Cardboard tombstones

In the wake of the Ellington 100, lesser zombie boxed sets walk among us

For a man who died 25 years ago, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington is one hell of a prolific man. This year alone, he has released some 10 albums--not to mention an eight-disc boxed set, and another mother containing 24 CDs with a list price of $407.97. The labels in charge of these Ellington releases--from the high-and-mighty likes of Columbia Records and RCA Victor to lesser-known companies such as Music & Arts and Century Vista--have their good reasons for cleaning out the vaults, of course: On April 29, Ellington would have turned 100 years old, and what better way to celebrate a birthday without the birthday boy than by emptying the coffin? Record companies are thoughtful that way. Even better, the Ellington releases give 32-year-old rock critics something to write about: Good to see Entertainment Weekly gave RCA's 1927-1973 two-dozen-disc set an "A."

But record labels are wising up: They've come to realize there's no reason to wait for round-numbered anniversaries to release cardboard tombstones dedicated to some of this century's most influential musicians. Does Duke Ellington's Anatomy of a Murder soundtrack or his concert from the 1956 Stratford Festival sound better when the corpse is 100 than it did when it was only 93? Of course not, silly! That's why, in recent weeks, we've begun collecting press releases from various labels announcing the mammoth boxed sets dedicated to the greatest and latest of the 20th century (and beyond). We've chosen the highlights, of course; no need to include that 18-disc Shannon Hoon/Blind Melon box, Bee Real. It's too small to worry about.

Jam Sandwich: The Mama Cass 58. On September 21, two days after what would have been Cass Elliot's 58th birthday, Rhino Records will release a 19-disc boxed set featuring everything Mama Cass ever recorded during her tenure in the Mamas and the Papas and, before that, the Big Three and the Mugwumps. In addition, there will be hours of unreleased material from the solo album she was working on at the time of her death. The album, titled Yo, Mama, is said to be a masterpiece: "It's a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman," reads the label's press release, "a woman who was phat long before it became trendy."

Puffy Combs will remix at least two tracks, says Allen Zmerdlick, head of Rhino's grief and suffering department: "California Dreamin" and "Monday, Monday," both of which will feature Carnie Wilson, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, and Rikki Lake. Rhino is making each disc look like a piece of ham and packaging them between two pieces of bread; the set will be sold in a giant lunch box, with the liner notes (penned by Rolling Stone's David Fricke) written out in the form of a menu. Zmerdlick vehemently insists the packaging will not be in bad taste: "The bread will be fresh," he says, "and there will be mustard."

Shalom from Minneapolis: The Bob Dylan Bar Mitzvah 45, Bootleg Series Vol. 5. On May 22, 1954, a 13-year-old by the name of Robert Zimmerman celebrated his journey into Jewish manhood. All he got that day were dozens of savings bonds and fountain pens, but 45 years later, fans of Zimmerman--better known as Bob Dylan--get the real present. Columbia Records commemorates the moment with this 21-CD box containing the entire Saturday-morning service, including a two-hour Torah reading followed by the 18-minute Haftorah portion. That's not static you hear on these archival masterpieces, which were recently discovered at his Aunt Mildred's house in Dalbo, Minnesota. That's actually a young Robert Zimmerman mumbling his way through ancient Hebrew--to the tune of what would eventually become "Masters of War," no less, hinting at what lay ahead for this brilliant young Hebrew.

"This archival release is perhaps the finest yet in the bootleg series," offers Lee Trumby, president of Columbia's accounting and catering division. "It's Dylan unplugged and kosher, the sound of a teenager becoming a man who still has the smell of gefilte fish on his breath." Each box, containing liner notes in English and Hebrew by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, will come with a commemorative reproduction of the silken yarmulkes handed out at the bar mitzvah.

Fuck Da Biz: Tupac's Last Stand. On September 7, 1996, Tupac Shakur was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip. He was leaving a Mike Tyson fight and on his way, with Death Row Records boss Marion "Suge" Knight, to a par-tay when still-unknown assassins fired four shots into his BMW 750, ending the life of one of hip-hop's most prescient and prolific figures. Shakur would have turned 30 next year, and to commemorate the event, Death Row Records is shipping out this 42-CD boxed set containing everything still left in the vaults. While that might seem excessive, Knight insists in a prison-cell press release that Shakur spent every day of the last year of his life recording at least 37 tracks, only scant few of which have been posthumously released.

