Saturday, August 29, 2009

"Can't Find My Way Home" / Blind Faith

I've tried to resist all this Woodstock anniversary nostalgia -- no point in feeling fake nostalgia for a festival I never attended. But I broke down the other morning and snuck off to see Taking Woodstock, the new Ang Lee film. And really, I was more thinking of it as a Demetri Martin film; he's a stand-up comedy god in my household.

Demetri's character, Elliott, was the guy who hooked up the festival's producers with Max Yasgur's farm, which is about all the plot line you need. He doesn't spend much time at the festival itself, and never gets close enough to see the acts -- which saves us from the spectacle of watching, say, Mos Def impersonate Jimi Hendrix or Zooey Deschanel play Grace Slick. A fair amount of the famous music is played on the soundtrack, though, triggering all the Pavlovian responses. So what if, as we recently learned, some of the original Woodstock album was "sweetened" with better cuts of those same songs, culled from other concerts? The point is, you hear certain songs, you think "Woodstock." And then a beatific smile spreads over your face.

When this song came spooling through the movie, I thought, "Oh, yeah, another great Woodstock number." Trouble is, this song wasn't played at Woodstock. I guess it was thrown in because, in the movie, Elliott is slogging through the mud and the crowds, trying --get it? -- to find his way home. Engrossed in the movie, I didn't even register what song it was or who sang it; I just knew it sounded right.

Later on that day, I tried to track down that song, with its distinctive mad psychedelic swirl. "It's gotta be Traffic," I decided, "nobody sings that high and clear except Stevie Winwood." But a little research and I discovered that Traffic wasn't at the festival; Traffic didn't even exist in the summer of 1969. Dummy me, I hunted through all the other Woodstock bands before I realized I'd been right all along. It was Stevie Winwood, but with his next band, the "super-group" Blind Faith. And the song was from the summer of 1969, all right -- the only summer Blind Faith existed.

A lot of bands thought that a psychedelic song had to have imagistic lyrics -- gardens of Eden and cellophane flowers and white rabbits and all. Not Blind Faith. There are just two images in this song's lyrics -- the "throne" in the first line ("Come down off your throne and leave your body alone") and the "key" at the end of the verse ("You are the reason I've been waiting so long /Somebody holds the key"). But neither of these are arty images; they're things anybody would say in normal speech. And how about that last couplet: "But I'm near the end and I just aint got the time / And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home." Forget the coded drug messages everybody else was messing around with; this guy's telling you straight out what's up with him. He's high, okay?

As if anybody listening to this song could be in any doubt. The melody weaves around like a series of ocean waves, with a series of descending arcs -- cresting over the top, surging and receding, washing up on shore. There's only the one verse, anyway; after that it's just fragments of repeats, as if he's getting loster and loster. Then there's the undertow of nimble guitar picking that Eric Clapton lays down around those words -- more complication to get lost in. The samba-like rhythm pulses along, punctuated with an occasional shimmering cymbal bash from Ginger Baker, like the waves hissing onto the sand.

Despite the words, he isn't pleading; he just sounds bummed out and a little petulant. The woman he's trying to make love to is probably getting really pissed off by now, though I have to say, Winwood's boyish voice (winsome Winwood, I always call him) would be way too sweet for me to stay pissed off at him.

A gem of a song, an absolute gem. So what if it wasn't actually performed at Woodstock? Ang Lee wasn't about to get hung up on details like that. It's the sound of the summer of 1969, and a perfect evocation of the spirit of Woodstock. All this Woodstock nostalgia is fake anyway -- let's make it as hazy and groovy and far out as we can, okay?

Can't Find My Way Home sample


IƱaki said...

Being a Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton fan I've always loved this song. And as good as the studio version is, it works MUCH BETTER live and as you say it would have worked very well in Woodstock. The two times I've seen Steve this was certainly a favourite, please watch this video to understand what I mean:

The weirdest thing is yesterday they played this song on TV. And in Spain these things don't happen!

Holly A Hughes said...

I guess everybody is on this 1969 nostalgia trip, including Spanish TV!

This song haunted me all day after seeing the movie. Finally I identified it and downloaded it (I've never really listened to that Blind Faith album). Then, this morning, I discovered I already had it on my iTunes, only it was filed under Steve Winwood (even though it was the Blind Faith recording). Well, I knew when I heard it that it was familiar to me!

I really gotta start listening to some of the other tunes on my iTunes besides Ray and Nick...

Betty C. said...

Hi Holly,

I haven't been hanging out in Blogville for some time, but am trying to get back into my habits. I don't plan on blogging much about music, though -- just no time. My main blog will be La France Profonde.

Anyway, I haven't been doing Woodstock nostalgia at all (I like to remind my students who ask me if I was there that I WAS ONLY TEN AT THE TIME!) But this song...I was crazy about it too and hadn't thought about it for years. Thanks for the post.

tertonmike said...

