Monday, March 31, 2014

Random Dial-Up

A new feature wherein I write about the first song that comes up on my shuffle -- sort of a musical Russian Roulette. So here goes...and the wheel lands on...

"Quiet Life" / Ray Davies

From the Julian Temple film Absolute Beginners, a musical adaptation of Colin McInnes' novel (itself well worth reading) about 1950s London and the birth of British rock 'n' roll -- if you haven't seen it, check it out; it's one of my guilty pleasures. The story rambles, but it's visually stunning, and it's appropriately packed with musical guest stars: David Bowie, Sade, Sandie Shaw, Zoot Money, Tenpole Tudor, and -- my primary reason for seeing the film in the first place -- the ever delicious Mr. Ray Davies. Here's a clip of Ray's scene in the movie (hang in there, there's a minute or so of dialog before you get to the song itself).

Unfortunately this is only part of the movie in which Ray appears, but it's beyond wonderful. Playing the much-put-upon father of the main character, young photographer Colin, Ray doesn't exactly look glamorous in his undershirt and braces, his hair slicked back and grayed at the temples. But Ray's bit is totally entertaining, and his dancing is simply to die for.

Anybody who was ever in doubt about Ray Davies' fondness for English music hall tunes only has to listen to "Quiet Life." Underlaid with Dixieland horns and jazzy percussion, it's a classic softshoe, tripping lightly along. Yet while the sound of the song is like Noel Coward champagne, the storyline is more Ealing comedy slapstick, with a Monty Python nudge-nudge wink-wink thrown in for good measure.

"Something's happening, but I'm just gonna turn a blind eye," Ray begins the patter, in his breathy, earnest innocent-bystander voice. "If I see no evil, I ask no questions and I hear no lies" -- his whole existence is a masterwork of self-protective denial. In low, confiding tones, Ray keeps suavely declaring that he's not such a fool as everyone thinks -- "Confidentially between these walls / I'm on top of it all." And indeed, he does see all the salacious shenanigans in his household -- it's like a saucy seaside postcard come to life. But he shows no intention of doing a bloody thing about it, so what's the point of knowing?

Listen to how Ray's voice trembles and squawks on the high-pitched refrain -- "All I need is a QUIET life!", like a blowsy trombone wail. Keeping his head in the sand takes every ounce of energy this hapless bloke has. It's a lovely little comic portrait, and Ray hits every mark. Oh, the rest of the soundtrack has some other gems -- I particularly love Bowie's rendition of the theme song, Style Council's "Have You Ever Had It Blue?", and Sade's "Killer Blow." But in the end, there's one reason I go back to this film again and again. Ray.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Another Shuffle for Holt

Because that playlist just has too many great tunes not to go for another round.

1. "American Tune" / Paul Simon (1973)
"I don't know a soul who's not been battered / I don't have a friend who feels at ease / Don't know a dream that's not been shattered / Or driven to its knees" -- yep, that's life, and Paul Simon's never been afraid of facing that down. My brother the minister got that, too. Best part of this song -- where he dreams that he's dying, and he flies, freed from his mortal bonds, over the Statue of Liberty. The song breaks free of its gentle melodic patterns (stolen from Bach, I feel compelled to note) and soars into another realm of consciousness.

2. "The Weight" / The Band (1968)
Surely I'm not the only one who finds something Christlike about the singer of this song, wandering into town to "take a load off Fanny / And put the load right on me." And after meeting all the characters in town, he takes his wistful fare-thee-well -- "My bag is sinking low and I do believe it's time." Holt had this album, Music From Big Pink, though it took me years to figure out why these guys were worth listening to. They may have been a Canadian band, but they took their cue from Appalachian folk music, and from thence all the great Scots-Irish folk songs, in which the spectre of death is ever-present.

