Friday, November 25, 2016

"What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding" / Nick Lowe

Let's give the man credit: Elvis Costello may have brought this song to a wider audience on his 1979  US Armed Forces LP, but Nick Lowe wrote it, and first recorded it in 1974 with his ur-band Brinsley Schwarz.

At the time, Nick has said, he saw it as a sort of satire on the flower-power hippie movement. But as time has gone by, even Nick has admitted that the lyrics of this song have acquired a different meaning -- a new earnestness, as the world has shifted gears. Whereas EC's version was all punk snarl and power chord guitars, these days Nick tends to perform this song with a ruminative folkie strum.

And in 2016, to me it seems all too apropos.

Okay, this is one time when I say, let's just reproduce the lyrics. Because they say all I want to say.

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searching' for light
In the darkness of insanity
I ask myself 
Is all hope lost
Is there only pain and hatred
And misery?

And our friend -- Nick or Elvis or whomever you wish it to be -- comes through with a message of hope:

And each time I feel like this inside
There's one thing I want to know
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding.

He continues on his quest, his spirit "so downhearted sometimes," wondering "where are the strong . And who are the trusted?" Oh, I've been asking myself that for the past several days.

And to me, the answer lies in another question: "Where is the sweet harmony?"

Because that's where it all lies -- finding the harmony. We have to find a way to live with each other, after this bruising and divisive Presidential campaign. And for those of us who feel that there's no room for us at the table -- we have to find a legitimate way to make our voices heard.

We all hope for peace, and pray for love. But it's understanding that has to come first. And that requires an open heart.

So yeah, please give money to Jill Stein to underwrite a vote recount. But be prepared to move on if necessary -- and keep the faith in your hearts.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Catch Me Now I'm Falling" /
The Kinks

Well, the votes have been cast and counted, victory and concession speeches made, and the president-elect is beginning to show his true colors by a steadily-growing list of political appointments. 

You can find all that news elsewhere on the web. Here, we talk about the Kinks.

1979. What a year.  We had the Iran hostage crisis, Three Mile Island, the Twinkie defense, the Unabomber, the Greensboro Massacre, the Chrysler bailout, and the rise of the Sandinistas.  (C'mon, folks, if you don't know, Google it.) Etan Patz disappeared, Mardi Gras was canceled, and a school shooter in San Diego said she did it because "I don't like Mondays." The economy was floundering, the energy crisis led to long lines at the gas pumps, and massive anti-nuclear and gay-rights marches filled the streets. It wasn't the end of civilization, but it kind of felt like it. And for me, returning to the US in 1978 after two years abroad, it was culture shock indeed. 
[Granted, it wasn't all bad. The Salt II agreement and the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty were signed. Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. The Susan B. Anthony dollar and the Happy Meal were introduced. for those.]
Never a man to shy from social commentary, Ray Davies filled the Kinks' 1979 LP Low Budget with pointed songs about the state of the world. This was their third album for Clive Davis' Arista label; the pressure was on to create anthem rock and disco-friendly tracks (methinks our Ray suffered many a sleepless night trying to satisfy those demands). But political satire was Ray Davies' home court, and Low Budget may be the Kinks' most political album, in a broad-stroke kinda way. He addresses inflation ("Low Budget"), UK health care ("National Health"), gas prices ("A Gallon of Gas"), the fitness craze ("Wish I Could Be Like Superman"). 
Still, it's a bit of a game-changer to find the ultra-Brit Ray Davies writing a song like this, addressing the rest of the world from an American standpoint. Remember, though, Ray had been living in New York for a while; Low Budget was recorded in New York. And so we can forgive him for writing a song that's totally in the American voice.

