Sunday, October 28, 2012


Seems like this New York City hurricane watch is becoming an annual event. But just in case we lose power in the next day or so, let's revisit my favorite hurricane songs. 

"Lost and Found" / The Kinks

Remember Hurricane Gloria? When she rolled into -- or rather, past -- Manhattan on September 27, 1985, Ray Davies was living a mere seven blocks south of me, though I had no idea, having fallen off the Kinks bandwagon, driven away by the arena-rock years. It was years before I discovered the Kinks' 1986 album Think Visual, where Ray Davies sings, in the opening lines of "Lost and Found": "Waiting for the hurricane / To hit New York City. . . . " But the minute I finally heard this song, I remembered Gloria and felt a spooky shiver of recognition.

I often think of "Lost and Found" as the companion song to "Stormy Sky," not just because of the storm but because of its sexy syncopation, the tenderness of Ray's vocals, and the central image of lovers finding shelter in each others' arms. It ain't often you find a Ray Davies song about two people simply happy to be together; grab 'em wherever you can.

Of course the storm is a metaphor -- of course! -- for all the crises life is bound to bring.But Ray works the metaphor beautifully here -- "Somebody said it's hit the bay . . . We're near the eye of the storm . . . They're putting up the barricades . . . " It's the anticipation that gets you, battening the hatches and all that, as he sees from afar "the hurricane crossing the coast line."

t wouldn't be a Ray Davies song if he didn't also throw in some quirky details, like "And all the bag ladies / Better put their acts together" and "the old sea dog says shiver me timbers."  Odd as they are, I love those lines, and the whimsical way Ray sings them -- as if this love makes him so secure, he can even see absurdity in the face of disaster.

My favorite bit is the bridge: "This thing is bigger than the both of us / It's gonna put us in our place." It's a brilliant, dual-edged line, depending on what he means by "thing" --  perhaps it's the storm that's bigger than they are, but maybe it's also their love that is bigger, like the old movie cliche (think Humphrey Bogart -- "This thing is bigger than the two of us, baby.") They're overwhelmed by love, amazed that they can give up being separate and start being a couple.

And as he swings back to the chorus, he revises the lyrics: " We came through the storm / Now it all seems clear / We were lost and found, standing here / Looking at the new frontier." It's not just a clear sky he sees, it's the possibility of where his life could go, now that he's got her.

This isn't the way a teenager sees life; this is how you see it when you're middle-aged and have been through your share of painful affairs. When you've given up hope that it's ever gonna happen for you, that you won't get your Hollywood ending. And then joy surprises you, just like that -- "We were lost and found, just in time / Now we've got no time to waste." He still seems astounded by it happening -- "in the nick of time," he marvels in a husky voice, as if he's just woken up from a long sleep. Good morning, Ray. 
"Feels Like Rain" / John Hiatt

Want a song to win your true love? You can't go wrong with John Hiatt. More specifically, "Feels Like Rain," from his 1986 album Slow Turning. One of the most emotive love songs ever written, it's been covered by loads of other artists, but nobody does it better than John himself.

That leisurely tempo takes its own sweet time to get going, with Sonny Landreth laying down light-fingered electric guitar licks while John tinkers around on the electric piano. The texture of this song feels just like the sort of gentle nighttime rain that sweeps in to wash away all the grit and hurt of the day. Over it all John's vocals work some serious R&B voodoo, crooning and howling and whispering and coaxing, so gruff and yet so tender.

The first verse starts out lazy and carnal: "Down here the river meets the sea / And in the sticky heat I feel you / Open up to me." (I'm fanning myself already, aren't you?) It's all about the mood, and the moment, and that rising barometric pressure; the chords shift upward too, with growing urgency, as John warns: "Love comes out of nowhere, baby / Just like a hurricane." Then, like a dying gust of wind, his voice drops downward, caressing the refrain: "And it feels like rain / And it feels like rain."

And get this line: ""Underneath the stars, lying next to you / Wonderin' who you are, baby / How do you do?" This isn't just a guy banging some chick whose name he can't remember; this is a moment mid-passion when he's suddenly rocked by the deep unknowableness between two human beings. They're so close physically, it's a shock to realize that she's still her own separate person. He may have been married to her for ten years, but at this instant she's a stranger, and he hungers to get close to her all over again.    

This rain that's rolling in? It isn't just rain, of course; it's a metaphor of passion, folks. It's heat-wave-breaking, drought-ending rain, the kind of meteorological event that makes folks change their plans. "We'll never make that bridge tonight / Across Lake Pontchartrain," John decides, without a trace of regret; "Batten down the hatches . . . A little bit of stormy weather / That's no cause for us to leave . . ." No indeed, I'm staying right here, all cozy and relaxed and oh yes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Surfer Girl / The Beach Boys

It Was 50 Years Ago Today . . .