3. "Drive South" / John Hiatt (1988)
I've bragged here about how I knew Johnny Hiatt, growing up in Indianapolis, but my brother knew him better than I did, and was just as astonished as I was when we discovered he'd become not just a rock star but a genuine artist. I took Holt to see JH for his birthday a few years go, and he saw him a few more times after that. So you know there had to be at least one Hiatt tune on the playlist. I love this one for three reasons: 1) It's about driving, and Holt loved driving (Indy, natch); 2) It's a sexy seduction song ("Don't bother to pack your nylons / Just keep those pretty legs showing / It gets hot down where we're going")  and my brother, he loved the ladies; and 3) "drive south" may be a metaphor for going to hell. My brother worked a powerful lot of good in his life, but he was no saint, and who knows how tough the grading system is at the pearly gates?  But if he's headed to hell, then hell's a reasonable option for us all.

4. "The Cape" / Guy Clark (1995)
The first time I heard Guy Clark sing this song, all I could think of was my brother, and how much he loved to dress up in costumes as a kid. And yes, like the hero of this song, even when he was old and grey, people still thought he acted like a kid. But as Guy puts it, "he's one of those who knows / That life is just a leap of faith / Spread your arms and hold your breath / And always trust your cape." Brilliant song that never fails to bring a lump to my throat.

5. "Don't Forget Me" / Marshall Crenshaw (1995)
Here's a two-fer: Marshall Crenshaw AND Harry Nilsson, who wrote this tender wry song. I don't know if Holt shared my Nilsson obsession, but I know he loved Nilsson's oddball animated movie The Point when it first came out; in hospice, Holt smiled when I played him my Nilsson playlist. Although this is basically a song to an ex-wife, we can extrapolate the sentiments to any loves from the past. Even the spookily apposite verse three: "And when we're older / Full of cancer / It doesn't matter now / Come on, get happy / Cause nothing lasts forever / But I will always love you." Amen.

6. "Miles From Nowhere" / Cat Stevens (1970)
Tea for the Tillerman was an inescapable album that year, full of folky riffs and mordant black humor. Perfect soundtrack for Harold and Maude, a movie Holt loved for its warped fascination with death. Many songs on this album are about fathers and sons (I watched that battle from a front row seat) and taking journeys. But the line that really resonates here? "Lord my body has been a good friend / I won't need it when I reach the end." And so we told Holt in the hospice -- time to turn in the loaner car, it's reached the end of its usefulness.

7. "Losing My Religion" / R.E.M. (1991)
For a Methodist minister, having "Losing My Religion" as your ringtone was a pretty gutsy move, doncha think?

8. "Don't Forget About Me" / John Mellencamp (2010)
Our other homegrown Indiana talent, Johnny Cougar nee Mellencamp always held a special place in our hearts. From his stellar back-to-basics album No Better Than This, another ex-wife song that can, if you squinch your eyes just so, be re-interpreted to apply to an old beloved friend who's moved to another plane of being.  

9. "Over the Rainbow / Wonderful World" / Israel Kamakawiwo Ole (1993)
One song we all agreed had to be played at Holt's memorial. Because, no matter how often it's played, this lilting ukelele rendition of the old standards transforms them into something new and hopeful and uplifting.

10. "Warmth of the Sun" / The Beach Boys (1964)
It was Holt, not me, who owned all our Beach Boys albums. (Note that possessive "our," because I listened to them just as avidly as he did.) In the face of the British Invasion, he never gave up on their American counterparts. In 1966, our family took a cross-country train trip to California that gave us our one taste of golden SoCal surf summer, before the Monkees and the Summer of Love happened. In my mind, this glorious Beach Boys ballad sums it all up -- how we keep the warmth of the sun inside us, to survive grief and loss. Interesting to note that Brian Wilson and Mike Love began to write this song on November 22, 1963, but didn't finish it until the tragic events of that day -- the Kennedy assassination, for those of you too young to have been permanently scarred by this event -- had happened. So the elegiac tone of this song was no accident. Those exquisite chord changes, the vocal counterpoints, and above all Brian's heart-melting falsetto -- they make me weep, make me smile, make my heart swell in my chest. Magic.

Cleaning out my brother's apartment, I found his iPod and put it in the dock to play on shuffle while I folded clothes and emptied drawers. How lovely it was to hear his own curated inventory of music! It was as if he were in the room with me. Expect to hear more from that source....

