Monday, October 27, 2014

"Save Me" / Aimee Mann

"Pretending" / Michael Penn

And here's the scary thing: These people are married to each other.

Rabbit hole exegesis:  I just wrote about Aimee's version of Harry Nilsson's heartbreaker "One" and somehow that led me to binge-listen to her soul-shivering "Save Me" from the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.  Not exactly an upbeat tune, this; in fact, I have it on my iPod in a playlist called "Moody," which is a euphemism for "totally depressive: handle with care."

The title reminds me of Fontella Bass's classic "Rescue Me" -- all appetite and sassy demands -- but "Save Me" is an entirely different sort of song. It's not about physical desire so much as the head games we ladies play with ourselves, way too often. Against that loungy-yet-ominous tempo, it starts oh-so innocuously -- "You look like a perfect fit." But against that downward-loping chord sequence, how swiftly she re-adjusts this, typing herself as "The girl in need of a tourniquet." 
And then the chorus cycles in, diving to the crux of the matter. "Can you save me / Come on and /  Save me. / If you could save me / From the ranks / Of the freaks / Who suspect /  They could never love anyone." A-HA! There we are. Raise your hand if you have EVER counted yourself in that not-so-exclusive club. Every time that chorus repeats, I feel tagged.
Note that she doesn't say the expected "freaks who suspect they will never be loved." Sure, there are legions of those, too. But those "who will never love anyone"? That's an even sadder and lonelier bunch, trapped between their own inadequacy and their crippling consciousness of it.  And in a later verse, as she references sufragettes ("the long farewell of the hunger strike"), we find ourselves clinging to our split desire to be independent and yet beloved.
 As the bridge puts it, "You struck me down / Like radium [Marie Curie alert for us smart girls!] / Like Peter Pan / or Superman / You will come...."   We've all been programmed to believe in heroes who will swoop in and save us.  How hard it is to give up that faith. But here we are, still hoping....
And what do I follow it up with on that same playlist?  What else but her husband Michael Penn's equally disturbing "Pretending"?  Hello! We don't even need to change keys between these songs. (What is it that made me re-visit Wikipedia to make sure that these two are still married?  Note that I do not use the phrase "happily married....")


From Penn's 2005 album Mr. Hollywood Jr., this winsome track puts the hunt for love into a different context: It's a quest for affirmation that never stops. In halting rhythms he announces: "Let's say that was then / Here we go again /  All our friends are filling the room, / It's like a play / And the words that I'll say are not for you." Even after these two misfits have found each other, the wearying need to affirm each other never stops.

And does it work?  Penn's chorus is sadly pessimistic: "It's on a happy ending / But baby, I'm pretending." He HAS to be honest with her; he's a decent guy, after all. And I sense that he does love here, as much as he is capable of loving anyone. But there's the rub: the only kind of guy she could be happy is also exactly the kind of guy who can't make anyone really happy. He thinks too much, he feels too much, he's unable to live in the moment. And he is brutally honest -- an absolute prerequisite from her standpoint, and yet the fatal flaw in the whole set-up.

The delicate acoustic setting of this song underlies how fragile this state of mind is, a structure of diminished and suspended chords, sung in Penn's sweet yet underemotive tenor. "Baby, I'm pretending / Even though I know better / But I can't refuse 'cause, / Although on a ruse / You've come to me depending,  / Baby, I'm pretending..."  He genuinely wants to be there for her, he knows how much she needs him, but he's hyper-aware of his own weakness.

This song is such a gut punch. He knows she needs him to provide "anything sure that's attached and secure," "a lifeline," "something to show / That I really do know." And -- Lord, he wishes it weren't so -- that's exactly what he cannot provide.

Music for Grown-Ups, indeed. And sometimes I wish I weren't a grown-up.  

Friday, October 24, 2014


Harry Nilsson / Al Kooper / Three Dog Night / Aimee Mann

Don't you just hate it / love it / go CRAZY when you find out that a song you know like the back of your hand is really another song by another artist who has even more of a claim to it?

Well, this particular tune keeps upping the ante for me.  First of all, like everybody else in my generation, I knew the Three Dog Night mega-hit from 1969.

What a great song, I thought. It may be the only Three Dog Night song I ever really liked -- no, wait, that's not fair.  I also liked "Eli's Coming" (until I discovered the Laura Nyro original).  In later years I'd also find out that "Try a Little Tenderness" was infinitely better when Sam Cooke sang it, and that "Mama Told Me Not To Come" should only have ever been sung by its original author, the incomparable Randy Newman. Sigh.

But I digress. The Three Dog Night "One" hit the charts in 1969 and it seemed so cool, those opening lines with their intriguing circular logic: "One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / Two can be as bad as one / It's the loneliest number since the number one." Heavy, man, like a Zen koan. But then  three years later when I hit my Al Kooper phase (a short but not negligible chapter of my fangirl story), I fell in love with Al's baroque and haunting 1968 version. It forever wiped the 3DNite single from my memory.

