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Songs of the Day – Archive

Songs of the Day

The following is a collection of short essays I wrote for my own entertainment under the general rubric of “Songs of the Day”, which began as an effort to expose my young administrative assistant to music made before her time, and which, eventually, I started sending to a small circle of friends.  More to come in the blog posts, I suspect.

An Unorganized Selection

 Nick Drake: Northern Sky

Nick Drake has one of the saddest stories in modern popular music.  He was like a man out of place and time, a child of relative privilege raised in the former English colonial possession of Burma, a student at Cambridge, and a songwriter of almost supernatural abilities. He began recording around 1969, released only three albums, the last in 1972, and was dead of an apparent suicide by 1974.  In his lifetime he sold virtually no records, was appreciated by virtually no one, and grew to believe himself an abject failure.

Something odd happened in the early 1990s.  An advertisement for a VW convertible appeared, which in its full version ran for about a minute to the accompaniment of one of Drake’s signature songs, Pink Moon.  The commercial is magical – it depicts a group of friends riding together down a lonely highway on a moonlit night, looking up at the stars, finally to arrive at a sort of frat party.  They take one look at the goings-on, back out of the driveway, and keep on driving, the brilliant stars of the constellation Orion hovering overhead.  The VW itself is barely shown, it’s filmed from the interior, as if it’s a cocoon within which they can enjoy the night, and each other.

Just about everybody who saw that ad, me included, immediately thought “what is that song? Who’s it by?”  Pink Moon is a timeless acoustic piece that might serve as a sort of litmus test – any listener who fails to find it immediately compelling probably has no ear for music.

The result was a minor sensation, and Drake’s records began to sell in respectable numbers, and continue to do so. He is pretty much universally revered these days for his craft, sensitivity, and expert guitar playing, and all sorts of modern writers cite him as an influence and inspiration. If only he’d known this day would come.

A review of his work in the Rolling Stone Record guide says it all: “He was so tall, and young, and beautiful, and he’s so damned dead, that he’d be a cult figure even if he wasn’t a genius, which he was”. If you haven’t heard him yet, Northern Sky, another of his deeply affecting ballads, should close the deal for you – it’s as close as this very sad young man ever got to a happy love song, infused with a sense of wonder, and so beautiful that, as one reviewer wrote, “it makes you ashamed of the ugliness of the real world”:

 I never felt magic crazy as this

I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea

I never held emotion in the palm of my hand

Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree

But now you’re here

Bright in my northern sky.

Buffalo Springfield – On the Way Home

Buffalo Springfield is described in the Rolling Stone Record Guide as “potentially an American Beatles”, but they broke up after only a couple of years.  This is one of Neil Young’s early landmark compositions, and somehow it doesn’t sound like a Neil Young song at all (perhaps because it’s sung by band mate Richie Furay).  When we old geezers get all wistful about the Sixties, it’s because you could turn on an AM radio and hear this sort of song.

The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Kinks are best known as the inventors of power chord rock, with songs like You Really Got Me, but there was much more than that to ace songwriter Ray Davies.  This is him at his most reflective and melodic.  The “Terry and Julie” who feature as characters have always been said to be English actors Terrance Stamp and Julie Christie, who were then an “it” couple in Swinging London, and Ray confirmed that in a recent Rolling Stone interview.  Timeless, yet purely evocative of a special time and place.  Waterloo Sunset might properly be called an elegy.

For added bonus is this extra Ray Davies composition, Oklahoma USA, one of my candidates for saddest song of the century; “if life is for living, what’s living for?” asks Ray.  As one critic wrote of Eleanor Rigby, some questions aren’t rhetorical – they’re just unanswerable.

Fountains of Wayne:  Troubled Times

(Fountains of Wayne named themselves after a retail outlet for lawn and garden water effects that I think still exists in New Jersey.  I remember it showing up in an episode of The Sopranos.)

Clever, melodic, lyrically sophisticated pop is not dead, not quite yet.  It’s just gone into hiding.  This is a lovely piece about breaking up with a girl and then realizing you’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake; the narrator imagines hopefully of a time to come, maybe one day soon, when they’re back together and both remembering, from the perspective of that happy future, how they made it through the rocky bits to fall back in love.  I particularly love the middle eight, as he worries about how to even approach her again, and how meanwhile, time is passing too fast.

And it takes a lot of nerve

to ask how she is doin’

Start from a weak foundation

you will end in ruin

The way the days and hours pass

you’ll never understand

Flowing like rain

through your hands

Time was, a song like this would have been a massive hit.

Liz Phair:  Perfect World

A rare example, so I contend, of a formally perfect song that wastes not a single note in getting to the point, and ends gracefully before you’ve had enough. The narrator wishes she had the shallow qualities apparently necessary for a woman to succeed and attract the opposite sex; with great sadness and not a little bitterness she feels, just now, that she’d rather be pretty than smart, that she’d rather learn to keep her mouth shut than speak her mind all the time.  As if life really does imitate art, the photos added by whoever posted the tune are from a later period, when her record company was trying to turn her from a thinking person’s songwriter into a sex symbol.  Liz is beautiful, but that’s hardly the point.

Accelerating a Bit…

Next, we take a break from melancholy masterpieces, and rock out a bit.

Sandbox: Curious

 From a purely musicological standpoint I guess there’s nothing all that extraordinary about this one, but it just lopes along so infectiously, and anyway it’s by a band from my own Nova Scotia.  Plus, how to resist a song with the lyric he said seek and ye shall find, yes, but I never found.

The Watchmen:  All Uncovered

Another Canadian band, and this one grabs me in the first 10 seconds. Quite moody and powerful.  And, it has the virtue of knowing how to end.

Jesus Jones: Right Here, Right Now

 This one gets special merit points for being about something real and important – an exultant rock anthem celebrating the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  Watching the world wake up from history.  This one also knows how to come to a tidy musical conclusion.

Easter, 2016, Sort of

Here are some Easter songs, except…they have nada to do with Easter.

The Skydiggers: The Truth About Us

Below is a live clip from a CTV morning show that used to be called “Canada AM”.  I was just doing up my tie before trudging down to King and Bay for another day as a summer student at Torys, the TV on at about 7:30 in the morning in July or August of 1991, and almost subconsciously, I started hearing words that had very powerful associations – it stopped me dead in my tracks.  What?  In a popular song? It’s a very good piece of song writing, but it’s also an oblique history lesson – every line has meaning, you could use it as a teaching aid, yet there’s nothing boring and preachy about it, nothing false.

Maybe you have to be of a certain age, and to have been a student of modern American history to boot, for this one to really grab you.  For a kid growing up in the immediate reverberation of the event, pink pillbox hats, something bought from an Italian mail-order outfit, the name Marina, exhumations, and something buried deep in the leg of someone named Connelly have enormous resonance.  Then there’s a ship being turned back from American shores, leaving its passengers to their fate in the death camps; the first colonists starting out hoping for more than shoot-outs at the O.K. Corral; chairs being busted over somebody’s nose; Manifest Destiny; Camelot; all of it.  Wrapping all of that into five scant minutes of song is, truly, something of an intellectual tour de force.  I’ve always found it amazing that it took a Canadian band to write the most perceptive and trenchant critique of American culture in the annals of popular music, and quite possibly political science, which I studied for five years without hearing anything more perceptive than this.

This is the very performance I saw that morning 23 years ago.

The Tragically Hip; Nautical Disaster

Next up is another one by a Canadian band that knows far more about history than any group of (then) young rockers should.  You might be familiar with it – it seems quite recent to me, and I’m kind of horrified that it is now about 20 years old.  It’s about something that happened in 1940, and there’s no reason for you to have ever heard of the event, nor any way for you to find out, since if you look it up you’ll find people (including, amazingly, band member Gord Downie himself) saying it’s about the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck.  Yet it simply can’t be, the facts don’t fit, and more than that, the facts do fit perfectly a disaster that indeed happened just off the coast of France within sight of shore (Bismarck was well out to sea when sunk), and the lighthouse at St. Nazaire, in which just about exactly 4,000 men (about twice the crew of any battleship) drowned at a stroke.  This was the sinking of RMS Lancastria, a singular tragedy amidst the general withdrawal of British forces from France in the teeth of the Nazi onslaught.  You can read about it here:

Really, what else could these lyrics be about?

I had this dream

where I relished the fray

and the screaming

filled my head all day.

It was as though

I’d been spit here,

settled in, into the pocket

of a lighthouse

on some rocky socket,

off the coast of France, dear.

One afternoon, four thousand men

died in the water here

and five hundred more were

thrashing madly

as parasites might

in your blood

This group has other songs similarly evocative of World War II, like Scared, with its imagery of damaged destroyers limping into the bay, and 50 Mission Cap, ostensibly about the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, which repeats a phrase that evokes a cherished rite of passage for U.S. combat pilots – when their cap became so grizzled, stained and crumpled that it was said to have a “50 mission crush” to it, the mark of a wily veteran.

Since the very first time I heard this song, thoughts of lifeboats designed for 10 men, and 10 only, and paddling away from drowning comrades to the sound of fingernails scratching on the hull, have never lost their capacity to haunt.

Telling Stories

Cry Cry Cry – Cold Missouri Waters

You must be saturated by now, but if you’re having fun, heck, here’s another one, with a personal story attached.

Back in the summer of 1993, in that last glorious vacation that came between articles and first year, I, my brother, and our wives travelled together to Cape Breton, which was then enjoying glorious weather.  One of those happy memories, you know?  We were on a drive down the Margaree Valley (cue the homesick blubbering), I was in the back seat, CBC radio was on, and through the road noise I could just make out a song, and as the verses ticked over I got more and more fascinated with it.  It was part country, part folk (in that, like real folk music it told a story), and steeped in emotional devastation.  It was the story of a fire fighter, whose team was trying to put out a blaze in the woods of North Montana, under conditions that grew increasingly desperate.  It all goes horribly wrong – the wind shifts, the fire starts moving fast, there just isn’t time or space in which to out-run it, and they’re doomed.  Except – except the narrator deploys some trick, some technique, to save himself (what?  I couldn’t make it out), and begs his men to do the same, but they panic, run, and die, all but one of them.  Our heartbroken narrator arises to find himself and his one remaining man all by themselves, and spends the next day carrying the bodies of the others to the river, where they now lie buried.

I was beside myself when it ended, and they transitioned straight to the news without saying what the song was!  AAAGH!  I did my best to commit its melody to memory – God knew I was never, ever going to forget its story – and often, over the years, would play it in my head, hoping some day to trip over it again.  About 20 years passed.  Then one Saturday I was sitting at this very computer and it occurred to me that I find stuff like this for a living, right?  We now have an internet!  You craft the search terms, hone the results, and get to the nuggets, I do it every day for law stuff, why not this?  Forehead slap!  It took about three minutes for me to find the song.

It’s called Cold Missouri Waters, and it’s about a real fire, and real tragedy, involving a group of “smoke jumpers”, firemen who were parachuted right on top of forest fires as quick response teams.  Their leader, a man named Dodge, really did have a freak moment of inspiration as the fire rushed toward them all – he set his own fire in the tall grass around himself, which started to chew outward, using up the combustible material and forming a sort of fire break.  It saved him.  For whatever reason, he couldn’t convince his team to join him in the safety zone, and they did indeed perish; then, just a few years later, poor Dodge himself died of some sort of cancer. The song is from his perspective on his death bed.

It turns out it’s been covered several times.  The attached, recorded many years after the version I heard in the back seat, is my favourite:

Randy Newman – Louisiana, 1927

In 1927 a horrible flood of the Mississippi, the product of sustained rainfall of biblical intensity, drove over 700,000 people out of their homes in Louisiana.  Newman wrote this as part of a song cycle of the South called Good Old Boys, which was released in 1974.  I discovered it around 1980 or so, and it quickly became, and has remained, my favourite of all of his songs – and he’s written some incredible songs.  The tragedy is narrated in a dry, fatalistic fashion that only adds to the poignancy: Some people got lost in the flood.  Some people got away all right.  Its mournful refrain, “They’re tryin’ to wash us away”, evokes that very human sense that a calamity of this size must be part of some plan to wipe you off the face of the earth; this just has to be somebody’s doing, there just has to be someone to blame.  And indeed, some of the flooding was the result of dynamiting levees, in order to reduce the pressure and spare New Orleans, deliberately sacrificing smaller communities upstream.  It didn’t help.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this song seemed almost prophetic. When George Bush flew over to observe the devastation from the comfort of Air Force One, you can bet the lines about the President’s visit in 1927 leapt to mind.

This was, almost inevitably, the first song performed at the benefit concert for the victims of Katrina, and it’s become a sort of anthem to commemorate that eerily similar fiasco.  It was a powerful thing even before the levees broke and the Lower Ninth all but vanished underwater.  These days, I’ve read, it brings crowds down there to tears.

Jackson Browne: For a Dancer

With the 1974 album Late For the Sky, Browne established himself as a major presence on the American song-writing scene.  It’s full of lovely songs, but this one was a cut above, I think one of the most brilliant songs of the modern era, and while sad, it’s full of hope – clear-eyed rational hope that tells itself no lies, hides behind no illusions, yet persists.  I can’t listen to it without crying, truth to tell.  Its lines about not knowing what it means when people die, like it’s a song you can hear as clear as a bell and you can’t sing it, but you can’t help listening, are almost unbearably full of emotional truth.  If the closing verse doesn’t break your heart and mend it all at once, well, I guess I just don’t know.

A few years back, in looking for commentary on this song (I wanted to know if it was about the death of his wife; it wasn’t, that came later), I stumbled across a sort of chat room for people with clinical depression, where they wrote each other to provide mutual support.  One of them said that he’d often thought of suicide, and was nearly there a few times, but then he’d think of the closing lines of For a Dancer and gather himself back togetherHe advised the others to hold tight to this thought:

and somewhere between the time you arrive

and the time you go

may lie a reason you were alive

that you’ll never know.

Yes, Still More Melancholy

Bruce Springsteen: Stolen Cars

Another GC nominee for saddest song of the 20th century.  Springsteen is most loved for his big stadium rousers, Born to Run, Thunder Road, Born in the USA, Dancing in the Dark, and so on, but I’ve always preferred this side of him.  Using, as ever, cars as a central emotional metaphor, he tells a story of the soul destroying impact of falling out of love, simply ceasing to feel anything for each other any more in a dead marriage that refuses to die.  I lose it every time I hear the woman say how reading his old love letters made her feel a hundred years old.

Neil Finn: Fall at Your Feet

This is from a concert movie; there’s a pre-amble, but the song starts at around 3:15.

{X} remarked the other day that it must be the most gratifying rush to be a songwriter, a performer, and just stand back from the microphone and let the audience sing your song, hear your own words on the lips of thousands.

I thought immediately of this performance.  “Will you sing it with me?” asks Neil, quietly. Quietly, in keeping with the spirit of the song, they do.

Neil is a very fine songwriter, and had great success in the 80s and 90s with the bands Split Enz and then Crowded House.  This is my favourite.

James Taylor: Carolina In My Mind.

James Taylor is famous enough that you may be familiar with this one in its airplay version, but this is such a nice live performance, and James is so very young and bashfully charming here – younger than you {X}, just 22 years old.  This was broadcast on the BBC in 1970.  I always think of myself here in Toronto when he sings:

Now there’s a holy host of others standing round me

Still I’m on the dark side of the Moon

And it looks like it goes on like this forever…

This is a very troubled young man, who just a couple of years earlier had committed himself to a psychiatric hospital, almost wholly crippled by depression.  His biggest song, Fire and Rain, is about his time there, and the suicide of his dear friend Suzanne Schnerr. But things started to pick up. The Beatles had just launched Apple Records, and put out the word to artists everywhere: send us your demos.  If you’re good, you’re in, and we’ll worry about the money.  The utopian dream at Apple came to its predictable crashing end soon enough, but not before Taylor’s demo made it into the hands of Peter Asher, a pop singer, Apple A&R man, and brother to actress Jane Asher, girlfriend to one Paul McCartney. McCartney, of course, immediately thought Taylor was wonderful, and James was signed, and recorded the album in 1968 that included this song (in a much more pop arrangement).  McCartney played bass, and George played electric.

It turns out the “holy host” reference is not about the madding crowd, but about standing in the presence of the Beatles, all but deities to him.

And what the heck, here’s Fire and Rain.  You’ll have to look long and hard for a pop song with a line more mournful than Suzanne, the plans we made put an end to you.

It looked pretty grim at this point. But Taylor’s story has a happy ending; he prospered, this very song became hugely popular and is now regarded as an American classic, and while there were still some tough times, today there’s no hint of that sad and homesick kid who almost couldn’t bear to be alive.

Another Random Sample

English Beat: Save it For Later

The English Beat were actually just “The Beat” in native England.  They had some great success in what was then being called the “ska music” surge of the early 1980s, with songs like Twist and Crawl and Mirror in the Bathroom, and then they released a very fine album called Special Beat Service (a play on the UK commando unit, the SBS, i.e., Special Boat Service), and this was my favourite song on the album.  It’s a piece about passing from adolescence to adulthood, and realizing that you don’t actually know what you want to do, or want to be, or how to do it and be it even if you did know, much less what will become of you by default if you just sit there.  It seems time to make choices you aren’t equipped to make. Advice flies at you from all directions, and you can almost feel your knees buckle under the weight of it all, and everything around seems rotten through anyway.  I don’t know how I’m s’posed to act with all of you lot. Sometimes I don’t try. Can we just save the really big decisions for later?

The principal writer is that rather good looking lead singing blonde guy, who’s named David Wakeling.

In my undergrad days we bopped to this one a lot, in fact to the whole Special Beat Service album, which we decreed was one of only a handful of records to which you could groove from Side A through Side B without alcohol.  (See also: Who’s Next and Exile on Main Street.)

Back in those days, albums had sides, you see.

I never fell out of love with it (still haven’t), so it was particularly gratifying when, in the late 80s, I caught a concert by the Who, and the great Pete Townshend came out on stage in the middle to do a set all alone, just him and his acoustic, unplugged (Pete essentially invented the “unplugged” movement), and started finger-picking a tune I recognized immediately. Save it for Later.  Me and Pete, sympatico, how about that. This is Pete’s version:

Tom Waits: Downtown Train

No big mystery to this one, just a gorgeous story of unrequited love, by a guy who everyone in the industry respects, but hardly anybody else knows, and who had this one brief foray into the mainstream in the mid- 80s, due in no small part to this lavishly shot and superbly staged black and white video.

It got heavy rotation back when MTV and MuchMusic still showed such things.  Such lovely turns of phrase; I’m shining like a new dime; all those Brooklyn girls – they try so hard to break out of their little worlds; I’m nothing that will ever capture your heart, I’m just thorns without the rose; they stay at the corner for you, but they’ll never win you back.  And that guitar work – marvellous.

Billy Bragg: Levi Stubb’s Tears

Billy Bragg is a sort of rock and roll folk singer, whose songs oscillate between passionate left wing exhortations for justice, and emotionally nuanced character studies.  Part agit-prop, part voice of the everyman.  Or in this case, part voice of the everywoman.  This is a song off his album Talking to the Taxman About Poetry, about a girl who marries an abusive jerk, way too young, and then sits alone consoling herself with Motown songs during his long absences.  Until one dark night he comes home and puts a bullet in her.  She survives, but her heart is forever broken.

You know, the usual boy meets girl, boy leaves girl, boy shoots girl story.

When I was first courting my wife, she was surprised to find this disc in my collection – she loved Billy Bragg, and didn’t imagine I would too, he wasn’t well known – and I earned extra points because I actually knew who he was singing about.  I was able to come on all sage about how Levi Stubbs was lead singer of the Four Tops, that Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote the song War, and all sorts of hits for the Temptations, like Papa Was a Rolling Stone, and that Holland-Dozier-Holland was the great Motown song writing team behind literally dozens of hits for the Supremes, Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, you name it – they wrote something like 25 No. 1 hits, I think more than Lennon-McCartney. I was able to pull the CDs out of my collection and show her.  But for that, I’d likely be single today, so thanks Billy!

She takes off the Four Tops tape, and puts it back in its case.  Just one guy and his guitar, so compellingly straightforward and humane.

Blue Rodeo: Outskirts

The title song from their very first album, back when Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister, and I had yet to go to law school.  This one is a chronicle of the Kennedy Curse, as manifested in the life and torment of David Kennedy, son of Bobby.  What must it be like to be the son of a famous assassinated father, living in the public eye, weighed down by expectations to pick up the torch, heartbroken and harried?  Where are you going to hide when everybody knows your name?  How can you suppress the memory of that picture we’ve all seen, taken in the Ambassador Hotel, his father shot and already dead, with a busboy kneeling down beside him; how do you stop projecting that over and over in your head?  “On to Chicago” said Bobby to his supporters, having just won the California primary, and looking forward to being nominated as the Democratic candidate for President at the upcoming convention.  The last words any of us heard from him.

