Friday, November 02, 2018

Juliet, Naked

Okay, I finally saw it. (Pay per view alert!) I can't even explain why it took me so long, considering how absolutely this film dovetails with everything I'm about. But a few thoughts:

1. Nick Hornsby is my favorite living writer. I'm not claiming he's the greatest literary talent or anything like that, but everything this man writes makes utter and perfect sense to me. This blog owes its existence to his book Song Book; I've read everything he's published. And of all his novels, Juliet, Naked is quite possibly my favorite. (Notice how I hedge my bets, because, jeez, I love everything he's done.) Nick, if by any chance this blog post surfaces on your feed -- please do let me know. I promise I won't get weird.

2. Kinks world lives.  Casually, walking through Waterloo Station, a snippet of dialogue -- a throwaway, really, if you didn't know better -- mentions that the station is a big deal if you're a Kinks fan (KAPOW).  Later, Ethan Hawke performs "Waterloo Sunset" at a local gig, and it's almost unbearably beautiful.

3. Chris O'Dowd is so underated. So many of us have connected via fan websites; O'Dowd plays a superfan we can all identify with. I love how his passion for the music, versus his cluelessness in life, is so delicately delineated. His face registers all the nuances of a response to music that is heartfelt and yet, hell, totally beside the point. Except okay, but whoa . . .

4. And the songs? If you're gonna do a movie about an elusive rock talent, you gotta line up some quirky folks to write his songs. Monsters of Folk's Conor Oberst and M. Ward, Robyn Hitchcock, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy-- I've written about them all over the years. Click on their links in the column to the right.  This film totally gets the music right, which buys it major cred.

5. Okay, now I get Ethan Hawke. He started out so young, and so beautiful (really, those cheekbones are so unfair), I never thought much of him. It wasn't until I saw Boyhood  a couple years back that I realized he is actually an actor of a very high degree. Here he's playing a grizzled, washed-up musician who dropped out of the biz and disappeared 30 years ago, inadvertently gaining a cult following. He's a mess of a human being, and Hawke plays it to the core, never making excuses for him. All right, Ethan, now I officially forgive you for Great Expectations.

6. Gotta stand and face it -- life is so complicated. One of the things I most love about Nick Hornsby's novels is that there are no pat solutions -- lost loves lead to new opportunities, and we all pick up our sorrows and move on. I love how this film doesn't settle for a cheesy plot resolution, but still leaves us encouraged for the next chapter. Viva life!

Monday, October 08, 2018

My Birthday #1s

Happy Birthday to Me Part 3

Alas my brothers and sisters, it is all downhill from here. I've gone through the weekly charts from 1973 to the present, and there is precious little that I even recognize, let alone care about.  Granted, I was living in the U.K. in 1975 and 1976; it's entirely likely that I never even heard the hit US songs of those years. "(I did hear 1974's entry, Olivia Newton-John's breathy "I Honestly Love You," but the less said about that, the better.) And I know the music I was listening to in the later 70s and 80s just wasn't mainstream enough to produce chart-toppers. 

Still, from the late 80s on, the charts increasingly were dominated by a narrow band of music, mostly rap and R&B. In the mid-90s, my birthday singles were almost entirely either Boyz II Men or Mariah Carey, and while I have nothing particularly against either of those artists, that doesn't suggest a range of music being listened to. 

The lists from the 90s on also are remarkably short -- while earlier lists swapped in a new #1 every couple of weeks or so, signs of lively competition, these later ones are dominated by a few juggernaut hits (from mid-August 1992 to mid-March 1993, only 2 songs held the top spot -- Boyz II Men's "The End of the Road" and then Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You.") I'm guessing this reflects changes in the music biz more than changes in musical tastes; record companies poured all their resources into promoting a few mega-hits, in much the same way that publishers stopped buying quirky first novels and gambled big bucks on a few "name" authors. Radio stations stopped playing to the mainstream, and then all hell broke loose in the 2000s as streaming overtook record sales.

Still, here are a few October 8th #1s that I was delighted to see -- hope you're happy to see them too! 

1976: Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music"
Seems to me that the title leaves out the most important words -- "Play that funky music, white boy!" Because Wild Cherry was a band of white guys from Ohio, who nevertheless were able to lay that funk sound down for one of the funnest (is that even a word?) dance tracks of the 1970s. Like their Scottish colleagues Average White Band, they paid honest tribute to the funk sound, refusing to accept that it had to be ghetto-ized. In these days of the ongoing cultural appropriation debate, I'm not sure where I stand on these. But I gotta admit, when this song comes on the jukebox? I am NOT sitting still . . . 

