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 emotion 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....

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

RIP David Cassidy

"I Think I Love You" /
The Partridge Family


I have been dreading this coming. Yeah, I weathered the early deaths -- Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass, Keith Moon -- with a mantra of Too Young, Too Soon. Then came John Lennon's death -- torn from us by gun violence! I can only wish I was in the UK to attend Dusty Springfield's funeral. And then there's my belated grief at the cruel loss of Harry Nilsson, dying earlier than he should've (and never acknowledged as the genius he was). Ditto for Kirsty McColl.

But now here we are at the crossroads. I'm ruefully prepared (with mourning gowns and all) to be devastated when 60s icons like Paul McCartney or Ray Davies give up the ghost. I nervously expect we've got a few safe years for my 70s go-to guys Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Nick Lowe.

But David Cassidy? David F***KING Cassidy? He was only 67, ferchrissake. Taken down by dementia, arthritis, and a long history of substance abuse. At the height of his pop stardom in 1974, a teenage fan even died amid the frenzy at one of his concerts. He may have been a manufactured pop star, but the charisma  -- as this fangirl can attest -- was very very real.

In my personal fangirl history, David Cassidy has a whole chapter to himself. In 1970 -- just before The Partridge Family launched -- he riveted me with a guest spot on Bonanza, America's favorite TV series at the time. He was so cute, for once I paid no attention to Little Joe. When 16 Magazine --or was it Tiger Beat? -- announced that he was about to star in his own show, I was so primed for it. And when the Partridge Family finally debuted, it was so much more endearing than even I could have expected. For a few months there -- okay, maybe a year -- he occupied my every waking day and night.  And let's be honest, ladies -- do we not cherish forever the objects of our pop obsessions?

I prefer to see David Cassidy as one of pop music's tragedies. Coming from a showbiz family (dad Jack Cassidy, stepmom Shirley Jones, his Partridge Family mom) he had all the lucky breaks. His slim talent vaulted him into this stratosphere where only the strong survive. And perhaps he was never strong enough.

But on the other hand -- God, he was cute. That sparkle in his eyes, that suggestion of a dimple in his smile. The glossy flop of brown hair. Nobody could rock hip-hugger bellbottoms like that young man.

Like so many girls of my time, I fell for it.

And hearing that he is no longer with us? I am, against all reason, peculiarly devastated.

Monday, October 09, 2017

"Watching the Wheels" /
John Lennon
Thirty-seven years ago, and it still hurts. I lived just a few blocks uptown from the Dakota the night John was shot, and I remember walking there the morning after, taking my place among the crowds of hollow-eyed, stunned mourners gathering on the sidewalk across the street. No other rock 'n' roll death ever hit me so hard. I still miss him.

I wasn't much of a fan of the Double Fantasy album -- too many Yoko songs. (I actually don't dislike Yoko, not like some people do, but let's be honest, her songs were horrible.) This one track, though, redeemed the whole record for me. It's a delicious defense of John's house-husband years, when he'd finally figured out how to stop being a Beatle and start being a person. But his music mattered so much to the world, the idea of him being a private citizen seemed perverse.

"People say I'm crazy / Doing what I'm doing ," he notes wryly. I'm sure Lennon heard it over and over again, how he was wasting his phenomenal talent by sitting around his apartment baking bread and playing with his little boy Sean. (My other favorite song on this album: "Beautiful Boy.") But it's like something I once heard Orson Welles say -- it's such a Puritan notion, that just because you have talent you have to use it.

"When I say that I'm okay, / Well they look at me kinda strange," John reports, with only a trace of that famous edge of his. "'Surely you're not happy now / You no longer play the game'?" But the thing is, John WAS happy just "watching shadows on the wall." He didn't miss "the big time," not at all. Here was a guy who'd been living in a whirlwind ever since he was 19 years old -- can you blame him for finally jumping off?

There's a hypnotic piano hook lacing it all together, a curling little riff that's the best thing about this whole song. In typical Lennon form, the melody slides around chromatically, the chords morph in and out of seventh and diminished modes, more interested in subtle incremental shifts than the bouncy tunes his partner Paul McCartney tended to write.

"I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round / I really love to watch them roll," he insists in the chorus. "No longer riding on the merry-go-row-ownd" -- jumping upwards for once, an exasperated falsetto howl. "I just had to let it go," he explains, and although this entire song is about being relaxed and contented, the way he punches out that line suggests that it didn't come easy.