Bobby Kennedy was maybe the last hope for a whole generation that wanted to believe that the political process might yet provide answers, and change. And everybody knows California wasn’t going to be the end.

We got Nixon instead.

Poor David developed the almost inevitable substance abuse problems and died of a heroin overdose in a room in the Brazilian Court hotel in Palm Springs.

Ben Folds Five: Brick

Ben Folds is a piano-based songwriter, which tends to produce tunes that feel structurally different, somehow, from those composed on guitar.  I suppose somebody who really understands music could explain it to me.

This is a straight-forward and very moving account of a guy taking his young girlfriend to have an abortion.  There’s not much to interpret.  I love how, though he’s feeling like the weight of helping her through this mess is drowning him, he still realizes this is hurting her badly, he knows this has done her serious psychological harm.  Him too.  No finger pointing, no recriminations, just the inability to really deal with it, or each other, until they both feel more alone than they ever have before.  I’m always touched by how her parents can sense it too – and when confronted, the two just break down and tell the truth, they’re just so tired of lying.  The emotions are so genuine I can’t help but feel that this is autobiographical, which is probably something I looked into back when.  No way this is just some story.

Bonnie Raitt: I Can’t Make You Love Me 

Oh, boy.  I always need the Kleenex for this one.  A real hurtin’ song.

Though beautifully suited to a female perspective, this was written by a couple of men, Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, and was inspired by a newspaper article one of them read about still another man.  The story concerned this fairly pathetic fellow who, one gathers, had been dumped by his girlfriend, and wasn’t ready to accept it.  It seems he tried to hang on, no doubt stalked and tormented her, and eventually he got drunk and shot up her car.  Well, that lands you in the slam, sonny.  At sentencing the judge asked him if he’d learned anything from all this, and he looked balefully at the bench and said “Yes your honour. You can’t make a woman love you, if she don’t.”  That sentiment, on the surface so laughably dumb, is actually one of the most profound truths that every young man has to learn, and a lesson he ignores at his peril.

Anyone familiar with the work of Bruce Hornsby, who had a couple of hits in the 80s, will immediately recognize his playing on the piano accompaniment.

Don Henley: End of the Innocence

Henley was one of the driving forces behind the Eagles, but don’t hold that against him. In his solo career he did a couple of really nice songs, and this one was written by the above-mentioned Bruce Hornsby, whose piano work is again in evidence – that’s him at the keyboard.  This is another one of those “maybe you have to be of a certain age” sort of songs, a world-weary lament about the Reagan years in the 1980s, when Ronnie was both incredibly popular, and incredibly frightening to those leaning left.  The Cold War was hot; Ollie North was selling weapons to Iran in a complex scheme sponsored from within the White House to fund war in Central America and buy back hostages held in Lebanon (worse by far than Watergate, I always thought, but by then we were all too jaded to care); the “me generation” was making everything about money and greed; and we saw the first real instances of large scale fraud in financial institutions (look up the “Keating Five”).  Maybe we cut a few corners, you know, but we have lawyers for that.  Looking back it’s rather sad, almost quaint really, that we thought this was the worst things could get.

This song fits into a long tradition of yearning for a bygone America of decent folk living honest lives in small towns, a simpler time of working the land and honouring your parents, which of course never actually existed. It was a time that fostered that sort of feeling.  Anyone who was there watching the Reagan era build-up of nuclear weapons, even those like me who supported the grim logic of it, knew that sad, tired feeling of wondering if it would ever stop, and why it ever had to start in the first place.  I’m a hardened cold-warrior, at heart, but this always gets me:

How beautiful for spacious skies

but now those skies are threatening

we’re beating ploughshares into swords

for that tired old man who we elected king

 Tracy Chapman: Change

Again, not much to explain here.  Just a bunch of questions that cut to the quick.  If I was to form a church, this would be in the hymnbook.

STILL More Melancholy

C’mon, you didn’t think I was going to let you off without some more melancholy masterpieces did you?  Who do you think I am, man?

I give you two superb songs by fine Canadian songwriters, each written for a city, one an unabashed paean, one expressive of feelings a little more mixed.

Joel Plaskett: Love This Town

When Paul McCartney gives concerts, he most often starts without a warm-up act, I guess first because he’s got a 3 hour set to get through, and second, who wants to be the poor schmuck who opens for Paul Fucking McCartney? But sometimes before he visits cities with vibrant music scenes, he sends an open invitation for local groups to mail him demo tapes, and picks the band he likes best to be the first act.  When Paul came to Halifax, he picked Joel Plaskett to open up for him, and if you listen, I think you’ll hear why.

Joel is a good Nova Scotia boy, originally from beautiful Lunenburg, but this is a song about Halifax, my home town.  Ah, that drunken stagger home after closing time at the Marquee, a bar with a “cabaret licence” which is open until 4 in the morning.  We’ve all been there – and listen up kid, it’s not what you think. You ever want to see me cry like a toddler who just banged his head, give me a few shots of the blackest rum you can find, and play this at me.  It’ll be ugly but cathartic.

John K. Samson: One Great City.

You can’t help but sense the affection beneath the apparent disdain in this beautiful song.  You don’t have to hail from Winnipeg for this one to resonate; pretty much any Canadian city east of BC will do.  Certainly, those of us who navigate the tunnels beneath the towers of King and Bay on cold dark winter afternoons know all about the sharpened elbows in the underground, and the hollow hurried sound of feet on tile floor.  In structure, this one reminds me of the Liz Phair song I sent earlier, and gives me the same sense of formal perfection.

Making Your Escape

Peter Gabriel: Solsbury Hill

As recorded:


I was playing this for my own enjoyment, and couldn’t resist sending it along.  Links above give you both the “official” version on record, and a quite wonderful live performance, with Gabriel riding around stage on a bicycle, which to me really fits with the sense of unstoppable forward motion I always get with this song.  This is the one you play as you tear out of town on the highway for parts unknown.

The lyrics are largely metaphorical – this is in fact, as noted in Rolling Stone, rock music’s greatest resignation letter.  For years before recording this, Gabriel was a key member of the band Genesis, one of those art rock bands (like Emerson Lake and Palmer and Yes) whose existence, I’m sad to say, we can lay at the Beatles’ doorstep; after Sgt. Pepper everybody thought they had it in them to write their own A Day in the Life, and many tried, with uniformly disastrous results.  I’ve been forced to listen to some early Genesis, and OMG it’s awful, and I guess Gabriel thought so too, because he quit and pursued a far more respectable solo career.

Solsbury Hill is the tale of his epiphany – a musical version of the moment he resolved to quit the band.  He tells the story as if the very idea of quitting is a force from somewhere outside of himself, come to rescue him. You can feel the relief, the joy of being sprung from a bad situation – Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.

Something to listen to any time you’re screwing up your courage to make a big, life-changing decision

The New Wave

By around 1980, the music scene was in weird flux.  Disco had run its course; Punk, the counterculture that disco spawned, had pretty much run its course too, with the Clash being the last, and best, of the punk movement to survive (and they weren’t really punks anyway, being passionate, politically engaged, talented, and generally interested in improving the world).  The so-called New Wave seemed, at the end of it, to be more about skinny ties and narrow pant legs than music, and all sorts of mediocrities were taking on the look in order to gain street cred, and bust out of being nothing more than jumped up bar bands (see especially the Knack, whose album Get the Knack prompted the Rolling Stone review “Get the plague first”).

But amid the mess, around 1980 or so, there emerged a British incarnation of the new wave, with bands that were new, all right, but whose song-writing hearkened back to the best of Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, and even, some thought, Lennon-McCartney.  The English Beat was part of that wave, as was the Jam, Madness and others – below are four groups who typified the genre.  These songs move at a rapid clip, have clever arrangements, engaging lyrics, and solid tunes to underpin it all.  For a moment there, before Phil Collins and Huey Lewis reasserted a bland status quo, I thought pop music might be entering a new golden age.

XTC: Generals and Majors

XTC was the most artistically ambitious of the bunch, with songs full of overt social and political commentary that might have struck one as sophomoric, except, as the Rolling Stone Record Guide notes, “they sweat hard enough to earn their pretensions”.  Thus a song like Generals and Majors, which flogs the rather unremarkable insight that war is bad, turns into a satirical romp that feels like it’s restating the obvious because apparently we idiots out here still don’t get it.  They weren’t huge commercial hits, but critics loved them, and they soldiered on into the 2000s with albums that always had at least three or four very good songs. They were a staple of my university days.

The Vapors: Waiting for the Weekend

The Vapors were very popular for a few months on the strength of their massive hit Turning Japanese (which, ahem, has nothing to do with emigrating to Japan; see also Pictures of Lily by the Who, and She-Bop by Cindi Lauper), but though they soon vanished without a trace (at least on this side of the Atlantic), they surprised everyone with an album that contained more than worked-over rehashes of their one hit.  Waiting for the Weekend repeats a theme embodied by dozens of pop songs – “I can’t wait until it’s Friday and I get to see you again” – but to me it’s just so full of energy and charm.

 Modern English: Melt With You

Another one hit wonder, but one that endures.  You’ll still hear it on the radio, and in movies set in the 80s – it seems the perfect encapsulation of its moment. 

Squeeze: Another Nail For My Heart

Squeeze was driven by the very talented song writing team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, and for a while there they seemed destined to become household names.  Their catchy songs were everywhere, and they were good;  Annie Get Your Gun, Pulling Mussels From a Shell, Up the Junction, Goodbye Girl, and their signature tune, Tempted, were all integral to early 80s pop culture.  It was Difford and Tilbrook that drew comparisons to early Lennon-McCartney, and this wasn’t an exaggeration.  So what happened? No idea!  Just goes to show, I guess, how hard it is to stay on a creative and commercial roll for years and years at a time.  Another Nail for My Heart was the breakthrough song here in North America, and again we see the reiteration of a timeless pop theme, about the song you can’t bear to hear after a break-up – you know, the one that was “our song”, the one that reminds you of her. The frigging guy in the bar is playing it on the piano.

The Sixties

When we baby boomers tout the music of the sixties these days, we tend to cite the giants: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, Beach Boys, Credence Clearwater Revival, Bob Dylan, the great Motown groups, all of them – but it’s always seemed to me that their music has a timeless quality to it.  Most of us have continuously enjoyed it throughout our lives, and as a result, something like, say, Hey Jude doesn’t automatically transport you back to one, and only one, particular time and place.  The songs below are different, quintessentially evocative, to me at least, of specific moments when I was still a young child.  Play one of these tunes and I can remember the glow of the dashboard radio (Philco Ford!), looking up at the night sky from my position in the front seat, below the visor, too low to see out the windshield.  I can smell the rain as it hit the clay tennis courts at the boating and athletic club we South End boys all used to belong to, I can see the jukebox in the boat house.  I can feel heat off the summer sidewalks of the street where I grew up, and hear the trains rumble by in the railway cut just south of our place.  Classrooms, playgrounds, favourite haunts, games of hide and seek on July evenings that didn’t get dark until bed time, it all floods back. These are preserved little pieces of the sixties as sure as bugs in amber are little pieces of the late Cretaceous.

Scott McKenzie; San Francisco

“One hit wonder” was a term coined for the likes of McKenzie, whose moment in the sun corresponded with 1967’s Summer of Love, when we still mythologized the hippie scene in San Francisco, and its world famous neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury.  Go West, young man; an egalitarian socialist utopia was being built by the youth of America, and things were never going to be the same.

Well, not so much, as it turned out.  When George Harrison made the pilgrimage in the summer of ‘67, he was appalled to find nothing but dishevelled LSD junkies lying around in the streets, strung out, filthy, hungry, and clueless.  But before that ugly reality set in, we all dreamed of going to San Francisco, where flower children would likely meet us at the airport and guide us to the promised land astride unicorns, while they strummed their guitars, and sang of peace and justice.  This is the anthem of that ephemeral moment.  McKenzie likely would never have had his 15 minutes had he not been pals with a guy named John Phillips, who wrote this up for him in between penning hits like California Dreamin’ for the Mamas and Papas.

Bee Gees: Massachusetts

The Bee Gees are remembered today for Saturday Night Fever, and thumping 4/4 disco sung in a manic falsetto by guys in white suits in the late 70s.  But that was a second act for the Brothers Gibb, who had shone in the sixties as a sort of Australian answer to the Beatles, propelled along by superbly melodic tunes that seemed like ersatz Lennon-McCartney at the time, and now sound, from the perspective of this tuneless age of one note verses and rhythmic talking, like siren songs of a lost golden age.

Massachusetts is a perennial favourite, and I think their best composition. Purportedly, it was written as a reaction to McKenzie’s San Francisco and other hippie anthems of its ilk – the Bee Gees envisioned the lights going out on the East Coast as its whole population joined the pilgrimage to California.

Zombies: Time of the Season

The sound of Swinging London, Carnaby Street, and Cool Britannia. It was a time when all things British, from BOAC flight bags to James Bond Movies, were the peak of modern hip, and this song, which was everywhere in 1969, seemed to wrap it all up in a tight little ball.  Amazingly, the Zombies had never made it in America, and this became a hit long after it was recorded, and over a year after the band had broken up. It’s now seen as a shame that the group never got the commercial encouragement it needed, they showed real promise, and the album Odyssey and Oracle, from which it was taken, is now held to be a minor classic.   I recently heard Time of the Season’s distinct rhythm track sampled on some song from around 2010, I think.  It certainly does put the hook in you, as does the call and response structure: What’s your name?  Who’s your Daddy?

The Left Banke: Walk Away Renee

Just a pretty little trifle from a group that thought it was arty to put an extra “e” on the end of their name.  It was part of a “Baroque Rock” craze that briefly washed over the industry in the mid sixties, and was one of a number of big hits that featured the flute – the flute was as much a part of the sixties sound as saxophone was in the eighties, and like most major trends that were flogged to death by lesser artists, it had its origin in a Beatles song, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.  Just one of those boulders the lads rolled down the hill before moving on to other things, never to repeat themselves, while dozens scrambled to latch on to the trend.  Still, it’s a lovely tune, and a rather touching expression of unrequited love for a real girl, so the story goes, written by one of the group’s members about another member’s girlfriend.

Tremeloes: Here Comes My Baby

C’mon, you can’t resist the toe-tapping good time charms of this one, can you?  No school dance was complete without this track, which at its core is actually pretty disgruntled – here comes my girlfriend and of course, she’s with some other guy.  Of course she is.  Who was I kidding, thinking I could hang on to a girl like that?

Donovan: Catch the Wind

I actually quite like this song, and while Donovan, an English artist, was apt to be labelled as ersatz Dylan in the same way the Bee Gees suffered as ersatz Beatles, I think Catch the Wind can hold its ground against songs like Mr. Tambourine Man, or nearly, anyway.  I certainly can’t think of a piece that better exemplifies today’s theme – this one is mid-sixties folk melancholia in a bottle.  And if he’s doing a pitch perfect imitation of Bobby D, right down to the harmonica, well, there are worse things to imitate.

Art Rock!

I’m known to speak derisively of “Art Rock”, initial cap. A, initial cap. R, but I can’t really feel that pop music with arty pretensions all sucks, can I?  I’d have to throw out half the Beatles catalogue.  Below are three songs that tickle my arty-bone, and they all strike me as alike, somehow, though the groups are separated by both continents and decades.

Lord Huron: Ends of the Earth

I don’t know anything about this group, or even how I heard of them, but this was in my iTunes by way of Soundhound, so I must have heard it on TV or in a store, or something. I find the video utterly beguiling, and the whole thing has a sort of epic widescreen-presented-in-glorious-cinemascope feel to it, I just can’t resist.

Dream Academy: Life in a Northern Town

Dream Academy burst briefly on to the scene in the mid-1980s; like so many other groups that happen to produce a song with a complicated arrangement including classical instruments, they were labelled “Beatle-esque”, and I guess you can hear a hint of Penny Lane in the mix, if you try. Plus, they mention the Beatles in the lyrics.  The song was, however, dedicated to Nick Drake, to whom we were introduced earlier – though this seems a little odd as Nick was brought up in a town that was solidly in England’s midlands, and not at all northern, but there you go.  They also did a very slick, just on the edge of being too slick, version of the Smiths’ wonderful song, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want, which was included in the soundtrack of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and that introduced me to the Smiths, so thank you John Hughes.

Bright Eyes: Hot Knives

 I don’t know much about Bright Eyes either, but I saw them do this live on Letterman, and to me they were just awesome.  I love how their wailing guitar player looks like a chartered accountant, and I love the girl on drums.

The East

I felt it time, in my vaguely irritating and paternalistic way, to expose you to some music of the East Coast.  Bear with me, for some reason I feel the tug of the ocean most keenly today, and wish I could make you understand.

 Kate Rusby: The Wild Goose 

A song I just discovered.  This is a lovely treatment of an old sailors’ tune, they’re called “sea shanties”, songs that were chanted by crews engaged in hard work, typically hauling on lines — they’d work to the rhythm to coordinate their efforts. They’re actually categorized according to the kind of task performed when sung, and this one is a “halyard shanty”, a halyard being one of the ropes, all of which had names (we still use “lanyard” these days as common parlance for any sort of rope that gets pulled). Their origins are generally impossible to pin down.  Curiously, shanties often refer to a mysterious “Ranzo”, or “Renzo”, as does this one, and this derives from a mythical Ranzo, sometimes Reuben Ranzo, who serves as the protagonist in all sorts of shanties, so Google tells me.  It’s thought that “Renzo” may be an abbreviation of “Lorenzo”, as Portuguese sailors from the Azores were common among the crews of whaling vessels, but nobody really knows.  Of course the word “shanty” itself has a connection to the French “chanteur”.  The culture of the sea has no nationality.

The Rankin Family: Fare Thee Well Love

It sounds like an ancient Celtic lament for loved ones lost at sea, and in a way it is, but it was written around 1990, by Jimmy Rankin of Mabou, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.  The Rankins really are a family, and their Wikipedia article says that the girls run a pub in Mabou when they’re not singing.  One of the boys, John, died in a car crash about 15 years ago, it was big news out east.  Digging around, I was saddened to discover that one of the girls, Raylene, just recently died of cancer.  Great. I really should learn to stifle my curiosity.

Gordon Lightfoot: Farewell to Nova Scotia

In a way it’s sacrilegious for me to pick Lightfoot’s version of this one, he’s a landlubberly Ontario clod-hopper from frigging Orillia, but he does a nice job of it.  This is pretty much the national anthem back home, recorded by dozens of artists over the years.  We were taught to sing it in school, and told the story of how an amateur historian and folklorist named Helen Creighton heard it sung in the parlour of a nice woman, a stranger, who invited her to get in out of the rain.  This was back in the early 1930s.  Local folk songs like this were passed on as part of oral tradition, and Helen was the first to transcribe it, possibly saving it from being lost to history.  Its chorus is now engraved on every Bluenose heart.

Stan Rogers: Barret’s Privateers

God damn it to Hell if this isn’t another maritime classic sung by a land-locked Ontarian, and even worse he wrote the bloody thing.  However, he used to spend his summers in Nova Scotia, and his parents were Nova Scotia ex-pats, so I claim him as one of our own, and moreover when he died – in a lousy twist of fate by smoke inhalation in an Air Canada DC-9 that caught fire in mid-flight – his ashes were scattered in the Atlantic off the Nova Scotia coast.  Therefore, Ontarian my big white Bluenose backside. The song is full of plausible sounding details of wooden warships and combat at sea, and written in what sounds like the argot of 18th century sea-faring, so many people take it to be an authentic shanty of that era, but nope.  Stan wrote it in the 70s, no doubt about it.

A “privateer” was a mercenary, in effect a pirate, but an honourable one, they were civilian sea-farers commissioned by the Crown to harass enemy shipping, under a licence called a “letter of marque”, as mentioned in the song.  Halifax was, as the lyrics suggest, a home port for many during the Revolutionary War, when loyal Englishmen fought upstart Americans on the high seas. We fought them again, during the war of 1812, when HMS Shannon triumphantly towed the captured USS Chesapeake into Halifax harbour, after a gunnery duel between the two frigates ended with American defeat. Glorious. Such things spring to mind when you were brought up amidst all that naval history, Stan starts singing and your blood rises as you think about the Royal Navy maintaining Pax Britannica on the world’s sea lanes, and convoys forming up in Bedford Basin, watched over by corvettes and destroyers riding shotgun in the long struggle with Nazi U-Boats, likely to be encountered lurking just offshore.  You Upper Canada folk who think those damned lakes out there are impressive bodies of water might be unmoved by Barret’s Privateers.  Ah, but what can be done for you, you’re from away.