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Shuffle for Holt

This is the way life goes: in the end stages of the 52 Girls project, a landmine of sorrow went off under my feet. My brother Holt Hughes died on March 7, after a nearly five-year fight against cancer. His memorial service was on Saturday. 

I went back and forth for days trying to pick one song to post about in his memory, and then I realized -- of course, a shuffle!  Holt was himself a shuffle kind of guy, always moving on to the next thing, his enthusiasms too multitudinous to be ticked off in one box. So here's a random sampling from the four-hour playlist I made for his memorial....

1. "You've Got A Friend in Me" / Randy Newman & Lyle Lovett (1995)
My brother was above all one of my best friends. He was always there for me. And, PS, he loved Lyle Lovett too. (The old John Hiatt connection ran deep for both of us....)

2.  "The Water Is Wide" / James Taylor (1991)
The old angel-voiced folkie, doing one of those old English folk songs about "crossing over," which I always interpret as death. But there's something so warm about James Taylor's voice, like an old pair of jeans, I collapse right into its comfort.

3.   "Strangers" / Norah Jones (2009)
Love the Kinks' original, a Dave Davies beauty; this is my favorite cover of it. (Sorry I couldn't find an MP3 -- it was a bonus track from Norah's album The Fall.) It's about brotherhood, it's about the spiritual journey. "Holy man and holy priest / This love of life makes me weak at my knees" -- my brother was a priest and he loved life. Perfect.

4.  "I Don't Wanna Go Home" / Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (1987)
A great rousing farewell anthem -- "I know that it's getting late / But I don't want to go home." My brother was a chronic night owl, and visiting him always meant we'd be up way past midnight, goofing around. He just never wanted to let the day go.  "I know we had to try / To reach up and touch the sky, baby" -- yep, that was Holt, too.

5.  "Circles" / Ten Years After (1976)
A little hippie-dippie folkie track, full of restless questioning spirit, just like my bro.  Dig that third verse: "I have got what I once dreamed of / As a child, so long ago / But my life just goes in circles / 'Cause one answer I don't know / Does it matter what I do / Who will hear me if I cry? / Does it matter what I do / Does it matter if I die?"  Holt, I hope you have the answers now that you've preceded us into the light.

6. "Here Comes the Sun" / The Beatles
A great message of hope, transformation, and renewal, especially for those of us -- like my brother -- who believe in reincarnation. And the consoling refrain, "It's all right" -- just what we need to hear.

7. "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" / Simon & Garfunkel (1970)
Another valedictory song, a gentle samba in honor of someone who could "change your point of view." "When I run dry, I stop awhile and think of you" -- yes, that's how I feel.

8. "Just A Song Before I Go" / Crosby Stills & Young (1977)
Okay, really this is a break-up song, but its gentle bittersweetness suits my mood. And those gorgeous CSN harmonies -- I was still stuck in my British rock phase when these guys came along and I generally missed them, but I know my brother listened to this album a lot back in the day.

9. "Daughters" / John Mayer (2003)
Holt loved this song, because he loved his two daughters. "Fathers be good to your daughters" -- and Holt always was.

10. "All Kinds of Time" / Fountains of Wayne (2003)
FoW wistfully captures a moment in time when the golden boy -- in this case, a high school quarterback -- reviews his life as he goes out for the pass. My brother couldn't play football for anything, but his life had this same sort of glorious equipoise. I only wish he had had all kinds of time -- but then again, who does?

Love you forever, Homes.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


"Along Comes Mary" /
The Association

Everybody "knows" that the Mary in this song refers to marijuana. (Except, of course, people who are convinced it refers to Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary.) Even though the songwriter, Tandyn Almer -- later a close friend of Brian Wilson's -- never fessed up to the drug message, word on the street helped send this debut single by an unknown California band to #7 on the U.S. charts in the summer of 1966.

Back then, of course, you couldn't sing openly about drugs, anymore than you could about sex. The whole game was to hide your message inside slang and poetic imagery. Or, if you were the Association, hide it even further by rattling off lyrics so thick and fast, most folks had no idea what the singer was singing. I owned this 45 and listened to it endlessly, and I still couldn't get them all.