All this hoopla about the Rolling Stones' 50th anniversary makes me yawn. For one thing, Charlie Watts didn't join until January of 1963, and without Charlie Watts, it doesn't count as the Rolling Stones in my book. Besides that, it's such a naked marketing ploy. God forbid the Stones should miss a marketing opportunity, even though they could barely get their bony billionaire asses off their Barcaloungers in time for the requisite 50th anniversary tour.

The Beach Boys, on the other hand -- that's a 50th anniversary that matters to me. Their reunion tour lasted for months and felt so positive (that is, until it crashed on the shoals of Mike Love's crazy ego). The date is a little artificial, granted -- Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson had been singing together, with or without cousin Mike, for years before their first single, "Surfin'," was released, technically in November 1961 but finally on a proper label in January 1962. It crept onto the bottom of the charts, followed by a bona fide hit single, "Surfin' Safari," in June 1962. And 50 years ago this October, their first album -- also called Surfin' Safari, for obvious reasons -- landed in record bins, soon cracking the top 50 on the album charts. The Beach Boys had arrived.

Gotta love the Wilson boys for sticking with that surfing theme. Next to come, in March 1963, would be -- you guessed it -- "Surfin' USA." Of course I knew all those songs; no kid with a radio could escape them. But those upbeat, jangly anthems to the beach lifestyle never really got to me. Nope, it took a ballad to convert me: a love song called (naturally) "Surfer Girl." 

Now, let's think about this. Who is the lead singer for "Surfin' Safari" and "Surfin' USA"? The aforementioned Mike Love, with his nasal, sarcastic-sounding vocals. And who is the lead singer on "Surfer Girl"? Brian Wilson, his soulful tenor rising to wistful falsetto ooh's. It's the same sound as all my favorite early Beach Boys songs: "In My Room," "Don't Worry Baby," "The Warmth of the Sun." Until they finally let Carl Wilson loose with "God Only Knows," this was the sound of the Beach Boys for me. 

The cockiness of those Mike Love songs put me off, but here was a tenderness, a vulnerability, I'd never before heard from this band. "Little surfer, little one / Made my heart come all undone" -- it may be a convenient rhyme, but amid those plush doo-wop harmonies, the image of  heartstrings unraveling is surprisingly affecting. And the uncertainty of that question, "Do you love me / Do you, surfer girl?" well, it's Sensitive Male 101.

The second verse is where they really grab me. "I have watched you on the shore / Standing by the ocean's roar" -- like Ray Davies in the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset," Brian Wilson is the wistful observing outsider. Has he ever even spoken to her? I'm voting for no. This song is saturated with the purity and loneliness of unrequited love, trembling on the threshold.

There a sweet huskiness to the bridge, as Brian drops in the requisite surf references (dig the line "In my Woody I would take you / Everywhere I go-oo-oo" -- trust Brian Wilson to turn a surfing song into a car song!). But notice that it's still in the conditional tense -- this is what he yearns to do, not what he has already done.

Cue an upward key change for verse three, as he makes his first fumbling declaration: "So I say from me to you / I will make your dreams come true." The upward surging chord changes, hopeful and heartswellingly eager -- this is Grade A American Optimism. Once again he dares to ask, "Do you love me, / Do you, surfer -- " And then, with a two-beat pause, he draws out the suspense, halting, making us wait too. Then, with an exhalation of harmonies, he sighs into "girl, surfer girl, my little surfer girl." Over and over, the voices intertwine and repeat, with the falsetto oohs soaring over them. The path from here to the aural tapestry of "Good Vibrations" is a straight shot. 

The difference between this 50th anniversary and the Stones'? Or even, really, the Beatles'? This is actually what I was listening to in 1962. My brother owned all the Beach Boys albums, and our parents let us play them endlessly ("You know, they sound a heck of a lot like the Four Freshmen...") They were clean-cut, All-American boys. And for us Midwestern kids, besotted with the golden sands of Southern California, they held out an enviable dream -- one that would soon be forgotten in 1963, when the British Invasion hit.

I hold these early, pure Beach Boys songs very close to my heart. Brian Wilson was working within all the standard pop idioms, believing in them with all the innocence of his SoCal heart. Fifty years later, he still seems untarnished by cynicism. That surfer girl is still out on the far wave, and he's still on the shore, yearning.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Love Me Do / The Beatles

It Was 50 Years Ago Today...