I happen to love this track. I am no fan of arena rock or disco; in fact, Low Budget was the album that at the time made me fall away from the Kinks. (Just Google what else was happening in music in 1979 before you judge me.) But now that I'm back in the fold, I recognize this track for what it is: What the French would call a crie de coeur, a cry from the heart.
Ray summons up the comic book hero Captain America -- and corny as he may be, the message is plangent. Yeah, the guy's a straight-arrow dork, and for years now we've been dissing straight-arrow dorks. But they're the ones we depend upon to hold the door and carry our bags for us. And when the chips are down....
All the power chord riffs are there, plus a hot sax solo in the middle eight (twice!). And there's the eerie call-and-response, where Ray sings "fallin'" and brother Dave chillingly echoes it an octave higher.
"I remember / When you were down / And you needed a helping hand / I came to feed you" -- hello, Marshall Plan.  I wasn't around then, but even as a child of the 1960s I knew that the US had bailed out its European allies in their post-war straits.
I'll admit, I have no idea whether the US actually applied to its European allies for help in the dark days of 1978-1979. So the line about "Now I call your office on the telephone / And your secretary tells me that she's sorry / But you've gone out of town" -- this could just be Ray Davies' imagination running wild.
Still -- those alliances should still matter. The fact that our President-elect has no idea how to navigate them is downright terrifying. And their economic systems depend upon ours more than ever. 
So hello, rest of the world. Anything you can do to give us a boost would be welcome. Several of us (most of us, really, as the popular vote would attest) feel like we're in free-fall mode. If anybody has a safety net to offer... 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Here Comes Flash" /
The Kinks
In times of trouble, there's always a Kinks song to salve the soul. Or else get you fired up to make some changes.
If you don't know the Kinks' albums Preservation Act 1 (1973) and Preservation Act 2 (1974), then you should. Because 40-odd years ago songwriter Ray Davies predicted the rise of a Trump-like demagogue and the social devastation it would wreak for the trusting working- and middle-class voters who bought his line of BS.
The lyrics really say it all. Here's the worrisome chorus:
You'd better run, you'd better fly.
Hide your daughters, hide your wives.
Lock your doors and stay inside
Here comes Flash.

There's no way that you can win,
You must obey his every whim,
Or else he's going to do you in.
Here comes Flash.

My first thoughts upon waking up the morning after the election were sorrow and sympathy for the legions of Trump supporters who honestly believed that he could restore American jobs (forever lost to computerization) and repair the economy. (Tax cuts, yeah, but only for the top 10%, followed by stagflation and the disappearance of cheap imported consumer goods after trade agreements are nixed.)

Yes, he promises the world. But can he deliver?

He will smile at you, be a friend to you,
Then he's gonna screw you just like that.
He is going to use you, his heavies will abuse you,
And then he's gonna lean on you,
Here comes Flash.

And what is becoming even more painfully clear is that Trump's cadre of "outsiders" (once you subtract the sleazy deeply-connected lobbyists who have wormed their way into his transition team) include a fair number of hate-mongering thugs. Here's Ray's analysis:

He is gonna rough you up,
Duff you up and touch you up,
And then he's gonna screw you up.
Even though he's mean on you,
There's nothing else that you can do
Just sit back and take his abuse.

The jagged, frenetic energy of this track, the hysterical falsettos of the vocals, telegraph panic in the streets. And let's remember where Ray Davies came from -- a working-class London family displaced by slum clearance, union loyalists, Labour party die-hards. Even after Ray ascended into the privileged classes due to his enormous talent, he never lost his sympathy for the common man, the working joe, the guy in the street.

Who will soon enough begin to feel the sting of betrayal.

Once we loved and trusted him,
Now his thugs and bullies make us live in sin.
They suppress us, oppress us, molest us, possess us.

Mark my words. Or if you don't believe me, go download (or buy in CD!) this preternaturally prescient rock opera and just see how it all turns out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Kinks Cure in Times of Trouble

"Where Have All the Good Times Gone" / The Kinks

And well you might ask.

1966, The Kink Kontroversy. Scrambling to remain "relevant," Ray was looking for a template for satire, and he found it in Bob Dylan (listen to this song; he could segue any minute into "Like A Rolling Stone"). It's got that twang, that talking blues thing: "Well, lived my life and never stopped to worry 'bout a thing / Opened up and shouted out and never tried to sing."

