Friday, January 31, 2014

52 GIRLS

Two Shelleys:
A Nick Lowe Two-Fer

"Shelley My Love" / Nick Lowe

This track, from Nick's great 1994 album The Impossible Bird, is a perpetual mystery to me. On a album full of heartbreak gems like "The Beast In Me," "Where's My Everything?," "Lover Don't Go," and "I Live On a Battlefield," how does this one song of perfect love and harmony fit in? Frankly, it's not one of my favorite Nick Lowe songs, and not only because I wish he were singing it with my name instead.

You see, one of the things I most love about Nick Lowe is his clever storytelling lyrics, and those seem to have deserted him here. I tell myself it's all part of the song's scenario -- he's inarticulate, resorting to clichés, because he's so much in love, safe within the cocoon of simple happiness. But there's no room in there for me. 

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Not only is there no story, we don't even learn much about this Shelley person (honest, I'm not jealous, I swear). All we see is her effect upon him. As soon as she calls his name, he's "all aflame," and "a passion fills my very soul." Now, I know we humans tend to fall back upon poetic clichés when we're in the grip of strong emotion. But I expect more of Nick Lowe.

Okay, there is some creative songwriting structure -- he picks up the second couplet of his first verse and repeats it as the first couplet of the second verse, adding two new lines about how extra-terrestrial and "supernatural" this love is. But that's hardly a villanelle, and again, it's all about his feelings, nothing about the girl who inspires them.

Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it allows one to imagine that one is oneself the girl Nick is singing to/about. (See, I AM trying here.) That slow two-step tempo is so relaxing, the melody wistful and beautiful as it caresses her name then soars upward. The arrangement is understated and perfect, with just a soft guitar, brushed drums, an exhalation of organ. Nick's singing is exquisitely tender and earnest (though even better is Rod Stewart's surprisingly effective cover version -- who knew?)

I should love it. What's wrong with this picture?

"Shelly's Winter Love" / Nick Lowe, Paul Carrack, and Bill Kirchen

Ah, now this is more like it.

On his 2010 album Word to the Wise, guitar god Bill Kirchen (a.k.a. "Titan of the Telecaster") offers a treasure trove of collaborations. I happen to like Kirchen's singing, but I'll forgive him for tapping ringers when the vocal guest list includes Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, Dan Hicks, and these two guys.

There's always a twang in Bill Kirchen's dieselbilly sound, and Nick Lowe needs little encouragement to turn country crooner. Paul Carrack may have played with everyone from Roxy Music to Squeeze to Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, but after all, he was part of Nick Lowe's Cowboy Outfit in the 1980s. So when these three get together, why not cover a country gem?

And what better than this track from Merle Haggard's 1971 mega-hit LP Hag? It's a fair bet that Bill Kirchen (then in Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen) and Nick (then in Brinsley Schwarz) listened to Hag when it came out. (Could Nick even have been remembering it 20-some years later when he wrote "Shelley My Love"?) They sing this with all the fondness of a long-familiar song.

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In this song, powerful love doesn't render the singer speechless; what it does do is fool him into accepting a less-than-ideal situation. "I know I'm only Shelly's winter love / She only seems to need me now and then. / I know I'm only Shelly's winter love / But she's mine alone till springtime comes again." Apparently a little bit of Shelley is worth the frustration, and he's making the most of the time he does have with her. That easy-ticking tempo is anything but mournful, and both Nick and Paul -- who trade lead vocals -- instinctively revert to the Haggard yodel on that brief triumphant boast "she's mine alone."

So is Shelley a fickle slut? Loyal to the core, that's not how he sees it. She leaves in the spring, it's true, but only when outside forces tempt her -- "When those friends of hers start callin' her from town." (In country terms, "town" is an evil force; in verse two it's her "painted world.") She's just a free spirit, country-music-style. But our hero waits patiently for "Shelly's winter season / When her troubled moments bring her back around." It's not just about the calendar, but the seasons of the heart. It's a weird kind of schadenfreude -- he's secretly happy when she's unhappy, because it drives her back to him.       
 
And who wouldn't return to such a faithful, understanding lover? "These arms of mine she knows are always waiting" -- how comforting that sounds. Yet he's no fool -- he's fully aware, in the second verse's last line, that "she'll leave when love has thawed the winter ground." 
 
I'm bursting with questions about this scenario. Is Shelly just using him? Will there be a day when she stops coming back? Will he finally get fed up? Will she finally realize he's the best thing that ever happened to her?  We'll never know, of course. But for four minutes or so, I'm living in the push-and-pull of their relationship, and registering every break of the singer's voice, every plangent guitar riff and piano fill.
 
That's a song that works.

23 DOWN, 29 TO GO

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Sad Lisa" / Cat Stevens

In my Indianapolis high school in 1971, Tea for the Tillerman was the album you had to own to even pretend to be cool. (We weren't hip enough to know the term "hip.") Cat Stevens' folky tracks were a little snide, a little fey, full of longing for the open road and brooding about the generation gap -- perfect for college-bound suburban kids. Many people first fell for these songs in the classic black comedy Harold and Maude, but not me -- I liked Harold and Maude BECAUSE it featured Tea for the Tillerman songs.

I was precisely the right age, and precisely the right target demographic, to think that this was the wisest and most beautiful album ever (at least for a few months, until Carole King's Tapestry came out). It seemed to be playing everywhere I went -- maybe not on Top 40 radio or on the musak at the mall, but at every party and at every friend's house. That folkie acoustic guitar, Stevens' quavery voice, the flower child conceits, the romantic loner alienation -- how better to appeal to us hippie wannabes?

And along with Tea for the Tillerman's many "road map" songs -- "Father and Son," "Miles From Nowhere," "On the Road to Find Out," "Wild World" -- I was always particularly haunted by the melancholy riddle of "Sad Lisa."


That opening image, sung with tender solicitude over a contrapuntal piano motif, tugs on your heart from the get-go: "She hangs her head and cries on my shirt / She must be hurt very badly / Tell me what's making you sad, Li?" 

So who or what is making Sad Lisa so sad? Back in the day -- programmed as I was by years of pop songs about young love -- I guessed that she'd had her heart broken by another guy, and the singer is lending her a comforting shoulder to cry upon, in hopes of eventually winning her himself.

But further listens made it clear that this was something else, something deeper and infinitely sadder. Could be depression, could be autism -- she certainly isn't communicating with the singer, who seems to be visiting her in an institution: "She walks alone from wall to wall / Lost in her hall, she can't hear me" and "She sits in a corner by the door." (Remember, ours was the era that romanticized life in the loony bin with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)  She won't answer his questions, she's "lost in the dark", she can't hear him, she needs to be freed.

Verse two's poetical imagery of her weeping adds a delicate sort of glamor: "Her eyes like windows, trickle in rain / Upon the pain [pane] getting deeper." (Dig how he adds arpeggios to the piano to imitate the trickling rain.) And in verse three, white knight that he is, he vows to take action: "I'll do what I can to show her the way / And maybe one day I will free her." But now -- wait! -- he throws us a curve ball: "Though I know no one can see her." Is Lisa just a ghost, or a figment of his own disturbed imagination? The mind boggles.

What ultimately made us feel most sad was that minor key melody, rising urgently, then falling in despair. Instead of the default folk-rock instrument, a guitar, Stevens went back to his own original instrument, the piano, adding a mournful cello halfway through. Nothing like musically wringing the heartstrings.

Was this based on a real girl?  Stevens did spend several months in a tuberculosis hospital in 1969 and 1970 -- if James Taylor could write "Fire and Rain" about a girl he met in a mental hospital, surely Steven Georgiou could write about a fellow TB patient.

But I kind of like not knowing the details. Because all that matters, really, is the sadness of Sad Lisa -- and that is clear as a bell.

21 DOWN, 31 TO GO

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Walk Away Renee" /
The Left Banke

One of my first 45 singles, and I played it to death. It was just the sort of song that an adolescent girl would moon over, a classic expression of tremulous young love by the shoulda-been-bigger band The Left Banke. (Extra letters tacked onto words in a band name are a sure marker of the 60s.) It’s very much a song of its time – and yet it’s timeless, too, with all that angsty emotion. It still chokes me up.

