Friday, February 28, 2014


"Magdalene" / Guy Clark

Right here, at the crossroads of country and folk, stands an underrated giant, Texas's own Guy Clark.  Okay, so he won the Grammy this year for best folk album (My Favorite Picture of You) -- he's still not the household name he deserves to be.

Now, I don't normally think of Guy Clark as an outlaw country artist, if only because I prefer some of his more domestic songs such as "Stuff That Works" and "Worry B Gone". But as the author of, among other songs, the great "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train," he certainly helped to invent outlaw country with his Austin cronies Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Waylon Jennings in the 1970s -- and on his 2006 album Workbench Songs he's still writing (or co-writing, in this case with Ray Stephenson) about an outlaw.

Or a sorta outlaw...

Our hero is no calculating criminal, just a man who's somehow run afoul of the powers that be. "I ain't lookin' for trouble," he insists in the opening line, but trouble's found him: "I can't stay here tonight / I got to leave here on the double / If I want to see the morning light." The wary chromatics of those short simple lines are like urgent muttering in the shadow of a back porch. 

Further proof that he's not on a wild crime spree: "Don't need no pistol for the tickets /  I've got just enough to get us down the line / I don't know what happens next / Your guess is just as good as mine." He's confused, desperate, but he's rather pay for the bus tickets than hold up the ticket clerk.

Whatever crime he's committed, he's a man teetering on the brink, and the only thing he has to cling to is the one woman who makes sense to him. Magdalene is a common enough name in Tex-Mex circles, but I bet Guy was also thinking about the Bible's Mary Magdalene, a woman of cloudy reputation but pure heart.

"Move with me, Magdalene," he pleads. Even without the law (or whoever) on his tail, he's been ready to shake this town's dust off his shoes: "I'm tired of the same old scene / There's a Greyhound leaving at midnight / If you came with me, it'd be like a dream." Note that last-run bus, anything but glamor travel - but Magdalene isn't used to riding first-class anyway, is she? And if she's the kind of gal to risk everything on a mad leap of faith, all the better. Edging closer, his voice dropping into a huskier register of persuasion, he repeats his plea: "Come on, Magdalene / Move with me, Magdalene."

As verse two commences, she still hasn't turned him down, and his hopes are rising. He flips through an arsenal of arguments -- tempting visions of the future ("I've heard Mexico is easy"), brushing off the past ("I wouldn't stay here if I could"), reverse psychology ("Don't come along just to please me"), pragmatic strategy ("Let's go while the getting's good"). Whatever it takes to make her come, he'll try it out.

Last but not least, in the second chorus he adds these two lines: "Let's go down to San Miguel / Let's go be somebody else tonight." Ah, the ultimate temptation -- to junk this rotten life and try on a new one. Who wouldn't fall for that?

We never hear Magdalene's side of the conversation, it's true. But oh, I do hope she's already slipped indoors to pack her bags.

46 DOWN, 6 TO GO

Thursday, February 27, 2014


"Lucy At the Gym" / Jill Sobule

Because we don't have enough songs about eating disorders. In fact, I can't think of any other songs about eating disorders -- but leave it to Jill to know how much we needed one.

I was so happy to find this video, telling the song's story in Sims animation. We see our singer arrive at the gym -- where, she's quick to tell us, "I don't go that often,." Her slightly shlumpy build bears witness to that fact. (The real Jill Sobule, of course, is petite and elfin, not shlumpy at all.) That remark quickly establishes her as one of us, who always intend to go the gym and never do.

Ah, but Lucy?  Lucy's always there. Already we see that her animated character is thinner than the singer's, as she trudges dutifully on the treadmill. "I stare at her ribs," Jill tells us in a sort of horrified fascination, "they show through the spandex." She observes Lucy's obsessive behaviors -- "Lucy on the scale for the third time" and "She's staring at the clock / And like the second hand she never stops."

Notice how the melodic line doesn't quite resolve, the chromatic intervals rambling around, making no progress. With deadpan irony, Jill notes that Lucy on the treadmill is "going somewhere"; after she switches to a Stairmaster, "She's climbing the stairs / And when she reaches the top" -- which of course one never does on a Stairmaster.  We see her "little legs working," we are told that she's in the gym "through thick and thin," "little" and "thin" suddenly becoming loaded words.

Ah, that poignant bridge, picturing Lucy in the shower -- obsessively soaping her bony limbs no doubt -- and then going home alone. There's a yawning emptiness to that passage, as there is to her life, and all the exercise in the world isn't going to fill it.

That wistful motif on the recorder reminds me of a 60s song, "Come Saturday Morning," the theme song from Liza Minnelli's first big movie role The Sterile Cuckoo. (It was sung by the Sandpipers, with Dory Previn lyrics and music by Fred Karlin, who also wrote the Carpenters' "For All We Know".)  It's an eccentric little film about a friendless college student who has a nervous breakdown -- a pretty apt musical allusion, I'd say.

The real kicker is verse three, the inevitable day when Jill makes it to the gym and Lucy's not there. "It's got me kinda worried / So I imagine the worst," Jill tells us in her tremulous girlish voice. Remember, she doesn't even know this girl, she's only watched her from afar -- but something about Lucy's compulsive behavior has gotten under her skin.

And then, to cheer herself up, she pictures Lucy in heaven, a gleaming gym where "Everyone is beautiful and thin / And here there's no sin " (psychologists have written reams about how anorexics confuse body image and sin, but Jill and her co-writer Robin Eaton do it so deftly). And with the ultimate irony, God adds "And your life can begin."  Anorexics are always postponing life, just until I lose the next few poundsBut sometimes they die first. 

A powerful cautionary tale, right? But scrolling through the comments on YouTube for this video, I read one that says: "I listen to this everyday. It reminds me it's worth it. I hope I reach the top." The Lucys of this world are so skewed, they can't even see that Lucy's plight is meant to be a tragedy. My heart aches for them.

45 DOWN, 7 TO GO

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Two Glasgow Girls

Heading for the finish line -- so near and yet so far. Time to slip in a few more recent numbers, from two of my favorite indie bands with brains and storytelling heart. 

"String Bean Jean" / Belle & Sebastian

On their 2005 album Push Barman to Open New Wounds, this cool bunch of Scots -- led by the gifted and quirky Stuart Murdoch -- tell tales of the modern age, one misfit at a time. The lyrics are conversational, cryptic, and allusive, but there's always a musical hook to pull you in. Listen to that commanding guitar riff, all spaghetti western swagger. . . .

