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Songs of the Day Archive – Part 1

Welcome to Songs of the Day. This series began off line, with a series of music appreciation pieces I wrote over the past couple of years of my pre-retirement working life, purely for my own amusement, and then circulated to a few friends, discussing my favourite songs. It began as an effort to expose my young administrative assistant to music she hadn’t heard, from before her time, that I thought she’d like. I’m not sure if she actually did like any of my recommendations. Actually, I’m not sure she even read any of them, but I kept sending them to her, and a few others.

This is pure subjectivity, of course. I’m neither a musician nor a musicologist, and arguably these posts have about as much merit as everything else that issues from the “I know what I like” school of art appreciation, but I like to imagine I have a good ear; at any rate I’m passionate about the stuff.

There’s a definite boomer bias to the selections. That’s because I’m a boomer.

One thing: it occurs to me that I might be quoting lyrics without the permissions that might be necessary under copyright law. If any music industry mavens out there wish to complain, I can always replace the direct quotes with links to any of the hundreds of internet sites that post the lyrics of just about every song ever written, but another way to go would be to simply grant me the permission. I’m not selling anything here, and all I’m doing is extolling the virtues of songs which, if I had things my way, any readers would immediately purchase for themselves.

Song of the Day – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (May 19, 2017)

The song that sold me on Bobby D., and the one, I’m quite sure, that clinched his Nobel.

Written in 1962 and released on the 1963 album Freewheelin’, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is one of those songs that can fairly be described as “epic”, a serious work of genuine poetry full of bleak imagery and post-apocalyptic sentiments that seemed, in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, evocative of nuclear war and the deadly fallout that comes after. Dylan has said that’s too literal an interpretation, and that actually, each line began life as a separate song he didn’t have the energy to finish, implying it’s not actually about anything at all, perhaps with tongue planted firmly in cheek. One thing’s for sure: it isn’t about sweet little bunnies hopping about in flowery fields.  From the first time I heard it, certain lines were indelibly burned into memory:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

This sort of thing might have been familiar to followers of the Beat poets and the art house crowd, but it was a far cry from anything for which adolescent Americans had thus far been prepared by their AM radios.  Beach Blanket Bingo, this wasn’t. At a time when almost literally mindless escapism was the very essence of popular song, here was Dylan proclaiming, like some prophet of a looming armageddon, that he heard the sound of a thunder that roared out a warning, he heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world.

Compare and contrast: in 1963 the top song, according to Billboard, was Sugar Shack, by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. Here, have a taste of the scrumptious words:

There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks
And ev’rybody calls it the sugar shack
Well, it’s just a coffeehouse and it’s made out of wood
Espresso coffee tastes mighty good

The shack is made out of wood, is it? You don’t say. Plus there’s espresso! Yum! It would have given you mental whiplash to pull that off the platter and give a spin to Dylan’s bleak, biting masterpiece, and hear him tell you that his travels had taken him out in front of a dozen dead oceans, and ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard. Yikes. Look, it was your choice, kid: you could bop down to the sugar shack and romance your sweetie over an espresso, or you could follow Bob and see where he took you. Admittedly, the latter didn’t sound half as fun:

I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
And the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the colour, where none is the number

I know, right? Bummer. Yet a growing segment of the Baby Boom cohort was starting to think that maybe there were unpleasant truths that simply had to be confronted, and the sooner the better. There was a whiff of revolution in the air, as if young people were stirring from their intellectual torpor. As Bobby D. told us, the times they were a-changin’.  Popular music was suddenly a medium for serious artistic expression, and as one of the key figures in the sea change, Dylan was giving his fellow musicians a choice: they could either start swimmin’, or sink like a stone.

Song of the Day: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight (May 21, 2017)

Abbey Road, the last album the Beatles recorded, was released in 1969. Hard to believe it was so long ago, when I still have a clear memory of the record first appearing in our house, bought by my brother. We didn’t know, then, that it was all over, and in a way it wasn’t – previously recorded tapes from the generally disastrous Let it Be sessions were yet to be handed to Phil Spector, who would turn them into a rather depressing album released the following year, drenched in his signature, and in this case thoroughly ham-fisted, “wall of sound” overdubs. What he did to Long and Winding Road was practically indictable.

