Friday, July 18, 2014

"Losing You" / Randy Newman

Flipping around the channels the other night, I chanced upon Austin City Limits. Now, I like this show in theory, but I hardly ever watch it. Still, when I saw Randy Newman's shaggy gray head bent over the keyboard, I stopped flipping.

I've been a Newman fan since 1974 (Northampton, Mass., double bill with Ry Cooder), though not the sort of fan that travels the country and hangs around by the backstage door. (Does Randy Newman even have that kind of fan?) I do love his satiric songs like "Political Science" or "So Long Dad" or "Short People".  (Not so sure that "I Love L.A." was meant as satire, but I love that too.) On vacation in Charleston this year, I kept catching myself singing "Sail Away" -- not just the wistful African slaves' refrain "we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay," but ironical lines like "Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet." Embarrassed my family no end.

I also love his songs from the Toy Story movies, 1, 2 and 3 -- "When He Loved Me" gets me every time.  Because alongside the satirist Randy Newman there's the sentimentalist Randy Newman, the yang that keeps the yin in place.

Harps and Angels (2008) is a great album; if you don't know it, you should. Randy doesn't put them out so often anymore -- the one before that, Bad Love, was 1999 -- but when he does, they're pretty near perfect. You laugh, you cry. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" is like the companion piece to "Political Science"; "Feels Like Home" is about as sweet a middle-aged love song as you'll ever hear. But the real gem on this album is "Losing You," and watching Randy Newman sing that on ACL the other night, I have to say, I was moved to tears.

Okay, so the lush string intro sounds like movie theme music. Get over it. Randy Newman had three uncles who wrote music for the movies, including the great Alfred Newman (How to Marry a Millionaire, How the West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told); it comes in the DNA to love a good lush string intro. And that gorgeously poignant musical hook -- well, why not tee it up with a full orchestra?
But after that, it's mostly just Randy and the piano. And that's right too, because this is a song about a person struggling to come to grips with his emotions, and naked honesty is what makes it work.
Again, we're in middle-aged territory. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) In verse one he ruminates philosophically about long-ago financial setbacks ("Was a fool with my money / And I lost every dime"); in verse two, it's clear how far behind him those worries are: "I've been cold / I've been hungry / But not for awhile / I guess most of my dreams have come true."
He's not a whiner, in other words. He's been through stuff; he's a survivor. But that's what gives extra punch to that stubborn refrain: "But I'll never get over losing you." It's clear that the person he loved was too unique to be replaced, and that  his love was too strong to simply fade away. Notice that he never describes the person one bit; all we know about him/her is how much he/she was loved. But that's all we need to know.
And there's a time factor, too, as he develops in the bridge: "When you're young / And there's time / To forget the past / You don't think that you will / But you do." Now, however? "But I know that I don't have time enough / And I'll never get over losing you." That just breaks my heart.
The lyrics are a little ambiguous; it's easy to hear this song as a lament for a old girlfriend. When I first heard it, I thought it was like his earlier "I Miss You," a regretful message to an ex-wife. But Randy himself has explained that "Losing You" was inspired by a story he heard from his brother, an oncologist, about a family losing their 20-something son to brain cancer -- that sense that they were too old, too far down life's highway to recover from such a major loss. Not enough time left.
Wow. I know how that feels.
So even if Randy did jigger the lyrics to make it more widely applicable -- cueing our knee-jerk assumptions that pop songs are about romantic relationships -- the melancholy that animates this song springs from a deeper well.
The yearning sweetness of the melody tells us that love is still there; it hasn't curdled to bitterness or ebbed into acceptance. Yet there's a telling numbness to that repeated phrase "I'll never get over losing you." Sure, I know the formula, it's a refrain; got it. But in this particular case, the dogged repetition of this inalienable fact is one of the greatest things about this song. He doesn't embroider it; he can't embroider it. It just is. It just sits there, a dull lump of pain in his heart that's not going anywhere.
But he'll be okay. He's not jumping off a building, not screaming into the wind. He's just hurting -- and that's life.
Randy Newman? A national treasure, I tell you. A national treasure.