Our hero may or not be a musician -- "I got my fingers dirty at the school of rock," he tells us, but it's hardly as if he's a star. Aimlessly he takes a walk, he goes to the park, he's killing time -- "until the girls got home." Now I'm curious -- who are these girls?
Wasting no time, he zooms in on the one he's really interested in. She's a free spirit, a bit of a character -- when she's "on the rag [menstruating, in case you don't know the slang] / She spent the summer day inside her sleeping bag." But we do learn that she works at night, which makes me wonder -- is she like Monica, a "working girl"? Even if she isn't, a night job is usually something you take only because you're broke.

You can see why he's drawn to the girls' house -- it's "like a caravan" and "like your holidays." They're living communally, scrimping on the electric bill (in verse three he lends her money to pay the bill, because for once he's got a bit extra). It almost makes me feel nostalgic for the roommate era of my life. And in the bridge, he gets up early the next morning to catch his bus and go to work (my favorite line in the song: "I left the keys down in the caf" -- because of course the girls are chummy enough with the café down the street to use it as their personal concierge service.) There's something about being young and living on the edge that makes you treat the world as an opportunity to improv. And that restless foot-jiggling tempo, the skittering melody, convey how ready they all are to go off on any tangent they please.

Last verse, a lovely little scene: "She asked me, 'Do I need to lose a bit of weight?' / And I told her, 'Don't be stupid, because you're looking great' / And I call her String Bean Jean because the label on her jeans / Says seven to eight years old / Well that's pretty small." Because of course kids' clothes are cheaper, so if you can wear 'em, why not? I see the petite girl, I see the jeans, I imagine their a-little-more-than friends relationship. And is it just me, or does the youthful tremor in his tenor suggest that he'd like even more?
"Mistress Mabel" / The Fratellis

From 2008 (because I know you're keeping the timeline, Nick), this is the first single released from Here We Stand, the sophomore album from yet another Scottish indie pop band -- though these guys are a little more inclined to rock out.

So here's another free spirit, though a little less Bohemian glamorous. "Mistress Mabel / Seriously wrong / Clears my table / Badly then she's gone" -- she's not just a bad waitress, she's a waitress with whom he has a history, and he's still not sure whether or not he's still hooked. (My take? If he's not sure, then he's still into her.) The seesawing notes, the whiplash tempo, all tell us he's conflicted.

In verse two, dig how he describes her reputation" "Mistress Mabel / All the kids agree / You're unstable / Curious and free." That felicitous "Mabel / unstable" rhyme pins her down. She still flirts with the customers, but it doesn't always get her where she wants to be: "Hemline rat bag so they told her / Last night's nametag across her shoulder" -- has she pushed this brassy waitress act too far?
Like Maggie May, she's the Older Woman ("And tell me where all the days have gone / When you robbed my cradle / Tell me Mabel"). But he's far enough down the road to see it as a "filthy fable."  (These guys do love their rhymes.)  In verse three, he offers "Mistress Mabel, won't you marry me?" But the very next line, he admits "I'm unable / To take it seriously." So where does songwriter-front man Jon Fratelli (like the Ramones, all the band members go by this made-up last name) stand vis-a-vis Mabel? 
I realize that it is entirely possible that this song was just written to take advantage of all the rhymes for Mabel. Yet there's something to its impatient energy and ziggurat melody, the pinball rhythms of those short lines, that makes me feel our hero's push-pull attraction. Written from his point of view, it's all about resisting commitment. But I can't help wondering what it looks like from Mabel's side of the table.  

44 DOWN, 8 TO GO

Sunday, February 23, 2014


"Linda Lee" / Buster Poindexter

One reason why The 80s Didn't Suck: Those were the years in which New York Doll David Johannsen decided to transform himself into the lounge lizard Buster Poindexter, all pompadour, sharkskin suit, and calypso-flavored pop. What started out as a novelty proved surprisingly enduring; he was still recording as Buster Poindexter in 1997 (Spanish Rocket Ship, the album "Linda Lee" is on), a full decade after his 1987 party hit "Hot Hot Hot." Johanssen still lets Buster out of the wardrobe occasionally, most recently last fall at NYC's Café Carlyle. And why not? Buster is fun.

Dig the mariachi strum that launches this song -- pick up your maracas and prepare to party.

You think Buster is fun? He's nothing compared to Linda Lee. In exuberant calypso tempo, he raves in verse one: "I swear there's somethin' shining / Shining out of Linda Lee." Sure, she's pretty, but so are plenty of other girls; what Linda has is special. Later, in the third verse, he describes it as "She's like a thousand girls / Jumping up and down inside her" (and naturally there are back-up singers standing in for the thousand girls). In the last verse he adds, "She's got a carnival inside her." He may not have told us what she looks like, or what color dress she's wearing, but he gives us something more important: her essence.  
Where he does get specific is his scene-setting: "Aim this car straight towards Miami / I'm going to see my Linda Lee." I can just picture him driving south in some big-finned car, rapping out the beat on a zebraskin-covered steering wheel. Once he's there, they head for the Hialeah racetrack, and presto! "I gave her all of my money and said / Pick a winner for me. / You know it's crazy all the luck I got /  Hangin' 'round with Linda Lee / ¡Que Linda!" Linda isn't just her name, it's what she is: "beautiful" in Spanish.
As the song heats up, he starts to vary the melody, repeating lines, embellishing the verses. His voice is rasp-edged, thick, all cigar and margaritas. This is just the kind of guy who'd dig a one-woman fiesta like Linda Lee.

He's so intoxicated with her, when he's stopped on the street by a fan (okay, a little self-promotion here), all he can talk about is his girl: "They say they heard me on the radio / And seen my face on Latin T.V. / Well I tell them that ain't nothin' /  You should get a load of Linda Lee."

¡Que Linda!

42 DOWN, 10 TO GO

Saturday, February 22, 2014


"Roxette" / Dr. Feelgood

Dr. Feelgood's debut single, "Roxette" didn't exactly burn up the UK charts in 1975; getting US airplay? No way. Maybe it was too early for the general public to embrace this raw R&B sound, married to gritty satiric lyrics. But their fellow musicians were listening, notably Paul Weller of the Jam, Bob Geldof of Boomtown Rats, Clem Burke of Blondie. The seeds of punk had been sown.  

Normally I don't go with a live performance video of a song -- but in this case, the live performance is without a question the version you want.

Watch bassist John Sparks and drummer The Big Figure drive home that propulsive rhythm track, while Wilko Johnson snaps off obsessive-tic guitar licks. Above all watch Lee Brillaux command the mike, snarling Words of Warning to his straying girlfriend Roxette. (Perfect name for a rock girlfriend, with just a hint of cheap trashiness.) 
"I saw you out the other night," he begins, head lowered, eyes narrowed. "I saw somebody hold you tight / Roxette, / I wonder who it could be." If there's a whiff of the voyeur about this, so be it. "It was so dark I couldn't see / But I know it wasn't me," he remarks, a cruel ironic jab.