There was certainly nothing in the immaculately produced music of Abbey Road that hinted at the band’s demise. It was another step forward, like all their albums, vibrant, beautifully recorded, and full of tight ensemble playing. The Beatles had seemed fractured on the prior White Album; now they’d rekindled the spirit of their finest moments, and seemed to be reveling in what their combined talents could produce.

In retrospect, one can’t help but sense that they felt in their bones this was going to be it, and they wanted to go out in style.

The album ends with a 20-minute song suite (often called “the long medley”) that winds its way to a McCartney piece called Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight, before climaxing with The End.  In 1969, Paul was at the peak of his prowess, and here he produced a gorgeous symphonic conclusion that every turgid Art Rocker since has fumblingly tried, in one way or another, to emulate.

Once there was a way to get back home, sings Paul over his mournful piano.  The inspiration came from an Elizabethan Era poem by Thomas Dekker:

Golden slumbers kiss your eyes,

Smiles awake you when you rise;

Sleep, pretty wantons, do not cry,

And I will sing a lullaby,

Rock them, rock them, lullaby.

The lyrics track the poem fairly closely, except, tellingly, the sentiments about losing the way home, and being left to carry that weight for a long time, were Paul’s own.  Still just 27 years old, he was now scaling to dizzying musical heights; did he know he would never be back there again?  It’s hard not to discern a sad awareness of all that was soon to be lost in this lovely, soaring song – but who wants to exit crying?  The great, beautiful music machine that was the Beatles was just about to be sent to the breakers and turned into scrap, but why weep, when instead there was still time to take her out for one last glorious spin?  So we end with a raucous guitar duel that vanishes in a flash to leave behind a single sweet note played on piano, over which is delivered a sort of benediction:

And in the end

the love you take

is equal to the love

you make.

The orchestra swells and lingers on a last note for just long enough, and no longer, and it’s all over.

I’ll let musicologist Walter Everett have the last word:

While not an unusual theme for the Beatles, and certainly one of central importance to John Lennon, as in “The Word”, and “All You Need is Love”, it seems rewarding to hear this uplifting message as a very personal final gift from Paul to his mates, as well as from the Beatles to the world. ‘Tis true that a good play needs no epilogue, but McCartney’s ear for structural balance graces a fine medley with a better coda.

{See Everett, The Beatles as Musicians, from Revolver to Anthology, beginning at location 5775 in the Kindle edition)}

Song of the Day: Jackson Browne – Lawyers in Love (May 25, 2017)

Time for something a little more light-hearted. Lawyers in Love can’t be Browne’s best work, not when he has For a Dancer in his songbook (see the Songs of the Day Archive), but I’m just tickled pink by this uncharacteristically rocking farce about yuppies and Reagan era values as they flourished in the 1980s. Maybe that’s because I used to be one of those lawyers? Just the sight of him standing in the aperture of his BMW’s sun roof, paddling his sedan like a canoe and hollering his mating call, is enough to brighten any rainy afternoon.

And who can resist the lyrics?

Am I the only one who hears the screams

and the strangled cries of lawyers in love?

Or the little dig at the cold war obsession with the USSR:

Last night I watched the news from Washington (the capitol)

The Russians escaped when we weren’t watching them (like Russians will)

At the end we’re treated to precision briefcase drill by the phalanx of lawyers arriving in the new vacationland of the USSR, an act, I think, from Pasadena’s Doo Dah parade, which over the years has featured such things as synchronized lawnmower pushing by the troupe Toro Toro Toro, and The Barbecue and Hibachi Marching Grill Team.

Check it out!

Song of the Day: Paul Brady – The Island (June 4, 2017)

As I write this, details are still being sorted out about a new round of terrorist attacks in London, or at least it seems like terrorists – things are still very sketchy. More people are dead. More nothingness, signifying nothing. Absolutely nothing being proved, achieved, or affected in any way, beyond the ruination of individual lives. I can’t write another indignant post like my prior “Manchester”, I just don’t have it in me, and anyway it does no good. Nothing does any good.