I think it's significant that this song shows Lennon recapturing his syncopated groove -- after the primal scream of the Plastic Ono Band album, the woozy introspection of Imagine, and the political rants of Sometime in New York City, the Double Fantasy album found Lennon's creative juices in harmony again. Me, I was happy to hear the famously discontented Beatle reaching a Zen plateau.  The album came out in November 1980; a couple weeks later he was shot. Makes you think.

So, in honor of John Lennon, let's all draw a breath, step off, and watch the wheels for a while. Life's too short to ride that merry-go-round forever.

Sunday, October 01, 2017


"California Girls" /
The Beach Boys
"Back in the U.S.S.R." /
The Beatles

Okay, so maybe this is unfair. The great American band of the 1960s, versus the great British band of the 1960s. Do we vote for Brexit or for making America great again?

Oh, but hold on there, Parnelli, as my driver's ed teacher in Indianapolis used to say.

Let's start with "California Girls." In many respects it's just another sun-drenched SoCal feel-gooder, and the album it appeared on -- 1965's Summer Days (And Summer Nights) still has one foot in the classic Beach Boys mold, with tracks like "Help Me, Rhonda" and "Amusement Parks USA" and a cover of "Then I Kissed Her." This song, however, was written by Brian Wilson after he took his first acid trip, and within it are stirrings of the great Wilson masterpieces to come.

The shuffle beat was, Wilson claimed, inspired by cowboy movies but also Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." How's that for a pair of influences?

The lyrics were all written by Mike Love, in the longstanding tradition of Mike Love banality. The first verse contrasts the merits of girls from all sections of the country, and as a Midwesterner I am still offended by the description of us as "farmer's daughters," even if we do "make you feel all right." (Apparently we lack East Coast style, the sexiness of a Southern drawl, or the nighttime heat of Northern girls. Screw you, Mike Love!) Verse two plods through reasons why California girls are the best -- they're tan, they wear bikinis, and they . . . well, um, that's about it.

The melody, though, and the arrangement? Divine. There's that dreamy sun-dappled orchestral intro, which goes on surprisingly long, with its spangly electric piano, Carl Wilson's 12-string guitar, and a laid-back tempo. Then it jumps into line for the song itself; the verses have a finger-snapping sassiness that distills a 77 Sunset Strip brand of cool, with Mike Love's whiny brash vocals evoking previous songs such as "Be True to Your School". But then just as you get used to that, in comes that chorus, exploding into dazzling harmony. "I wish they all could be California girls" they sing repeatedly, but it's hardly repetition. The melodic line crests over and over like a curl of surf at Laguna Beach, with overlapping contrapuntal harmonies like an undertow, while chord changes and key changes continually add new swirls of mood. Production values are top-notch (of course they had the Wrecking Crew studio musicians playing everything), lush and dense and joyful as all get-out. Honestly, "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows" are so close you can taste them. 

So jump forward in time 3 years, to 1968, and the Beatles' astonishing, eclectic album The Beatles, known forevermore as The White Album. And this is the lead-off track, Side 1, Track 1: "Back in the U.S.S.R."

Macca wrote this while the Fabs were in India, doing TM with the Maharishi. -- like "California Girls," it's the product of a newly expanded consciousness. You can tell it's a McCartney song because A) the melody leaps and bounds all over the place, and also B) because of the beat-lagging tempo (was there ever a bassist who so consistently played behind the beat?).

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the bridge catalogs Soviet chicks a la "California Girls" -- Mike Love (ever eager to glom onto a happening scene) was in India with the Maharishi too, and he claims credit for those few lines that reference "California Girls": "Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia's always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-hi-mind." (Shout-out to Ray Charles.)

I prefer to imagine that Mike Love was such a dick at the retreat that McCartney wrote those lines to satirize Love's contribution to the Beach Boys hit song.

Because the rest of this song sounds nothing like the Beach Boys. The template is pure Chuck Berry, from his song "Back in the USA". (Okay, okay, I know the Beach Boys were also influenced by Chuck Berry -- just listen to "Surfin' USA. But c'mon, EVERYONE in the 1960s owed a debt to Chuck Berry.)