1980: Queen "Another One Bites the Dust"
Oh, I do loves me some Queen. Shout-out to my Oxford pal Cynthia, who first got me listening to the marvelous Mr. Mercury.  And while I'd probably nominate "Killer Queen" as my fave Queen track, with "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy" as a close second (no, wait -- how could I forget "Don't Stop Me Now"...?), well, this one's a great track. Deliciously funky, dialing back on the arena bombast of "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You." Fun facts to know and tell: Queen bassist John Deacon wrote this song, inspired by the funk band Chic, and none other than Michael Jackson (a Queen fan) convinced them to release it as a single. It became the longest-running US #1 single of 1980 and Queen's top-selling single ever (and their first big US hit, which, having lived in the UK, baffled me.) What is it about? Gay cruising, trying to score weed, boxing, knife fights -- well, like a lot of Queen songs, it's about what you want it to be about. 

1982: John Cougar, "Jack and Diane"
So here I am by now, living in New York City, and damn if MTV doesn't unleash my inner Hoosier with this grainy video that just about perfectly encapsulates my conflicts about leaving the Midwest to realize my dreams elsewhere. Because to be honest, some version of me is still back at the Tastee-Freeze, sucking down chili dogs in my Bobbie Brooks....

1983: Bonnie Tyler, "Total Eclipse of the Heart"
Years ago I posted this song in an Eighties Cheese Week thread, and now I have to admit I've grown so fond of it, I'm delighted to find it popping up here. That big hair, that big rasp-edged voice, the amped-up Jim Steinman production, and even -- who knew? -- Rick Derringer, late of the McCoys, on guitar. 

1985: Dire Straits, "Money for Nothing" 
Ahh, the glory days of MTV. Loved this cynical track, a reality check on the craziness of the music industry, with Mark Knopfler's nimble, virile guitar work, slicing through the surreal mishmash with killer riffs, and Sting (another MTV-enabled star) adding his back-up vocals. How perfectly Knopfler nails the point of view of his working slobs, scoffing at privileged musicians ("that ain't working"), griping about their own daily grind ("We got to install microwave ovens / Custom kitchen deliveries"), yet envious despite themselves: "Lemme tell you, these guys ain't dumb / Maybe get a blister on your little finger / Maybe get a blister on your thumb." And there's the American dream, just out of reach: "Money for nothing and chicks for free." It's to Knopler's credit that he never seems to put these guys down; they have every right to resent the "yo-yos" they see on TV getting all the glory. They give themselves away only in the last verse: "That little faggot got his own jet airplane . . . " Even so, would they trade places with him? I'm betting yes, in a heartbeat. 

1986: Huey Lewis & the News, "Stuck With You"
Bestill my heart. Yeah, I know I've said over and over that the 80s were the decade that killed pop music, and I still say I'm right, but . . . Huey. Huey. It's a matter of public record,  my fangirl crush on Huey Lewis, even though I was by then a married lady soon to give birth to our first child. It's like the last gasp of great, upbeat, swinging pop music, with a little retro doo-wop flair; besides which, who wouldn't love this video?


1996: Los Del Rio "Macarena"
Bit of a time jump here, for reasons I've explained above. And yes, I suppose this was a novelty song, a throwback to the dance-craze songs of the mid-60s ("The Twist") and late 70s ("Do the Hustle"). But along with all those gyrating fembots, here come two Latino gents in suits to deliver the refrain -- "Hey, macarena!". You couldn't get away from this song for weeks that fall. It had already been a hit in Spain and Latin America a couple of years earlier, but when Miami clubgoers repeatedly requested it, a savvy producer churned out a disco-inflected version with added English-language lyrics -- and they hit the US big-time. (It took years for this to be unseated as the longest-running #1 on the Hot 100 charts. You can't help but like this song, which claims to be nothing more than a party track. Party tracks, in case you hadn't realized, are a good thing.    

2010: Bruno Mars, "Just the Way You Are" 
Quadruple-threat Bruno Mars -- singer, songwriter, producer, dancer -- restores my faith in pop music. He's brought back tempo, style, nuance, and suavity. Forget the 1977 Billy Joel song of the same title: Bruno's is so much more playful and adoring; love how it soars in the chorus. This was Bruno's first really big hit, though he's proven himself with several follow-ups. He's the real deal. Fun fact: Megan Trainor's delightful 2014 debut hit "All About That Bass" was inspired by this track.  

2011: Adele, "Someone Like You"
Yes, please. 

I suppose I shouldn't define my Adele fanship totally in terms of other singers. But let me put this out there: I've always loved her big emotional voice more than her contemporary Amy Winehouse's; and while I've gradually come to appreciate Lady Gaga, I admire Adele for not needing theatricality to sell her songs. Just stand on the stage and sing, girl. So here's my gold standard: can you deliver the same power and passion as my girl Dusty Springfield? The good news is that Adele can.

 And give the girl props for writing her own songs, out of her own emotional landscape.  (I guess I dropped this thread, but from the mid-60s on, artists who wrote their own material had so much more credibility with me.)

As a song to an ex, who seems to have moved on better than she has, it's full of passion landmines, every one of which she explodes. To me, a diva is a selfish spotlight-seeking egomaniac, and I want nothing to do with divas. For Adele, as for Dusty, the heartbreak is all too real, and close to the skin, and she's only sharing it because she suspects maybe you too have had your heart broken in just this same way.

