Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Shadow Sgt. Pepper's

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/6aO6I1ee54Eijz0XzCf0QKMy quest: to put together an entire Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band track list, using only cover versions.  Let's call it my Shadow Sgt. Pepper's.

Now, Sgt. Pepper's isn't just a landmark in pop history, it's a landmark in my personal pop biography. Back when it was released, in the summer of 1967 -- a.k.a. the Summer of Love -- I was a geeky pre-teen in Indianapolis, far from the capitals of cool. I had to depend on my 16-year-old brother to clue me into the secret messages on this baffling new LP.  He owned the record, so I had to wait until he wasn't home to steal it, decoding this treasure box of music in my own pink bedroom with the canopy bed.

For those of us who grew up spinning Sgt. Pepper's on a vinyl turntable, the order of the songs is fixed and immutable. My challenge was not only to find brilliant and creative covers -- NOT mere slavish imitations of the originals -- but also to get a sequence that would flow as well as the original album did.

Here's what I came up with, loaded into one Spotify playlist. Face it, I'm still that geeky pre-teen, obsessed with Sgt. Pepper's.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"
Cover by Jimi Hendrix
At first I resisted -- I am no Jimi Hendrix fan.  I just don't get it. Great guitarist, okay, but he rarely delivers what I want out of a rock song. Nevertheless, his whacked-out version of this opening track -- which I've read he was performing already in Stockholm 2 days after the LP was released -- puts a loose and goofy and utterly delicious spin on the original. He opens the throttle and lets its rock soul really soar, adding a little loungy soul-man stuff of his own.

"With a Little Help From My Friends"
Cover by Johnny Chauvin and the Mojo Band
I love the old-timey music-hall shuffle of the original, supremely perfect for Ringo Starr's limited voice. So what's an American equivalent of the British music hall sound? How about a little uptempo Cajun zydeco from this bar band out of Lafayette, Louisiana?  Chauvin's voice is infinitely better than Ringo's; he doesn't sound quite so hapless, but he sure does seem to enjoy the help of his band buddies. Lots of squeezebox going on, but some lively electric guitar, too. This song just makes me feel happy.

"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"
Cover by Beth Hart and the Ocean of Soul 

Everyone knows this track as a psychedelic milestone -- but what if you made it a wild soul-blues anthem? As my West Coast girl Beth Hart does, with flagrant abandon. I've been a fan of hers since a random Sirius radio showcase seven years ago -- dive deep into this track,  sister!

"Getting Better"
Cover by Gomez
From their 2000 compilation Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, this cover from the English indie band Gomez finds a mellow vibe within this anxious track. Rhythms swing; the rumpled texture of the singer's voice -- think of it as bed-head vocals -- convey a sort of let's-do-brunch weekend zen. (Gomez fans, please help me out -- which guy is this singing?  I looooove his voice.) As Paul sang it, his new love was just beginning to make his life better; Gomez is practically dizzy with uxorious contentment.  Funny how little it takes to change a song.

"Fixing a Hole"
Cover by the Wood Brothers
As I was just saying the other day....

"She's Leaving Home"
Cover by Harry Nilsson
Lord, I loves me some Harry Nilsson. How delighted was I to find this song, on his 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show, released the same year as Sgt. Pepper. Like Hendrix, Nilsson was covering this song while it was still new, before it had been ossified by years of familiarity. He delves deep, discovering bittersweet depths within it that to my mind outdo Paul's earnest rendition. I think of Harry Nilsson as one of our greatest interpreters of abandonment -- forever missing the father who walked out on him -- yet his sweetly yearning vocals always adding consoling heart to a song. He throws in an orchestra, he adds some weird percussion sound effects, he goes movie-music with this generation-gap melodrama -- and somehow it works. The haunting social commentary becomes a tender universal statement of loss and change. John's snide line "Fun is the one thing that money can't buy"? It's downright plangent when Harry sings it. I imagine John and Paul listening to this album in 1967 and thinking, "Wow -- we wrote that song?" That's my measure of their genius -- that their songs contain more than they ever consciously realized.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"
Cover by Will Taylor and Strings Attached

"Mr. Kite" is such a freak-show of a song, it's really hard to top what Lennon did with it without going overboard.  Yet I like how this Austin ensemble pushes the envelope even further. Tons of strings, banjos, blues guitar, the whole works. They switch around tempos, they go deep into the psychedelic effects, and the vocalist (someone named Will Walden?) takes liberties with the melody. Sure, it runs on, but so did the original -- a good song to fall asleep to if you wanted some strange dreams. And dig the little surprise at the end.