Instead I offer up this song I first heard back in the mid 1980s, a favourite, by an Irish singer named Paul Brady, of whom I know almost nothing at all. Looking him up on Google, he’s apparently well-regarded and a figure of some significance in the circles within which he travels and plays, but all I know of him is this one mournful song, The Island, which I first saw him play on MuchMusic in my flat above the greasy spoon on the corner of Bleecker and Carleton.

It’s anti-war, and also, I think, anti-terrorist. There seem to be clear references to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and allusions to the sheer futility of inflicting violence against the innocent as a way to effect political change. It’s very sad, and terribly weary, and wise, and heartbroken, and yes, as I’ve commented before in my essays on song, there’s nothing all that impressive and edifying about offering up the thoroughly unremarkable insight that war and killing is bad. Who doesn’t know that?  Yet the war and killing goes on, and we still seem to need the remedial math; we still seem not to really understand, or far worse, not really to care so long as it’s somebody else.

I’m a realist. Indeed, most truly humane and gentle folk would think of me as a nasty hard-ass. I’m the last guy to tell you that anyone can be safe who doesn’t have on staff a cadre of vicious killers trained and ready to tear the living guts out of anybody who would do him harm. In this shitty world, that’s just table stakes, and if you feel differently, then to me, you’re just a fool, maybe a loveable, gentle fool, maybe the sort of harmless, decent fool I’d detail my trained cadre of ruthless killers to protect, but you’re still just a fool.

This is a terrible world that only respects power, where very often the only thing the foe understands is bricks and baseball bats.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t try to create safe spaces. It doesn’t exclude the idea that while I may need my frothing, barking, homicidal Doberman, within that attack dog’s sphere of protection will exist a place where the lop-eared bunny chews his lettuce, safe and sound. It especially doesn’t mean that the teeth of my attack dog are the only thing I should ever have to show you, the only way forward, the only means of persuasion. I need to be safe, but shit, it’s so tiring, so empty, so useless, if threats are the only thing we have to say to each other, isn’t it?

They may not know it, or they may not care, or they may actually relish it for all I know, but soon, now, the ones who just murdered the innocents in London will become acquainted with our Doberman, and his terrible fangs. We will exact our retribution, and after the blood and screams, after their throats are torn out, nothing will have changed. There will be a pause, until the next time. There’s grim satisfaction in imagining our attack dogs ripping out the windpipes of the intruding murderers, but really, it’s just empty. Empty.

The way it seems, just now, I need that dog. Yet I’d very much prefer it if, instead, they could just tell me what they want, and I could reflect upon whether there was some way I could give it to them and still sleep at night. Perhaps I’ve behaved in ways that have helped spawn this madness? Perhaps there’s a better way to put an end to this? Maybe I can be strong yet accommodating at the same time? Is there a way out of this cave in which neither of us has to kill the other?

Maybe they’ve already run that scenario. Maybe they know that everything they want runs so counter to every cherished value I clutch tight to my heart, that it just has to be this way, in which case, I’m the one being foolish now. I’ve studied these things for decades, understand, I have graduate degrees in this shit, yet still I’m just as much in the dark as any average adolescent. All I can possibly know, at this point, is the simplest thing that any moron must know. It can’t help to simply make other innocent people suffer and die. Not when we do it, not when they do it. It can’t help. I wish I had more. I wish I had something brilliant to offer.

I don’t.

Let me stress: there is no moral equivalence here, in my view. Let me also stress: if you live somewhere in which a guy with whom you’re acquainted is likely to get blasted clean out of his sandals by an orbiting, pilotless thing named Reaper, using a weapon first devised to defeat Soviet armour, you may have a different view of the rights and wrongs of the bigger geopolitical picture. That doesn’t make you right, necessarily, but it doesn’t make you crazed and utterly unreasonable either, not necessarily. Maybe, sometimes, it just makes you hurt and afraid and angry. Like I am.

Look at me. I guess I wrote another indignant post after all.

But hey, don’t listen to me. This wasn’t meant to be no sad song.

