Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Walking After Midnight" / Patsy Cline

Working late, I often take my dog for a walk in the wee hours. So this gorgeously haunting track, written by Donn Hecht and Alan Black, often pops into my late-night soundtrack. I'll walk around the Upper West Side of NYC crooning this 1957 hit that catapulted my girl Patsy into country-music stardom.

Like a lot of Patsy's stuff, this is all about the heartache of lost love.  The loping country arrangement, the plangent narrative -- as she strolls around town lamenting a failed relationship -- it's doomed but oh so yearning. "I go out walkin' after midnight / Out in the moonlight / Just like we used to do, I'm always walkin' / After midnight, searchin' for you." There's a surprisingly sophisticated melodic thing going on here, the cresting sound on "walkin'" and "moonlight," and "midnight."

As the song rambles on, details set the restless scene -- the weeping willow, the gloomy skies, the whispering night winds. In the last chorus, she tries to convince herself that this guy may also be strolling around searching for her, but I'm betting even she knows that's just not gonna happen. 
No, it's just Patsy with her supple yearning contralto, working through her lonesome grief. Doesn't matter who the guy is, it's just the being alone that hurts. The beat plods along like her numb footsteps, but the melody skips upwards, twirling on those top notes. And there we are in the night with Patsy, walking aimlessly, brooding, putting that broken heart back together.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

"The Only Living Boy in New York" / Simon & Garfunkel

 Last week of August, New York City. Seems like everyone has decamped to the Hamptons or the Vineyard or the Jersey Shore or the Poconos or who knows where. And here I am, still in town, feeling existential.
And I keep coming back to this album. (See here for my take on the whole album.) Peeling back layers of the onion, still finding more to relish.

But this track -- this track, jeez -- it's here in a nutshell. The absent friends ("Tom, get your plane right on time"), the aimlessness ("I get the news I need from the weather report," and this before iPhones), the angst ("half of the time we're gone, and we don't know where, and we don't know where"), and the valiant hope ("let your honesty shine, shine, shine now"). A slacker anthem, released way back in 1970 before we'd even coined the term slacker.

This track is all Simon; Garfunkel's gone off to Mexico. Feeling abandoned, yeah, but also . . . that undertow of percussion and gospel choir . . . what if maybe, just maybe, being left alone in New York is a good thing?

Hunkering down, testing the waters. Stretching the wings. Girding up for a new chapter.

Oh yeah.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Summer, y'All!

"Dance This Mess Around" / The B-52s

I don't care what astronomers says -- summer begins Memorial Day weekend. (Or as I have always thought of it -- being from Indianapolis -- Race Weekend.)  The thermometer has found its groove in the 80s and 90s, and if there's rain, it's a thunderstorm. Fireflies begin to haunt the shrubbery at dusk, and mosquitoes sharpen their whine to a sonic sneer. Granted, school isn't out yet, but honestly, it should be. (Am I right, kids?)

Summer means parties -- dance parties if you got 'em. And who is my all-time favorite dance party band?

Every lick of this song is purtnear darn perfect. No onanistic instrumental solos, just clockwork guitar and drums with occasional hysterical cries of electric organ. It's all about the beat, and the improv comedy of those three lead singers, riffing off each other, all non sequiturs and cryptic catch phrases. Like, "Why don't you dance with me? I'm not no Limberger!"  (Originally I heard this as "limber girl," which also makes sense if you squinch your mind just so...).

Then there's Fred Schneider proclaiming, "They do all sixteen dances!!!" Well, I only count nine, and some of those are dances I know I've never heard of (maybe they were big in Athens, Georgia, where the B-52s got their start, but even so -- you tell me, have you ever danced the Camel Walk, the Hypocrite, or the Aqua Velva?) I could fake it, but still.

And as things whip to a delirious height, they fill in with vintage dance hit nonsense, "Hibby hibby forward hibby forward hibby hibby hibby shake." But let's not overlook the tightness of this band, with their razor-sharp attention to the cresting drama of the track.