"Within You, Without You"
Cover by Big Head Todd & the Monsters

This 90s band out of Colorado dives to the trippy heart of this song. Recorded for a George Harrison tribute album, it adds layers of shimmer and distortion that George Martin would never have imagined, then serves it all up with a blues jam twist. About time somebody put a little unh-hunh to raga rock.

"When I'm Sixty-Four"
Cover by Cowboys on Dope
Now this is a hoot. A German country-rock band tackles this Paul McCartney music-hall chestnut and totally transforms it.  Minor key, for one thing -- how brilliant! The "cowboy" part of their name adds some down-and-dirty twang, but it's the "dope" part -- the gritty woozy undertone -- that makes this so delectable. And why shouldn't boozy losers also be able to imagine knitting by the fireside and renting a cottage by the Isle of Wight?

"Lovely Rita"
Cover by Fats Domino
Okay, so maybe he loses the campy irony of the original.  Still, the King of New Orleans soul is out to score with this lady Rita, and he lays out some considerable charm to do so. Most telling variation from the original: "When are you free to have a drink [NOT TEA] with me?" The loungy tempo, the playful vocals -- it's all good, sugar.

"Good Morning Good Morning"
Cover by Micky Dolenz
 All right, yeah, I was obsessed with the Monkees in the fall of 1966; for a while there, Davy Jones even toppled Paul McCartney from my fangirl list of must-haves. But it was Micky who really made the Monkees work as a rock/pop band, and now I can admit that. This gem from his 2012 solo album Remember kicks Lennon's tortured bio-tune into easy samba mode, and it comes out surprisingly well. I would have thought that this angry, conflicted song could never be dialed back to yoga mode. I was wrong.

"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)"
Cover by the Persuasions
The original reprise offered a distinct contrast to the opening track -- let's go for contrast again. Whereas we had Jimi Hendrix jamming it up for Track 1, let's dial things back to 60s doo-wop with the Persuasions, jacking up the tempo and adding an insouciant wink of fun.

"A Day in the Life"
Cover by John Mark Nelson
Coda or climax? It's never been clear which "A Day in the Life" was meant to be, and let's leave it in glorious ambiguity. This version is from the Minnesota Beatle Project, an intriguing 4-CD series (2009-2012) that celebrates a panoply of Minnesotans tackling Beatles material. A wunderkind from Minnetonka, MN, young John Mark Nelson somehow gets this complex and ambiguous song. He changes up the tempos and alters the textures of the song even more radically than John and Paul, intent on blending their disparate material, ever did. More importantly, Nelson restores to this song the youthful earnestness that we forgot it deserved. (Because really, how old were John and Paul when they wrote this sweeping indictment of mass media?)  His voice trembles with the sorrow that lives down deep in things - what more could this song deserve?

Friday, September 18, 2020

Shadow Rubber Soul

I can't help myself -- Revolver was so much fun, I just had to do another one, and what better than the magnificent Rubber Soul? Think of it as a birthday present to myself, my birthday being October 8th (the day before John Lennon's birthday, as I have been acutely aware since 1964).

Only one hitch:  The LP I bought with my babysitting money in 1966 was significantly different from the LP that was released in the UK in 1965, with various songs siphoned off for Beatles VI . Which tracklist should I follow? I've opted for the British version, because it's longer and just too juicy to resist.  But the song sequence of the platter I spun ad nauseum in my pink bedroom still has a hold on me....

To listen to these alternative tracks, listen to my Spotify playlist here.

Drive My Car
Cover by Bobby McFerrin
How delicious is this? The amazing Mr. McFerrin, creating an entire orchestra with just his own voice, which is perfect for this sprightly jazzy number, a classic escapist Paul track. Don't it just make you want to head out of town? Beep-beep unh beep-beep yah!