I needed the internet age, however, to learn that this massive 1966 hit was written by the band’s keyboard player, Michael Brown, who was only 16 at the time – and it was written about the bassist’s girlfriend, Renée, on whom Brown had a giant unrequited crush. So that’s why it captures so perfectly the whiny anguish of love lost! Brown apparently also wrote my other favorite Left Banke number, “Pretty Ballerina,” about Renée. (And how did that bassist feel, knowing Brown wanted to cut in on his girl?) The story goes that Brown was about to record his harpsichord part when Renée herself walked into the studio, and his hands shook so badly, he couldn’t play. I love that story.


Using a girl’s name in the title was no doubt inspired by the Beatles’ recent “Michelle,” just as the classical touches in the arrangement came out of “Yesterday” (though the flute in the middle also reminds me of “California Dreamin’,” also a recent hit at the time). But since the Left Banke did have a kid who could play the harpsichord, why not go for the folk-baroque sound?

The odd thing, when you realize it, is that the singer isn’t begging her to come back – in the chorus, he’s not saying “Don’t walk away, Renée,” he’s saying “Just walk away, Renée / You won’t see me follow you back home.” This unrequited love is too much for him to bear, and he needs out of it -- there’s passion for you. With no other details, these lines summon up a vivid scene; I can just see the girl’s back as she walks away. We’ve all watched someone we love walk away like that. We know how it rips your heart out.

But for a 16-year-old, Brown pretty shrewdly pinned down the life-altering power of this emotion: “And when I see the sign / It points one way / The life we used to lead / Every day.” There’s no going back, is there? “The empty sidewalks on my block / They're not the same” (though he does cut her a break, adding “You're not to blame”).

Here’s my favorite verse: “Your name and mine inside / A heart on a wall / Still finds a way to haunt me / Though they're so small.” Was there ever a sweeter lyric about lover’s graffiti?

So we leave Mike Brown, fumbling blindly on his harpsichord, “Now as the rain beats down / Upon my weary eyes / For me I cry.” Yeah, that’s it, that’s the perfect note of self-pity. You nailed it, man.

20 DOWN, 32 TO GO

Monday, January 27, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Hey Julie" / Fountains of Wayne

Considering how many music listeners hold, or will someday hold, an office job, you'd think there would be more songs about the nine-to-five cubicle grind. (Compare this to the number of songs about the stresses of being a rock star, an experience just about none of us will ever have.) So fist-bumps to Fountains of Wayne for crafting this perky cha-cha-cha earworm around this underserved topic.

Now, I'm pretty sure that FoW, being devotees of classic British pop, know they owe a debt to the Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" and the Kinks' "You Make It All Worthwhile" for the particular angle they've chosen -- being grateful to the girl who's waiting at home at the end of the working day. But they bring their own spin to the subject.



That opening verse sets the gruesome scene: "Working all day for a mean little man / With a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan / He's got me running round the office like a dog around a track / When I get back home you're always there to rub my back." Now, I've been lucky: I always had good bosses and jobs I enjoyed. But that doesn't matter: I still know exactly how he feels. The lyrics clip along at a relentless pace, a two-chord seesaw stuck in a melodic rut.

Verse two is like a scene out of that iconic movie Office Space. "Hours on the phone making pointless calls / I got a desk full of paper that means nothing at all / Sometimes I catch myself staring into space / Counting off the hours until I can see your face." Or, as Ray Davies would tell us in his song "Nine to Five" (from Soap Opera), "He's caught in a mass of computerized trivia / Deciphering data for mechanical minds / He's lost in the paperwork and up to his eyes / He's checking a list that's been checked out before / And he's starting to lose his mind."

He really hates that boss -- in verse three we get another skewering vignette: "Working all day for a mean little guy / With a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie / He's got me running around the office like a gerbil in a wheel / He can tell me what to do but he can't tell me how to feel." So there, horrible boss!

Listening to this song on FoW's brilliant 2003 album Welcome Interstate Managers, I thought the story was clear -- Julie's the loyal girlfriend who greets him when he gets home and helps him shake off the stresses of the day. We don't actually learn much about her, though, other than her loyalty and her presence. Does she open the door with a martini ready? Dressed in inviting lingerie? Images from the Jack Jones hit from the 60s, the Bacharach/David classic "Hey Little Girl," flood my mind. ("Hey little girl, / Comb your hair, fix your make-up / Soon he will walk through the door / Don't think because / There's a ring on your finger / You needn't try anymore....")

So when I saw this video, I realized that it was entirely possible that Julie is in fact his dog. (And a very cute dog, I must say.) Man's best friend, lying on the rug (though really on the off-limits couch), waiting for him to open the door (or to open the next can of dog food). That line about her rubbing his back could originally have been written the other way around. But hey, that's love too, and I can with all honesty that my dog DOES make it all better when I get home.

I have to giggle when I listen to this song, but behind the giggle lies the pathos of an unsung life. Maybe there aren't more pop songs about photocopying and bookkeeping because most rock stars wouldn't be caught dead doing those things. All the more reason why we need Fountains of Wayne to come along and sing our songs, too.

19 DOWN, 33 TO GO

Sunday, January 26, 2014

52 GIRLS

Okay, back to business, and making up for lost time . . .  
Four Fab Four Girls

Who could possibly pick just one Beatle song about a girl, when there are so many, each telling its own short story?  And none of them is a simple love song.

"Eleanor Rigby" -- from Revolver

1966 -- the year the Beatles turned literary. Suddenly their singles included French ("Michelle"), existential imagery ("Nowhere Man" and "Rain"), and media satire ("Paperback Writer"). "Girl" quotes from Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class ("Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure?") and "Eleanor Rigby" -- as we've all been told many times -- is based on a character from Charles Dickens.

But listen to the song more closely. If Miss Havisham from Great Expectations inspired "Eleanor Rigby," Paul McCartney was smart enough to make this portrait of a lonely spinster more riddle than literary footnote. We see Eleanor picking up the rice after a church wedding, but he never says whose wedding it was. The haunting image of her waiting by the window, "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door" could just as easily be Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. We don't know if she's old or young; we never get inside her head, only watch from a cinematic distance.

And -- surprise! -- the next verse isn't even about Eleanor, but a drudge of a priest named Father MacKenzie, presiding over a church that has lost all relevance. When I first heard this song, I hoped Eleanor and the Rev. MacKenzie would find each other roaming around that empty church and there'd be a happy ending. But no dice. Verse three brings them together at last, but -- downer alert! -- only as MacKenzie buries her in the churchyard.  With no mourners.

That heart-tugging refrain, "Ahh look at all the lonely people" -- it has a hint of satire, but more of sorrowful compassion, especially with the string quartet counterpointing through it. (If a cello worked on "Yesterday," then why not let the brilliant George Martin score a full quartet?) No longer were the Beatles writing coded messages to their girl fans, e.g. me. Pop music was ready to take on a bigger slice of life than just teen romance.

Although, just to be safe, let's put the jolly "Yellow Submarine" on the other side of the single . . . . 

"Lovely Rita" -- from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

A happy-go-lucky song about a guy trying to pick up a cute traffic officer? I don't think so.

For our Rita is a brash New Woman, a new sort of character for 1967. He asks her to tea and she promptly makes it dinner instead, then pays the bill. (Such emasculation!) He requests a second date; in charge of her own sexuality, she cuts to the chase and takes him straight home. But then things get weird – he finds himself “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two.” (I love that word-crammed rat-tat-tat staccato line). Does she live with her family? Is she a feminist with equally liberated roommates? Is she a lesbian, or even a transvestite (have I been listening too much to the Kinks’ “Lola”?)? For all his declarations – “nothing can come between us,” “where would I be without you,” and the sublimely silly “when it gets dark I tow your heart away” – it's not your garden-variety Paul love song. Believe me, I wanted every song Paul McCartney sang to be about me, but I never identified with this Rita chick.