How can I resist?

Okay, so it wasn't precisely 50 years ago for me -- Beatlemania didn't hit these shores until late 1963, when "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" came blasting out of my little tan transistor radio. "Love Me Do" wasn't resurrected for us for months, not until April 1964. (Trust Capitol to squeeze out every golden egg they could from their new prize geese.) But history tells us that fifty years ago, on the 5th of October 1962, the Beatles released in the UK their first properly recorded single, as opposed to "My Bonny Lies Over The Ocean," recorded when they were Tony Sheridan's back-up band. "Love Me Do" wasn't the hugest of hits at the time -- it only made it to 17 on the UK charts -- but it sure paved the way. Very soon the Beatles would OWN the #1 slot on the charts. And in my heart, they've never yielded that position. 

One of McCartney's schoolboy compositions, and it shows -- those simplistic lyrics! "Love, love me do / You know I love you / I'll always be true" -- I'd probably ridicule those lyrics if I heard them today, delivered by a hip-hop artist or rapper. Yet there was a peculiar genius even to this. No one before the Beatles understood so powerfully the value of the personal pronoun. Every "me" and "I" in their songs stood for Paul McCartney (at least in my viewpoint), and every "you" stood for me. Paul was singing directly to me, ladies. And yes, he was also singing to you, Lori, and to you, Nancy, but in my pink bedroom with my Barbie diary on my lap, all that mattered was that Paul was singing to ME.
Okay, so that's Genius Thing Number One. Genius Thing Number Two: The urgency of the harmonies on that next line -- "So plee--ee--ee-eeze" -- cut off abruptly by an instant of silence, before Paul dips down into his lower register (what I like to think of as his Ramon Suavez voice) to coax, "Love me do / Oh yeah, love me do." Grr-owl...
And Genius Thing Number Three: The middle eight, so full of raging hormones. "Someone to love / Somebody new / Someone to love / Someone like you" -- man, this kid has got so much testosterone, he can barely figure out what to do with it. I submit that this middle eight was the piece that spoke to the male audience -- surely they could identify with its restless, inchoate need to plant seed somewhere. There's just a hint of past hurt and resentment in that "somebody new" -- ah, yes, the neurotic John Lennon touch! -- but basically he's up for anything, so long as it happens soon, preferably now.  
Genius Thing Number Four: The tempo may sound draggy today, now that our internal metronomes have been permanently revved up by the punk era, but once you relax into its bluesy lope, its very laidback laziness is seductive. Why hurry when you know you've got the goods to deliver? On top of that is layered a backbeat syncopation that absolutely insists that the pelvis respond. Unh-HUNH!
And let us not forget Genius Thing Number Five: John's raggedy braying harmonica, much more Muddy Waters than Bob Dylan. It hits our ears from the very beginning, pulsating and edgy, and it wheezes back in again at the end of every chorus. Somebody here is about to explode, and it's up to you (me!) to make it right.
And in 1962, 1964, whatever -- a girl would have to crazy not to volunteer for that tour of duty.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Superstar / The Carpenters

"Long ago / And oh so far away / I fell in love with you / Before the second show"...

Tonight, I should be on my way to North Carolina to see Nick Lowe, Robyn Hitchcock, Dave Alvin, and a host of other YepRoc superstars play at the YepRoc 15th anniversary hoedown. But no, I'm not going, because I've had to put the fangirl on hold and act like a normal rational adult person. (Note the "act like.")  For a while. . . .

But oh, I really get where Karen Carpenter is coming from in this song.

It almost makes you overlook the fact that the song's protagonist is a stalker who's fantasized a brief boff into a real relationship. And all those Carpenters trademarks -- the swelling production values, the hard edge to Karen's voice, her cheesy dipthongized vowels -- things that normally really put me off, somehow work in this case, because they perfectly underscore the singer's borderline craziness. Or maybe, in hindsight, Karen's borderline craziness . . . six of one, half a dozen of the other, I guess. . .
I have to say, I didn't read it this way in 1971 when this track was all over the airwaves. I was sure that the girl singing had really had a meaningful affair with the rock star, and that it would be only a matter of time before he came back to town to resume their relationship. Well, that tells you a lot, doesn't it?

In fact, when this song was written by Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends) and Leon Russell, the title was a lot more obvious: "Groupie (Superstar)." Not many people know their version, or even the Joe Cocker cover from Mad Dogs and Englishmen, sung by a young Rita Coolidge, But once Karen and Richard got their hands on it. . . .