Bob Dylan.  America’s greatest songwriter?  Some people think so, and though that’s a tough claim when the field includes Gershwin, Porter, Rogers et. al., no doubt about it, the boy was great.  Thing is, I’m with those who think his own delivery of his songs detracts from their inherent musicality, and that his voice is just, well, a ways removed from superb. Luckily, so many other people have covered his stuff that we can listen to a huge part of his catalogue as interpreted by others, themselves among the most talented of their generation.  So here’s a few.

The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man

 My Back Pages

The jangly guitars of Mr. Tambourine Man are perhaps even more evocative of the Sixties than anything I sent previously.  That’s the sound of Roger McGuinn playing a twelve string Rickenbacker guitar, an instrument he learned to play as soon as he saw George Harrison playing one in the film Hard Day’s Night.  Listen to the twanging guitar part that serves as a fadeout for that Beatles song – same guitar, same sound.  The Byrds, on the strength of this number, took off and became the first in a long line of candidates for “America’s answer to the Beatles”, and while there is an element of homage in misspelling the common word “bird” just as their idols misspelled “beetle”, they never really aspired to that label, and made their own reputation, on their own terms, playing plenty of Dylan songs along the way.

My Back Pages is if anything still more sublime.  The whole theme of the song, that you can reach the closing years of your life and look back bemusedly at the kid you used to be, once so sure of everything, and realize that only now do you have the wisdom to open your mind in a pure, childlike acceptance of all the doubt, ambiguity, and wonder that surrounds you, well, that’s a hell of a thing to spring from the brow of a songwriter in his 20s.  He was perhaps thinking of the prevailing Cold War ideology of anti-Communism, which did so much damage to the liberty of so many innocent dissenting voices in the 50s and 60s:

My guard stood hard

when abstract threats

too noble to neglect

deceived me into thinking

I had something to protect

…but really this goes for anyone who wakes up one day to realize it’s all been a scam, that they amplified an outside threat to scare you into letting them rob you of your own hard-won freedoms.  It’s an old story, really, and it keeps repeating. Patriot Act anyone?

George Harrison: If Not For You

This is off George’s first big solo extravaganza, All Things Must Pass, and it’s just about everyone’s favourite version of this very pleasant and straightforward love song, devoid of the usual Dylanesque wordplay and metaphorical imagery.

Rod Stewart: Tomorrow is Such a Long Time

Rod devolved into something of a sad parody of his former self in later years, prancing around singing Young Turks and Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, but he didn’t start that way.  In 1971 he released Every Picture Tells a Story, universally acknowledged as an all time classic album, with songs like Maggie Mae, Mandolin Wind, Reason to Believe, the title track, and this nice treatment of another Dylan love song.  It’s an old romantic theme in American song – the lonely man on the road, aching to get back to his love so he can be at peace again.

The Band: When I Paint My Masterpiece

Dylan dropped out of public life for a while in the late sixties, recovering from a nasty motorcycle accident, and during his hiatus he became friendly with a Canadian group of master musicians (including one American, Levon Helm) who used to back up Ronnie Hawkins as the “Hawks”, and took to calling themselves, simply, “The Band”.  The self-composed songs on their debut album were written in a big pink house they shared in upstate New York, and the album was called, naturally enough, Music From the Big Pink (which included the classics  I Shall be Released and The Weight.) This Dylan cover appeared on a later album, and was the first recorded version of the song, which picks up on another classic theme, the young American as innocent abroad, newly exposed to the old world culture of Europe, and drifting pleasantly with no particular goal but to soak it all in – except sometimes you do miss home, you know?

By the way, I can’t leave the subject of Dylan’s stature as a songwriter without letting the man speak for himself.  This is from an interview a couple of years ago in Rolling Stone magazine, when he was asked if he and John Lennon felt competitive towards each other:

“RS: What was your relationship with John Lennon like? Somewhat competitive?

Bob: “Yeah. Only to a certain extent, but not really. Him and McCartney both, really, they were fantastic singers. Lennon, to this day, it’s hard to find a better singer than Lennon was, or than McCartney was and still is. I’m in awe of McCartney. He’s about the only one that I am in awe of. He can do it all. And he’s never let up. He’s got the gift for melody, he’s got the rhythm, he can play any instrument. He can scream and shout as good as anybody. And his melodies are effortless, that’s what you have to be in awe of…He’s just so damn effortless. I just wish he’d quit [laughs]. Everything that comes out of his mouth is just framed in melody.”

More Melancholy, but Nice

Today’s offerings are tending toward the contemplative, melancholy side of things, but not, to me at least, in a disheartening way.

The Beatles (McCartney): Mother Nature’s Son

This is quintessential McCartney, with lyrics that tend to lead you in one direction, and music that pulls you a bit the opposite way.  [X] will (might?) recall I once wrote, in what amounted to a manifesto on the merits of Penny Lane, that with Paul the tears are so often hidden just below the brave face put forward on the surface (Susan’s reaction: “Penny Lane isn’t really all that good of a song”), embedded not in the overt sentiment of the lyrics, but in the music itself.  Much to John’s disapproval, Paul was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and I think that’s why so many people miss the undertones that he communicates through nuanced shifts in chords, keys, and melody, rather than extroverted confessionals in the words.  Mother Nature’s Son, as obscure a track as possible for the Beatles, is among the most perfect examples of this style of composition.

It emerged out of the ill-fated sojourn to Rishikesh to commune with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, a trip that included many hangers-on, including folk-pop star Donovan, who tought Paul a finger plucking style of guitar playing that is used to great effect here (and in the companion piece Blackbird, both featured on the White Album).  The simple joys of communing with nature in a pastoral setting were very much in tune with the message being thrust upon them by the Maharishi, and while urban sophisticate playboys like McCartney could never really adopt that way of life, it was a pleasant idea to toy with after the almost insane living conditions the Beatles had endured over the prior 5 years.

To my ears, Mother Nature’s Son is all about that rueful acknowledgement that the interlude at Rishikesh could be no more than a temporary reprieve. Yes, it’s lovely here in the grass by the stream, but listen to those distant drums – something less tranquil lurks not far over the horizon.  Paul created this aural effect of something booming but distant in the simplest of ways, by moving kettle drums out of Studio 2 and down the hall for recording, creating an impression of distant thunder heading this way. There’s still time to enjoy one last perfect moment, but the storm is coming, as storms always must.  Those beautifully mellow brass instruments make it plain that this is a song written in the shadow of coming sadness.

Simon and Garfunkel: The Only Living Boy in New York

My favourite song off the massive Bridge Over Troubled Water album, sporting an echo-laden drum sound not so different in effect from that discussed above.  I love how the backing vocals swirl and echo, that evocative “here I am…”, so plaintive, the very sound of waiting and watching expectantly for someone to come back home.  The “Tom” that Paul Simon wants to see back home and dry is Art Garfunkel, who flew down to Mexico to play a part in the film adaptation of Catch 22;  in early days the two used to tour as “Tom and Jerry”.  With his best friend absent, the narrator feels all alone, lost in the big city, gone somewhere, but he doesn’t know where.  It’s an anxious feeling, this waiting – but everything will go fine, right?  I can’t sit in an airport arrivals area, or by the window looking for that cab to arrive, without this running through my head.

Velvet Underground: Sunday Morning

The Velvet Underground are in many ways similar to Nick Drake, minus the tragedy of early death.  Led by Lou Reed, a visionary of the urban pop art movement that emerged in the middle Sixties, the Velvets were heard by almost nobody, sold almost no records, and folded up their tents having made no discernible impact on the music of their day, only to become, as years went by, the recording artists that everyone cites when talking about popular music that transcends the genre. The common quip is that during their time as a group, no more than X-thousand people ever heard a Velvet Underground record, and every single one of them went on to form a rock group.

They emerged as an almost contemptuously stark counterpoint to the hippies and psychedelic heroes of the middle class adolescents who were then driving so much of pop culture. Their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico (Nico was a beguiling German chanteuse whose vocals also feature on the album), with its famous Andy Warhol banana cover, was very close to being a punk antithesis to Sgt. Pepper, the dominant record of the day.  No anthems of peace, love, and joyous drug induced transcendence for this lot.  The Velvet Underground was all about the gritty, ugly reality of the street, where drugs were a trap, thugs and dealers ruled the roost, whores plied their trade, and junkies stumbled from fix to fix in an unrelenting agony of yearning for the next high.  Some of their songs, like White Light, White Heat, and Heroin, were almost unbearably violent re-creations of the experience of tripping and flirting with overdose, full of distortion and feedback evocative of the loss of self and conscious control that comes with substance abuse – though Heroin, characteristically, is laced with softer intervals that exemplify the human sympathy so central to the ethos of this band.

Reed was their primary songwriter, and for the few years in which he was with the Velvets, his prowess was just shy of miraculous.  He could combine the melodic sensibility of McCartney with the world weary exhaustion of Leonard Cohen, and as Exhibit A I give you Sunday Morning. It’s about coming down from the high of Saturday night, and all the regrets and fears you feel as the drugs wear off.  Watch out, the world’s behind you, catching up.

In just a couple of years, Lou Reed and his band mates produced a treasure trove of such songs, I’ll Be Your Mirror (a superbly mature love song), Pale Blue Eyes, Stephanie Says, Femme Fatale – any reputable artist would be satisfied to have written any one of those pieces as a career high.  So sad that we remember Lou Reed, if at all, only as the guy who did the admittedly infectious Walk on the Wild Side.

The Kinks: Phenomenal Cat

Have you ever heard anything prettier? In Sixties parlance, a “cool cat” was a guy who was hip by the standards of pop culture, but here Ray Davies presents us with a phenomenal cat reared in the “land of idiot boys”.  It sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme, only betraying its bitter indictment of the privileged classes if you listen closely.  Fat, inert, unbothered, and blessed by fate is our phenomenal cat, now oblivious to the wider world, though he once visited exotic places, and learned, he believes, some sort of profound truth.  And who knows, maybe he’s right.  Once you’ve seen the reality of it all, and provided you have the means, why do anything more than sate every decadent impulse?  What else can life really be for, honestly?  And if nothing has any real meaning, then surely there’s no point in growing beyond the self-indulgent impulses of a child.  No? Is this comfy cat in his tree philosophically depressed, does he know something we don’t, or is he just a smug, self-satisfied quitter? Fum fum diddle um daaaaaaaa…..

Yet More Pensive…

I’m just having SO MUCH FUN thinking up songs to send to y’all, and doing the little write-ups!  Turns out I’m a closet music critic!  (Does it ever seem to either of you that I should have been anything – anything at all – except a lawyer?).  Anyway, hope I’m not boring the crap out of you, and if so, well, you can always delete them unopened, I guess at this point this is way more for me than you, though it is nice to share.  So here’s a bunch more, no particular theme.

John Lennon: Watching the Wheels

In the five years between 1975 and 1980 Lennon retreated from public life and holed up in his luxury apartment in New York’s Dakota building, determined to be a better father to his new son Sean than he had ever been to Julian.  Absorbed in domestic life, he changed nappies, baked bread, and took his little boy for walks in Central Park, just across the street, where passers-by were cordial but not smothering.  John loved New York, and how the people there just let you be, they were cool with the Beatle in their midst.  At night, he would sit in Sean’s darkened bedroom, watching the lights of passing cars make shadow pictures on the wall, and eventually, the urge to make music returned. This is a demo he recorded right there in his apartment, for the final album he ever released.  It’s hard not to think, as you hear this, that at that moment he didn’t have long to live.

Most people think Imagine is John’s greatest post-Beatles song, but not me.  I always found its utopian sentiments a little naive and silly, and not at all like the cynical John we all knew (Lennon may have thought so too; at one point he was bitching about royalties when someone on staff reminded him “Imagine no possessions, John”, to which John responded “it’s only a fucking song”. That’s our boy).  I like Watching the Wheels much better, especially this stripped down acoustic version, it’s honest, and reflects perfectly the state of mind that made him content to stay silent and apart for a while.  It’s nice to know that what finally drew him out was hearing one of Paul’s latest hits on the radio, and thinking it was fabulous. Accounts vary, but apparently he exclaimed something like “fuck a duck, that’s Paul, that has to be him, it’s fantastic”.  Like before, he was filled with the urge to prove he could do that too, and with Watching the Wheels, he surely did.

These days there’s a little slice of Central Park opposite the Dakota dedicated to John’s memory, officially named Strawberry Fields.

Pete Townshend: Behind Blue Eyes

I’m sure this one isn’t new to anybody, but this is a nice live rendition. Nobody who ever rocked had more soul than Pete, or wrote more soul-searching lyrics.  Behind Blue Eyes was to have been a key song in the rock opera Life House, which Pete was writing as a follow-on to Tommy.  The story as Pete plotted it in the early Seventies anticipated the internet, and posited a future in which governments controlled everything, and kept people satisfied with entertainments pumped to them as they sat quasi-sedated in a sort of virtual reality.  The hero establishes a sanctuary where he and others unplug themselves from the grid and seek to reinvent music, and search for the lost chord, the mythical musical vibration that brings everything into harmony.

It was all too ambitious to go into production, but several monumental songs were salvaged from the wreckage, including Won’t Get Fooled Again, Baba O’Reilly, Song is Over, and Behind Blue Eyes. This last was to serve as a kind of aria to be sung by the villainous dictator, getting you inside his mind, but there must be another side to it.  Among Pete’s most prominent features are his brilliant blue eyes.

Aimee Mann: Wise Up

Aimee might be called a feminist songwriter, what with songs like this about unhealthy relationships with uncaring men (see also her album I’m With Stupid), but to me a label like that makes about as much sense as calling Bruce Springsteen “masculinist”.  Like most talented songwriters, she writes about the realities she experiences. Her intelligence always shines through, and she’s one of the dwindling tribe still waving the banner for melody and lyrical sophistication, so naturally, no airplay for her.

Aimee first gained widespread attention in the 80s as lead singer of the band ‘Til Tuesday, with a hit called Voices Carry, which really cut through the crap then clogging the playlists of MTV and MuchMusic.  None of the guys I know have ever been able to forget that closing scene in Carnegie Hall, Aimee standing to proclaim her pain and rage to the whole frigging world – we all immediately fell in love:

Tom Petty: Southern Accent

This one floored me when I first heard it around ’84 or so, this wasn’t the Tom Petty we’d come to expect.  It sounded more like Jackson Browne.  It always gets me right in the pumper, this story of a drifter languishing in an Atlanta drunk tank, dreaming of his dead mother, and a time when somebody loved him.  You just know there’s nobody left now who cares whether he lives or dies.

Maybe I should stop listening to these sorts of songs…let’s finish with something more hopeful, shall we?

Cyndi Lauper: True Colours

Another one we’ve all heard, but a nice acoustic version that isn’t well known.  Cyndi didn’t write this one, it’s by a guy named Billy Steinberg, sez Wikipedia, but she sure sings the hell out of it, and she came up with the arrangement – I read here that it started life as a sort of gospel song.

Cyndi herself is a bit of an enigma.  Her first album, She’s So Unusual, was inordinately huge, almost Thriller huge, with seven top 40 singles on it. You’d swear it was a greatest hits collection.  She showed real range too, veering from not-so-silly pop in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to hard Van Halen style rock in Money Changes Everything, to sensitive love balladry in Time After Time. The album was on the charts all year, sold over 20 million copies, and looked to be the beginning of an amazing career.  Conventional wisdom at the time was that Madonna was just a flash in the pan, the real sustainable talent was Cyndi.

True Colours became a sort of anthem for the gay community – it wasn’t written to be, but Cyndi has always said she’s glad they adopted it as their own. It really does sound like a gentle exhortation to come out of the closet, but it’s really about how everyone should stop being afraid to be who they really are, which just goes to show how all of us are the same, in the same boat, with the same fears, so take that Rob Ford.

Robert Downey Jr.: River

Yes, this is that Robert Downey Jr., and no, amazingly, it’s not a joke.  Turns out the boy can sing.  This was recorded for an album after first being played by Downey in an episode of the 90s yuppie quirk-fest Ally McBeal, one of those David Kelly TV shows that you either love or despise.  I didn’t watch it much after its first season, but was vaguely aware of the buzz surrounding the risky decision to hire Downey as a regular, a move meant to boost flagging ratings near the end of the show’s run. Risky, because at that point, the future Iron Man mega-star was a drug-addled wreck, unreliable, constantly in and out of rehab, always up on charges, and thoroughly on the outs in Hollywood. The closest recent equivalent would be Charlie Sheen, but there was one huge difference, and you can hear it in this performance. Charlie is an angry, arrogant, self-satisfied A-hole, mean and hurtful to everyone he touches.  Downey wasn’t mean.  He was just terribly, terribly sad.  I think that’s why everyone was always willing to give him another shot.

The song, of course, is by Joni Mitchell, and appears on her landmark 1971 album Blue.  A good Canadian girl, she found herself disoriented and depressed in L.A. one Christmas, which didn’t feel much like Christmas at all in the endless California summer, despite all the cardboard cut-out reindeer. Somehow, she was able to re-imagine the witlessly cheerful Jingle Bells, with which the song opens and closes, as a mournful refrain expressive of loss, guilt and homesick longing.  No snow and sleigh bells around here, no frozen river to skate away on.

I especially like River because it’s a break-up song that’s too self-aware to be about feeling hard done-by and wondering what went wrong.  No, she brought this on herself, she was selfish, difficult, and threw away her chance at love.  I doubt there’s ever been a more authentic expression of heartsick regret than her delivery of the simple lyric I made my baby cry.

Here’s Joni, if you prefer.

A Complete Change of Tone

Bran Van 3000: Drinking in LA

I first heard this on a car radio and was immediately taken with it, only to discover later that it was about 15 years old, and was on an album I had owned for around 12.  Bran Van 3000 is a Quebec group described as an “electronica collective”, and this is by no means their only catchy song, but there’s just something about its languid, dissolute tone, perhaps not so much sad as rueful, that sounds exactly like getting aimlessly buzzed on a hot L.A. afternoon ought to sound, if set to music.  It’s autobiographical. The writer, James Di Salvio, was in California trying to break into the movie business, and this is the story of how he and a buddy were making half-hearted stabs at writing a script. They’d start the day all full of piss and vinegar, but before you knew it they’d be down in Venice Beach again, boozing.  I just love how their plans always come to nought:

But we did nothing

Absolutely buttkiss that day

 Eventually they develop an idea how the movie should end (but we’ve got a conclusion / and I guess that’s something…) but not much else. It’s just so much easier to hang around on the patio, right?

Songs for 3AM

Some songs seem well suited to getting you out of bed in the morning.  If I had to be up and at ’em, I figure you couldn’t do much better than, say, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, that is, if getting out of bed in the morning didn’t make you feel as inconsolable as it does me.  In that case, good ol’ up and at ‘em! songs are just a very great pain in the large muscle groups.

Me, I come at morning from the other side, and identify most with the sort of songs you play at 3 AM, when you’ve been up all night, the world is quiet, and everything you’re most afraid of sits there keeping you company, grinning, patient, biding its time.  These songs are the sound of gentle night breezes rustling through oak leaves, and trains in the distance chugging across dark, empty landscapes.

John Southworth: Life is Unbelievable

There’s something unsettling about this one, it’s spooky, detached, almost cool and unsympathetic. He sings it like he observes life at a remove, and doesn’t really experience it himself. Yup, life sure is unbelievable, puzzling as hell, probably upsetting to many, but it’s just not his problem.  He might as well be an entomologist singing Bugs Are Unbelievable.  The strange video doesn’t do anything to lighten the mood, either, it’s like some sort of ghost movie.  Maybe Southworth should get in touch with the folks who are undoubtedly getting the funding together right now for Paranormal Activity 6: The Re-spookification.

Fink:  This is the Thing

I suppose there must be people who lead their whole lives and never once feel that the simple existence of every other fucking person on this sorry ball of crap is in itself a form of oppression.

You may have gathered I’m not one of those people.

