 seconds and thereafter seems entirely natural -- especially on a song like "Wish," so passionate that the second verse trails off midway (perhaps to allow the singer to break down a la James Brown). This cut is a mini-masterpiece, milked for every drop by Arif Mardin's superb string arrangement; and at the very end, while the singer wails, a sort of Greek chorus led by Bonnie Raitt emblazons the wish on the back of the departing lover: "'Stead of walkin' away/You'd want me to stay/You would want me" (note the insistence of those "w" sounds). Next thing you know Lasley's on the street again, "Lookin' for Love on Broadway," no strings in sight.

Suddenly, the side veers into genuine autobiography. We're "On Third Street," where Lasley recalls his initiation as a teenager into the hip street life of Detroit ("Met my first drag queen at 15/Didn't know 'til I was 16"). To strolling, Laura Nyro-like piano chords he constructs a musical movie of summer in the city, the friendly baker at the English-muffin factory "cryin' at the counter" over some rejection, being the only white kid in a street-corner doo-wop group, and getting a taste of music-biz exploitation. Mrs. Brown "would make us sing for nothin'/Take the tapes and leave town/And you'd hear you on the juke box/Under someone else's name/Played by somebody else's quarter." Like Nyro's sweet kids in hunger slums and Rickie Lee Jones's Frankie Valli lookalikes who meet Cunt Finger Louie in the alleys of LA, Lasley's "15-year-old babies on Third Street" are experiencing that mixture of sophistication and glowing innocence available only to inner-city adolescents. And the way Lasley tosses off his poetically precise phrases captures the fragmentary pleasures of growing up fast, while he avoids sentimental West Side Story cliches.

Of course, there was more than fun and games going on in America's cities during those mid-'60s summers. At first, Lasley's rendition of "Take a Look" (made famous by Aretha) seems mawkish here -- partly because of the treacherously insipid spoken intro, with its cryptic reference to "the Algiers Motel and the incident that occurred there in 1967." But what makes "Take a Look" so disturbing is the notion of talking about racism in a pop-music context. At a time when even most black singers tend to thank God and their mothers (in that order) on album jackets, Lasley dedicates Missin' Twenty Grand to the "hope that in my lifetime we may all know a world that does not perceive a boy or girl, a man or a woman by the color of their skin." Corny? Well, risking corniness to avoid callousness is what being a romantic is all about.

Love arrives on side two with "Treat Willie Good." Is it Detroit in the '60s or New York in the '80s? Unclear, but Willie's wife comes to the singer for advice about her man, who's having an affair; he counsels her to let him go and to feign ignorance. Easy for him to say -- in a classic "Chuck E.'s in Love" twist, the singer turns out to be Willie's lover. And they celebrate their love in a ballad almost as gorgeous as "If I Had My Wish Tonight"; it's called "Never Say," and it was written with Willie Wilcox (Todd Rundgren's drummer, Lasley's collaborator and co-producer, and, possibly, the namesake of "Treat Willie Good"*) Another surprise: a gay love song that forsakes cheap pathos for a delicate complexity. The middle verse is as close as it gets to explicit: "Two boys walk along and I think they look like brothers/My friend turns to me and says, 'I wonder if they're lovers?'/One's a little older and he looks a lot like me/I wonder why it takes so long for everyone to see." Of course, nothing spells trouble in paradise like vows of eternal love, and these lovers retire to euphemisms on "Roommate," in which we learn that when things get tough or the rent comes due, Willie splits.

The endearingly ungrammatical "Where is Charlie and Joanne" is Lasley's oddest song here -- it's as fragile and ephemeral as the bond of love between two people. The arrangement features a flourish of piano, some harp plucking, surges of acoustic guitar but practically no beat; the melody is carried by Lasley's double-tracked vocals, to which the other instrumentation adds impressionistic comment. the fragility of the arrangement underlines the song's meditation on the shocking breakup of a golden couple like Charlie and Joanne, what the demise of that seemingly sturdy relationship says about the narrator's own relationship, what it says about the unstable state of the world. Following hard on this song's heels, the cynical album closer, "Take the Money and Run" (written by Don Paul Yowell), seems both jolting and inevitable -- people are too painful to deal with, let's get into money and possessions. In the end you always get ripped off. or maybe it's just that when love is gone, work is always a solace. But the chorus also suggests that "life is a circle," and sure enough, if you turn the record over again, our hero's got a freshly laundered heart on his sleeve singing, "We have got to find love."

Did I make this story up? Maybe. Maybe there isn't a story here at all, just a bunch of nice, unconnected pop songs. Maybe I look too hard for stories. Even if there is one, it's hardly profound: boy loses boy, boy goes back to home town to relive memories, boy meets-get-loses married boy, boy gets disillusioned and leaves it all behind to become a high-paid session musician. Who cares? What's attractive to me is the double edge of David Lasley's work, his ambivalence about love and money and the past and himself, his flair for melodious pop (Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager school) and his penchant for private imagery (a la Laura Nyro and Rickie Lee Jones), his racially ambiguous falsetto (sincere like Smokey, at times torchy like Sylvester but minus the camp), the bittersweet charms of innocence and experience.

The title suggests that Missin' Twenty Grand is an elegy to something. Judging from the poem-song of that title printed on the back of the album, "Twenty Grand" might be the name of the group little David had with his sister Julie and Rosie and Willie, or perhaps it's the nightclub in Detroit where these cute little white kids would get up and sing Mary Wells songs. One wag has even suggested that the title refers to the advance Lasley had to return to David Geffen, who signed him in the early days of Geffen Records (no record was ever completed). To me, the album is a tribute to the kind of idiosyncratic, lifelike record that used to be the rage of the music business but now gets treated like herpes. You'd be lucky to find Missin' Twenty Grand in the stores now that "If I Had My Wish Tonight" has run its course -- they have to make room, you know, for all those meaningful albums by Asia and Rick Springfield. But the record's worth seeking out as a curiosity if nothing else -- a white boy's homage to Motown, a between-the-lines gay romance, the last of a dying breed of singer-songwriters.

Boston Phoenix, June 15, 1982

*In a thank-you note for this review, Lasley assured me that Willie Wilcox is NOT the Willie of "Treat Willie Good."