Jackson Browne – Running on Empty (January 18, 2023)
Album cut and concert video above, both live renditions.
The title cut from the greatest live album ever made, Running on Empty and the songs that accompany it on the 1977 recording are all about life on the road, playing one city after another in a dizzying whirl of venues and hotel rooms, with the interior confines of the tour bus the only constant. Everything on the record was recorded on the fly, either on stage, or somewhere proximate, backstage, on the bus, wherever they happened to be when the muse struck them; the terrific country lament Shaky Town was recorded in Room 124, Holiday Inn, Edwardsville, Illinois, while the extraordinarily moving The Load Out, a song of the day a while back, is listed as recorded live at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland:
Listening to the title track, you can just feel yourself on that bus, you can hear the steady hum of the tires and see the scenery rushing by, roaring along at 70 MPH between some place like Cleveland and the next stop at the Best Western in Pittsburgh, PA. There’s a restless, relentless sense of forward motion to the pacing and arrangement, evocative of that strange mix of emotions that wash over you when you’re out on an adventure that’s also a grind, the exhilaration tinged with fatigue, loneliness, boredom, and, being as this is a song by Jackson Browne, the worried wondering about how it all came to this, and where it’s all going to wind up.
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me thro
Browne didn’t write it on the road, though. The song came to him during the recording sessions for his previous album, The Pretender, when he was driving back and forth to the nearby studio every day in a car that always seemed to be out of gas. “I was always driving around with no gas in the car, I just never bothered to fill up the tank because – how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.” So many great songs seem to spring from such mundane circumstances, I suppose because it’s at times like that that the creative mind starts to wander in the most productive ways, the times when you and I just get bored and frustrated.
Running on Empty was hugely popular, and went multi-platinum at a moment when everybody could understand that mid-1970s feeling of emptiness and exhaustion after having gone so far, so fast, over the prior decade and a half of social and cultural upheaval. Nothing was the same any more, and it was beginning to look, after the successive blows of Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, repeated inner city race riots, the premature deaths of so many of the iconic musicians who’d only just hit their stride, and a few devastating assassinations tossed in along the way, that nothing was really better either. Those like Browne who’d come of age in the Sixties were still hurtling towards an uncertain future at breakneck speed, but the old optimism was gone, replaced by a sense that we couldn’t keep carrying on that way, not as individuals, and not as a society. It wasn’t working out. We didn’t have the energy. Still, everybody kept going, because the thing about rides on the roller coaster is you can’t get off in the middle, no matter how queasy you’re starting to feel.
Emm Gryner – Lone Star; Summerlong; Stereochrome; Beautiful Things; Almighty Love; Seeds (December 3, 2022)
Ontario’s own Emm Gryner has been kicking around the music scene for about 25 years now. She’s one of those artists who earns the warm respect of her peers, garnering praise from the likes of Nelly Furtado, U2’s Bono (who’s said that the attached Almighty Love as one of a half dozen songs he wishes he’d written), David Bowie (with whom she toured as a backup singer and keyboard player, after he named her as one of his two favourite Canadian artists), Ron Sexsmith, and even Curtis Mayfield, but she’s rarely cracked the Top 40. The exception was 1998’s Summerlong, a big hit that drew not really apt comparisons to the Go-Gos and the Bangles, and earned her the reputation as an up-and-coming “Toronto indie goddess”. It was certainly the song of my own long, hot, 1998 Toronto summer, playing on heavy rotation over the FM boombox as I struggled through 16 hour days working like a draft horse at our new house, trying to clean it up, filling enormous floor-to-ceiling cracks, pulling up filthy rugs, disposing of disgusting things left behind in unexpected places, dealing with a basement full of bulky detritus, and painting, painting, painting. I was always happy when Emm’s song came around again, so full of longing, dashed hopes, and emotional insight, asking of her wayward lover “do you ever think that maybe we’re similar, just looking for someone?”, to which the answer, apparently, was the usual indifferent male shrug; all summer long, the city smiled when you were ‘round, went the chorus, but now the summer’s gone.
Maybe after that she disappointed all the folks who bopped to Summerlong, and imagined they were about to get more of the same in some sort of Eighties-style girl group revival. The rest of the attachments make plain the extent to which that wasn’t in the cards, and how unlikely it was, in retrospect, that anything even vaguely reminiscent of Bananarama was going to form the output of this extravagantly talented, classically trained pianist and multi-instrumentalist who, unlike so many of her contemporaries, actually writes all her own stuff, straight from the heart (check out the songwriting credits for the likes of Pink, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson et al, and see how often the big hits are authored by, or “co-written” with, Scandinavian pop wizard and possible computer algorithm Max Martin). Have a listen to the superb craftsmanship, the melodicism, and the undercurrents of disappointment and heartache that characterize songs like Stereochrome, Beautiful Things, and Lonestar, neat, pretty, emotional compositions with lyrics like these:
All the stars above I named for you
Constellations spinning in a sea of aqua-blue
Now where do I find us
Without love or kindness
Piecing up these broken scenes
Burning down my teenage dreams
Tuneful? Sure. Light and frothy? Not so much.
One of my favourites is Seeds, all dreamy and serene, like a hymn echoing under the stone vault of some ancient monastery at evensong.