While Dylan is skewering some old girlfriend, Ray is skewering himself -- or at any rate, some fictional version of himself, your prototypical 60s British rocker. Now, he laments, the musical trend is running on empty: "Wondering if I'd done wrong / Will this depression last for long?" But the gutsy wail of the chorus is totally heartfelt: "Won't you tell me / Where have all the good times gone? / Where have all the good times gone?" I love how matey and boozy the Kinks sound on the chorus, with its lurching rhythm, the chromatic melody sliding back and forth between F and G. Discordant and sloppy, with those trademark crunchy riffs, it's like an old-fashioned pub singalong.

Long before "American Pie," Ray Davies cleverly name-checks other artists' work in his verses -- the Rolling Stones ("Time was on our side and I had everything to gain"), the Beatles ("Yesterday was such an easy game for you to play"). In verse three he goes more autobiographical -- "Ma and Pa look back at all the things they used to do / Didn't have no money and they always told the truth / Daddy didn't have no toys / And mummy didn't need no boys" -- but he's also making fun of people who live in a fantasy past (nostalgia ain't what it used to be).

Ray Davies has always had a complex reaction to nostalgia. On one hand, he longs to live in the past, when life was less complicated (the chimerical hope of "Make America Great Again"); on the other, he's suspicious that the past can be a prison. (The whole Village Green Preservation Society album is Ray's conflicted dance with nostalgia.) "Where Have All the Good Times Gone" sits right on that fence; it's an obituary for the British Invasion and a declaration of independence, but it's also tinged with regret. The good times were good, and he owes that musical revolution everything. But now it's time to move on.

So you've got two choices: Live in the past, or embrace the possibilities of a more vital future.

I know which option I voted for on November 8th. So how about you?

Monday, November 07, 2016

Before You Vote...

"Tired of Trying, Bored 
With Lying, Scared of Dying" / 
Manfred Mann

Tomorrow we'll be forced to choose a new President. For months we've had to endure a flood of other lies of all stripes:  Plagiarisms, misquotes, false statistics, unproven allegations, paranoid fantasies, and plumb ignorance of the most hateful kind, from both sides of the political spectrum. I'm tired of it all. And so here is my eve of election soundtrack.

Remember these guys? In 1964, I owned their groovy debut single "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," a Farfisa-loaded cover of the Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich girl group tune. They were one of the first British Invasion groups to score a #1 hit in the US after the Beatles, and at the time I'd buy anything with a British accent.

This 1965 track, however, escaped my notice at the time. In just a year, British bands had discovered they could move past romantic pop into social commentary (led, I must say, by Ray Davies and the Kinks). At the time I don't think I would have gotten the point of this song, which was written by lead vocalist Paul Jones. But I love it now.  

Along the lines of The Who's "My Generation," it's a rebel teen anthem. ("My Generation" was released in October 1965 and this one came out in December 1965; there was definitely something in the water.) I love the juxtapostion of the verses' strict stairstep chord changes with the wild roadhouse boogaloo of the refrains. By now Manfred Mann felt free to return to the bluesy jazz that had been their original sound. It's a revelation to see how much they'd evolved in a year.

But let's let the lyrics speak for themselves:
"Oh you who try to order me and say what I'll do
I know you want the world to be exactly like you
But why bother
What's the incentive to try
You know I'm tired of trying, bored with lying,
Scared of dying."
 And he goes on and on. "You talk of mods and rockers and of street corner fights / And then you sit at desks inventing weapons at night." How 60s is that?

Verse three, however, comes eerily close to our present-day situation. "The fascists horrify you / They're a sin and a shame / Discrimination, immigration, / What's in a name?" And he even makes a plea for education reform: "You cry about the teenagers for breaking your rules / It don't occur to you you never built enough schools."


For weeks, the sickening realization has crept up on me that the biggest problem in this American election is how dumb and poorly educated half the voters are. They'll believe anything so long as the person they admire is telling them. Check a fact? Know anything about how government works?  Why bother?