Solitary confinement may well be the purest torture you can visit upon anyone, that’s what they tell me, but sometimes voluntary separation from the rest of the world is pure salvation, the only way to repair your losses and steel yourself for another foray into the noisy clanging of the daytime, and the incessant clack-clack-clacking of human tongues. Likely, nobody’s even going to notice you’ve been gone for a while, it’s not like you loom large on anybody’s landscape. I figure this guy is with me on that score. This is the thing:

The things that keep us apart

keep me alive

The things that keep me alive

keep me alone

No, I don’t always feel this way.  Well, not all of me, most days, and anyway, all of you are, of course, exempt from the “every other fucking person on this sorry ball of crap” classification, which is why I always do rejoin the living in due course.

Mazzy Star: Into Dust

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that this one only resonates so powerfully for me because I first heard it behind a scene in the coming of age movie Foxfire, in which a very young Angelina Jolie and her pretty friends sit around a campfire, strip to the waist, and give each other improvised tattoos in the spirit of sisterly bonding.  Well, that’s just wrong, and shame on you.

Fact is, I was bound to find it mesmerizing.  I’ve since seen it used to set the tone in several other movies and TV shows, usually when the protagonist is at a low ebb and losing the good fight, but I don’t hear defeat in this quiet song, just sombre acceptance of what is.  And look, if you’re going to live with your eyes open and cope all the same, you’d better be capable of sombre acceptance of what is.  It’s a positive thing.

Another Change of Pace

Well, yesterday I even managed to bum myself out, so it seemed a change of pace might be in order.  While I wouldn’t say any of the attached should be filed under “mindless escapism”, they’re certainly upbeat and tuneful, albeit with lyrics that range from philosophical to outright strange. That’s as close as I get, OK?  OK.  Just be glad I didn’t opt for the Icelandic Dirge Brotherhood’s downbeat masterpiece Blood on a Dog’s Face.**

XTC: We’re All Light

Right, let’s start with a quite marvellous dance number on the meaning of life and our place in the cosmos!

To begin, a little background (warning: vast over-simplification to follow).  In the aftermath of the Big Bang, as subatomic particles coalesced and formed the first atoms, we reckon that about three quarters of the matter in the universe was hydrogen, being the simplest of all atoms, with one electron circling one proton. There was also a fair bit of helium, which is two protons, two electrons, and a couple of neutrons. To this day hydrogen remains the most common element in the Universe, but on its own, it isn’t much beyond a darned good energy source (oh boy does it burn – type “Hindenburg Lakehurst New Jersey” into Google, you don’t believe me).  At first blush it’s hard to see how any amount of time can take us from a vast cosmic soup of free-floating hydrogen and helium to a guy in a leather jacket on the corner of Bay and Adelaide buying a hotdog (as the boys in Diner would say).  You and I are made out of all sorts of heavy atoms, iron, carbon, magnesium, oxygen, you get the picture.  What gives?

Well, as all of you know, one of the fundamental forces of nature is gravity, the tendency of objects carrying mass to attract each other. The mutual gravity of massive gas clouds condensed ever greater amounts of the hydrogen/helium together until there were balls of the stuff all over the place, crushing themselves together with enormous force, to the point at which the hydrogen atoms started to fuse. Nuclear fusion at that scale means you’ve got a star, kids, and stars, powered by fusion, crush their atoms together into heavier and heavier elements until they start to run out of fuel. Several variables, especially size, determine how stars will end their life cycles at that point, but one common outcome is a final cataclysmic explosion called a nova, or even bigger, a super-nova, and when those babies go up they spew out all of the complex elements they’ve been busy manufacturing, for all those billions of years, flinging them straight across their local galaxies.  It’s like they’re sneezing heavy atoms. The very atoms we, in the end, evolved to make use of in our biology.

Thus we are all, as Carl Sagan liked to say, made of star stuff – or, as XTC would have it, we’re all light, cast by stars in their dying gasps.  Hence the lyric:

Don’t you know

’bout a zillion years ago

Some star sneezed,

now they’re paging you in reception

Yup, marvellous and miraculous is our very existence, but for all of that, we’re not here for all that long, and the times we inhabit are often pretty shitty – better live a little while we can, eh?

Don’t you know

Upon the pillion of time’s bike

We roar onto the stage

and too soon we’re dead centre

 Don’t you know

Buffalo Bill-ions raised his sight

He’s picking off the whole herd

as soon as we enter

 So you won’t mind if I kiss you now

And maybe come on in for the night

Don’t you know, in this new Dark Age

We’re all light

Let’s see One Direction come up with something like that.

Shriekback: Gunning For the Buddha

Gotta admit, I had to look this up to figure out what it means, I’ve been bopping along for years until now, content in my confusion.  It turns out that a saying of a famous Zen Master named Linji is “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”.  The premise seems to be that no one can really recognize the Buddha, and no one who would claim to be the Buddha actually is, so if someone has managed to convince you that he’s the real deal, he can’t be, he’s a trickster, and should be taken out – or something like that.

So here we have a merry pair “on the road and gunning for the Buddha”. They actually spot a half-baked Buddha in a bar downtown, holding forth on nuclear fission and sounding all knowledgeable and shit – phony!

Strange idea to inhabit a song full of steel drums that makes you feel like pulling up a Caribbean palm tree and settling down with a nice rum punch.

Let’s see One Direction come up with that.

Pere Ubu: Waiting For Mary

This experimental combo named itself after a character in a play by French author Alfred Jarry, and if you have the time to figure out what some guy named Father Ubu could possibly have to do with avant-garde alt-rock, by all means, and let me know.  I have no idea what this one is about, not a frigging clue, but it chugs along so infectiously, no?  It’s like an anarchic romp through a china shop, this one, with lyrics that suggest nothing so much as the complete disorientation of everyone involved:

Welcome to Mars!

It’s open all hours,

What are we doing here?

Bill’s in the back and

Fred’s on the phone, sayin,

“What are we doing here?”

I’m sure it means something, and I’m sure there’s some significance to waiting for this enigmatic Mary to show up, maybe it’s like waiting for Godot, I don’t know.  Who cares? Let’s dance!  This is the track I’d choose for a rave-up in the nuthouse.

 Bran Van 3000: Everywhere

Ah, back on terra firma!  This is nothing inscrutable, it’s just a straight-up euphoric love song:

Everywhere I see your face,

Everywhere you sing your smile and,

Every time you’re not around,

It doesn’t matter,

‘Cause you’re everywhere to me.

Isn’t it just a ray of sunshine?  Everywhere is distilled sonic essence of being young and alive, and glad of it, just the thing when you’re all bummed out. Nobody can be grumpy for long playing this one.  Not even me!

All right, I hope that does it for you, next time we’re back to normal.

**Not a real song (or group)

Country Roads

You don’t like country music?  Yeah, me neither.  So why do I enjoy the following set of songs so much?  Is it possible that I’ve just been a snob, and there’s good country music, just like there’s good rock and roll?  You tell me. Nothing very heavy or philosophical in these tunes, just plenty of down home hurt and betrayal, and no genre suits itself better to hurtin’ than Country, you must admit.

Beatles: I Don’t want to Spoil the Party (Lennon & McCartney)’t+Want+to+Spoil+the+Party

What’s this, you say?  A country song by the Beatles?  Surely not! Well, have a listen, and if you really think this isn’t country, pure and simple, perhaps we aren’t on the same page with what we call “country”.

This is off their fourth album, tellingly named Beatles For Sale, and it was written in a moment of complete exhaustion in the latter half of 1964. Earlier that year they had conquered America, and then charmed even their most skeptical establishment critics with the film Hard Day’s Night and its accompanying soundtrack, the first to feature two sides of music written entirely by Lennon-McCartney.  In between they toured incessantly, and they’d already been working and touring incessantly for two years in Europe, before which they’d worked incessantly in various bars and clubs in Hamburg to the tune of literally hundreds of performances, some of them lasting eight to ten hours at a stretch. Yet now EMI and its American subsidiary, Capital Records, wanted still more product.

It may be par for the course for bands to release albums at a leisurely pace these days, but back then the record company philosophy was to strike while the iron’s still hot, before the kids move on to a new set of disposable pop idols. The lousy teeny-boppers were so fickle. Whoever they loved today would likely be gone by tomorrow, like Mayflies, one week top of the pops, next week the FBI couldn’t find them.  It had yet to be shown that an apparent fad might be built around a group that could grow with its audience and sustain huge popularity for years at a time.  The Beatles hadn’t proved it yet.

John and Paul had only enough spare time and energy to compose seven new songs (geez, only seven? Guys, you had a whole month!), and the rest of the album was filled out by any old thing they knew how to play from their Hamburg days, when the marathon sessions required them to dig deep into all manner of popular styles to furnish the quantity of songs needed for an eight-hour set.  But the seven that they wrote were really quite good, and the influence of the eclecticism of their Hamburg days is in evidence here, the Beatles effortlessly adopting the country idiom in the same way they could shift gears and adopt any other – what do you want? Hard rock? Tender ballads?  Songs written in keys not popular since 1350? Music hall?  Whatever.

I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party is distinguished by some of the closest vocal harmonization ever recorded between John and Paul. This is one of several of their early numbers in which there can’t really be said to be lead and backing vocals – there’s simply two lead vocals. Listen to John’s voice dive low and Paul’s soar into the higher register during the choruses, that delicious “I…..still………her”.  Gives me goose bumps.

And notice how God-awfully tired they look in the gorgeous photo on the album cover.

The Waltons: Beats the Hell Outta Me

Just a straight-ahead lament about a girl with a cheatin’ heart, and a guy who can’t for the life of him figure why he still hangs on.  What’s she got? Is she like crack or something?  Wouldn’t anybody with half a brain, and the smallest shred of dignity, have thrown in the towel by now?  Who does he dislike more – her, or his own sorry-assed self?  I find it irresistible, especially the closing crescendo, man, that’s one bitter cowpoke we got there.  Plus, as ya’ll will have gathered by now, I just love a song that comes to a tidy musical conclusion, no fade-out needed.  I just eat that with a spoon.

Kathleen Edwards: Westby

Kathleen is one of the most authentically earthy writers on the scene, penning catchy tunes that beguile to the point that you almost miss the acid sentiments in the lyrics. This is a young girl bedding a married man in a cheap hotel, and she feels neither proud nor dirty, it just is what it is.  She muses that if he wasn’t so old, she might even keep him, might even introduce him to all her friends, but here’s the thing:

I don’t think your wife would like my friends.

As a parting gesture she steals his watch on the way out.  Girl, you are one rough piece of business.

Lumineers: Ho Hey

It’s rare these days that anything that gets airplay fills me with pure joy, but there we were, Kathy and I, driving to Loblaws on a Sunday afternoon, and out this came from the FM radio. Halle-frigging-lujah! An actual song!!  I get shivers at the chord shift that occurs at the end of the verses, as at the line but I can write a song, it just pokes me right in the music spot. I love how it’s such a gentle and guileless plea to his love interest, how he calls her “my sweetheart” with such warmth, how he sincerely feels that the bum she’s with isn’t right for her. I love how you can hear one of the band members instruct the crowd “last one”, as the final repetition of “ho hey”, approaches, and I love how the whole song gets in and out before you’ve had enough. This is pure, joyful music-making.

It’s a lovely video, too.

Songs at Random, Again

I don’t guess there’s any particular theme today. There’s still a few more I’d like to share before I wind up Songs of the Day, and these are ones I’m sure you haven’t heard that are dear to me, that’s all. There’s only one actual downer (lyrically) in the bunch, but it’s so tuneful you might not notice if you didn’t listen to the words. I guess I’m mellowing out as this nears its end.  Imagine that.

These entries are getting progressively longer, I know, I seem to have a lot inside that wants to burst out all over you, poor souls.  Give the descriptions a miss, but one of these songs might appeal to you greatly. I’m kind of scatter shooting here. Not knowing anybody’s taste, it’s hard to pick which ones to send, so I always fall back on what, at any rate, sounds good to me. Don’t mean to be pushy!

Pete Townshend: Pure and Easy

Pete Townshend: Time is Passing

I don’t want to slather too much Townshend on you, it’s just that I love Pete all to pieces, and both of these might seem a bit surprising if you think of him as the guy in the Who that wrote raucous, rather angry numbers like My Generation and Won’t Get Fooled Again.  I think these two might fairly be called, well, kind of profound.  They’re big picture stuff.

I particularly wanted to share Pure and Easy because it’s a companion piece to Behind Blue Eyes, which I sent along earlier. Perhaps you recall the discussion of the Life House project, for which Pete wrote so many of his greatest songs? Pure and Easy was to have been the centrepiece of that incredible, overly ambitious rock opera that never was. It’s about the purpose for which our hero creates the Life House, to rediscover music and especially to search for the mythical lost chord.

I’ve been looking into the origins of that myth lately, and it’s hard to pin down, but it seems to go all the way back to Pythagoras, who is supposed to have stated “There is geometry in the humming of the strings. There is music in the spacing of the spheres”. You still hear the expression “music of the spheres” sometimes.  It originated out of the ancient belief that the seven visible celestial bodies, all of which rotated around the Earth, were suspended in space on concentric, crystalline, transparent spheres, made of an ethereal fifth element – literally, the “quintessence”.

In this sense the “music” might be thought of as the essential frequency of the universe itself. If I follow correctly, Pythagoras associated the seven note musical scale with the seven spheres, and may have thought that the orbits of the spheres and the spacing of the notes on the scale shared some fundamental relationship; he also saw math and music as intertwined, since in Pythagorean philosophy “all is number”, and Pythagoras understood that the pitch of a note emitted by a vibrating string is inversely proportional to its length, a relationship that can be expressed numerically. It all gets pretty dense and mystical, but it seems that the Lost Chord is a variant of the Music of the Spheres, the perfect harmonious combination of notes that expresses in musical terms the mathematical perfection of the relative proportions of the spheres overhead. Pythagoras may even have believed that each of the spheres actually emitted its own distinct frequency of hum, which combined to form one perfect note.

Heady stuff for a rock opera, but there can be no doubt this is what Pete was getting at. Pure and Easy is the anthem of those seeking that perfect harmonious note:

There once was a note, pure and easy

playing so free like a breath rippling by

 The note is eternal, I hear it, it sees me

forever we blend, as forever we die

I mean, wow.

Pete also pursued a variety of Eastern mysticism, and became a follower of an Indian spiritual master named Mehar Baba (he’s the “Baba” in Baba O’Reilly, the song that everyone misidentifies as “Teenage Wasteland”. “O’Reilly” is Terry O’Reilly, an American composer. Pete was telegraphing the spiritual and musical influences on his song writing). Time is Passing is a reflection of Pete’s evolving, Baba-influenced spirituality. I think it’s serene and lovely. Pete catches a glimpse of the eternal in the grandeur of nature, and dreams of a resurrection still to come.

There’s something in the whisper of the trees

Millions hear it, still they don’t believe

There are echoes of it splashing in the waves

as an empire of dead men leave their graves

I’m not a big believer in anything in particular, but this all but makes me want to find religion. It would be nice to be so at peace with yourself and the world, wouldn’t it?

Matthew Sweet: Feel Fear

 The Thorns: Blue

The Thorns were a band led by Matthew Sweet, who’s to my mind a terrific and tragically under-appreciated pop craftsman. There’s so many of his songs I’d urge you to look into. Some rock pretty hard, like Get Older, Evangeline, and Sick of Myself, some are quiet, like Until You Break, but there’s always an underlying wistful quality, poignancy even, and all are inherently melodic in a way that pushes all of my buttons.

Blue is just such a song, but Sweet didn’t write it. It’s a cover of a track first played by a band called the Jayhawks, about whom I know nothing, but I can see why he chose it, it sounds exactly like him. A very enjoyable tune, says me.

Feel Fear, today’s potential bummer, certainly preaches a sad and defeated gospel:

Feel fear, feel fear, do you believe, deceive yourself?

Don’t you realize you can’t be saved?

Feel fear, feel fear, do you believe, deceive yourself?

If you can’t feel fear, you’ve gone insane.

OK, sure, that’s not something you embroider into your cushions as an inspirational message, but c’mon, listen to that tune. I think it’s just sublime.

Joel Plaskett: Through and Through and Through

I pushed some Plaskett at you a while back, with his song about Halifax, and I offer this as an antidote to any bummed-out-itus I may just have provoked.  This is such a fun little unplugged recording session!  Don’t you just love the girls singing backup?  Isn’t Joel a clever, witty, melodic song writer?  Are you with me? Anybody?

This is off his album Three, on which many of the song titles simply repeat three words, and if you like this one I think you’d like much on that record.

John Darnielle: Surrounded

I just discovered Darnielle, who shared the stage in the song writer’s forum Ships and Dip, from which I previously sent a clip of John K Samson. He fronts a band called the Mountain Goats, an “indie” outfit that often releases its music in penny packets of a thousand units or so.  This one is from a “concept” album and proposed rock opera about, get this, a government-run organ harvesting conspiracy being perpetrated in secret facilities on the Moon. The clip starts with Darnielle explaining the underlying concept, and you’ll probably share the reaction of the guy sitting next to him.

Yet this a powerful song, which I include today because it seems to me quite Townshend-esque. Here we have a rock opera with a wild and out there story line, and a ferocious acoustic number that features almost frantic strumming of the sort heard in Flamenco music.  Doesn’t this bring to mind the story of a deaf dumb and blind kid named Tommy, the subject of a similarly strummed little number called Pinball Wizard?

Anyway, how could I resist a song that portrays a character who doesn’t mind being separated from the general population, so long as he has his 96 inch widescreen to keep him company?


The Beatles (McCartney): Penny Lane

This is the text of an e-mail I fired back to {X} on a day when the papers reported the death of David Mason, the baroque trumpeter of the London Philharmonic, who famously lent his piccolo trumpet to Penny Lane.  She attached a link and asked if I’d seen the item. 

I decided I rather liked it and kept it.

Yes – this article is actually nicer than the one that appeared in the print version this morning, which was headlined “The Guy Who Played Trumpet on Penny Lane has Died”, and went on to dismissively equate Mason with various oddball celebrities who were famous for only one silly little thing, trifles like the “peppy little riff” of trumpet that “launches” Penny Lane (the trumpet of course appears first in the middle, and doesn’t launch the song at all).

Made me quite angry, actually!  “The Guy” indeed.  Sets me off on one of my rants.

Penny Lane has always had an extra special place in my heart – it was the first song I ever loved, as a six year old, listening to its graceful melody wafting out of innumerable open windows and car radios. It remains my favourite, 45 years on, and I’m always dismayed when people underrate it.  It’s usually described as cheerful and upbeat, which it is on the surface, but as with so many McCartney compositions of the period (like the gorgeous Mother Nature’s Son off the White Album), it contains nuance that hints at layers of yearning and sadness underneath, and also a doubting self-awareness, exemplified by the chord changes that occur in the middle of every verse (on the last word – “know” – before “and all the people that come and go”, on the word “back” just before “and the banker never wears a Mac”, and so on.)  It has a quizzical feel to it, a hint that the singer suspects something isn’t quite right about this mental image of the Penny Lane of his youth, even though the song immediately snaps back into the dominant chord of the verse, and that nagging feeling is quickly set aside. Watch this:

And indeed, something is amiss. Author Ian Macdonald sensed a part of this in commenting that the song is “as sly and knowing as a group of mischievous and observant kids straggling home from school”, and there is that element of bemused mockery, but in the service of a much bigger idea – for Penny Lane is about the frailty of memory, and the sad awareness that the way one remembers things, all blue skies and happy goings-on, is not really the way things were.  Thus the pretty nurse, dressed up and selling poppies for Remembrance Day, not only has a self-conscious feeling that she’s in a play – she is anyway, just another archetypal character in the pleasant fiction. The Penny Lane that today fills his ears and eyes never really existed, and the narrator knows it. That’s just the way nostalgia works, and even if it wasn’t quite like this, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it was?  Who says you can’t miss something that never was? Penny Lane implies that all of us probably do.

Musically, the song is deceptively and dazzlingly complex, beginning not with trumpet, but a flourish of bass guitar, which sets up a marvellous contrapuntal “walking” bass line, loping along in almost jaunty fashion. Like nearly all McCartney bass lines, this one is tuneful and ingenious, crucial to the song’s harmonic structure. In Paul’s hands, the bass sings a song all its own, and much of the joy to be had in repeated listens of Penny Lane is in the way it intertwines the separate melodies of the bass and vocal lines. Also magical is that the chorus is in a different key to the verse, the song hopping from B to A, with A representing the current reality, and B the distant memory, until the very end, when a modulation brings the chorus into B.

This is expert songwriting.