Yet there’s something so compelling about the scenario, you want to get inside and figure out what’s going on. Although Paul's lead vocal promises a good-time rock shuffle, tweaks of bizarreness keep us off balance -- the psychedelic-textured intro, the woozy double-tracked chant “Lovely Rita meter maid,” the sarcastic zing after “Nothing can come between us” (George did that on slide guitar), the snide scrap of military march after “Made her look a little like a military man” (a little comb-and-paper orchestra John set up), the honky-tonk piano in the break. And at the end, the heavy breathing over the pounding piano, chords modulating uncertainly – they nearly make it – then John snaps “I’m leaving” and a door slams. It's Paul’s “Norwegian Wood” – a surreal hook-up gone wrong.

"Dear Prudence" -- from The White Album

As the jet plane of "Back in the USSR" whizzes away, a haunting circular guitar riff moves in, those top notes striking like fingerbells or a gong. "Dear Prudence" croons John Lennon, pleadingly, "Won't you come out to play / Dear Prudence / Meet the brand new day." So who is this Prudence, and why won't she come out? Is she an invalid? A sheltered child? A recluse? In "Eleanor Rigby," Paul drew his haunting portrait from a distance, but John is trying to change things, coaxing Prudence into the world. "The sun is up, the sky is blue / It's beautiful, and so are you" -- why won't she listen?

Prudence would be a great made-up name for a girl too tentative to taste life, but as it happens, she was a real person -- Mia Farrow's sister Prudence Farrow, whom the Beatles met in India while worshipping with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Prudence was so intense about her meditation that she'd run straight back to her cottage after group sessions and meditate alone, and John was asked to intervene, to get her to lighten up. He wrote this song and played it for her there -- whether or not it worked, I don't know. She did teach meditation for many years after; among her students was comedian Andy Kaufman. (That has nothing to do with this song but it's a detail I love.) 

So often we think of John Lennon as a bitter cynic, but the innocence and sweetness of this song show another side to him. He begs Prudence to open her eyes to the world, to feel "a part of everything." The chant-like opening becomes overlaid with rich textures -- a boingy bassline, slapping drums, plinky piano, tambourines, handclaps, a backing chorus that howls like a wind. The tempo changes to a march as the great parade of life barges in. And there is Prudence, cross-legged, eyes screwed shut, obliviously humming her mantra through all of it.

"Polythene Pam" -- from Abbey Road

Years of LP-listening habit run deep, so it's hard for me to isolate any single section of the great Side Two medley on Abbey Road -- but Pam deserves to stand alongside her sisters. We've just learned that Mean Mr. Mustard has a sister named Pam, and now, introduced with a brusque electric guitar flourish, we meet her. "Well you should see Polythene Pam, / She's so good-looking but she looks like a man." Is Polythene Pam one of Lovely Rita's ambiguous roommates?

Songfacts.com claims there was a Cavern-era Beatle fan nicknamed Polythene Pat -- she liked to eat plastic -- and that name popped into John Lennon's free-associating mind. But this is a new girl entirely. Just two years after Sgt. Pepper, John can be explicit about Pam's alternate lifestyle -- "Well you should see her in drag / Dressed in her polythene bag." (As a American teenager, I had no idea what "polythene" was -- I now read that the incident that inspired this song involved sex on a plastic garbage bag.) Later we also see her dressed mannishly in "jack-boots and kilt"; this is a vinyl get-up well beyond anything The Avengers' Emma Peel would wear. She's a tough babe for sure -- "She's killer-diller when she's dressed to the hilt." (Dig how John goes full-on Liverpudlian with his accent here.) And there's a whiff of scandal about her: "She's the kind of a girl who makes the News of the World" -- even without knowing about British tabloid culture, I could get that line.

It may just be a scrap of free-associated lyrics, but it's a vital part of the Side Two mosaic. Listen to the nervy chromatic chord shifts at the end of each verse, the machine-gun drum track, the whip-like steel guitar. Segueing from the lazy shuffle of "Mean Mr. Mustard," this hard-edged song tightens the screws, pushes the energy upwards, until it explodes -- a musical orgasm -- as Pam finally makes her entrance: "She came in through the bathroom window / Protected by a silver spoon." Coke addict, burglar, strip-club dancer, the heroine of this song is a lost soul who doesn't even know it. But the singer loves her, "And so I quit the police department / And got myself a steady job" -- classic Lennon political snark.

Man, I miss the Beatles.

18 DOWN, 34 TO GO

Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Don't Forget Me" /
Marshall Crenshaw Sings
Harry Nilsson

I'll admit it -- I'm still part-time obsessed with Harry Nilsson, have been ever since last summer. So please permit me to interrupt the regularly-scheduled program here to post a memorial tribute.

I've just finished the Alyn Shipton biography of Nilsson that I was reading, and realized that it was 20 years ago this January that Harry Nilsson died, at the way-too-soon age of 52. If I'd read the book faster, I'd have known the date in time to post this on January 15, but I'm sure Harry wouldn't mind that I'm getting around to it a couple weeks late.

Because Harry didn't want to be forgotten.

I promise you a Harry Nilsson week this summer, to celebrate his birthday (always better to celebrate births than deaths).  But I couldn't let this anniversary pass without something, and this song is perfectly apropos.

Harry Nilsson had one of the great voices of the 20th century -- at least he did early in his career, before damaging it with his legendary rock-n-roll lifestyle. When Harry recorded "Don't Forget Me," for his 1974 album Pussy Cats, the months-long party that accompanied that recording session had left his voice ravaged. So instead of listening to Harry's version, let's get an idea of what it could have been by hearing Marshall Crenshaw's faithful cover, from the brilliant 1995 tribute album For the Love of Harry. After all, Nilsson was also one of the great songwriters of the century, and I've always believed that the mark of a great songwriter lies in how good his songs' covers are.


Nobody could outdo Harry Nilsson when it came to wistful songs about loss and parting. This is a break-up song -- a divorce song -- but with dashes of ironic humor and regret that make the parting even more bittersweet. (And having already gone through two divorces, Harry knew whereof he spoke.) "In the wintertime," he begins, already projecting into their future apart. Still feeling protective, he advises her to "Keep your feet warm," but then adds wryly, "Keep your clothes on" -- he may be letting her go, but he's not ready to imagine her getting naked with anybody else. He keeps working that fine line between sentiment and sarcasm: "Don't forget me / Keep the memories / But keep your powder dry too."

Verse two follows songwriting convention, moving onto the next season, projecting even further forward in time. It's a lyrical vision at first -- "And in the summer / By the poolside / While the fireflies are all around you / I'll miss you" -- but before he gets too sappy, he undercuts the sentiment to add, "And I know that / I'll miss the alimony too."

The chorus simply repeats the melody, only in a higher key -- a trademark move for Nilsson, he of the three-and-a-half-octave voicespan. (Luckily, Marshall Crenshaw also has that upper register well in his range.) "Don't forget me, / Please don't forget me," he yearns in that higher key. "Make it easy on me, just for a little while" -- I love how that phrase admits to the pain of this split, without asking for pity. And then the chorus shifts down to the original key, adding tenderly, "You know I think about you / Let me know you think about me too." Because marriages don't just vanish; it takes time to work through this stuff.

To me, the tour de force is verse three. Talk about projecting into the future: "And when we're older / Full of cancer / It doesn't matter now, / Come on, get happy." Nothing like putting perspective on today's pain. And then he winds it up with "'Cause nothing lasts forever / But I will always love you." If nothing last forever, how can he "always" love her?  Yet he will.

Harry was one of the world's great Beatle fans -- he was thrilled to be referred to as the Fifth Beatle, and not only because he was close friends with John Lennon, and even closer with Ringo Starr. (The respect was mutual -- at one press conference when the Beatles were asked who their favorite group was, they all answered, "Nilsson.") It wouldn't be surprising, given that his idol John Lennon was producing this album, that this simple melody sounds Lennonesque in its pared-down range, the narrow intervals and chromatics and repeated variations. Yet there's also a McCartneyesque playfulness to the rhythm, a skiffle-ish dance before and behind the beat that gives the song extra buoyancy.

But what really makes this a wonderful song is the unique Nilsson touch, the sidelong way he communicates heartbreak, without ever getting soppy or melodramatic. Who else has ever captured the perverse yin and yang of love and loss so well?

We won't forget you, Harry.

Friday, January 24, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Debra" / Beck

Now this one's a hoot.