But he doesn't stop there. He follows her into a loud rock club, where he creeps around and eavesdrops enough to hear her "telling everyone / About a new guy you'd found." (Now that lurking guitar line makes even more sense.) Maybe she's clueless, publicly bragging about her new relationship, but I have wonder -- why is he stalking her instead of confronting her? Isn't that what a decent guy would do? Could it be -- is it possible -- that her new man is actually a better bet?

True as that may be, our singer can't afford to think that way. (Classic case of an unreliable narrator.) Love doesn't enter the picture for him at all, only jealousy and a prurient kind of rage. In verse three he's outright sinister: "Roxette I gotta go away / And leave you for a couple of days." If I were her, I'd be scared. And now the threat is made plain: "Roxette, I don't want no more of your tricks / I'm gonna get some concrete mix / And fill your back door up with bricks."  (Delicious triple rhymes.)  Sneaky songwriting from Wilko Johnson, to draw us into collusion with this yobbo until we're accessories in his hoodlum revenge. I think of the notorious Kray Twins, convicted only a couple of years before for their vicious East End crime racket. File for a restraining order NOW, Roxette!

Talk about clueless -- he's convinced that this intimidation will win her heart. "And you better be there waiting / When I get my business fixed," he signs off with a crisp threat. Because she's still his property, in't she?  Well, in't she? 

41 DOWN, 11 TO GO

Friday, February 21, 2014


Two Annies

Another two-fer, which coincidentally (or maybe not) also features Ben Folds.

"Annie Get Your Gun" / Squeeze

"Annie Get Your Gun" -- you mean, like the Ethel Merman musical?  Yes, just like, and Squeeze lyricist Chris Difford says he'd written earlier songs about Annie Oakley as well. But by the time it passed through his hands, this October 1982 single isn't a straight character sketch, more like a jumble of images hung on a great Glenn Tillbrook tune. Recorded just as Squeeze was breaking up (for the first time), "Annie" never made it onto a regular album, nor did they tour to promote it (shades of the Zombies and "Time of the Season."). If they had, maybe we American music fans in Annie's home country would have made it a hit.

With spangly 80s guitar riffs, long melodic arcs, and a chugging beat that's half-ska, half-power pop, this track is full of upbeat energy right from the downbeat. The first verse throws us into the story halfway through: "She goes for her medical / She's passed, it's a miracle / She's up over the moon / She whistles nonsense tunes / She wants drinks for everyone." Anybody else think of Sarah Holcomb in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack, dancing in the moonlight when she discovers she's not pregnant?

"She's found a chord that she can strum," he adds, before launching into this finger-snapping question-and-answer chorus:  "What's that she's playin'? /(Annie get your gun) / What's that she's takin'? / (The song has to be sung) / She's gone electric / (Annie wipe them out) / That's unexpected / (Strum that thing and shout) / Don't pull that trigger / (Annie get your gun) / Don't shoot that singer / (You're shooting number one.)." With its near rhymes and mixed metaphors, it has the loose dynamic of improv. I don't see a real gun, but "gun" as slang for "guitar," yes indeedy -- "she's gone electric" (like Dylan at Newport), she's commanded to "Strum that thing and shout" and when she shoots, it's the singer she's shooting.

This Annie is an 80s girl, confident and effervescent, looking for freedom and a good time. In verse two, however, we meet her counterpart and polar opposite: "He's not into miracles / Sees life all too cynical / The cat has got his tongue."  So what does Annie do to stir him up? "Now she bangs on his drum" (translate that metaphor however you please), and it seems to do the trick. Oh, she's found a chord that she can strum all right.

"Annie Waits" / Ben Folds

In a lot of ways, I see Ben Folds as the heir to Randy Newman: a storyteller-social commentator who somehow combines snarky humor with a romantic streak a mile wide. Every song is a character, every song tells a story. And being pianists rather than guitarists (and incredibly gifted pianists to boot), unfettered by chord changes, they can both write gorgeous heart-rending melodies when the occasion requires. Exhibit A, from 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs: As a portrait of the modern lonely single woman, "Annie Waits" nails it.

Striking a strict piano chord tempo, Ben trains the camera's eye on his heroine, "And so / Annie waits, Annie waits, Annie waits / For a call / From a friend." (Cut to a quick close-up shot of the telephone on a nearby table.) That repetition of "Annie waits" amidst the other short lines hammers home the excruciating boredom of waiting. And it's not an unfamiliar situation to her:  "The same / It's the same / Why's it always the same?" We begin to get the idea that this isn't just a friend, and he's let her down before. 
Verse two shows us the merciless clock, and this concise couplet,  "She's growing old / It's getting late" -- her biological clock is ticking too. Maybe that's why she's put up with such a cad. Her anxious mind runs through the possible scenarios: "And so he forgot, he forgot, maybe not / Maybe he's been seriously hurt / And that'd be worse." A little mordant humor there -- she has to remind herself that a car crash would be worse than her being stood up.   

Melodic phrases lengthen, swinging into panoramic action, for the bridge, as we join Annie at the window: "Headlights crest the hill / Shadows pass her by and out of sight . . . "  Sigh; it isn't his car, and Annie suffers a brief and terrifying glimpse of her future as a single old lady: "Friday bingo, pigeons in the park." So she stays at the window, waiting "for the last time." But doesn't she always say that?

And then the song hushes down for Annie to speak -- "You see this is why I'd rather be / Alone." Ah, the lies we tell ourselves. Because despite the agony he puts her through, she still doesn't really prefer to be alone.

But this wouldn't be a Ben Folds song if the plot didn't thicken towards the end. The second time through, the bridge's lyrics change: "Headlights crest the hill / Who will be the one for evermore? / Annie, I could be / If we're both still lonely when we're old." I picture her so busy staring out that window, she doesn't even hear him -- wake up, Annie!!

"Annie waits for the last time," he repeats ruefully in the final chorus, "Just the same as the last time." Chords crash, backing vocals overlap -- it's a tumult of emotion. "Annie waits," he concludes, and then it all abruptly stops as he sighs: "But not for me." All we're left with is a few more bars of relentless drumbeat, overlaid with lonely synthesizer twiddles . . . and then SCENE and out.

40 DOWN, 12 TO GO

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Two Janes

If you've tuned in looking for "Janie's Got A Gun" by Aerosmith . . . .really?  On what planet?

