Songs of the Day: Nick Drake – Pink Moon; Northern Sky (November 26, 2018)
His entry in the Rolling Stone Record Guide said it more or less like this: He was so tall, and young, and beautiful, and he’s so damned dead, that he’d be a cult figure even if he wasn’t a genius, which he was.
Nick Drake has one of the saddest stories in modern popular music. He was like a man out of place and time, a child of relative privilege raised in the former English colonial possession of Burma, a student at Cambridge, and, as it happened, a songwriter of almost supernatural abilities. He began recording around 1969, released only three albums, the last in 1972, and was dead of an apparent suicide by 1974. In all he recorded about two hours of music, and in his brief lifetime sold virtually no records, was appreciated by virtually no one, and grew to believe himself an abject failure.
This may seem incomprehensible to modern listeners, who are almost invariably beguiled by the formal perfection of his compositions, with their flowing melodies, nuanced lyrics, and arrangements that weren’t of a piece with contemporary pop music, but with something much older, chamber music, perhaps, or maybe music that came down to us from a distant, long-forgotten past. His best songs are precise and perfect, like faceted diamonds, yet still somehow mystical and indefinable. It’s hard to believe that upon their release, they sank almost without a trace.
Something nobody could have anticipated happened in the early 1990s. An advertisement for a VW convertible appeared, which in its full version ran for about a minute to the accompaniment of one of Drake’s signature songs, Pink Moon. The commercial, now quite famous, is magical – it depicts a group of friends riding together down a lonely highway on a moonlit night, looking up at the stars, everything suffused in deep blues and blacks, until finally they arrive at a sort of frat party. They take one look at the goings-on, back out of the driveway, and keep on driving, the brilliant stars of the constellation Orion hovering overhead. The VW itself is shown only intermittently, with much of the spot filmed from the interior, as if the car’s a cocoon within which the tight-knit little group can appreciate the starry night, and each other.
Just about everybody who saw that ad, me included, immediately thought “what is that song? Who’s it by?” Pink Moon is Drake at his purest, a timeless acoustic piece that might serve as a sort of litmus test, actually – any listener unmoved by it probably has no ear for music.
The result was a minor sensation, and Drake’s records began to sell in respectable numbers, and continue to do so. He’s pretty much universally revered these days for his craft, sensitivity, and expert guitar playing, and all sorts of modern writers cite him as an influence and inspiration. If only he’d known this day would come.
If you haven’t heard him yet, Northern Sky, another of his deeply affecting ballads, should close the deal for you – it’s as close as this very sad young man ever got to a happy love song, infused with hope and a sense of wonder. It’s romantic poetry, really; in a few spare and elegant lines, the narrator portrays himself as having once been directionless and blind to life’s possibilities, but not any more, not now that she’s here. It’s such a beautiful evocation of the ideal that, as one reviewer wrote, “it makes you ashamed of the ugliness of the real world”.
I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Bright in my northern sky.
This is an allusion to Polaris, the North Star, which served for millennia as the literal guiding light to mariners navigating across trackless oceans, providing not just direction, but the invaluable peace of mind that comes from knowing that so long as it’s up there, clear and bright, you’ll never be lost.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do that.
Here’s the Volkswagen ad:
Song of the Day: Buffalo Springfield – On the Way Home (November 28, 2018)
Named after a manufacturer of steamrollers (thereby hangs a tale), Buffalo Springfield burned very brightly for just a couple of short years from 1966-68, showcasing the combined talents of Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay, along with successive bass players Bruce Palmer and Jim Messina, and percussionist Dewey Martin. They were, in a word, terrific. The Rolling Stone Record Guide described them in one of its editions as “potentially an American Beatles”, and their songs truly rated the comparison, but rock groups are volatile things, and this one didn’t last long enough to attain the prominence that was briefly within its grasp.