I can't claim to be any sort of Beck expert. (I'm sure there are such people around.) Beck's such a chameleon, you never know what you're going to get, and I've given up trying to sort the listenable stuff from the weird. But this track from 1999's very uneven Midnite Vultures hits a home run. Intentionally an homage to -- even a parody of -- those sex-dripping R&B come-on songs of the 70s and 80s, "Debra" somehow proves why that genre was so durable. Of course you don't take it seriously, but did anyone ever really take Barry White seriously?

Beck totally nails the slick, glossy, pelvis-shifting arrangement -- you got your loungy horns, you got your loose-stringed bass line, your got your dazzly synth riffs. And his vocals are a pitch-perfect impression, full of the requisite ooh-oohs, husky sighs, whispered come-ons, and shivery wails. At the same time, the song's setting is completely alien to let's-get-it-on R&B -- suburban Glendale, California. We start out at the mall, naturally -- "I met you at JC Penney," Beck croons in his falsetto. His love object is probably on break, from the kind of job that comes with a plastic nametag; I imagine her with a super-sized Orange Julius cup, pursing her lips fetchingly as she sucks on the straw.

He's a smooth operator indeed, his tools of seduction "a fresh pack of gum," a ride in his Hyundai, and a "feel-good meal" (for a good feel, heh heh heh) at the Armenian restaurant chain Zankou Chicken. (Appleby's must have been full.) Yeah, he's a predator, circling around this girl "like a fruit ripe for the pickin'."  But I also see him as a victim of his own culture, his adolescent urges force-fed into the only romantic idiom he knows, the ridiculous beyond-innuendo lingo of "you've got that thing / That I've just got to get with."  Yes, even a white boy now thinks this way.

There is a switcheroo involved, too. Technically Beck isn't singing this song to Debra at all -- the girl he's coming onto is (according to her nametag) Jenny, who just happens to have a sister named Debra.  But Debra is involved in the deal, as the chorus slyly mentions: "I just got to get with you / And you know what we're gonna do / I wanna get with you / And your sister / I think her name is Debra." Love the studied casualness of that "I think her name is Debra." He knows perfectly well what her name is.

Well, he's not just talking about hanging out and watching TV with these sisters. I don't know whether Debra is the real object of his interest, and he's only going through Jenny to get to Debra, or whether it's the sister-on-sister three-way that has him most excited, but Jenny by herself is clearly not sufficient. Why else does he name the song after the other girl?

But don't tell Jenny and she just might not notice. Or care. Whatever. . . .

 

14 DOWN, 38 TO GO

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Come On Eileen" / Dexy's Midnight Runners

It was just this side of a novelty number. But why shouldn't an Irish rock song have the peculiar sound of Ireland? 

It's no accident that "Come On Eileen" lasted for 11 weeks as #1 on the Irish charts; it did pretty well this side of the ocean, too, aided considerably by MTV exposure. (Yes, children, there was a time when MTV was indispensable to music marketing.) I loved this song even before I saw the video, but the video sealed the deal -- a grainy black-and-white beauty directed by Julian Temple, with Dexy and Eileen wandering around gritty urban streets in sleeveless tanks and loose denim overalls.


But this was more than a novelty song. Just listen to all the clever musical surprises in the intro. That sappy Celtic folk fiddle opening ("Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"!!) switches in a heartbeat to a chugging rock & roll jig that was yet somehow ska-flavored -- strange and wonderful. "C'mon Eye-leen!" Dexy yelps in the background, Irish pronunciation firmly to the fore.

In verse one, Dexy invokes the spirit of "Poor old Johnny Ray," whose music spoke to an earlier generation -- but how can modern kids relate to those elders, as he later describes them with their "beaten-down eyes / Sunk in smoke-dried faces, they're so resigned to what their fate is"? He needs a new untarnished sound, something for his generation, and thank god New Wave music had expanded the available vocabulary. That old "too-ra-loora-loora" sentimental Irish folk song is recycled for this edgy younger generation, Dexy and his mates working their way up a scale singing "Too-ra-loo-rye-ay," bursting into a wail of frustration at the top of the scale.

Naturally he's got an ulterior motive -- he wants Eileen to shrug off those old Catholic morals and sleep with him. ("At this moment / You mean everything," he pants in the chorus; "With you in that dress / My thoughts I confess / Verge on dirty.")  Well, he's a Catholic boy himself, and he clearly feels a frisson of sin, as his back-up mates chime in on the end of phrases, egging him on. Chorus after chorus, he fixates on that dress of hers -- red, as we later learn, the color of wickedness and temptation -- and all he can think of is getting her out of it. He's rejecting the old folks' morality just as he's rejecting their music -- oldest story in the book.

But, resourceful lad, he's pulling out every trick he can think of. Keys change, tempos change; the syncopated jig gives way to a march, and then it crashes to a halt for that bridge -- "Come on [beat] / Eileen, too-rah-ay!" begun as a lumbering chant, then accelerating, getting away from him, until it goes into absolute frenzy. "At this moment / You mean everything to me" he repeats, with more emphasis on the "moment" -- he knows it's all about today's desire. Who's to say how he'll feel tomorrow?

So where does Eileen stand in all this? She did, after all, choose to wear that red dress -- she must have known it would drive these nice Irish boys mad. I'm hoping Eileen is on the same page of desire as Dexy -- that would be changing the old story into something for modern Ireland.

I guess I wasn't surprised that we never heard of Dexy's Midnight Runners again -- what were the odds they'd catch this kind of lightning in a bottle twice?

13 DOWN, 39 TO GO

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Eleanor Put Your Boots On" / Franz Ferdinand

When my son first stuck this CD into our car's CD player -- Franz Ferdinand's 2005 album You Could Have It So Much Better -- it only took two or three tracks to convince me that these guys were brought up on the Kinks. Alex Kapranos' lead vocals have that same soft campy flutter that Ray Davies patented in the mid-1960s; their lyrics are similarly compact little short stories; and they pack their songs with addictive riffs and tuneful hooks. In interviews, Kapranos owns up to that Kinks influence, though he adds that their original goal was simply to write music for girls to dance to. Well, I for one am ready to dance.

"Eleanor Put Your Boots On" is a long-distance romance song, but don't expect a moaning mushy I'm-missing-you song.


Wait, these guys are from Scotland -- why are they singing about New York? The Brooklyn dirt, the Coney Island, Greenpoint, the Statue of Liberty (which I will forever from now on see as "the statue with the dictionary"). But that's where Eleanor is, apparently, and the narrator of this song is pleading with her to put on some sort of fairy-tale seven-league boots that will let her take a giant leap over the ocean back to him.

She needs to be coaxed a bit -- in verse one he reassures her "I know it isn't dignified to run / But if you run / You can run to the Coney Island roller coaster" (go Cyclone!). And in verse two, he tries flattery: "You know you look so elegant when you run." Whatever it takes.

I love how vividly he's imagined this. The ocean that separates them is "filthy water," and though it's daytime where he is, the sun is still "hidden" on her side of the Atlantic. He advises her to leap off the Statue of Liberty's fingernails, throwing in a take-off "yeah!" that is simply adorable.

It's a wistful, upbeat fantasy, the electric piano twiddling around almost like a harpsicord. The volume builds and then fades, the melody sighs up and down -- you can almost feel the gusts of the jetstream that'll carry her home. It shifts into a darker minor key in the instrumental bridges, with some harder-edged guitar and drums layered on, like the rougher seas in the middle of the ocean. But then the narrator straightens himself out and sweetly woos Eleanor again.

"I could be there when you land," he keeps offering, shyly -- "I could be there when you land." Well, if she doesn't take him up on it, she's a fool. I'm tempted to go buy me a pair of those boots myself.

12 DOWN, 40 TO GO

Monday, January 20, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Miss Marlene" / Donald Fagen

Fast forward 28 years, and here's the return of Steely Dan -- or at least the keyboard half, Donald Fagen -- still hitting that jazz-rock groove. If Fagen's 2012 album Sunken Condos doesn't equal classic Steely Dan on every track, when it does, it's something fine indeed. The cool jazz sound and oddball lyrics score some intellectual sophistication, but before we get too pretentious, the song's rock guts kick in. Hipster irony? Oh, folks, we are way beyond that here.

