Sunday, February 28, 2010

The 100 Best Singles In My Head
Nos. 31-35

After the British Invasion petered out, I had to find my own way musically -- what a drag! As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, I was just the right age for brooding poetry, packed with social meaning. All right, all right, everybody in my college freshman dorm listened to exactly these same songs. That doesn't mean they weren't good songs, before they turned into cliches . . .

31. "The Sounds of Silence" / Simon & Garfunkel
"Sounds of Silence" was the Song That Would Not Die. I heard it first as a gentle acoustic number on Simon and Garfunkel's 1964 album Wednesday Morning 3 a.m.; as a wannabe folkie, I had all those early S&G records -- I even learned to play the guitar so I could fumble through various tunes. "Sounds of Silence" was clearly one of the stronger songs on the album, a melancholy meditation on the lack of communication in modern society. (Paul Simon says it was inspired by the Kennedy assassination, though that never registered with me -- was that what he meant by "the vision that was planted in my brain / Still remains / Within the sound of silence"?). Then a few months later, in September 1965, it emerged as a radio hit, with electric guitars and drums added, to make sure you wouldn't miss the swell of emotion on "'Fools said I 'you do not know / Silence like a cancer grows." I've read that it was remixed without Simon's permission while he was off in London, pondering what to do now that his folk duo had failed. He may have been surprised by the amped-up version, but he didn't refuse to cash the checks when it climbed to #1 on the charts in early 1966. The political preaching of the song found a ready audience: "And the sign said the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls / And echoed in the sounds of silence." Pretentious? We didn't know the word in 1965. Simon and Garfunkel quickly reunited, and in January 1966 they rushed out a new album, titled -- what else? -- The Sounds of Silence. Now jump forward to late 1967, when I began to see the trailer for a new movie: a young man in chinos, sitting aimlessly on the edge of a fountain on a college campus, accompanied by Simon and Garfunkel's hushed echoey vocals: "Hello darkness my old friend . . . " Man, I knew I had to see that movie. The Graduate laid down the template for my adolescent view of life; how apt that "Sounds of Silence" would be part of it.

32. "Wild World" / Cat Stevens
In my Indianapolis high school in 1971, Tea for the Tillerman was the album you had to own to even pretend to be cool. (We weren't hip enough to know the term "hip.") Cat Stevens' folky tracks were just a little snide, a little fey, full of longing for the open road and brooding about the generation gap -- perfect for college-bound suburban kids. I loved so many tracks from this album: "Miles From Nowhere," "Sad Lisa," 'On the Road To Find Out," "Father and Son" (the titles alone give you a good idea of this album's themes). Many people first fell for these songs in the classic black comedy Harold and Maude, but not me -- I liked Harold and Maude BECAUSE it featured Tea for the Tillerman songs. As the album's single, "Wild World" was a shade bouncier than the other tracks, but not much. I suppose you could call this a break-up song -- in verse one the singer wistfully says to his girlfriend, "Now that I've lost everything to you / You say you wanna start something new / And it's breakin' my heart you're leavin' / Baby, I'm grievin'" -- but it's a peculiarly bloodless break-up song. He's not angry, he's not even fighting to get her back. He's more like an older brother, gently advising her about the perils of life, because he doesn't want to see her hurt. (Most guys I know DO want their exes to get hurt.) Cat Stevens was the original Sensitive Male, inventing it as he went along. The arrangement is delicate, mostly piano and acoustic guitar (the chorus adds drums), with the slightest suggestion of reggae in the beat -- no wonder Jimmy Cliff scored a UK hit with his cover. Although Cat seemed to be warning us about the bigger world's dangers, for the half-dozen of us who actually left Indiana for college, it was like catnip. "Ooo baby, baby it's a wild world / It's hard to get by just upon a smile" -- the subtext to me was always, BRING IT ON!