I'm on Dusty's team, and I'm on Adele's. Dusty, sadly, is no longer with us. But so long as Adeles and Brunos still pop up from time to time,  I'll continue to care about pop music. Why not?

Friday, October 05, 2018

My Birthday #1s

Happy Birthday to Me Pt. 2

Now we're getting into music that really resonates with me.  It was an era in which charts and lists still mattered -- I remember staying up until midnight every New Year's Eve with my neighbor and close pal Kay Wolf, waiting to find out what was the number one song of the year.  Wonder if any of these songs was in the year-end Top Ten...

1963: Bobby Vinton, "Blue Velvet"
Another one of the Bobbys!  Schmaltz and strings again, angel-choir backing vocals, and one of the most memorable vocal swoops in all pop -- "She wore blue-oooo VEL-vet." I very distinctly remember this drippy song on the radio, and being riveted for reasons I still can't explain.

1964: Roy Orbison, "Pretty Woman"
Legit rock & roll, at last. I saw Roy Orbison perform this song on the weekly music TV show Shindig, with his black pompadour and dark glasses, coolly standing center stage, no dancing or gyrating -- and oh, that knock-out voice. This song (Orbison's biggest hit ever) was clearly about a man on the prowl (he even purr-growls at one point) -- hardly the stuff this little 11-year-old wanted to hear at the time. But I couldn't turn away from it. Mercy!

1965: The McCoys, "Hang On Sloopy"
Granted, this was a blip on the charts -- the next day the new #1 was the Beatles' "Yesterday," which I yearned to write about instead, as the first of these #1s that I actually went out and bought as a 45. However, I cannot deny the McCoys their fleeting moment in the sun (especially since they, like me, were from Indiana). I'll admit, I always conflated this song with Snoopy, the dog from the Peanuts cartoons, and with the Beach Boys' goofy single "Sloop John B," which would hit the charts a few months later. Neither a boat nor a dog, however, Sloopy was a girl from "the wrong side of town," that all-American story line. At the time, I didn't know the song's backstory -- how the Strangeloves recorded it, but, not wanting to cannibalize their still-active hit "I Want Candy" (yes, that song), hired an unknown teen band to release it under their name, flying the lead singer into New York to overdub the vocals. As luck would have it, it leaped to the top of the charts, outselling "I Want Candy" by far. Who knew? And by the way, who was that 17-year-old lead singer of the McCoys? None other than Rick Derringer, who'd later under his own name have a hit with "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo," and who also played guitar on Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart." More than you wanted to know, I bet.

1966: The Association, "Cherish"
Did I own this single? You bet I did. Although it was nowhere near as great as the Association's previous hit, "Along Comes Mary," this song was probably a better showcase for their plush vocal harmonizing (the Association's raison d'etre, I realize in retrospect). "Cherish," however, was tailor-made for a 13-year-old's hopeless crushes, with lyrics like "Well I'm beginning to think / That man has never found / The words that could make you love me / That have the right amount of letters / Just the right sound / That could make you feel / Make you see / That you are driving me out of my mind..." Well, obviously, even though I cannot remember the name of my current dentist, the date of my recent brain surgery, or what pills I need to take in the morning -- even though I still have not remembered to sign up for Medicare -- I still remember every word of "Cherish." Just sayin'.

1967:  The Box Tops, "The Letter"
Oh, sweet Jesus, here it is. My Number One Favorite Pop Song of All Time Just confirming my belief that 1967 was probably the greatest year in music ever. At fourteen, I was just on the cusp of appreciating the raw urgency and heat of Alex Chilton's lead vocal. How was I to know he was barely older than I was?

1968:  The Beatles, "Hey Jude"
Iconic. ICONIC. How much has been written about this song (although, oddly, it seems I never did a post on it before)?  It was Paul's song to comfort John's son Julian on his parents' break-up; John was convinced it was Paul's blessing on his relationship with Yoko; Paul himself may have been writing about the beginning of his great true love with Linda. The fact that it is all these songs at once testifies to its greatness. I've been a Paul girl from Day One, but honestly, you don't need to be a Paul girl to know this is a genius track. Even though it was more than 7 minutes long -- unheard-of in Top Ten radio -- it held the #1 spot for nine weeks in the US, the Beatles' longest #1 streak ever. We didn't know at the time that this was the first step in the Beatles' long goodbye. (There's a whole book in that.) But hey, on my 15th birthday, how could I know that my Beatles universe was about to fall apart? All I knew was that I had better start memorizing all the nah-ne-nah-nahs, to make sure I'd get them right when this came on the radio in a carful of us true believers.
   (Hang in there on this video clip, by the way -- it charmingly messes around a bit before the song takes off.)