Norwegian Wood
Cover by Tim O'Brien
That plangent pennywhistle opening tells you we're going Appalachian with this eternally mystifying tale of the Girl Who Wouldn't Play By the Rules. What a groundbreaker it was back in the day: A chick who was even more elusive than the guys who wanted to make time with her. "She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh" -- a feminist statement if ever there was one. The ever-wonderful Tim O'Brien -- whom first I heard on a "Muswell Hillbillies" cover -- pushes this folk-rock classic into bluegrass territory, stripping away the Swinging London 1960s subtext. Here we are in 2013, and the mating dance is just as confused as ever.

You Won't See Me
Cover by Dennis Brown
Why not go reggae with this number?  The late great Jamaican star Dennis Brown infuses this edgy track with a mellow shrug of "whatever, mon."  When John Lennon sings it, you have the sense that he's lashing out at a girlfriend who doesn't measure up; Brown is just happily checking out. "Time after time / You refuse to even listen" --  that's your trip, sister, but he's already moved on.

Nowhere Man
Cover by Paul Westerberg
As already stated, I love this track to death -- a heartbreaking cover of an already heartbreaking song.

Think For Yourself
Cover by Molly Maher and Her Disbelievers 

From the wonderful Minnesota Beatles Project, this spiky feminist reading throws a little paprika in the face of this "don't fence me in" tune. Having a woman sing it instead of a man makes all the difference. When we heard George sing this in 1965, he was pushing back against all sorts of things -- smothering females, government interference -- but in Molly Maher's hands it's a groovy kick in the head against all the forces that be. Love how she plays with the melody, kicking it up a notch, flicking a corrective note, letting us all know that this girl is here and must be reckoned with. Got that, fellas?   

The Word
Cover by Bettye Lavette
The magnificent Bettye Lavette, reinterpreting Beatles classics as only a chick with some serious cred could do. Did the Beatles even know how funky this song could go? "Word" in 1965 meant some underground code, but let's bust that loose today, y'all. Check out 2:34 in this track -- you think this song is over? Take a deep breath, and oh yes, let's get down to where the word really happens....

Cover by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
I've been a Ben Harper fan for a while now, having been turned on at the Tibet House benefit to #2 in my House of Bens. (Sorry, but Ben Folds grabbed the top spot years ago, but seriously, Ben H you rock the soulful dimension here.) When I was a kid, the sappy David and Jonathan single edged the Beatles original, but I'm open to interpretations, and the reggae-tinged Harper version offers some intriguing alternatives. Who is this Michelle, anyway?

What Goes On
Cover by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Remember these original roots rockers, of "Mr. Bojangles" fame? I love how they take this proto-country number and twang it up. The Beatles always hedged their bets with some country-esque tracks, and the NGDB rises to meet the challenge with an unapologetic twangy rendition of this secondary track.

Cover by Rhett Miller
Now you know I love Rhett Miller, lead singer for the Old 97s, alt.country faves who zoomed straight onto the list of My Guys. I dig the earnestness of his rendition, a perfect counterpoint to John Lennon's ambivalent approach to this girl. Where John sounds on the verge of dumping her, Rhett sounds entranced and intrigued by her mystifying ways. What we lose in the raw pain of Lennon's original, we gain in Miller's willingness to let the girl be her own person. A toss-up, in my book.

I'm Looking Through You
Cover by Ted Leo 

Paul's matching song to John's "Girl," the original of "I'm Looking Through"-- said to be written about his then-girlfriend Jane Asher, whom naturally I hated with a passion --  had a fair bit of snarl to it. But nothing like what Ted Leo brings to it, in this speeded-up, garage-y post-punk cover from 2005. Dial up some cheese-grater rhythm guitar, crashing cymbals, reverb, and hallucinatory feedback -- Paul's song was a gentle slap on the wrist compared to this. This guy is so outta there...

In My Life
Cover by Johnny Cash

John Lennon was 25 when he wrote this song (at least the verses -- McCartney did the middle eight), looking back at his Liverpool childhood. Johnny Cash was in his late sixties when he recorded this stripped-down acoustic cover, and the world-weary tenderness his gruff baritone brings to it proves what a great song it is. And his genius phrasing -- "Some forever . . . not for better" -- that fraught pause after "some are dead" -- this is how the song is sung by someone reflecting at the end of a rich, full, perplexing life. Sad that Lennon never lived long enough to give us a version like this.