Listen to the first two verses, and it could just as easily have been titled "Back in the U.K." He's flying in from Miami (did British Airways even fly Miami-Moscow in 1968?) and the flight was awful; he gets home and everything looks different, surreal -- "Been away so long I hardly knew the place . . . ". He's feeling so dislocated, he can't even unpack. I'll admit that I imagine Paul McCartney coming home to his section of the terrace houses in Help! Still, it isn't until verse three that actual Russian references creep in: "Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out / Come and keep your comrade warm . . ."

I'm guessing that McCartney wrote the kernel of this as a "god I'm glad not to be touring anymore" song. At the ashram in India, he may also have been worrying how he'd return to his life in England  -- a sort of "you can't go home again" moment. When they needed material for the double album, he resurrected it with a few topical Cold War references . (And maybe a dig at the exorbitant U.K. tax rate on top earners, which at this point the Beatles were -- might as well be in the U.S.S.R., eh?) With the sound effect of the jet landing at the beginning (love how the jet moves from one speaker to the other), and the chugging Berry beat, it made a handy album opener.

Still, as the Beatles so often managed to do, even their cast-offs had profound impact. Those of you who did not grow up in the Cold War cannot imagine the mind-blowing idea of this switcheroo -- our beloved Beatles pretending to be evil empire Soviets?

Just to show how weird a period it was for the Beatles, think on this: Paul played the drums on this track (Ringo had just walked out and was threatening to quit), while John took over on bass. Paul also did some piano work on this track, with George Martin adding other fills. In such turmoil, any other band would have turned out a mess of an album. The Beatles? Somehow they pulled rabbits out of their hats and ended up with one of the top LPs of all time.

Which brings us to the Smackdown finale: Which song wins?

Man, I love that Beatles track. The White Album is one of the great records of my life (see here for my ride through Side 2). I love the snarkiness of this song, the subversive energy of its rock-n-roll, satire and parody all rolled up in a wicked fun package.

But when the Beach Boys burst into gorgeous harmony on the chorus of "California Girls" -- even this Midwest farmer's daughter (who never ONCE lived on a farm) is swept away.

WINNER: "California Girls" by a nose.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

First Song on the Shuffle

"How Can I Be Sure" /
Shelby Lynne

Complicated history here. Felix Cavaliere's the Young Rascals (or at this point had they conceded that they should just be called The Rascals?) released this song in 1967, as a teaser for their album Groovin'. I heard the single on the radio all right--WIFE Good Guys radio in Indianapolis--and I'm pretty sure my older brother Holt owned the album. (Even now it's probably mouldering away in a cardboard box in some ex-girlfriend's garage.) I preferred the lazy psychedelia of the title track, with its flower-child bird tweets and bursts of lush harmony, but the minor-key waltz of "How Can I Be Sure?" was a close second. Yes, it had corny strings and even a Parisian-cafe accordion, but there was a haunting sense of emotional limbo at the end of every verse. (And that plinking electric piano, like a neurotic tap on the shoulder . . . )

Dial things forward, and we get the next charting of this song, in the UK in September 1970 for my girl Dusty Springfield. It's a perfect song for Dusty, with her contralto throbbing with vulnerability. In her hands, Cavaliere's cry of adolescent uncertainty became a weary anthem of a heart that had been broken too many times already. Yeah, teen idol David Cassidy finally boosted this song to #1 in the charts with his cover version in 1972. (Disclaimer: I spent a good 6 months of my life in love with David Cassidy. Never you mind when that was.)  But Cassidy just copied Cavaliere's take. Dusty's was something richer, and deeper.

So it's no surprise that the gifted singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne would have included this on her 2008 homage to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin' . And hand it to Shelby -- her "How Can I Be Sure" is even more tortured than Dusty's take. Lynne goes Dusty one better -- she's not just about love anymore. When she punches out the phrase "In a world / That's constantly changing," it becomes a politically charged signal for a world gone off the rails.

This is the album that turned me on to Shelby Lynne, who I personally think is one of the great singer/songwriters of our time. Okay, anybody who'd dedicate an entire album to Dusty Springfield would already have my vote, but everything else I've heard from her, I've loved. She's got darkness, she's got sincerity, she's got brains. She started out country, where she never got the love she should have; she went more pop and the wider audience gave her at least some of the respect she deserves.

Her voice is twangier than Dusty's, but still in that same musky contralto range, and like Dusty she conveys an undertone of tragedy. (In Shelby's case, that's a no-brainer -- she and her sister Alison Moorer as teenagers saw their abusive father shoot their mother to death -- so, yeah, whiners, top that.) Like Dusty, she screens an ambiguous sexuality behind an intensely private persona.