And who doesn't think this five or six times a week?: 
Kate (or is it Cindy? They switched wigs so often, I never knew which was which): "Hey, doesn't that make you feel a whole lot better?"
Fred and Cindy (or is it Kate?) reply, "What you say?"
Kate (or Cindy), "I'm just ask-ing!"

A mantra for summer. Personally, it makes me feel a whole lot better . . . if you're asking.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Moonbeam Song" / Harry Nilsson

In honor of the royal wedding (because of course) . . . well, I don't have much to say about the royal wedding. Prince Harry is cute and all, but I have my own Prince Harry.

I realize I've been very selfish about sharing him with you, though. In the past two or three years, Harry Nilsson has vaulted into my Top Ten Music Guys of all time, and yet -- compared to Ray Davies and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and (bestill my heart) Nick Lowe -- I have hardly ever written about him on this blog.

So making up for lost time...here's a particular beauty from Harry's 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson. (How could you NOT love an artist who comes up with a title like that?) With its upward-dancing melodic lines, slouchy tempo, and free-association lyrics, it's a total charmer. This song has no purpose in life but to be lovely -- and boy, is it.


1. God gave Harry Nilsson this voice. Razor-true pitch, mellow timbre, vast register (three and a half octaves -- crazy huge) -- he had it from the get-go. Note how in this song he keeps switching the keys upward, over and again, knowing that he could morph into endlessly higher keys. He could scat like nobody's business, he had melisma that would put Mariah Carey to shame. He had no training, and he abused his instrument like hell (no one, and I mean NO ONE, could party like Harry Nilsson in his prime).  But that voice, that voice -- the angels were watching over him.

2. In 1963, Little Richard remarked upon hearing a Nilsson demo track, "My! You sing good for a white boy."

3. Harry Nilsson almost never performed live. The first time he did, he had such miserable stage fright, he hardly ever did it again. His entire legacy is based on recorded work. Even when he had a hit ("Everybody's Talkin' At Me," "Without You," "Me and My Arrow") he'd never go on tour to promote it. That's why he never had bigger hits.

4. On his 1967 Pandemonium Slide Show album, Harry's cover of the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" snuck in references to so many other Beatles songs (listen to the track and try to count them all), the Fab Four themselves sat up and took notice.

5. Beatles roadie/manager Mal Evans arranged for Harry to fly to London and meet with all of them individually. (Read Alyn Shipton's 2013 bio Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter for the details, but basically, Paul felt threatened, John shrewdly co-opted him, George could care less, and Ringo became one of Harry's greatest party pals of all time.)

6. Harry's other party pals were Keith Moon of the Who and Micky Dolenz of the Monkees. (Drummers are the most fun.) What I wouldn't give to have been a fly on the wall of those famously debauched evenings . . . .

7. London-loving Nilsson bought a flat on Curzon Place which he lent to other musicians when he wasn't in town. Both Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass died there. Talk about a curse.

8. 1973, at the Troubador in West LA, Harry and John Lennon were thrown out for heckling the Smothers Brothers. Infamously, John -- who was in the middle of his year banished from Yoko -- wore a Kotex taped to his head to cover a cut. It's a detail you can't forget.

9. After John Lennon's death in 1980, Harry Nilsson became a tireless campaigner for gun control laws.

10. He died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 52. Too soon, too soon.

I heartily recommend the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) and the 2008 compilation For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson. Go do your homework, people.

Harry, we hardly knew ye. Peace on you.

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Smalltown Boy" / Bronski Beat

In my 1980s music burrow, I never discovered this song, never knew it existed. Way too disco-ey, way too drum-track auto play for my tastes, and so idiosyncratically British that, living by then in New York, I quite possibly never heard it at the time. (On the other hand, if Culture Club made it across the ocean....)

I can't even remember how it eventually swam into my consciousness a couple years ago. But it is now an indispensible part of my road trip playlist. This is the song I save up for the end of a long highway drive -- and when that synth intro kicks in, I can't help it, I always giggle like mad.