Apart from the piccolo trumpet, the arrangement boasts a conventional horn section, flutes, a fire bell, and a droning upright double bass that highlights the banker settling in to the barber’s chair for his trim.  Of greatest note is the uncanny staccato piano sound that anchors the verses, the product of an arduous recording process that made the most of the four track tape technology then available. No single piano produced the timbre that Paul heard in his head, so he kept layering piano on top of piano on the master tape, until it is not a single instrument, but four playing in unison, some at accelerated pitch, with added hints of percussion (bells, or some sort of xylophone perhaps?) to supply finishing touches. Both Lennon and George Martin contributed overdubs to this uber-piano, creating an effect that is at once indefinable yet perfectly natural; the listener doesn’t know why, but it just sounds right.  This is perhaps best heard after the exclamation about the nurse, that “she is anyway” – Ian MacDonald again supplies the apt turn of phrase, referring to this moment as a “shivering ecstasy of grace notes”.  There is nothing quite like it in any other recording.

All the elements come together in the final verse, the piccolo trumpet, the flutes, the horns, the super-piano – here we turn to author Jonathan Gould for the evocative image of  the “toy trumpet and penny whistles snapping like pennants in the wind” as the final modulation leads to an abrupt and almost disconcerting conclusion. The song just ends. There is a sudden shimmering flourish of close-miked cymbal, leading the listener to experience a sort of aural representation of the reverie ending, almost literally the sound of an illusion dissolving, and as the narrator exclaims one last longing “Penny Lane!” the moment simply passes.  It’s almost like somebody has yelled “Snap out of it!” at the day-dreaming singer. Someone once commented that Penny Lane doesn’t so much conclude as hit a wall and ricochet, which I’ve always thought is a good way to put it, yet this doesn’t quite capture the underlying melancholy, the sense of loss. Those who decry McCartney’s shallow good cheer seem never to sense the tears that so often lie just beneath the laughter.

In the initial mix, Mason plays one last plaintive trumpet riff over the cymbals, but this was gilding the lily, and it was removed after a first pressing of singles was sent out for airplay. You can hear the original on one of the Anthology discs, and the decision to remove the trumpet coda can be heard to make perfect sense. While pleasing, it’s an ornament that dilutes the finality.

To top it all off is a vocal performance of piercing clarity, typically free of even a hint of tremor or strain. That high-pitched flute-like sound that provides counterpoint to the piccolo trumpet solo in mid-song is McCartney’s own voice.  Bob Dylan has said that there never was singer better than McCartney is, or Lennon was, and this is an aspect of their work that is often overlooked, as if it’s just too much that they should have been gifted that way too.

All that subtlety and complexity, yet you can sing it in the shower – the mark of a truly great song.  To me, there never has been one better.  Yet when Rolling Stone set out to rank the 500 greatest songs of all time, they placed Penny Lane at #449. Four hundred and forty-ninth.  Rolling Stone thinks that there are four hundred and forty-eight songs that are better than Penny Lane!!  It’s depressing to be reminded how few can really appreciate music; even in rankings of Beatle songs, Penny Lane often arrives somewhere in the middle of the pack, characterized as the acme of good cheer and a typically McCartneyesque counterpoint to the inappropriately more highly rated Strawberry Fields Forever, the flip-side to Penny Lane on what George Martin calls the greatest single ever made.  It’s a pretty good litmus test, actually. If you think Penny Lane is a simple and relentlessly cheerful little ditty, you have a tin ear, limited imagination, and quite possibly no soul.

Penny Lane resides on a rarefied plateau alongside the best of Gershwin, Porter and Rogers.  It is surely one of the greatest popular songs ever written. So for me it’s really quite sad that “the guy who played trumpet” is no longer with us.  David Mason’s contribution is the final touch that elevated Penny Lane into supernatural territory, and I hope it seemed to him that the fame he earned from his afternoon’s work at Abbey Road studios was well deserved.  To think he might never have been recruited had McCartney not happened upon Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 on the television one evening, seen Mason play, and realized that’s the sound I need.

 The Beatles (Lennon & McCartney): A Day in the Life

I’m going out on a limb here, but it’s a stout limb, and I feel quite secure.  A Day In The Life is the greatest work of popular art ever conceived. Going on fifty years after its recording, it remains sui generis, belonging with no other type of popular music one can imagine – certainly not “Rock” by any sensible definition, much less “Pop”, or “Folk”, though it has elements of each.  It doesn’t even seem proper to refer to it as a “song”, that’s too diminutive a word for something so monumental. Parts of it more closely resemble the sound experiments of the 20th century classical avant garde, but it doesn’t belong in that category either, being intelligible and inherently tonal. To hear it for the first time is to look at a painting composed of colours that no one has ever used before, and can’t even be properly named. There’s so much to think about when listening critically to this amazing…song.

First, though, let’s get something straight.  A Day in the Life has passed into popular consciousness as Lennon’s work (which does much to underpin the ludicrous myth that John was the real musical talent in the Beatles).  It seems like almost everybody says so, even Paul has said so, but there is one person who quite emphatically disagrees – John himself. These are quotes from various interviews John gave over the years to Rolling Stone, Playboy and the like:

“Paul and I were definitely working together, especially on ‘A Day in the Life’ that was a real … The way we wrote a lot of the time: you’d write the good bit, the part that was easy, like ‘I read the news today’ or whatever it was, then when you got stuck or whenever it got hard, instead of carrying on, you just drop it; then we would meet each other, and I would sing half, and he would be inspired to write the next bit and vice versa… So we were doing it in his room with the piano. He said ‘Should we do this?’ ‘Yeah, let’s do that.”

“A Day In The Life – that was something. I dug it. It was a good piece of work between Paul and me. I had the ‘I read the news today’ bit, and it turned Paul on. Now and then we really turn each other on with a bit of song, and he just said ‘yeah’ – bang, bang, like that. It just sort of happened beautifully.”

 “Paul’s contribution was the beautiful little lick in the song ‘I’d love to turn you on.’ I had the bulk of the song and the words, but he contributed this little lick floating around in his head that he couldn’t use for anything. I thought it was a damn good piece of work.”

George Martin is often cagey about whose idea it was (see the clip below), but in some interviews he confirms that the mind-blowing orchestral crescendos that are so crucial to the piece were also McCartney’s; it may be that John had the concept, “a sound like the end of the world”, but Paul was the one who put that idea into music, and you can find a film of Paul conducting the orchestra at the recording session. His inspiration was the work of atonal 20th century composers like Schoenberg, and the radical electronic experiments of Stockhausen, to which he’d been listening closely at the time. As Paul told Playboy in 1984:

The orchestra crescendo was based on some of the ideas I’d been getting from Stockhausen and people like that, which is more abstract. So we told the orchestra members to just start on their lowest note and end on their highest note and go in their own time–which orchestras are frightened to do. That’s not the tradition. But we got ’em to do it.

The entire middle section, of course, was also Paul’s, and I’ve always thought the importance of that part of the piece is under-appreciated.  That’s also Paul on piano throughout.

So John arrived with an acoustic number, and Paul gifted him the critical line “I’d love to turn you on”, the middle eight, the piano accompaniment, and the out-of-this-world orchestration that lent it unprecedented gravitas.  A Day in the Life would also suffer greatly in the absence of Paul’s typically eloquent bass line. Puts me in mind of an article I found on the BBC Website, by New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik:

The Beatles’ music endures above all because we sense in it the power of the collaboration of opposites. John had reach. He instinctively understood that what separates an artist from an entertainer is that an artist seeks to astonish, even shock, his audience. Paul had grasp, above all of the materials of music, and knew intuitively that astonishing art that fails to entertain is mere avant-gardism… in those seven years when John’s reach met Paul’s grasp, we all climbed Everest.

In other words, John could point to distant stars that Paul might otherwise have ignored, but only Paul could reach up and grab them.

I wish people would understand this.

That said, let no one doubt that the little acoustic number John brought in to Studio Two was one for the ages, at once spooky, melancholy and compelling. There is a video of George Martin playing take one on the original master tape, and it gives him the same goose bumps decades later as it did in 1967.

That sad little “oh boy”, the dull affect, the alienation, this sort of thing could have come from no other songwriter. The lyrics were inspired by a newspaper story about the automotive death of Guinness heir Tara Browne, and John used this as an opening tableaux, the “lucky man” who “blew his mind out in a car”.  His dry description of the event is one of the most chilling things ever heard in recorded music.  Here is a mind numbed by media saturation, taking note of even the starkest tragedies with interest, but not emotion, seeming half asleep, off in some dreamland, bemused perhaps, but too flat to feel anything, really. He’s just telling you what he saw. It’s hard to express in clumsy words how extraordinary this is, how moving. Well I just had to laugh…I saw the photograph… like a voice from beyond the grave.  The voice of someone who sees everything, but doesn’t much care any more.

Paul adored it immediately, and as he always did with John’s songs, he composed a bass counterpoint that serves as a superb melodic enhancement, his line ending with the notes E-D-C-D-G, the G in the next lowest octave.  You hear this at the end of John singing “I saw the photograph”.  Stay tuned.

John had a second verse but no middle. Paul offered up a song snippet he’d had bouncing around in his head for some time, but how to transition from John’s part to Paul’s?  Initially they had no idea, but knew it would have to be something grand and visionary, so they recorded an empty space, twenty-four bars long, that contained nothing except the voice of their faithful roadie Mal Evans counting out the bars, punctuated with an alarm clock. They repeated this, sans alarm clock, at the end. Imagine, making a blank recording in the certainty that you’ll figure out what needs to go there later. Look, it has to be beyond anything ever heard on a popular record, so give us a minute, we’ll come back to that after we finish this other bit.

When it came time to fill those gaps with Paul’s orchestral orgasms, they held a midnight recording session at Abbey Road, and to get the symphony players into the spirit of things, Paul handed out clown noses, party hats, fake gorilla paws and other paraphernalia for them all to wear.  It was vital to take them outside of themselves, disorient them, and persuade their sub-conscious minds that this was different, this was not their day job, and they weren’t to do anything conventional this night. Paul says he gave them instructions that weren’t so much a score as a recipe, just start yourself off at the lowest note, proceed over 24 bars to your highest, and for God’s sake don’t play in unison.  Forty-two classically trained musicians somehow managed to do just that, and in post-production they were quadruple-tracked so that what we hear is a 168 piece orchestra emitting what sounds, as ordered, like a great engine spooling up to the full power it needs to destroy the entire world.

Then the alarm clock rings, and Paul’s middle section begins. The insistent banging of a note on the piano sets the tone. While John’s vocal had been enhanced by an other-worldly studio echo, Paul’s is now natural and straightforward.  While the rhythm of John’s piece had been lazy and enervated, Paul’s is now hopping along at twice the pace. The fitful night is over. It’s time to get up and get to living another day – another awful, repetitive day.

As originally conceived, Paul’s bit was probably a jaunty sort of “C’mon Get Up, Get Happy!” sort of number, but not any more. Change the arrangement, alter the mood, and sandwich it between sonic cataclysms, and it becomes a horrible wake-up call to a desperate and dreary reality.  Gulping down the coffee, realizing you’re already late, then rushing to the bus (listen to John add heavy breathing at this juncture), this is the source of the alienation and apathy we heard in the first verse. If before was a dream, this is a waking nightmare.

Having caught the bus, our narrator falls into a weary waking reverie, and then John’s voice begins a primal wail, and as the orchestra returns and grows inexorably in power, the vocal runs across the stereo image, one speaker to the other, as if trying to flee from the crushing weight of the sound behind it – but it’s no good.  With five definitive notes, the blow is dealt, and there they are again: E-D-C-D-G, rendered this time with overwhelming force. This is Paul’s special genius on subtle display. He’s using the same five notes from the concluding phrase of his prior bass line to create a sense of unity, knitting the disparate segments of the song together in a way hardly anyone notices, but most everyone feels at some level.

Back comes John with the final verse, the tempo now matching Paul’s, and we hear of another news story, this one also real, about bureaucrats who somehow thought it was worth their while to calculate how many pot-holes infested the roads in Blackburn, Lancashire.  Again, it’s hard to express in words how perfectly this suits the mood of the piece, how the bit about finally knowing how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall so fully exemplifies the incessant media noise that has thoroughly desensitized the singer. It’s information devoid of knowledge.  It clogs the mind with its uselessness.

Again, now, with the sound of the world ending. Most haunting perhaps is hearing Mal Evans as he’s counting bars, just barely discernible in the mix, “…seventeen…eighteen…nineteen…”, like he’s marking the last few seconds until we must conclude, inevitably, with annihilation.  It builds to an unbearable pitch, then ends with utter finality. In the studio, five different players at three separate pianos strike the same E-major chord in unison, and the engineer turns up the gain on the microphones, placed inside the grand pianos right next to the strings, at the same rate as the strings themselves vibrate ever more faintly towards silence, the note seeming to last forever. There’s no electronic trickery going on here.  It’s just the sound of the strings fading down to nothing over 42 seconds.  At the end the recorders were turned up to the point that you can hear someone in the studio – according to legend, Ringo – shift slightly on a piano stool.

If you’re ever seeking an aural representation of the aftermath of the Big Bang, look no further.  Except, the Big Bang was a moment of creation. This is the way the world ends, not just with a bang, or only a whimper either, but both, one after the other.

Brian Wilson

I was talking to {X} a few days ago about putting “song of the day” to bed, and said something to the effect that there’s only so many songs that are worth talking about (as opposed to songs I just happen to like), and there didn’t seem anywhere to go once you’ve dissected A Day in the Life.  It now seems to me that I jumped the gun on that. There remains a whole pile of songs, some of them landmark achievements, to talk about, and this time around I want to correct a glaring omission from the entries in Series I.

Let’s dial it back to 1966, the year when I think modern pop music reached a high water mark that it isn’t likely ever to hit again. By fate or happy coincidence, 1966 is the year that Kathy was born, and she had the idea one year that for her birthday, I should make a mixed tape of the songs from 1966 that I felt were most worthy. I ended up with four hours of digital audio tape and plenty more to add when I ran out of steam.

That magic year, pop was in a ferment. Dylan, the Who, the Stones, the Kinks, the Byrds, all the great Motown artists, and of course the Beatles, were duking it out for chart supremacy in a glorious game of one-upmanship that was pushing pop-rock far beyond anything anyone would have believed possible only a couple of years earlier. Superficially, the most unlikely entrant in these sweepstakes were the Beach Boys, whose innocent pre-British Invasion anthems to surfers, fast cars and pretty girls, so huge back before 1964, now seemed hopelessly quaint. Except, in 1966 the Beach Boys weren’t making songs about surfing and fast cars any more, and there are ways and ways of writing about pretty girls.

Conventional wisdom, which I think is sound enough, has the two Beatle giants looking in different directions for their toughest rivals at this juncture. Lennon, of course, was obsessed with Bob Dylan. Songs like You’ve Got To hide Your Love Away and Norwegian Wood were obvious attempts to match Dylan at his own game, as John’s work became ever more confessional and self-absorbed. McCartney admired Dylan, but for him the natural competitor was the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, in whom he recognized a prodigious melodic talent rivaling his own, a similar flair for innovative bass playing, and an uncanny knack for clever song structures employing key changes, unexpected shifts in tempo, and innovative production techniques. For Paul, Brian Wilson was the guy to beat.

Wilson, predictably, felt the same way about McCartney, and when, in the last month of 1965, the Beatles threw down the gauntlet with the epochal album Rubber Soul, he ditched the surfboard, parked the Little Deuce Coupe, and vowed to do them one better. Apparently he even held prayer sessions in the studio, asking the Almighty for the inspiration to make an album better than Rubber Soul.

An old cliché has it that God indeed hears every prayer, it’s just that quite often the answer is “no”. Well, OK, but not this time.

Throughout the first half of 1966 Brian laboured in the studio to produce his masterwork, and it bears remembering here that unlike anyone in the Beatles, he had to be a one man show. He was the gifted one; the other Beach Boys were barely useful as part-time session musicians at this point, while Brian, heavily influenced by the “wall of sound” production techniques pioneered by Phil Spector earlier in the decade, filled the role of composer, arranger, producer, and player – in effect he had to be John, Paul and George Martin all at once. It was, actually, a hell of a mental strain for him. But in May of 1966, Brian having pushed himself to the limit, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds.

“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life … I figure no one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard that album … I love the orchestra, the arrangements … it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century … but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways … I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence … it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines … and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. ‘God Only Knows’ is a big favorite of mine … very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On ‘You Still Believe in Me,’ I love that melody – that kills me … that’s my favorite, I think … it’s so beautiful right at the end … comes surging back in these multi-colored harmonies … sends shivers up my spine.”

 Paul McCartney

Have a listen to this Pet Sounds sampler:

Beach Boys: 

Wouldn’t it Be Nice

Caroline, No

Sloop John B

God Only Knows

The sheer song craft in evidence here is staggering, as is the sophistication of the production and arrangements – and notice the prominent bass lines, so much like McCartney’s work. Of the above, I’ve always thought that God Only Knows resides in a class of its own. McCartney has at various times called it the most perfect and beautiful song he’s ever heard, and it’s certainly one of the very few of the era that forces you to reach for the very zenith of Paul’s output when trying to find its equal. The key changes; the French horn; the staccato drumming at the end; that oddly affecting “clip clop” rhythm; the surpassing beauty of the closing lines, with its intertwined melodies; this is beyond a mere love song, and into something that exalts the finest qualities of the human spirit.

Crushing for Brian, then, that Pet Sounds didn’t sell. It just wasn’t the Beach Boys that people had come to expect. Always psychologically fragile, Brian was now teetering on the edge of full-blown depression, his masterpiece scorned – or was he wrong about that? Perhaps it wasn’t that good after all? The public had amply proved that it could grow along with its favourite artists, and surely if the masses were tin-eared philistines unwilling to let their idols break out of pre-conceived boxes, Rubber Soul would not have sold in its millions. What had he done wrong?  What more could he do?  He couldn’t have imagined that decades hence, no list of the ten best albums ever made would dare to omit Pet Sounds, and he also seems not to have registered a congratulatory telegram that McCartney took the trouble to send him upon the album’s release.

Meanwhile, the Beatles were busy on their own masterwork, and in August of 1966 issued Revolver, often cited today as their greatest album, and another perennial on the “ten best of all time” lists. Nobody as gifted as Brian could have failed to recognize his own kind in songs like For No One, and Here There and Everywhere, and then there was Eleanor Rigby, with its gritty string octet, written not in a key but in a more primitive “mode” not heard since medieval times, except in the hymns that Paul must have absorbed in his days as a choir boy. And those lyrics!  Horribly sad yet not the least bit sentimental. How it must have stung when Eleanor Rigby was released Stateside as a single and climbed the charts like a rocket, proving beyond doubt that the public was prepared to buy something unconventional that shattered previous expectations, provided it was good enough.

Moreover, Revolver ended with a song like nobody had ever heard before, John’s inspiration but containing sounds, courtesy of Paul, that had never been heard outside of the narrow circles of the 20th century avant-garde. Tomorrow Never Knows hit everyone like a bucket of ice water. Everything about it bespoke utter mastery of the recording studio, its vocals drenched in electronic distortion, almost buried in a sound-scape awash in backwards tape loops sounding like deranged seagulls, and the oppressive droning of drums and sitars, while John quoted liberally from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Just two years ago it had been “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Now here was Lennon, sounding like a drugged mystic shouting from some fog-shrouded mountain top, intoning that the day could yet come “when ignorance and hate might mourn the dead”.

And Revolver, naturally, sold in its millions.

Fine. Brian wasn’t done yet. He retreated to the studio – to several different California studios, actually, each picked to give particular parts of the song their own ambience – and laboured on what was surely, to that point, the greatest pop single ever released.

The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations 

It took months to put this pocket symphony together, layering harmonies on top of multiple instrumental tracks, splicing together disparate segments into a cohesive whole, adding multiple overdubs and studio effects, until the thing was polished to a staggering degree of fineness. Good Vibrations, released at the end of 1966, upped the ante yet again, and to this day, you’ll struggle to find anything more rich, textured, melodic and inventive. I love the way it just launches right in, no pre-amble, just “Aaah – I love the colorful clothes she wears” (perhaps an echo of “Aaah – look at all the lonely people”?). That weird science fiction sounding instrument is a Theremin, a spooky electronic device that you play without touching it – you move your hands around it, disturbing an electro-magnetic field. The cello is a masterstroke, as is the complete change in tempo in the middle eight, and that church-like organ, like he’s worshiping this girl.

The title came from something some relative had told Brian about a pet dog, that it seemed to sense people’s good or bad intentions as if they were putting out vibrations that only it could sense. From this point on, the idea of good vibes and bad vibes became part of the popular lexicon.

And at last, blessedly, Good Vibrations was a massive hit.

