Thursday, December 20, 2007

"Liverpool 8" / Ringo Starr

You've gotta love Ringo. Whatever psychodramas consumed the other Beatles, Ringo always was their rock. Still, I haven't followed Ringo's solo career too faithfully (I do have a vinyl copy of his 1973 album Ringo around here somewhere, and all the Thomas the Tank Engine videos where he played The Conductor). But there were an awful lot of Paul McCartney albums to buy instead, and anyway, let's be honest; Ringo Starr is neither a great songwriter nor a very good singer.

That's why I'm so happy to see that Ringo's got a new single we all can love. It's called "Liverpool 8," and just like the title suggests, it's a breezy snapshot of his own memorable life. Looking back on the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a vicious rant called "How Can You Sleep?" (so vicious that even he recanted it later), but when Ringo looks back on the Beatles, it's a sunny, genial picture--a real heartwarmer.

Ringo is a man who knows his limitations, and this song is as simple as possible. In the verses, the lines are short, the rhymes elementary, the rhythm punchy. "I was a sailor first / I sailed the sea [cue up a little nautical pipe] / Then I got a job / In a factory." But it hits all the buttons, fast-forwarding through his early career: "Played Butlins camp / With my friend Rory" (for the Beatle-ignorant among you, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes was Ringo's first band); "Went to Hamburg / The red lights were on / With George and Paul / And my friend John / We walked all night / We all looked tough / We didn't have much / But we had enough." (I told you the rhymes were basic.) True, Ringo wasn't in the Beatles when they played Hamburg, but Rory Storm was gigging there at the same time; when George Martin told Paul and John to fire drummer Pete Best if they wanted a record contract, they knew immediately who they wanted instead.

In the chorus, Ringo switches to a longer, more legato line, with strings added for sentimental value: "Liverpool I left you / Said goodbye to Madryn Street / I always followed my heart / And I never missed a beat" (excellent word play there -- good job, Richie!). "Destiny was calling / I just couldn't stick around / Liverpool I left you / But I never let you down." The third time around, Ringo changes Madryn Street, his early childhood home, to Admiral Grove, where the Starkeys later moved. You get the idea that those early years are still very present, that the poor kid from the Dingle was never lost in the scrum of fame.

A few other touches I love in this song: the way his voice slides up to the high note on "couldn't stick a-rowwwwnd" (Ringo never could reliably hit those intervals); the guitar riff at the end of the chorus, stolen from Manfred Mann's "Sha La La"; the crowd noise in the background of the verse about Shea Stadium; the Penny-Lane-like horns at the end, while Ringo and a chorus of mates repeats "Liverpool" like a football cheer. Priceless.

Usually, I'd feel sorry for a guy who's still harping on what he did 40 years ago--but what Ringo Starr did 40 years ago was so big, I don't mind. Besides, it's Ringo. There's not a single sour note here, no chip on his shoulder, no grandiose claims. "We were number one / Man, it was fun." That's how he remembers it, and I buy it. Now if I could just figure out why it's Liverpool 8, instead of Liverpool 4 or 5 or whatever . . .

Liverpool 8 sample

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Coupe de Ville" / Neil Young

I'll admit it, I came late to Neil Young. There was a time, in fact, back in high school, when I actually hated him. Of course, back then every kid who could strum a guitar had worked up a whiny version of "Rockin' in the Free World"; you couldn't get away from Neil Young, those days. Then about six years ago, I was listening to Harvest Moon one evening and, all in a flash, I finally GOT Neil Young. I could finally look past the torn jeans and straggly hair and realize the bone-deep sincerity of everything he's ever written. Shoot, I've even grown fond of his nasal strangled-cat yelp.

One of the cool things about coming late to an artist is that you get to plunge in and explore his whole body of work all at once. I missed This Note's For You in 1988 because that was when I still hated Neil Young. Besides, with its jazzy rhythms and horn section, it's not a "typical" Neil Young album--the enthusiasts (yes, the same Neilaholics who used to torment me) forget to mention it much. I only recently discovered This Note's For You; it's still a fresh thing on my Uncle Neil playlist. I have to say, I'm loving it.

This song takes melancholy to a whole new level; Neil's mournful voice has a surly edge of self-pity, totally appropriate for a song with the refrain "If I can't have you / I don't want nothing else." It's in the same vein as Nick Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide," without the wry humor; it also reminds me of Marshall Crenshaw's "Where Home Used To Be," but not nearly so wistful. No, this is a guy who's still hung-up on the woman who's left him, and that plaintive sax counterpoint is like one more twist of the knife.

"I got a coupe de ville," he announces, chip firmly on shoulder; "I got a bed in the house / Where you once lived." The house is absolutely defined by her absence--that's misery for you. "I had a few cheap thrills," he admits, grudgingly, "But they cost me a lot more / Than I could give." He's admitting some guilt, vaguely, but I don't hear a whole lot of remorse in that edgy syncopation. "I got a right / In this crazy world /To live my life / Like anyone else," he insists, voice quavering. "How long can I/ Carry this monkey around/ All by myself?"

So what were those "few cheap thrills" that drove her away? At first I thought it was infidelity, but then there's the monkey on his back -- is it drugs? I picture this lonely, stubborn man shambling around his big house (a Coupe de Ville is a luxury car, after all, not what I'd imagine Neil Young driving), and the straggly hair, the torn jeans are part of the picture. He's still aching -- "Well I hit the wall /Woke up this morning / And I hit the wall," he confesses, still in shock. He's not coping very well.

I have no idea if she's ever coming back; that's almost beside the point. The raw hurt is the point. The horns sound so far off at times, the drums a shimmer of brush on cymbal, the guitar line loping like the dull throb of a hangover. This song just kills me. How could I not love a guy who can write a heart-breaker like this?

