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.