Cover by Ben Kweller & Albert Hammond Jr.

My number 3 Ben, after Folds and Harper, but oh, I do love this guy too.  The tentative herky-jerky tempos of this track make you wait for it -- trembling on the interface -- "I know that you will wait for me." It's all about quivering on that junction, poised to go one way or another. Wait, in other words -- the essence of this track.  

If I Needed Someone
Cover by Randy Bachman

Canada is in the house! Randy Bachman -- yes, Winnipeg's own Randy Bachman, of Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive -- gives a slouchy jazz spin to this track on his 2018 tribute album to George Harrison. If the original was inspired by the Byrds and Indian classical music, this one has drunk the Steely Dan kool-aid. Whether or not this was written about Pattie Boyd, George wrapped up ambivalence and wistfulness in one fragile package. Randy Bachman, though? He's just enjoying his groove too much to commit to anything.

Run For Your Life
Cover by the Razorbacks
Let's go down-and-dirty rockabilly for this zinger of a song, which John Lennon years later designated the song he most regretted writing. If I hadn't already been a Paul Girl for Life, "Run For Your Life" would probably have been the final stroke that ruled out John for me. (Because in 1964, all Beatlemanic girls had to pick.) But the Razorbacks (more Canadians!) throw on an ironic redneck twang that somehow redeems this song. He's screeching up in his Pontiac Firebird, layin' down the law -- and there she is in her Daisy Dukes, all wide eyes and innocence -- aw, shucks, girl, you know I didn't mean it!

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Revolver, Redux

A couple of years ago, obsessed by Beatles covers, I put together two playlists: One was the tracklist for the Beatles' album Rubber Soul, except it consists of cover versions of each song; the second was an all-covers version of the Beatles' iconic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

Now I've done another one, this time for the Beatles' stunning 1966 album Revolver. As much of a Beatlemaniac as I was in 1966, I was a little young to figure out what was going on here, although the boys (well, really, Paul) obligingly offered up a few can't-miss hits like "Eleanor Rigby" and "Got to Get You Into My Life" to keep us baby boppers in the fold. But it was all a matter of time before this became one of my favorite LPs of all time. 

As Blogger has recently changed its interface, I'm trying something new: instead of inserting separate videos for each cover song, I've collected them all in a Spotify playlist. (Apologies to those of you who may not use Spotify, but when I look back at those earlier cover track lists, I see that many of the links are now expired or invalid -- we can only deliver the technology we can deliver.) Here's the Spotify link: open.spotify.com/playlist/5FpwM9BaZQdUjJjAQA0r0e. Please do let me know in the comments section if this works for you.

My criteria for including a certain cover is that it has to offer something different from the original without completely losing what made it a great song in the first place. Let's see how these covers deliver.

1. Taxman -- Junior Parker: "Taxman" is about sleaze, and Memphis bluesman Junior Parker accepts the inevitability of sleaze with a laidback funky groove, which strikes me as way more cynical than the insistent pulse of the Beatles' original. Parker died, sadly, of a brain tumor in 1971; this was on one of his last albums, The Outside Man (1970). It's a gem.

2. Eleanor Rigby -- Aretha Franklin: On her 1970 album This Girl's in Love With You, the Queen of Soul took this classic and made it real. As she sings it, Eleanor and Father MacKenzie are just trying to get by -- no string quartets, just funky keyboards and a horn section. Ditch Dickens and bring in James Baldwin. Amen, sister.

3. I'm Only Sleeping -- Roseanne Cash: I love Roseanne Cash; I think her musical taste is extraordinary. From her 1995 Retrospective album, this track adds a plangent note of despair to the original track's druggy checkout. 

4. Love You To -- Jim James: There are very few covers of this track out there, maybe because its hazy psychedelia is too iconic to cover. Nevertheless my dear boy Yim of My Morning Jacket tackles it, and by adding an echo-chambered banjo makes it his own yearning cry for connection.

