Monday, October 09, 2017

"Watching the Wheels" /
John Lennon
Thirty-seven years ago, and it still hurts. I lived just a few blocks uptown from the Dakota the night John was shot, and I remember walking there the morning after, taking my place among the crowds of hollow-eyed, stunned mourners gathering on the sidewalk across the street. No other rock 'n' roll death ever hit me so hard. I still miss him.

I wasn't much of a fan of the Double Fantasy album -- too many Yoko songs. (I actually don't dislike Yoko, not like some people do, but let's be honest, her songs were horrible.) This one track, though, redeemed the whole record for me. It's a delicious defense of John's house-husband years, when he'd finally figured out how to stop being a Beatle and start being a person. But his music mattered so much to the world, the idea of him being a private citizen seemed perverse.


"People say I'm crazy / Doing what I'm doing ," he notes wryly. I'm sure Lennon heard it over and over again, how he was wasting his phenomenal talent by sitting around his apartment baking bread and playing with his little boy Sean. (My other favorite song on this album: "Beautiful Boy.") But it's like something I once heard Orson Welles say -- it's such a Puritan notion, that just because you have talent you have to use it.

"When I say that I'm okay, / Well they look at me kinda strange," John reports, with only a trace of that famous edge of his. "'Surely you're not happy now / You no longer play the game'?" But the thing is, John WAS happy just "watching shadows on the wall." He didn't miss "the big time," not at all. Here was a guy who'd been living in a whirlwind ever since he was 19 years old -- can you blame him for finally jumping off?

There's a hypnotic piano hook lacing it all together, a curling little riff that's the best thing about this whole song. In typical Lennon form, the melody slides around chromatically, the chords morph in and out of seventh and diminished modes, more interested in subtle incremental shifts than the bouncy tunes his partner Paul McCartney tended to write.

"I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round / I really love to watch them roll," he insists in the chorus. "No longer riding on the merry-go-row-ownd" -- jumping upwards for once, an exasperated falsetto howl. "I just had to let it go," he explains, and although this entire song is about being relaxed and contented, the way he punches out that line suggests that it didn't come easy.

I think it's significant that this song shows Lennon recapturing his syncopated groove -- after the primal scream of the Plastic Ono Band album, the woozy introspection of Imagine, and the political rants of Sometime in New York City, the Double Fantasy album found Lennon's creative juices in harmony again. Me, I was happy to hear the famously discontented Beatle reaching a Zen plateau.  The album came out in November 1980; a couple weeks later he was shot. Makes you think.

So, in honor of John Lennon, let's all draw a breath, step off, and watch the wheels for a while. Life's too short to ride that merry-go-round forever.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Smackdown!

"California Girls" /
The Beach Boys
vs.
"Back in the U.S.S.R." /
The Beatles

Okay, so maybe this is unfair. The great American band of the 1960s, versus the great British band of the 1960s. Do we vote for Brexit or for making America great again?

Oh, but hold on there, Parnelli, as my driver's ed teacher in Indianapolis used to say.

Let's start with "California Girls." In many respects it's just another sun-drenched SoCal feel-gooder, and the album it appeared on -- 1965's Summer Days (And Summer Nights) still has one foot in the classic Beach Boys mold, with tracks like "Help Me, Rhonda" and "Amusement Parks USA" and a cover of "Then I Kissed Her." This song, however, was written by Brian Wilson after he took his first acid trip, and within it are stirrings of the great Wilson masterpieces to come.


The shuffle beat was, Wilson claimed, inspired by cowboy movies but also Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring." How's that for a pair of influences?

The lyrics were all written by Mike Love, in the longstanding tradition of Mike Love banality. The first verse contrasts the merits of girls from all sections of the country, and as a Midwesterner I am still offended by the description of us as "farmer's daughters," even if we do "make you feel all right." (Apparently we lack East Coast style, the sexiness of a Southern drawl, or the nighttime heat of Northern girls. Screw you, Mike Love!) Verse two plods through reasons why California girls are the best -- they're tan, they wear bikinis, and they . . . well, um, that's about it.

The melody, though, and the arrangement? Divine. There's that dreamy sun-dappled orchestral intro, which goes on surprisingly long, with its spangly electric piano, Carl Wilson's 12-string guitar, and a laid-back tempo. Then it jumps into line for the song itself; the verses have a finger-snapping sassiness that distills a 77 Sunset Strip brand of cool, with Mike Love's whiny brash vocals evoking previous songs such as "Be True to Your School". But then just as you get used to that, in comes that chorus, exploding into dazzling harmony. "I wish they all could be California girls" they sing repeatedly, but it's hardly repetition. The melodic line crests over and over like a curl of surf at Laguna Beach, with overlapping contrapuntal harmonies like an undertow, while chord changes and key changes continually add new swirls of mood. Production values are top-notch (of course they had the Wrecking Crew studio musicians playing everything), lush and dense and joyful as all get-out. Honestly, "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows" are so close you can taste them. 

So jump forward in time 3 years, to 1968, and the Beatles' astonishing, eclectic album The Beatles, known forevermore as The White Album. And this is the lead-off track, Side 1, Track 1: "Back in the U.S.S.R."

video

Macca wrote this while the Fabs were in India, doing TM with the Maharishi. -- like "California Girls," it's the product of a newly expanded consciousness. You can tell it's a McCartney song because A) the melody leaps and bounds all over the place, and also B) because of the beat-lagging tempo (was there ever a bassist who so consistently played behind the beat?).

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the bridge catalogs Soviet chicks a la "California Girls" -- Mike Love (ever eager to glom onto a happening scene) was in India with the Maharishi too, and he claims credit for those few lines that reference "California Girls": "Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out / They leave the West behind / And Moscow girls make me sing and shout / That Georgia's always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-hi-mind." (Shout-out to Ray Charles.)

I prefer to imagine that Mike Love was such a dick at the retreat that McCartney wrote those lines to satirize Love's contribution to the Beach Boys hit song.

Because the rest of this song sounds nothing like the Beach Boys. The template is pure Chuck Berry, from his song "Back in the USA". (Okay, okay, I know the Beach Boys were also influenced by Chuck Berry -- just listen to "Surfin' USA. But c'mon, EVERYONE in the 1960s owed a debt to Chuck Berry.)

Listen to the first two verses, and it could just as easily have been titled "Back in the U.K." He's flying in from Miami (did British Airways even fly Miami-Moscow in 1968?) and the flight was awful; he gets home and everything looks different, surreal -- "Been away so long I hardly knew the place . . . ". He's feeling so dislocated, he can't even unpack. I'll admit that I imagine Paul McCartney coming home to his section of the terrace houses in Help! Still, it isn't until verse three that actual Russian references creep in: "Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out / Come and keep your comrade warm . . ."

I'm guessing that McCartney wrote the kernel of this as a "god I'm glad not to be touring anymore" song. At the ashram in India, he may also have been worrying how he'd return to his life in England  -- a sort of "you can't go home again" moment. When they needed material for the double album, he resurrected it with a few topical Cold War references . (And maybe a dig at the exorbitant U.K. tax rate on top earners, which at this point the Beatles were -- might as well be in the U.S.S.R., eh?) With the sound effect of the jet landing at the beginning (love how the jet moves from one speaker to the other), and the chugging Berry beat, it made a handy album opener.

Still, as the Beatles so often managed to do, even their cast-offs had profound impact. Those of you who did not grow up in the Cold War cannot imagine the mind-blowing idea of this switcheroo -- our beloved Beatles pretending to be evil empire Soviets?