33. "Fire and Rain" / James Taylor (1970)

I saw James Taylor in the spring of 1971 at the Coliseum in Indianapolis; I'd been mainlining his albums for almost a year, I couldn't wait to see him live. Tall, skinny, with long brown hair and a droopy mustache, dressed in faded blue denim -- he was a folksinger, yeah, but so much younger and more with-it than the Peter Paul and Mary types. His acoustic guitar playing was nimble indeed, but he wasn't above throwing drums and electric guitars on his tracks. I knew by then, of course, that James had briefly been in a mental hospital as a teenager; like most kids my age, I thought that was cool, proof of his sensitive soul. So as I pored over "Fire and Rain" -- and indeed I pored over it for months -- I was looking for the inside story. Verse one was clearly about a friend's death ("Just yesterday morning / They let me know you were gone / Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you"). Verse two is set in the depths of melancholy; naturally drugs were part of the equation ("My body's aching and my time is at hand"). In verse three, he's trying to get his head straight, taking long walks and making phone calls; the last line, "Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" we all thought referred to a plane crash (not knowing about Taylor's failed earlier band, The Flying Machine). And then there was that apocalyptic chorus -- "I've seen fire and I've seen rain," a reference to electroshock therapy and the cold showers that follow it. From these fragments, I made up my own movie -- that Taylor had been in love with a fellow mental patient who had committed suicide, and the evil doctors had schemed to erase his memory of her with anti-depressants and incessant psychotherapy. (I must have just finished reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) Yet that night, as I watched James Taylor sit on a stool performing this song -- flinching at the spotlight, gazing warily at the crowd -- I realized that this song was really just one long stream of navel-gazing self-pity. I should have turned off James Taylor completely at that moment, but of course I didn't. Something about his voice, that remarkable mix of cragginess and sweetness, had its hooks too deep in me by then; it still dives right past all my defenses. And I'm always struck by that moment of genuine sorrow and tenderness at the end of the chorus: "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend / But I always thought that I'd see you again." That's put so exquisitely, so simply -- well, it still makes me cry.

34."It's Too Late" / Carole King (1971)
The opening act for James Taylor that night at the Coliseum was Carole King, a pairing inspired by the fact that James Taylor had just released a cover of Carole's song "You've Got A Friend." We were all so primed to see James Taylor; we had no idea who Carole King was. But I have to say, James set himself up with a hard act to follow. With a cloud of frizzy ringlets, wearing some sort of embroidered hippie blouse and a huge flowing skirt, Carole King took the stage by storm, pounding that piano commandingly, rocking out to tune after tune that we realized we knew. So THIS was the woman who'd written all those early 60s hits like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" and "Up On the Roof"? She won us over immediately, then launched into a string of newer songs that were instantly lovable. The very next day I ran out to buy Tapestry, her second solo album after years of being "just" a songwriter. Of course it went to college with me, and I swear, it was the one record that every woman in my freshman dorm owned. All those years of being a music fan, and I realized how few of the songs I'd taken to my heart were written by women. Carole King stepped in just in time, like a big sister laying down her lessons in life. "It's Too Late" offered so much more nuance than your usual break-up song. "Stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time / There's something wrong here, there can be no denying / One of us is changing, or maybe we've just stopped trying." For psychological acuteness, that can't be beat; I still think of it every time I lie in bed, fretting over a recent fight. And the resignation at the end of a flawed relationship (probably her split from ex-husband and creative partner Gerry Goffin): "It's too late, baby, now / It's too late / Though we really did try to make it / Something inside has died, and I can't / Hide and I just can't fake it." (A triple internal rhyme!) Here my friends and I stood, on the verge of "real" life; Carole King had been there and done that. On my list of Important Life Albums, Tapestry remains a constant.

