Tuesday, August 19, 2008

"Same Old Man" / John Hiatt


There just aren't a whole lot of middle-aged love songs out there -- which is why we need John Hiatt. Here, on his 56th birthday, I'm listening to his brand-new album, Same Old Man, and marveling over the title track.

As a tune, there's not much to it; four short lines per verse, each one starting on a repeated high note then loping amiably downwards, sung in the scratchy twang John's fallen into lately. The tempo's laidback, with a ragged syncopation -- like something a guy'd make up on the spot, strumming his guitar on the living room couch, crooning ad lib to his wife. She'd be swatting him with the TV Guide, popping up to go check on dinner. Nice and homey-like.

And it's full of that self-deprecating wit that makes so Hiatt so easy to settle into -- lines like "Truth is, I never was young / Shot like a bullet from a rusty old gun" and "I'm the biggest baby in the world" and, in that wonderful wry chorus, "Honey I'm still the same old man / That you married way back when / A few less brain cells, a lot less hair." He knows she's not fooled by him one bit, but that's what he loves about her: "I know you can say a lot about that /But you're so sweet you keep it under your hat."

It all sounds so comfy, with a kind of gee-whiz innocence: "I love you more than I ever did / I love you just like a little kid," he gushes in the third verse, and I'm getting lulled by their married bliss (just like they might be). If anything, I'm just a little bit annoyed by how perfect it all sounds, by his unblinking hound-dog devotion.

Ah, but I should have known -- old Johnny's too crafty to leave it there. Come to the fourth verse, and he suddenly drives it deeper. "We been down a rough road or two," he starts out -- fair enough -- but then he drops the bomb: "This is another one we'll get through." This one? Up to now, who knew they were having problems? And it's not just them facing life's travails together; no, the problem's between them. Earnestly, he pleads, "Don't ask me how I know / I'm just saying, baby please don't go." Wait -- she was gonna pack it in?

In the last verse, you get the idea this one was his fault, as he ruefully reflects, "You start out trying to change everything / You wind up dancing with who you bring." I love how Hiatt can take a corny cliche like that and spin it into bone-deep wisdom. "I loved you then and my love still stands," he promises her simply, with a subtle shiver of emotion on "stands." "Honey, I'm still the same old man," he reminds her one more time. If that doesn't work, she's not the understanding woman he's been persuading her she is.

Now I get it; all those dogged professions of love, all that fulsome praise for her higher nature -- they had a reason and purpose. The guy's fighting for his marriage, again, because let's face it, this is life; the fight never ends. Sure, it's delivered in a genial, almost matter-of-fact style. That doesn't mean it isn't urgent. It's just that...well, they're not teenagers. Love's different, this side of fifty. And who's to say it's not better?

Same Old Man sample

Sunday, August 17, 2008

"Fire Island" /
Fountains of Wayne

On the Kinks Fan Club forum, some of us regulars threw together a CD of our favorite summer songs; this was my contribution. (Though truth to tell, my favorite summer song could be Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" -- god, does THAT send me back.) But nostalgia aside, this FoW tune from their brilliant Welcome Interstate Managers pretty much sums up my concept of summer. Summer, after all, is a season that belongs to children -- who else feels the freedom of summer like kids, liberated from school? Specifically teenagers -- since, as FoW puts it, "We don't need no babysitters / We don't need no father and mother."

Freedom? The world this song paints is a world where all the rules are tossed out the window, at least the rules that nice middle-class kids are bound by. It's a full catalog of forbidden behaviors: "Driving on the lawn / Sleeping on the roof / Drinking all the alcohol" -- oh yes, we've all been there. Good kids gone bad! But wait, there's more: "Cranking up the tunes / 'Til the windows break / Feeding chocolate to the dog / Jumping on the couch /'Til the feathers all come out / While our parents are on Fire Island." (For me, the parents were off at Lake Wawasee, but that's a minor detail.) Sure, it's a little infantile. What did you expect, smoking crack and having sex? No, this is a tender suburban-style rebellion, the sort of stuff that FoW has claimed as their territory. Raise your hand if this sounds like your teen years.