1969:  The Archies, "Sugar, Sugar"
Oh, Lord. Was this single the beginning of the end? A made-up band for a cartoon series based on a comic book -- and yet it hit #1? It's an earworm, yes -- but honestly, WHO BOUGHT THIS RECORD? But here it is, a milestone in bubblegum pop, proving that the music biz was still all over the map. 

1970:  Diana Ross & the Supremes, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"
Was Diana Ross still a Supreme at this point, or not? It almost doesn't matter. Her diva status was already certified, and this overblown hit -- a remake of a 1966 Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson -- claimed #1 as if it was Diana's due. Man, I loved the Supremes back when they were just the best of the girl groups, but the minute Diana went diva (enabled by a smitten Berry Gordy), Motown lost whatever credibility it still had with me. I'd follow Stevie Wonder to the ends of the earth, but Diana Ross? Count me out.

1971:  Rod Stewart, "Maggie May"
Freshman year of college, and I didn't buy singles any more; I bought LPs. And I bought this one. That raspy voice, that mandolin, those whomping drumbeats -- it was loose and sexy and boozy and everything that 60s pop was not. I listened to college radio stations now, which played entirely different music; I was beginning to leave chart-based radio behind. (Though there was still a station in Springfield, MA, with a pre-programmed playlist and no DJs, that kept me listening to "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone," "One Toke Over the Line," Cat Stevens' "Wild World," and all the Carpenters and Three Dog Night I could handle....) 

1972: Mac Davis, "Baby Don't Get Hooked on Me"
Are you kidding me? This cheesy country-crossover hit -- another of those "men got to be free, women just want to tie you down" songs -- was definitely not on my radar; or rather, I knew it was out there and it made my baby feminist flesh creep. Wikipedia duly tells me that Mac Davis wrote both "In the Ghetto" and "A Little Less Conversation" for Elvis Presley, and that raises Mac Davis multiple notches in my estimation. But in 1972, I wanted nothing to do with it.
1973: Cher, "Half Breed"
Okay, now I'm really getting annoyed. It was the 1970s, rock music was going in a million fascinating directions, and the chart-toppers were zigging and zagging. Good stuff from Carly Simon and Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder, but we also had Dawn's "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" and Jim Croce's "Bad Bad Leroy Brown."  Look, I'd dug Sonny and Cher when they first landed on Shindig singing "I Got You Babe," but Cher's march into diva status left me totally cold. (Am I the only person who hated the fact that she was in Mamma Mia 2?)

But let's be honest -- I was 21 and no longer the pop charts' target audience. (How swiftly do we reach obsolescence....). From here on in, it would be the songs I DID care about that would make all the difference. 

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

My Birthday #1s

 Happy Birthday to Me Pt. 1

I'm having a big birthday this year -- an impressive span on years on this planet -- and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to find out what songs were #1 on my birthday every year. Here's the first set (it won't take much math skill for you to figure out just which birthday this is for me . . . ).
1953: Les Paul and Mary Ford, "Vaya Con Dios"
Okay, I have NO memory of ever hearing this song.  Years later, I somehow absorbed the fact that Les Paul was one of the great guitarists of all time; I even married someone whose Les Paul guitar was one of his most precious possessions. But guitar solos are generally wasted on me. 
   And anyway, I was a baby. But apparently a baby born into a blip of American infatuation with all things Latino. Pam Am Airways, pre-Castro Havana, Desi Arnaz and Xavier Cugat, Zorro on TV -- it was a thing. (Watch the 1944 Disney feature The Three Caballeros to get the gist of this culture crush). So a Spanish lyric hitting #1?  I was clearly born in an era. 

1954: Rosemary Clooney, "Hey There"
This is more like it.  I've always loved this song (yes, long before I ever heard of her nephew George), I just knew nothing about it. Turns out it was the breakout hit song from The Pajama Game, which had just opened on Broadway. Hey, I grew up in Indianapolis, what did I know about Broadway theater? (Especially since I was only a year old.) But just listen -- this is a great song, sung by an extraordinary vocalist.  She had it all -- pitch, timbre, phrasing, an innate sense of swing, and a voice that almost miraculously had both purity and sexiness. One of a kind.

1955: The Chordettes, "Mr. Sandman"
This makes me laugh out loud. Apparently when this song used to come on the radio, the two-year-old me, perched in my high chair, used to do the deep-voiced "yeeess?" along with the record.  So yeah, fair to say that I was somehow already a fan girl. And while on some levels this is just another post-war pop confection -- the 40s-style harmonies, the perky tempo -- it does have a curious spangly texture, and (dare I say) a longing for oblivion that could, if you squint just right, totally predict the psychedelic era. Just sayin'. 

1956:  Elvis Presley, "Hound Dog"
And then suddenly rock 'n' roll happened. My older brother and I used to make fun of this dumb song about a dog, which was being played everywhere. (How could we have known it was written by those master hitmakers Lieber and Stoller?) But we could tell that this was a world apart from the slickery and schmaltz that had dominated the airwaves up to then. And once you'd heard stuff like this -- Elvis's best-selling song of all time -- there was no going back.  P.S.: The flip side -- yup, Elvis hit the ground running with one of the first double-A sides of all time -- was "Don't Be Cruel," which in my book was even better than "Hound Dog."