Packed with internal rhymes (I'm a sucker for internal rhymes) and allusive imagery, it's a wild cascade of lyrics. You get the idea that he'd say anything so long as it rhymed, and of course that crazy half-logic signaled the drug message even more. (Go ask Alice.) Meanwhile, the arrangement was dark and portentous, with a minor-key melody, spooky organ, shivering tambourines, tarantula-like bass line, and triple-echoed harmonies. Hovering at the threshold of psychedelia, it's lush and dark and undeniably haunting.

Bent down over the turntable as an innocent adolescent, I could grasp the opening -- "Every time I think that I'm the only one who's lonely /Someone calls on me" -- ah, a telephone song, a tried-and-true pop conceit. But then the roller coaster took off, and soon I was tangled up in inscrutable lines like "Or maybe rather gather tales of all the fails and tribulations" or "When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks / Whose sickness is the games they play."

By verse three, we seem to be in apocalypse territory: "And when the morning of the warning's passed, the gassed / And flaccid kids are flung across the stars." (You can see how the Mary Magdalene camp seized on that, interpreting The Warning as a version of The Rapture; I guess they've been waiting for it since 1966.)  Whatever that meant, the next words, "the psychodramas and the traumas," seared clearly into my brain -- that phrase has for years popped into my head more often than you'd imagine.

The one thing we all could decipher was the samba-syncopated refrain, sung in lockstep unison: "When we met I was sure out to lunch / Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch" (love how the harmonies kick in on "punch"). Holy Grail imagery aside (yes, there is that camp too), this is where we can imagine a real Mary, changing his clueless life with the experience she offers.

She makes a grand entrance in that soaring chorus: "And then along comes Mary" -- the way those harmonizing vocals climb up that title phrase gets me every time. "And does she want to give me kicks / And be my steady chick / And give me pick of memories . . . " Well, okay, maybe she's his dealer, not his girlfriend, but he's dazzled by her for sure.

The next chorus changes up the lyrics, describing her as an, ahem, purveyor of enlightenment: "And does she want to set them free, and let them see reality / From where she got her name." In the third chorus, she's a pied piper presiding over a morning-after scenario of stains and pains and dead remains -- well, by that time they'd lost me.

But I still loved this song, its dense overlapping textures, its air of mystery. The folky sound of the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'," released only a few months earlier, had evolved already into a West Coast sound utterly unlike my beloved British Invasion. Even though I didn't get the words then -- no lyric sheet for a 45 single -- I sang along all the same, faking the words I couldn't figure out. I imagined Mary in a swirling paisley caftan, barefooted of course, with flowers in her hair -- no more mini-skirt and go-go boots. The times they were a-changing.


Sunday, March 09, 2014


"To Ramona" / Alan Price

Yes, I know the song was written by Bob Dylan. It's from his 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan, a somewhat amusing title in retrospect, since it featured pretty much the same folk-singer side of Bob Dylan that had taken the Greenwich Village clubs by storm in 1961. The only shift was that he was moving away from political protest songs and becoming -- as this song so amply demonstrates -- more personal and poetic. But compared to what happened on his next album, when he "went electric," this was nothing.

To be quite honest, I don't like the Bob Dylan version -- especially not after having heard this tender cover, sung in Alan Price's husky Geordie tenor.

The word is -- and who would ever doubt the word? -- that Bob Dylan wrote this song about Joan Baez. Considering that Alan Price hung out with Dylan and Baez during Dylan's 1965 UK tour, most memorably chronicled in the D. L. Pennebaker documentary Don't Look Back, it seems only fitting that Price should later cover this song on his 1966 album A Price On His Head.