What the hit version lost in irony and satire, it gained in soul-shivering sumptuousness. That throw-caution-to-the-winds passion in Karen Carpenter's voice is truly a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Bring on the harp glissandos, the lush strings, the Bacharach-ish horn section, the breathy backing chorus.

"Your guitar," she wails, plangently in the second verse, "It sounds so sweet and clear." We're right there with her, grooving on that riff -- only to learn that "But you're not really here / It's just the radio." The line between fantasy and reality is blurry, and getting blurrier all the time.

"Don't you remember you told me you loved me baby?" she pleads in the jangly chorus. "Said you'd be coming back this way again, maybe." Note that "maybe" -- it's way more than just a convenient rhyme for "baby." It's his standard line, what he says to all the girls. But she can't see that; she can only repeat, almost feverishly, "Baby, baby, baby baby, oh baby." And then, abruptly, the wall of sound telescopes into a rare acoustic simplicity for the last line: "I love you, / I really do." There's such a world of difference between his careless "I love you" and hers.

Why laugh at this girl, when she still believes with all her wretched heart that the rock star will come back? Isn't her intense belief in him grander than irony or satire? And the palpable pain of her loneliness and neediness -- well, trust Karen Carpenter to go for it without judgement or reservation. "Loneliness is such a sad affair" - that's the heart of this song.

Sure, rock music is full of groupie songs. There's the Kinks' "Starstruck," the Rolling Stones' "Starfucker." More important for me, from the ladies' perspective, we've got Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" and Norah Jones' "I've Got to See You Again." Let's face it -- if it wasn't for us chicks lusting after those guys with the guitars, there would be no rock and roll. Why else do men pick up guitars if not to score with the ladies? So it's about time that we stage-door adorers get our fair share of credit.

In 1971, I was just enough of a budding hipster to distance myself from the Carpenters -- so plastic! so shallow! so mass market! -- yet I was not above singing along to this song alone in my car, belting it at the top of my lungs, letting the tears trickle down my cheeks because Paul McCartney still didn't know that I, his true soulmate, even existed.

(For the record, Paul still doesn't know that. Amazing, hunh? After all these years . . . )

Things haven't changed that much, not really. I was driving in my car today, listening to Sirius/XM satellite radio, and this song came on. With no one else in my car but the dog in the back seat, I could sing my heart out, and after running through about 20 Dusty Springfield hits (courtesy of my iPod), here came Karen Carpenter, another contralto, going for broke on this song. Totally in my range . . . and totally in my frame of reference. Whopping me upside the head.

God bless you, Karen Carpenter.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Best Record Ever Made /
Bill Lloyd

Another long overdue post I've been promising you guys. Suffice it to say that Bill Lloyd really hits home with me, for reasons I've explained here. This new album of his enlivened many a car trip this past summer, when I was on the road too much to keep up with blogging. You know how sometimes you're driving and listening to new music and you laugh out loud, it's so good? That was the scenario this past summer with me and Boy King of Tokyo. The fact that I haven't gotten around to posting about it is just pathetic. Pathetic, I tell you!

Now, I loves me some Foster & Lloyd -- you gotta dig their newest album It's Already Tomorrow -- but what I really love is Bill Lloyd's solo work. It's amazing how different this stuff is from the country-inflected F&L stuff; when Bill gets on his own, it's pure pop for now people. Anyone who knows Set to Pop or Standing on the Shoulders of Giants knows what a music geek Bill is. And as a music geek myself, I feel a kindred spirit.

Which is particularly pertinent for this track:

I love it that this song isn't just about 1960s music, it's about what that music meant to its fans. To us. The visceral response that kicks in, how it "forced you to jump out of your chair / Swing your arms around like a maniac / Learn the guitar / Grow your hair."  Dig the syncopation of those last two phrases, the pregnant pauses -- that's what back beat was all about.
Now, if you're listening to this track on my little homemade video here -- well, I don't want to give away the surprise in the middle of the song. So go ahead and listen without reading, until you hit it. Hit what, you may ask?  Don't worry -- you'll know. At least you will know if you're of a certain, erm, vintage, the correct vintage for really enjoying this track.
I'll wait while you listen.............
Of course, it begs the question -- is THIS the best record ever made? Probably not. But the fact that I said "probably" is huge. "The Best Record Ever Made" may not topple "Waterloo Sunset" or "And I Love Her" from their lofty positions in my personal rankings, but you know what? It really doesn't want to. Bill Lloyd loves those records just as much as I do. If he didn't, he couldn't do such a damn fine job of keeping their spirit alive.
So go here and buy the album already. Your car trips will appreciate it.