Yeah, it's a song about unstable mental states. ("Whenever I--I am away / From you / I wanna die. . . ." Trust is in short supply -- "How do I know? / Maybe you're trying to use me / Flying too high can confuse me" -- and the singer is pleading for mercy ("Touch me / But don't bring me down.")  And like Dusty, Shelby flings her hearts into those phrases, opting for the downward curl of pessimism.

Back in 1967, "don't bring me down" was no doubt a drug reference. In 2008, it's all about not being disheartened for the brave fight ahead.

Either way, the song builds to that last wonderfully inarticulate verse: "How can I be sure? / I really really really wanna know / I really really really wanna know..." Felix Cavaliere and David Cassidy were asking a girlfriend to commit. Dusty was asking a lover to offer safe haven.

Shelby Lynne? She's throwing down a gauntlet. Account for yourself, people.

Monday, September 04, 2017

R.I.P. Walter Becker

"Turn That Heartbeat
Over Again" / Steely Dan

Jeez. I really did not expect this one to hit me so hard.

I've loved Steely Dan's music since 1972, my sophomore year in college, when I first heard the rocking syncopations of "Do It Again" on the local Springfield, Massachusetts, radio station; their snarky follow-up single, "Reelin' in the Years," only confirmed my faith. (How could I resist lyrics like "The weekends at the college never turned out like you planned / The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand")?

And I kinda hung in there for years and years, even when people whose opinion I respected dissed them as soft rockers. (Excuse me, Steely Dan were never soft rockers -- they were way too subversive and sophisticated for that.) I bought their 1972 debut album Can't Buy a Thrill, but I never saw them in concert, telling myself that they were principally a studio band and I didn't need to see them live. And for many of their peak years -- 1975 through 1977 -- I was living in England, divorced from my LP collection, being seduced by pub rock and punk rock.

We kept missing each other. After I moved back to the States in 1977 I bought Aja and loved its lush swinging groove, even though by then I was mainly into the neuroticisms of the Talking Heads and the B-52s and Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. So many bands, so little time. Steely Dan disappeared from the scene throughout the 80s (read the Becker obits to find out why), and in the 90s, when they started touring again, I was Otherwise Engaged.

I suppose things would have been different if I'd ever lucked into a Steely Dan fan base, the way I connected with fans of the Kinks, Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, and Nick Lowe. But that never happened. And so here I am in 2017, regretting Walter Becker's death at age 67, and also feeling guilty as hell that I never paid this band as much love as I felt for them.

I'm a fan of cryptic crosswords, and for me, every Steely Dan song is a cryptic crossword. "Turn That Heartbeat" starts out sounding like a heist caper ("With stocking face / I bought a gun") but the chorus lays on explicit religious references ("Oh Jesus / Oh Michael") and protestations of innocence ("You know my reputation / For playing a good clean game").  Suddenly we're in a barroom, with Casablanca references -- "My poison's named, you know my brand /  So please make mine a double, Sam." And what are we supposed to do with a lyric like "This highway runs from Paraguay"? Drugs, politics, and all sorts of nefarious doings are on the line.

And who the hell is William Wright, whose corpse appears in verse three? Google it and you'll only be more confused. But don't get hung up on that -- the thing is, he's dead, and "zombie see and zombie do."

But here's the thing. This is a track of undeniable richness, with fat vocal harmonies, disturbing chord progressions, teasing Fagan keyboard fills, and a niggling sense of there being more behind the lyrics. In this era, rock music was all about the albums, not the singles (though Steely Dan subversively co-opted enough pop hooks to hit the singles charts with regularity). We were supposed to be sitting in our dorm rooms, puzzling over the references. And we did.

So what echoes in my brain pan about this song, which I've been listening to for 45 years? With my Massachusetts frame of reference, I can't help but love the verse 1 line "And they closed the package store." But as time goes by, I'm drawn to the chorus line "Turn the light off / Keep your shirt on / Cry a jag on me." How seductive is that, highlighted by the inverted grammar around "crying jag"?

And sometimes, my heart of hearts simply cries out "Oh Jesus / Oh Michael!" Can't explain that. It just is.

I have no vested interest in solving these songs for you folks. Hey, Steely Dan was always about more than the sum of its parts. But in honor of Walter Becker, I implore you to surf around and listen to more of their astonishingly brilliant tracks. And maybe begin to fathom the subversive power of their music . . . .