This sure is one hell of an ambivalent, complicated song. Our singer clearly loves this girl, but he's also lost patience with her idealism, her hunger for acceptance. Underneath all the verbiage, it's still a kiss-off song, despite the romantic waltz tempo, the sweetly looping melody. But where Dylan's nasal croon betrays exasperation and disdain, Alan Price's smoky voice adds a note of wistful regret that redeems the whole song. 
Dylan paints her as an innocent rube -- "watery eyes," "cracked country lips," "returnin' / Back to the South" -- which doesn't seem fair when you think of Baez, already a major voice in the folk-protest movement when young Bobby Zimmerman washed up in New York City, fresh from Minnesota.  Sure, some of the bitterness in his voice is explained by knee-jerk protest folkie scorn for the system that's been wasting her soul: "It's all just a dream, babe / a vacuum, a scheme, babe / That sucks you into feelin' like this" and, later in the song,  "fixtures and forces and friends . . . that hype you and type you / Making you feel / That you gotta be just like them." But there's still a cruel personal subtext.
Maybe I'm being unfair to Dylan. No doubt at one point he really did love Joan Baez. ("Your magnetic movements / Still capture the minutes I'm in" -- if that isn't a sexy line, I'll eat my whatever.)   But having seen how badly he treats her in Don't Look Back, I've got my guard up.
For all those word-crammed verses only mask the fact that he's basically given up on her. He blames her for self-sabotage -- "Yet there's no one to beat you / No one to defeat you / 'Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad" -- and in the last verse, he washes his hands of her problems: "For deep in my heart / I know there is no help I can bring / Everything passes / Everything changes / Just do what you think you should do." In other words, hasta la vista, baby. 

Yet I think of Alan Price, quitting the Animals at the height of their popularity because touring drove him so crazy, and I sense he is a bit more on the side of the idealistic dreamer than opportunistic Bobby D ever could be. Even as he disengages, there's a rasp of sorrow in his voice as he sings, "And who knows, maybe / That some day baby / I'll come cryin' to you." When Bob Dylan sings this, I don't buy it, but Alan Price's rueful shiver of self-honesty sells it.

Do I think Bob Dylan is a great songwriter? I do indeed. But he's not an artist that touches my heart. Alan Price, on the other hand...

51 DOWN, 1 TO GO

Saturday, March 08, 2014


"A Rose for Emily" / The Zombies

The Zombies, too, had their version of "Eleanor Rigby," on 1968's Odessey and Oracle, one of the great British Invasion albums ever, despite its fluky history.  The sound of this track is pure 1968 -- the electric piano sounding like a baroque minuet, the flower imagery, the literary allusion (to the William Faulkner short story "A Rose for Emily," a dazzling bit of Southern Gothic).  Best of all, though -- as always with vintage Zombies tracks - is the chilling beauty of Colin Blunstone's high clear tenor, wistfully relating this sad sad story.

Right from the start, this song delicately boxes in its nature cliches. "The summer is here at last / The sky is overcast / And no one brings a rose for Emily." Already we know she's neglected, overlooked, but the rest of the first verse presses the sad irony deeper: "She watches her flowers grow / While lovers come and go /  To give each other roses from her tree / But not a rose for Emily." My heart's already breaking for her. I love how the melody supports the theme, the ambivalent chords on "overcast" and "lovers come and go," the mournful sustained high notes of "rose for Emily." I picture Emily as a frail lady in a careful sunhat, secateurs in gloved hand, patiently pruning her rose bushes.   
In the chorus, the trademark Zombies vocal overlaps (see "Time of the Season" and "She's Not There") begin to interlace, underscoring the divergent views of summer's joys.. "Emily [Emily,] can't you see? / There's nothing you can do [how the sun is shining) / There's loving everywhere but none for you." No one in 1960s rock could use counterpoint better than the Zombies: how much sadder it seems to be lonely when everyone else is having a fine time.
Verse two is the most Eleanor-Rigbyish of all:"Her roses are fading now / She keeps her pride somehow / That's all she has protecting her from pain." Okay, so in the late 60s we all got tremendously sentimental about old people. (Go listen to Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends if you need a primer.) Still, Rod Argent offers us an unflinching, unsentimental take on the realities of growing old. "And as the years go by, / She will grow old and die / The roses in her garden fade away / Not one left for her grave / Not a rose for Emily." Do we feel crappy and guilty about this? Yes, we do -- thank you, Rod Argent.

But let's be honest -- the whole thing is overlaid with a patina of young-people's romantic fascination with aging, loneliness, and death. (I do not exempt "Eleanor Rigby" from this remark; the Elvis Costello-Paul McCartney "Veronica" swims in the same boat.)  It was 1968, fer chrissake. How old were Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone?