And really, we just don't have enough songs about bowling, do we?



I'm immediately swept along by the song's syncopated charm, its plush textures, the slight blurt of a horn section, the antiphonal electric guitar, those slinky chord changes. The chorus sets the scene in some Big Lebowski universe set at the local bowling lanes. "Can’t you hear the balls rumble? / Can’t you hear the balls rumble  / Miss Marlene / We’re still bowling / Every Saturday night." Dig how he swells into the unresolved chord of "ruuummm-ble," willing the chord to resolve. I imagine him standing at the end of the lane, tilting to the side, urging his ball to veer into a better trajectory.

In verse after verse he verbally riffs with the conceit, filling in all sorts of esoteric bowling-specific references -- "when she release the red ball," "The ball would ride a moonbeam down the inside line," "You were throwin' back hurricanes," and my personal favorite, "We drop the seven-ten." In my limited bowling career, I have never been able to clear that split between the 7 pin and the 10 pin, but I've got the lingo if nothing else.

There isn't much plot here, but it's such a particular, specific slice of life, I'm totally absorbed. It's a busy social milieu, with back-up singers oozing into the ends of phrases, the clutter of various instruments going their various directions, only the percussion track keeping steady like a ball rolling down the alley. I could swear I hear the murmuring voices at the bar, the machines in the arcade, the clatter of the ball return.

Fagen does give us glimpses of the girl in the picture -- rolling like a pro in 2007 when she was just seventeen, "With the long skinny legs, child / And your hoop earrings." (Prime pool hall skank or wild child free spirit? You decide.) Then the denouement in the sixth verse: "You ran into the dark street / At University Place / The cab came up so fast that / We saw your laughin' face." I know those streets and their skinny-jean clientele. I'm with her trying to grab that cab.

This is not a classic pop song; it does not make a major statement. Fagen probably thought up the lyrics in five minutes on a bowling evening, humming them under his breath as he waited for the automatic ball return. But I'm in no mood to quibble. Just sink into that fat instrumentation and let it roll.

11 DOWN, 41 TO GO

Sunday, January 19, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number" / Steely Dan

1974. I'm in college, no longer listening to my parents' car AM radio, thrown upon the mercies of college FM, which has its own weird orthodoxy. But every once in a while I tune into the local AM station and hear -- between "Time In a Bottle" and "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" -- something strange and wonderful. Plenty of cheesy jazz-rock imitators came along later to muck up the waters, but these guys invented the sound -- the dense aural environment, underlaid with a slapping, commanding groove.

Calling Dr. Becker! Calling Dr. Fagen! Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the two mad scientists behind Steely Dan, crafted that sound and welded to it oddball lyrics with a distinctly snarky take on modern life. And snarky was just exactly what I needed to hear in those days.  "Reeling In the Years," "Do It Again," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" -- the music was compelling, the songs themselves rather disturbing. But hey, I was in college -- disturbing was what I ate for breakfast back then.


So what's the story here? To a spooky samba beat, the singer's pleading with a girl -- I don't even think a girlfriend, just someone he briefly dated. Or whatever. There's certainly a whiff of desperation in the way he reminds her of "our little wild time" and going "out driving on Slow Hand Row" (that's some evocative name for a lover's lane). Properly speaking, I'm not sure that Rikki even remembers this guy at first, not if he has to remind her of their connection.

Now, in college I assumed that the number she wasn't supposed to lose was his. I pictured something scrawled on a matchbook or a cocktail napkin; I actually had a few of those in those days. If they had been steadies, she'd have had his phone number on speed dial -- but instead he's pleading with her "Rikki don't lose that number."

It was a different era, that's for sure. You didn't text somebody, you couldn't email them -- if you wanted to communicate you had to use the telephone, and chances were they wouldn't even be home to pick up. (This is such a Neanderthal era, we didn't even have answering machines -- if you called when they weren't home you just had to try again later.) It took effort.

"You don't want to call nobody else," he adds, entreating her -- because if she doesn't call, he'll never hear from her again. "Send it off in a letter to yourself" (mnemonic tips from Dr. Becker!). Chords falter and diminish as he speculates, "You might use it if you feel better / When you get home . . . " He knows she won't, but a guy can hope, can't he?  ("And you might have a change of heart . . . " the line wanders upward, followed by a twiddle of piano).

But things are not well in Rikki's world. That ominous ticking bass line, the ambiguous lyrics, the faintly scolding call-and-response of the chorus, they all spell trouble. At one time she wouldn't have phoned him for anything . . . but now maybe she will. Because --

Now, all these years later, I see a different scenario. It has occurred to me that it could be some other phone number -- an abortion doctor's, maybe? He's trying to help her out of a jam, but also keep himself from being implicated in that jam. He wants her to have a change of heart and get rid of the thing. After all, he only knows her from Slow Hand Road, and the unwritten rule is, whatever happens on Slow Hand Road stays on Slow Hand Road. Unless there are complications....

Maybe this is the scenario. I don't know for sure. All we hear is the dialogue between the two of them, and they know things we don't. It's like being thrown into a Raymond Carver short story, and scrambling to figure out what's going on.

One thing I knew for sure: if I was Rikki, I'd keep that number.  

10 DOWN, 42 to GO

Saturday, January 18, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Belinda" / Ben Folds

I reckon Ben Folds could have his pick of writers to do his lyrics (not that Ben Folds even needs anybody else's lyrics). So whom did Ben pick to collaborate with on his 2011 album Lonely Avenue?  Why, the same guy I'd pick -- British novelist Nick Hornby.

Hornby is an innate storyteller, and each of the songs on this wonderful album come embedded with characters and plot. "Belinda," the last track on the album, in some ways brings Lonely Avenue full circle.


Our narrator here is a touring rock musician -- not Folds, though, at least not exactly. This singer is an oldies act, facing nostalgic audiences night after night, and every night they clamor for his showstopper, the one big hit of his career. (Clever line: "He always hears how much it means to people / There's a lot of fortysomethings wouldn't be in the world without it" -- which dates his audience as the 40-somethings' parents, well into their sixties.)

They came to hear "Belinda," and while he may save it to the very end -- hence track 11 -- they won't go home until they've heard it.  But here's the catch: He wrote it about his old sweetheart when they were still in love -- before he screwed around with a busty blond flight attendant and left Belinda. He knows he didn't do the right thing; how weak his excuse is -- "She gave me complimentary champagne." Years later, he is curdled with regret. 

And still, every night, he  has to get up on stage and sing this love song to the woman whose heart he broke.  

Now, being the geeky fangirl I am, I've actually pondered this before.  It's one thing for Paul McCartney to sing "My Love" and think about his late wife Linda, whom he loved till the day she died; it's another for Eric Clapton to sing "Layla" about his ex-wife Pattie Boyd Harrison Clapton, whom he divorced.  How does he feel, singing that song?  Does he picture Pattie to himself or does he just sing the notes?  Ray Davies can cut a song like "Property" out of his repertoire if the memories of his divorce sting too much (was that Yvonne he left for Chrissie Hynde?), but what if you only had a couple of recognizable hits?  Could Gerry Marsden have gone on singing "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" if the girl he wrote it for hadn't come back and married him?  And what about the Left Banke -- if they'd stayed together, would they be forever singing "Walk Away Renee" about the bassist's girlfriend, that girl who got away?  It makes you think.

So it's secretly thrilling to hear that Nick Hornby has been wondering this too. (Have you been reading my diary again, Nick?)  He's a talented wordsmith and all, but it's that understanding of the human heart that really makes Nick Hornby so wonderful to read.  And when you add in Ben Folds' plaintive melodic gifts -- well, it's a heartbreaking album. But in a good way.

9 DOWN, 43 TO GO

Friday, January 17, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Lalena" / Donovan

I meant to stay away from the oldies for a bit -- but this girl muscled her way forward, and for some reason my ears can hear nothing else today.

By the time this winsome single came along in hippie-dippy 1968 -- a follow-up to "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," one of the great psychedelic mind-trips -- we all knew the Donovan lexicon. The wobbly reverby vocals, the gentle acoustic strum, the background flutes and harps. Flower child music to the Nth degree.