35. "American Pie" / Don McLean (1972)
Is this a good song? I have no idea, and I'll bet if you were of a certain age in 1972, you don't know either. The thing was, it was being played everywhere -- at least on college campuses -- and we were all abuzz, trying to decode the cryptic references in the song. I don't suppose Don McLean had any idea how irresistible this would be to a generation who'd been weaned on rock and roll the way we Beatle Babies were. Rock music mattered to us in a way it hadn't to previous generations. For starters, we all knew that "the day the music died" was the day that Buddy Holly and Richie Valens died in a plane crash -- the fact that some of us had never heard of Buddy Holly until that moment didn't mitigate the haunting impact of that line. But then we had to puzzle out the rest. Who were the jester, the king, and the queen? (Bob Dylan, Elvis, and -- what girl singer?) Who were the father, the son, and the holy ghost? (Wikipedia tells me it was Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allan Ginsburg -- again, people I had never heard of in 1972). Good that he mentioned John Lennon ("while Lennon read a book by Marx") as well as "Helter Skelter" (thereby referencing both the Beatles and Charles Manson in one fell swoop). And there were the Stones, appearing as Jack Flash and Satan. But there was so much else, and we ate it up, singing lustily along to the chorus, "And we were singing / Bye bye Miss American Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry / Those good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye, and singing / This'll be the day that I die / This'll be the day that I die..." We ALL knew those lyrics, and we fell into them with relief, having gotten lost as hell in those interminable word-crammed verses. McLean even snuck in tricks like slowing down the tempo and hushing the volume for later repetitions of the verse. Yes, he had a lovely folkie voice; yes, he played the guitar just fine. None of that matters. Like the Paul Is Dead hoax, "American Pie" knit our generation together in an underground movement, information passed from one kid to another, often at night over guttering candles with a joint smouldering in the ashtray. I still can't hear this song without getting a shiver up my spine.


Anonymous said...

These songs could all be played in a block well.

I've checked your list and don't see any James Gang, Rolling Stones, Bowie or Pink Floyd. Or Steppenwolf. Or The Guess Who. Are they coming up? And how about Spirit? They always get left out.

I just saw the Roky Erickson documentary, so I'm also going to push for The 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Going to Miss Me."

-- Angela C

Holly A Hughes said...

Angela dear, you must have missed my controversial Rolling Stones pick down at #79. :D Bowie may well appear quite soon. But as for the rest -- well, this list reflects for better or worse the vagaries of when I was born, where I grew up, and what the radio chose to play. Do I like Roky Ericson now? I do indeed. Did I have any idea that he existed back in 1969? I did not. And so it goes with most of the rest of your worthy suggestions(Pink Floyd and Steppenwolf excepted -- but I plead the Fifth with them.) It's not my 100 Favorite Songs list, or my 100 Favorite Artists; that would be something entirely different. But when push comes to shove, these are the 45s that -- for better or worse -- tell you who I am. I'm entirely prepared to be embarrassed about some of them!

Vivalabeat said...

Sound of Silence is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever hear. It's so touching, and S&G harmonies have always amazed me. This song always gives me goosebumps.
And Carole King (I first typed Kink) played an important role in my life. She wrote songs for the Monkees, and this band has always been one of my most biggest obsesions. Then I found out she was singing herself and I couldn't help but liking her work.

Anonymous said...

"American Pie" is the most-overrated and poor excuse for a pop song that I have ever heard. An exercise in self-indulgence by it's author. It's enduring popularity remains a mystery to me. McLean wrote some pretty decent songs in his day, however this is not one of them. No offense, Holly, but that one is the only truly cringe-worthy dud on your list.
Clyde Crash

Holly A Hughes said...

Indeed, it is not a great song. And yet I totally understand its popularity because I witnessed this mini-mania first hand, and personally fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Embarrassing? You betcha!

NickS said...

Indeed, it is not a great song.

Say it ain't so. I haven't listened to it in years, but I loved that song, and I'm sure I still have a place in my heart for it.

The thing he does so well on that song, which I appreciate, is to take a long song, with an endless series of verses, and keep it from being repetitive by singing every line a little bit differently.

I'm a complete sucker for the style of singing which picks out phrases to use as an aside or a chance to step outside of the flow of the song and make some little comment (David Bowie is a master at this) and "American Pie" is filled with moments like that.

Dave K. said...

I understand that some folks think of American Pie as insufferably pretentious. But I am among those who think of it as indescribably brilliant. It crystallized the rock and roll experience up to that point and vividly reflected the uncertainty in the aftermath of the 60s. I was 11 or 12 when it came out and purchased the 45 at the time. I listened to it dozens of times--having to flip sides in the middle of the song :-) . It has never felt like a guilty pleasure to me, just one of the greatest and most memorable songs of my days of youth. I am quite sure that I did not understand what it was about at the time--just that something terribly important was at stake.