Gryner, it turned out, had plenty in common with Jane Siberry, Aimee Mann, Tori Amos, and Suzanne Vega, and nothing much at all with Belinda Carlisle, which is probably why she never sold millions of records, and the major labels tended to drop her from their rosters. That’s O.K. When nobody else wanted her she kept putting out excellent music on her own label, Dead Daisy Records, and I read this week that she’s just signed three different album deals with Germany’s Légère, Japan’s P-Vine Records, and High Wire Records, who issue into the American and U.K. markets. Gryner, always something of a romantic, described the touching optimism with which she approached the labels, after so many years off on her own:
There are people in the world that aren’t going to screw you over and there are people who love music, and I think it’s just about being brave enough to find those people…I guess I just opened myself up to the possibility that those people existed.
I can’t help but worry they’ll end up letting her down, which wouldn’t be surprising, really, and wouldn’t be all bad for the rest of us, either, so long as it gives her the inspiration for another of her finely wrought, bittersweet expressions of baffled, heartsick disappointment.
Love Spit Love – Am I Wrong (November 10, 2021)
Nobody, not even Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed, ever sounded more worn down, world-weary, and full of existential angst than Richard Butler, who, with brother Tim, formed Love Spit Love after the dissolution of the really quite magnificent Psychedelic Furs, and then went off in another sonic direction entirely – the voice, that unmistakeable voice, is certainly the same, but compared to the snarling, uncompromising, almost punk-level bitterness of songs like Pretty in Pink, So Run Down, or Into You Like a Train, all gut-punching masterpieces of their kind, Am I Wrong sounds almost tender, full of regret, doubt, ambiguity, and what might be taken as a plea for forgiveness, or at least understanding, presented with an unexpected level of studio polish. It’s described in some quarters as being about a breakup, but I don’t know, the lyrics seem more about setting an emotional tone than telling a story, describing a state of mind without supplying much in the way of narrative:
There’s too much
That I keep to myself
And I turn my back on my faith
It’s like glass
When we break
I wish no one in my place
…before concluding with the resigned refrain, goodbye, lay the blame on luck. Inscrutable maybe, but it sure does conjure a mood, particularly the line about sleep coming with a knife fork and spoon, immediately understandable to anybody whose insomnia invariably gives way only to nightmares.
Compare and contrast:
I don’t wanna drag you down
Or shack you up with me
Or put you where the flowers go
Or get into your mind
I’m into you like a train
Said Tim Butler, talking to Songfacts: We got bored of being constrained by The Furs. I mean, The Furs expect a certain sound out of it. We wanted to broaden our musical palette, if you like.
Geez I guess, eh?
Love Spit Love didn’t last long, or set the world on fire. After their eponymous debut album, they produced only one more, 1997’s Trysome Eatone, before disappearing, though it contained a few gems as well; have a listen to Fall on Tears:
Squeeze – Goodby Girl (November 24, 2021)
When I first heard Squeeze doing Goodbye Girl, back around 1980 or so, I thought for a moment that it must be McCartney, returning to form at last, and I couldn’t have been alone in that; comparisons of the group’s ace songwriting duo of Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford to Lennon and McCartney were being made all over the pop music press, and not without reason. Beginning in the late Seventies, Squeeze was at the very apex of a new set of performers emerging out of the U.K., along with accomplished peers like the English Beat, XTC, Madness, The Jam, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Specials, that seemed to herald a new golden age in pop songwriting, and nobody, not even Costello, was writing them with quite the consummate skill of Difford and Tilbrook. It was one superlative, tightly-constructed little gem after another, Is That Love, Up The Junction, Another Nail For My Heart, Pulling Mussels From the Shell, Black Coffee in Bed, Annie Get Your Gun, Take Me I’m Yours, Tempted – the last surely the essential radio hit of the era – and today’s selection, all of them singable, danceable, and stuffed full of clever melodies, nifty time signatures, and wry, often witty lyrics, in the best tradition of the Sixties masters in whose company they surely belonged. For a couple of years there, what with the concurrent rise of other legendary acts like the Talking Heads, the Clash, the Split Enz, and U2, I felt like man, the Eighties were going to be great. Even the Kinks had a massive comeback hit, with the wonderful Come Dancing. Surely, pop/rock was once again emerging on to broad, sunlit uplands!
Then – poof! – it was all bloody Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Bananarama, Wham, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Culture Club, and all those frigging New Romantics, and darkness descended once more.
Their star faded, but the lads stayed sharp. Here’s a couple of lesser-known gems from after their peak:
Badfinger – No Matter What (November 26, 2021)
You might assume, without learning the rest of the story, that Badfinger was a band hung with horseshoes. After all, they were gifted just about the mightiest leg up in pop music history when the Beatles took a shine to them, got them a recording contract with Apple, maneuvered them into the hallowed confines of Abbey Road Studios to lay down their tracks, gave them something eminently catchy to get the ball rolling (their first hit was McCartney’s pop gem Come and Get It ), showed up as session men when needed (that’s Harrison on slide guitar in Day After Day, one of their signature songs) and even pitched in as producers (Harrison manned the board for Day After Day, and incredibly, the sterling, ultra-crisp Abbey Road sound of No Matter What was helmed by none other than faithful Mal Evans, the Beatles’ ex-roadie, who’d apparently absorbed the tricks of the trade by osmosis). Even their name had a Beatles association, Bad Finger Boogie having been the working title for McCartney’s With a Little Help From My Friends (something about Lennon having an injured hand at an early recording session). It certainly seemed for a while there like the baton was being passed, with lead singer Pete Ham, who wrote No Matter What, demonstrating serious songwriting chops, and the band sounding gloriously Beatlesque in the best possible way. Today’s selection, with its clean, unfussy studio polish, impeccable musicianship, soaring melody, and powerful electric guitar lines, is now regarded as the seminal, and still quintessential example of the genre that came to be called “power pop”, and was a hit all over the world in 1971, creating the sense that even though the Fab Four were no more, things were still going to be all right. On the strength of this and a number of other standout tunes, Badfinger was red hot. In just a few years they sold something like 14 million records.