And now, down the line -- do we still feel melancholy about lonely overlooked gardener Emily?

You betcha. 

50 DOWN, 2 TO GO

Friday, March 07, 2014


"Help Me Rhonda" / The Beach Boys

When this record came out, I only knew one Rhonda -- Rhonda Becker, who went to my grade school in Indianapolis. Rhonda was tall and thin, with a long blonde flip; she hung with the cool crowd, unlike me. She perfectly fit the image of this song.

You couldn't escape hearing this record in the spring and summer of '65. It was the Beach Boys' second #1 hit, after the previous year's "I Get Around" (which also struck home to me because it mentioned Indianapolis -- "she makes the Indy 500 looks like a Roman chariot race, now"). Refreshingly, the lead vocalist on "Help Me Rhonda" was neither nasal Mike Love nor angsty Brian Wilson, but -- surprise! -- guitarist Al Jardine, singing with a wholesome sincerity that made this uptempo love song really work.


We can dispense with the lyrics rather quickly. That first verse is classic Brian Wilson rueful self-pity and navel-gazing: "Well, since she put me down / I've been out doing in my head." (What "doing in my head" means, I haven't the faintest idea.) "Come in late at night, / And in the morning I just lay* in bed," an image that always makes me flash back to the great ballad "In My Room," from their 1963 album Surfer Girl. You know, the one where they're all carrying the surfboard?

But here, as soon as he's set up the morose teen context, Rhonda strolls in, on a promising chord change. "Well, Rhonda, you look so fine (look so fine) / And I know it wouldn't take much time / For you to  / [chord finally resolves] Help me, Rhonda / Help me get her out of my heart."

Sure, he's flattering her, but it's an awkward moment, because he's still more concerned with forgetting the other girl. Personally I wouldn't be interested in applying for this job, but who knows, maybe a superfox like Rhonda enjoys just this kind of challenge. Never having been a superfox, I couldn't say.

Verse two fills in the story -- or rather the prequel, all about this other girl who is NOT Rhonda. "She was gonna be my wife / And I was gonna be her man / But she let another guy come between us / And it ruined our plan." Poor betrayed Beach Boy. But just when he was ready to give up, Rhonda "caught my eye (caught my eye)" and now he's got a new plan, to "give you lotsa reasons why / You gotta help me Rhonda / Help me get her out of my heart."

The chorus is simple lyrically -- it's basically "Help, help me, Rhonda" over and over, climaxing in an emphatic "Help me Rhonda, yeah," after which Al pleads/demands "Get her out of my heart." But who ever gets bored with these endless repetitions? I adore how the various voices -- Carl, Brian, Dennis, Mike -- overlap and interweave hypnotically, always building, infinite variations on a theme. (Already they were heading toward the magnificent aural tapestry that would be "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations.") And yet somehow it is a GREAT singalong song, as I can testify from years of belting it out with girlfriends in the car as we tooled around Indianapolis.

Is he in love with Rhonda yet?  No way. He knows she's cute, and he's determined to move on from his heartbreak -- might as well be Rhonda as anybody else.

We know nothing about Rhonda except that she looks fine. I'm not surprised to learn that Brian Wilson has said, on the record, that there was no Rhonda -- but I'm betting there was a girl who dumped him for another guy. That's who the song is really about, and that part of the back story? It reads like real life.

* Hate to be the grammar police, but please, Brian, it should be "lie in bed." You don't even need "lay" for the rhyme.

49 DOWN, 3 TO GO

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


"Sherry" / The Four Seasons

Here's a palate cleanser -- a true mouldy oldie. The Four Seasons' sound seems straight out of the 1950s, even though this record, their first big hit, came out in August 1962. The first time I heard "Sherry" blasting out of our car radio, I felt a sort of sick fascination about Frankie Valli's voice. Surely no man could sing that high!  (Though it wouldn't be long before Wayne Newton's "Danke Schoen" made Frankie Valli look like a baritone.)

On the surface, the lyrics weren't much, either -- mostly that ad infinitum doo-woppy chorus: "She-eh-eh-eh-ehrry bay-ay-bee (Sherry baby) / She-eh-rry can you come out tonight?  (Come come, come out tonight)." 