Friday, July 04, 2014

An Independence Day Shuffle

Happy July 4th! 

For this shuffle, I made a special curated playlist of songs about freedom and America, for your listening pleasure.

Note that the links (click on song titles) now go to YouTube rather than Amazon. Three reasons: YouTube gives you the full track, not just a sample; none of you ever buy the Amazon tracks so I'm not getting any revenues anyway; and my Best Food Writing book is now being published by a Hachette subsidiary that potentially may get screwed by Amazon. So until YouTube turns out to be a tool of the corporate machine (any day now...)

Because this is what it means to live in America today -- figuring out whether Facebook, Amazon, Google, or Apple is The Man. (Disclaimer: It's definitely not Google because I love Google....)

1. "Time I Took A Holiday" / Nick Lowe
From Dig My Mood (1998)
Oh, yes, let's start things off slouchy and mellow. (Note: loads of chat before they get to the song, but ohmigod do we not love Daryl Hall too?) "It's time I took a holiday / Before I blow my top / I've got to kick my shoes off / Before I drop..." Nick's vocals make it clear he's not relaxed yet (dig the unresolved chords building up urgency), but he's gonna be very soon. "I gotta get some attention / In my baby's arms...." Volunteering for duty, Mr. Lowe!

2. "America" / Simon & Garfunkel
From Bookends (1968)
A seminal song from my angsty teen years -- as I explain here. And while we're on the subject -- is this the same Kathy's as in "Kathy's Song"? Was she pissed off when Carrie Fisher entered the picture?

3. "Fourth of July" / Dave Alvin
From King of California (1994)
America as most folks know it. "Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July," Dave implores her, adding (a telling detail), "Whatever happened, I apologize." Dammit, it's supposed to be a holiday -- why can't they get in a happy place?  I love how he sets this all-too-real scene: "On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone / Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below." Been there.

4. "The Only Living Boy In New York" / Simon & Garfunkel
From Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
On a day devoted to independence, here's a song about breaking free. "Tom, get your plane right on time.." What a lonely, existential song this is, and yet how full of hope. "I know that you've been eager to shine now." Bio notes: Tom was Art Garfunkel's name in the early S&G iteration Tom and Jerry, and while he was off in Mexico making a movie (Catch-22) Paul Simon was back in NYC, writing wistful songs about their impending break-up. Maybe it's those plush background ah's, all full of spacey cloud-surfing promise, but somehow I get the idea that Tom's gonna make it out okay. Even though quite possibly Jerry had all the talent....

5. "Summertime" / DJ Jazzy Jeff & Fresh Prince
But hey, July 4th isn't just a holiday -- it's shorthand for THE summer holiday, height of the sizzle and shizzizzle, and let's sample this early rap classic, full of urban heat and real-time celebration. WAY before Will Smith jumped the shark.  Fire hydrants shall be opened -- let the tar roof barbecues begin.

6. "Political Science" / Randy Newman
From Sail Away (1972)
Lest you be feeling patriotic on this most American holiday, here's our national Snarkmaster, laying on us a political treatise with seven delicious layers of irony. Really, when Randy Newman gets in gear, he takes no prisoners. "They all hate us anyhow / Let's drop the big one now." This calls for a roundtable of pundits to discuss amongst themselves.

7. "Livin' in America" / Black 47
From Fire of Freedom (1993)
If America is truly a nation of immigrants -- a piety seldom remembered on July 4th -- then let's have a very ambiguous Irish take on what it feels like to live on the edge of American affluence. "In the cold daylight / I feel like shite" -- telling it like it is. Riding subways, minding other people's children, laboring like a navvy -- "Oh, mammy dear, we're all mad over here / Livin' in America."

8. "Disney's America" / Graham Parker
From 12 Haunted Episodes (1993)
It takes a transplanted Englishman like Graham Parker to see America clearly and whole. I can just imagine GP and his wife taking the kids to Williamsburg and having this brilliant vision of how the whole thing went down. Please, if you listen to nothing else, listen to every word of this brilliant song.