 "Jane" / Golden Smog

Technically this is a Golden Smog track, from that alt-country supergroup that has at various times included everyone from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy to the Replacements' Chris Mars to Big Star dummer Jody Stephens. But I prefer to think of it as a lost Jayhawks song. Though it appears on the 1998 Smog album Weird Tales, it was written by Jayhawks Gary Louris and Marc Perlman, with a Louris lead vocal. And like the best of the Jayhawks' stuff, it's a well-crafted short story with a yearning heart.

In a way, Jane is Eleanor Rigby with a twist -- she escapes from the mouldering mansion. "She came from a wealthy family," he sets the scene, and then draws an almost cinematic picture of her trapped in their house, with "walls inside the walls" and a widow's walk where she paces restlessly. "She watched from every window / Darkened every door / Saw her reflection / In every wave that hit the shore" -- it's like a montage from Rebecca, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, or maybe Dark Shadows. A mellotron sighing underneath the folky acoustic guitar jingle adds just the right melancholy touch.

In verse two we learn that she has "wandered off into the night / One eye closed, the other blind / Reading the silver side of signs." That last image is striking; I picture her walking in the wrong lane, against the traffic. Up to now, I've imagined her as a rebellious young daughter -- but then the line "everything you had, you lost before" turns things around, as I realize that Jane is haunted by her past, not longing for a future.

Shifting into a higher key, that plangent chorus is nothing but unanswered questions: "Jane, why don't you give a damn? / Jane, why don't you stay?" I wonder indeed, and can't help thinking about Elvis Costello's "Veronica." Could Jane be wandering off because she's got dementia?

In verse three, she seems to be back home: "And when her scattered thoughts had died / The sand upon her feet had dried / Among chandeliers and sweet perfume." So much for running away. I should be glad to know she's safe and sound -- then why does this ending feel so sad?

"Jane" / Ben Folds Five

Only a year later, this "Jane" is much more of an indie heroine. It's from the Ben Folds Five's ironically titled 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. (Inside joke: That was the name on drummer Darren Jessee's fake ID in high school -- the guys didn't know there was a real Reinhold Messner, a world-famous Italian mountain climber, until the album was nearly finished. Reportedly instead of suing he just sent them a note saying he enjoyed their record.)

Not your typical love song, I guess; you could call it an Advice Song. But unlike 1960s girl-group advice songs, this one is the opposite of finger-wagging sass.

It starts with a lonesome whistling wind (Reinhold Messner standing atop a peak?) before abruptly plunging us into a lounge of cool piano trio jazz. The textures and syncopation remind me of Steely Dan, but this is something else entirely, with a rueful tempo and tender vocals. The chords shift uncertainly, and the lines are short, as if he's hesitating, so anxious to be tactful. "Jane, be Jane," he counsels her (I like the tautology of that line, more personal than a boring old "be yourself " mantra). "You're better that way," he adds, "Not when you're trying / Imitating something / You think you saw." The lines don't even rhyme; he's groping for the right words.

It's no time for an "I am woman hear me roar" anthem -- Jane (as in plain Jane) is so anxious and insecure, she clearly needs a nudge. What if the boys won't like me? you can almost hear her wail. But verse two has an answer for her: "Jane, be Jane / And if sometimes that might / Drive them away / Let them stay there / You don't need them anyway." You're too good for those guys, Jane.

The key shifts higher and the volume swells in the bridge; brushed cymbals and a riot of piano glissandos add starry hope, as he dives deeper into her insecurities. "You're worried there might not be anything at all inside / If that's your worry / I should tell you that's not right." I love how his voice lifts, with such a touch of exasperation, on "tell you that's not right." Fact is, we're all vulnerable to that worry in the dark nights of our soul.

In verse three, he shifts from chiding to cheerleading: "It's your life / And you can decorate it / As you like." I love this next line: "Beneath the pain and armor / In your eyes  / The truth still shines." Will the real Jane please stand up? 

Okay, so I've said it's not a love song -- but who is this singing? A brother? A shrink? An old boyfriend? A friend with a secret crush on her? Whoever he is, he clearly loves Jane and sees how special she is. Who knows what might happen if she'd take his advice . . .

38 DOWN, 14 TO GO

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


"Rosetta" /
Alan Price & Georgie Fame

Putting Alan Price and Georgie Fame together made no sense. What was this, the land of Dueling Keyboards? I loved Georgie Fame and the Famous Blue Flames' mid-60s classic "Yeh Yeh"; I adored Alan Price's organ solos on Animals' hits like "House of the Rising Son" and "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Not only were they both keyboard whizzes, they both had smoky sexy voices with Northern accents. Together?  Wasn't that too much of a good thing?

Silly me. The key thing (no pun intended) was how much these two entertainers enjoyed each other, how they fed off of each other's snappy pop energy. Their 1971 LP Fame & Price Together is packed with gems like "Home Is Where Your Heart Is," "That's How Strong My Love Is," and the Randy Newman satire "Yellow Man."

Or Exhibit A, "Rosetta," the big hit single off this wonderful album.

Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Fame & Price Together was produced by Mike Smith, the same producer who turned down the Beatles when they auditioned for Decca Records. It was written by someone named Mike Snow (anyone? anyone?) and was also recorded that same year by the popular German artist Klaus Wunderlich, known as a genius on the Hammond organ. There's something about this song that keyboardists love.

Well, for one thing, keyboardists like to show off their lightning-fast finger work, and this song's swinging tempo offers such an opportunity, leapfrogging up and down the keys as it rattles along. Duelling Keyboards indeed -- the faster Georgie goes on his verse, the faster Alan has to go on his. And look at that video -- they're both having a fine time amping up the tempo, yet never losing the snappy swing of it. Rock AND roll....

I suppose this song could be called a novelty. Proper girls -- girls who get songs named after them -- are not supposed to be hell-raisers, but here's our Rosetta: "Well, my little girl is a sweet little girl / But she does things that make your eyebrows curl / You let her loose for a Friday night / You know it's gonna end in a fight." What?  (I do love that image of making your eyebrows curl, and the way Alan rolls the R on Rosetta? Bestill my heart.)

She's hardly a dainty thing. "Rosetta drinks her whisky neat / She gets in a fight and she might get beat." This is way before the Spice Girls introduced the concept of Girl Power, remember. But in the hard-drinking Geordie culture that Price and Fame (from Newcastle and Lancashire, respectively) grew up in, a lass who can put away some liquor is a lass to be respected.

And respect her he does: "So I go round on the Saturday night and ask her if she feels alright." (Cue up a hammering set of descending chords, almost as if he's traipsing down the steps to her basement flat.) "Rosetta, are you better, are you well, well, well . . . " I love those repeated well-well-wells, their sassy harmonizing, which somehow morph into a sort of tut-tutting commentary -- as in "well, well, well, what have we here?"