In some ways they were like the Byrds, and their songs are now similarly evocative of their time and place, each of them practically a measured dose of the Sixties in a pretty bottle, especially For What It’s Worth, an account of the 1966 “curfew riots” on the Sunset Strip, as witnessed by Stills. Described sometimes as an “anthem”, it is in fact an almost impartial expression of dismay devoid of polemics, declaring that “nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”, and repeating lines that would make sense in any era of unrest:
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down
Have a listen:
Graced with three talented songwriters, the group produced a raft of iconic songs in a very short time, Bluebird, Mr. Soul, Kind Woman, Rock and Roll Woman, Questions, Broken Arrow and Expecting to Fly, among others, which ran the gamut from country to rock to full-bore art-rock (in the best sense). Attached is my favourite, On the Way Home. Written by Young but sung here by Furay, it’s sublime in so many ways, boasting one of the great melodies of the era, and a complex yet understated arrangement of interleaved guitars, strings, and horns, with a subtle overlay of what sounds like tubular bells, or perhaps a xylophone. The tone is wistful, reflective, and philosophical, and it climaxes with a poignant little aside on how we’re likely missing the point as we fuss and bustle around:
Though we rush ahead to save our time, we are only what we feel
The lyrics are a little opaque, but it’s Neil Young, so it can’t be a case of the words fitting the music, but not really meaning much. In part, it seems to be about how surprising it can be to see yourself through another’s eyes:
In a strange game
I saw myself as you knew me
When the change came
And you had a chance to see through me
At its core, though, it’s a love song, tinged perhaps with traces of regret and ambivalence, but a love song. Others might have put it more simply. It’s just that sometimes, things get complicated.
Song of the Day: XTC- We’re All Light (November 29, 2018)
Right, let’s bop to a marvellous dance number that tackles the meaning of life and our place in the cosmos, giving us a bit of a science lesson while we sit here tapping our toes!
To begin, a little background (warning: vast over-simplification to follow). In the aftermath of the Big Bang, as subatomic particles coalesced and formed the first atoms, we reckon that about three quarters of the matter in the universe was hydrogen, being the simplest of all atoms, with one electron circling one proton. There was also a fair bit of helium, which is two protons, two electrons, and a couple of neutrons. To this day hydrogen remains the most common element in the Universe, but on its own, it isn’t much beyond a darned good energy source (oh boy does it burn – type “Hindenburg Lakehurst New Jersey” into Google, you don’t believe me). At first blush the early Universe therefore doesn’t really look all that promising, and it’s hard to see how any amount of time can take us from a vast cosmic soup of free-floating hydrogen and helium to a guy in a leather jacket on the corner of Bay and Adelaide buying a hotdog (as the boys in Diner would say). You and I are made out of all sorts of heavy atoms which didn’t then exist, iron, carbon, magnesium, oxygen, you get the picture. What gives?
Well, as all of you know, one of the fundamental forces of nature is gravity, the tendency of objects carrying mass to attract each other. The mutual gravity of massive gas clouds condensed ever greater amounts of the hydrogen/helium together until there were balls of the stuff all over the place, crushing themselves together with enormous force, to the point at which the hydrogen atoms started to fuse. Nuclear fusion at that scale means you’ve got a star, kids, and stars, powered by fusion, crush their atoms together into heavier and heavier elements until they start to run out of fuel. Several variables, especially size, determine how stars will end their life cycles at that point, but one common outcome is a final cataclysmic explosion called a nova, or even bigger, a super-nova, and when those things blow they spew outwards all of the complex elements they’ve been busy manufacturing for all those billions of years, flinging them straight across their local galaxies. It’s like they’re sneezing heavy atoms. The very atoms we, in the end, evolved to make use of in our biology.
Thus we are all, as Carl Sagan liked to say, made of star stuff – or, as XTC would have it, we’re all light, cast by stars in their dying gasps. Hence the lyric:
Don’t you know
’bout a zillion years ago
Some star sneezed,
now they’re paging you in reception
Yup, marvellous and miraculous is our very existence, but for all of that, we’re not here for all that long, and the times we inhabit are often pretty shitty – better live a little while we can, eh?
