Thursday, April 17, 2014

Reverb Thursday

Apparently this is a thing now on Facebook -- Throwback Thursday. Everybody's doing it. But I'm not like everybody else, so I'll call mine Reverb Thursday...and try to remember every week to post an updated version of an earlier blog post about a song I love. So why not start with a Kinky favorite?

"Holiday Romance" / The Kinks
Might as well give in to it.

The thing is, when I regress into non-stop Kinks listening, it's not the hits like "You Really Got Me" and "Waterloo Sunset" -- I'm talking oddities like "Holiday Romance." This is Ray Davies at his music hall best, with corny strings and tap dance rhythms and campy voices and all. It's a novelty song from their Soap Opera album, right smack in the middle of Ray's theatrical period. Even on Soap Opera, a high-concept story about an ordinary man who is transformed into a star (or is the other way around?), "Holiday Romance" is a strange interlude.

It's one of Ray's many escapist fantasies -- a tale of a flirtation at a dowdy seaside resort, with its own weird sort of Edwardian naughty-postcards charm. It's all about trying on other lives, a tried-and-true Ray Davies theme. He lapses fondly into clever Noel Coward-esque patter, with a histrionic upbeat: "I -- had -- a -- brrreak for a week / So I booked my seat / And confirmed my reservation." You can almost imagine his arched eyebrows as he sets the scene "at a quiet little seaside / ho-tel." The indelible way he sings that "ho-tel" -- well, I tell you, that's how we tell a true Kinks fan, if he or she sings that line just so. No other intonation will do.

Our hero arrives at the resort "just in time for the dinner gong / Ding-dong!" If this were a movie, it'd be in black-and-white, but stylishly lit; the staginess of it all almost fits better into a silent movie, or one of those herky-jerky little films you'd watch on a scope at an old-timey amusement arcade.

The shot zooms in on his love interest: "Then I saw Lavinia / Standing at the bottom of the stairs / And I fell for Lavinia / The moment that I saw her standing there." Echo of the early Beatles song? Maybe, but even closer is this song's affinity with Magical Mystery Tour's deliberately nostalgic "Your Mother Should Know." ("Let's all get up and dance to a song / That was a hit before your mother was born..."). The difference is that Ray doesn't bother with the ironic parentheses -- he just projects himself right into that other era and goes for it.

There's something deliciously fey about the mincing way Ray sings, "Lavinia looked so divine / As she walked up to the table to dine / And then Lavinia's eyes met /Mine!" Ah, that falsetto trill at the end is just priceless; Tiny Tim couldn't have done better. With all due histrionics, he wonders, with a suitable flutter in his voice, "Can this be love / Can this be lovey-dove / Or just a holiday romance?" He jumps up to another register to reiterate, "Can this be long-lost love at last / Or is it just a flash in the pan?"

His excitement is so endearingly innocent, an innocence he carries on as they dance ("after cheese and liqueurs) to the hotel band ("We did the foxtrot, samba, and danced through the night"). In later verses, they stroll on the beach and drink lemonade, and he says to himself, with a frisson of delight, "I thought, 'I must be on a winner'." That's probably my favorite line, followed closely by "And my holiday treat was / Com-plete." How he manages to make all this sound so lascivious and yet so quaint is beyond genius.

It's a hazy out-of-time idyll, even for our hero, who knows perfectly well that this will only last for the week. He ties it all up with a lovely comic bow at the end, when, in a Monty-Pythonish female warble, Lavinia pushes him away and trills, "Better stop, / My husband's coming to collect me today." Breaking his rhyme scheme, his syncopation, completely puncturing his balloon, she appears in her own skin for the first time, and Ray lets the mask slip just enough for us to wonder if she's actually a silly cow. But who cares? It's such a tidy ending! With a cascading embroidery of strings, he pans away, waving a handkerchief in farewell. Nothing will ever spoil the perfection of this little romance. No ties, no regrets -- ah, that's what we all need, isn't it?

Okay, it's not the first song I'd play to try to convert somebody to being a Kinks fan. But this is the sort of stuff that made a Kinks fan of me, for better or worse. What a hopeless case I am.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" / Billy Joel

Am I a Billy Joel fan?  I can't say I am.

This album, The Stranger, is the only one I ever bought and the only one I ever listened to. Although, truth be told, I listened to it a lot during the year I lived in Arlington, Virginia, an odd lacuna between grad school in England and the life I was meant to live in Manhattan. All bets were off for that year, as I made a reluctant re-entry into American life. With few friends in town, and little commitment to life in the D.C. area, I spent a lot of time writing and filled my turntable with uncharacteristic records like Steve Miller's The Joker and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours (okay, me and everybody else in 1977) and The Band's Greatest Hits.  I'd like to say this was a precursor to my 21st-century interest in Americana, but that would be utter bullcrap. It was just what I happened to have in the house.

