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 Prots 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 lakes in Ireland start with "innis," which, duh, means "lake" 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?