In verse two they go out again, but her reputation precedes her: "Knocked on the door but we couldn't get in / 'Cos the boss don't want no fuss." They find another bar, Rosie ends up passing out, he has to take her home and pour her into bed. And a second round of well-well-wells ensues.

But he doesn't sound exasperated or critical of his little spitfire -- both vocals are full of joviality and yet tenderness. (Don't think too hard about the fact that each verse is sung by a different bloke -- so long as they're happy with it, more power to you, Rosetta.)

That chipper syncopation, half boogie-woogie and half music-hall softshoe, is nothing but high spirits and good will. This is a song that never fails to make me feel happy. I love how their voices blend on the chorus, how the pianos pound together. Too much of a good thing? I think not.

36 DOWN, 16 TO GO

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


"Marie" / Randy Newman

You say you know Randy Newman's music. But which Randy Newman stuff do you know? Is it the snarky MTV-era hits "Short People" and "I Love L.A."? The chirpy Toy Story theme "You've Got a Friend In Me"?  The wicked satires like "Political Science" or "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"? The Three Dog Night party song "Mama Told Me Not to Come"? The whimsical "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear" (covered by BOTH Alan Price and Harry Nilsson, two major Newman aficionados)?

Ah, but now let me present to you another side of Randy Newman -- the tender romantic with a sentimental heart of gold.

This is track three of 1974's Good Old Boys -- Newman's first hit album, his second-highest charting LP ever (after 1979's Little Criminals), and still perhaps his biggest critical success, ranked #393 on Rolling Stones' top 500 albums of all time (for what that's worth).

It's a sleeper, tucked away after "Rednecks" and "Birmingham." Randy Newman's not known for his love songs, and yet here's one of the sweetest love songs ever recorded. Though it's not autobiographical -- Randy Newman does not do autobiography, he always speaks through a character -- when he decides to lay irony and snark aside, he can discover tenderness in surprising places. Yes, it's true the singer is a drinking man of limited sophistication, but when it comes to love, he's as true as an arrow. 

Dig that old-fashioned waltz tempo, and the lush string intro -- the movie soundtrack composer inside Randy Newman was already yearning to break out.   But once it hushes down for the vocals, here's Randy's imperfect voice -- scratchy, husky, pitchy, just like the ordinary joe who's telling us his story, one elbow propped on the bar. 

Marie makes her entrance right away, a vision of loveliness in a dreamy upward sweeping melody. "You looked like a princess the night we met /  With your hair piled up high / I will never forget." That beehive/bouffant detail is so right, yet told just as he'd tell it. I can just imagine his vague hand gesture, sketching her hairstyle.

Next he huddles sheepishly down into minor and 7th chords, the melody circling around a few notes: "I'm drunk right now, baby," he confesses in a hangdog croak, "But I've got to be / Or I never could tell you / What you mean to me." In vino veritas, indeed. 

But his heart is full, and he gruffly lifts his voice into a higher register to proclaim the chorus: " I loved you the first time I saw you / And I always will love you, Marie." So simple, so heartfelt. 

By verse two, the liquor has made him wax poetic: "You're the song that the trees sing when the wind blows / You're a flower, you're a river, you're a rainbow." With that divine waltzing melody, it's so extravagant and lyrical, yet I still buy the guy's voice, spouting a string of clichés as he swings his arms around, tottering on his barstool.

Then, with a rueful chuckle, he brings himself back to earth: "Sometimes I'm crazy / But I guess you know." I'll bet she does. And now that he's switched to honesty mode again, he doesn't cut himself any slack: "And I'm weak and I'm lazy / And I've hurt you so / And I don't listen to a word you say / When you're in trouble I turn away." His head is hanging low, he's staring bleakly into his half-empty glass. He knows he doesn't deserve her. There's a lifetime of marriage in those lines.

And then, simply, he rises back into the chorus: "I love you, I loved you the first time I saw you / And I always will love you, Marie." And with those heart-melting strings underneath . . . well, despite everything, this is why Marie stays.

35 DOWN, 17 TO GO 

Monday, February 17, 2014


"Sweet Virginia" / Bill Lloyd

I first heard of Bill Lloyd via a Kinks tribute album -- might have been his cover of "Picture Book" on This Is Where I Belong, though I think it was his "This Is Where I Belong" on Mojo's The Modern Genius of Ray Davies. (Following that?) So from the very beginning, I've known him as a kindred lover of 1960s British Invasion Pop. Nowhere is this more evident that on his 1999 album Standing On the  Shoulders of Giants, packed with his own backbeat melodic beauties. That's where I found this charmer, co-written (bonus points!) with fellow Nashvillian Bill DeMain.

Right away, we experience the effect this girl has on him: "I can feel my insides / Take that elevator ride / Sweet Virginia, everytime that you're around." We've all felt that way -- I believe the cliché is "weak in the knees." He's so nervous, he starts babbling: "Well I can't think what to say / But I say it anyway" -- yup, been there, done that.

Yet this song isn't tense or anxious; it has a relaxed, cheerful, almost jaunty spirit, with that jangly guitar and skipping tempo. He's energized by this girl, his heart fluttering. I love how the next mini-bridge sighs into its short lines, as if our hero is stammering: "Ooh girl / It's you, girl / My heart beats for / And I'm / Too shy / To say much more."

In verse two, the story starts to fill out. "When I first saw your face / I was trying to erase / The memory of someone I had lost / And it felt like I'd died / Till you warmed me up inside / With a smile that could melt a winter's frost." Ah, so this is a Replacement Girlfriend Song -- a close cousin to "If I Fell" or "Help Me Rhonda." Yet the upbeat sound of this song tells us that he's already moved on a bit; he's not feeling so bruised, so wounded, anymore. 

There's an echo of the Beatles, both "Good Day Sunshine" and "The Word," in the next stammering mini-bridge, as he carries on the theme of her frost-melting smile: "Sunshine, / So fine, / You radiate / So why / Do I / Hesitate?" Wha? In fact, it seems she isn't even properly a Replacement Girlfriend yet -- she may not even have any idea how he feels. In both "If I Fell" and "Help Me Rhonda," the guy was already in command, demanding that the new girl heal his heart. But this Virginia has already done that with one tossed-off smile.

In fact that smile is all we actually see of Virginia -- everything else is her impact upon our hero. As the chorus repeatedly vows, he'll do anything for her, adding in the final bridge, "I'll be here for you /Now till ever after / Long as I can hear /The music of your laughter." Oh well, then, add the sound of her laughter to her presence in this song. Sketch in the rest -- hair color, eye color, shape, dress, voice -- in whatever form makes you happy.