Yet they never made any money, a story as old as the pop music business. Apple was in utter organizational and financial chaos, as everything degenerated into lawsuits and acrimony, and somehow they barely saw a dime for their efforts. Finally they jumped to Warner, where they were shafted again, partly because their own business manager seems to have misappropriated some funds, giving their new label an excuse to withhold payments, pull their albums, and sue them into oblivion. By 1975 they were flat broke and blackballed, and Pete Ham, depressed and desperate, committed suicide. Bandmate Tom Evans did the same in 1983, sadly, while the Warners lawsuit dragged on interminably, as lawsuits always do.
Left behind is the sheer, life-affirming joy of a song that urged us to break down the brick walls in our heads and join life’s raucous party, captivating, timeless, and utterly incongruous with the ugly reality of what became of its composer, and the band that once seemed destined to pick up where the Beatles left off.
The Beatles – Peter Jackson’s Get Back (November 29, 2021)
Well, like everybody else I’ve been watching Peter Jackson’s sprawling, eight hour fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Let it Be sessions, now streaming on Disney, and it seems, having conducted a very brief canvass of Google, that just about everybody who’s watching is also writing a review – so why should I be any different? There’s actually a lot to write about, too, since the new documentary is full of surprises, even for the sort of Beatles aficionado, like your faithful scribe, who’s put himself through the equivalent of six post-graduate degrees on the band and its music over the years, three of them PhDs.
First, to acknowledge some of the carping you’ll see out there in the commentariat: yes, it’s bloody long, and for anyone who doesn’t absolutely love the Beatles, a complete viewing will sometimes be a bit of a slog. Well, O.K., a lot of a slog. The grumpy reviewer for The Guardian complained that the thing is so drawn-out and aimless that it actually threatens the viewer’s sanity, and it’s certainly the case that Jackson, determined to document in full the hard work, false starts, refinements, and constant, endless rehearsals that form the creative process, doesn’t shy away from depicting those lengthy interludes when it just isn’t working, or the lads are, essentially, sitting around, staring at their feet, scratching the odd itch, and getting absolutely nothing done. At one point, with everybody splayed out in their chairs in a corner of the cavernous, drafty old Twickenham Studio, McCartney suggests that it might be better if they set some goals and tried to accomplish something every day – the idea, after all, was to take only two weeks to come up with a whole album’s worth of new songs, and have them polished to the point they could then play them to a live audience as part of a TV special – but nobody’s listening. For the first few hours (!) of the film, John seems not to be interested, really, Ringo is often seen dozing off, and George is sullen, marching out at one point proclaiming, matter of fact, that he’s quitting for good, which leaves everybody in a funk that drags on into the second instalment. Nothing much happens, then, until the rest can coax George back, the idea of a TV special is shelved, and they decide to decamp from Twickenham to the happier, warmer confines of their new Apple Corps digs on Savile Row. It’s not a lot of fun to watch.
Except when it is. Even when the whole affair seems mired in the doldrums, there’ll be sudden moments of pure magic. Best of these is when you get to watch what are now immortal songs being crafted literally out of nothing, emerging from the ether – there’s a heady, privileged, present at the creation feeling in getting to see it happen. One of my favourites shows Paul strumming his Hoffner bass like it’s a rhythm guitar, George and Ringo sitting about bleary-eyed and literally yawning in his direction, until, after less than a minute, what started off as an aimless exercise in rhythm is already, recognizably, Get Back. Just like that.
We also get to see unexpected songs being rehearsed, including key numbers like Golden Slumbers that won’t be finalized until Abbey Road, and songs from each that will appear publicly only years down the road, on various solo records. Lennon tries out an early version of Gimme Some Truth, Paul begins work on Back Seat of My Car, and George plays Isn’t It a Pity – a major composition that will one day anchor his epochal All Things Must Pass – to no particular fanfare, highlighting the basis of his growing frustration as the band’s under-appreciated junior member and de facto hired hand (and leaving me to reflect on how it really is a pity that this of all pieces wasn’t recorded under the discipline that George Martin and Messrs. Lennon and McCartney would have imposed at Abbey Road Studio 2, instead of being allowed to morph into a Phil-Spector-smothered, wall-of-sound extravaganza that drags on for far too long, dirge-like, in its final version, betraying George’s recurring difficulty in figuring out how to end a song). There’s also particular delight to be had in brief, essentially random musical outbursts, as when Paul, sitting at a keyboard, wonders aloud in conversation with some hovering junior staffer at how all the music in the world is present right there in those 88 keys, and says “look!” before launching into a snappy rendition of the incredibly clever piano opening to the White Album’s Martha My Dear – a perfect pop song that’s criminally overlooked – and seems amazed by how it’s possible to do so much with so few notes.