5. Here, There, and Everywhere -- John Denver: No one did sweet and earnest like the young Paul McCartney, unless maybe it was John Denver, Mr. Rocky Mountain High. On his 1966 debut John Denver Sings, this simple acoustic track never tries to be an anthem, and that's its strength -- it proves that this is just a great song, whomever's singing it. 

6. Yellow Submarine -- Willy Chirino: The Beatles' original based its goofy appeal on British music hall sounds; Cuban-born Willy Chirino takes it full-on rumba and it's even more intoxicating.

7. She Said She Said -- The Black Keys: On their 2002 debut album The Big Come Up, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney layered a dirty blues buzz over Lennon's LSD reverie. It's a little less trippy, a lot less paranoid, and a good deal more determined to take down that artsy girl and her faux insights. Which, on some days, is exactly what you want.

8. Good Day Sunshine -- Roy Redmond: I know just about nothing about Roy Redmond, beyond that his style was Northern Soul, and he released this track in 1967 as a single on Loma Records. But man, listen to this beauty. He takes McCartney's bouncy horn-inflected pop song, slows it waaaaaay down, throws in girl-group backing singers, and adds all sorts of testifying. ("What you say?" "Oh, can't you feel it?"). McCartney's sun shines on village fetes and garden parties; Redmond's invites you to open the fire hydrant and boogie on the fire escapes. 

9. And Your Bird Can Sing -- The Jam: Paul Weller claims Revolver was the primary influence on their 1980 LP Sound Affects, and while this Beatles cover didn't make it onto the final tracklist, it was definitely part of the creative process. They punched up the tempo and added a little more aggro, as befit the punk era. Lennon's original sly ribbing of Mick Jagger becomes more of an FU -- and who's to say that John wouldn't have wanted it that way?

10. For No One -- Emmylou Harris: One of my all-time favorite Beatles tracks. Emmylou's version (from her 1974 album Pieces of the Sky) wins because it effectively flips the script: Suddenly I'm thinking only about how the girl feels. And amazingly, it works just as well this way -- that's the mark of a great song.  

11. Doctor Robert -- Dr. Sin:  A 2005 recording from a Brazilian hard rock band -- and man, this one sizzles. Lots of insistent drums, doubled vocals, and background grunge, cutting away to an almost baroque refrain. If the original was all about satirizing one pill-peddling MD, this track slings a lot more mud.

12. I Want to Tell You -- Ted Nugent: I disagree with just about everything Ted Nugent says, thinks, believes, and stands for. I looked so hard to find another cover of this song that was anywhere as good as this. But what the hell -- let me be the open-minded, tolerant person I wish we all could be. This track from Nugent's 1978 album State of Shock pumps some very vital oxygen into this track, and let us give props where props are due. 

13. Got to Get You Into My Life -- Earth Wind and Fire: Released in 1978, this horn-inflected funk version takes the Beatles track out of British music hall and into a greater reality. Which only proves what a durable standard Macca's track could be.

14. Tomorrow Never Knows: Nação Zumbi: Another dynamite Brazilian band laid down this track in 2017, adding many layers of aural fuzz to the trippy original. Can you dig it? 

Please let me know if the Spotify model works for you -- and if these covers ring your chimes. The Beatles were not only great performers, they were extraordinary songwriters, and IMO their legacy is only enhanced when other artists turn out dynamite versions of their best tracks. Let's discuss...  

Friday, July 10, 2020

"Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)" / Elvis Costello

In these pandemic days, I find it easy to fall into an apocalyptic frame of mind. What if all those dystopian sci-fi movies about alien invasions are simply coming true, and the coronavirus is just a very special sort of alien? What if this was the plan all along: That we'd populate the world with suitable hosts, only to make ready for the Second Coming of the Microscopic Invaders?

In 1991, Elvis Costello proved eerily prescient in this track from the album Mighty Like a Rose, with a machine-gun patter of half-explained references and darkly insinuating imagery.

 It's paranoid as hell -- "The man in the corner of this picture has a sinister purpose" -- with  an insistent drum beat, minor key, and cacophonous background instrumentation. The focus is squarely on the observer: "Wake up zombie, write yourself another book," exhorting him/her/you/me "You want to scream and shout my little flaxen lout" ("waxen lout"/ "Saxon lout" in successive verses). And always that urgent refrain: "Hurry down Doomsday, the bugs are taking over."