But this Billy Joel album? For a few months there, it really spoke to me.

And now, 37 years later, I have heard this song -- not "Just the Way You Are," not "Vienna," not "Only the Good Die Young," not "She's Always a Woman," but this particular song -- on random sound systems and radio stations three times in the past week. After not hearing it at all for decades.

What gives?

First of all -- 7 minutes and 36 freaking seconds? Who does that anymore? Our modern attention spans are way too short for this, but people let me tell you -- in the vinyl 1970s they did it ALL THE TIME. Because they could -- who was gonna bother lifting the tone arm and skipping a track? So we just sat through it. And yes, that meant we sat through some awful self-indulgent crap. But in this case, not so much.

Because it's really a suite, a succession of songs tracing a storyline. The opening -- "A bottle of white, bottle of red / Perhaps a bottle of rose instead" -- sets the scene, taking a table at the restaurant. But soon we move on to the album's hero's story -- "Got a good job / Got a good wife" -- a nice follow-up to the album's opening track, "Moving Out (Anthony's Song)." Everything is hunky-dory, with saxes and clarinets and Billy's rapid-fire piano wizardry.

And then he shifts to a little human-interest observation -- the story that's really at the heart of this song, though cleverly framed with the restaurant stuff. "Brenda and Eddie were the popular steadies / And the king and the queen of the prom / Riding round with the cartop down and the radio on/ Nobody looked any finer / Always more of a hit at the parkway diner / We never knew we could want more than that out of life / Sure, and Brenda and Eddie would always know how to survive." I didn't grow up on Billy Joel's Long Island, but I know my equivalent -- "Jack and Diane" by John Mellencamp.

But oh, Billy J doesn't leave Brenda and Eddie in the limbo of could-have-been -- no, he leads them all the way through their co-habitation, the wedding, the furniture bought on time at Sears, the squabbles -- "they started to fight when the money got tight / And they just didn't count on the tears" -- well, who DOES count on the tears?

And so it ended as a million other marriages do, with a divorce. (All of this taking place in the summer of '75, mind you.) And then, "The king and the queen went back to the green / But you can never go back there again." Because, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can't go home again, and all the kids (LIKE OUR HERO) who idolized these paragons of popularity have moved on already. Too bad, Brenda and Eddie.

Full circle: We come back to the bottle of red, bottle of white, only a good deal more boozy in the reprise. (I picture Eddie at the bar, drowning his considerable sorrows.)  We're still at the restaurant, still in Long Island, but now perhaps we see the folks at the tables around us a little bit differently. They've got back stories now, and those back stories are laden with disappointment and inevitable regret. But -- here's the kicker, and the reason for the story's layers -- those of us who weren't prom kings and queens, but who are making it okay? We should feel damn proud of ourselves.

And in 1977, as a recent college graduate with no boyfriend and no freaking idea what I was going to do with my life -- well, that was a message I was relieved to listen to.

Note to self: In the intervening years, I had become so cynical about Billy Joel's talents as a social commentator. But what was I thinking?

Maybe he didn't keep it up record after record, but on The Stranger?  Home run, slam dunk, touchdown. Boo yah.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" /
Simon and Garfunkel

So who invented this National Sibling Day?  I've never heard of this bogus holiday before -- yet now suddenly, today, everybody and their brother are posting all over Facebook these happy smiling pictures of them with their sibs.

And I'm one sib short and it makes me incredibly sad.

So here's a song that I've lately found makes me feel better.

I had already put this on my Holt playlist, but the day I was cleaning out his apartment and put his iPod in the iDock for iShuffle iListening, I was delighted to hear so many S&G tunes in his library. Flashback to our teenage years, when, even before The Graduate made "Sounds of Silence" so iconic, Holt had introduced me to Wednesday Morning 4 AM and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. I bought a guitar just so I could pick out those tunes (painfully, I might add). We were NEW Folkies, which these days would be labeled Indie Rock. Whatever. It wasn't Peter Paul and Mary, that's all we knew.

Jump forward to 1970, when Holt had gone off to college, leaving me at home in Indianapolis to carry the torch. Bridge Over Troubled Water was their last album, and just about every song on it alluded to their impending break-up . . . or so I now realize. Then, not so much. I thought this was a song about an architect. And yeah, if I thought about it that was kinda odd, but what did I know?

But as a farewell song, it's a beauty. It's so tender, so wistful, and just uptempo enough that you know not to despair; they're gonna be okay. That samba beat -- god, how I love a good samba -- soothes and smooths everything out.

Art is singing, at his most angelic. (If nothing else, this album forever stands as his finest singing ever.) That lagging syncopation -- "So / long / Frank Lloyd Wright / I can't believe your song is gone so soon." He's still a little dazed by the news, isn't he? (Me too.) "I barely learned the tune / So soon / So soon..."  What I love about this song is how it sets up Wright as a visionary, WAY ahead of his time (as he was), with the rest of us just scrambling to follow. And now WE ARE LOST, with our beacon snuffed out.