And where should she go if she does come out? Verse one explains: "To my twist party" where "I'm gonna make you mi-yi-yine." I love that image of the twist party -- I remember Chubby Checker on American Bandstand showing the youth of America how to dance the Twist. I also remember my parents and their friends at tipsy cocktail parties trying out their Twist moves and then pretending to call for their chiropractors. It wasn't their generation's fad; it wasn't mine either, though Kay Wolf and I did practice the Twist in her family 's wood-paneled rec room after school. 

The Four Seasons belonged to a more upright and innocent era of courtship, as the second chorus reveals: "You-ou-ou better ask your mah-ah-ma (Ask your mama) / Tell her everything is all right." None of this "I think we're alone now" stuff like you'd get a few years later with Tommy James and the Shondells. In fact, things only begin to get sexy in the last verse: "(Why don't you come out...) With your red dress on / (Come out)  You look so fine / (Come out) Move it nice and easy / Girl, you make lose my mi-yind...." Frankie even adds a little growl and grind to his vocals for good measure.

And yet it's a sexy song, if only sexy in code, which of course I didn't get when I was eight. Songwriter Bob Gaudio had a great pop instinct: it's the delirious melisma of those "She-eh-eh-eh-eh-rys" that communicates adolescent hormones and desire running wild. Not to mention that Romeo-and-Juliet scenario of Frankie Valli outside Sherry's window, begging her to come out and play. If I'd been fifteen at the time and hot for some duck-tailed boy in tight jeans, I think I would have felt very differently about this song.

48 DOWN, 4 TO GO

Monday, March 03, 2014


"Cath" / Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie's 2008 album Narrow Stairs is full of mournful songs about people living unfulfilled lives. But wait -- what am I talking about? Every Death Cab for Cutie album has those songs. And me, I'm a sucker for stuff like that, especially when Ben Gibbard sings it in his winsome, faltering, reverbed tenor. 

As the video faithfully shows, this song is shades of The Graduate -- a seminal movie scene from my adolescence -- with Katharine Ross trapped at the altar with her "suitable" fiancĂ©, and Dustin Hoffman, sweating and gasping for breath, tapping wildly on the glass wall, crying out "ELA-A-AINE!!!" Only this Elaine goes through with it....

"Cath, she stands / With a well-intentioned man / But she can't relax / With his hand on the small of her back." On-line comments describe this as an abusive marriage, but I don't see that -- Cath's groom means well; a husband should be able to touch his wife like this. Her tension, however, spells trouble in paradise. You can even see it in the wedding photos: "And as the flashbulbs burst / She holds a smile / Like someone would hold a crying child." I love that description of her tense ambivalence.

And in the chorus, Gibbard soon explains why she's agreed to marry Mr. Not-Quite-Right:  "'Cause your heart was dying fast, and you didn't know what to do." This is like a sequel to "The Sound of Settling," another great Death Cab song, from 2003's Transatlanticism. In the 60s we campaigned against merely "settling"; our 21st-century offspring are a lot more skeptical about that.

Sitting in the pew, our singer cynically deconstructs the ceremony -- Cath's "hand-me-down wedding dress," as the "whispers that it won't last roll up and down the pews." But I suspect he isn't the objective observer he pretends to be, as he declares in the bridge -- reverb suspended for a moment of honesty -- "you said your vows, and you closed the door / On so many men who would have loved you more." the singer of this song?

Maybe not. At the end, he defends Cath's decision against all those whispers, claiming that they'd have done the same if their hearts were dying like hers. But I don't know, he's left us with a pretty bleak vision of Cath's future, all repressed hopes and buried dreams. The arrangement is tinged with despair, full of harsh guitar clang, unresolved chords, echoey vocal reverbs, and pregnant pauses between lines.

And oh, I'm waiting for that last-minute backdoor entrance of one of those men who could have loved her more. But then I remember the final shot of The Graduate -- Ben and Elaine riding away on a city bus, their grins of triumph fading, staring in opposite directions, scared shitless. Happy endings? Not on this planet.

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