Yet this one had something special -- instead of being just about love and meadows and sunshine it actually had a social message. Donovan has said that he was inspired to write this song by watching Lotte Lenya playing the streetwalker Jenny in G.W. Pabst's 1931 film of The Threepenny Opera, and learning that now for the first time, I see the song slightly differently. But not all that much -- even if you didn't know that provenance, you could feel the groundswell of sympathetic sorrow in "Lalena," a cry of commiseration for all the outcasts of society.


Donovan's trembly vocals come into their own here, the gentle melisma like a caress of concern. "When the sun goes to bed / That's the time you raise your head." In 1968 I thought this was just because Lalena was a cool countercultural chick who liked to sleep in -- but now that I know the Lotte Lenya inspiration, seeing as how she's a working girl, the pity in the next lines make more sense: "That's your lot in life, Lalena / Can't blame ya, Lalena." Anybody who wants to enact legislation against this trapped and desperate misfit will have to take it up with the esteemed member from Glasgow, Mr. Leitch.

Given Donovan's Scottish accent, I wasn't one-hundred-percent sure what he was saying in the next verse. Turns out it really was nonsense syllables: "Aw Tee Toft / La Dee Da." But I picture Donovan watching this German film with subtitles, and hey, who knows what he meant to convey. And the next line is certainly an armchair critic's cry of sympathy: "Can your part get much sadder?"

In the bridge, there's a hippie-dippy possibility, like an Herbal Essence shampoo commercial : "Run your hand / Through your hair" -- but no, it's just a prostitute's attention-getting hair-fluff. While my 1968 self saw the next line -- "Paint your face with despair" -- as a reference to a French street mime single-tear make-up, now I know that it's just the heavy mascara and rouge of any lady of the night. The despair part comes free.

Oh, and that tender bridge, full of strings and woodwinds -- maybe it seemed a little weird and retro in 1968, but I'll bet the 1931 movie had put those orchestrations in Donovan's mind, and they would not be denied. Seemed odd at the time, but now it makes the song.  

I imagine Donovan, the famous folkie, sitting in his living room watching this film and being overwhelmed with emotion. A song HAD to be written. The song in fact didn't even make it onto his Hurdy Gurdy Man LP and was only released as a single, but that single hit hard on the US charts. (Contractual disputes, no UK release, but hey, it's an old story to a Kinks fan.) All I know is that in 1968, this high school kid heard the song on the radio and fell in love with it.  Forever.

8 DOWN, 44 TO GO

Thursday, January 16, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Joey" / Jill Sobule

Now let's hear from the ladies.

I remember watching Joey Heatherton on variety shows when I was a kid. In black tights, an oversized sweater, and that short tousled blonde hair -- well, even at age 9 I knew there wasn't a chance in hell I'd ever be able to pull off that particular sex kittenish look, but man, was it appealing. Put her right up there with Ann-Margret and Connie Stevens (a.k.a. Cricket on 77 Sunset Strip) and they defined the 1960s idea of a Sexpot. An impossible standard for us little girls to live up to.

Yet for all her tomboyish charm, you knew that Joey was fragile, and more than a bit needy. Ann-Margret seemed like a tiger compared to Joey, Connie Stevens like a scrappy toy poodle. But Joey? I worried about Joey.

Turns out I wasn't the only one . . . .


I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jill Sobule is one my favorite singer-songwriters. On Jill's delicious 2004 album Underdog Victorious there are a lot of personal songs about the various zigs and zags of her own coming of age, but this one character study fits right in.  Written with co-writer Bill Demain, the sensibility is seamlessly in line with the rest of the album. I can just picture little Jill or little Bill watching Joey go-going away on The Dean Martin Show or The Hollywood Palace and developing a kidlet crush on her.

The plush tones of that opening "Joey," sung with a Joey-like breathiness -- it lays down a cushion of retro 1960s movie music sound.  But then the song breaks into a perky bossa nova -- the other side of the 60s sound -- as Jill fills in the bio. The first part of the story is all glamour and success: "Joey was the It Girl at just fifteen," "Joey got a start in the night club scene / Even though she studied ballet under Balanchine." (That next line, "She could take a swan dive if you know what I mean" is a cool little in joke, since Bill Demain is one half of the wonderful duo Swan Dive.) She's on the Rat-Pack cool Dean Martin show, she's wowing the troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope and the USO, she's marrying Dallas Cowboys star receiver Lance Rentzel. She's the golden girl, to be worshipped from afar.

It's in the bridge where Jill starts to make it personal. The melody goes higher and more legato, as she wistfully reflects, "All she ever wanted was your love and respect / Isn't that the same thing that we all want, Joey, Joey?" Yes, and that human need -- that hunger to be loved -- can sometimes lead us into dark alleys.

And the second chapter of this American life is not so golden. "I remember Joey in a mattress ad/ I guess around this time was when things got bad / When her husband got arrested she looked so sad." Those Serta commercials played up Joey's sexpot image, as she seduced you into her bed -- nod, nod, wink, wink -- with an unbearable cheesiness. And then her all-star husband turned out to be a mess, arrested in 1970 for exposing himself to a 10-year-old girl. Stuck in her 60s go-go girl image, Joey saw the acting roles dry up, the variety shows disappear, the records stalling on the charts. Is it any wonder that she began to slide into substance abuse?

I love how every verse ends with a pair of dance steps, thrusting off-beat rhythms inviting us to dance like Joey, doing the frug, the monkey, the jerk, the Watusi, the pony. I regret to say that I know how to do every single one of those dances and can demonstrate them upon request.

Now Jill/Bill enters the picture. "Yesterday in line at the A&P / I saw Joey on the back of Star magazine / They said she's using again and she still won't de[tox]." That verse hits me with such poignancy. And the capping line: "She's got the jerk, she's got the monkey." I picture a jerking addict in the throes of withdrawal, I remember the slang term for addiction "got a monkey on his back." And my heart breaks for the It Girl at the end of the line.

 "You can stay at my place if you want to, Joey," Jill/Bill shyly offers in the final chorus. Because those childhood crushes? We never get over them, one way or another.

7 DOWN, 45 TO GO 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Sally Was a Legend" /
Robyn Hitchcock

Okay, now we're in the alternate universe that is Robyn Hitchcock Land. Don't look for or expect a clear-cut story, or anything logical, for that matter. The meaning of a Robyn Hitchcock song always lies between the cracks.


Ah, the magnificent Jewels for Sophia album, from 1999, which also includes such RH classics as "The Cheese Alarm," "Antwoman," and "Viva! Sea-Tac" ("You've got the best computers and coffee and smack" -- really, the Seattle visitors' bureau ought to base an entire ad campaign on that song).

With a sprightly, chugging guitar riff, Robyn lets us know that "Sally was a legend / Sally was a legend in my heart / Sally was a legend" -- legends are public figures, usually, but Robyn takes this one as his own private Idaho. Note: not just "in my mind" but "in my heart" -- like I said, this is not a world where logic rules. And having set her up as some kind of goddess, he then springs to the seemingly illogical conclusion: "So we had to keep ourselves apart." Hunh?

But it does have its own logic. We're talking here about passions too unruly to be played with. "Push the dream towards me / I can see a flower in the dark." It's right within reach, but he backs away, confused. "I can understand you / I don't understand the sacred heart." He's clueless when it comes to these emotions, and he'd rather opt out. The texture of this song is anything but steamy; the perky tempo, the flat sound, the plunky metallic guitar, all work against sexiness, lust, and desire. If this is a love song, it's also a mind game.

There's no physical description of the girl, no scene-setting, no episodes to recount. All that matters is the power of Sally's force field. There's certainly a dangerous edge to her. "The truth is evil," he warns, darkly; "It's an evil truth to you-know-whom." What truth? For whom? No, I don't know, Robyn, though I'm madly guessing. But he follows this up with the sublimely illogical "I can point to Norway / I can point to Norway with my fist." (The Scandinavian countries often pop up in Robyn Hitchcock songs.) When faced with having to decode that evil truth, he'd rather head for chillier climes. 