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Queen Elvis" / Robyn Hitchcock

I'm still trying to figure out why more people aren't into Robyn Hitchcock. He has at least half a dozen songs that deserve to be instant classics, with entrancing hooks and contagious melodies; his lyrics are arresting, poetic, often funny as hell. True, half the time I can't figure out what's happening in his songs, but hey, that's actually a selling point with me. I guess some people might be put off by his nasal vocals and broad English accent. Not that I am, but like I said, I'm trying to solve this mystery.

Consider, then, "Queen Elvis," from his 1990 album Eye. It's such a great title, changing Elvis's title from The King to The Queen; even before the song begins we know we're in the land of the sexually confused. And like Lou Reed's "Walk On the Wild Side," it's full of sympathy for outsider lifestyles. The melody is Lennon-esque, repeated notes vacillating within a narrow range; the lyrics are ambiguous, leaving you groping for the code. As a result, the song quivers with dynamic tension, throwing out lines and then reeling you in.

"People get what they deserve," Hitchcock begins (does he means "deserve" like a punishment or a reward?) followed by the cryptic observation "Time is round and space is curved." Two lines into the song and we're already getting surreal. Then he gently asks his song's protagonist, "Honey, have you got the nerve / To be Queen Elvis?" He knows there's pain involved in coming out ("It could break your mother's heart / It could break your sister's heart"); he says he's jealous, but he's also repelled -- hear the snide flourish in lines like "Justify your special ways" and the bridge "Oh and I'll sculpt you /So very hard" ("sculpt" makes me think of Michelangelo and Svengali and personal trainers all at once). While he's at it, he'll sneer at the nature of celebrity ("getting blowjobs from the press" and hangers-on "babbling beside the throne")--yep, it's all in here, swirling around in an edgy stew of feelings.

His voice sounds slightly strangled and lonely, over a dead simple acoustic strum--earnest and yet dodgy too. Does he identify with Queen Elvis, or is he attracted to Queen Elvis? It's neither and both; anyway, he's not giving anybody a straight answer. "Two mirrors make infinity," he muses later on, "In the mirror you and me / Find out just what love could be / Queen Elvis." Wha?

Usually I like my pop songs tightly crafted, and yet I'm dizzy in love with these surreal rambling Robyn Hitchcock concotions. Of course his slightly sinister, schoolboy-in-disgrace good looks help--I'm just mentioning that for you ladies, because we all know it's part of why we enjoy our rock and roll. He's got a whole pack of these absurd, allusive gems -- "Jewels for Sophia," "I Saw Nick Drake," "The Devil's Radio," "If You Know Time," "I Often Dream of Trains," "Madonna of the Wasps," "My Wife and My Dead Wife" -- all dredged up from some subterranean realm of mad genius. I'll take as much of it as I can get, thank you, and anyone else who wants to join me is welcome.

Queen Elvis sample

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Watching the Wheels" / John Lennon

Twenty-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. Every year, this anniversary surprises me by how much 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, those fallow 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 getting his syncopated groove back -- after all 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. 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.

Watching the Wheels sample

Saturday, December 01, 2007

“Alone In A Room” / Marshall Crenshaw

I’ve had the hardest time trying to pick just one song to focus on from Marshall’s 2003 album What’s In The Bag? It’s an incredibly consistent album, with superbly crafted instrumentals and thought-provoking lyrics. I marvel at how well Marshall’s voice has held up, too – for a 50-year-old (well, maybe he was still 49 when he laid down these vocals), his steady, sweet-as-honey tenor sounds every bit as good as it did twenty years earlier.

But what really blows me away about this album is its melodies. Venturing beyond the standard chord progressions of retro pop, Marshall’s ear for an arresting hook has never served him better than it does here. You’ll hear it on the lonesome road song “Will We Ever?”, the rueful “Where Home used To Be,” the end-of-love song “The Spell Is Broken,” or the moody “Long and Complicated.” And then there’s the warm delicious thing “Alone In A Room,” which happens to be one of the sexiest songs MC’s ever done, in my humble opinion.

Here’s my theory: singer-songwriters tend (consciously or not) to write melodies that fit their vocal style. Like Paul McCartney, Marshall Crenshaw’s wide vocal range and great pitch set him free to skip all over the scale, with lots of interesting interval jumps. In this song, the verses climb upward like a jazz trumpet, each line an impressionistic detail – “The sunlight on a violet wall / The radio playing down the hall / The curtains moving with a gentle breeze / There’s nothing else in the world I need / Right now” -- only to drop in the chorus into his lower register, with just a hint of huskiness on that tantalizing line “Right now it’s all / About you and me alone in a room.” It’s confiding, intimate, and I find myself leaning closer, yearning to be in that room with him.

“Waiting for the light / As we made our way home late last night,” he muses in the bridge, in a freeform melodic line. “Standing there with your hand holding mine,” with an unexpected jump upward on “mine” that shivers to the bone. The laid-back poetry of the lyrics is nicely married to that sensual syncopation, the shimmering cymbals and vibraphone adding a whiff of cocktail-lounge coolness. “I wish that life could always feel this fine,” he exults, and then breaks into a guitar solo that’s like the same cry of happiness in a different language.

At this point in his songwriting life, Marshall Crenshaw really knows that less is more. Those significant pauses between phrases let us savor each moment, as if we had all the time in the world. After the solo, he murmurs appreciatively, “Your / favorite clothes / and perfume / Yeah, you / Make me dream / About you and me alone in a room.” And that’s it, that’s all the detail we’re going to get – let your imagination take it from there.

You know, Marshall Crenshaw just keeps on getting better. It’s a crying shame that now, when he’s doing his best work, he’s not on simply everybody’s playlist. Well, do yourself a favor -- put him on yours.

Alone In A Room sample