Song of the Day: The Choir Practice Failsafe (June 7, 2017)

It’s got nothing to do with the launch procedures for nuclear weapons. It’s about relationships. Just a pretty little song, almost a cappella, in a simple little video. There’s something about the repeated refrain “you and me both kid” that rubs me the right way, and all those interesting faces. They look like people you’d want to hang around with.

Song of the Day: Jane Siberry – Map of the World Part II (June 17 2017)

Jane Siberry was a quirky, arty, highly talented Canadian performer who achieved some notoriety on the 1980s, particularly for the song Mimi on the Beach, an almost cinematic piece that sounded equal parts Cyndi Lauper and Joni Mitchell, and posed the unforgettable question to the title character: was it going to be “the Great Leveller or the Great Escape?”. She could display wonderful melodicism in songs like Calling All Angels, or One More Colour, giddy infatuation in I Muse Aloud, and humour, as in Everything Reminds Me of My Dog in which, indeed, everything reminders her of her dog – Einstein, the smiling guy on the subway, guys in bars, the lot.

Map of the World (Part II) is my favourite, with its lyrics that evoke scenes of Toronto – the “perfect perfect lawn” just has to be the vast lawn out in front of the Manulife headquarters, maintained like a putting green, and the “golden office tower”, which is just a cliff the sun is setting on, must be Royal Bank Plaza, with its gold-tinted windows. She even seems to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union, years before it happened, seeing “shadows in the spaces where the faces of the Kremlin used to be”. There’s an exhilaration to the song, captured perfectly in this wonderful piece of performance art.

Song of the Day: Ben Folds – Gracie (June 22, 2017)

The most moving tribute to a beloved child since Hey Jude, Gracie is typical of the lilting, piano-based songwriting style of Ben Folds. Melodic, gentle, and built around lyrics so tender that you almost want to cry (and sometimes, this listener admits, not just almost), this succinct, deceptively complex song makes you wish your own mom or dad had been a talented songwriter, so you could carry a gift like this around with you forever. Many years from now, grown-up Gracie will have this lovely emotional time capsule to remind her of how much her father adored her, a keepsake better than any old photo or inherited object could ever be.

Here, as in another of his wonderful songs, Brick (a song you should hear, if you haven’t already, see the Songs of the Day archive), Folds demonstrates that he knows how to use strings in a popular song arrangement. By the end, as the drone of the cello is offset by the pizzicato of the plucked violins, it sounds almost like chamber music. Also on display is that rare talent for bringing a song to a tidy and satisfying conclusion, not too early, but early enough that you feel like you wouldn’t have minded a little more.

“One day you’re gonna want to go”, he sings wistfully. One senses, though, that she’ll always feel the tug of home.

Song of the Day: Aaron Copland – Saturday Night Waltz (July 4, 2017)

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. The Hollywood “singing cowboy” thus had its roots in reality – the cowpokes would literally serenade the livestock, to prevent them from getting restive, so they wouldn’t stampede. Anyone who’s watched enough old Westerns knows that cattle are easily spooked, but it may come as a surprise that 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 neighbours, 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.

Song of the Day: The Velvet Underground – All Tomorrow’s Parties (July 27, 2017)

In a prior post, I argued that the Beatles’ magnum opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the most important album in pop/rock history, and I stand by that. However, there’s another, far less popular, recording of the same vintage that many would cite instead: The Velvet Underground and Nico, the widespread and lasting influence of which is all the more remarkable when you consider that only a few thousand copies were pressed, vs. the sales of 30-40 odd million (and counting) for the Beatles disc.

The Velvet Underground were 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 refers to 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 in 1967 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, almost an open rebuke to the dominant record of the day, and the trippy Summer of Love that it inspired (though actually it was released a couple of months earlier). No anthems of peace, love, and joyous drug induced transcendence for this lot. Love? Oh, fuck off. The Velvets were 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 control, and the virtual annihilation of the soul, that comes with hard-core substance abuse – though Heroin, characteristically, is laced with softer intervals that exemplify the human sympathy so central to the ethos of this band.