Of course he won't be there forever; if he can't get up the nerve to talk to Virginia, another girl will eventually come his way. But this is how he feels right now -- and, man, is he grateful for the light at the end of heartbreak's tunnel.

34 DOWN, 18 TO GO

Sunday, February 16, 2014


"Maggie May" / Rod Stewart  

Nowadays, we'd call her a "cougar," I guess.

We had no idea -- how could we? -- what a MOR slacker Rod Stewart would eventually turn out to be, how quickly he'd turn into a parody of himself, with his succession of hot blond wives, his perma-tan and artfully streaked shag, the tight trousers and silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist. But in 1971, that gritty voice still sounded authentic and vital. "Maggie May" practically jumped out of the radio speakers at me.  Yes, I went out and bought Every Picture Tells A Story; not just bought it, but listened to it A LOT.

Forget all those folky guitar twiddlings in the intro; this song really begins with two whomping drum beats. (Sitting on my dorm bed, I'd slam the bedposts to those drum whacks.) Then comes Rod's desperate croak, "Wake up Maggie, I think I've got something to say to you." For once, the hoarseness of Rod's voice made dramatic sense -- he's just woken up from a rough night of shagging.

For me, the grabber was that next line: "It's late September and I really should be back at school." It made me, a new college student myself, somehow identify with this scenario of a randy slacker entwined in the wiles of an older woman. I'd never been in anything even remotely like that situation, but that didn't stop me. Maybe even then I liked the idea that an older woman could be sexier than the girls his own age.

His attachment to Maggie is intriguing and complicated -- he knows she's used him, she's "made a first-class fool out of me," she's "kicked me in the head." He even sees that she did it for purely selfish reasons -- "just to save [herself] from being alone." The raspiness of Rod's vocals enhances our image of a kid being run ragged by this voracious older woman. ("Older" meaning, what, thirty? Horrors!) In the first chorus, he says she stole his heart, but the next time around, she's stolen his soul, "and that's what really hurts."

The instrumental arrangement, too, teeters between sexual tension -- Ronnie Wood's driving guitar riffs and lunging bass, Mickey Waller's crashing drums, Ian McLagen's thrumming organ -- and tenderness, in the form of that memorable mandolin solo (played by Lindisfarne's Roy Jackson.) Our hero is both realistic and romantic, watching her sleep. I love this snapshot image: "The morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age." But he shrugs that off: "But that don't worry me none, in my eyes you're ev'rything." He's willingly done his part -- "I laughed at all of your jokes / My love you didn't need to coax." Even now, he's not exactly angry with her; he's still muddled up and half in love.

In the bridge, he recalls their history, how he drifted into this affair innocently, or at least unsuspectingly. "All I needed was a friend to lend a guiding hand / But you turned into a lover, and mother, what a lover! / You wore me out." That's a damn sexy line, IMHO; you just about HAVE to picture them in bed.

Somewhere in England the original Maggie May must smile whenever she hears this song. Yes, the master Singer of Other People's Songs actually did write this one himself, and he claims it's autobiographical.  He never went to university -- too busy trying out to be a footballer -- but that's a minor point. At the end of the song, he retreats from the idea of school, and begins to idly thumb through alternative careers. Should he be a pool hustler like his dad? (Who was actually a footballer, but never mind.)

And then here's the final grabber: Or maybe, I don't know, "find myself a rock and roll band / That needs a helping hand." And as we all know, the rest was history.


33 DOWN, 19 TO GO  

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


"Arabella" / Arctic Monkeys

Just saw these guys in concert last weekend, and I was so smitten with this song from their great new album AM, I had to add Arabella to the 52 Girls line-up. (Even though I already had a post all worked up on "Mardy Bum" . . . .)

Reverby space-age guitar riffs and a catapulting drumbeat launch us immediately, and Alex Turner's lyrics extravagantly develop the galactic theme, describing Arabella's "interstellar gatorskin boots" and "Barbarella silver swimsuit" (the image leaps to my mind, readymade, of Jane Fonda as a pouty outer space sex kitten in that 1960s cult classic Roger Vadim flick). This kind of imagistic writing always makes me think of Robyn Hitchcock, and you know that's a plus in my book. In verse two Turner marvels, "It's an exploration, she's made of outer space / And her lips are like the galaxy's edge / And her kiss the colour of a constellation falling into place." None of which can possibly be true, and yet the sense of it is clear -- this guy is beyond dazzled with his girl.

The girl in question being Alex Turner's partner, the gorgeous Arielle Vandenberg. (Google her -- she is indeed a knockout.) He's so under her spell, he imagines "a helter skelter [translation: an amusement park spiral slide] 'round her little finger / And I ride it endlessly." Not much plot here, but the vividness, the cinematic detail, of his fantastical descriptions put us completely in the moment and at the scene.

Dig the punchy whiplash rhythms of this passage, sung more or less a capella: "My days end best when this sunset gets itself / Behind that little lady sitting on the passenger side / It's much less picturesque without her catching the light / The horizon tries but it's just not as kind on the eyes." Sure, he could just have said "I dig driving in my car with my baby," but that convoluted syntax flips reality, until we're in the car with them, seeing how his world has been turned upside down. Even the most glorious sunset is only a minor backdrop when Arabella is around. There's an ironic chuckle to his voice as he describes her with the cliché "kind on the eyes" -- she is SO much more to him.

For all the verbal ingenuity of the verses, the chorus is refreshingly simple, a delighted groan of her name, with falsetto vocals teasing him: "Just might have tapped into your mind and soul / You can be sure." Ya think? And then the ecstatic guitar riffs commence to peel off.

You want sexy? Oh, well, you've come to the right place. In the last verse he regards her with lascivious pride: "That's magic in a cheetah print coat / Just a slip underneath it I hope."  The call-and-response of the lyrics, their blurry speed, are a little psychedelic, but why not? This girl is a trip worth taking. He bums a cigarette from her -- any intimate contact is good -- and as he watches her drink a coke (sorry, not just a coke, a "Mexican coke"),  it "makes you wish that you were the bottle." Unh-hunh.

When the lyrics are this good, who needs story?

32 DOWN, 20 TO GO

Saturday, February 08, 2014


Four Kinks Girls

I know that this is Beatlemania Weekend -- the mass media have decreed it so and won't let us forget it -- but I've already done my Beatles girls, and it's time for the Kinks. (Who also have a 50th anniversary coming up this year, in case you didn't know.) And just to expand your horizons, no "Lola" and no "Victoria" -- the Kinks had plenty of other girl songs without those two obvious hits.

"Rosie Won't You Please Come Home" -- Face to Face (1966)

Track two on the Kinks' fourth album, this was inspired by Ray and Dave Davies' older sister Rose, with whom Ray was particularly close -- as a boy he even lived for a time with her and her husband Arthur (yes, he of the album Arthur) -- before they moved to Australia. And now he misses her something awful.