I too WASN'T at Woodstock, being just 8 and at home in Dublin at the time. But I did hear this played in a big field recently, having been at Fairport Convention's Cropredy festival a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Winwood headlined the first night and, although the good folkies on the Fairport forum have given him a mixed reaction (too jazzy or too "noodly" for some of the finger-in-the-ear brigade) my friends and I reckoned we got good value for our (three-day) tickets from his set alone. And this before Richard Thompson - who was even better - on the Friday night and Fairport themselves on Saturday, plus Buzzcocks, Nik Kershaw, Ralph McTell and Seth Lakeman amongst others (book now for next year!). Winwood played some old Traffic and Spencer Davis stuff too as well as more recent material but with a curious gap from the early 80s - no "Arc of a Diver", "Valerie" or "Roll With It" for example. My friend Gareth reckoned he didn't want to be reminded of a contemporaneous and expensive divorce!

Keep up the good work - I read regularly and find myself agreeing with your thoughts and liking the same songs and artists most of the time!

MarjorieM said...

This song is monumental in my musical history because I listened to the Blind Faith album nonstop when it came out, and this was by far my favorite song on it. I wanted to be a rock star at the time, and was wandering by the music rehearsal room at school one day and heard and saw Martin "Lark" Madden (I think he's a judge now...) playing the song on electric guitar. I asked if I could sing (there was a mike setup and everything) and he said "sure". This was the first song I ever sang in front of him or in a rock setting. WOW!!!! And he said it was good. Bear in mind, Lark was tall and slender, with blond hair (not quite to the shoulder, but longish), and basically drop-dead gorgeous. I may have to go see this new movie, if only to enjoy this song on the soundtrack. I'll always be grateful to Lark for giving me the chance to sing, and I can still remember my shock that someone so gorgeous could be nice, too. (I wasn't exactly the most popular girl in school. Always felt on the outside.)
I am SHOCKED, Ms. Holly, that you did not recognize "Can't Find My Way Home" instantly. (On the other hand, it's nice to discover that you are actually human and might have a gap here and there in your musical history...) In any case, I am certainly glad that you know the song now, and that it was in your head enough to make it into your blog. The effect it had on you shows that it endures as a haunting, beautiful thing!
PS tertonmike, I have seen several of the Fairport, Richard Thompson, and Steve Winwood clips from the recent Cropody festival on youtube and I wish I could have been there!!

Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, gosh, sorry to disillusion you, Emms. I did know the song, but mostly in that sort of hazy I "it was being played everywhere at the time" sense. Like I said, I did have it on my iPod, I just couldn't get the grid to mesh.

Which brings up a good point -- once Top 40 radio was no longer our chief source of discovering new music, how did we learn about it? Mostly, I think, by word of mouth. I just didn't happen to know any Stevie Winwood fans, or even Blind Faith fans, when this album first came out, so I never had this album cover in my hands to burn the names of the songs in to my brain. We devolve into the little pods of music that we happen to have run across; we go deep instead of going wide. How else to explain why I never listened to Nick Lowe albums until 3 years ago? This alone is inexplicable to me. And in subsequent years, there's not many opportunities to reinvestigate classic albums; MTV and the radio stations programmed us to be on the lookout for the newest sounds, not to scan the past for gems we'd somehow, inadvertently, missed.

The internet has, thankfully, changed all that. Now I can screw around with music day and night and never get anything else accomplished!

Angela C said...

A beautiful meandering melody that gets imprinted in your mind after the first play. Always loved this song. Thanks for writing about it.

This made me chuckle: "Forget the coded drug messages everybody else was messing around with; this guy's telling you straight out what's up with him. He's high, okay?"

MarjorieM said...

Thanks for your comment back, Holly. I agree that it is through word of mouth that we heard about new music, after top 40 radio was no longer our source. It all depended on what our friends were into! I think of the internet as an expanded "word of mouth". Back in the day, I would hear something new that my older brother brought back from college, or that a friend was playing on their stereo. Now, I click on links of "friends of friends" on MySpace, and have discovered some great artists that way! And sometimes the artists have been working for many years and I can't believe I had never heard of them before!

Your blog is yet another source for me (and many other folks, I'm sure) of new music (or "new to me" music), and I wouldn't know about Nick Lowe if you hadn't told me about him. (He's coming back to Portland soon!! And wow what an Austin City Limits performance I just saw recently! But so far I am still honoring my agreement with you not to pursue any sort of personal relationship with your guy!)

By the way, I spent several years focusing mostly on classical music, and in fact I had no idea Woodstock was happening until my Dad picked up my sister and me from our summer classical music camp in Vermont (it ended during Woodstock weekend), and mentioned what was going on in upstate NY! I was too young to have gone by myself, anyway, but I had been in a classical cocoon for 8 weeks and never heard about it until it was almost over!
Cheers, Marjorie

Gotta think of a better name said...

Just saw this film for the first time (in 2014) and this same song stuck in my head. I saw Winwood in the film credits, but then I could only find his work since 1977 online. There is no online listing of the actual music in the film so this is the only place that I finally got straightened out and figured name I had forgotten. Thanks! So much music, so little time!

To help circulate missing music of the era, I post a link here to my favorite neglected band: NYRE, and a great video for their song "Fields of Joy". The whole album is great.