Just look at this video, and try to reconstruct how bold it must have felt back in 1984 (the Orwellian echoes of that date seem all too appropriate). That's lead singer Jimmy Somerville, he of the to-die-for falsetto, playing the starring role. He and his co-founder, keyboardist Steve Bronski were both Glasgow lads, back when Glasgow was all gritty and grayness, before it rediscovered its Rennie Mackintosh cool. Imagine being a gay boy growing up there. No wonder getting out of town seemed like their only option.  
What grabs me about most this track is, strangely enough, the very synth-laden over-produced sound that made me hate most music of the 1980s. Why does it work in this song when it repels me in so many others?
It's all circular hooks and refrains, repeated in a sort of minor-key trance. It's heavy on the reverb (I picture cold deserted concrete underpasses), though every once in awhile a shrill wail of despair erupts -- only to be beaten back down to the trudging mono-beat and those see-saw two-note phrases, "Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away." Running away is a knee-jerk reflex, a survival tool, and I'm feeling boxed in myself, claustrophobic and paranoid and -- oh, wait, is THAT what it feels like?
"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case /  Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face" -- it's damn haunting. It's an anthem for outcasts and misfits of all stripes, gay and otherwise. He's crossing a sort of Rubicon; who knows if he'll ever come back. My bets are he won't.
And yeah, the song goes on for 5 minutes, which is longer than a song should be. But somewhere in there I get hypnotized by the repetitions, by that insistent rhythm track, and lose my moorings. I'm numbed, I'm panicking, I'm fighting for air.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Clowntime Is Over" / Elvis Costello
It's over! No, wait -- is it over?

Like a lot of Elvis Costello songs, this is one I don't entirely understand. Then again, riddling out cryptic lyrics has always been one of the deep, deep pleasures of being an Elvis Costello fan. So let's take a ride with this track from 1980's Get Happy, which just may be my favorite EC album of all time.

Oh, you remember Get Happy -- Elvis' homage to Stax and Philly soul, a mea culpa of sorts for his infamous drunken 1979 racist rant about Ray Charles and James Brown (overnight, Costello's records vanished from radio playlists across the USA -- shades of John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ). For the record, I never believed Elvis meant those remarks; we all say stupid things when we're drunk. But if it inspired him to make Get Happy, then I'm glad.

The liner notes claim that "Clowntime Is Over" was meant as a Curtis Mayfield tribute, which baffles me a bit -- could any song sound less like "Superfly"? -- but I'll take your word for it, Elvis.

Soul tribute it may be*, but Get Happy is still steeped in the paranoia that supercharged EC's previous LP, the dark and bristling Armed Forces. Every song on Get Happy is suffused with suspicion of other people -- lovers, leaders, friends, society in general -- yeah, the tempos are bright and brisk, but underneath it's a haunted and mistrustful album. (I mean, c'mon, Get Happy -- was there ever a more ironic title? As if "happy" was ever what we wanted from Elvis Costello.)

Criminal intent lurks in the very first lines of "Clowntime"-- "Tears on your blackmail / Written to ransom" -- and the refrain, jaunty as it sounds, ominously reminds us, over and over, "While others just talk and talk / Somebody's watching where the others don't walk". Big Brother is with us indeed, and just in case you were in doubt, here come Steve Nieve's circus-like organ fills, merry at first, then darkening into minor key. (Forget Curtis Mayfield -- the echo I hear here is Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown.")

Listen to that rueful descending melodic line -- "Clowntime is over" -- shifting keys uneasily in the follow-up line, "Time to take cover" (um, yeah, well, just in case -- you do know where the nearest shelter is, don't you?)

Elvis and I grew up in the same bomb-spooked post-WWII world, with an innate fear of strongmen. So I too have a visceral reaction to verse two: "A voice in the shadows / Says that his men know / He don't step back as expected / He's otherwise and unprotected." YIKES!

And here's the kicker: "While everybody's hiding under covers / Who's making lover's lane safe again for lovers?"  Does he mean, like, safe safe -- or "Just say no" safe? Is this guy Captain America, or Charles Bronson in Death Wish?

So if Clowntime is over, what are we saying goodbye to -- a sweet balloon-animal-making Bozo type of clown, or an evil Pennywise clown like in Stephen King's It? Or -- even worse -- is it a clown who fooled us all by seeming to be a good guy, until he got just enough power to destroy us?