All Tomorrow’s Parties, voiced as no one else ever could by Nico, with her thick German accent (creating an aura of world-weariness that evokes Kurt Weil and Berthold Brecht), is just about bleak enough to serve as the soundtrack for today’s dire social and political realities. I wrote yesterday of taking solace, in the era of Trump, that at least we can all die laughing. All Tomorrow’s Parties could be taken to reflect another way of coping, via descent into a world of make-believe and oblivious hedonism. The thing is, it’s no use, long term. The emptiness always catches up to you.

And what costume shall the poor girl wear

To all tomorrow’s parties

A hand-me-down dress from who knows where

To all tomorrow’s parties

And where will she go, and what shall she do

When midnight comes around

She’ll turn once more to Sunday’s clown

and cry behind the door

It’s hard to put your finger on why this dirge from a much different time seems so suited to the world we now confront. It just does.

Song of the Day: Suzanne Vega – Crack in the Wall (November 6, 2017)

The “extra rooms” dream set to music; the crack in the wall, morphing into a door that opens into a new, beautiful, and heretofore undiscovered land, a place to explore in a waking dream, in a moment of clarity and exaltation that vanishes to leave behind not a new understanding, but only the sad memory of having once understood. You can visit, but you can’t take anything back with you. It reminds me of Kubla Khan, the Coleridge poem about a vision interrupted and lost – A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw.

The guitar accompaniment is by Gerry Leonard, whose work here provides a superb example of understated virtuosity, displayed sparingly in service of the music. He and Vega execute a chord structure that gives me shivers, every time.

If you’re new to the “Little Desk” series from NPR, there’s all sorts of them on YouTube.

Song of the Day: John K. Samson – One Great City (November 23, 2017)

Toronto has a vast underground mall that sprawls across the whole downtown, snaking its way under all the major buildings, hotels and shopping areas. It’s called the “Path” (a name borrowed from a similar set of tunnels in New York), and it’s the biggest complex of its kind in the world. Every time I’m down there, especially when it’s crowded, I think of One Great City, and its line about a thousand sharpened elbows in the underground. The people in the Path hustle along with their heads down, buried in their phones. Those looking straight ahead are grim-faced and frowning like they’re on their way to get a root canal, which, in a way, they are. They’ll walk right over you like you’re invisible. And everywhere, the hollow, hurried sound of feet on polished floor.

One Great City is about Winnipeg, but it could be about any Canadian city mired in the depths of winter, when the first sign of sunset is a darker grey breaking through the lighter one.  I find this song to be almost perfect, with nary a wasted note or pointless lyric. It’s the sort of song that can change your mood, with its subtle chord shifts, its melodicism, and its graceful, tidy ending (I can’t think of song that comes to a more skillful, satisfying conclusion). There’s a wistfulness, an air of sadness and ongoing loss that hovers over its wry sentiments. It’s populated with people we recognize and understand, the weary clerk counting loonies in the dollar store, the frustrated commuter travelling the same route every day, the restless riders on the bus. It’s us.

Song of the Day: Fountains of Wayne – Troubled Times (February 19, 2018)

A gorgeous, poignant lament for a regretful heart that hopes against hope for a probably undeserved second chance. They broke up, and OK yeah, maybe it was his fault, he put her through all sorts of crap and then split, probably figuring on finding something better. Oh, boy. Now he knows he made a terrible, terrible mistake.

It’s only human that he dreams of getting her back, and of a time to come when they can remember it all as just a bit of a bump in the road. That can work, right? All he has to do is swallow hard and go for it, it could all be set right, maybe one day soon – but time is flying by, it takes so very much nerve even to approach her, and always the nagging question: why do tomorrow what you could never do?

They were masters of wistful melody, but Fountains of Wayne, and the irreplaceable chemistry between songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, are things of the past. They should have been so much bigger than they ever became.

Here’s a lovely live version from the NPR Tiny Desk Concert series:

Song of the Day: John K. Samson – When I Write My Masters Thesis (February 19, 2018)

There’s a strange loneliness to being a grad student, up late at night writing, hanging around the stacks, dozing in your little carrell, passing solitary hours up in the rare books collection, trying to finish something that’s difficult and doesn’t really matter. It’s almost dreamlike, the drifting, procrastinating, proofing of paragraphs that almost nobody’s going to read, and now and then thinking that you aren’t that young anymore, and wondering what’s next. John K Samson, himself an adjunct professor, knows it all so well.