"Yo, the brother was prodigious," says Armand Jaleel, Knight's spokesman, who is also the man suspected of killing the Notorious B.I.G. six months after Shakur's murder. Jaleel says the box--which is said to contain 18 discs featuring nothing but recorded conversations between Knight, Shakur, and several business "associates"--is a "celebration of Tupac's life" and is intended to "uplift Suge's bank account during his unjust incineration in the white man's penal column." The box, which features liner notes written by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, will come with several "THUG LIFE" lick-on tattoos.

Dark Side of the Moon: The Keith Moon Sessions. Keith Moon released only one official album before his tragic drugs-and-booze death in 1978: Two Sides of the Moon. But there have long existed thousands of hours of tapes Moon and his all-star band--featuring, inexplicably, only drummers Ringo Starr, Jack Bruce, John Bonham, and Cozy Powell--performing original Moon compositions, in addition to myriad Who covers. To commemorate what would have been Moon's 52nd birthday in August, MCA Records is releasing this 21-disc boxed set of outtakes and rarities, including a bongos-and-tambourines symphony that takes up three entire CDs.

"We're honored to finally give Keith his due as a composer and arranger," says MCA Records president and urologist Leon Jarvis. "And it's nice to be able to get this stuff out of the closet and make room for the winter coats." Jarvis adds that at least 10 of the discs feature only Moon drum solos and excessive hotel-room wrecking and vomiting. Accompanying the discs will be a tiny drum kit, which can be destroyed using the miniature Pete Townshend doll included inside, along with liner notes written by Rolling Stone's David Fricke.

Black Box: The Buddy Holly/Big Bopper/Ritchie Valens Story. February 3, 1959--otherwise known as "The Day the Music Died." On that day, rock and roll's Holy Trinity went down in a horrible plane crash in Louisiana...and went up to a special spot in God's kick-ass band. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of that day, Mercury Records is releasing a 103-disc boxed set featuring music from all three immortals, including 92 alternate takes of "La Bamba." But what makes this disc especially notable is, according to Larry Austen, head of the label's artists and pants division, the inclusion of four discs' worth of never-before-heard conversations between the three men recorded secretly during the hours before the plane took off from a Louisiana airport.

"It's sad, ironic, and even kind of funny," Austen says. "But they're all sitting backstage after the show, and you can hear Buddy tell Waylon Jennings and Ritchie, 'I ain't never gettin' on no airplane ever again, and y'all can't make me'--he's real twangy, and his voice kinda cracks. Then you can hear Waylon tell Buddy that he's being a pussy, almost daring him to get on, you know? I mean, given what happened, this stuff is important, isn't it?" Mercury is trying to release the boxed set, which contains liner notes by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, in a black box, like one found after a plane crash. But the label's currently in litigation with Epic Records, which wants to use the same concept for its Stevie Ray Vaughan box, which is due out next year to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Oak Cliff guitarist's helicopter-crash death.

From the Shadows, Dancing: Andy Gibb at 40. Last year marked the 40th birthday of the youngest brother Gibb, but PolyGram's scheduled release of this 39-disc boxed set was delayed because of the label's purchase by Seagrams. Now that PolyGram is part of the Universal Music Group, chairman Edgar Bronfman has made it is his life's mission to get this set in stores before the year's end. "We feel Andy's contribution to the pop world was drastically overshadowed by his brothers' success," Bronfman said during a press conference last month, where he also introduced Seagrams' new soft drink, Sodah and Gomorrah ("Salt never tasted this sweet!"). "This boxed set will be the crowning achievement of the big, happy family that has become UMG. If need be, we'll drop every band on this label in order to get this box out for Christmas."

From the Shadows, Dancing, with liner notes by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, will contain hours of material Andy recorded during his final, cocaine-blinded days spent in isolation in Oxford, England--including mumbled, expletive-filled covers of every single song the Bee Gees recorded during their illustrious career. "Andy was jealous, yes, and often hateful, but the songs are also done with tremendous affection," says Muriel Falitus, head of PolyGram's cocktail and napkins department. "Never before has the word 'cocksucker' sounded so loving, so tender."