But in a very un-pop-like twist, we don't get the kid's perspective, only the lonesome family waiting at home. (A year later, the Beatles would steal, er, adapt this idea for "She's Leaving Home.") Though it's sung by Rosie's brother, he ratchets up the emotional blackmail by telling her "Mama don't know where you've been." And I love that line "Your room's clean and no one's in it" -- that's indeed what the mopey brother, still kicking around home, would notice.

Rosie's been gone for two years, "miles across the sea," and Ray -- working in social commentary mode throughout this album -- portrays Rosie's desertion as a bit of social climbing: "Since you joined the upper classes / You don't know us anymore" and "You tried to change your life." But homebody Ray can't even imagine her new life, he's so stuck in his -- "Christmas wasn't quite the same," he muses woefully, and he's willing to bake a cake -- how domestic is that! -- to lure her home.

The chugging guitar, the minor key, the jazzy modulations, the baroque electric piano counterpoint -- it's all so wistful. Will Rosie ever make it home?

"Polly" -- Something Else By the Kinks (1967)

And another runaway! (I sense a theme.)

Now Ray is the omniscient narrator, observing the family drama, and the sound is entirely different -- brittle, ironic, in a major key, with a rat-tat-tat drum and electric piano overlaid with clanging harsh electric guitar. Because now we are in the world of the defiant girl -- "She tried to make the swinging city scene" -- and it's not a kind and gentle world. (A companion song, though it never made it onto the album, would be the B-side of "Dead End Street," "Big Black Smoke.") "And now there's not a place that Polly hasn't been." in "she really gets around, wink wink"?

He regards her in the bridge: "Pretty Polly, dressed as jolly as can be, / She's so darling, all the fellas do agree" -- "jolly" and "darling" are delivered with a snide twist, followed by the hollow cliché "And half a million people can't be wrong." Is she a prostitute or a celebrity? Or are they one and the same? (A typical Ray Davies dig against the shallowness of stardom.)

This time the story has a happy ending, even if it feels a little too pat -- Polly "breaks the chains" and comes home to her Mama and Papa. Our narrator applauds, naturally, after tut-tutting in every chorus, "I think that pretty Polly should have stayed at home." Of course this is ironic -- or is it? I don't know -- there's always been a recluse side to Ray Davies.

Listening to Ray's campy mincing vocals, I wonder if he was inspired by something theatrical -- possibly Polly Peachum in Brecht-Weill's Threepenny Opera, or at least the 1962 German film version (which would a year later inspire Donovan to write "Lalena" -- did everybody in the 60s steal their ideas from Ray Davies?)

"Monica" -- The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

 And speaking of prostitutes . . .


If the Village Green album starts out as a nostalgia-tinged portrait of pastoral innocence, on Side Two that runs completely off the rails. We see the voracious groupie of "Starstruck," the navel-gazing hippie of "Phenomenal Cat," the drunken singer of "All of My Friends Were There," the witch of "Wicked Annabella." Then this sweet Caribbean-tinged samba starts, and we see this streetwalker, ready for her close-up -- "Under a lamplight / Monica stands at midnight."  
Ray sings it so earnestly, it seems like poetry -- but practical Monica doesn't buy that hooey. "Morning to moonshine," he croons, then, undercutting his own lyricism, "Monica knows every line. / Don't ever propose / 'Cause Monica knows, you know. / She'll turn up her nose / And say what a fool you are." God forbid he should be such a fool.
And yet he does love her; in the chorus, he's practically baying to the moon with desire: "I, I shall die / I, I shall die / If I should lose Monica." (Love how he uses the Caribbean inflections there.) And in typical Ray Davies symbology, he casts his vote for the night against the day: "You take the sunshine,  / I'll take the nightly shadows. / 'Cause everyone knows / That Monica glows at night." Sorry, Monica, but that's not just a line -- it's sheer poetry. 
Add this to the short list of sincere love songs from Ray Davies -- it may not be autobiographical, but it sure does ring true.   

"Sweet Lady Genevieve" -- Preservation Pt. 1 (1973) 

Did someone say sincere love songs?

Okay, yes, Ray is playing a character here -- the Tramp, who wanders in and out of the Preservation social satire, a ragged misfit commenting on the political struggle between good, evil, and hypocrisy. The theatrical flutter in his vocals, the Muswell Hillbillies-style country wheeze, should be distancing devices.

But I don't think so. He's not trying to cover up that he's been an asshole in the past -- "Once under a scarlet sky / I told you never ending lies, / But they were the words of a drunken vagabond / Who knew very well he would break your heart before long." That "scarlet sky" may be alliterative, but it's also a mark of shame. He admits to drunkenness, to lying, to hypocrisy. In every verse he confesses more -- he's been impetuous, he used her, her led her on, he was being sly, he was a rogue. He's beating himself up with all this honesty, the words piling up in a rush. I feel a glint of true soul-searching there on the part of Raymond Douglas Davies.

And that's all in the past, he vows. "This time I'll give you some security / And I won't make promises I can't keep" -- surely someone who recognizes his faults so well can reform, right? Weeelll...

True, this song tells us more about him than about Genevieve. Only toward the end does he describe her shyness, her innocence, and then only to make excuses for himself. (The back-sliding has already begun.) Still, we know she's sweet and somewhat refined -- a "lady" (I assume he calls her Genevieve for the Arthurian ring to it) -- and the earnestness of those drawn-out refrains "Sweet Lady Genevieve" is convincing.

Notice how he drops the word-crammed syncopation for simple straightforward rock as he woos her in the bridge: "Let me rock you, hold you / Take you in my arms. / Forgive me, please / Smile away all your sadness, put your trust in me." (Love how the second time around, he flips the pronouns to put the burden on her: "oh love me, please / Take me in your arms.") That sadness in her smile really seems to get to him. He wishes he could be better, just for her. Can he?

Well, I won't spoil the ending for you. . . .  

31 DOWN, 21 TO GO

Monday, February 03, 2014


"Georgy Girl" / The Seekers

Anyone remember this movie?  1966, British, in arty black and white -- it was part of that brief new wave of British filmmaking that began with the gritty realism of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and ended with the absurdism of If . . . . My favorite era of filmmaking, hands down.

But this one in particular had a story that really spoke to me. Georgy/Georgina, played by Vanessa Redgrave's kid sister Lynn, is an impulsive, cheerful, slightly overweight girl, harboring a mad crush on the gorgeous boyfriend (Alan Bates) of her icy, elegantly beautiful roommate (Charlotte Rampling). Just guess which character I identified with.