Now, Simon wrote this song but Garfunkel sang it, and I'm not about to get lost in the maze of who was the visionary and who was the acolyte. I prefer to think of it as an Escher print with endless echoes and doubling-backs and leave it at that.

And anyway, the verse that really comes home for me is the next one: "So long / Frank Lloyd Wright / All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn / I never laughed so long / So long / So long." (You know me and word play; that "so long / so long" never fails to delight.) Then I think of all the late nights my brother and I spent talking, laughing, jumping from subject to subject with lightning flashes of irrelevant relevance ... forty, fifty years of that?  Where am I ever going to find that again?

"Architects may come and / Architects may go and / Never change your point of view," Art gently remarks in the bridge. The implied message? People who change your point of view are the only people worth messing with. Amen.

Is this song about Frank Lloyd Wright?  No, it isn't. It's about another short genius. Yes, Paul Simon. And the idea that Simon had Garfunkel sing this song, which could be construed as a paean to his own genius, makes me grin.

But the beauty of Garfunkel's singing? I'm inclined to say he had the last laugh.

And "when I run dry / I stop awhile and think of you"?  That's a prescription for getting through this season of love and loss. Because the thought of my brother still refuels my tanks, and will for a long time. Forever, most likely.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

"The Israelites" /
Desmond Dekker & the Aces

Ska or reggae?  You decide.

And does it matter?  When this song came out in the spring of 1969, hitting #1 in the UK, Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands -- even edging into the US Top Ten -- most people outside of Jamaica didn't know the difference and didn't care. Dekker's strong Jamaican accent, the relatively simple production, that heavy bassline all told us it was "island music." It didn't occur to me to wonder why a guy from Jamaica would be singing about people from Israel.  All I knew was (cue up the American Bandstand theme) it had a great beat and you could dance to it.

So tonight I'm watching old episodes of the daffy British slapstick comedy Doctor in the House (thank you, YouTube!) -- a show I used to watch in re-runs on late-night Indianapolis PBS with my brother and sister. It was the summer of '75, the last time we all three were living at home, and our nightly rendezvous with this mad Britcom was essential. Around 10pm we'd drive out to the 24-hour Marsh supermarket (quite a novelty in those days, that all-night schedule) to buy our customary Doritos and Pepsi and Nabisco's Famous Cookies assortment, then race home in time for that perky theme song. Good times, good times . . . I can still hear Holt's mad cackle in my heart.

But I digress. In the episode I watched tonight, the show's hero, med student Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans, if you must know), can't study because his dorm room is so noisy. And lo and behold, what record is his neighbor rudely blasting at top volume? Yes, this 1969 hit, probably still on the charts when this episode first aired. Jeez, I hadn't thought about this song in probably 40 years.
But what a great song it is.

Desmond Dekker said this song just flew into his head, one night while he was walking through a park in a poor section of Kingston and overheard a couple arguing about money. It's as if he just transcribed the man's lament: "Get up in the morning, slavin' for bread / So that every mouth can be fed / Oh, oh, me Israelite." The dogged syncopation is just right -- it really makes you feel how weary the singer is from his daily dutiful grind. I love how the Aces join in on those doleful "oh's," as if consoling him -- or maybe just reminding us how many others are bowed down by the same hopeless struggle.

Ah, the Biblical references of reggae -- like "Rivers of Babylon," a song I wouldn't hear until 2 years later when I saw The Harder They Come. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. You don't even have to know that Rastafarians identified with the Lost Tribes of Israel. It's like African-American slaves in the cotton fields, singing "Go Down, Moses," a coded message protesting their own enslavement. All poor Jamaicans, not just the Rastas, knew what it felt to labor for a foreign king, remembering Zion.

In the second verse, his wife's left him; in the third he woefully describes his raggedy clothes -- "shirt them-a tear up, trousers is gone" (though I'm sure in 1969 I could not decipher those lyrics; thanks, internet!). I did get the next line: "Don't want to end up like Bonnie & Clyde." This was just a year after Arthur Penn's film about those romantic Depression-era gangsters (was Warren Beatty not hot in that movie?) and only a couple months after Georgie Fame's   "Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde" hit the airwaves; of course that reference would jump out at me. This guy doesn't want to resort to a life of crime, even though so many in Kingston did. Or maybe he just doesn't want to end up riddled with bullets in a police shoot-out -- well, who could blame him?

What a downbeat song this could have been -- yet the tempo ticks along, that trippy melody bounces around the scale. It's as if the act of singing the song itself keeps him from despair. If I were a DJ, I'd play this song alongside Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine" and Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang."  In 1968, what did I know about working long hours for no pay? To be honest, what do I know about it now?  But thanks to records like these, at least I have given it more than a passing thought.