9. "Gotta Be Free" / The Kinks
From Lola V Powerman and the Moneygoround Part 1  (1970)
This Americana-tinged track (a hint of Muswell Hillbillies to come?) from Lola V Powerman, Ray Davies' lament about how the music industry had screwed his band. All quite true, of course, but as a listener this is my take-away: Freedom at any price. It was 1970, after all, and whether or not we were legit hippies, we all wanted to be free. And isn't that what Independence Day is all about?  

10. "Live Free or Die" / Hayes Carll
From Flowers and Liquor (2007)
While we're in a country frame of mind...a little sneaky satire from Hayes Carll, about a prison inmate's view on freedom. Mayhap you have never thought about why being in a New Hampshire prison is especially tough: "Live free or die / Oh Lord tell me why/ Can't they say "Seat belts fastened" or "Oklahoma is OK"? / "Vacationland" sounds mighty great / Wouldn't mind stamping out "The Garden State." Because we can't all be free, even on July 4th.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Private Idaho" / The B-52s

Why this song now?

I DON'T KNOW. Isn't that the whole point of this blog, to bypass the "should" and dive straight for the "why not"?

Okay, let's get the Wikipedia part of the show out of the way. Track 5 of Wild Planet, 1980, released as a single that hit #74 (#5 on the Hot Dance Play chart) and spawned a 1991 Gus Van Sant movie starring the late great River Phoenix as well as the delectable Keanu Reeves, he who shall ever be in my mind Ted from the beloved classic Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

But really, for those of us who were 100% invested in the B-52s brand of sneakily brainy ironic dance-party New Wave rock -- the question is really more like "Why do you ask?"


This song came to me as I was (no joke) walking through a corridor in the undercroft of an Episcopalian church listening to Upper East Side New Yorkers blag on about the minutiae of their ever-so-important Manhattan lives. So there I was, vested in my choir robe (because I do love to sing from time to time) and all I could think is, "You're what?!!" (A close cousin to the "Love Shack" response, "Tin roof! ... Rusted!"

Because, come on, let's get real -- has there ever been a better song about our American tendency to live in gated communities, isolated from the rough-and-tumble of other people's lives, and paranoid about the consequences of  actually having contact with other human beings?

Or, as Fred Schneider intones, singing over that ominous undergroove, "You're living in your own Private Idaho / Living in your own Private Idaho." And Kate (or is it Cindy?) adds, "Underground like a wild potato." (The one and only actual Idaho reference in the song.)

"Don't go on the patio," Fred warns, and Cindy (or is it Kate?) adds, in a tone of semi-hysteria, "Beware of the pool, / Blue bottomless pool." Such beautiful promise, and all it leads to is Fred's "It leads you straight / Right through the gate  / That opens on the pool." And for all these years, here I've been such a chump, thinking that a beautiful blue swimming pool was a GOOD thing.

But Fred doesn't stop there. Oh, no. "Keep off the path, beware of the gate, / Watch out for signs that say 'hidden driveways'/ Don't let the chlorine in your eyes / Blind you to the awful surprise / That's waitin' for you at / The bottom of the bottomless blue blue blue pool." Danger alert!

And so consider me officially freaked out. Because this is what it means to be a privileged American (in 2014 as much as it was in 1980, or even more). It's all about anticipating disaster, and smugly being ahead of the game. "The lawn may be green / But you better not be seen / Walkin' through the gate that leads you down, / Down to a pool fraught with danger / Is a pool full of strangers." Is this a way to live your life?

And yet -- when all is said and done -- do we not love that surf guitar riff? (God bless you, Ricky Wilson, and R.I.P. -- this is one of the AIDS deaths I will never entirely get over....)

Friday, June 27, 2014

"Ohio" /
Crosby, Stills, Nash v& Young

Wrote this 2 months ago. No idea why I didn't post it until now. Go figure.