Across the Atlantic, McCartney sat up straight and realized the gauntlet had been thrown down yet again. He was quite enjoying this trans-Atlantic tennis match, and knew nothing of the terrible mental strain that competing with the Beatles was imposing upon poor Brian. For Paul, this was friendly (if intense) competition, good for both of them; for Brian, it was a dire challenge to his sense of self-worth. Seen in that light, the release, only a few months later, of the double A-Side single Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever must have seemed less like a friendly riposte than a near mortal blow. Those fucking Beatles had done it again.

In a fever, Brian returned to the studio to work on something to surpass Pet Sounds and race back in front of the Beatles, a project called Smile that absorbed him to the point of unhealthy obsession. While he was hammering away at that, God help him, Paul paid him a personal visit in California and, by various accounts, either played live on a piano, or from copies of master tapes, a few cuts from the soon to be released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apparently, after Brian had heard what was coming, Paul playfully said something like “You’d better hurry up!”.

It would not have occurred to Paul that Brian was dying inside, his Smile project eclipsed even before he could finish it. Paul just wanted to see what Brian would do next – he was only saying, to his mind, “Over to you!”

In June, 1967, Sgt. Pepper was released to a universal and utterly unprecedented chorus of rapturous acclaim. Shattered, Brian finally succumbed to his demons, withdrew from public life, started hanging out with dangerous characters like members of the Manson family, and was never the same again. Pepper had been the last straw that killed his spirit.

Decades later, when Brian was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, it was Paul who did the honours, with considerable grace and honest affection. I suspect that McCartney feels keenly to this day how much of a loss it is that we never got to hear what Brian was going to do next.

Fountains of Wayne

I thought I might do a couple of “in depth profile” song samplers, singling out some groups whose work I always admire.  I guess it says something that the first to come to mind was New Jersey’s Fountains of Wayne, a band I pushed at you in Series I, with their wonderful song of broken romance, Troubled Times.  There’s nothing revolutionary about FOW, except within the context of today’s popular music. Led by songwriters Chris Collingsworth and Adam Schlesinger, this group hews to the old values of pop: have a hook; make the melody memorable; do the odd unexpected thing to keep ‘em interested; emphasize harmonies; tell a memorable story; be disciplined. These guys would have been right at home in the Brill Building, sitting next to Neil Diamond, Burt Bacharach and Carole King, cranking out hits for the masses. They ought to be one of the most popular bands on the scene.

Like everybody else in popular music, they sing often about romance and its entanglements, but there’s always something unusually poignant about FOW’s “relationship” songs. You won’t find many about the unmitigated joy of first love, or the rush of infatuation. It always seems to be about going separate ways, doubts, regrets, unrequited feelings, anything but boy-meets-girl-be-happy-ever-after-yay-and-we’re-done!!

A few of them, like Kid Gloves, involve one lover’s urge to get out of New York City, the light, noise and pressures of the Big Apple standing in metaphorically for the overwhelming emotions that nobody wants to confront. In that song we’re presented with a guy who doesn’t want to be treated like damaged goods any more – or is he just afraid that she can see right through him and knows that indeed, he is damaged goods?  Or is he more frustrated at how she handles him with such reticent care that he can’t really talk to her about anything that smacks of honest emotion? Yeah, well, either way, the Hell with it, time to bail out.

Here is what I have found

New York just gets me down

When the going got tough

I got a bus ticket

back to my home town

All the way there I dreamed

flesh wrapped in velveteen

And the road wrapped around me

The long lonely highway

gulped down by a Greyhound

Not exactly moon / June / spoon. Such lovely music, the cello, the piano, the slow swinging cadence of the verses, ach!  I love it!

No Better Place is almost the flip side of the same story, with the narrator now being the one left behind in NYC, wondering what’s so great about this other place where his girlfriend would apparently rather be. Of course, what’s so great about it is that he’s not there, a thought that one does best to suppress at such times. Again with the fabulous melody and gorgeous melancholy of the sentiments – these are lyrics that really sting:

Is that supposed to be your poker face

or was someone run over by a train?


From the C Train to the shiny tower

kicked around ’til happy hour found you

where you could drink

that smirk right off your face


The bourbon sits inside me

right now I am a puppet in its sway

And it may be the whiskey talking

but the whiskey says I miss you every day

So I taxi to an all night party

park me in the corner in an old chair

Sip my drink and stare off into space

Now she’s leaving New York

for no better place

…and most moving, this little vignette in the middle eight, the narrator looking through his transparent image reflected in a shop window and feeling every bit as insubstantial as his ghostly mirror-self:

Here is your reflection in a building downtown

a ghost in some Madison Avenue display

Like water under bridges you’re slowly passing by

as you sail between the rooftops and the sky

Sometimes the subject is completely unexpected. In All Kinds of Time we get inside the head of a high school quarterback destined for greatness, everything moving in slow motion around his swift, observant mind as he assesses the evolving play, and finds the open man right where he’s supposed to be, as if illuminated in a shaft of light.  With this going on he has time to daydream about the warm comforts of the home and family he’ll no doubt soon be leaving, college football scholarship in pocket. This is an eerily precise depiction of what athletes and fighter pilots call “situational awareness”, the ability to plot the trajectories of dozens of moving objects in the mind’s eye and see not just where they all are, but where they’re all going to be. Wayne Gretzky has talked about it, as has Joe Montana and Chuck Yeager. A little bit off-beat for a pop tune, no?

Hat and Feet depicts the metaphorical aftermath of being destroyed by love, squished down to a pancake by a falling piano.  Hackensack is another one about being left behind, the singer vowing to wait for the girl who’s never coming back. Hey Julie is close to a traditional love song, but of course the protagonist has to withstand being tortured all day in his dead-end office job before he gets to see his girl:

Working all day for a mean little guy

he’s got a bad toupee and a soup-stained tie

got me runnin’ round the office

like a gerbil on a wheel

he can tell me what to do

but he can’t tell me what to feel

Kind of sweet, isn’t it?

Also included below is a cover version of Jackson Browne’s classic These Days. You can tell a lot about musicians from the artists they admire.

I could go on and on about these guys. They soldier on, never in the top 40, but selling just well enough to keep their recording contract, refusing to let the best aspects of popular music sink without a bubble in an ocean of tuneless moaning and rhythmic talking, leavened only somewhat by the predictable boppy-poppy froth emanating from the likes of Katy Perry.

You go, guys.

[Note: after writing this, sadly, the group has broken up…]

Fountains of Wayne:

Kid Gloves

Someone’s Gonna break Your Heart


No Better Place

All Kinds of Time 

Hat and Feet

Hey Julie 

 A Road Song 

 These Days


The Sound of Young America

2648 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan, a house bought by Barry Gordy in 1959 to serve as the recording studio for Motown records.  “Hitsville USA” said the sign, and that was no idle boast. For a whole decade, number 1 hits poured out of the place, from artists like the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, on and on, fed by a stable of phenomenal songwriters, most notably Holland-Dozier-Holland, and backed up by an uncredited group of expert session musicians who billed themselves as the “Funk Brothers”, all peerless in their own right, and none more so than the great James Jamerson, arguably the greatest bass player who ever lived.  The Motown sound.  There never was anything like it.

Their slogan said it all: “The sound of young America”.  Yes, it was all black artists, singers, musicians and songwriters, but shit, man, you could be white as snow, didn’t matter.  This was music for everybody. No one who could so much as tap a toe could possibly resist the allure of these songs – as one member of the Funk Brothers said, “No offence to Diana Ross or nothin’, but Elmer Fudd could’ve had hits singin’ those songs”. Hard to believe, now, but in that one amazing decade, while Bob Dylan waxed philosophical and the Beatles soared, chased by the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, God help us it never stopped, constantly, behind all of it, one Motown hit after another.

These are the songs that consoled the lonely girl in Levi Stubbs Tears.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles:

 Tracks of My Tears

Tears of a Clown

Oh.  My.  God.  I double dog dare you to find songs that are convincingly superior to these unassuming masterpieces. Sure, the sentiments portrayed here are nothing out of the ordinary, broken heartedness and all that, and sure, the very best of the Beatles is in many ways on a different level, but still.  If genius is the ability to evoke through melody, lyric, and cadence, a passionate and genuine emotional response, then surely this is genius.  Note, too, a characteristic of Motown songs, this portrayal of a different sort of manhood, acknowledging the false bravado behind macho games and proud strutting. Guys get hurt too.  Guys care too.  We may put on a show to salvage our pride, but you know, like we know, that we’re exquisitely vulnerable to the disapproval and rejection we so often get from the opposite sex. These songs aren’t about hormones, or the male will to dominate, they’re about sad and lonely young men who just don’t know what to do if they can’t win a woman’s heart. These songs are confessions, they’re the bitter truth, no spin, no lies.

People say I’m the life of the party

‘cuz I get a chuckle or two

Well I may be laughing loud and hearty, but

deep inside I’m blue

Or this:

If I appear to be carefree

it’s only to camouflage my sadness

In order to shield my pride I try

to cover this hurt with a show of gladness

Well don’t let my show convince you

That I’ve been happy since you

decided to go

You get exactly the same thing with the Temptations singing I Wish it Would Rain:

 The Temptations:

 I Wish it Would Rain

She’s gone, and he wants rain drops to hide his tear drops.  I’m a man and I got my pride, he sings.  ‘Til it rains I’ll stay inside.

There’s shame in it, you see, shame in being brought low by somebody who doesn’t care about you, it feels weak, and stupid, and that’s not what you’re supposed to be.  It’s just what you are.

Yet nothing can stop you from trying again, loving again, sometimes so powerfully it’s on the cusp of being unhealthy.  Just listen to Levi Stubbs commit his whole heart and everything he has to the well-being of the girl he loves:

The Four Tops: 

Reach Out, I’ll Be There

Diana Ross and the Supremes:

So did Motown give short shrift to the female perspective?  Not on your life.  To me, the most exhilarating of all of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s compositions is Love Child, written for Diana Ross and the Supremes, which hit the airwaves in 1968.  For middle class white America, this was a new age of sexual liberation facilitated by birth control, but Love Child reminds of an earlier time, perhaps not earlier at all for less privileged girls, when casual sex carried the grave risk of unwanted children born out of wedlock.  The narrator was such a child, and she’s drawing a line.  No child of hers will wear that badge of shame, or live through the same crap she had to endure.  Not for love, not for desire, not for anything will she take that chance.

 Love Child

Listen to how the thing starts – grabs you right by the throat, doesn’t it?  Tenement slums sing the girls, right off the bat, this shit is no joke. That’s what awaits you if you take just one wrong step.

Started my life

In an old cold run down tenement slum

My father left he never even married mom

I shared the guilt my momma knew

so afraid that others knew I had no name


 I started school

in a worn torn dress that somebody threw out

I knew the way it felt to always live in doubt

to be without the simple things

so afraid my friends would see the guilt in me

It’s just so real, so free of false notes.  I find the music so compelling on its own that it would floor me if it was about how much bunnies like carrots, but Jesus H.W. Christ on roller skates, this girl is pouring out her guts.  For the love of God, if you really care for me, wait.  Think of what’s on the line.

No kid growing up today, listening to what the radio has to offer, will ever be exposed to such a song.  It’s a powerful and magical thing, the way a well-crafted tune can pull you into another state of mind, and make you understand.

 The Temptations:

 Papa Was a Rolling Stone

The problem of absent fathers can be seen from the male perspective too. What does it do to a boy, being ashamed of who you come from?  Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong lay it out in Papa Was a Rolling Stone, a 12-minute rumination reduced to about seven for AM radio play.  Musically, it set the pattern for a whole genre of gritty urban music, you hear echoes of it in movies and cop shows, the arrangement evocative of damp alleys at night, steam rising from subway grates, the headlights of pimped-out Cadillacs, and shady characters huddling in the shadows.

A young boy poses the questions his mother hoped never to hear. The kid’s been hearing things.  She has to tell him the truth, that Daddy was a no-account cheat, a swindler and drifter that left them with nothing.  When he died, all he left us was alone.

When this was released in 1972, disco was just around the corner, and soon enough the popular air waves would be full of the Theme from the Poseiden Adventure, Disco Duck, Convoy, Kung Fu Fighting, and all the rest.  Barry Gordy abandoned Detroit and moved Motown’s operations to L.A., having alienated Holland Dozier and Holland, while everywhere, all at once, the Sixties, which over here had started in 1964, finally ended.  The Motown label was eventually sold.

There would still be good music, of course.  But never again was the very best also the most popular.  Never again did songs like Penny Lane compete with Good Vibrations, Love Child, For What it’s Worth, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and all the others for Top 40 supremacy. Never again did the cream of the Billboard Hot 100 make us contemplate the truth, and think outside ourselves.

At least I got to be there, just barely old enough to understand.

Giving it to You Straight

James Taylor: Millworker

At the time of writing, it’s Silly Season in America. An idiotic fascist is making a terrifyingly credible run for the Presidency, in a spectacle of a campaign that seems to take bizarre turns at a pace greater than the rational mind can process. Yet, unprecedented as it seems, the current contest shares a theme with many American election cycles of the past 30+ years: the nostalgia for an economy that employed millions of workers to build ordinary things that ordinary people needed, propelling vast numbers of equally ordinary, relatively uneducated white folk into secure middle class lives full of detached homes, shiny new cars, and all the modern conveniences. Time was, you could spend your entire working life ensconced in a union job at GM, or US Steel, and retire on a pension.

Now all those factory jobs are gone, and while American manufacturing output has actually risen to historic heights in recent years, the modern means of production no longer require human workers to torque wrenches and wield spot-welders. Up and down the production line, one finds a tireless army of infallible robots where unionized everymen in overalls used to stand. Meanwhile, the cozy middle class existence of the average working stiff recedes farther and farther into the inevitably mythologized past.  Few politicians, much less Donald Trump, could possibly resist tapping into this reservoir of angst, so we wind up saturated with empty political rhetoric that advocates turning back the clock, as if it’s even remotely possible that the muscle jobs of the old economy could ever be coming back.

There’s always great anxiety and dislocation involved in wide scale economic disruption, and it’s easy to feel sympathetic to those who now sense the rug pulled out from under their feet – even the ones that scream the racist taunts and misogynistic slogans that pass for discourse at The Donald’s horrifying political rallies.  The longing to return to a lost golden age; the anger of those who face an uncertain future in which their kids won’t do as well as they did; the greed of the corporations that shipped overseas whatever domestic jobs they weren’t handing to robots; all get woven together into a compelling narrative of the betrayal of the noble American working class.

Yup, it gets you right in the pumper. But hold up there, sport. Before we get all wistful and dewy-eyed about the evaporating factory jobs of days gone by, we’d all do well to give a listen to James Taylor’s quiet masterpiece Millworker, first written for a Broadway musical based on the writings of Studs Terkel.  In what I’d contend is his best work, better even than Fire and Rain, Taylor offers up a clear-eyed and altogether different perspective on the good old days of massed labour tending to the rote assembly of mundane consumer goods. Strip away the mythology, and what is it we wish we could get back to, exactly?  Human beings as fleshy cogs in the indifferent capitalist machine?  Young men and women as mere factors of production, engaged all day in mindless, repetitive work that has them aging in dog years? Really? Listen to Millworker, and you’ll want to tell all those campaigning nostalgia merchants to give their witless heads a shake. The world Taylor describes here is a Hell-scape of squandered potential and lost hope, within which the line worker can only daydream of a better place, maybe dwell for a moment in a fantasy while forcing herself to live through another long and tedious day.

Yes, herself. Remarkably, Millworker is written from the perspective of a woman, and its opening lyrics pull us into a story that would once have been as dirt-common as it is heartbreaking. In just a few lines of spare poetry, the stage is set:

Now my grandfather was a sailor,

he blew in off the water.

My father was a farmer

and I, his only daughter

took up with a no good

millworking man from Massachusetts

who dies from too much whiskey

and leaves me these three faces to feed.

Kinda gets right to the point, doesn’t it? One verse, and we’re already immersed in her bleak predicament, watching her take stock of her life. There she is, the progeny of the almost literal salt of the earth, reduced by a bad choice to a hopeless lack of decent options.

So what does a single mom with no particular job skills do to make ends meet, and feed those hungry faces? She takes a job down at the textile mill. Likely the same mill where her useless, dissolute husband spent his hours of drudgery, in between the bouts of drinking that drove him to an early and probably more or less welcome poor man’s grave.

We’re taken through a typical day. Millwork isn’t easy, she tells us. It isn’t hard either, not really.  It’s just an awful, boring job. She tells us about gritting it out all morning just to get to break time, when she can have a sandwich. Sitting there for a few permitted moments, she takes refuge in her memories of a starkly different time and place that somehow, once, was where she used to live. She dreams about being a kid back on her father’s farm, when she felt happy and loved. She remembers Grand-dad’s heroic stories of the merchant marine, and the sailors who put it all on the line, and sometimes lost. Those people lived purposeful lives, and their hard work got them somewhere. You can almost hear the machinery clanking away in the background, as she acknowledges that her own life has been wasted, and she’s been an idiot to let this manufacturer use her body for a tool. Maybe it’s her own fault, yet surely a young girl should have stood a better chance.

You want to know what it was like for those lucky working folk in the lost golden age?

And it be me and my machine

for the rest of the morning

and the rest of the afternoon, gone

for the rest of my life.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so sorry that it’s now somebody else’s job to slave away in some third world sweatshop, cranking out paper cups, plastic forks, and undershirts. Maybe tonight we should thank God it’s them instead of us, and maybe, even, we should wonder whether it wouldn’t be better if we were willing to spend a little more for our running shoes, and give all those foreign grunt workers a decent living wage. Yes, economic dislocation is painful. We should do something to smooth the transition for those left high and dry. We should not, however, romanticize a generally awful way of life, and dream of going back to it.

Bruce Springsteen: Reason to Believe

Back in the Seventies, director Terrence Malick produced Badlands, one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a gorgeous and unexpectedly poetic account of the cross-country killing spree of a couple of otherwise unremarkable young lovers, played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Its inspiration was the murderous saga of Charles Starkweather, who killed eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming over a short stretch of just a couple of months in the late 1950s, teenaged girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in tow. In the film, the protagonists are little people set against a vast, empty landscape that’s as flat and featureless as the open ocean on a calm day, him grasping for the only sort of fame he can, her along for the ride as an almost neutral observer, and a model of dull affect. She describes her feelings at one point as being “like when you’re sitting in a bathtub, and all the water’s run out”. The final act of the movie has them on the run, tearing across the badlands of Montana in a stolen Cadillac, moving fast and seeming to go nowhere, surrounded on all sides by this:

Badlands 2.png

Sheen’s character, “Kit”, might be a dangerous predator, but he’s still over-awed by his societal betters. You can sense this when, in an interlude little short of surreal, the two of them take a break from being on the lam, and carry out a home invasion of a “rich man’s house”, aiming to stock up on food and sundries. He and “Holly”, Spacek’s character, wander around the house like little kids, wide-eyed at the trappings of wealth. They try out sitting in the ornate chairs. They take a turn at the big dining room table, while Kit rubs the rim of a leaded crystal goblet to hear it sing. Kit parks for a while at the rich man’s desk and plays with his Dictaphone, trying to record something profound for posterity. When they reckon it’s time to leave, you expect Kit to kill the wealthy homeowner, held captive throughout. After all, Kit kills just about everybody that crosses his path. Instead, he’s locked in a closet with his maid. It’s as if Kit feels that somehow, you don’t just up and kill somebody who lives that high on the totem pole. It’s almost like a sub-conscious, instinctive deference. Those are the people whose respect he craves, and never gets.

In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska, an incomparably bleak collection of demos recorded at home on cassette, just Bruce and his guitar, telling the stories of small people desperate for a break. One look at the album cover and I felt like I was back with Kit in his stolen Cadillac, on a long road through the badlands going nowhere:


In a lot of the songs we hear a voice not so different from Kit’s, less pathological, but just as small, just as unimportant to anybody that matters, and sometimes just as flat and matter-of-fact. The one that grabs me most powerfully is Reason to Believe. Springsteen often writes from the perspective of small-time hustlers and grifters, and in my mind’s eye the narrator of Reason to Believe is one of those, maybe under interrogation in a small room somewhere, maybe in a little trouble, referring to his listener as “sir” as if by reflex, ever mindful of his obligation to pay due deference. It’s like he’s talking to someone off camera, while the conversation comes around to how he just doesn’t understand where people find hope, or how they manage to persist when hope runs counter to what’s obvious:

 Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog

lyin’ by the highway in a ditch

He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled

pokin’ that dog with a stick

Got his car door flung open

he’s standin’ out on Highway 31

Like if he stood there long enough

that dog’d get up and run

Struck me kinda funny

seemed kinda funny, sir, to me

Still at the end of every hard day

 people find some reason to believe

You see it all the time, sir, don’t you? Abandoned women who can’t believe that Johnny isn’t coming back. Some stiff left jilted at the altar, who must have been nuts to think that girl really loved him. People full of hope who get their kids baptized – man, those kids are likely going to die alone in some shotgun shack. When that time comes, they’ll lay them in the ground while everybody prays, doing them about as much good as it did when everybody mumbled back when they were little kids, and some priest trickled water on their heads. Perhaps the good Lord could tell us what it means.