1957: Jimmie Rodgers, "Honeycomb"
Lest we forget, rockabilly helped to spawn rock 'n' roll, as Jimmie Rodgers' crossover country hit made abundantly clear. His first (and biggest-ever) hit, it is actually pretty silly, when you listen to it -- but man, is it an earworm.

1958: Tommy Edwards, "It's All in the Game"
Okay, so America wasn't done with strings and schmaltz yet. Although, to be fair, this song isn't schmaltzy, but R&B emotion laid on thick, with a world-weary, philosophical shrug. I've always had a thing for this song. The inimitable Nick Lowe even did a cover of it a few years ago, which is a thing of beauty in itself.


1959: Bobby Darrin, "Mack the Knife"
Yaaassssss! I sure do remember this song, with Darrin's cool-cat finger-snapping. It took decades before I ever heard of Bertoldt Brecht or The Threepenny Opera, the scathingly political play where this song first appeared.  When I finally did see it, this song was such a disappointment. It was meant to be sung like Bobby Darrin sings it, period.
   As we rolled on into the 1960s, there were too many Bobbys around -- Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darrin -- and just to confuse things, the actor James Darren fell into an singing career as well after appearing in the film Gidget. There was probably no likelihood I'd ever become a Bobby Darrin fan. I was only 5, but already I could feel that this guy was more like Frank Sinatra than like Elvis Presley.
     Lately, though, I've been listening to him and amazed at how good he really was. Funny how that happens...

1960: Connie Francis, "My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own"
So I guess the pop world hadn't yet given in to rock 'n' roll. Pat Boone still ruled the charts, and Connie Francis and Brenda Lee regularly scored hits with their big, big torchy voices. I'd probably already heard Connie's earlier hit "Who's Sorry Now?" and for sure I remember "Where the Boys Are" in 1961 (I even got to see the movie, which was plenty racy for a third-grader to watch). But this song? I have absolutely no memory of it, and I'm really surprised it hit #1.

1961: Bobby Vee, "Take Good Care of My Baby"
What a great, snappy little number! It's like a perfect cocktail of Bobby Darrin bachelor-pad jazz and girl group sass. So I just now looked it up and discovered it was written by -- yes, Carole King and Gerry Goffin. I should have known.
   Bobby Vee was basically a pretty-boy teen idol, his talent managers trying to promote him as an American version of UK teen heart-throbs like Cliff Richard and Adam Faith. (Simon Cowell did NOT invent this game. If you haven't seen the movie Absolute Beginners, you should.)  And a teen idol is only as good as the material his handlers buy for him. Bobby Vee was lucky in this song, although the song of his I was really crazy about came in 1963, "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," which deserves a blog post all its own.
    But I digress. You want to know how lucky Bobby Vee was? He was a highschooler in Fargo, North Dakota, when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper crashed en route to a gig in Moorhead, Minnesota. The desperate managers hired the first musicians they could find to fill the bill . . . and guess who was hanging around with a band of his teenage buddies from Fargo? You betcha. And the rest is history....

1962:  The Four Seasons, "Sherry"
In fourth grade, I listened a lot to my transistor radio, which I toted around the house with me, in its chestnut-brown leather carrying case. But in 1962, the local radio stations still -- as this list attests -- -played a lot more pop than they did rock 'n' roll; being in Indianapolis, we also got a lot of Motown and R&B, which was itself evolving slowly into full-fledged soul music. So none of us knew how to label this band, when they hit the charts with this song, their first big single. I suppose if I'd lived closer to Philly or the Jersey Shore I'd have been able to identify the doo-wop influence in their harmonies, but they definitely were edging more toward rock than the Bobbys Vee and Rydell.
    I'll confess, though, the main thing my friends and I focused on was that voice -- was that a man singing that high?  (and that whiny?)  We hadn't yet heard Wayne Newton, mind you.  But Frankie Valli's lead singing wasn't your typical falsetto; it was tough and aggressive, all cocky and street-wise. And this brilliant song, written by one of the band's members, Bob Gaudio (more on this to come -- they wrote their own songs), felt fresh and compelling. The melodic leaps, the backbeat rhythms, the cha-cha-cha undertow of seduction ("won't you come out tonight?") -- they hadn't yet gone all Vegas on us. (You wanna hear full-on male diva, listen to their next "girl" song, 1964's "Dawn [Go Away I'm No Good for You]").

    Well, you couldn't not listen.
    Was it the music I was waiting for? Not yet. But getting closer....

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Songs for Our Sad, Sad Times

"Guy Who Doesn't Get It" / Jill Sobule

This is the song that first made a Jill Sobule fan of me. I discovered it late one night a decade or so ago, surfing iTunes user playlists (back before iTunes decided they would eliminate the personal interface to instead monetize everything to feed the iTunes Store).  Talk about AHA moments.