It’s also gratifying to be able to throw a number of ironclad preconceptions into the circular file, most of them, it now seems clear, fostered by the selective editing applied by then-director Michael Lindsay-Hogg to the original film version of Let it Be, which was, not to put too fine a point on it, the biggest celluloid downer that most any of us will ever have to endure. Among them:
Yoko is largely to blame for the break-up, and was roundly disliked by the other Beatles, especially Paul, jealous of being replaced as John’s most important relationship. Nope. Not a bit of it, actually. She’s there all the time, of course, because John wants her to be, but she keeps mostly to herself, causes no hassles or disruptions, and is treated at all times with cordial respect by the lads. At one point, with John late as usual, and Paul visibly worried that now Lennon’s decided to quit too, McCartney dismisses any notion that Yoko’s a problem. She’s great, he says, John needs her, and that’s nothing that anybody needs to get worked up about. He even jokes about how stupid it will be if in 50 years, people are claiming that “the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp”. Meanwhile, everybody else’s spouses and emotional support people likewise come and go, including, charmingly, Linda’s young daughter Heather, and nobody minds that either.
Everybody hated each other, and John had withering contempt for Paul and his “granny music”. Nope. In later years, John, suddenly twisted and bitter, might say things like that, and write unconscionable attack songs like How Do You Sleep, in which he described Paul’s stuff as “Muzak to my ears”, but there’s none of that going on here. In fact, Lennon may remain the group’s leader, but it’s clear John recognizes Paul as the band’s most essential creative asset, and the two of them are obviously ardently committed to improving each other’s songs. They cooperate on everything. They make each other howl with laughter. They compose, play, and harmonize “eyeball to eyeball”, just as Lennon once put it. That these guys love each other to death is always obvious, and John even says so: “It’s like you and I are lovers”. “Yeah”, agrees Paul (no wonder George felt left out). The acrimony would come, sure enough, due to business problems and the malignant influence of scumbag manager Allen Klein, who’s just off screen, about to make his appearance, as the film concludes (producer Glynn Johns tries to warn Lennon that Klein can’t be trusted, and oh, if only John had listened). Not yet, though. At the same time, George’s mood visibly improves back at Savile Row (as does everybody’s after the irrepressible Billy Preston is recruited to fill in on keyboards), and Ringo is, well, back to being Ringo, betraying no trace of the anger that not long before prompted him to storm off in a huff during the White Album sessions. Clearly these young men, having been, for all practical purposes, locked alone together in a submarine ever since they were teenagers, are quite capable of getting on each other’s nerves. But this isn’t the fractious, mutual loathing society of Lindsay-Hogg’s film.
Paul was a bossy overbearing dick and insufferable egomaniac. He’s a perfectionist, sure, and conscious that somebody has to be the adult in the room sometimes, and it looks like that’s going to have to be him, but he’s clearly reluctant playing daddy, and tries to be as sensitive and diplomatic as he knows how to be. I can’t write it better than Chris Willman does in Variety:
In the Beatles circa 1969, Paul McCartney is the negotiator-in-chief, and he’s aware of every eggshell he has to walk around or smash to achieve greatness or just to get shit done. Perhaps not hyper-aware, at all times, or else George Harrison wouldn’t have quit the band for a few days, setting up “Get Back’s” Act-1-ending cliffhanger. But contrary to the prissy picture that’s sometimes been painted of him during the Beatles’ latter days, he comes off as surprisingly aware of the minefield of sensitivities around him, if sometimes a beat or two after the fact… and he’s certainly beyond aware that he’s paying a cost to be the boss. He’s a domineering older brother to George and rival/BFF/frenemy to John, and now he’s playing de facto manager to everyone — not necessarily because he’s taken pole position in the band on merit alone, but because Lennon is suddenly more invested in a woman than he is in being in even the world’s greatest boy band. Seeing McCartney recognize and articulate all these shifts, and soldier on while he gets a little bit sad about them, is one of the pleasures of “Get Back.” If you don’t come away from this with just a little more admiration for Paul, you may just be too in the bag for John and Yoko…
In the hours filmed at Savile Row, the playing gets better, the band achieves focus, Billy Preston lifts everybody up, and the nascent album begins to gel. The slog is over. Maybe we get to hear I’ve Got a Feeling a little more often than we’d like, and John’s Don’t Let Me Down has never been a personal favourite, but you gotta be made of stone if you don’t respond to Paul’s twin masterpieces, Let it Be and the austere, unadorned version of Long and Winding Road, and we’re brought up a little short out here in TV land to realize that at that moment these aren’t old standards, but brand new, as yet unheard by anybody outside that little room. It barely seems possible – there once was a time when these songs didn’t exist.
The great payoff, of course, comes at the end, in what amounts to a glorious late-innings upset victory, as everything falls properly together and the boys take to the roof for an impromptu lunchtime concert that has ever since been one of popular music’s most legendary moments. Jackson presents the full 42 minutes of the set, and what he’s done to restore and enhance the pristine sound and imagery of the original film stock is amazing. There they are giving their last public performance, tight, joyous, briefly on top of the world once more, plainly the greatest band that ever was or will be, and the intervening 52 years seem to fade away to nothing.
Dire Straits – Skateaway (December 16, 2021)
Can’t you just see her? Somewhere in his travels, Mark Knopfler caught sight of this vision of urban kinetic art, a lithe, beautiful girl on rollerblades speeding her way against traffic down a one-way street, weaving her elegant, effortless way between the brutish trucks and honking taxicabs of the gridlock in lower Manhattan, or maybe central London, headphones on, music playing, fragile but untouchable, the star of her own movie, teasing, almost taunting all those stalled vehicles like a toreador toys with bulls, toro, toro, taxi, see you tomorrow my son. She must herself have been music incarnate to inspire such a wonderfully atmospheric, amazingly brief six and a half minutes of pulsing, rhythmic tone poetry that isn’t so much a song as a soundtrack, as befit an album titled Making Movies, pointing the way to the superb scores he’d soon be composing for films like Local Hero and Princess Bride. She’s just so free, this rollergirl, in her own world where nobody can barge in to spoil the mood, and in painting the picture Knopfler expresses something you almost never hear when guys talk about women: delighted admiration.