Sound like anyone you know?

* There are exactly five songs on this album that sound like soul to me: "Secondary Modern," "Ï Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "Five Gears in Reverse," "B Movie," and "Riot Act." All right, maybe "Beaten to the Punch" and "Temptation," only if you had four guys in sequined suits doing synchronized dance moves. But I'm happy to revise that opinion if anyone has a compelling argument otherwise . . . 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

"If I Had a Boat" /
Lyle Lovett

Years ago, I drove through a howling snowstorm to see my homeboy John Hiatt play a Songwriters Circle show out on Long Island. Now, the Songwriters Circle format features four performers, singing their songs in a dynamic round robin. Two of the other three guys in the Circle were new to me -- Guy Clark and Joe Ely, both of them delightful discoveries. But the fourth I'd heard of, and even seen in a couple movies, and I wasn't particularly interested. Like I said, I was there for John Hiatt.

And then Lyle Lovett, sitting on that stage, opened his mouth and began to sing, and I was bowled over.

Revelation #1: Lovett's creaky, weathered, authentic voice sounds like a real guy singing -- but in person, you learn how strong and true and supple that instrument is. No recording tricks here: This cowboy can really really sing. And as he cycled, in his turn, through several of his songs, Revelation #2 hit me: The man is also a first-class songwriter. Irony, wit, deft turns of phrase, psychological insight, searing moments of emotional honesty -- song after song, he knocked it out of the park.

Did he sing this song that snowy night? I can't even remember. But when I first rooted it out of iTunes, it felt achingly familiar. I doubt I'd heard it on the radio; released as a single in 1988, it never even got to the top 50 on the country charts. It's the lead-off track on his gorgeous 1987 album Pontiac -- yeah, like I ever listened to that before my Lyle Lovett epiphany. It is ranked #87 on Rolling Stone magazine's 100 Greatest Country Songs, for what that's worth. Maybe I heard it in a movie? Who knows.  But here it most indubitably is.

From the title alone, there's an obvious reference: that classic folk song "If I Had a Hammer", written by Pete Seeger and Lee Lays, first recorded by the Weavers and later (the version I grew up on) by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Lyle Lovett is too smart not to know this precedent. The Seeger song neatly cycles through hammer, bell, and song in the verses; here, Lyle begin with his boat, then brings on a pony -- but then, things go dangerously south. Whereas the folk song is all about social justice and community, Lyle's take is defiantly post-modern and individualistic.
That boat? It's for getting away from the hassles of daily life. And yeah, he's bringing his pony on that boat, dammit, but that's it. Western icons like Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger? Lyle's out to divorce Roy from his wife Dale Evans, and he's totally more with Tonto than the Lone Ranger. ("Well, kiss my ass, I bought a boat, / I'm going out to sea.")  The devil is in the details.
I love how, in this video, Lyle's just pacing around his living room, sorting out this little fantasy of his. The boat, the pony, the ocean. Kiss my ass.
But what gets me -- what keeps this song in my permanent rotation -- is the quiver of urgency in Lyle Lovett's voice. He needs that boat, he needs that pony, he's in a place where a wife (Dale) or a boss (the Lone Ranger) would shatter his equilibrium. Seeger's melodic line, always rising in plodding tempos, is a trumpet call to action; Lovett's skips all over the place, tentative, playful, neurotic, and plangent as hell.  
Which brings me back to that snowbound night in Long Island. Good fangirl that I am, I went to the stage door (in this case a parking lot gate) hoping to let John Hiatt know how much I adore his music. But of the four songwriters, only one bothered to tromp out through the snow to meet fans. Hands jammed in his coat pockets, cowboy boots soaking wet, Lyle Lovett spoke to each of the seven fans at the gate, making eye contact, repeating our names, diligently scrawling his name on our ticket stubs. Making a personal connection. Hoping we liked the show. The perfect Southern gentleman, like his momma raised him right. And I promptly fell in love.

And I know he doesn't need no girlfriend on that boat, but still, a girl can hope....