"Sally was a legend," he reiterates, "Sure as there are veins beneath her wrist." (I wonder which rhyme came first, the fist or the wrist -- they're both arresting, that's for sure.) I see the blue pulse beneath her skin, and for some reason think about drug abuse. A dangerous girl, indeed.

Sally may be trouble, but she's also uncannily perceptive and intuitive, as he tells us in verse three: "Even with her eyes shut / She could see the faces on her lids." (Leave it to Robyn to get a little trippy and Rimbaud-like in his imagery.) "She could see my crying / That was long before I ever did." Maybe it's just a Venus-and-Mars difference, but Sally seems to be light-years ahead of this guy; that's both her attraction and her alarm.

And maybe that's why he can't get her out of his mind. "And it's been a lifetime / And with you I celebrate my life." He has to accept her enduring, unforgettable presence, even if "now she's at the table with a knife." Well, he did need a rhyme for "life," and in point of fact I myself often sit at the table with a knife. (If that's all it takes, Robyn . . . .) But somehow Sally's knife seems a whole lot more ominous than mine.

What is he going to do about this Sally? Is he in or out? We don't know; he doesn't know either. The singer lost in a maze, both tantalized by Sally and scared to death.

Which is probably why she's still a legend in his mind -- and now in mine, too.

6 DOWN, 46 TO GO

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Sara Smile" /
Hall & Oates

I'll admit it: I have a fangirl crush on Daryl Hall. Had one in the 80s, still have one today. One of the great things about cable TV for me is that I can watch music jams on Daryl's House on VH1 and soon will be able to watch Daryl renovating his Sherman, CT, house on his new DIY series Daryl's Restoration Over-Hall. (And to think we were renting in Sherman only a few years ago...)

So in 1976, having already been a fan of Hall & Oates ever since their folk-tinged debut LP Whole Oats, I felt very ambiguous about "Sara Smile." On the one hand, yay, it finally broke Hall & Oates through to chart success (leading to a run of hits in the 80s, as Daryl and John married their native Philly soul to the 1980s disco-and-MTV formula). But on the other hand -- was my beloved Daryl two-timing me?

Well . . . yeah.


I'm just going to have to bite the bullet on this one. It's so clear that this is a man besotted. There was a real Sara: Sara Allen, Daryl's main squeeze for many years, who co-wrote songs with him as well as being his muse. Listening to this song, I cannot deny that this was a relationship that worked.  Every beat of this song tells you that.

With the wonder of love, he describes her, in a hip-shifting tempo that goes right to the core: "Baby hair / With a woman's eyes / I can feel you watching in the night / All alone with me and we're / Waiting for the sunlight." Unh-hunh. If they're watching the sunrise, it's because they spent the night together -- having sex, of course. But what sets this song apart from so many "doing it tonight" pop songs is that they've already "done it"; that languorous tempo is all about feeling satiated and satisfied. And he's in no hurry to leave -- he's happy to lie there, drowsily, having a cuddle. Guys, I gotta tell you, this is what ladies find sexy.    

One line jumps out at me: "All alone with me" -- there's pride of possession there, and amazement that he won this particular lottery. That has to make a girl feel good. You'd think that a guy as impossibly good-looking as tall, blond Daryl Hall would be an egomaniac, but I've never gotten that impression of him. (Another thing we ladies find sexy.)   

In the chorus, he stirs himself from the caressing phrase "Sara, smile" to hop (effortlessly, of course) into his upper register, scatting happily, as the soul/gospel/jazz protocol demands. It's as if his heart is bursting with joy.

The soulful tempo is one thing; then there's the oozy chord changes, from minor to major, sevenths and tonics, never quite resolving at the ends of lines. (You do need a pitch-perfect singer like Daryl to make this song work.) It's drowsy, a little aimless, ebbing and flowing -- and intentionally so. Because this isn't a storytelling song with a beginning, middle, and end, with tension and suspense and a crisis to resolve. It's about two lovers catching a moment of glorious equipoise, simple happiness.

Oh, there's change all around them -- in the first verse, night changing into day, in the second verse Sara's restless need to go. (A little 1976 feminism, and why not? I love that he's intrigued by her independent spirit.) We're aware of changes in the offing, aware that this relaxed moment in each other's arms can't last. But that just makes it feel all the more precious.

One nice touch: In the first verse he marvels, "When I feel cold you warm me / And when I feel I can't go on, / You come and hold me." (Love how the melody rises, anxiously, on that "feel I can't go on.")  But notice how he switches pronouns in the second verse, promising now to warm her, hold her, be the supporting actor if she needs it. Maybe that's a pop sleight-of-hand; I don't know. But I love it as an acceptance of the quid-pro-quo of love.

At the end of every verse, he carves their initials in this pop-song tree: "It's you and me forever, ahh aaahhhh." Unfortunately Daryl and Sara are not still together -- except they are, eternally, in this song.

And when I listen to it, I'm happy that someone made Daryl this happy. Though seriously, D? Now that Sara's out of the picture . . . .

5 DOWN, 47 TO GO

Monday, January 13, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Hey There Delilah" /
Plain White T's

[No, not Tom Jones' "Delilah." Please.]

Let's not get stuck in the past, now. Songs are still being written about girls in the 21st century, and here's one of them, from a young band out of Chicago. I saw them play live a couple of years ago, on a fun triple bill with Panic at the Disco! and the ever-wonderful Motion City Soundtrack. I had no idea who they were, but I instantly liked their melodic, upbeat music.

Then lo and behold, the next summer this number was all over the radio. As long-distance relationship songs go, it's winning indeed:
 
Acoustic strum, a breathy tenor -- we're in sincere territory from the first note. "Hey there Delilah /  What's it like in New York City? /  I'm a thousand miles away [love the voice break on thousand] /  But girl, tonight you look so pretty / Yes you do" -- shifting down to that earnest "yes you do," he breaks up the A-B-A-B simplicity. Time to sneak in a little flattery while he's at it, too: "Times Square can't shine as bright as you / I swear it's true." There's more words than melody here, the chord shifting simply from one major key to its relative minor. I can easily imagine this as a late-night internet conversation, a little drowsy and aimless.

It's definitely a post-modern pop song, angling to sound authentic and unclichéd. No hormone-raddled teenagers here, but young adults with things on their plate, who've accepted the discipline of long-distance relationship for practical reasons. Tortured longing has to be kept at bay somehow: "Hey there Delilah / Don't you worry about the distance /  I'm right there if you get lonely / Give this song another listen / Close your eyes." Okay, that lowered voice on "close your eyes" does get a little seductive, especially followed by "Listen to my voice, it's my disguise / I'm by your side." Gives me a warm feeling, I know that.

In the chorus, though, he permits himself to crank up the emotional temperature, heading into his upper register to wail: "Oh it's what you do to me." He repeats this four more times, alternating high and low, a riding a roller coaster of frustrated yearning. That "what you do to me" is intentionally vague -- you can hear it as "what your effect is upon me" -- totally innocent, right? But I can also catch a hungry hint of her doing something more specific to him, perhaps in bed. And as he sits there at the computer screen, he seems to be looping a re-run of it over and over in his head.

Yet he collects himself for the verses, commiserating with her struggles -- "I know times are getting hard" -- and promising "Someday I'll pay the bills with this guitar."  (It's a great exercise in delayed gratification.) For the moment, all they have is "ifs" -- if she could only hear the songs he's been writing to her, he declares, she'd fall even more in love with him.

In the bridge, he wrestles with logistics: "A thousand miles seems pretty far / But they've got planes and trains and cars / I'd walk to you if I had no other way." That's the kind of extravagant offer that's been sung in so many pop songs, even he realizes it doesn't sound authentic. He pulls back, acknowledging "Our friends would all make fun of us." But damn it, this IS the way he feels, and he reaches out to make sure she's on the same page: "And we'll just laugh along because we know / That none of them have felt this way." There they are, in that cocoon of two-ness that makes them feel so special, where "the world will never ever be the same" -- okay, another cliché, which he rescues with the teasing phrase, "And you're to blame."

The last verse, the sign-off, straps back on the blinders of reality: "Hey there Delilah / You be good and don't you miss me / Two more years and you'll be done with school / And I'll be making history / Like I do." Another ironic little wink there -- even he knows that he's not really "making history." But while she's smiling at his self-deprecating joke, maybe she'll accept his heartfelt pledge, "You'll know it's all because of you. . . . This one's for you."