Fucking Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (December 17, 2021)
Time for the seasonal re-posting of one of my first ever columns, a bilious, apoplectic rant against this, the most insipid and awful song ever written! First seen on the Needlefish in 2017, this classic post is worth revisiting just for my marvellous (and entirely more apt) re-write of the lyrics! Enjoy!
God save me from this f’ing dreck. God consign it to the fiery pit. This and all those other terrible, soul-destroying Christmas ditties.
What’s that? You just love hearing the incessant musical bombardment of Christmas Cheer while you wheel your cart around the supermarket? O.K., look, pal, everybody in his right frame of mind despises Christmas songs, got that? With rare exceptions (Silent Night, say, or O Holy Night ), they roundly suck eggs as music, and the treacly faux-Christian sentiments are obviously the work of some diabolical intellect intent upon driving us all insane. Indeed, I read somewhere a couple of weeks ago that over-exposure to insipid Christmas jingles can contribute to chronic mental illness, but even if you’re not driven into the clutches of the DSM-V, you’re sure to experience all the tenacious seasonal celebration as a sort of mental root canal less anesthetic. If you’re in your right frame of mind.
If I hear that god-awful drummer boy bucket of schmaltz one more time, I’m going to chuck an embolism. What was a goddam kid with a snare drum doing at the nativity anyway? What, there were little uniformed drummer boys running around the Roman world? Fine then, how’d he know to visit an obscure stable in Judea on the very day in question – he followed a star too? And did nobody see him lurking about? He’s not mentioned in the Good Book, last I checked, and suppose he was there, didn’t his pa-rump-a-bum-bum shenanigans disturb the animals, and vex the Wise Men? We come from afar, Holy Mother of God, bearing gifts, having been guided to this very manger by the bright new star that – OH FOR CHRIST’S SAKE WHAT’S WITH THE F*%KING DRUMMING?
Then there’s that appalling little ditty, that thing, about roasting chestnuts. May the open fire burn your goddam house down. And the jingle bells – oh, lord, the endless jingle bells – I hope your open sleigh and its one idiot horse go right through the ice, you miserable chirpy carollers. Yet even stinking Jingle Bells is Mozart next to the most obnoxious, pernicious and brazenly anti-social sing-along of them all, that malodorous pile of cow droppings called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Every time I hear it, every time I think of a cheerful little choir of cherubic pre-tweeners belting it out at the f’ing Christmas Pageant, I want to tear my own teeth out with a pair of rusty pliers. Have you ever really listened to it? The words? It’s noxious. I’ve hated it with a passion surpassing all reason since I first figured it out as a six year-old, or maybe I was seven, when I realized I was actually living a real-word iteration of the song’s awful scenario at school. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is all about nothing except smug bullying and sucking up to The Man. Plain and simple.
Consider poor little Rudolph, his big red snout derided as a gross deformity. The other reindeer – assholes, the lot – shun him and taunt him without mercy, just on account of how the sad little guy looks. Hyuk! Let’s pick on the freak! Let’s make him cry! Let’s make sure he knows how unwelcome he is, as we exclude him from all of our shit-head reindeer games! Miserable, taunting pig-fuckers.
But then – who could have predicted?- the Boss Man takes a shine to him. Turns out that his stupid mutant nose is actually useful to Overlord Santa. Apparently, the fat old bastard has just realized this, having failed thus far to lift so much as a little finger to spare Rudolph from his daily beat-downs and ritual humiliation, but oh well, better late than never, right? Note, however, that Santa finally intervenes not on the general principle that it’s immoral to mistreat and victimize the weak and helpless, but solely because he’s suddenly reckoned that poor abused Rudolph’s glowing red nose might come in handy. By golly, Herr Sinterklaas needs a headlight for his next hypersonic, globe-girdling flight to deliver scads of undeserved goodies to all the world’s gloating little goons, most of them out there doing every day to their ostracized inferiors what the other reindeer did to Rudolph. Yup, and Mr. Freakshow Glowschnozz over there with his fog lamp of a sniffer is just the thing! (Just how incandescent is this shiny honker anyway? I know it’s a nose-so-bright, but it’s going to illuminate the ground from 40,000 feet? Or is it just a navigation light, the better to fend off an unfortunate mid-air with some 747 on the polar route to Europe? And did the “composer” know that red light doesn’t degrade night vision? So many questions! So little turning on the answers!)
So Rudolph gets picked to pull point on the big mission.
Then all the reindeer loved him.
For the love of Christ, really? This is a lesson fit to be taught to kids? By all means children, have your fun ganging up, but do take care to keep an eye on which way the wind’s blowing! Today’s hapless victim might be tomorrow’s teacher’s pet, and you don’t want to be the last one rubbing the helpless kid’s bawling face into the mud and dog turds when The Man decides he kind of likes the punk after all. Then you’ll be the one on the outs. You’ll be the one laying there in the fetal position while the mob kicks the stuffing right out of you. Beware the fickle favour of Power!