He’s not angry at anybody, he’s not even frustrated, and he’s not asking when the poor slobs are going to wake up and smell the pile of crap they’re standing in. He’s just sayin’. No matter what, they still believe. Maybe he envies them.

I’ve always wondered, did Springsteen see Badlands? The movie is full of little moments that Bruce could have scripted. Kit, warned by his girlfriend’s father to stay the Hell away from the girl, backing away respectfully, apparently without rancor, saying only that “it takes all kinds, sir.” The two fugitives out in the middle of nowhere, bickering about something until Kit gives in with a flat and ambivalent “well, I’m not sayin’ I know”.  Holly, in voice-over, relating how when she got bored with Kit, she stopped listening, and spelled out whole sentences with her tongue on the roof of her mouth, where nobody would ever read them. Kit, working as a garbage man, staring down bemusedly at a dead dog that somebody put out with the trash. “I’ll give you a dollar to eat that collie” he says to his co-worker, who doesn’t seem to think that’s a strange thing to say. “I wouldn’t eat it for a dollar”, he answers, as if he might for a little more, “and I don’t think that’s a collie neither…it’s some kind of dog though”. Some kind of dog, thrown out in the garbage.

These are Springsteen’s sort of characters. They seem imbued with a sort of detached fatalism. They don’t have much to say, and nobody would listen if they did. They’re used to life on the bottom rung, swimming in boredom and banality. They aren’t noble. They’re just people, none too bright maybe, but they might have been able to do better than this, if they ever got a fair shake. They know the score, though: by the rules, they belong at the bottom of the heap, and have nothing, nothing at all, to be proud about. Of course, the downtrodden folk that populate Bruce’s songs are usually much more sympathetic, and often still have hopes of busting out of their current ruts, like the characters in Meeting Across the River, Atlantic City, and Thunder Road. Still, they’re made out of a lot of the same stuff as Kit and Holly, and even in his love songs they sound a lot like Kit to me. Take this from I’m on Fire:

Sometimes it’s like

someone took a knife, baby,

edgy and dull,

and cut a six-inch valley

through the middle of my skull

 At night I wake up

with the sheets soaking wet

and a freight train running

through the middle of my head

In Badlands, there’s a scene with Kit lying awake on a bed, his eyes fixed and glazed over, while Holly’s narration relates how when he’s awake at night, he hears a constant roar like somebody is holding a seashell up to his ear.

I wonder.[1]

It’s all about the class system we like to pretend doesn’t exist, when you get right down to it. That’s what Springsteen writes about, and that’s a large part of what Malick’s movie was about, too. About ten years after Badland’s release, a scholar named Elliott Leyton produced what’s come to be regarded as a classic psychological study of mass murderers, Hunting Humans. He has a chapter about Starkweather. Leyton’s conclusion is what Malick had already communicated on film: mass killings are a kind of class warfare. It’s revenge against the people that hog the top of the pyramid, often displaced, but revenge nonetheless. Keep enough people down, and let them stew in a culture that glorifies violence, grants fame to mass murderers, fetishizes guns, and romanticizes loners who aren’t going to take it anymore, and look what you get.

You get the feeling this is something Springsteen would understand. The plight of the common people from the wrong side of the tracks isn’t just unfair. It’s dangerous.

In a way, there are two Springsteens. One writes thundering stadium rock tailor-made to get people out of their seats, and the other writes quiet, contemplative vignettes of people leading mournful and often desperate lives. There might seem to be a world of difference between Reason to Believe and, say, Born to Run, and there is, musically, but no matter how he writes it, Springsteen is always writing about the same thing. His concern is for the little guy, and all the crap he’s put through by those above him, whether that’s losing a job, or being sent to fight a pointless war in some jungle or god-forsaken third world sandlot. He writes songs about guys who work border patrol, and guys whose wives stopped loving them a long time ago. Sometimes they’re resigned, sometimes they’re determined to take a chance, but they’re all starting behind the 8-ball, one way or another. They all sound real. I can’t think of anybody else who’s so determined to tell their stories, not since Woody Guthrie, anyway.

Nebraska, its songs as cheerless as its cover photo, isn’t for the faint of heart; but Bruce knows, and the public seems to have appreciated, that sometimes you have to take an unblinking look at reality and tell it like it is, and the truth is, a lot of the time it just plain sucks.

Guess what song Bruce decides to cover in a tribute to James Taylor?

[1] Since writing this, I’ve read Springsteen’s autobiography, in which he cites the movies of Malick as part of his inspiration for Nebraska.

Archetypes of Beauty

This round, there’s no big theme, and there’s no attempt at some sort of intellectual synthesis.  I just picked these songs because each of them is so very pretty.

Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma: Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts is a hymn, written in the 19th century by Joseph Brackett to be a dance song for the “Shakers”, the religious sect otherwise known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They got their name from the ecstatic gyrations that tended to overtake them during religious services. They were odd ducks, the Shakers; once you joined, sex was prohibited and procreation forbidden, a philosophy that rather tends to thin out the ranks over time. There’s only one Shaker community still in existence, in Maine.

Fun fact: they had an unusual aptitude for carpentry and particularly furniture, and their designs for chairs, desks and so on were astonishingly elegant and modern in appearance.  It really is wonderful stuff – check it out:

They also, apparently, knew a terrific piece of music when they heard one. To my ears, Simple Gifts is the world’s most beautiful hymn, bar none. It’s been recycled at various times – you might be familiar with the melody from a version called Lord of the Dance – and serves most gloriously as a central theme in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, my favourite piece of music.

I’ve attached a lovely rendition by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma, who perform this classic tune with a purity and austerity that one suspects would have seemed wholly appropriate to the Shakers themselves. You can hear Copland’s magisterial treatment here, excerpted from the larger work:

I’ve never been much for religion, and the Shakers were kind of kooky, but merciful Jesus, Simple Gifts makes me want to start a faith of my own, one worthy of its grace and ethereal beauty. I don’t suppose I’d draw much of crowd though, not when I’d likely preach on the impossibility of knowing the mind of God, supposing there is one, so maybe we shouldn’t carry on as if we actually understand what any of this really means. That just doesn’t pack ‘em in, you know?

Sissel Kyrkjebø – Shenandoah

There are some place names that seem somehow to connote great beauty tinged by terrible sadness. Shiloh, which sounds like a First Nations name, but comes from the Bible, has always struck me that way, maybe because a place named Shiloh was the site of one of the most terrible battles of the American Civil War. Shenandoah, the name given eventually to a valley in Virginia that cuts through the Blue Ridge Mountains, is another with a cadence that seems naturally to lend itself to a sad and plaintive song. It goes back to this mournful American classic, performed here by Norwegian sensation Sissel Kyrkjebø.

Nobody knows who wrote Shenandoah. It’s thought that it may have originated with fur traders who penetrated deep into the hinterland following rivers like the Missouri. Along the way they would have encountered natives, and some, no doubt, had their hearts stolen by young native women whose physical prowess and exotic beauty must have seemed otherworldly next to the belles in whatever towns they hailed from. That’s what the song is about (though it exists in many versions, some of which tell a different story); “Shenandoah” is not a place, but the name of a tribal chief, and the narrator has fallen hard for his daughter.

Some songs, like Streets of Laredo and St. James Infirmary, are so much a part of the American consciousness that their influence is incalculable, and many a modern lament can trace its DNA back to Shenandoah. It’s been covered by a host of artists, male and female, over the years, including Arlo Guthrie, Glen Campbell, Jane Siberry, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Van Morrison, just about every choir you could name, and even (or perhaps “of course”?) Bruce Springsteen.

It sounds almost Celtic, doesn’t it? I bet it was well known to James Horner, who composed the music for Titanic, and I’d wager that a lot of my favourite songwriters know it by heart.

Sissel Kyrkjebø – Pie Jesu

Sissel again. I’ve never heard anyone do this better, though its most famous rendition is by Sarah Brightman.

It might be a surprise to learn that this breathtaking chorale was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It doesn’t sound much like Cats to me, though I guess you can hear similarities to Phantom of the Opera, especially Music of the Night. Ordinarily, Webber doesn’t particularly grab me, but Pie Jesu, which means “Merciful Jesus”, is another one that makes me want to go off and found a religion. It was written for the opera Requiem, and inspired by a story in the New York Times that was so tragically, shockingly horrible I’m not even going to tell you what it was. Its Latin lyrics translate to:

Merciful Jesus, merciful Jesus, 

Father, who takes away the sins of the world

Grant them rest, grant them rest

For most of the time I’ve known Pie Jesu, I had no idea what had inspired it, or of the meaning of its Latin lyrics, but it doesn’t take a whole heap of emotional intelligence to grasp that it’s an expression of profound mourning. From the first time I heard it, I’ve always seen this image in my mind’s eye:


It’s a photo taken after the devastating fire-bombing of Dresden near the end of the Second World War, an act so depraved that it shook Churchill to his core, and would certainly be called a war crime today.  By the time it was Dresden’s turn to be blasted to rubble and burned to ash, we’d been doing that sort of thing for a couple of years, and had it down to a science.  We did it to one city or another more or less weekly. The hellish fire storm that hundreds of four-engine bombers rained down upon helpless Dresden for 37 straight hours was just routine, and accomplished almost as an afterthought, with some, but by no means enough, strategic justification. Best estimate is that 25,000 souls were incinerated. A fire storm would be an inexcusably horrifying mode of death to inflict upon an invading army, let alone a civilian population, and as with so much that happened in WW II, it’s hard, now, to believe we used to do such things dispassionately and quite deliberately.

After the war, images like the one above prompted many of the architects of the air war over Germany to ask themselves that most awful of questions: Christ, what have we done?

It’s almost inevitable that one imagines the stone angel in the image above as a real ethereal being, surely praying something like the incantation in Pie Jesu.

 Jay Ungar & Molly Mason Family Band: Ashokan Farewell

Not so dire this time, though still just a little melancholy. Millions are familiar with this deft instrumental, having heard it used throughout the instalments of the epic Civil War documentary put together by Ken Burns for PBS back in the 1980s. Many of those millions, me included, assumed that Ashokan Farewell was a traditional song of the era, just like all the other songs used in the soundtrack, and it sure sounds like it is, but actually it was written by Jay Unger, seen playing in the attached clip, in 1982.

It’s a “goodnight and farewell” waltz, played for students annually on the last day of attendance at the Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camp that Unger runs with his wife in upstate New York. It’s meant to evoke the sadness of parting, but also, I’ve always thought, the solace in knowing that next year a new gathering will bring old friends back together. This isn’t despair or even great sadness; it’s more a musical rendition of the wistful, if bittersweet, recollections of a soul at peace.

It’s uncanny how Ashokan Farewell sounds like it was dropped here out of time. It’s the kind of song that feels like it’s been wafting around forever, a staple of the Great American Songbook.  One immediately thinks of Stephen Foster, or perhaps some unknown folk artist lost to history, anything except a fellow in 1982 who wanted to write himself a nice little closing number to mark the end of summer camp.

Copland: Rodeo; Saturday Night Waltz.

This isn’t a song, strictly speaking, but it’s a brief piece of music based on a song, adapted for orchestra by my favourite composer, Aaron Copland. Copland’s classical treatment is lavished here on an old, maybe familiar, cowboy ballad called I Ride an Old Paint. A “paint”, of course, was a horse of several mottled colours, and the original song is about something that real cowboys, herding cattle on the Chisholm Trail and elsewhere, used to do: they’d ride amidst the herd at night, singing soft songs to keep the cattle calm. They’d literally serenade the livestock, to prevent them from getting restive, so they wouldn’t stampede. It seems cattle are easily spooked, but a soft song sung by a cowboy would soothe their nerves. I Ride an Old Paint is a tune about doing just that, calming the temperamental animals, which cowboys referred to as “dogies”:

I ride an old paint, I lead an old dan

I’m goin’ to Montana to throw the hoolihan

They feed in the coulees, they water in the draw

Their tails are all matted, their backs are all raw

 Ride around little dogies, ride around them slow

For the fiery and snuffy are rarin’ to go

“Old dan” means a pack animal, and to “throw the hoolihan” means to take a trip into civilization to paint the town red. A “coulee” is a ravine, and a “draw” is a gulley that hosts a stream. Cowboy argot reminds me of all the nautical terms that sailors throw around.

It’s a pretty little song, and Copland, composing for his dance suite Rodeo, renders it gorgeous.

There isn’t necessarily anything sad about this graceful, melodic piece, but it’s bittersweet for me because I associate it with my mother. Everybody’s mom was special, I guess, but mine really was. She was skeptical but not cynical, open-minded but not gullible, gentle but not weak, ready to believe you but nobody’s fool, far smarter than most, but never arrogant. Sometimes she cussed like a boson, and she called bullshit when she saw it. She hated bullies, and tried to raise me and my brother to be decent, and she never even made that express, she maybe didn’t even think that much about it herself, it was just what parents did.

She was sad sometimes, just like her son, and I wonder whether some of that came not only from being predisposed to melancholy, but also from knowing so much about what people were prepared to do to each other, push comes to shove. She read a great deal, you see. Our house was full of biographies and history books, tons of books, everything from Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples. She and my father made sure I had tons of my own books too, adult books, from a very young age. If I wanted to know about something, they’d buy me the book. The book cases in my bedroom were stuffed with volumes, whole collections of volumes, about everything and anything. I grew up reading about relativity and natural selection, the Russian revolution and the battle of Waterloo, what physicists thought about the nature of time, and the techniques naval architects used to ensure ship stability. Mom complained that all this reading was undermining her ability to keep me in line, because “he doesn’t care one whit if you send him to his room”. But she never dreamed of taking my books away. So much of who I am was shaped by my Mom’s example, and her determination that if the boy wanted to read instead of joining little league, he should read.

I guess I was about 19 or 20 when I first heard Saturday Night Waltz. Something about it seemed reflective of Mom’s character, and I wanted to share it with her. I remember standing with her, listening to the expensive stereo I’d bought with my student loans, and giving her a big hug.

There’s a crushing scene at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town: Emily Webb, having died in childbirth, asks the stage manager to take her back to the living world to see her parents one last time. She’s warned not to do it. Yes, she can go if she wants, but she’s told that most people find it devastating; and when she goes anyway, returning to a birthday 14 years in the past, it does indeed tear her heart to pieces. It’s the terrible regret from realizing that you never really appreciated the moments you were living. You couldn’t understand how precious the time with your family was, or how much you’d miss them, miss everything, really. All those friends and neighbors, all the sights and sounds, all those beautiful days, the daily rhythm of her home town, gone now forever. Why don’t we pay more attention while we can? She turns to the stage manager:

To the Stage Manager

 Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?

 Stage Manager



 The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Saints, poets, and once for just a little while, a kid in Halifax, playing some music for his mom.

Suzanne Vega

Immensely talented, cerebral, beautiful, and tragically under-appreciated, with the sort of unwavering voice that conveys formidable intelligence independent of her always sensitive lyrics, Suzanne Vega has had me under her spell since the mid-1980s.  Like Aimee Mann, she’s apt to be characterized as “feminist”, since she sometimes writes about her own experiences and the truths she perceives as a woman, as if that’s deserving of a special label, as if the slanted perspective of gender is ever absent from the work of male songwriters. She had a couple of top 40 hits back in the eighties, most notably Luka, the story of an abused child who lives upstairs, insisting that his various marks and bruises come from being clumsy and walking into doors. It’s a spirited and melodic piece (which perhaps makes its mainstream success all the more mysterious), and a good representation of the style and substance Suzanne always brings to her compositions, but she’s done so much more in her long career. Throughout, she’s displayed a distinctive gift for melody, harmony and arrangement, matched to nuanced lyrics that always seem to make something real about one’s own life stand out in stark relief.

Before Jewel, before Alanis Morissette, Sheyl Crow, Liz Phair and so many others, Suzanne was setting the standard. She has, to my mind, established herself as a worthy successor to Joni Mitchell, and a peer to the likes of Jackson Browne and Randy Newman. Few can write with the understated grace and emotional heft that characterizes Vega’s best work, of which the sampling below is by no means exhaustive.

Edith Wharton’s Figurines

Novelist Edith Wharton wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about high society in the Gilded Age, and the travails of those seeking to secure their place within the tight little circle of New York’s upper classes, with all their snobbery, taboos, and mock-sacred conventions. Her characters need their wiles and wits about them as they struggle against the current, while failing, usually, to break out of the corrupt and hypocritical little bubbles within which their fates were probably sealed since birth. She’s known today for the novels Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence – the latter earned her the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a woman – and, most relevant here, The House of Mirth, in which the heroine, Lily Bart, feels her beauty fading and her prospects for a good marriage drifting out of reach, as she approaches the wholly undesirable age of 30. Lily has a best before date, her standing among the elites being set to expire as soon as she’s no longer the sort of pretty young thing that the right kind of wealthy gentleman invariably prefers. For Lily, this is a matter of survival.

In Vega’s poignant portrayal of the anxieties that afflict all women as they struggle to live up to the feminine ideal, Edith Wharton’s “figurines”, the barely fictional characters like Lily Bart, are with us still, little having changed despite the passing of a century:

Edith Wharton’s lovely figurines

Still speak to me today

From their mantelpiece in time

Where they wrestle and they play

 With passions and with prudences

Finances and fears

Her face and what it’s worth to her

In the passing of the years

Wharton’s observations provide the context, but the song isn’t about her. It’s about Olivia Goldsmith, the author of (among many other books) The First Wives Club, a satire about women thrown over by their husbands in favour of more youthful arm candy, a rather Wharton-esque theme that lent itself to a highly successful movie in 1996.  Goldsmith had herself been divorced by a husband looking to trade up – it was messy – and it was in the wake of that nastiness that she began writing books about men’s mistreatment of the women they once purported to love. I see here, as I dig around on the internet, that a somewhat desperate resort to cosmetic surgery often figured into the stories.

Olivia thus had insight, but she wasn’t immune. Not long after her 50th birthday, in 2004, she decided to have plastic surgery, a simple “chin tuck” to improve her looks.

Now Olivia lies under anesthesia

Her wit and wonder snuffed

In a routine operation

Her own beauty not enough

 Her passions and her prudences

Finances and fears

Her face – what it’s worth to her

In the passing of the years

The tragedy of Olivia’s story, something too ironic and melodramatic to ever find its way into fiction, is that the simple cosmetic procedure killed her. She fell victim to the irreducible minimum risk inherent in general anesthesia, lapsing into coma and dying of cardiac arrest within minutes of going under.

Her own beauty not enough. Heartbreaking. Look, I’m just a guy, which presumably disqualifies me from even having a view on this – a woman might tell me that this is a song about a reality I’ll never experience, and can never understand. Yet the point of this series has been that a powerful song can make you understand – if not fully, then enough. I’ve never parachuted out of a C-47 on top of a forest fire, either, and I’ve never been the survivor of a nautical disaster or a young girl terrified of becoming pregnant, but the songs have given me a feel for all of those predicaments. Sitting here on the other side of the divide and listening to something this powerful, suddenly conscious of having morphed complacently into an old, fat, ugly slob while giving precisely no fucks about it, the mind is brought up short and boggles at how women even cope. All you have to do is hear it; even the most unreconstructed male git could appreciate the tragic lack of difference that a hundred odd years have made, and might even grasp his own culpability in perpetuating the pernicious bind in which women still find themselves here in the 21st Century. When you stand back for a second and look at it dispassionately, boy, do we ever make sure that looks matter a lot. Only her looks, of course. We’d probably all kill ourselves if we had to live up to the merciless standards we like to set. So sure, the modern woman can be accomplished, strong, independent, even outwardly self-sufficient, but c’mon, being alluring, being wanted, remains a matter of survival, psychically if not literally, and as Vega writes:

In the struggle for survival

 Love is never blind.

See, she doesn’t just tell you. She makes you feel it.