Just to show how weird a period it was for the Beatles, think on this: Paul played the drums on this track (Ringo had just walked out and was threatening to quit), while John took over on bass. Paul also did some piano work on this track, with George Martin adding other fills. In such turmoil, any other band would have turned out a mess of an album. The Beatles? Somehow they pulled rabbits out of their hats and ended up with one of the top LPs of all time.

Which brings us to the Smackdown finale: Which song wins?

Man, I love that Beatles track. The White Album is one of the great records of my life (see here for my ride through Side 2). I love the snarkiness of this song, the subversive energy of its rock-n-roll, satire and parody all rolled up in a wicked fun package.

But when the Beach Boys burst into gorgeous harmony on the chorus of "California Girls" -- even this Midwest farmer's daughter (who never ONCE lived on a farm) is swept away.

WINNER: "California Girls" by a nose.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

First Song on the Shuffle

"How Can I Be Sure" /
Shelby Lynne

Complicated history here. Felix Cavaliere's the Young Rascals (or at this point had they conceded that they should just be called The Rascals?) released this song in 1967, as a teaser for their album Groovin'. I heard the single on the radio all right--WIFE Good Guys radio in Indianapolis--and I'm pretty sure my older brother Holt owned the album. (Even now it's probably mouldering away in a cardboard box in some ex-girlfriend's garage.) I preferred the lazy psychedelia of the title track, with its flower-child bird tweets and bursts of lush harmony, but the minor-key waltz of "How Can I Be Sure?" was a close second. Yes, it had corny strings and even a Parisian-cafe accordion, but there was a haunting sense of emotional limbo at the end of every verse. (And that plinking electric piano, like a neurotic tap on the shoulder . . . )

Dial things forward, and we get the next charting of this song, in the UK in September 1970 for my girl Dusty Springfield. It's a perfect song for Dusty, with her contralto throbbing with vulnerability. In her hands, Cavaliere's cry of adolescent uncertainty became a weary anthem of a heart that had been broken too many times already. Yeah, teen idol David Cassidy finally boosted this song to #1 in the charts with his cover version in 1972. (Disclaimer: I spent a good 6 months of my life in love with David Cassidy. Never you mind when that was.)  But Cassidy just copied Cavaliere's take. Dusty's was something richer, and deeper.

So it's no surprise that the gifted singer/songwriter Shelby Lynne would have included this on her 2008 homage to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin' . And hand it to Shelby -- her "How Can I Be Sure" is even more tortured than Dusty's take. Lynne goes Dusty one better -- she's not just about love anymore. When she punches out the phrase "In a world / That's constantly changing," it becomes a politically charged signal for a world gone off the rails.


This is the album that turned me on to Shelby Lynne, who I personally think is one of the great singer/songwriters of our time. Okay, anybody who'd dedicate an entire album to Dusty Springfield would already have my vote, but everything else I've heard from her, I've loved. She's got darkness, she's got sincerity, she's got brains. She started out country, where she never got the love she should have; she went more pop and the wider audience gave her at least some of the respect she deserves.

Her voice is twangier than Dusty's, but still in that same musky contralto range, and like Dusty she conveys an undertone of tragedy. (In Shelby's case, that's a no-brainer -- she and her sister Alison Moorer as teenagers saw their abusive father shoot their mother to death -- so, yeah, whiners, top that.) Like Dusty, she screens an ambiguous sexuality behind an intensely private persona.

Yeah, it's a song about unstable mental states. ("Whenever I--I am away / From you / I wanna die. . . ." Trust is in short supply -- "How do I know? / Maybe you're trying to use me / Flying too high can confuse me" -- and the singer is pleading for mercy ("Touch me / But don't bring me down.")  And like Dusty, Shelby flings her hearts into those phrases, opting for the downward curl of pessimism.

Back in 1967, "don't bring me down" was no doubt a drug reference. In 2008, it's all about not being disheartened for the brave fight ahead.

Either way, the song builds to that last wonderfully inarticulate verse: "How can I be sure? / I really really really wanna know / I really really really wanna know..." Felix Cavaliere and David Cassidy were asking a girlfriend to commit. Dusty was asking a lover to offer safe haven.

Shelby Lynne? She's throwing down a gauntlet. Account for yourself, people.

Monday, September 04, 2017

R.I.P. Walter Becker

"Turn That Heartbeat
Over Again" / Steely Dan

Jeez. I really did not expect this one to hit me so hard.

I've loved Steely Dan's music since 1972, my sophomore year in college, when I first heard the rocking syncopations of "Do It Again" on the local Springfield, Massachusetts, radio station; their snarky follow-up single, "Reelin' in the Years," only confirmed my faith. (How could I resist lyrics like "The weekends at the college never turned out like you planned / The things that pass for knowledge I can't understand")?

And I kinda hung in there for years and years, even when people whose opinion I respected dissed them as soft rockers. (Excuse me, Steely Dan were never soft rockers -- they were way too subversive and sophisticated for that.) I bought their 1972 debut album Can't Buy a Thrill, but I never saw them in concert, telling myself that they were principally a studio band and I didn't need to see them live. And for many of their peak years -- 1975 through 1977 -- I was living in England, divorced from my LP collection, being seduced by pub rock and punk rock.

We kept missing each other. After I moved back to the States in 1977 I bought Aja and loved its lush swinging groove, even though by then I was mainly into the neuroticisms of the Talking Heads and the B-52s and Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. So many bands, so little time. Steely Dan disappeared from the scene throughout the 80s (read the Becker obits to find out why), and in the 90s, when they started touring again, I was Otherwise Engaged.

I suppose things would have been different if I'd ever lucked into a Steely Dan fan base, the way I connected with fans of the Kinks, Graham Parker, Marshall Crenshaw, and Nick Lowe. But that never happened. And so here I am in 2017, regretting Walter Becker's death at age 67, and also feeling guilty as hell that I never paid this band as much love as I felt for them.


I'm a fan of cryptic crosswords, and for me, every Steely Dan song is a cryptic crossword. "Turn That Heartbeat" starts out sounding like a heist caper ("With stocking face / I bought a gun") but the chorus lays on explicit religious references ("Oh Jesus / Oh Michael") and protestations of innocence ("You know my reputation / For playing a good clean game").  Suddenly we're in a barroom, with Casablanca references -- "My poison's named, you know my brand /  So please make mine a double, Sam." And what are we supposed to do with a lyric like "This highway runs from Paraguay"? Drugs, politics, and all sorts of nefarious doings are on the line.

And who the hell is William Wright, whose corpse appears in verse three? Google it and you'll only be more confused. But don't get hung up on that -- the thing is, he's dead, and "zombie see and zombie do."

But here's the thing. This is a track of undeniable richness, with fat vocal harmonies, disturbing chord progressions, teasing Fagan keyboard fills, and a niggling sense of there being more behind the lyrics. In this era, rock music was all about the albums, not the singles (though Steely Dan subversively co-opted enough pop hooks to hit the singles charts with regularity). We were supposed to be sitting in our dorm rooms, puzzling over the references. And we did.

So what echoes in my brain pan about this song, which I've been listening to for 45 years? With my Massachusetts frame of reference, I can't help but love the verse 1 line "And they closed the package store." But as time goes by, I'm drawn to the chorus line "Turn the light off / Keep your shirt on / Cry a jag on me." How seductive is that, highlighted by the inverted grammar around "crying jag"?

And sometimes, my heart of hearts simply cries out "Oh Jesus / Oh Michael!" Can't explain that. It just is.

I have no vested interest in solving these songs for you folks. Hey, Steely Dan was always about more than the sum of its parts. But in honor of Walter Becker, I implore you to surf around and listen to more of their astonishingly brilliant tracks. And maybe begin to fathom the subversive power of their music . . . .