As an homage to this paean to toxic group politics, I penned my own version of the song, casting Rudolph as a thwarted climber who wants the same thing as everybody else: to be on top pissing on the downtrodden. It goes like this:
Rudolph the Brown-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph he brown-nosed reindeer
couldn’t gain the upper hand
Climbing the reindeer ladder
wasn’t working out as planned
All of his so-called deer friends
screwed him over royally
This is the way careers end –
fuck ‘im better him than me
Then one listless arctic day
Santa yawned and said:
Rudolph with your nose so brown
no harm keeping you around
Then all the pant-loads loved him!
suddenly the worm had turned
Woe to the ones who’d shoved him
children this is what we’ve learned:
You may be made an outcast
fodder for the schemes of pricks
But if you kiss the right ass
the sycophants will suuuuuuuck yourrrrrrrrrrr diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiik
Don’t get me going on that creepy one in which Santa’s got you under 24/7 surveillance, tallying up all your naughties and your nices.
Songs for a Christmas Eve (December 18, 2021)
Having re-posted my screed against that miserable, misanthropic saga of the egregiously abused reindeer Rudolf, and against Christmas jingles generally, for that matter, I thought it appropriate to balance the books here with some songs that Kathy and I always play on Christmas Eve. We usually cue these up to listen to while munching the best hors d’oeuvres ever conceived, water chestnuts soaked in a soy/brown sugar mix and then baked, wrapped in bacon. Oh, yum.
Our Christmas Eve playlist:
Vince Guaraldi Trio: Skating; Linus & Lucy
Surely the best thing about A Charlie Brown Christmas, which those of us of a certain age have probably seen at least fifty or sixty times, was the marvellous soundtrack supplied by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Just the first few piano notes of Skating make me almost melt with nostalgia for the time when I was a kid on Christmas Eve. This cool, sophisticated Jazz was no mere cartoon accompaniment. You could keep hearing it, year after year, and still always love it, no matter how widely and wildly your tastes in music had expanded. It’s simply perfect, and the way it manages to be instantly appealing to almost everyone who hears it, however young, almost amounts to a public service. Probably nothing ever did more to educate the average North American child’s ear to the nuances of sophisticated musical construction, save perhaps the marvellous, often classically-inspired, background scores that the great Carl Stalling supplied for the legendary Looney Tunes of the 1940s and 50s. Which, now I think of it, may rate a blog post too, sometime.
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 loved or despised. 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. At the peak of his dysfunction, Charlie was an angry, arrogant, self-satisfied A-hole, mean and hurtful to everyone he touched. 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 true Canadian, she found herself a young woman alone, 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, by her own account 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:
The Pretenders: 2000 Miles
Just about everybody responds to this lilting tale of Christmas homecoming, given voice by someone authentic enough to pull off raw sentiment, strings and all, without sounding sappy. This is a very nice live performance, which I find superior to the studio version.
Pogues: Fairy Tale of New York
I’ve often heard this sad, not at all syrupy lament described as the best Christmas song ever recorded. I suspect, perhaps, that not everyone would feel that way about this reminiscence of the Irish immigrant experience in America, as sung from the floor of the drunk tank, which provides an unflinching look back at all the crushed hopes born of the arrival in the New World, all of them amounting in the end to nothing but bitterness, recrimination, and bickering. The young lovers who hit New York back in the day, so full of anticipation, are now pretty much at each other’s throats.
You could argue this isn’t a Christmas song at all. It sure as shit ain’t Jingle Bells, let’s put it that way. This is a story of failure. I could have been someone, he pleads, and her answer is as cutting as it is true: Well, so could anyone. There’s something about the chorus that rings so true as a memory of years gone by, it’s somehow such an authentic little detail, that I almost feel like I was there myself, walking the streets of Manhattan in the era of Sinatra, when the whole world might have seemed to a newcomer to be there for the taking:
The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day
Gets me every time.
Sufjan Stevens: Only at Christmastime
A pretty little thing that grows on you. Superficially about the unique joys of Christmas, goodwill toward all, peace, love, and all that, I discern in this one a Randy Newman-like level of irony, an undercurrent of yeah, right that speaks to the empty promise and false gaity of a time of year that drives so many to suicide. Maybe that’s just me.
Gordon Lightfoot: Song for a Winter’s Night
Not really about Christmas, and actually, I heard Gordon recount one time how he wrote it on a rainy summer afternoon in a motel room in Detroit. Still, was anything ever more evocative of a quiet Christmas Eve, snuggling in front of the fire, as a thick blanket of snow accumulates on the dimly-lit streets outside?
Sinead O’Connor: Silent Night
To my ears, the most beautiful rendition extant. She really does it justice, looking and sounding positively angelic in this Dickensian fantasy filmed back in 1991. Among the traditional Christmas songs, Silent Night is the only one I always found beautiful, even when I was a child. For some reason, maybe because of its German origin, I always imagine a brief Christmas armistice along World War I’s Western Front, everybody huddled in their trenches for a few blessed hours of respite from the shelling and machine-gun fire.
Skydiggers: Good King Wenceslas
Christmas Eve just wouldn’t be the same without the Skydiggers’ rendition of this beautiful song.
In my youth, I always imagined this piece to have been written at some time nearly contemporaneous with the reign of the actual King Wenceslas. Not so. It was composed relatively recently, in 1853, by John Mason Neale and Thomas Helmore.