It's not just those evocative lyrics -- this song simply shimmers with the texture of summer. I love how those lines I've listed above ripple up the scale, each line shifting up into a new key -- it's like the lapping waves of a rising tide on the beach. The eager little rushes of syllables, tentative syncopations overlaid on an anthemic march, the obedient electric piano only gradually joined by laidback guitar and drums -- it's got an all-the-time-in-the-world quality that's pure summer. Then there's the muted trumpet solo in the bridge, a pure shot of sun-gilded 60s-era Burt Bacharach that's sheer nostalgic magic.

"We're old enough by now /To take care of each other," they declare sweetly, yearningly, in the bridge. The beautiful, bittersweet thing about this song is that they really aren't old enough to take care of each other; they're swimming naked in the pool, for chrissakes! "We're old enough by now / Don't worry 'bout a thing," they insist -- "Don't you remember last December / When you went to Steamboat Springs?" Oh, I can just imagine.

I've GOT teenage kids now; I should be listening to this with horror. But something about this song reawakens the teenager in me, makes me long to have this same kind of carefree abandon. The more I listen, the more layers of adulthood I peel off. It's August now; the nights are getting cooler, and summer is running out. Jeez, I'd better go swim naked in the pool while I've still got time.

Fire Island sample

Thursday, August 14, 2008

"The Whole Point of No Return" /
The Style Council

Imagine standing on the rim of a swimming pool, knowing full well the water's cold --do you ease yourself in slowly, or just dive in? That's how I am about Style Council. I've been listening to a lot of Paul Weller's solo work the last couple of weeks, and completely grooving on it -- but I'm still mystified by how he got from the Jam to where his sound is today. I know Style Council lay in between; it must hold the answer. But jeez, that's cold water to dive into.

Why do so many people snigger when they mention Style Council? I was off in some other universe in 1982, when Weller broke up the Jam to launch this new project, but it must have seemed like heresy at time, one of punk's seminal voices jettisoning punk for a groovy soul/jazz hybrid. Apparently some people have never forgiven him. I say, GET OVER IT. From what I've listened to -- mostly those annoying 30-second iTunes teasers -- some of this is pretty delicious stuff. Okay, so it's slickly produced, as opposed to the raw energy of the Jam; and apparently the lyrics got more and more leftist as time went on, which was a lose-lose thing -- he irritated lefties with his Europop glossiness, and he irritated jazz fans with his political whinges. I can imagine the whole scenario. But still.

Well, now here's a riddle. I tried to Google the lyrics to this song, and absolutely every lyrics site offers the same set of lyrics -- completely different words from what I hear on the track I've downloaded from Our Favourite Shop. Here I'm listening to this lovely jazz samba with Paul Weller musing existentially about life, and instead the lyrics sites insist it's a bitter political rant against class oppression. Was there some later version Weller did? I did notice that a couple sites also list the song as recorded by Robert Wyatt, and from a quick Wikipedia research, I gather that Wyatt -- an eccentric wheelchair-bound English rock-jazz maverick -- sometimes records cover versions of other artists' songs with lyrics changed to convey his own Communist beliefs. Are these other lyrics something Wyatt imposed on the song? Obviously all the sites just picked it up from each other, without anyone actually listening to the records (which just proves what I've always suspected about those sites).

But deciphering the lyrics for myself, I get something romantic and not at all pretentious. It hits a sweet samba groove, underlaid with Latin percussion, a delicately plucked Spanish guitar, and Mick Talbot playing some shimmery vibraphones. The scene he sets is all carioca coolness, with shining harbor lights, soft breezes, and a "beckoning sea." The seaside scene sends him into an introspective mood, brooding about "the rushing winds of age and time" and "the promise that all could be mine." Seduced by that samba beat, he admits to feel tempted "to close my eyes and feel the fall / To not resist them to the fore / Oh it's easy, so so easy."

