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.

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?


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.