Monday, August 21, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Live in Shadows" /
Graham Parker & the Rumour

Well, darlings, I'm on the road, chasing the eclipse, and I don't have time -- or reliable enough Wi-Fi -- to write a proper blog post. But I for one am looking forward to the moment after the eclipse, when sunlight begins to reappear and we're all reassured that the world isn't ending after all.

So while there are many Graham Park tunes on my personal eclipse road trip playlist, I thought this one would be the most fitting for the end of our journey together.


It's from the delicious 2012 album Three Chords Good, whereupon Graham Parker reunites with his original backing band The Rumour after thirty-plus solo years. (Here's my earlier post about why this album is so amazing.)  Listen to how this song swings, a little jazzy, a little swampy road-house rock, but always coming back to that insistent guitar lick. Like the philosopher king he is, GP dispenses worldly advice: "You don't have to / Live in shadows / You don't have to / Lock yourself up in the dark."

Whomever he's talking to, it's someone who's let the world get the worst of him/her. I don't know about you, but these days I feel like the whole world is tending that way. Belligerence, suspicion, anger, and hate are boiling over.

And honestly, there's no point in living that way.  Give yourself a break. Take this opportunity to make a new start. Snap your fingers and let the beat lift your spirits. It's your choice to make.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"It's The End of the World
As We Know It" / R.E.M.

Suppose you hadn't read a dozen newspaper articles about the solar eclipse, or heard about it 22 times on TV, or seen endless Facebook and Twitter references. Suppose you'd never studied basic astronomy in school.  If you looked up in the sky one day and saw the sun disappearing behind a black disc, wouldn't you freak out?

On Monday, when that happens, birds and animals and insects -- who haven't read all those articles -- are going to go a little haywire.  Centuries ago, solar eclipses threw people into apocalyptic panic.

Mostly we imagine the apocalypse in terms of fire and fury. But what if it's just a meaningless scrum of off-kilter details? That's how R.E.M. offers up apocalypse in this track from their 1987 LP Document, released as a single nearly 30 years ago in November 1987.



It's anxiety-riddled, with that hectic tempo, the ping-ponging melody, the frenzied stream of consciousness patter. Michael Stipe's vocal lunges at us, almost breathlessly rattling off a weird checklist of disconnected images. It's full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- and that's the point. It seems to spit out the flotsam and jetsam of our pathetic culture, projecting a hopelessly splintered reality.

Guitarist Peter Buck has said in interviews that this song is in the tradition of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," and yes, I can see it in the churning instrumentals, the flurry of internal rhymes. If anything, "The End of the World As We Know It" goes way beyond Dylan's social satire. Right from that first line -- "That's great! It starts with an earthquake" -- it's stuffed with natural disaster and cataclysm. There's a hurricane in there, a combat site, and "the furies breathing down your neck." Planes seem about to crash into buildings, a TV tower bursts into flame, cars blow up, books are burned. In the third verse, I swear I see goose-stepping soliders ("Watch a heel crush, crush"), and in the fourth verse, mountains seem to topple.

By the end of the song, it's like a fun-house full of mirrors, populated by an oddball assortment of cultural icons -- "Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs" -- who share nothing but the same initials. (Michael Stipe claims these people all appeared in a dream he had.) By that point, everything seems ominous and evil, even "Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly beans, boom!"

And what's the ultimate irony? That while humanity is going down in flames, the singer isn't all that concerned -- as the chorus insists, "It's the end of the world as we know it, / And I feel fine." Is it because he feels helpless to stop it? Or because things have already become so rotten, it's not worth saving? 

And yet, there's something curiously buoyant about this song. It's full of pumped-up energy, as if bungee-jumping over the chasm -- and there's something exhilarating about that, isn't there?

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Ain't No Sunshine When
She's Gone" / Bill Withers

So when the moon takes away our sunshine on Monday, here's another song that would be fitting accompaniment.

It's another 1971 number -- another of those songs that haunted my senior year in high school/freshman year in college. It was Withers third single, but his first hit, climbing to #3 on the US charts (a year later he'd #1 with "Lean On Me"). Having grown up on Motown, I could tell this was something else -- that pulsing R&B tempo, the undertow of weariness and despair.



The creased and weathered quality of Withers' voice was so different from the mellifluencies of Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson. And it also felt more of an affinity to rock music -- though this song was produced by Stax mainstay Booker T (released on Sussex Records), the personnel also included Steven Stills on guitar and Jim Keltner on drums.

Even more important, "Ain't No Sunshine" had a restless, provocative bite -- those morose verses, with their glum plodding bassline (Donald "Duck" Dunn?) and repeated melody -- "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / It's not warm when she's away / Ain't no sunshine when she's gone / And she's always gone too long, anytime she goes away."

Who knows why she's away -- did they have a fight? is she cheating on him? or is she just a free spirit? (After all, this was an era of free spirits and feminists.)  But he's so down in the dumps, he can't even tell us. The grief-stricken swell of those minor-key strings speaks volumes.

And of course, the best part: "Well I know I know I know I know I know" repeated 27 times, sung with shifting syncopation on one loooooong breath that finally peters into a croak. Apparently Withers -- who, when he recorded this, was still working a day job in a toilet-seat factory -- sang it this way in the studio as a placekeeper, intending to write a "proper" chorus, Holland-Dozier-Holland-style. Thank god Booker T was there to stop him.

I remember riding in the back of a car with my friends, singing along with the "I knows," every time. You'd nearly asphyxiate, trying not to draw a breath, letting your voice crack and croak along with Withers'. It lasts for nearly 15 seconds and seems even longer. It's so damn cathartic.

Just like an eclipse.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" / Bonnie Tyler

The only song in my iTunes library with "eclipse" in the title -- but I couldn't resist.

Shame on you, Stevie Nicks. Once Fleetwood Mac's Rumours went platinum, it was inevitable that a new breed of Stevie-wannabe rock chicks would start yelping all over the airwaves in the 1980s:  Pat Benatar, Laura Branigan, Irene Cara, and Welsh rocker Bonnie Tyler. Long before the term "diva" was co-opted to mean any female singer with a big voice, these babes were tearing out their vocal cords on every speaker within earshot. At the dawn of the 1980s, as working girls in power suits were striving to shatter corporate glass ceilings, the women of rock set out to kick the asses of their wimpy soft rock male counterparts.

All these babes cultivated the hard edges of their voices -- no soft-focus girly sopranos here. Bonnie Tyler distinctively husky voice was  equal parts grit and sob, perfectly calculated to sing about desperation and desire. Interesting footnote: after an operation for nodules on her vocal cords, Tyler violated doctor's orders and started singing too song after the operation. At first she thought that huskiness was the end of her singing career. She was wrong.

video

Tyler's megahit 1983 album Faster Than the Speed of Night was also beholden to the no-holds-barred arrangements of her producer, Jim Steinman, the guy who made Meat Loaf a star. The album version of this song clocked in at 6:58 -- nearly seven minutes -- though the radio cut was truncated to four-and-a-half minutes.

Building a song to a bombastic climax was de rigueur in the 1980s. Steinman, however, was crafty enough to know that a song couldn't sustain that level of intensity for seven minutes; the song keeps retreating to wistful interludes where it's just Bonnie and her piano (well, really Roy Bittan's piano), before rolling back in with the Rick Derringer guitar licks, a tsunami of synths, a thunderstorm of percussion (hi there, Max Weinberg!).

