Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“When A Man Loves a Woman” /
Percy Sledge

Another icon is gone. The great soul singer Percy Sledge died yesterday, after a long struggle with liver cancer.  R.I. P.
Ever since this song came out in 1966, I don't think it ever went out of rotation on radio playlists.  Even pre-teen me, head-over-heels in love with British beat bands, stopped whatever I was doing when this record came on.  I remember seeing Sledge sing it on Hullaballoo or Shindig or one of those shows, pouring his heart out on stage. I was way too young to have any idea what he was singing about, but I knew it was true.
This is the ultimate slow dance, slouching and grinding from beat to beat, each chord shift groaning toward resolution. I remember this song coming on during school dances – one round of dancing this song, and you practically felt knocked up. (Usually I’d wimp out and flee the dance floor.)
You have to go back to the 60s to find a song that believes in love like this song does. Not sweet and innocent love, not pure and noble love -- no, it's torment and sexual obsession he's singing about. The very first notes announce Major Emotion -- those blaring horns, the resonant organ, the ominous bass -- and then comes Percy Sledge's anguished vocal, elevating lust to epic heights. 
“When a ma-an loves a woman,” Sledge trumpets at the outset, flinging his voice into those high notes, pitched just over the key’s octave note. He's testifying, all right, testifying to the glory of love.  
But is love glorious?  Right away things start to disintegrate, slip-sliding down the scale, as he stuffs in the details – “Can't keep his mind on nothing else / He'll trade the world / For the good thing he's found.” The crap that besets this man seems inevitable (in other verses he turns his back on his best friend, spends his very last dime, sleeps out in the rain); but somehow all of it means nothing next to the fact that he’s loving with his whole heart. The stately, almost lazy tempo takes this all in stride; it’s the way of the world, and eternal as the pyramids.

For the first three verses it’s all theoretical; in verse four he confesses that he’s singing from his own experience: “Well, this man loves a woman / I gave you everything I had / Tryin' to hold on to your precious love / Baby, please don't treat me bad.” He’s not accusing her, not exactly, but he does have a sickening sense that he’s going to get the shaft.

He goes back to the third person, but it’s pretty clear he’s raging about his own situation: “She can bring him such misery / If she plays him for a fool / He's the last one to know / Lovin' eyes can't ever see.” Is she cheating on him? Or, in the final verse, is he the one cheating: “When a man loves a woman / He can do no wrong / He can never own some other girl.” We don’t know; probably even he doesn’t know – that’s how muddled up you get when you’re in love.

Whatever’s going on, there’s pain and heartache here, that’s for sure. But as Percy Sledge sings it, there’s not one minute of blame or regret. He knew coming in that the path of true love wouldn’t be smooth – but it’s still the most glorious thing in the world. And if you can’t get that, then you don’t deserve to be in love.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

"Whenever You're On My Mind" /
Marshall Crenshaw

Oh, my brothers and sisters, I wish I could post here more often. I promise I will do so, hopefully after, oh, let's say June 15th. And in the meantime . . . well, today I was grocery shopping for my mother (90 years old, broken hip, let's not get started) and who did I hear on the muzak?  Yes, Marshall Crenshaw.

Now, Marshall Crenshaw is definitely one of My Guys -- the musicians I love so much, and listen to so much, that I feel like they are my friends. Old boyfriends, even.  And (with the exception of Paul McCartney, who needs no more fans, but I could no more abandon him than stop breathing), My Guys are inexplicably artists who just don't get the attention I feel they deserve. I never hear Graham Parker or John Hiatt on muzak, and I certainly never hear Robyn Hitchcock. Once or twice maybe Nick Lowe, and if so, only "Cruel to Be Kind.*" (*Note: a song co-written with Ian Gomm).

But this isn't the first time I've heard Marshall Crenshaw on muzak. I'm sure there are business marketing reasons why MC has gotten his product into the proper lucrative channels, and I note that it's usually his earlier power-pop-ish stuff (not the magnificent 2009 Jaggedland or even my current favorite, 1999's dark and delicious #447). This particular track is from Marshall's sophomore effort, Field Day, which some haters people trash, and I personally love. But it is more power-pop than his later stuff, and it sounds perfectly plausible coming out of the PA system.

So I asked my sister, with whom I was shopping (I said DON'T get me started), "Do you know who this is?"

Well, she didn't, even though she lived in New York with me in 1982 when my buddies and I were all ga-ga over Marshall Crenshaw. Guess she wasn't listening. And by the time Field Day had come out, she'd decamped to Connecticut.

So what's your excuse?

 Jangly? You betcha. And yet, there's a wistfulness, a yearning to this song that a lot of power pop completely missed out on.  Those hooky guitar riffs spangle in the foreground, while Marshall's earnest and youthful vocals puzzle over his dilemma.  The very thought of this girl sends him into an existential dither -- everything is foggy, he's disoriented in a crowd, he loses track of time -- it's a "reverie," a "fantasy." The jangliness adds a certain star-crossed quality that totally works here.

What really hit me in the grocery aisle today, though, is the rhythmic sophistication of this track. (Yes, I'll admit: I danced with my shopping cart.) We start out in Buddy Holly-ish straight time, but with a sinuous melodic line. Then we shift into that bridge full of syncopated modulations (hey, the guy's confused!), resurfacing in a samba-like chorus of bright and sunny harmonic resolutions. 

We're always driving towards the major key, the 4/4 time. The kid's an uncertain mess, but the song itself lets us know that in the end, he's gonna be all right. And not just all right; better, because he's given in to the copacetic flow. The very thought of this girl will make him better than himself, if he can only give it time. And we're witnesses to his faithful surrender

Did Marshall Crenshaw and his cowriter, the great Bill Teeley, think this all out when they wrote this song?  Nah, probably not. They just wrote it. But that's the mark of real songwriters; their instincts tell them where to go.

And me, dancing in the grocery aisle?  Well, I felt the fug of my mother's illness magically lift, and I felt grateful for my sister's solidarity (even if she didn't know who Marshall Crenshaw is), and I felt just this teensy bit lighter in my heart.

Which is, let's admit it, the whole reason we listen to music.