Now is that a thing of beauty or is it not?  I love those sawing strings, the sweet clarinet (or is it an oboe?) weaving in and out, the triple-tracked overlapped vocals -- even the (at the time not yet hokey) rainfall and thunder effects at the end.  For a song that's all about loneliness and disconnection, this elaborately concocted studio montage layers on the borderline schizophrenia, doesn't it?  Stay alone for too long and you too will go stark staring mad.


So anyway...the years pass, and DECADES later I encounter this existential version by the way-too-underrated Aimee Mann, used in the soundtrack of the seriously disturbing 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.

(There are other YouTube versions. I picked this one because I still need to see images of Philip Seymour Hoffman whenever I can. RIP PSH, you genius.)

If Al Kooper's highly-wrought version was haunting, Aimee Mann's stripped-down version is equally haunting. Every bar of this song expresses existential loneliness.  How relentless is that electric piano, tapping out the repeated chords? And I love how Aimee's affectless yet melismatic voice curls knowingly around the phrase ends. Oh, yes, she is a lady in pain, and IT IS OUR COMMON PAIN TO WITNESS.

Now, we need to fast-forward just a few years to, okay, 2013.  Here I am, blogging away, and I dig up a tribute album called For the Love of Harry  -- the very same album for which Aimee Mann's "One" was originally recorded. For me, this album becomes a rabbit hole worthy of Alice in Wonderland, wherein I at last truly discover Harry Nilsson -- an artist of whom I had always been aware, through a handful of hit records and the fact that he was with John Lennon and May Pang on the Kotex Night. But now I REALLY discover Harry Nilsson, he of the glorious God-given voice and a songwriting sensibility that marries Beatlesque pop with Summer of Love California Dreaming and the American standard playbook.

A genius, pure and simple. And yet I NEVER BEFORE REALLY REGISTERED THAT HE WROTE "ONE."

And yet here it is, the one and only original "One," from Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet.

The story goes that Harry wrote this after phoning someone and getting a busy signal -- remember the obnoxious beep-beep-beep of a busy signal, back in the days before answer machines and call waiting and cell phones?  The whole song is underlaid with that off-putting busy signal, counterpointed with a yearning cello line that speaks volumes about the human desire for connection. But more than anything, it's Harry's pure and sincere vocal that sells this song.  I am here alone, it says, trying so hard to make a connection, and the technology won't let me in. And his heart is hurting -- "it's just no good anymore since you went away / Now I spend my time / Just making rhymes / Of yesterday." Major and minor and suspended chords overlap, and this poor schmuck is wading through it all, heartsore and hapless.

Is this a killer song or what?

So what's a girl to do? I'm willing to throw Three Dog Night under the bus, but how can I betray my decades-long loyalty to Al and my sister bond with Aimee?  But oh, Harry, my lost dark prince, how could I not love your original best?

I know, I know -- we don't have to choose, we can simply love them all. But for me, loving them all entails being hyper-aware of how Al and Aimee were nested in Harry's original.  A great song -- a truly great song -- enables great cover versions. So be it if my personal history ran through the cover versions first. Harry, you were worth waiting for.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"You Don't Own Me" / Dusty Springfield

How did I never know this song was originally recorded by Lesley Gore?

Wait -- it was 1963. It hit #2 on the charts. Where was I? (Okay, yes, deep in a Beatlemania haze, but STILL...)

Then it swung by me again in 1964, on Dusty Springfield's debut album (in the US) Stay Awhile/I Only Want to Be With You.  Was it released as a single in the States?  I have no idea.

Nevertheless, I remain firmly convinced that I never heard Lesley Gore's version at the time and that Dusty's is hardwired deep in my girl-group DNA. And, yeah, you know I am a Lesley Gore fan, but hey, Dusty is on my shortlist of Golden Girls. This song means the world to me because of how Dusty sang it.

One thing Lesley and Dusty had in common -- a very, VERY complicated sense of wanting autonomy and yet craving love. Dusty tended more towards the victim end of the spectrum, which to me made it all the more affirming to hear her declare: "You don't own me / I'm not just one of your many toys." (Ah, that well-placed word "many," and what a special shiver of disgust Dusty gave it.)

The demands pile up from there on, escalated with key changes: "Don't say I can't go with other boys," "Don't tell me what to do/ Don't tell me what to say,"  "Don't put me on display," "Don't try to change me," "Don't tie me down" -- yikes!! But the weary doggedness with which Dusty sings it tells me that she's make these requests before and they've fallen on deaf ears.

In both Lesley's and Dusty's versions, the requisite pop strings and horns undergird her (putative)declaration of freedom:  She doesn't tell him how to live his life, so surely he should understand that she is "free / And I love to be free / To live my life the way I want / To say and do whatever I please." So why do I sense that this cry of independence is not being heard by the man in question?

Wow. This is 1963/64, long before Helen Reddy's 1975 "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar." Feminism was still just a glimmer of an idea; if anything, it was nothing but Helen Gurley Brown and Sex and the Single Girl (a 1962 book quickly subverted by the 1964 Natalie Wood movie.)

Sure, both Lesley and Dusty would eventually be identified as bisexuals/lesbians. Did that give this proto-feminist anthem a special oomph? Maybe so from their perspective; but for me, that is totally irrelevant.

Because, yes, do I still snarl this under my breath when a domineering man tries to push me around?

You betcha.