What a winter I had. Okay, yeah, we all had an awful winter weather-wise, but I'm not just talking weather. In fact, for me the blizzards and ice-storms were totally appropriate: they reflected the life-changing miseries of having brain surgery and sitting at my only brother's bedside as he slowly, agonizingly died. Can't lift your head off the pillow? That's cool; life sucks so badly that head-lifting is no longer considered an option.

And then, when I most needed to believe that life could still be good -- I spent 48 hours in April in my hometown of Indianapolis hanging out with my grade-school friends. Not high-school, mind you, but grade-school, though I ought to explain that this wasn't your normal grade school class but a hand-picked crew of ostensibly gifted and talented weirdoes. We were kept in the same socially awkward corral together for 4 years, long enough for us all to embrace our inner geeks, and to give up on ever being cool (though some of you folks are in retrospect the coolest human beings I've ever known).

Who else would so get into the trivia quiz I invented? I've never seen adults so eager to tackle a pointless exercise, just for the fun of knowing stuff. Watching you all obsess over the quizzes, I suddenly realized I had come home to MY PEOPLE. You are the core of who I have become, for better or worse, and screw everyone who doesn't understand why it's cool to just be fully alive in the geek-o-rama moment.

And when I asked the (trick) trivia question: "To what is Neil Young referring when he sings, "Three dead in Ohio"?  Bless you, you all came back with, "It was FOUR dead in Ohio, and it was Kent State."

Because our generation -- at least the thinking parts of it -- will never forget the images of college students like ourselves being mown down by scared-shitless National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus on May 4, 1970. Neil Young, ever quick to record the national temperature on such matters, released this song with his CSN colleagues in June 1970 (lightning fast response, in those days). Life, as it is lived.

The Kent State Massacre (yes, let's call it by its proper name) happened on May 4 and by May 21 songwriter Neil Young had gathered in the studio his colleagues David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to record the song Young had written. (Parenthetical aside: Forgive me, but I've never really been a fan of CSN; it's only when you add Young into the equation that I get interested. Why is that?)
The fast-track release of this song fascinates me. You'd never get that nowadays. But how important was it that this song got onto the airwaves when this tragedy was still fresh in our minds? Today the recording industry is all bottom-line and post-production folderol, but in 1970? This song mattered, and so the record label suits (probably not suits in those days) did what needed to be done to get it out FAST.
The lyrics are dead simple, really, and the main thing is the lightning-bolt courage of that first line: "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We're finally on our own." To call the National Guard "tin soldiers" was pretty ballsy, even in 1970, but to call out President Nixon on his role in this tragedy took major cojones.
Once you've named Nixon, the battle lines have been drawn, and so "This summer I hear the drumming, / Four dead in Ohio." I love that evocation of ominous jungle drums, the youth culture rising at last to draw a line in the sand. 
And it was this photo that galvanized us all, one of the great photo-journalism shots of all time. The second part of the verse sums it up: "What if you knew her /  And found her dead on the ground /
How can you run when you know?" Okay, so Neil didn't get it quite right; it's a guy on the ground and a woman keening over his body. That doesn't change the emotional power of this image.

 Oh, and that great crunchy guitar line, and Uncle Neil's whiny urgent vocals. This song cried out to us as a tale that NEEDED to be told.  We didn't need Facebook to pass around the counterculture meaning of this thing, and enshrine it as a cultural milestone. Let us take note: The jungle drums worked better than the internet, when the message meant so much. A trending hashtag? Please -- we invented that, along with unspoken filters that would have kept Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus marginal for good
This is what it meant to be a teenager in 1970 -- scary and powerful and incredibly sad. Is it any wonder that I should feel bonded for life to these peeps?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Happy birthday, Ray!!

 On the occasion of the 70th birthday of Ray Davies, once and future frontman of the Kinks....

"See My Friends" / The Kinks

Not only do I love Ray Davies, I also love the many amazing friends I've made over the past decade of following Ray, on-line and in-person and in any other configuration you've got. (You know who you are, Kinksters.)