How could this song fail to be a hit? It's got not one but three addictive hooks. The first is the call-and-response duet with Rory Dodd, as she babbles about her emotions ("Every now and then I get a little bit helpless till I'm lying like a child in your arms") while his distant voice nobly exhorts her, "Turn around, bright eyes!" Ah, there are those strong, understanding arms she can collapse into. I read somewhere that Steinman was inspired by the Heathcliff-Cathy romance in Wuthering Heights. Oh, yeah, Emily Bronte was totally thinking of this song when she wrote that book.

Next Bonnie launches into a Meat Loaf-style voice rip, declaiming "And I need you now tonight / And I need you more than ever /And if you only hold me tight / We'll be holding on forever." Yes, "hold me tight" -- wink wink, pop-speak for "screw my brains out." Then (the Steinman touch) things suddenly hush up as she ruefully sings, "Once upon a time I was falling in love / Now I'm only falling apart / There 's nothing I can do / A total eclipse of the heart." Wipe a tear away and start it all over again -- you've got four more minutes to fill up.

And yes, there are a few vague references to the eclipse metaphor -- "your love is like a shadow on me all of the time / I don't know what to do and I'm lost in the dark," "once upon a time there was light in my life / Now there's only love in the dark," and I suppose the repeated "turn around" could just maybe be a reference to the world's rotation and the moon and sun's orbits.  But it's flimsy -- and honestly, who cares?.

The lyrics paint her as a needy, pathetic mess, but those bulldozer vocals send the opposite message. If I were a guy, I'd be terrified of this chick.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

"Moondance" / Van Morrison

When I left Indianapolis to go to college in New England in 1971, I'd never heard of Van Morrison. Sure, there was that song "Brown-Eyed Girl" by the Irish band Them, but I had no idea who their lead singer was. But in the early 70s Van Morrrison, now a solo act, was huge in the Boston area, and everybody from the Northeast seemed to know the title cut from his 1970 LP Moondance.  It was played endlessly in the dorms, almost as much as Carole King's Tapestry (and if you were around back then, you'll know that's saying something).

In that album-oriented age, it didn't matter that it had never been released as a single -- that wouldn't happen until November 1977, when the record company, stymied by Van's three-year writer's block, finally packaged "Moondance" as a single.


I had just moved back to the States after two years in England, and hearing this song on the radio was welcome indeed, especially since the airwaves were otherwise infested with Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel, not to mention the Bee Gees, Barry Manilow, and (shudder!) the Eagles. In that context, no wonder Van's eight-year-old record sounded timelessly great, its Celtic soul sound distilled with laidback cool jazz.

Listen to that saxophone part -- it's like honey (Van, a saxophonist himself, composed the melody first, working it out on a sax). Even better is that nimble Jeff Labes piano solo in the middle eight. And best of all is the sinuous prowl of Van's singing -- leaping for the high notes, snuggling with the lows, flirting outrageously with the syncopated beat. Towards the end, Van just gives up and becomes a saxophone.

Okay, so it's not about a solar eclipse -- this is definitely a nighttime song.  "A fantabulous night to make romance," indeed. Still, that dance of the moon is cataclysmic in its own way. "And every tiiime I touch you, you just / Tremble inside / And I know how much you want me,  / That you can't hide  . . . " Unh-HUNH.       

"Moonshadow" / Cat Stevens

Sure, the titles are similar -- but this 1971 track from Teaser and the Firecat is something very different from "Moondance." Forget the sexy soul and jazz; Cat Stevens' stock in trade was folky charm, all wrapped up in faux hippie wisdom. It's very much a song of its era, but a splendid one nonetheless.

Stevens has said in interviews that this song was inspired by a visit to Spain, where one night he stood by the sea under moonshine so strong that he could see his own shadow. All right, not technically an eclipse, but since the whole thing about the solar eclipse is the moon's shadow blotting out the sun . . .



Like a nursery rhyme, it begins with its chorus: "I'm being followed by a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow, / Leaping and hopping on a moonshadow, / Moonshadow, moonshadow." All that repetition is almost like an incantation. Then come the verses, which follow a neat pattern -- "If I ever lose my hands [eyes /legs /mouth] . . . I won't have to work [cry /walk /talk] no more." It's an old folk song device; the fun lies in predicting how the singer will complete the pattern each time.

Sure, there's an undertone of melancholy -- all those physical losses, teetering on the edge of tragedy (it's just a whisper away from the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, taunting his adversary while his limbs are hacked off one by one. ["Come back here and I'll bite your legs off!"]). But verse after verse, he somehow finds a way to blithely sidestep despair. The song is suffused with a glorious optimism -- the lighthearted skipping rhythm, the dancing melody, that nimble, delicate acoustic guitar.

Ever since Cat Stevens turned into Yusuf Islam, listeners have been looking for coded religious messages in his songs. There is something cryptic about that bridge: "Did it take long to find me? I asked the faithful light. / Did it take long to find me? and are you gonna stay the night?" But get over it, folks -- this is the sort of anthropomorphic stuff you'll find in hundreds of children's picture books, and Stevens didn't convert to Islam until 1977, long after he wrote "Moonshadow."

 Nearly 50 years later, this song's fey charm survives intact. And if this is the song that pops into my head while watching the sun disappear on Monday, I'll be cool with that.  

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Songs With Which to View the Solar Eclipse

In honor of the total solar eclipse that is due to occur over parts of the United States on Monday, August 21st -- a few tunes that may enhance your viewing pleasure.  

"The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" /
The Walker Brothers

Because when the moon is so aligned, it will obscure the sun totally, with just a rim of light -- the corona -- visible.



Anyone remember the Walker Brothers? A trio from California, none of them really brothers, they found success by moving to the UK in 1965 -- payback for the British Invasion, I guess. Their first hit was Bacharach & David's "Make It Easy On Yourself" (remember the Jerry Butler version?); this single from their 1966 album Portrait got a little more airplay in the States and cracked the top 20.

Okay, so it's really not about celestial events; they're bemoaning the cataclysm of love gone wrong. It's hyperbolic, pop-induced tragedy. Still, I love how they copied that Righteous Brothers white-soul sound perfectly, all echo and back-up choirs and manly harmonies. "The sun ain't gonna shine anymore / The moon ain't gonna rise in the skies / The tears are always clouding your eyes" -- rip those heart-strings!

"Everyone's Gone to the Moon" /
Jonathan King

Got the Eclipse Fever yet? Well, dial things to 1965, when social satire was just starting to creep into British Invasion pop, courtesy of the Beatles and the Kinks. And here was Jonathan King -- a clever and well-connected pop enthusiast, who was at the time still a student at Cambridge -- cracking the charts with this uniquely haunting track, prefiguring a desolate Earth depopulated by lunar resettlement.


While it peaked at #3 in the UK, it only hit #17 in the US, but it was eventually covered by everyone from Nina Simone to Doris Day to the Flaming Lips. This is a song that clearly struck a chord. As a goofy pre-teen in Indianapolis, I was mesmerized by its futuristic message of a society gone off the rails.

There's a sort of trudging quality to the verses, as the observers march past "Streets full of people / All alone / Roads full of houses / Never home." Everything's in a wistful state of arrested development, things just unnervingly out of whack. By the time you get to the line "Sun coming out in / The middle of June," you're primed to think it's all too much -- even though in fact the sun should be coming out in the middle of June. Such is the power of nuance.

Then there's that wistful bridge: "Long time ago / Life had begun / Everyone went to the sun." The sun/moon dichotomy is in full force, with all its Dionysian ramifications.

But in the last verse, the sci-fi implications come out: "Cars full of motors / Colored green / Mouths full of chocolate / Covered cream / Arms that can only / Lift a spoon . . " Yes, this is our future, and it's a scary prospect indeed.