The real Wenceslas wasn’t even a King, technically, but a Bohemian Duke who reigned in the 10th Century, around whose life a myth of just and merciful rule was fostered by those promoting the concept of a righteous King, a rex iustus, whose divine right to authority was a function of his piety and his heartfelt adherence to Christian values – in other words, his worthiness to govern. This was not such a long way removed from the idea of governance that much later gained currency among the philosophers of the Enlightenment, that a Sovereign derived the right to rule from the consent of the people, which had to be earned, and could thus be revoked.
In this interpretation of the classic Yuletide song, the Skydiggers manage to remain true to the original while effecting an extraordinary musical rejuvenation. If you want to get into the spirit of the Christian ideals that so often seem forgotten in the organized practice of Christianity, this is the thing. You may find yourself, as I did, really listening to the words for the first time, and finding hope in its sorely needed message of decency and kindness.
The arrangement is both moving and understated. The trumpet accompaniment in particular is sublime, and a little mournful, perhaps bringing to mind all those who still, in our own supposedly more enlightened time, never benefit from the sort of charity offered to a poor peasant by his humane and caring monarch, that stormy night of the second day of Christmas, over a thousand years past.
Ben Folds: Annie Waits (December 20, 2021)
In this typically clever and sophisticated piano piece, Folds, a thinking person’s sort of songwriter, presents a poignant story of a girl being stood up on a date, standing alone on some street corner, momentarily hopeful as each new set of headlights crests the hill, only to pass right by, wondering if her absent suitor has had some sort of accident (would that be worse?), and imagining a bleak, lonely future of Friday night bingo and feeding pigeons from park benches. You see?, she thinks to herself during the beautiful, descending bridge, this is why I’d rather be alone. Nobody can break your heart after you’ve finally given up.
Unwanted, or perhaps merely unnoticed, is the narrator, who’d be glad to be the one to stay by her side. Annie waits, but not for him.
The Who: Who Are You (January 1, 2022)
Just a terrific performance of the song that was in many ways The Who’s last great hurrah. Find me a rock ‘n roll number with better opening lines than these:
I woke up in a Soho doorway
A policeman knew my name
He said “You can go sleep at home tonight
If you can get up and walk away”
I staggered back to the underground
And the breeze blew back my hair
I remember throwing punches around
And preaching from my chair
It was the late 1970s. If there’d been any lingering doubt over the ultimate hollowness of the youth-driven cultural transformation of the prior decade, by then it was well and truly buried. Rock had become big business, a pre-fabricated, shrink-wrapped, stadium-filling commercial juggernaut controlled by guys in suits, disco was taking over, the singer-songwriters were running rampant, and AM radio was a dead zone of danceable jingles about amorous muskrats and the frantic shaking of booties. The industry had turned into such a bloated self-parody that mainstream pop music had bred its own counterculture, the punks, determined, so it seemed to Pete Townshend, to scoop the rebel crown out of the gutter. His crown. “It was a revolution”, he said many years later, “and I reckoned the Beatles, the Who and the Stones were going to get their heads cut off in the public square”, and the thing was, he wasn’t sure if he was bitter and envious, or just relieved. Drunk, degenerate, and disillusioned, Pete was flailing.
It was in this already sour frame of mind that Townshend began an intensely demoralizing marathon business meeting in New York – various accounts have it stretching to as many as fourteen hours, but the lyrics make it out to be eleven – struggling with legendary parasite Allen Klein to secure royalties. Working class bandmate Roger Daltry, a former apprentice sheet metal worker, had always been adamant that he wasn’t apologizing to anybody for making it all about money, but Pete had once fancied himself an artist on a much higher mission. So much for that! Later on, he was sitting slit-eyed in some Soho bar, drinking himself stuporous, wondering how it had all come to this, and lamenting what a bunch of f’ing sellouts he and his peers had all turned out to be, when who walks in? Who, here, of all places? None other than Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols. Christ! The last guys he needed to see. They recognized him straight away, of course, and came right over to join him, so Pete, struggling to thread his feet into the stirrups on his high horse, decided it was past time that the little upstart bastards learned the ugly facts of rock ‘n roll life from somebody who’d already seen and done it all while they were still in bloody short pants, somebody who’d experienced the complete moral, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, and indeed physical decay that awaited them just down the road, however flush with triumph they might now feel. Executive summary: It’s all shite and kills everyone who touches it, so if you think you’re the ones to take over where we left off, well be my guest, and good f’ing luck. When he was good and done giving the punks what for, he stumbled out the door, fell over, and awoke a while later to the sight of one of New York’s finest looming over him.
Time was the cop might have put the boots to him. Not any more. The erstwhile rebel and scourge of polite society, by now a beloved public figure, instead got the star treatment. No drunk tank for Pete, no rough handling. No, it’s all up you get Mr. Townshend, there you go, and look, so long as you can walk, by all means get yourself home to sleep it off. Seems like no matter how hard you try, sooner or later, you wind up as an elder statesman, waving the banner for some sort of Establishment. Hope I die before I get old, remember? That was the worst part. That, and how the two purported louts from the Sex Pistols had only come over to express their undying admiration for Pete’s body of work, and how much his music had paved the way for guys like them. They truly admired him – in fact, observing the sorry state of their drunken hero, they were worried about him. “Steve and Paul became real ‘mates’ of mine in the English sense”, Pete recalled. “We socialized a few times. Got drunk (well, I did) and I have to say to their credit, for a couple of figurehead anarchists, they seemed sincerely concerned about my decaying condition at the time”. That was something, eh? Oy. You had to have landed somewhere close to rock bottom when the bloody Sex Pistols were concerned.