And so this one seems a particularly apt birthday tribute to The Man Who Makes It All Worthwhile.


It's fascinating, really, when you listen to this track, to realize that Dave Davies isn't playing the sitar; he's just faking it on a regular electric guitar. The shimmery-spangly weirdness of this raga is the same, and in true Kinks fashion, if they only did one psychedelic track it would be a real humdinger. The Kinks were always great musical chameleons, borrowing from music hall here, jazz there, blues here, country music there. Even if psychedelic raga wasn't their signature sound, when they turned their collective hand to it they were bound to nail it.

Not only nail it; nail it. What Ray somehow intuitively grasped was the power of the circular form of the raga, like a poetic villanelle. Sure, the modern Western verse/chorus-verse/chorus-bridge-verse/chorus form implies a progression of thought, but the Eastern form allows us to return over and over to the undeniable truth of loss. So what if we don't end up anywhere different?

Just try singing this song -- it's incredibly powerful. It's almost mandatory to throw your heart into the recurrent phrases and chord shifts. Everything always shifting and morphing -- how psychedelic is that?

 Ray say he wrote this in Bombay, listening to fishermen's voices floating over the water. In 1965, everybody who was anybody was going to India in those days for spiritual enlightenment. But in true Ray Davies fashion, at the same time he was emotionally being pulled home to England; those mournful voices triggered him to brood over the death of his sister Rene, who died when he was 13. Rene was the sister who bought him his first guitar; this had to have hit him hard.

"She just went," Ray muses in the second verse; "She just went / Went across the river." Crossing the river, a classic image of death. Though Ray darkly follows that up with "Now she's gone / Wish that I'd gone with her" -- whoa, nothing like a little suicidal note to skew a song. But hey, it's the 60s, we were all into that then.

Ray's no fool; the lyrics are ambiguous enough to let listeners apply it to a romantic break-up ("she is gone / She is gone and now there's now one left / But my friends"), but the emotional reality of this song for me is that of a mourner. That melismatic melody line, keening from one note to another nearby note -- isn't that the wail of grief?

Maybe I hear that especially hard because I'm still mourning my brother, who died in March. But Ray, too, recently lost another sister, Joyce, as a result of which he couldn't make it to his June 12th induction into the US Songwriters Hall of Fame. We're on the same page, Ray. I'd like to think that this song comforts you now as it did then.

It sure rings true for me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"Big Sister's Clothes" /
Elvis Costello and the Attractions

When Trust came out in early 1981, I felt let down. Considering how I'd loved all his previous albums, why did this one leave me baffled and a little bored?  Had Elvis lost his gift, or was it me who'd changed?

A bit of both, I suppose. Maybe it was time to move on. At any rate, I didn't listen to it nearly so much as his others. (Even today, I'm likely to get confused and think that "Watch Your Step" and "From A Whisper to a Scream" are from Armed Forces and "You'll Never Be a Man" is from Get Happy!)

On the Rhino re-issue's wonderful liner notes, Elvis himself claims that there were way too many drugs in the picture when he made this record. Recycling past sounds was no doubt an easy out when inspiration ran dry. But 30 years or so down the road, it doesn't matter any more which albums the songs were on, or whether the arc of his career was consistent. I've since learned that half the joy of being an Elvis Costello fan is watching him get lost in left field for a while, knowing (as I know now) that he'll eventually wander home. 

And since I've been singing "Big Sister's Clothes" in my head all day, might as well give in to it.

In keeping with the cynical, jagged tone of Trust (talk about ironic titles), "Big Sister's Clothes" begins and ends with an ugly, grating sonic crunch. When I play it in my head, though, I leave that part off -- it doesn't really seem to belong to the song.

Instead I find myself hooked on its perky syncopated tempo, the beguiling hoarseness of Elvis' vocals, the understated arrangement (it's almost folky), and of course EC's playful trademark puns. Lines like "She's got eyes like saucers / Oh you think she's a dish" or "The sport of kings, the old queen's heart / The prince in darkness stole some tart" or "With a hammer on the slap and tickle" (rhymes with sickle, as in the old USSR hammer-and-sickle logo) -- Elvis never could turn away from a clever pun.