I'm way far down the Jill fangirl road by now -- but sometimes it's good just to remember how you got there. And given this past week's events, this snarky little track from Pink Pearl (2000) seems all too relevant.

The cruel irony here is not that the girl singing the song is suicidally depressed -- although she is -- it's that her obtuse boyfriend hasn't got a clue. "Can't you see that I am dying inside?", she starts singing, in that sweet-and-innocent voice, even before the listless acoustic guitar and bored-sounding drums lurch in -- "Can't you hear my muffled cry?" On the second verse, a lazy slide guitar joins in as she wearily elaborates: "Don't you know my life's a quiet hell? / I'm a black hole, I'm an empty shell / Does it occur to you that I might need help?/ You're the guy who doesn't get it."

Okay, that's the premise; we've all known/dated/married men like this, and we're smiling in recognition and shaking our heads. But then, what if the guy isn't her crush/partner/husband? What if he's just a guy she ran into at a "gathering" at a friend's house?

What if that happened years ago? And what if he has completely forgotten about it? (Not even worth jotting down on his weirdly detailed monthly calendar....)

And what if, no matter how little he noticed, it's the night she could NEVER forget, the night that radically wrenched her soul and her psyche into a critically different dimension? That changed her life?

Oh, there's more -- there's her bleeding on the new tile floor (God, how I love that detail, like Mary Tyler Moore going on about having to regrout the bathroom in the film Ordinary People), there's her huffing the car exhaust, there's her zoning out on Nembutol -- Jill being Jill, she gives us a royal flush of scenarios. All of which add up to the same downer conclusion.

So here I am, watching these dueling testimonies, and remembering how it felt to be violated that morning years ago, and how hard it was to stand up in court, terrified, and tell my truth. And I'm just saying, Christine Blasey Ford is my hero.

And anybody who doesn't get that, in my opinion, hasn't got a voice in this debate.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Walking After Midnight" / Patsy Cline

Working late, I often take my dog for a walk in the wee hours. So this gorgeously haunting track, written by Donn Hecht and Alan Black, often pops into my late-night soundtrack. I'll walk around the Upper West Side of NYC crooning this 1957 hit that catapulted my girl Patsy into country-music stardom.

Like a lot of Patsy's stuff, this is all about the heartache of lost love.  The loping country arrangement, the plangent narrative -- as she strolls around town lamenting a failed relationship -- it's doomed but oh so yearning. "I go out walkin' after midnight / Out in the moonlight / Just like we used to do, I'm always walkin' / After midnight, searchin' for you." There's a surprisingly sophisticated melodic thing going on here, the cresting sound on "walkin'" and "moonlight," and "midnight."

As the song rambles on, details set the restless scene -- the weeping willow, the gloomy skies, the whispering night winds. In the last chorus, she tries to convince herself that this guy may also be strolling around searching for her, but I'm betting even she knows that's just not gonna happen. 
No, it's just Patsy with her supple yearning contralto, working through her lonesome grief. Doesn't matter who the guy is, it's just the being alone that hurts. The beat plods along like her numb footsteps, but the melody skips upwards, twirling on those top notes. And there we are in the night with Patsy, walking aimlessly, brooding, putting that broken heart back together.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

"The Only Living Boy in New York" / Simon & Garfunkel

 Last week of August, New York City. Seems like everyone has decamped to the Hamptons or the Vineyard or the Jersey Shore or the Poconos or who knows where. And here I am, still in town, feeling existential.
And I keep coming back to this album. (See here for my take on the whole album.) Peeling back layers of the onion, still finding more to relish.

But this track -- this track, jeez -- it's here in a nutshell. The absent friends ("Tom, get your plane right on time"), the aimlessness ("I get the news I need from the weather report," and this before iPhones), the angst ("half of the time we're gone, and we don't know where, and we don't know where"), and the valiant hope ("let your honesty shine, shine, shine now"). A slacker anthem, released way back in 1970 before we'd even coined the term slacker.

This track is all Simon; Garfunkel's gone off to Mexico. Feeling abandoned, yeah, but also . . . that undertow of percussion and gospel choir . . . what if maybe, just maybe, being left alone in New York is a good thing?

Hunkering down, testing the waters. Stretching the wings. Girding up for a new chapter.

Oh yeah.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Summer, y'All!

"Dance This Mess Around" / The B-52s

I don't care what astronomers says -- summer begins Memorial Day weekend. (Or as I have always thought of it -- being from Indianapolis -- Race Weekend.)  The thermometer has found its groove in the 80s and 90s, and if there's rain, it's a thunderstorm. Fireflies begin to haunt the shrubbery at dusk, and mosquitoes sharpen their whine to a sonic sneer. Granted, school isn't out yet, but honestly, it should be. (Am I right, kids?)

Summer means parties -- dance parties if you got 'em. And who is my all-time favorite dance party band?