Oh, but of course, the astronomical convergence of the sun and moon has nothing to do with social disruption or moral decline or anything. Right?

Right?

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

R.I.P. Glen Campbell

"Wichita Lineman" / Glen Campbell

Remember 1968? Back then, the barriers between rock and country music were mile-high stockades. A friend of my mother's -- Lola Wagner, I think it was -- gave my older brother Holt the Wichita Lineman album for his birthday; I can still see him wincing as he tried to thank her politely. Chances are he never listened once to that LP. We knew Glen Campbell from TV shows -- he had short hair and wore string ties and suits and cowboy boots. There was no way we rock fans were going to buy this record.

Now I'm embarrassed that music snobbery blinded me to this song. Joke's on me -- I've since learned  that, long before he became famous in his own right, Campbell played guitar with LA's famous Wrecking Crew studio musicians, appearing on a host of iconic tracks from Ricky Nelson to Frank Sinatra to the Monkees. For a few months in the mid-1960s, he toured with the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson; in 1966 he played on Pet Sounds. A sharecropper's son from Arkansas, seventh son of 12 children, doesn't get to these rarified levels without enormous talent. Glen Campbell wasn't just some slick singer in a rhinestone suit -- he was the Real Deal.



Written by the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, who also wrote "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Galveston" for Glen -- their symbiotic partnership is a novel waiting to be written -- "Wichita Lineman" has a wonderful high-country loneliness to it. In fact, it's downright existential. Once you get past the syrupy strings and Glen's trademark yodel, it's a breathtaking ballad about love and loss and the American west. In fact, it's so spare and subtle that you need to load on the syrupy strings and Glen's yodel to release all the emotion in it.

Nothing much happens here. The singer is stringing telephone wire in some vast western landscape ("I am a lineman for the county," he humbly introduces himself, "and I drive the main road / Searching in the sun for another overload.") Later he admits, "I know I need a small vacation, / But it don't look like rain" -- this is the kind of ordinary Joe who only gets a rest when the weather's bad. He's just an American working man, way back before Bruce Springsteen made that kind of guy glamorous (and way before Manhattan rich boy Donald Trump decided to pitch his political future on their backs).

With nothing to distract him out here, he can't get his mind off his girlfriend/wife (could even be his boyfriend, for that matter). There's no back story provided -- we don't know if they're in the middle of a break-up, or he's just found out she's cheating on him, or she's been sick, or anything. He just . . . well, he just misses her.

In fact, she's such a part of him that she seems to be everywhere. "I hear you singin' in the wire / I can hear you through the whine" -- how poignant is that? (And oh, dig how the strings whine like the wind in the wires.) And in the next verse, the same heart-breaking melodic phrase gets these words: "And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time." That's as splendid as the biggest horizon, a sweeping majestic statement of love.

In both cases, he's jerked back to reality with a dull jolt: "And the Wichita lineman / Is still on the line." He jumps an octave to that last dissonant note on "line," underlaid with a throbbing insistent riff like a Morse code signal.

 He's still out there, for all we know, still searching in the sun for that overload. Iconic. God rest you, Glen Campbell.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Smackdown!

A new feature here, in which I take two related songs and put them head to head. Please let me know if you have any ideas for song pairs for future Smackdowns!

"Space Oddity" / David Bowie
vs.
"Rocket Man" / Elton John

Well, I'll grant you, this could be an unfair contest. As you, my faithful readers, probably already know, I'm a longtime Bowie fan, and this was the song that started me on that road.

Whereas, in the entire 10 years and 1000+ posts of this blog, I have never yet written about Elton John.

But this is not a foregone conclusion, I promise you. I don't NOT like Elton John; I own an album or two of his, and I find that I know vast swaths of the lyrics to his songs. I acknowledge his enormous talent. And once I began thinking of "Rocket Man," I've found that it has an incredible earworm power. Once I start thinking about "Rocket Man," I cannot remember how "Space Oddity" goes.

So bring on the Smackdown. Let's start with the statistics. "Space Oddity" came first, released in July 1969, cleverly (or cynically) coinciding with the Apollo 11 moonwalk launch; it anchored Bowie's second album, David Bowie (which in the US was soon retitled Space Oddity, for obvious cashing-in reasons). "Rocket Man" popped up 3 years later, in April 1972, and was the major hit off Elton's 4th studio album, Honky Chateau. "Rocket Man" hit #2 on the UK charts and #15 on the US Billboard rankings, whereas "Space Oddity" reached #1 on the UK charts and #6 in the US, but only when it was re-released in 1975. So did "Space Oddity" tee up the public for "Rocket Man," or vice versa?

Now let's go to the videotape:


Daffy, isn't it?

Now here's Elton's production. Or rather, here's a lovely video that was created years later, inspired by Elton's song. Hopefully this levels the playing field a bit.

 
A point of order here: When we talk about "Rocket Man," let's distinguish between the music, which is Elton all the way, and the lyrics written by Bernie Taupin. My private theory is that Bernie Taupin's genius accounts for at least 60% of Elton John's success. And the poignancy of this song is mostly lyrics-driven. In "Space Oddity," Bowie doesn't mention his wife until the third verse ("Tell my wife I love her very much"), and even then Ground Control cuts him off precipitately ("She knows!"). But Taupin leads off with the wife, the job, the routine nature of astronauting: "She packed my bags last night, pre-flight / Zero hour, nine a.m. / And I'm gonna be high as a kite by then / I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife / It's lonely out in space / On such a timeless flight."
 
He later mentions wistfully "Mars ain't no place to raise your kids . . . In fact it's cold as hell," and, while he's "burning up my fuse up here alone" (a masturbation reference?), his main concern is that he's not worthy of the hero title ("I'm not the man they think I am at home"). I hear here shades of "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," which is way more about the isolation of fame than it is about The Wizard of Oz. Taupin admits he was influenced by the Bowie song (how could he not have been?), but also by a Ray Bradbury story ("The Rocket Man," in the collection Illustrated Man) and by the experience of watching a shooting star. 
 
For his part, Elton translates this into a song packed with octave-jump vocals and melodic lines that swoop up and down in parabolas of flight. Yes, his verses stick to Bowie's example, all minor keys and monotones and chromatics, but the choruses soar, with earworm hooks galore. 
 
Bowie, however, hangs onto the creepy, ominous tone for most of his song. Singing as Ground Control, he reaches into his dark low end of his range; he doubles his own vocals, and lays over a chillingly whispered countdown. His Major Tom is more sci-fi ("Take your protein pills and put your helmet on"), even if he's a product of media hype -- "And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear". (Echoes of the Stones' "Satisfaction" -- "but he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke / The same cigarettes as me".)  Bowie said he wrote this song to test out a new studio toy, the Stylophone keyboard (those spacenik synths in the background); the title puns on the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a little jab at the U.K.'s nonexistent space program. So far, it's an arty, satirical song, hardly the star-maker Bowie needed at this point in his career.  
 
But then he becomes Major Tom -- he leaves the capsule and everything goes haywire. He's "floating in a most peculiar way" -- I dig his singsongy delivery there -- he's helplessly "sitting in a tin can,"  and his circuit goes dead. (Oh, and I forgot to mention -- there's a line of thought that Bowie's song was about taking heroin.) Now the melody turns lyrical, switching to major key, and Bowie's lovely upper tenor sings wistfully about how "the stars look very different today." The magic of space travel (or, if you prefer, drug use) breaks through the glass.
 
And now there's dramatic tension. Ground Control is in panic mode, urgently repeating "Can you hear me Major Tom?" while the good major ruefully notes that "Planet Earth is blue / And there's nothing I can do...." It's terrifying, it's existential, and yet it's strangely liberating. What was that poster tagline from the movie Alien? "In space, no one can hear you scream..."  
  