With its perky whistling motif, "Georgy Girl" sounds more like cabaret, or at least folk music, than backbeat rock & roll. The Seekers (note: NOT the Searchers) weren't British but Australian -- the first Aussies, in fact, to score Top 5 hits in the US, UK, and Australia -- and they clearly identified as folkies. The songwriter was Dusty Springfield's brother Tom, her old partner from the folk trio the Springfields, who had also written the Seekers' earlier acoustic hits, "I'll Never Find Another You" and "A World Of Our Own." (The Seekers' lead singer, Judith Durham, even sounded like a Dusty Springfield, minus the Motown influence.)  Yet the times they were a-changing, and this song mixes things up with a brisker, boppier, tempo, and lyrics by musical comedy actor Jim Dale. 
Despite its plucky melody, we all knew this was a desperately sad song. Addressed to Georgy by an omniscient narrator, the song goes to the heart of her paradoxical nature: "Hey there, Georgy Girl / Swingin' down the street so fancy free / Nobody you meet could ever see the loneliness there / Inside you." It's almost as if this is her shrink singing, the close folk harmonies adding a sort of clinical detachment. Men pass her by, unattracted by her frumpy appearance; we're still in pre-Swinging London when the bohemian look was not In. Yet in that wistful bridge, Durham's voice rings out solo, noting Georgy's secret hunger for love: "You're always window shopping / But never stopping to buy / So shed those dowdy feathers and fly! / A little bit." As a clumsy pre-teen, I took that directive very much to heart.

Teetering on the cusp of the Be Yourself groovy 1960s, in the chorus the singers become cheerleaders urging Georgy to self-actualization -- "Hey there, Georgy girl / There's another Georgy deep inside / Bring out all the love you hide / And, oh, what a change there'd be / The world would see / A new Georgy girl." In verse two Durham exhorts her: "Don't be so scared of changing / And rearranging yourself / It's time for jumping down from the shelf / A little bit." I love how they tack on those last short phrases -- "inside you," "a little bit" -- knowing that Georgy is only ready for baby steps toward Finding Herself.

This song was so inspiring, so heartening to me, that I pretty much refused to acknowledge that there was another set of lyrics for the end credits:

Wait -- how did Georgy get from lovable eccentric to a selfish gold-digger? Sorry, you'll just have to see the movie. . . .  

27 DOWN, 25 TO GO

Saturday, February 01, 2014


Three Veronicas

Three girls named Veronica -- but oh, how different they are.

"Veronica Sawyer" / Edna's Goldfish

Let's start with the outlier. Edna's Goldfish -- now, sadly, defunct -- was a ska band from Long Island, active 1997-2000, part of the US ska revival that gave us Catch-22, Less Than Jake, and Reel Big Fish (who liked this song so much they did a cover of it).

Though ska is essentially an urban sound, this song's pumped-up tempo and crisp jittery horn section perfectly capture suburban teen restlessness. The kid's looking out his window, he's pacing around his yard, he's cruising the boulevard, he's trying to get into the cool parties. The chorus takes us through the dreaded weekend, from Friday night through Sunday morning, underlaid with that propulsive ska beat. "Just waiting for the afternoon so I can be a kid again..."

So who is Veronica Sawyer? For all you pop-culture mavens, she's the character played by Winona Ryder in the 1988 cult classic Heathers, one of the scariest movies ever made about vicious high-school social cliques. Veronica was the one queen bee smart enough to see how evil it was -- but it almost took her down, too. She may not be a character in this song's scenario, but her story hangs over the whole thing, a cautionary tale indeed.

"Veronica" / Wreckless Eric

So what happens after high school?  If you're the sort of lovable loser that usually populated Wreckless Eric songs, you join the army and get shipped out. And then you miss the girl back home.

In true Stiff Records style, this 1978 track from Wreckless Eric's second UK album The Wonderful World of Wreckless Eric, is defiantly rough and handmade. Eric Goulden's mumbling guttural snarl wasn't vicious like the Sex Pistols or the Clash could be, but it definitely didn't sound like polished pop. And therefore, it was a lot easier to believe that this really was a sad sack private sitting miserably in some barracks, maybe in Northern Ireland, kissing Veronica's picture.

She's not much of a sweetheart -- she's not writing him back, for one thing: "There's been no messages for me from a girl by the name of Veronica." She's not even "my Veronica" -- how well did he know her? (Later he sings, "I don't need a note to know she could be friends with me" -- is she just a pen pal?) Yet he insists "I'm going to this war / I'm gonna fight for my Veronica." Whether she knows it or not, she's become a beacon of home in his mind.

With a howl of sexual frustration, he sings, "I wanna hold her / But I can't because I'm a soldier"  and later, repeatedly, "I'm a soldier, bang bang / I really want to hold her." (Nice double-entendre with that "bang.") That's most of the song, really. The melody isn't much, lines ending randomly on unresolved chords. He doesn't give us any picture of the girl -- "she's my angel" is about the extent of it -- for all we know, he doesn't even remember what she looks like. But his longing, his loneliness, and his terror of the near future? Those are all crystal clear.

"Veronica" / Elvis Costello

Elvis may have been a cynical New Wave punk, but what happened when in 1989 he had a chance to work with ex-Beatle Paul McCartney? Like any of us would, he leapt at the chance. The result was, I now learn to my surprise, Elvis's biggest selling US hit, boosted no doubt by endless re-runs of this video on MTV (remember when MTV could make or break a record?). 

This EC/Macca Veronica is anything but a teenage beauty queen -- she's more like, oh, I don't know, maybe Eleanor Rigby. (Coincidence? I think not.) Stuck in a nursing home, drifting in dementia, in her memory she's still a hot number. "Well she used to have a carefree mind of her own / And a devilish look in her eye." Listening patiently, he pieces together bits of her poignant past: "Well it was all of sixty-five years ago / When the world was the street where she lived / And a young man sailed on a ship in the sea / With a picture of Veronica." Elvis says the song was inspired by visiting his own grandmother in a nursing home -- not the usual stuff of pop hits.

Just as in "Eleanor Rigby," the verses are storytelling patter while the chorus swells and rises wistfully. "Do you suppose, that waiting hands on eyes, / Veronica has gone to hide?" She's like a little girl playing peek-a-boo, happily adrift in her second childhood, untouched by the indignities of the nursing home. "And all the time she laughs at those who shout / Her name and steal her clothes? / Veronica / Veronica." I love how he repeats her name, more urgently the second time, trying to get through to her.

The snappy tempo, the syncopation -- it's far more upbeat than you'd expect from the subject matter, but then, the movie in Veronica's head is pretty lively.  At least as her grandson Elvis imagined it . . . .