Every lick of this song is purtnear darn perfect. No onanistic instrumental solos, just clockwork guitar and drums with occasional hysterical cries of electric organ. It's all about the beat, and the improv comedy of those three lead singers, riffing off each other, all non sequiturs and cryptic catch phrases. Like, "Why don't you dance with me? I'm not no Limberger!"  (Originally I heard this as "limber girl," which also makes sense if you squinch your mind just so...).

Then there's Fred Schneider proclaiming, "They do all sixteen dances!!!" Well, I only count nine, and some of those are dances I know I've never heard of (maybe they were big in Athens, Georgia, where the B-52s got their start, but even so -- you tell me, have you ever danced the Camel Walk, the Hypocrite, or the Aqua Velva?) I could fake it, but still.

And as things whip to a delirious height, they fill in with vintage dance hit nonsense, "Hibby hibby forward hibby forward hibby hibby hibby shake." But let's not overlook the tightness of this band, with their razor-sharp attention to the cresting drama of the track.

And who doesn't think this five or six times a week?: 
Kate (or is it Cindy? They switched wigs so often, I never knew which was which): "Hey, doesn't that make you feel a whole lot better?"
Fred and Cindy (or is it Kate?) reply, "What you say?"
Kate (or Cindy), "I'm just ask-ing!"

A mantra for summer. Personally, it makes me feel a whole lot better . . . if you're asking.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Moonbeam Song" / Harry Nilsson

In honor of the royal wedding (because of course) . . . well, I don't have much to say about the royal wedding. Prince Harry is cute and all, but I have my own Prince Harry.

I realize I've been very selfish about sharing him with you, though. In the past two or three years, Harry Nilsson has vaulted into my Top Ten Music Guys of all time, and yet -- compared to Ray Davies and Graham Parker and Elvis Costello and (bestill my heart) Nick Lowe -- I have hardly ever written about him on this blog.

So making up for lost's a particular beauty from Harry's 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson. (How could you NOT love an artist who comes up with a title like that?) With its upward-dancing melodic lines, slouchy tempo, and free-association lyrics, it's a total charmer. This song has no purpose in life but to be lovely -- and boy, is it.


1. God gave Harry Nilsson this voice. Razor-true pitch, mellow timbre, vast register (three and a half octaves -- crazy huge) -- he had it from the get-go. Note how in this song he keeps switching the keys upward, over and again, knowing that he could morph into endlessly higher keys. He could scat like nobody's business, he had melisma that would put Mariah Carey to shame. He had no training, and he abused his instrument like hell (no one, and I mean NO ONE, could party like Harry Nilsson in his prime).  But that voice, that voice -- the angels were watching over him.

2. In 1963, Little Richard remarked upon hearing a Nilsson demo track, "My! You sing good for a white boy."

3. Harry Nilsson almost never performed live. The first time he did, he had such miserable stage fright, he hardly ever did it again. His entire legacy is based on recorded work. Even when he had a hit ("Everybody's Talkin' At Me," "Without You," "Me and My Arrow") he'd never go on tour to promote it. That's why he never had bigger hits.

4. On his 1967 Pandemonium Slide Show album, Harry's cover of the Beatles' "You Can't Do That" snuck in references to so many other Beatles songs (listen to the track and try to count them all), the Fab Four themselves sat up and took notice.

5. Beatles roadie/manager Mal Evans arranged for Harry to fly to London and meet with all of them individually. (Read Alyn Shipton's 2013 bio Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter for the details, but basically, Paul felt threatened, John shrewdly co-opted him, George could care less, and Ringo became one of Harry's greatest party pals of all time.)

6. Harry's other party pals were Keith Moon of the Who and Micky Dolenz of the Monkees. (Drummers are the most fun.) What I wouldn't give to have been a fly on the wall of those famously debauched evenings . . . .

7. London-loving Nilsson bought a flat on Curzon Place which he lent to other musicians when he wasn't in town. Both Jimi Hendrix and Mama Cass died there. Talk about a curse.

8. 1973, at the Troubador in West LA, Harry and John Lennon were thrown out for heckling the Smothers Brothers. Infamously, John -- who was in the middle of his year banished from Yoko -- wore a Kotex taped to his head to cover a cut. It's a detail you can't forget.

9. After John Lennon's death in 1980, Harry Nilsson became a tireless campaigner for gun control laws.

10. He died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 52. Too soon, too soon.

I heartily recommend the 2006 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) and the 2008 compilation For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson. Go do your homework, people.

Harry, we hardly knew ye. Peace on you.

Friday, May 18, 2018

"Smalltown Boy" / Bronski Beat

In my 1980s music burrow, I never discovered this song, never knew it existed. Way too disco-ey, way too drum-track auto play for my tastes, and so idiosyncratically British that, living by then in New York, I quite possibly never heard it at the time. (On the other hand, if Culture Club made it across the ocean....)