Smackdown?
 
I vote for Bowie. But I'd love to hear from you. Which of these songs takes the prize in your opinion? 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

First song on the Shuffle...

"Long Long Time" / Linda Ronstadt

A tale of two technologies.

When I moved to England in 1975, I had to leave behind my assiduously curated LP collection -- I had no space for a turntable, let alone a meter-high stack of vinyl. I took with me only a cassette player and a handful of cassette tapes, diligently recorded from my favorite albums, which I created by hand, punching buttons on a tape recorder in my bedroom in Indianapolis. Remember cassettes? So compact, so light -- eight-track tapes looked clunky next to them.

Once I was over in England, I frugally supplemented my meager collection by buying greatest hits collections on cassette. Which is how I ended up with two of the most seminal albums I own: Changesonebowie and Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits.

It was an impulse buy, really. I wasn't particularly a Linda Ronstadt fan, although I had loved her debut single with the Stone Poneys and, I swear, I saw her perform live once at a bowling alley in Western Massachusetts in 1974. I may have hallucinated that particular incident, but I'm sticking to it.

With limited musical options, I listened to those cassettes over and over. And, if you're not familiar with the technology, know that skipping tracks is super-hard on a tape cassette -- yeah, I listened to those albums straight through, track after track. They are INGRAINED in my musical consciousness.

Here's my party line on Linda Ronstadt -- she was a genius at covering songs that the original artists did better. Song after song on that album only teed me up to become fans of Bonnie Raitt ("Love Has No Pride"), Neil Young ("Love Is a Rose"), the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved"), Martha and the Vandellas ("Heat Wave"), and Buddy Holly ("That'll Be the Day"). I'll give Linda the edge on "Desperado," which I maintain she delivered better than her backing bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who'd soon go on to win fame as The Eagles. (Don't say it. DON'T say it. I already know what you're thinking...)

But this song? This song, her 1970 first solo hit record, written by her Laurel Canyon friend Gary White -- this one is Linda's triumph, forever.
   

 
 
"Long Long Time" appeared on Linda's 1970 LP Silk Purse, which she recorded in Nashvillle -- a gutsy move for a California folkie. Linda went full-on country on this album, covering Hank Williams and Mel Tillis, and even twanging up the Goffin-King classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow."
 
But "Long Long Time" doesn't go Opry. The arrangement stays clean, with acoustic guitar picks and a baroque string section, all the better to highlight Linda's go-for-broke vocals. The refrain lays it all on the table: "'Cause I've done everything I know / To try and make you mine / But I think I'm gonna love you / For a long long time."
 
That's the ultimate irony of this song: She may be pledging to love him for ages, but in fact the love affair is already over, done, kaput.  That long long time? It's a long long time of agony, frustration, and loss. And so she throws her heart into her voice, yelps and howls and all, protesting her martyrdom.
 
I love how the lyrics alternate platitudes ("take things in stride," "time washes clean," "wait for the day," "life's full of flaws") with the grim reality of loss. She knows now that she was fooling herself all the time, that he was playing her all the time ("you fell all over girls you never knew").  Harshest line? "Living in the memory of a love that never was." There's a hair shirt for you.
 
And so, in the grand tradition of Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, Linda Ronstadt laid it all on the line, identifying with the losers in love. Holding nothing back. Because, at this point, why?
 
It's pretty much a genius track, when you think about it. Thank you, Shuffle.   
 
 

Monday, July 17, 2017

It's Been Too Long....

Far be it from me to blame Donald Trump's presidency for everything . . . but I have to say, I haven't felt in the mood for writing about pop songs lately. However, I'll take a page from New York City's post-9/11 scrappiness, and make a stand here:  No vainglorious pettifogging bully is going to stop me from writing about the music I love.

Although it just might take a little time for me to get back into the groove. So here's my solution:  I'll just set the iTunes shuffle on, and write about the first song that comes up. Cross your fingers!

"Girl Talk" / Georgie Fame

Oh, my. Every since "Yeh Yeh" hit the airwaves in 1964, I've been a fan of this Brit charmer. So just imagine my delight when, in my most intense fangirl mode for Alan Price, I discovered that he and Georgie Fame had teamed up for a British TV series (and a couple of diggable albums). Not only that, Georgie had recorded an album with the Count Basie orchestra, fulfilling his ultimate goal of becoming a jazz musician. Wikipedia doesn't even show it, but I own that LP. It introduced me to the music of Mose Allison and a whole lot more. (Here's a crib sheet for that whole complicated music heritage...)

And so when in the year 2000, Georgie Fame wanted to go full-on jazz, Go Jazz Records made it happen . . .


Born Clive Powell, he was molded into a pop star by Larry Parnes, who forced him to change his name and to sing the sorts of tunes that had worked for Parnes' other clients like Billy Fury and Marty Wilde. But Clive/Georgie really just wanted to be a jazz pianist -- and so when the pop frenzy died down, Clive -- who'd already established himself with a sizzling residency at the London's Flamingo club -- drifted jazzward. He secured career stability by becoming Van Morrison's go-to keyboard player, and then took his free time to do what he wanted to.

Gotta love that.

The title of this 2000 album has some ambitious literary connections, to Dylan Thomas and Federico Garcia Lorca. Well, jazz has always tied itself to serious poetry. But there's nothing stuffy about the relaxed groove of this track. First off, there's the sexy syncopation of the musical phrasing. Then there's the flirtatious lyrics ("She bats her eye / You wanna fly / She sighs her sigh / You wanna cry / Hands on her hip / You wanna flip....") Wowza. And then there's that copasetic sax line, winding around, like a beckoning finger. Come here, big boy...

So while Larry Parnes' other "stars" have faded, Georgie Fame survives. Canny career moves have something to do with that, but I like to think it's also just about talent. This guy had the chops to impress Alan Price, and Van Morrison, and those savvy Flamingo audiences.  He gets a groove that transcends pop and jazz classifications. And when the day is done? I'm pretty darn happy just sitting here listening to the groove . . .


Saturday, May 06, 2017

50 Years Young

"Waterloo Sunset" / The Kinks

Released as a single 50 years ago, on May 5, 1967 (it's also on the classic album Something Else By the Kinks), "Waterloo Sunset" may be one of the Kinks best-known songs. But no matter how many times I listen to it, it always devastates me -- and I always find something beautiful and new in it.

Even as he was writing it, the Kinks' resident genius Ray Davies suspected this might be his masterpiece. It was so important to him that, after Kinks producer Shel Talmy had finished mixing the song, Ray stole back into the studio with the other Kinks and recorded it all over again, until it was just the way he wanted it.

Bingo.

video

It starts off majestically, with those martial bass thrums marching down the scale, but then that twangy guitar riff slips in, laying on a jazzy, modern sound. One of the things I've always loved about Ray Davies' music is his deft mix-and-match of musical styles. In just this one track you've got the 40s-style background oohs (Ray's wife Rasa singing an octave above his brother Dave), 60s girl-group sha-la-la's in the bridge, and the overlapping repeats of "Waterloo Sunset's fine," a nod to Brian Wilson's genius 1966 recordings "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."

And then there's that ineffable melody, sets of gently descending D-A-G chords, each short phrase making an arc until the final phrase dips below the horizon. (Just like a sunset -- hello!) Notice how each verse begins with a widescreen panorama -- the "dirty old river" flowing under the bridge, the lovers Terry and Julie meeting by the platform, crowds swarming "like flies" into the tube entrance.