This is the point at which those of us with no particular talent end up going to law school.

Song of the Day: Pete Townshend – The Kids Are All Right (May 15, 2018)

He started out as the enigmatic lead guitarist of a radical pop art/rock ‘n roll outfit that came on as dangerous, busting his instruments to bits after windmilling on his 12 string Rickenbacker until the tips of his fingers bled. The antics on stage – apparently mindless, but actually a sly (and very expensive) form of social commentary with its intellectual roots in the 20th century “auto-destructive” art movement – were almost enough to obscure the scathing intelligence and gifted songwriting of the “nose on a stick”, as he flailed away behind the rough-looking lead singer, competing for attention with the irrepressible berserker on drums.

The songs as recorded for radio play, it turned out, were often less compelling than the solo demos recorded as the templates, with Pete alone on guitar, his ringing voice clear as brass above the crafty chord progressions that complimented the soaring melodies. It turned out he was a better vocalist than the front man, and the songs often had a melancholy, philosophical quality that was somewhat lost when they emerged from the studio treatment.

In later years, the erstwhile proto-punk became elder statesman, and more or less invented the “unplugged” movement, appearing alone with his acoustic guitar to play the songs the way they’d been written, all those years ago.  The Kids Are All Right, performed here at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is revealed as something close to a wistful ballad, having masqueraded all those years as an angry and raucous anthem of disaffected youth, the frantic drums and slashing electric chords obscuring the almost resigned and ambivalent inner thoughts of the nervous, doubtful kid residing at the center.

Song of the Day: Paul McCartney – On the Wings of a Nightingale (March 17, 2018)

Back when they were cutting their teeth during hundreds of extended, pill-fuelled sets on stage in the joints of the Reeperbahn, the Beatles absorbed almost every conceivable pop music influence. Naming only a few, there was Elvis, of course, and early Motown, Goffin and King, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly – the name “Beatles” was an homage to Holly’s outfit, the Crickets – and the Everly Brothers. It’s been noted that the tight harmonies of their first number 1 hit, Please Please Me, owe more than a little to the Everlys, and particularly Cathy’s Clown, a massive hit for the brothers Stateside.

It was very much the repayment of an old debt, then, when McCartney gifted the boys this lovely song, lending them a hand in a minor comeback in the mid 1980s. Throughout his career, McCartney has never been averse to giving other artists the fruits of his “A” game; early on, he delivered sure-fire hit A World Without Love to Peter and Gordon (perhaps to ingratiate himself with girlfriend Jane Asher, Peter’s sister), and later he gave Badfinger a leg up with Come and Get It, and Mary Hopkin a hit with Goodbye, which featured one of his most sublime melodies.

He was obviously inspired when composing On the Wings of a Nightingale for the Everlys. From catchy start to elegant end, it’s a clinic in the art of pop songwriting, and it showcases another of McCartney’s rare gifts, his uncanny ability to write songs in the voice of other composers, not so much imitating as channeling, creating pieces that are entirely novel yet completely in the other writers’ styles (and fit, usually, to rank among those writers’ best work). I’ll Be On My Way (recorded only during the Beatles’ BBC sessions) is pure Buddy Holly; the much more recent New is Brian Wilson to a “T”, while Friends to Go is band-mate George, My Valentine is Richard Rodgers, and Let Me Roll It is none other than John, right down to the “bathroom voice” that Lennon favoured in his early 70s studio work. On the Wings of a Nightingale is Phil and Don all over, and just as With a Little Help From My Friends was composed specifically to suit Ringo’s vocal range, Nightingale was designed to exploit the Everlys’ particular talent for vocal harmonization. This is perhaps not so obvious in Paul’s demo version, attached above, but you can hear how Phil and Don made the most of the song’s construction in their more energetic version, below, which also reflects the influence of producer Dave Edmunds.