There really is a Delilah, it turns out: track star Delilah DiCrescenzo, who met the Ts' songwriter and lead vocalist Tom Higgenson in the summer of 2002 at the House of Blues in Chicago. They kept in touch via instant messaging after she returned to New York City, where she was at Columbia University -- but here's the kicker: Delilah already had a boyfriend, whom in fact she's still with. (Aha -- that explains the reined-in emotions of this song.) In interviews, Delilah recalls being mortified when Tom gave her an advance copy of the Plain White Ts' 2005 CD All That We Needed and she first heard "her" song. She'd had no idea Tom had such a crush on her, while she'd had this other steady boyfriend the whole time. Well, these things happen -- and at least he got a #1 single out of it.

4 DOWN, 48 TO GO

Sunday, January 12, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Layla" / Eric Clapton

Forgive me for recycling -- but even though I've already written about this song, it just had to be part of this series.

"Layla" -- we're talking the original, not unplugged-for-PBS, version -- reminds me of freshman year in college, when my friend Kathy and I cranked it up loud enough to make her next-door neighbor, named Leila, pound on the wall. At the time, though, (get this) I didn't even know Eric Clapton was in Derek and the Dominos. I didn't get the point of Eric Clapton until senior year, when I knew a bit more about both drugs and sex and suddenly his music made sense. Late to the party again.

Then my older brother Holt -- fount of all musical knowledge for a while, he who first told me the Beatles were going to be on Ed Sullivan, he who first brought Sgt. Peppers into our house -- informed me that "Layla" had been written about Patti Boyd Harrison, George's wife. Yes, the same Patti who would eventually divorce George and marry his best friend Eric. Having recently read Patti's autobiography Wonderful Tonight, I happen to know that did not turn out well for her. But listen to "Layla," and you can see -- she had no other choice.


Doesn't this just rip your heart out? He starts out teetering on the brink, peeling off that heartbreaking guitar riff, a miserable wail that just won't go away. Time and again it pierces through the song, annihilating everything in the passion of his unrequited love.

It's a story all right, but a story told in reverse. Verse one paints a dark version of the future: "What'll you do when you get lonely / And nobody's waiting by your side?" It sounds like a veiled threat -- "if you don't love me soon you'll lose me" -- but come on, this guy is not going anywhere. I know I said "unrequited love," but that's not right. He is convinced that she's really in love with him, though she can't admit it even to herself -- "You've been running and hiding much too long / You know it's just your foolish pride." Unrequited love is a blow to one's ego, but this kind of wrenching unconsummated love? It's a fire that won't be put out.

Verse two looks to the past: "I tried to give you consolation / When your old man had let you down." Reminding her, incidentally, that her old man HAS let her down, and is likely to do it again. (I believe it was George's affair with Ringo's wife Maureen that was the last straw.)  And there's Eric, the not-so-innocent bystander, languishing on the sidelines: "Like a fool, I fell in love with you / Turned my whole world upside down." I'm not saying it's great poetry, but the story he's telling requires -- no, DEMANDS -- a howl of anguish.

Eric's voice was never suited for howling, but his guitar sure was. And even when he strains his voice hoarsely, it's perfect for this song -- he's a lost soul, and she's got him on his knees, begging darling please . . . that part's about the present, this agonizing limbo of desire he's been trapped in too long.

And when, in the last verse, he moans "Let's make the best of the situation / Before I finally go insane," it sounds like he's insane already. "Please don't say we'll never find a way / And tell me all my love's in vain" -- like I said, he's not going anywhere. He'll play that tortured riff over and over again until he dies.

That magisterial keyboard solo by Jim Gordon (who co-wrote the song with Clapton) no longer seems to me to go on too long; it's like a man staggering around, unable to give up this wrenching passion, and the obsessive pent-up frenzy of the song is just right. No wonder Patti finally gave in. If anyone ever recorded a song like this about me, I'd be his in a nanosecond.

3 DOWN, 49 TO GO

Saturday, January 11, 2014

52 GIRLS

"Carrie Anne" / The Hollies

I won't inflict "Holly Holy" on you, but I will sneak in my own name here. Let's time travel to 1967, the dwindling years of the British Invasion. Though my favorite Hollies song remains "Bus Stop" -- for reasons I explain here -- "Carrie Anne" runs a close second. If "Bus Stop" always seems like a rainy day song, then "Carrie Anne" is its sunshiny counterpoint 


You recognize it from the very first beat, the three-part vocal harmonies blooming out from the speakers, fully-fledged. After all, if harmonies are your trademark, why not deliver them right away, on the downbeat? Most other bands would have done this snazzy intro with guitar riffs, but they're proclaiming the trademark Hollies sound from the get-go.

Years later, Graham Nash admitted that he wrote this song (with fellow Hollies Tony Hicks and Allan Clarke) for Swinging London's top It Girl, Marianne Faithfull. In 1967, though, she was famously Mick Jagger's main squeeze, and shy Nash never gave her the song, changing the name to protect the innocent.

He fictionalized some of the details, too. The singer has evidently known Carrie Anne since they were kids: "When we were at school our games were simple / I played the janitor you played a monitor." (Marianne Faithfull went to a girl's convent school, so this part can't be true.) In 1967 my favorite movie was To Sir, With Love, which gave me an exotic notion of an English secondary modern; I had no idea what a monitor was, but I loved the way Allan Clarke pronounced it.

But it quickly becomes a tale of innocence lost: "Then you played with older boys and prefects / What's the attraction in what they're doing?" I can just see her, tousled blonde hair, the short plaid skirt of her uniform revealing an extra length of thigh. Slipping a kittenish look across the classroom at her former playmate while the head boy slings a proprietary arm around her shoulder. And our hero, still a kid (girls do mature faster), is clueless and confused by her budding sexuality.

When this song came out, in the spring of my seventh grade year, I wasn't a Carrie Anne myself -- I was the brainy girl in glasses, watching the cool kids start to pair up. I sympathized more with the singer of this song -- holding my breath, waiting to see how his hopeless crush turned out.

The harmonies swoop back in for the chorus, pleading: "Hey, Carrie Anne, what's your game now / Can anybody play?" I love those Graham Nash high harmonies; they practically demanded that we girls sing along. But that octave jump down to "game" adds a dark note of warning. It's a very different thing to play games as an adult, messing around with people's minds and hearts.
 
Verse two sketches grown-up Carrie Anne, admiringly at first -- "special," "independent," a glorious Sixties free spirit. That part is so Marianne Faithfull. But he's grown up too, and he can see the cracks in her façade: "You lost your charm as you were aging / Where is your magic disappearing?" Heresy! Maybe this is why Nash had second thoughts about giving this song to Marianne Faithfull -- if I were her, I wouldn't particularly care for this bit.

I'm a little baffled by the middle eight, which repeats over and over, "You're so like a woman to me." LIKE a woman? Well, if she isn't a woman, then what is she?  But listening to those overlapping harmonies, logic seems irrelevant -- it's the tapestry of vocals that matters, building to a moan of desire. And then it's overtaken by that memorable musical break, with Caribbean steel drums -- the first pop record ever to use steel pan drums (fun facts to know and tell). As Allan Clarke recalls it, just as they were recording this, Tony and Graham happened to hear a busker playing steel pans down on the street and they brought him into the studio. A random choice, but a perfect fit for the springy syncopation of this song, halfway between samba and reggae.     

He brings the song full circle in verse three, picking up the school imagery: "People live and learn but you're still learning / You use my mind and I'll be your teacher." It's time for a new chapter in both their lives, and now that her It Girl status is fading, maybe at last he has a chance. And isn't that what she needs -- someone who can see her as she really is and still believe in her? "When the lesson's over you'll be with me / Then I'll hear the other people saying, / Hey Carrie Anne....." Happy endings all around.

In point of fact, Marianne Faithfull would stay with Mick Jagger for another three years -- but then, who knows what would have happened if Graham Nash had given her this song?  After all, if Patti Boyd could leave George Harrison for Eric Clapton on the strength of "Layla". . . .

2 DOWN, 50 TO GO