But he's not going gentle into that good night, as he declares in the end of the second verse: "I'm not prepared to live the lie / To shut my mouth and just say yes / To make a vow and then confess / It's too easy, much too easy." It's not clear to me what he's resisting -- could be marriage, could be political selling-out -- but in the last verse, he declares "With all the power that I possess / A faith alone shall stand the test / To live my life as I see best." I guess if some honey-throated Brazilian were singing this song, the defiant up-yours ending wouldn't work, but Weller's peculiarly husky, ever-so-slightly strangled-sounding voice makes it seem perfectly natural.

And in the end, the lyrics don't matter so much -- it's that syncopated Latin beat, the fantastical vibes, and the knife-like Weller croon cutting through it all. I'm still on the edge of the pool, but I have a feeling I'm diving in any day now -- I'll just have to buy all those Style Council albums, and give into the dark side.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

"Baby Plays Around" /
Elvis Costello

Spike may be my least favorite Elvis Costello album. When it first came out, I bought it but almost never listened to it, and therefore I completely overlooked this song. How could that have happened? Now every time I hear it I'm absolutely riveted; it haunts me for days at a time.

Elvis -- or should I say, Declan (as I like to call him, in my detailed fantasies in which we are best friends) -- Declan wrote this song with his then wife, Cait O'Riordan. I know squat about their relationship, but just from listening to this song, I gather that it was, shall we say, tempestuous. I put this song in the same file as two other Elvis ballads, "Motel Matches" (Get Happy!) and "Almost Blue" (Imperial Bedroom) -- his voice is positively ragged with jealousy and crazy bitterness on all of them. Listen to how wearily it cracks on that opening line -- "It's not open / To discussion anymore" -- he's already packing it in, and the song's barely gotten started.

It's the old, old story he has to tell us -- "She's out again tonight / And I'm alone once more" -- and his voice drops lower, dragged down with self-pity, as he morosely adds, "She's all I have worth waiting for -- /But baby plays around." That's a killer line, somehow -- by yoking "baby" and "plays", two words that normally do go together, he underlines the deadly irony of the cliche "plays around." There's nothing playful about playing around. He's got the term "baby" so twisted up in various meanings, I can't even tell if it's meant as a term of endearment anymore. Which is precisely the point -- that's how messed up their relationship has gotten to be, he can't even think straight about it.

The whole song is just Elvis/Declan singing with an acoustic guitar, and that's perfect -- the simple arrangement reflects how numb and raw this guy's feelings have become. The melodic line is surprisingly jazz-like, with lots of oddly modulated intervals and edgy chord shifts, the musical equivalent of the emotional vertigo he's describing. (Elvis has been dabbling with jazz much longer than most people realize.) Hoarsely, he muses, "And so it seems / I've always been the last to know / To hold on to that girl / I had to let her go." Complicated grammar for complicated feelings. And again, on the third line, his complaining and explaining breaks down into a howl of sheer dumb misery: "I wish to God / I didn't love her so -- / 'Cos baby plays around."

There's one more great couplet in this song, in the last verse: "She walks those shiny streets / I walk the worn-out floor." Wonderful parallelism, with the ""shiny/worn-out" contrast cutting right to the heart of things. It reminds me of a line in another of my favorite adultery-jealousy songs, Dr. Feelgood's "Don't Wait Up" -- "I've got the keys to the door / And you've got the keys to the street." It's just a matter of time for this couple; really, they're already ruined. It's all over but the shouting.

By the way -- hunting for an mp3 sample to post (which I couldn't find on Amazon -- it looks as if I'm not the only one who relegated Spike to an early rubbish heap) -- I just discovered that Curtis Stigers did a cover of this song. Who is this Curtis Stigers? I feel like he's haunting me. I only know him as the guy who covered "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding" for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard and therefore made Nick Lowe a packet of money. I suppose I should be grateful to him for that...yet I resent the fact that a lightweight like this could have the big hit which Nick himself should have had. Or maybe he isn't a lightweight? I also see that he's done a cover of Nick's "You Inspire Me," and Ron Sexsmith's "Secret Heart," AND that Randy Newman song "Living Without You" that Alan Price did such a smoky version of, AND Joe Jackson's "Fools In Love" -- AND the Kinks "Tired of Waiting"!!! This is just creeping me out! And the worst thing is -- some of them actually sound pretty interesting. WHO IS THIS GUY???

