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 . . . .