The final verse is a thing of remarkable beauty, the counterpoint of the cello communicating a world of grief and regret, and for me it’s in the conclusion that Edith Wharton’s Figurines is at its most affecting and emotional. There are just a few minor variations in the words at this point, which seem to expand the message to embrace all of us, gender aside. All of us struggling, one way or another, to meet the standards others have imposed; all of us out there trudging through our routines, careful to conform in our eagerness for approval; all of us numb and hiding deep inside ourselves, lest we be found out for the frauds we are; all of us fearing that everything we have to offer is yet insufficient. As the song closes, Suzanne makes the message universal:

We lie under anesthesia

Our wit and wonder snuffed

In our routine operations

 Our own beauty not enough

Not enough. Everything we hold inside, every little insight we’ve gleaned over the decades, everything we love, despise, fear, or dream about, all the things we like to believe make us special, it all sits there on the auction block waiting vainly in the silence for somebody to bid so much as the minimum asking price. Olivia has been quoted as advising that “the secret to true happiness is low expectations and insensitivity”. Have a care for the hopeful, sensitive souls who can never make that work.

Angel’s Doorway

A powerful song that always affected me deeply, despite, I now know, having no clue what it was really about. Angel’s Doorway displays Vega’s gift for melody, formal song construction, and taut arrangement perhaps better than anything she’s done, and can be enjoyed on that basis however inscrutable the lyrics might be to the casual listener. Just soak in that piano as it weaves its way through the verses, the booming drums and droning bass line, the counterpoint from the penny whistles, the tasteful interjections of synthesizer, and the typically impeccable acoustic guitar work that backs it all up. You won’t hear anything with this many interacting layers outside of the Beatles, and classical music. It really is that good.

But what to make of the words? It seems to be about a woman who insists upon certain house rules that protect her psyche from whatever it is her husband, the “Angel” of the piece, brings home with him from work. She’s adamant. He has to check that shit at the door, and never discuss it.

Angel comes home

His clothes in a cloud

Of the dust and the dirt and destruction

 She waits inside

She knows he’s arrived

She feels this with no introduction

 At Angel’s door,

You have to leave it on the floor,

Don’t bring it in.

 He can’t show

What she doesn’t want to know

Those things he’s seen.

What on Earth could it be, that she doesn’t want it anywhere near her? What’s he doing out there that has to remain unmentionable? How is it redolent of dust and destruction? It seems to be something he doesn’t much care to discuss either:

She knows the smell

Of that life he can’t tell

Of the fires and the flesh and confusion

 Inside his brain

It’s never the same

Though he tries to maintain the illusion

She knows the smell. Is this literal or metaphorical? Surely the latter, and if not, what, he works at the dump or something? Nobody would write a song about that, least of all Suzanne, and in any case nothing so banal could possibly inspire such music. For a while I toyed with the idea that hubby was some sort of unsavoury type, maybe mobbed up or something, who gets his money in ways she’d just as soon not think about. Yet that didn’t seem to suit the tone or the lyrics all that well, any more than anything else I could come up with.

It turns out that it’s not a metaphor, it’s not banal, and he’s not a mobster. “Angel” is Angel Ruiz, Vega’s brother-in-law, who was an NYC cop assigned to Ground Zero in the weeks following 9/11. He’d spend long days there, and come home with the vile smell of the place woven right into his uniform, covered in dust and debris, numb from the unthinkable horrors that surrounded him day in, day out. His wife, already overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath of the twin towers falling, demanded he take all that stuff off before he entered the house, and keep his peace about what he’d seen and done. None of it could be allowed to cross her threshold, not the soiled and smelly clothes, not the thoughts.

Having found this out, it all seemed so obvious. In cases like this you kick yourself for being such a dummy; “failure of imagination”, they sometimes call it.  This is Suzanne Vega, after all. It was bound to be some sort of unblinking look at reality, or in this case, a sympathetic portrayal of someone’s traumatized refusal to keep looking. 


This is off her first album from 1984, and the accompanying video shows her in concert shortly thereafter, roughly 30 years ago.

Now, anybody who knows me has suffered through my litany of gripes about modern “songs”, especially the hip-hop/rap variety, and has heard me exclaim ad nauseam that I’m driven up the wall by rhythmic talking. Sure, it’s modern poetry, it’s even art, if you insist, but talking isn’t music.

Except when it is. Cracking is said to have been inspired by a Roman Polanski art-house movie, 1965’s Repulsion, a psycho-drama in which the protagonist, played by Catherine Deneuve, slowly goes mad. The spoken lyrics attempt to crawl inside a broken mind.

My footsteps are ticking

Like water dripping from a tree

Walking a hairline

And stepping very carefully

My heart is broken

It is worn out at the knees

Hearing muffled

Seeing blind

Soon it will hit the deep freeze

And something is cracking

I don’t know where

Ice on the sidewalk

Brittle branches

In the air

Her mental breakdown, she assures the listener, is just a one-time thing (albeit one that happens a lot). It’s moody, atmospheric and utterly captivating. To this day, people almost always call on her to play it during concerts. 

Marlene On the Wall

Her first single, another popular track from her debut album, and the one that first drew my attention to her. The attached video is taken from the same concert as Cracking.  The narrator imagines that the poster of Marlene Dietrich on her bedroom wall is scowling down at her, disapproving of the parade of losers that come and go from her bed, night on night.

Surprisingly, for something so full of regret and disappointed self-awareness, it’s kind of snappy.

So is Solitude Standing, which is certainly a nice piece of work, with its driving rhythm, and its theme of being surprised when discovering that once again you’re all alone, as seems your destiny:

Solitude stands in the doorway

And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette

By her long cool stare and her silence

I suddenly remember each time we’ve met

But OK, full disclosure, I also include it here in part – you know, just a wee little bit – on account of how very young and pretty she was at that moment, and how graceful, as she displayed a few of the moves she learned studying dance at the New York High School of Performing Arts. This captures her when she was only 25 or so, and just gaining recognition.


Yes, I see the irony. A couple of entries back I was praising a song that mourns the objectification of women, and damns a patriarchy that finds women useful only so long as they’re youthful and pretty. Perhaps there’s a middle ground I can stake out between the poles of oppression and indifference? “Appreciation” maybe? 

I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May

There’s a tradition in popular music of “riposte” or “answer” songs, tunes that expressly respond to those of another artist. One of the most famous is Lynard Skynard’s Sweet Home Alabama, which bit back at Neil Young’s acerbic Southern Man.  Liz Phair wrote a whole album as a reaction to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, titled Exile in Guyville. Back in the USSR was Paul McCartney’s sly counterpoint to Chuck Berry’s Back in the USA, and the various anthems to California girls, sunny beaches and fast cars made famous by the Beach Boys. Back further, Woodie Guthrie’s This Land is My Land is supposed to have been written in reply to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

Here, Ms. Vega has a comeback to Rod Stewart’s most admired composition.

Maggie May, a terrific song, was Stewart’s autobiographical paean to May/December romance, with him the lucky one budding in May – a legendary track off the legendary album Every Picture Tells a Story.  It really is a wonderful little memoir, graced by a gorgeous mandolin coda, and could be appreciated as a loving tribute; and yet, while undoubtedly affectionate, it’s also a prime example of the male perspective being taken as a given, largely without comment, in popular song. Not that Maggie May is cruel or dismissive, but let’s face it, it’s a story about how the singer has enjoyed his fling with an older woman, it’s sure been nice and all, but now he’s had his fun and it’s high time to move on – and even if he says it doesn’t bother him, he does make a point of telling her that “the morning Sun, when it’s in your face, really shows your age”.

So, umm, my, just look at the time, and hey listen, see ya, and thanks for the education.

We’re expected to be just fine with that, and I have to admit that I always have been.

I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May turns the scenario on its head. It’s Ms. December talking now, and she knows the score. She’s in no mood to stand around waiting for the inevitable humiliation of being dumped. Unh-uh. Better if he gets the heave first. What’s remarkable, though, is the complete absence of rancor. This is no revenge fantasy. The tone is wistful and a little sad, communicating the sense that by making the first move she’ll simply be letting them both off the hook, no harm, no foul, it’s just simpler to pre-empt what’s coming next. This is all about being the grown-up, and salvaging some dignity. Nobody’s looking to hurt anybody. There aren’t any hard feelings.

I’ll never be your Maggie May

the one you loved and left behind

the face you see in light of day

and then you cast away

that isn’t me in that bed you’ll find

I’d rather take myself away

be like those ladies in Japan

rather paint myself a face

conjure up some grace

or be the eyes behind a fan

Anyway, even if being the dumpee stings his pride a little, he’s going to be just fine, being the sort of guy to whom no girl can say no. You get the feeling she’s determined to leave it such that she can look back upon this interlude fondly, though she may need to edit her memory a bit, and remember the version of him that she saw at the beginning, and still meets in her dreams.

I’ll never be your Maggie May

the one you loved and then forgot

I’ll love you first and let you go

because it must be so

and you’ll forgive, or you will not

And so a woman leaves a man

and so a world turns on its end

so I’ll see your face in dreams

where nothing’s what it seems

still you appear some kind of friend

And so you go

no girl could say no

to you

If you’re looking for someone to rail and rant about her emotional pain and all of life’s God-damnable unfairness, you’d best be looking elsewhere. Vega always seems to come across as cool, objective, and long past any agitation, if not detached then certainly, at this point, resigned and philosophical. However sad it all may be, it’s less important to cry than it is to understand.

Attached is a live solo performance. I’ve been praising nuanced, multi-layered arrangements, but it’s also the mark of a great song that it can seem fully realized when accompanied only by acoustic guitar.


There’s precious little in Vega’s portrayal of child abuse to lend fodder to any sort of academic exegesis. Unusually, there’s nothing here to intuit, nothing merely hinted at. No need to troll around on the internet for clues about who Angel might be, or what Edith Wharton has to do with someone named Olivia.

The kid’s parents beat him black and blue. That’s it.

This is a live performance recorded decades after the song first hit.

No Cheap Thrill

Poker as metaphor for sexual politics. This one has an infectious vibe, really rather playful – something about the staging and camera angles reminds me of the video for The Killers’ Mr. Brightside.  The whole song Is a taunt. You want to get involved? Well OK scout, but it’ll cost you. She rarely dials up the sex appeal this high, but I say you go, girl; anyone who’s so thoroughly established her artistic and intellectual bona fides deserves a night out on the town once in a while, no?

You can’t always be deadly serious.

Also, again, sigh.

I could go on.  After 30+ years of recording, there still aren’t a whole lot of clangers in her catalogue – in that way, she’s a lot like Paul Simon. I just don’t think she’s ever going to get her Graceland. Perhaps she’s too low key to grab center stage, but sometimes it can seem downright nuts how little credit she gets. I’ve even seen lists of great female singer-songwriters, with 40 or 50 entries, that don’t mention her, which of course is enough to make me both pop an aneurysm and chuck an embolism.  Idiots! Philistines!  Go twerk with Miley Cyrus then, why don’t you?

Mind you, I’d probably have a stroke were I to wake up one day in a world that valued the likes of Suzanne Vega more than Katy Perry I’d know that something had gone seriously out of whack with the space-time continuum, which is always a Bad Thing, I mean, just watch Star Trek.

So let them all gobble up their sugary chocolate-coated treats. Those with ears, let them hear.

Linda Ronstadt

It was easy to be overwhelmed by her looks. If you were a guy growing up in the 1970s, and hetero, you almost certainly had a thing for Linda Ronstadt. You probably had a thing for her if you weren’t hetero, or even if you were, but female. Nobody wants to hear an exquisite girl complain that she’s so beautiful that nobody takes her seriously – oh geez really, well boo frickin hoo – and as far as I know, Ronstadt never did. But the truth is, if she had, she would have had a point; that’s if, as was never the case, nobody took her seriously. Still. You almost had to give your head a shake. It wasn’t that they didn’t make them like that anymore, it was that they never did. It was simply impossible to look away. You could sink so deep into her cola-brown eyes that you almost didn’t hear her any more. Almost.

Songs of the Day is an ongoing tribute to great song writers, so I guess an entry like this is a bit anomalous. I’m not aware of any significant song-writing credit attributed to Ronstadt, but here’s the thing: nobody, nobody ever, had a better ear for a great tune, and nobody, but nobody, was ever able to sing a great tune the way she could. I’d argue she had the finest voice of her generation, and she used it to popularize all manner of compositions by song writers both famous and not so famous, all of them invariably excellent. Her taste was as impeccable as her delivery. She loved really great song writers, and they loved her right back, and not for anything superficial. It must have been such a privilege to listen to her interpretation of one of your songs. It must have felt like hearing your own work for the first time.

So yes, I usually have zero time for so-called recording artists who don’t write their own material, or even play an instrument, the ones I tend to dismiss as “mere performers”. Elvis, say – he was just a frigging singer. He doesn’t mean Jack to me. He can swivel his hips in Hell for all I care. Streisand doesn’t mean Jack to me either, and if Sinatra bumped into me in the hallway, I’d tell him exactly what he could do with a wire brush. To himself, and to the rest of his mafia buddies and god-awful Rat Pack sycophants. Big deal. Sinatra.

Ronstadt was different, and not just because she could play guitar.


Real Emotional Girl

Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father

Ronstadt’s affinity for Randy Newman is evidence enough of her superb taste in song writers. Newman, God bless him, is surely one of the best popular composers of the last hundred years, but his singing voice is a bit like Bob Dylan’s – you know, not so good. The material is usually so strong that it doesn’t really matter, but wow, look what happens when he sticks to piano and lets Ronstadt carry the vocals.

Real Emotional Girl showcases her talent for inhabiting a song so thoroughly that she makes gender irrelevant. This is supposed to be a guy talking, and here’s how obstinately perverse Randy Newman can be: he once said in an interview that this wasn’t a love song at all, and that its narrator was supposed to come across as an insensitive lout, since he shouldn’t be talking like this to strangers about the girl’s most private inner self. If you go along with that, Real Emotional Girl is just the drunken rambling of a goof at the local bar.

I flat-out refuse to see it that way. No. You can’t watch this performance and think this is anything but the testimony of someone who loves this fragile young woman so much that it’s actually painful. He’s afraid for her. It isn’t safe out there. She could break. You gotta hold on tight to her. Not a love song? Yeah, my ass.  Linda obviously knows better.

Ronstadt sings it with such consummate sensitivity, it’s as if it was written about her, especially for her.

Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father reminds me a bit of James Taylor’s Millworker, which I went on about in an earlier segment. This time it’s her dad, not her grandpa, who was the sailor. He’s being laid in the dirt, and she’s standing all alone in the rain. Christ. I do sometimes wish that Randy would stop doing this to me, but no, he didn’t just decide to do it, he decided to up the ante and have Ronstadt sing it. That’s just cruel. Go ahead and tell me you don’t fall all to pieces when she sings Papa, we’ll go sailing. It makes me wonder whether she’s so bereft that she means to kill herself so she can join him in the hereafter, and it just wrecks me. That’s just me, though, right? I guess I’m the only sappy one around here.

Yeah, right.

Different Drum

Back in the sixties, Linda used to front a band called The Stone Ponies, and Different Drum is the song she did with them that made everybody sit up and take notice. It was written by Mike Nesmith – you might recall him as the guy in a toque who filled in as the John Lennon analog for the Monkees, that phony, manufactured-for-TV imitation of the Beatles that couldn’t quite manage to be as big of a joke as it was supposed to be.

I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty she sings, which can only mean that this was another one supposed to be sung by a guy. The whole thing is purely masculine, talking about escaping the clutches of a lover before it’s too late to avoid being tied down and reined-in. It’s the time-worn story, fear of commitment; this is absolutely a typical boy-man talking, but by the time she’s done with it, you’d find it incongruous – off-putting, really – to hear it voiced by a man.


OK, you see what I’m on about here – this is one meant to express the emotions of a lonely and very emphatically male truck driver. A guy on the road, out on some endless stretch of empty highway, yearning for a pretty girl back in Texas named Alice.

I’ve been warped by the rain, driven by the snow

I’m drunk and I’m dirty and don’t ya know,

 that I’m still willin’

 Out on the road, late last night,

Seen my pretty Alice in every head light

Oh Alice… Dallas Alice

I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari

Tehachapi to Tonapah

Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made

Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed

 And if you give me weed, whites, and wine

And you show me a sign

I’ll be willin’ to be movin’

One look at her, and you know Linda was never once what you could call “drunk and dirty”. Even if she ever was, no, actually, she wasn’t. So you tell me. How does someone so quintessentially feminine make this sweaty, brawny lament of a modern urban cowboy entirely her own?

 Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

This time the writer is Warren Zevon. He’s usually thought of as a relatively unheralded thinking person’s song writer, so of course she covered him:

Tracks of My Tears

Nor should it come as any surprise that she wanted to sing Smokey Robinson’s best:

At the end, she gives a little shrug, like she’s thinking that she doesn’t actually know herself how she does it. It just comes out.

The First Cut is the Deepest

Then it’s Cat Stevens, and it’s good to be reminded that before he became everyone’s favourite book-hating jihadist, he was flirting with greatness.

Tumblin’ Dice

Now it’s the Rolling Stones. I repeat: the Rolling Stones. Look, it’s the immutable laws of physics that’re being up-ended here, nobody can perform a credible cover of the Stones circa Exile on Main Street. It can’t be done. You may as well pour out a glass of water, expecting the contents to splatter on the ceiling.

Under African Skies

One of Paul Simon’s signature songs off of Graceland. Ronstadt is just the back-up vocalist here. Back there in the mix. Now, this is Simon at his very best. This is an artist who was awarded the Gershwin Medal for Popular Song. This is his vision, his achievement, and you might suppose his alone. Except, it’s also hers:

I’ve read that the lyrics about the girl from Tucson Arizona were added by Ronstadt herself, who grew up there:

I said, “Take this child, Lord

From Tucson, Arizona

Give her the wings to fly through harmony

And she won’t bother you no more”

I bet she nailed it on the first take, and that there were ecstatic little shivers in the control room when she lent her soaring accompaniment to the bridge. Try to imagine it without her.

The Star Spangled Banner

This is here just to prove a point. I’m no fan of the piece, believe me. Indeed, if you ask me, the American national anthem is about the most dreadful tune ever to gain unmerited notoriety. Its melody was stolen outright from an old and utterly mediocre English drinking song, and its lyrics, as Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, are peppered with a few too many doubtful question marks to be taken seriously. On top of its myriad other shortcomings, it’s almost impossible to sing, and most of the luminaries who go on TV to give it the old college try manage to make an even more appalling hash out of what’s already a wretched and pre-ordained hot mess. Bad renditions of the thing at various sporting events over the years have become the stuff of legend.

It can be done right, though. I have on disc a video of James Taylor re-imagining the anthem at the start of a baseball game, it’s lovely, and once, back in 1977, I tuned into the World Series and saw Ronstadt sing it in Dodger Stadium. It was game three, I think. Dark where I was, but still sunny out in California. I can’t find a better video, this is pure VHS low fidelity, but it gives you the gist of it. She just belts it out with typical pitch-perfect assuredness. It’s mesmerizing, cheesy organ and all. Yup, the Star Spangled Banner well and truly sucks, but even the suckiest pile of dog’s breakfast can only suck so much when you hand it to Ronstadt.

Below is an image I found on line, and it captures the moment when I first imagined that there might actually be a God – once again to paraphrase the crew from Diner, you’re telling me that this all started with a bunch of hapless amoeba or whatever, swimming around in a little rock pool somewhere, and a couple of billion years later we’re presented with something like that, all just by random chance?


This moment also demonstrated to my satisfaction that any such hypothetical God had to be the sort of miserable taunting bastard who’d wave a barbecued steak in the face of a tethered dog. I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s line from Manhattan, spoken to Mariel Hemingway: “Are you kidding? You’re God’s answer to Job. I do a lot of terrible things, but I can make one of these”. Yeah, OK, and you can do sunsets and beaches, and amber waves of grain, and other such shit, but would it have killed you if just this once, you didn’t put it out there so I had to comprehend the unattainable? Or better yet, seeing as you can make one of those, why in pluperfect Hell would you stop at just one?

Am I asking too much out of life?

How unbearably shitty is the Universe? Well, it’s unbearably shitty enough to give Ronstadt Parkinson’s, and cripple her to the point that she can’t sing any more. I’d say that’s about as unbearably shitty as any of us, sinners though we may be, could ever deserve. She sure didn’t. It’s as if the Cosmos realized it had mistakenly lavished an unthinkable tonnage of gifts upon one person, and decided it was time to savagely rebalance the books. Now and then, despite being a total egomaniac, I read something and think that I couldn’t have said it better myself. Here’s an example:

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