I can't even remember how it eventually swam into my consciousness a couple years ago. But it is now an indispensible part of my road trip playlist. This is the song I save up for the end of a long highway drive -- and when that synth intro kicks in, I can't help it, I always giggle like mad.

Just look at this video, and try to reconstruct how bold it must have felt back in 1984 (the Orwellian echoes of that date seem all too appropriate). That's lead singer Jimmy Somerville, he of the to-die-for falsetto, playing the starring role. He and his co-founder, keyboardist Steve Bronski were both Glasgow lads, back when Glasgow was all gritty and grayness, before it rediscovered its Rennie Mackintosh cool. Imagine being a gay boy growing up there. No wonder getting out of town seemed like their only option.  
What grabs me about most this track is, strangely enough, the very synth-laden over-produced sound that made me hate most music of the 1980s. Why does it work in this song when it repels me in so many others?
It's all circular hooks and refrains, repeated in a sort of minor-key trance. It's heavy on the reverb (I picture cold deserted concrete underpasses), though every once in awhile a shrill wail of despair erupts -- only to be beaten back down to the trudging mono-beat and those see-saw two-note phrases, "Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away." Running away is a knee-jerk reflex, a survival tool, and I'm feeling boxed in myself, claustrophobic and paranoid and -- oh, wait, is THAT what it feels like?
"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case /  Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face" -- it's damn haunting. It's an anthem for outcasts and misfits of all stripes, gay and otherwise. He's crossing a sort of Rubicon; who knows if he'll ever come back. My bets are he won't.
And yeah, the song goes on for 5 minutes, which is longer than a song should be. But somewhere in there I get hypnotized by the repetitions, by that insistent rhythm track, and lose my moorings. I'm numbed, I'm panicking, I'm fighting for air.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Clowntime Is Over" / Elvis Costello
It's over! No, wait -- is it over?

Like a lot of Elvis Costello songs, this is one I don't entirely understand. Then again, riddling out cryptic lyrics has always been one of the deep, deep pleasures of being an Elvis Costello fan. So let's take a ride with this track from 1980's Get Happy, which just may be my favorite EC album of all time.

Oh, you remember Get Happy -- Elvis' homage to Stax and Philly soul, a mea culpa of sorts for his infamous drunken 1979 racist rant about Ray Charles and James Brown (overnight, Costello's records vanished from radio playlists across the USA -- shades of John Lennon saying the Beatles were bigger than Jesus Christ). For the record, I never believed Elvis meant those remarks; we all say stupid things when we're drunk. But if it inspired him to make Get Happy, then I'm glad.

The liner notes claim that "Clowntime Is Over" was meant as a Curtis Mayfield tribute, which baffles me a bit -- could any song sound less like "Superfly"? -- but I'll take your word for it, Elvis.

Soul tribute it may be*, but Get Happy is still steeped in the paranoia that supercharged EC's previous LP, the dark and bristling Armed Forces. Every song on Get Happy is suffused with suspicion of other people -- lovers, leaders, friends, society in general -- yeah, the tempos are bright and brisk, but underneath it's a haunted and mistrustful album. (I mean, c'mon, Get Happy -- was there ever a more ironic title? As if "happy" was ever what we wanted from Elvis Costello.)

Criminal intent lurks in the very first lines of "Clowntime"-- "Tears on your blackmail / Written to ransom" -- and the refrain, jaunty as it sounds, ominously reminds us, over and over, "While others just talk and talk / Somebody's watching where the others don't walk". Big Brother is with us indeed, and just in case you were in doubt, here come Steve Nieve's circus-like organ fills, merry at first, then darkening into minor key. (Forget Curtis Mayfield -- the echo I hear here is Smoky Robinson's "Tears of a Clown.")

Listen to that rueful descending melodic line -- "Clowntime is over" -- shifting keys uneasily in the follow-up line, "Time to take cover" (um, yeah, well, just in case -- you do know where the nearest shelter is, don't you?)

Elvis and I grew up in the same bomb-spooked post-WWII world, with an innate fear of strongmen. So I too have a visceral reaction to verse two: "A voice in the shadows / Says that his men know / He don't step back as expected / He's otherwise and unprotected." YIKES!

And here's the kicker: "While everybody's hiding under covers / Who's making lover's lane safe again for lovers?"  Does he mean, like, safe safe -- or "Just say no" safe? Is this guy Captain America, or Charles Bronson in Death Wish?

So if Clowntime is over, what are we saying goodbye to -- a sweet balloon-animal-making Bozo type of clown, or an evil Pennywise clown like in Stephen King's It? Or -- even worse -- is it a clown who fooled us all by seeming to be a good guy, until he got just enough power to destroy us?

Sound like anyone you know?

* There are exactly five songs on this album that sound like soul to me: "Secondary Modern," "Ï Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "Five Gears in Reverse," "B Movie," and "Riot Act." All right, maybe "Beaten to the Punch" and "Temptation," only if you had four guys in sequined suits doing synchronized dance moves. But I'm happy to revise that opinion if anyone has a compelling argument otherwise . . .