Well, I'm tired of trying to make sense of it all. I'm bored with lying. And yes, I'm scared of dying if the world continues to get uglier at this exponential rate.

Vote wisely tomorrow. And pray.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Before You Vote...

"Lies" / J. J. Cale

On Tuesday we'll be forced to choose a new President. For months we've had to endure a flood of other lies of all stripes:  Plagiarisms, misquotes, false statistics, unproven allegations, paranoid fantasies, and plumb ignorance of the most hateful kind, from both sides of the political spectrum. I'm tired of it all. And so here is my eve of election soundtrack.

Now let's jump forward to 1972 -- an election year, I might add. Nixon vs. McGovern, no less, which seemed the ultimate stark choice at the time. (This year, I'll contend, is even starker.)

J. J. Cale was basically living in obscurity in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when Eric Clapton recorded a cover of his 1966 song "After Midnight." (Clapton would score another hit with Cale's "Cocaine" in 1977.) On the basis of this, Cale got a record deal and released the album Naturally in 1972. Meanwhile, he hit #22 on the charts in April 1972 with his bluesy single "Crazy Mama."  Things were finally looking up for J. J. Cale.

He went down to Muscle Shoals and recorded a new album, Really (released in 1973), just as "Crazy Mama" was hitting its peak. And track 1 was this deliciously swampy new song, "Lies," which the newly in-demand Cale released as a single later that year.

On the surface, it's a classic girl-done-me-wrong song -- "You left me hanging / Hanging on a limb / You said you loved me / And then you left with him." That rootsy lazy tempo, the snaking guitar line -- it's a timeless sorta song. Sure, he's pissed off, in his cantakerous way, but he's gotta get a few more beers in him (or a few more tokes on the front porch) before he does anything about it.

Still, knowing what was brewing in the country at the time -- the Watergate break-in in June was just the last straw in the miasma of mistrust hanging over that election -- I couldn't hear verse 3 without thinking of politicians and their dirty tricks: "Tell me baby / Why you take my time / You get a thrill off / Playing with my mind / Lord you did it to me / I see it in your eyes / Lies lies lies."

Well, we all know how 1972 turned out.

A word to the wise....

Before You Vote...

"Lies" / The Knickerbockers

We're all tired of political commentary at this point. I'll just say that on Tuesday we'll be forced to choose between a less-than-forthcoming person and a blatant liar for President of the United States. And in their wake, we've had to endure a flood of other lies of all stripes: Plagiarisms, misquotes, false statistics, unproven allegations, malicious insinuations, paranoid fantasies, and plumb ignorance of the most hateful kind, from both sides of the political spectrum.

I'm tired of it all.

And so here is my eve of election soundtrack.

Anybody remember this Beatlesque single from 1965? Though they hailed from New Jersey, the Knickerbockers jumped right on that BritBeat bandwagon, and scored a hit. (C'mon, that opening chord was straight off of  "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," and those back-up harmonies, especially in the bridge, are cloned from "Love Me Do").  It even got covered by Nancy Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt (and, improbably, Styx). Ka-ching, ka-ching.

The Knickerbockers weren't exactly a one-hit wonder -- they had a few other charting singles, and were regulars on my favorite afternoon TV show, Where the Action Is, for a couple of seasons -- but they never quite hit the big time. They were talented enough to rip off others bands' sounds (their previous hit, "All I Need Is You," was a doowop-inflected Elvis Presley wannabe) but they never had a sound of their own.

So in a way, even "Lies" was a lie. Nevertheless, it's such an earworm, it keeps playing in my head whenever I hear these politicians spout their cunning fabrications. It's got just the right level of outrage, mixed with sneering taunts and a howl of frustration. That persistent guitar lick is a like sonic scribble of rage.

And the kicker is the last verse -- for which I will quote the Linda Ronstadt version: "You think that you're such a smart boy / And I'll believe what you say / But who do you think you are, boy / To lead me on this way."

Sound like anyone you know?