Eternal Flame: The Liberace 80. Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born in 1919 in Milwaukee, Wisconson--and he lives forever in this 53-disc box assembled by his old label, Columbia Records. Known as the king of easy listening throughout his career, Liberace was also something of an experimental artist, as this collection proves. Aside from his landmark recordings of "Moon River" and "All the Things You Are," this box, with liner notes by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, contains his three-hour-15-minute dissonant, avant-garde rendition of "Mairzy Doats," which he made in 1954 and which is said to have been an inspiration to the likes of John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Britney Spears. "When we cleaned out the closet, we found an artist dying to get out," says Columbia's vice-president of sorrow and labor, Bill Rellish. List price will be $12.44.

Mr. Bubble: The Bathtub Tapes of Jim Morrison. Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes have long been the stuff of rock legend. Now, Elektra Records is releasing the Doors' singer-songwriter's long-rumored-about "Bathtub Tapes," made shortly before the Lizard King expired during a warm soak in Paris in 1971. This July 3, Elektra will finally make available 10 hours of Morrison in the tub, playing with a rubber ducky and singing tunes from such Broadway hits as The Pajama Game and Carousel, preparing for his never-recorded The Broadway Album. Elektra VP of publicity and mirth, Joel Amsterdam, says the tapes are real. Oliver Stone and Rolling Stone's David Fricke insist they are fake.

External Sod Tornado Bowl: Guided by Voices Errata. In anticipation of the imminent death of GbV founder Robert Pollard--an 83-year-old former schoolteacher from Dayton, Ohio--TVT Records has announced the release of some 1,243 GBV songs recorded in various Midwestern basements since 1934. The set will be made available on a limited-edition package of two 5-inch CDs, or a quadruple 7-inch vinyl single with a hand-screened, numbered fold-out sleeve, designed and printed by Rolling Stone's David Fricke. "These thousand-some gems are typically concise and brilliant," says Jon Eremy, vice-president of Necrophilia at TVT. "The weird thing is, the recording quality actually gets worse as time goes on. This clearly reflects the long-term effects of certain low-cost beverages available in backwater Ohio." Pollard, found doing karate-kick exercises at his home in Dayton, adds that "the really weird thing is that I'm only 33--have been for years--and I've got about 2,000 more songs that I'm giving to Matador."

Voodoo You Think You Are? The Remains of Jimi Hendrix. September 2000 will mark the 30th anniversary of Hendrix's drug death in London. Now that Jimi's father Al has control of his boy's recordings, MCA will finally release its long-awaited, 50-disc Hendrix box to coincide with the tragic anniversary. Because of the size of the box, advance copies were sent out to critics in March--and every single disc was blank. The reason, explains MCA's Bruce Gary, senior VP of despair and extramarital relations, "is that Jimi's music has been reissued so often--most songs, at least 83 times--we just couldn't find anything new." Suggested list price: $504.34. Rolling Stone's David Fricke contributed 258 pages of liner notes.

Shabooh-boo: The Michael Hutchence 40. Michael Hutchence of INXS would have turned 40 on January 22, 1960--if only he hadn't loved himself a little too much in November 1996. Atlantic Records is honoring the man's memory by releasing this 19-disc box, which contains the complete INXS catalog, several hours' worth of unreleased material, and four discs' worth of love songs Hutchence was working on during the year leading up to his death. Among the tracks: "I Love Me For Sentimental Reasons," "All I Wanna Do is Make Love to Me," "I Touch Myself," and "Love Hurts." According to Atlantic president of exploitation and sincerity, Keith Gelsen, the box, which contains liner notes by Rolling Stone's David Fricke, will be wrapped in a leather belt.

From the Womb Untimely Ripp'd: LeAnn Rimes at Six Feet Under. Not scheduled for release until 2006, this ambitious 502-disc set will be a real-time recording of Rimes' path from teen superstar to failed actress to washed-up musician to drug addict to overdose victim. Planned segments include various fights with overbearing, jealous parents; several failed attempts to master the art of Tae-Bo; an excruciating three-disc suite of various appearances on Nash Bridges and Walker, Texas Ranger; a contentious téte-a-téte with producers of VH1's Behind the Music; and a poignant coda of Rimes crying for two weeks straight before the final, eternal silence. "The loss will be incalcuable," says Mike L. Angelo, vice-president of artist imaging at Curb Records. Angelo adds that Britney Spears will play Rimes in a planned TV movie based on the box, with Rolling Stone's David Fricke scheduled to script the film.

Additional reporting was provided by Keven McAlester.

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