But the balance is fragile, and Ray ruefully morphs into minor chords as he muses, "But I don't need no friends" or "But I don't feel afraid" (how long he hangs on those "don'ts," as if trying to convince himself). He's focused on himself, complaining how the crowds make him feel dizzy, and he's too lazy to leave home and meet friends. It's not just about London, it's really about his aching heart.

And then, and then -- the world outside his window revives him, and it resolves into the major D-A-G chords for that grand final line: "As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise." It's a great life lesson: Let go of your petty personal concerns, and be subsumed into the big picture.

The tension between the lonely observer and the teeming metropolis is the bittersweet heart of this song. Listen closely and you realize that he never gets out of that room, as he admits in the bridge (all those wistful 7th chords): "Every day I look at the world from my window," a memory drawn from Ray's childhood, when he was confined by a long illness in St. Thomas hospital near Waterloo. His perspective is tinged with a fear of death -- "Chilly, chilly is the evening time" -- but for right now, nature uplifts him, and "Waterloo sunset's fine."

By verse three, notice, he finally shifts the story away from himself and over to his fictional lovers Terry and Julie. (And who in late sixties Brit cinema was cooler than Terence Stamp and Julie Christie?). But unlike loner Ray, the reason they don't need friends is because they have each other. They're in love, and we get our happy ending.

Or do we? The shadows haven't entirely been chased away -- as Terry and Julie "cross over the river," I recall old myths in which crossing a river means death (which gives the line "they are in paradise" an extra twist).

"Waterloo Sunset" is like a great landscape painting, worthy of Turner or Monet; it's also a cinematic piece, with its wide-angle shots, dissolves, close-ups, and long tracking shot. It's a lyric poem, and it's also an epic novel. To do all this with one pop song, in the space of three minutes and seventeen seconds -- and to do it with a simple four-piece band (no added strings, no horn sections) -- well, it's a wondrous achievement. If Ray Davies had done nothing else in his life, he'd be worthy of undying respect.

And of course, he has done more -- so much more....

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Shuffle 1,001

Yes, the number 1,000 is impressive, but so is 1,001, which has the added merit of being a numerical palindrome. How could I pass up the opportunity for a milestone Shuffle?

A Brave New World Shuffle

1. "Tango Till They're Sore" / Tom Waits
From Rain Dogs (1985)
My favorite Tom Waits album ever. Yes, all those songs from Down By Law; but Waits wrote it about NYC, an ode to the dispossessed. That sloppy late-night bar piano, the boozy horns, and the lyrics are just poetry -- "Fall out of the window with confetti in my hair / Deal out jacks or better on a blanket by the stairs / Tell you all my secrets but I lie about my past / Send me off to bed forever more." Amen.

2. "Walking on the Moon" / The Police
From Regatta de Blanc (1979)
Though this track lost a smackdown with Smashmouth a few years ago, I still find it haunting. Anyone else feel that the past couple of weeks have been like an out-of-body experience?

3. "Lua" / Connor Oberst and Gillian Welch
From Dark Was the Night: A Red Hot Compilation (2009)
The loping folky sound of this slacker anthem is oh-so-deceptive. Each verse comes back to the same dichotomy: "What's so easy in the evening, in the morning is such a drag." (Or variations thereof.) Earnest Connor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes) wrote this song for his 2004 LP I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning; for this charity effort for HIV and AIDS, he teamed up with alt-folk goddess Gillian Welch. It's a winner.

4. "Razor Blade Alley" / Madness
From One Step Beyond (1979)
Madness's debut album jumped on the ska bandwagon in a big way, and as a Specials fan, I was an early adapter. Another track about the dispossessed, it goes way beyond gentle alienation with a jittery beat and paranoid lyrics -- "this pain of pissing razors is cutting in" -- ouch!  Madness's front man Suggs is an avowed Ray Davies acolyte, so let's assume that the social satire is firmly in place.

5. "Bay City Rollers We Love You" / Nick Lowe and the Tartan Horde
Single 1975
Desperate to get fired from a UA record contract, Nick Lowe stuck it to his label by issuing this crappy pop single, a blatantly fake paean to the Bay City Rollers. Surprise!  It became a massive hit in Japan. Just to show how playing the media can backfire.

6. "It's Lonely at the Top" / Randy Newman
From Sail Away (1972)
This seems to be the Week of Randy. Strap on your irony detectors. A roadhouse ballad about the burden of stardom -- coming from Randy Newman, who in 1972 was anything but a household name -- eerily predicts the Nixonian and Trumpian existential condition.  

7. "Good Bait" / Dizzy Gillespie All Stars
From Bebop Spoken Here: Disorder at the Border (2000)
A palate cleanser, if you will -- some proper jazz for a change. (Bill Malley, where are you?)  Though given today's breaking news, disorder at the border may be more relevant than we'd like it to be.

8. "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)" / They Might Be Giants
From Apollo 18 (1992)
You can never go wrong with The Johns. This snazzy repurposing of the 1961 Tokens hit (actually a Zulu song from 1939), updates the trope: "Hush my darling, be still my darling, the lion's on the phone." And -- zap! -- we're in the 21st century, with a silver spaceship and a whole lotta re-shaking going on.

9. "They Can't Take That Away From Me" /  Elvis Costello & Tony Bennett
From MTV Unplugged: Tony Bennett (1994)
Love these two. Giving that Gershwin classic a classy spin, and Elvis -- the son of a big band singer, after all -- more than holds his own with Sir Tony Bennett. Well, I've got some things they can't take away from me, either -- including the rights to jump genres all I damn well please.

10. "If I Didn't Love You" / Squeeze
From Argybargy (1980)
Ah, vintage Difford and Tillbrook. Conflicted as all get-out (dig that almost stuttering refrain, "If I, if I, if I, if I...") it digs into the yin and yang of love.  "If I didn't love you I'd hate you" -- yep, that's about where it stands.  

Oh, my brothers and sisters, let us gird our loins.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

My 1,000th Post!

"I Think It's Going
To Rain Today" /
Randy Newman

Believe it or not, I started this blog a little more than 10 years ago -- my first post was on October 26, 2006, to be exact. (The song: "Learning How to Love You" by my hometown hero John Hiatt.) I had some high hopes that I could hit the 1,000-post mark on October 26, 2016, but life got in the way, as it so often does. 

I don't post as often now as I used to, but while the internet is littered with abandoned blogs, here I still am, writing about the artists I love.

Some of whom are no longer with us.  In the past year alone, we've said goodbye to David Bowie, Guy Clark, Allen Toussaint, Greg Trooper, and Beatles producer George Martin. You all were here with me to mourn when my older brother died, and when I went through my soul-shaking discovery of the late great Harry Nilsson.

I started this blog as a card-carrying Kinks and Beatles fan, but my Nick Lowe obsession happened right here, followed by my Robyn Hitchcock craze, my rediscovery of the Zombies, my reignited connection to the great Marshall Crenshaw, and -- perhaps most memorable of all -- the heads-over-heels epiphany that led me to become a Graham Parker fan for life.

Oh, and there were many others along the way -- fascinating artists whose names you can find in the sound cloud to the right. Old artists, new artists, women and men, of all genres -- I do love to mix it up.

For the 1,000th post, I wanted something momentous, a track I had never written about before, and something that perhaps sums up my outlook on life.  In the flurry of social media these days, with the increasingly bizarre turn of events in the United States at the moment, nothing superficial would do.

And then it came to me.