Song of the Day: Benny Goodman – Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing) (March 25, 2018)

The quintessential Swing Era song, Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing) was written by Louis Prima in 1936, and recorded by Benny Goodman and his orchestra in 1937. Not only did it become Goodman’s signature piece, it grew to represent the sound of those times for all the generations that have come since. Whenever anybody is trying to evoke the Swing Era in films or on TV, they resort to it, or something written to sound just like it.

Back when I was a kid in the Sixties, listening, if memory serves, to the Monkees and the Box Tops, my Dad decided I needed to hear some real music. Out came his classic 1938 recording of Goodman and the band at Carnegie Hall. I suppose I could have decided to rebel, you know, on principle, but man, you’d have had to be made of stone to resist Sing, Sing, Sing. Goodman and the boys really cook, propelled along by an indescribable rhythm supplied by the immortal Gene Krupa, drumming in a manner that simply can’t quite be replicated by anybody else, and never could. It gets you right in the most primordial part of your brainstem. That’s real drumming, Dad told me, and explained how Krupa was the greatest, simply the greatest, way better than that showboat Buddy Rich. When people went on about how Buddy Rich was the bee’s knees, I was not to believe it. Krupa. Plain and simple.

Just look at him. Dad was right, wasn’t he?

It’s more than a little disquieting to realize that at the time, Dad was about 20 years younger than I am now, and amazing to think that a record from only 30 years prior could have seemed like a message from another planet, so removed was it from the stuff we were then buying on 45s. I mean, at the time of writing, U2’s Joshua Tree was more than 30 years ago, and maybe it’s a sign that I’m out of touch, but I don’t sense any sort of gaping generation gap between that album and today’s output. In the Sixties it was different. Things were moving fast, back then, and the changes were radical. In my father’s lifetime, they were transitioning from tube radios to solid state colour TV, from scratchy 78s to long playing vinyl in glorious stereo over expensive hi fi consoles, from trains to supersonic airplanes, from Buck Rogers to real astronauts reaching for the real Moon. The Moon. It must have been dizzying.

The changes occurring in popular music were just about as great, but it wasn’t that Dad thought the new stuff was all crap by definition. He was a big fan of Simon and Garfunkel, and he appreciated the Beatles. There were, however, certain acts he really, viscerally disliked – among them was Chicago, a favourite of my brother’s (and ironically the nearest contemporary equivalent to the big bands he adored), whose shrill horn arrangements used to set his teeth on edge. He cringed whenever Mark slapped them on the platter. I can still see Dad, frozen in a state of near ecstatic relief, standing outside Mark’s bedroom door, after the record changed from something like Chicago to Creedence Clearwater Revival doing Down on the Corner. “That’s what I mean“, he told me, almost whispering. “There! That’s the real deal.” It was as if he didn’t want to move, in case he broke the spell and it’d be back to 25 Or 6 To 4.

No, Dad wasn’t the sort to claim that nobody did anything good anymore, like they did back in the day. There was, however, stuff from back in the day that deserved to be remembered and admired, and there was indeed modern crapola that couldn’t hold a candle to it.

There was, Dad. I know it.

It’s an amazing stroke of luck that the band’s performance of Sing, Sing, Sing was captured in relatively high fidelity on film, and looking at it now, I’m no less struck by it, no less in awe of the musicianship and the strength of the composition, than I was back in 1967, when I first heard it played on the aural meat-grinder we then had for the purpose. It was no stereo, that thing. It was barely a record player at all. It was the kind of portable monaural turntable/speaker/hinged box combination that had a pressed steel tonearm weighing two and a half pounds, augmented with a silver dollar or two taped to the head, the better to ensure that the roofing nail it used for a needle wouldn’t skip when encountering cracks in the record.


A stout pressing of the day – (cue Grandpa Simpson) they used to press them thick back then – was good for about 10 plays before the grooves wore down to nothing. You could almost see the vinyl shavings being peeled off the disc.

In the attached clip, that’s the magnificent Harry James on trumpet, while Goodman throws in his usual virtuoso turn on clarinet, and boy are the guys tight, and obviously enjoying the bejeebers out of their own masterful ensemble playing. Yet it’s Krupa that mesmerizes. I’ve heard many, many recorded attempts to reproduce that rhythm, all of them OK, more or less, but all if them failures.

It can’t be done.

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