But now that I think about it, the part that's always stuck with me is the chorus. It starts off in a cheery major key, just like the verses -- "But it's easier to say 'I love you'" -- but then shifts into a darker minor key on the second line: "Than 'Yours sincerely,' I suppose." It's as if he's wading into moral ambiguity, and digging up some murky depths indeed. He notes, "All little sisters / Like to try on big sister's clothes," then as he ominously repeats "Big sister's clothes," it sure doesn't sound as if this game of dress-up is all that cute or innocent. It sends a chill through me every time.  

At the time, I assumed this song was about Elvis's first wife, a marriage heading for the rocks. But now I can pick up a political dimension that an American like me wouldn't have gotten at the time: It's really about Margaret Thatcher, who'd just come into power. The woman he's singing about is a hard-hearted hypocrite -- "Compassion went out of fashion / That's all your concern meant," a pretty prescient remark considering what happened in 1984 when the Iron Lady clamped down on the coal miners' strike.

It's pretty muddled satire, though; I'm not sure that "getting" the references would have helped make me like the song any more. (It's interesting to note that this is the only song on the album that producer Nick Lowe refused to put his name to. I would really like to know the story behind that.)

And in the end, all I need is that magic key shift in the chorus to keep me humming it 30+ years down the line.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Reverb Thursday

“When A Man Loves a Woman” / Percy Sledge

You have to go back to the early 60s to find a song that believes in love like this song does. Sure, it's not pure and noble love he's talking about -- more like sexual obsessions -- but the sweeping melody, not to mention Percy Sledge's soulful delivery, elevates lust to epic heights.
You know you’re in for monumental emotion from the very first notes, with their blaring horns, resonant organ, and ponderous bass. This is the ultimate slow dance, slouching and grinding from beat to beat, each chord shift groaning toward resolution. I remember this song coming on during school dances – one round of dancing this song, and you practically felt knocked up. (Usually I’d wimp out and flee the dance floor.)

“When a ma-an loves a woman,” Sledge trumpets grandly at the outset, flinging his voice into those high notes, pitched just over the key’s octave note. It’s pretty ballsy, how he claims to have the definitive word on love between a woman and a man, on a universal basis, but he’s sure got my ear.

That commanding opener is evanescent, though; right away things start to disintegrate, slip-sliding down the scale, as he stuffs in the details – “Can't keep his mind on nothing else / He'll trade the world / For the good thing he's found.” The rest of that stuff – the crap that besets this man – is inevitable (in other verses he turns his back on his best friend, spends his very last dime, sleeps out in the rain); but somehow all of it means nothing next to the fact that he’s loving with his whole heart. The stately, almost lazy tempo takes this all in stride; it’s the way of the world, and eternal as the pyramids.

For the first three verses it’s all theoretical; in verse four he confesses that he’s singing from his own experience: “Well, this man loves a woman / I gave you everything I had / Tryin' to hold on to your precious love / Baby, please don't treat me bad.” He’s not accusing her, not exactly, but he does have a sickening sense that he’s going to get the shaft.

But (emotionally speaking -- not musically!) it's all downhill from there. Now that he's opened that door, even though he reverts to the third person, it’s clear he’s dwelling on his own situation: “She can bring him such misery / If she plays him for a fool / He's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can't ever see.” Is she cheating on him? Or, in the final verse, is he the one cheating: “When a man loves a woman / He can do no wrong / He can never own some other girl.” We don’t know; probably even he doesn’t know – that’s how muddled up you get when you’re in love.

Whatever’s going on, there’s pain and heartache here, that’s for sure. But as Percy Sledge sings it, there’s not one minute of blame or regret. He knew coming in that the path of true love wouldn’t be smooth – but it’s still the most glorious thing in the world. And if you can’t get that, then you don’t deserve to be in love.