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

It's About Time

"Time Has Come Today" / The Chambers Brothers

Quick -- what day is today? (Day of the week, date of the month, whatever.) And how many days has it been since you last talked in person to anyone who isn't in your quarantine home pod? When did you last go to the grocery store? How long since you did laundry? How long since your last haircut (or coloring)? Was the meal you're currently digesting lunch or dinner, or a post-lunch/pre-dinner snack? Has it been 14 days (our coronavirus benchmark) since that last risky foray into unprotected society? Exactly how many weeks/months have you been in lockdown?

In this weird new reality, we operate in an elastic limbo of time -- days blend together, weeks disappear. Yet at the same time we hover over a relentless 24-hour news cycle. How have the Covid-19 numbers changed overnight? Which state is now the hotspot? What new outrageous thing has our Kleptocrat in Chief said or done? What has the Supreme Court weighed in on? What new hero has raised his/her voice? What new victim has been shot in cold blood? Which of our cultural icons has died today? (Me, I'm still grieving Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, but you could as easily be verklempt about John Prine, Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, or any of many others.)

Pandemic Time. We joke about it on Facebook, but it's a real phenomenon. 

To comfort myself, I'm re-reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain -- hardly escapist reading, but perfect for right now. It's about tuberculosis patients quarantined in a clinic in the Alps on the eve of World War I. Day after day passes monotonously and yet swiftly; holidays succeed each other in surprising speed. And yet the patients are always marking time, with daily temperature charts (check our 14-day quarantine record-keeping) and the doctors' diagnoses/sentences of six months or ten months until they are cured.

With time on my mind, I offer you this 1968 track from the Chambers Brothers, Mississippi gospel singer brothers who, in the spirit of the 60s, ventured into folk and then psychedelia (perfect for these mind-altering times.) It's particularly fine late-night listening.

Hark ye to that timekeeper drummer (live, human, no drum machines here), the way he drives the track, alternately slowing down, speeding up, tick-tocking, vibrating, smashing down. Pick up, too, on the ominous special effects -- the cuckoo clock, the satellite-like guitar twiddles, the screams of the tormented, the cruel laughs of the tormentors. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

From the echo-chambered background vocals, to the Hendrix-like half-sung testifying of the verses, there's an edge of spookiness, a sense of history trembling in the balance. Social commentary creeps in ("The rules have changed today / I have no place to stay / I'm thinking about the subway"), but in the spirit of the 60s, it was all cool. "I've been crushed by a tumbling tide / And my soul's been psychedelicized." Open your mind to the possibilities, man.
It's mesmerizing without being boring; instrumental solos cascade and build, always heading somewhere. I'm on the edge of my seat, riding the drummer's tempo changes, waiting for the singer to step back in and take charge. And when he does, it's with a chuckle and a smile. He's navigating the changes, finding some kind of grace in the midst of apocalypse. Setting an example of how to surf time.

And in these days, when I'm feeling lost in time, sinking into this music track somehow lifts my soul. I hope it does the same for you.

Stay safe and be well....

Friday, April 10, 2020

"Everything Will Be Just Fine" / Greg Trooper

I don't know about you, but my coronavirus playlist started out angry and apocalyptic. Yet now, in Week Umptyleven of Lockdown, I'd much rather hear something calming, tender, and upbeat. Like this little gem that dialed up today on my shuffle, by the late great Greg Trooper:

It's from his 2010 album Upside-Down Town, one of his richest collections of songs about how to live the sort of life most of us do live. Greg -- who tragically died of pancreatic cancer in January 2017 -- was never the star he deserved to be; his songs had been covered by everywhere from Steve Earle to Vince Gill to Billy Bragg, but he was still a gigging musician, working house parties and small venues. I like this video because it gives you a flavor of Greg's stage act -- intimate and endearing.