Friday, August 08, 2008

"Cry Love" / John Hiatt

I spent yesterday evening most pleasantly on a sunset cruise around lower Manhattan -- not the sort of touristy thing I'd usually do, but when the on-board talent is John Hiatt and the Ageless Beauties, well, I was so there.

So let's put aside the fact that John Hiatt deserves to play classier venues, and focus on how cool it was to be gliding along the water listening to these guys blast their music out over the harbor. (As John put it, with a little sideways grin, "We know how to rock. AND roll." I'm sure I've heard him say that line before, but it bears repeating. How many rock musicians have forgotten how to roll? John hasn't.) We'd pass other boats along the way -- a sleek little sailboat, the Staten Island Ferry -- and we'd lean over the rails and holler, "We've got John Hiatt here -- and you don't!!!" Yes, we were that goofy. Hey, if you're a John Hiatt fan, chances are you long ago stopped worrying about looking cool.

And there was one utterly transcendent moment -- John was about halfway through "Cry Love," one of his most passionate anthems to heartbreak -- and the Statue of Liberty slid into view right behind him, with the setting sun blazing all over her robe and crown. John must have heard the collective gasp of wonder, because he turned around and caught sight of her himself -- and I swear, he gave a little whoop of joy. I'll bet he'd entirely forgotten where he was playing, he was so into the magic circle of him and his band, slamming down that incredible song.

What I love about John Hiatt is how deeply he gets human nature. I don't know anybody else who writes such tough-minded apologias for men behaving badly ("Loving a Hurricane," "Something Wild," "Shredding the Document," "Tip Of My Tongue") and still can sympathize so totally with how a woman feels. "Cry Love" is a divorce song seen from a woman's angle, and it's just drenched with equivocation and regret: "A moment of steel / A dry-eyed house / Did he say goodbye to you / Or did you kick him out / I know you're not afraid / To go it alone / But this was a marriage of spirit, flesh, and bone." That last line kills me; is that poetry or what?

This is a song that offers no solution; it simply looks unflinchingly deep into the heart of hurt. "Now whatcha gonna do / When the planet shifts?" he asks in the second verse, and I can really feel that dislocation, that moment when your life's underpinnings have just been shot out from under you. (The boat lurched just as he sang that line -- kinda spooky.) And then comes the chorus, one of those elemental howls against fate that Hiatt does so well, with the gritty soulfulness of his raspy voice: "Cry love / Cry love / The tears of an angel / The tears of a dove / Spilling all over your heart from above / Cry love / Cry love." That's when the Statue of Liberty hove up behind him, looking pretty much like a weeping angel herself. Shivers up my spine.

As the song goes on, we deconstruct how this marriage went bad, in a stew of selfishness and substance abuse. "If this is a lesson in love," John muses in verse three, "Well, what's it for?" That's one of those lines that burns right through the song, a statement about the pain of human existence that haunts me long after the song's over. And yet somehow, the power of the rock & roll lifts you up, makes you believe that somehow this woman will survive. The way he punches those repeated "Cry love"'s, the way the syncopation jitters determinedly through the line -- maybe she'll be stronger, maybe she'll just be harder, but she will survive. Those weeping angels and doves can't turn heartbreak into happy ending, but they will carry her through.

At one point John was coaxing the audience into a singalong (note to the jerk next to me at the Nick Lowe concert: Artists like it when their fans sing along!) and he joked about New Yorkers being too cool to sing along. I had to crack up, thinking -- how did my homeboy John and I end up in this same place at the same time, so far from Indianapolis? The ways of fate are strange.

Cry Love sample

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Well, having informed me a week ago that they were locking my blog (along with, apparently, hundreds of other blogs, or so I've heard from several sources), the good folks at Blogspot apparently turned the power back on without bothering to tell us. Well, whatever -- I'm back.