This is how good Randy Newman was right from the get-go -- it appears on his debut album, Randy Newman, released way back in 1968. The list of artists who've covered this song is simply mind-boggling -- Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Neil Diamond, Dave Van Ronk, Cass Elliot, Francoise Hardy, Ricky Nelson, Joe Cocker, Cleo Laine, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, UB40, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Irma Thomas, Paul Carrack, Peter Gabriel, even Leonard Nimoy. I myself first heard it on Judy Collins' 1966 LP In My Life, back in my Earnest Folkie Phase -- that was the first I ever heard of Randy Newman. But it led me to buy his 1971 LP Randy Newman Live, and to see him in concert in 1974 in Northampton, Massachusetts (on a double bill with Ry Cooder, no less). And to become a Fan For Life.

For all the covers, Randy's own stripped-down, plangent, wistfully bemused rendering will forever be my favorite.

You want poetic imagery?  He's got it. He leads off verse one with evocative scene-setting: "Broken windows and empty hallways / A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray."  And in verse two, a rueful stroke of social satire: "Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles to chase love away."

But it's that refrain I keep coming back to -- that despairing, deeply ironic refrain: "Human kindness is overflowing /  And I think it's going to rain today." It's heartbreaking how the melodic line rises on "human kindness" and then wilts disappointedly downward on "overflowing," to move into the regretful cadence of "And I think it's going to rain today."

In verse three, he offers a fleeting glimpse of social action: "Bright before me the signs implore me /  To help the needy and show them the way." Oh, those do-gooders. But Randy doesn't place much faith in them; knee-jerk liberals can write a check one minute and forget the dispossessed the next. The rain will still fall.

The bridge is absolutely haunting: "Lonely, / Lonely. /  Tin can at my feet / Think I'll kick it down the street / That's the way to treat a friend." Those broken, almost disconnected phrases, the fatalistic shrug of "Think I'll kick it down the street" -- there's more than a shot of Leonard Cohen world-weariness there.

Whether or not this is explicitly about homelessness, or alienation, or -- who knows? -- refugees and  immigrants, I 'll leave to you to decide. In the 50 years since, I've pored over a lot of Randy Newman songs, and I know that his satire is complex and elusive. Every one of his songs is written from a character's viewpoint, and it's not always clear how much he means us to identify with the character. (Check out, for example, his devastating song "Political Science," which terrifyingly feels more true today than ever.)

But it's not just about the lyrics; it's also about the heart-breaking melody. It's no surprise to me that Randy Newman has blossomed into one of our great film composers; there's something in his melodic sense that hits all the emotional buttons.  Which is why I'd always rather hear Randy himself sing the songs, in his deceptively unshowy, croaky, real-guy voice.  No pyrotechnics; just the real thing.

And truer now than ever.

Friday, January 20, 2017

"Oliver's Army" / Elvis Costello


This song just popped into my head around noonish today, Eastern Standard Time.  Seems as good a song to post as anything.


I was a huge Costello fan in 1979, when this song came out on EC's third album, Armed Forces. Well, I still am a huge Costello fan, but I was particularly keen in those years; I couldn't wait for this album to arrive. This track is still the biggest hit single Elvis ever had in the UK, though of course he wasn't primarily a singles artist. But you can see why it hit a nerve in Britain that year, in the dawn of the Thatcher years.

I originally assumed "Oliver" referred to Oliver Cromwell. In the Catholic schools young Declan/Elvis attended, Cromwell -- the harsh Puritan general who wrested power from the Catholic-favoring Stuart monarchy -- must have been painted as a villain.

However, I've later heard that Elvis also meant for Oliver to refer to Oliver Lyttelton, a Churchill crony who helped well-connected men avoid conscription in World War II because of their "usefulness to trade," thus throwing the burden of fighting onto poor unskilled men -- "the boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne," all disadvantaged areas at the time.

Either way, it's an anti-war, anti-racism, anti-oppression anthem, inspired, Elvis says, by a visit to Belfast, where he saw in horror raw young boys patrolling the war-torn streets with automatic rifles on their shoulders.  "They always get a working-class boy to do the killing," as Elvis has put it. There's that startling line, "One more widow, one less white nigger" (a "white nigger" was a common term used by Belfast Prods to describe Belfast Catholics) and the couplet "But it's no laughing party / When you've been on the murder mile," Murder Mile being a slang term for a particular violent section of Falls Road in Belfast.

Of course, the song doesn't stop with Belfast.  That would be too particular. No, he wants us to see a bigger pattern, where this sort of thing also happens in Berlin, Korea, Hong Kong, Palestine, South Africa.  Mercenaries, gunfights, and retribution everywhere, while the politicians ordering the killing sit in their luxury office towers miles away, dictating memos and going out to steak lunches. Or, like Elvis and the Attractions in the video, on a tropical beach, being serving umbrella cocktails.

The genius stroke of it all?  Pairing these angry, cynical, allusion-crammed lyrics with a supremely catchy, jaunty radio-ready tune --a real ear-worm -- underlaid with Steve Nieve's sparkling keyboards, drenched in ABBA-like pop chords and arpeggios. You can't help singing along to a song like this -- and maybe shouting the lyrics a little more fiercely when you realize what it's all about. Speaking truth to power.

Today that refrain is haunting me: "And I would rather be anywhere else / Than here / Today."

Sigh.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

R.I.P. Greg Trooper (1956-2017)

"Inisheer" / Greg Trooper

Sometimes, you see the hand of God working.

Way back in 2005, when I was new to iTunes, I did a search for a song titled "Innisfree," based on the Yeats poem of the same name. Along with a predictable number of Innisfree songs, the app pointed me to a song with nearly the same title (ignoring the fact that hundreds of islands in Ireland start with "innis," which, duh, means "isle" in Gaelic).

That song was "Inisheer" by Greg Trooper. (From his 2013 album Floating.)

Well, the fates were surely working for me that day. Having heard this one sweet nuanced heartfelt number, I had to find more -- which is exactly what iTunes (at least in 2005) was best at.  It wasn't long before I had stacks of Greg Trooper CDs wending my way via Amazon.

And everything I heard I liked. No, scratch that -- loved.  This is a guy who had so much heart, was so tuned into the human condition, that every track of his was lovable. He could be sneaky funny, he could bring you to tears. It was all about his humanity.

And now we've lost him. And I'm feeling peculiarly bereft.

So I need to go back to my Square One and appreciate what there was in this first song that made me know this guy was a keeper.

Normally I avoid posting videos of live performances, but in this case, the live footage is the best. How else could you catch the magic of seeing GT live?.


Okay, right off the bat: There's Troop's ineffably warm, textured voice, inviting: "If I asked, would you come with me dear, /To a place you've never been before?" It's all about trust. And who do you trust? A guy with a slightly gritty voice who nails those sincere line endings.

And then there's the plangent chorus: "So take my hand, my heart, my soul forever / Bring to me your burden and your fear / Let us wander through this world together / We will find our way to Inisheer." Yes, there's a little country-ish yodel lingering behind some of his melisma, but mostly Greg Trooper delivers a folk song with all the old country echoes that entails.

Images flash through the ensuing verses: "Streets of gold and pockets full of diamonds," "Rainbow eyes shining like the ocean" -- but we all know where we want to wind up: In the loving arms of this yearning singer.

A couple years later, I managed to snag an interview with Greg Trooper and came away feeling as if I'd made a friend. After that, I took a particular pleasure in going to his shows and having a chat afterwards. I'm kicking myself that I didn't do that more often, even after it became clear that time was of the essence.

Greg Trooper wrote so many fine songs -- often recorded by other artists (Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Billy Bragg). It was wistful to those of us who were his champions to see him plugging away at bars and house parties, when he deserved so much more exposure. His sizeable European fan base attests to how he connected with his fans.

How could you not love Greg Trooper?

And how could I not be devastated that he's gone?