I got to know Greg a little in the last years of his life, when he'd moved back to New York City (he was born in New Jersey), and he was just like his songs -- funny, smart as hell, self-deprecating, and deeply empathetic. Like the wonderful John Prine, whose recent death I'm still mourning, Troop was puzzled by the human condition, and working song by song to figure it out. Greg Trooper was a storyteller, and every one of his songs is a poignant little novel, often with an anti-hero we can totally relate to.

Like this one. The narrator of this song has had a few knocks (dig that verse about driving past the brick house he built where "somebody else is raising my kids inside") -- but he's not bitter, just lonely. We don't get a lot of the details, but then, this kind of guy doesn't dwell on details, just on his gut reaction. He's living day to day, head down, slogging through.

I can relate to that.

Things are tough, but he knows that what would make it better would be some human connection. "I'd settle for coffee and a hand to shake / Conversation 'bout the coffee cake" -- is that too much to ask?

And in these times of self-isolation, isn't the human connection what we most crave?  "But I'd settle for a smile from one lonely frown / And oh my goodness, everything would be just fine." And Greg's warm, comforting vocals are benediction enough.

May you all get that comfort wherever you can find it. We're in this together, and the more we can reach out -- whatever form that takes -- the better we'll be on the other side.

Stay well and take care

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Life During Wartime" / The Talking Heads

Are we having fun yet?

The other day in a grocery store, frantically trying to assemble a pantry of shelf-stable food for riding out whatever self-quarantine might be in the offing, I scooped three jars of peanut butter into my cart -- and I heard in the back of my mind, "I got some groceries / Some peanut butter / To last a couple of days." In these troubling times, I'm in no mood for either dirges or upbeat diversions -- but a little apocalyptic swamp funk is just the ticket. 
In 1979, I'd been a Talking Heads fan for a couple of years already, entranced by the spare art-school weirdness of their first two albums. The sound of Fear of Music, however, was a shock: a funky poly-rhythmic base overlaid with chanting call-and-response vocals, horns and percussion layering on levels of cacophony. On first listen, I was baffled. By the third or fourth listen, though, I was enraptured by it, and now it just might be my favorite Talking Heads album. (Note to kids streaming music: You can't always "get it" on the first listen.)
And from the first, this track stood out. David Byrne, the Talking Head's front man, said it was "inspired by living in Alphabet City" (the then-grubby, shell-shocked Lower East Side), and as a newly arrived New Yorker, I knew those scruffy clubs he name-checked ("This ain't no Mudd Club / Or CBGBs"). But beyond that, the song's undertow of domestic terrorism had to resonate with any of us who'd grown up in the turmoil of the late 60s and 70s: civil rights protests, antiwar riots, ugly waves of urban violence. The bleak dystopia of this song made perfect sense, as we howled that indelible refrain: "This ain't no party / This ain't no disco / This ain't no fooling around!"

Indeed, indeed.

Listening to it now, in these haunted pandemic days, it seems weirdly prophetic. It's a survivalist's bible ("Heard of a van / That's loaded with weapons / Packed up and ready to go") for a time where communications are breaking down ("Transmit the message / to the receiver / Hope for an answer") and paranoia runs rampant ("I got three passports / a couple of visas, / You don't even know my real name"). And for those of us who can't wean ourselves from the nightly news or Facebook, the drumbeat of crisis keeps us all too well informed of the disease's spread ("Heard about Houston? / Heard about Detroit? / Heard about Pittsburgh, P. A.?").

With all this disaster looming, what's the point in making any effort, in laying any plans? "Why stay in college? Why go to night school?" he asks, and even though I have those degrees already in hand, I'm pretty sure they mean nothing now. (A year later, the American Dream would be further eviscerated in the Talking Heads' song "Once in a Lifetime".) No, the enemy is among us and we are it. "We dress like students, / we dress like housewives, / Or in a suit and a tie / I changed my hairstyle, so many times now, / I don't know what I look like!" (That last line does make me laugh now, thinking of all the women in lockdown who will finally discover how gray their hair really is under all those years of salon color.)

"Burned all my notebooks, / what good are notebooks? / They won't help me survive," Byrne sings, riding the crest of that relentless yet hypnotic rhythm track. "My chest is aching, / Burns like a furnace, / The burning keeps me alive..."

 Yes, yes, and yes. Stay well, friends.