Pete certainly was spiralling downward at this point, but not as badly as Keith Moon, who’s captured on celluloid above for one of the last times, during the filming for the documentary The Kids Are All Right. Just a month after Who Are You hit the record stores, he swallowed a handful of whatever pills were within arm’s length, as was his habit – ironically, this time, a prescription drug called Heminevrin, used to combat alcoholism – and overdosed. The band carried on, but really, it could never be The Who after that.
Warren Zevon: I Was In the House When the House Burned Down (January 24, 2022)
A fitting soundtrack for our times, as the black, acrid smoke rises over the pyre of our civilization; at this point, what could be more on the money than this rollicking, hard-driving saga of long good parties coming to an end, being in the right place at the wrong time, and knowing when to cut your losses and get the hell out of Dodge?
Known to casual listeners mainly for Werewolves of London – a good enough song, but oh, how he must have grown sick of it – Zevon was one of those talents cursed, like Randy Newman, to appeal mainly to those who had more than their fair share of wits about them, didn’t balk at looking ugly truths in the face, and figured that sometimes it’s just as well to laugh as cry. Listen, it’s not easy conquering the charts as a Thinking Person’s Songwriter – you try getting to the top of the pops when your stock in trade is wry observation, sardonic commentary, and black humour – but he wasn’t a complete stranger to commercial success. His 1978 album Excitable Boy made it into the top 10 on Billboard, and covers by other artists earned him a fair stipend. It helped, of course, that he rocked as hard and as cleverly as he did, while sprinkling heartbreaking ballads amid the rougher numbers, like, say:
Again the parallel with Newman: Zevon wrote what passed for love songs only on condition that he got to play the lousy boyfriend. Self-aware, maybe, perhaps even sympathetic (especially when brought up short by one of those uncomfortable bouts of self-awareness), but lousy all the same. Anyway, romance, broken or not, wasn’t half as fun or interesting as, say, geopolitics, religion, crime, skullduggery, or clinical depression – the human condition embraced so many themes worth writing about, all of them, apparently, quite shitty, yet often hilarious as well. Why compose something along the lines of “I love you / yes I do / and I hope / you love me too” when instead you could start a song like this:
Hell is only half full
Room for you and me
Looking for a new fool
Who’s it gonna be?
It’s the Dance of Shiva
It’s the Debutantes ball
And everyone will be there
Who’s anyone at all
Gonna lay my head on the railroad tracks
I’m waiting on the double E
The railroad don’t run no more
Poor poor pitiful me
I went home with the waitress, the way I always do
How was I to know, she was with the Russians, too?
I was gambling in Havana, I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money, dad, get me out of this
It might not have lit up the charts, but it was the sort of catalogue that earned you a hard-core following, especially among his peers, who clamoured to record his songs and contribute to his albums as session players and back-up vocalists. He had fans in the broader show-biz community too, David Letterman, on whose show Zevon appeared often, most prominent among them. It was fitting, then, that it was during an appearance on Letterman, in 2002, that Zevon disclosed there was one last bitter truth to be faced: he was dying. Somehow, along the way, he’d contracted mesothelioma, an appalling and generally fatal respiratory condition brought on by exposure to asbestos, possibly during his childhood when he used to play in the attic spaces of his father’s carpet store. He told Dave that there was an upside, in that “they certainly don’t discourage you from doing whatever you want, it’s not like bed rest and a lot of water will straighten you out”, and gave the audience a very Zevon-esque prescription for seizing the day: “Enjoy every sandwich”. He was the only guest that night, and played a number of songs, including Mutineer, attached above, and Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a typically, er, eccentric number about a Norwegian national who becomes a mercenary, and finds himself in the thick of what became known as the Congo Crisis, a nasty African conflict of the 1960s in which the protagonist gets his head blown clean off, but remains in the fray as a vengeful ghost. Letterman’s request.
Afterwards, Dave spent some time with him backstage. This is him quoted in Rolling Stone:
After the show, it was heartbreaking — he was in his dressing room. We were talking and this and that. Here’s a guy who had months to live and we’re making small talk. And as we’re talking, he’s taking his guitar strap and hooking it, wrapping it around, then he puts the guitar into the case and he flips the snaps on the case and says, ‘Here, I want you to have this, take good care of it.’ And I just started sobbing. He was giving me the guitar that he always used on the show.
Likely nobody abhorred clichés more than Zevon, yet, as a close listen to his music made obvious, he embodied one of the oldest, the gentle soul and wounded heart behind the brittle and cynical facade.
He lived just long enough to see the release of his final album, The Wind, which included contributions from Ry Cooder, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Jim Keltner, T-Bone Burnett, and others. It’s final song was Keep Me in Your Heart, in which he wrote his own epitaph:
Sometimes when you’re doin’ simple things around the house
Maybe you’ll think of me and smile
You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse
Keep me in your heart for a while
No more laughing at fate, just sad acceptance, and the heart to exit with grace and dignity.
Jackson Browne: The Only Child (April 4, 2022)
A father, perhaps thinking of a time when he won’t be around anymore, speaks plainly to his son, and imparts a few words to live by: remember to be kind, have a care for all those around you whose lives are blighted by heartache and loneliness, and look after your loved ones, especially your mother and brother.
I reckon it can’t hurt, about now, to be reminded that there’s still such a thing as empathy.