Don’t you know
Upon the pillion of time’s bike
We roar onto the stage
and too soon we’re dead centre
Don’t you know
Buffalo Bill-ions raised his sight
He’s picking off the whole herd
as soon as we enter
So you won’t mind if I kiss you now
And maybe come on in for the night
Don’t you know, in this new Dark Age
We’re all light
Let’s see One Direction, or whoever the hell’s top of the pops this month, come up with something like that.
Led by songwriters Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, XTC was one of those bands – Smashing Pumpkins also comes to mind – that did well enough, and earned respect, but was never as big as they should have been, or would have been if I’d had my ‘druthers. Throughout the decades from about 1980 to 2000, they produced album after album full of complex, deeply satisfying pop music that never shied away from big thoughts or big issues, even at the risk of sounding sophomoric, which they surely were not. A prime example is one of my favourites from their earlier years, Generals and Majors, which flogged the rather unremarkable idea that war is bad, but was such an engaging, satirical romp that it feels as if it’s restating the obvious because apparently we idiots out here still don’t get it. Their albums were sprinkled with songs like that, full of insight and social commentary that might have come off as preachy and smug, except, as the Rolling Stone Record Guide once put it, “they sweated hard enough to earn their pretensions”. They weren’t smug. They were passionately, urgently concerned about how many trite notions were actually God’s truth, yet still paid only lip service as we sat punch-drunk amidst the wreckage.
This was a group that could write something like Green Man, about how the Medieval Catholic Church appropriated many of the most powerful symbols of the paganism it sought to replace as a means of seducing the masses into the new faith, and pacifying the adherents to the old ways. The song even sounds medieval, and if I knew more about music I might know why – I suspect that like Eleanor Rigby, it’s based not on modern chords, but the more ancient “modes” that go all the way back to classical Greece, but of course I can’t really say. What I can say is that it effectively evokes the age when nearly everybody was a serf subject to Canon Law, and the feudal Lords gobbled up whatever spoils the Church didn’t grab first, and that’s a little bit beyond what you could expect from the average pop combo, no? Here:
Song of the Day: The Beatles – Mother Nature’s Son (November 30, 2018)
A few years ago, a young woman who worked for me had to stay awake all night for some reason relating to a concussion her spouse had suffered. I think she had to stay up to make sure he didn’t go into some sort of sleepy death spiral (which, don’t worry, he didn’t). At the beginning of her vigil, I sent her a link to this song, describing it as something like “a gentle song for a long night”. She’s just a wonderful person, the kind that old fogeys like me refer to as “really a great kid”, and I wanted to give her a wonderful piece of music. I wanted it to be something soothing without being cloying, and I could think of nothing better to suit the moment than Mother Nature’s Son. At four in the morning, you don’t need a witless pep talk. You need something that feels real. Something that reflects the understanding that hope is always tinged with doubt.
Well, that’s what I thought, anyway. Maybe mindless cheer would have been better. I don’t think so, though. She’s far too bright and savvy for that.
So I sent her Mother Nature’s Son. This is quintessential McCartney, with lyrics that tend to lead you in one direction, and music that pulls you a bit the opposite way. Much to John’s disapproval, Paul was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and I think that’s why so many people miss the undertones that he communicates through nuanced shifts in chords, keys, and melody, rather than extroverted confessionals in the words. Mother Nature’s Son, as obscure a track as possible for the Beatles, is among the most perfect examples of this style of composition.
It emerged out of the ill-fated sojourn to Rishikesh to commune with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, a trip that included many hangers-on, including folk-pop star Donovan, who tought Paul a finger-plucking style of guitar playing that’s used to great effect here (and in the companion piece Blackbird, both featured on the White Album). The simple joys of communing with nature in a pastoral setting were very much in tune with the message being thrust upon them by the Maharishi, and while urban sophisticate playboys like McCartney could never really adopt that way of life, it was a pleasant idea to toy with after the almost insane living conditions the Beatles had endured over the prior 5 years.
To my ears, Mother Nature’s Son is all about that rueful acknowledgement that the interlude at Rishikesh could be no more than a temporary reprieve. Yes, it’s lovely here in the grass by the stream, but listen to those distant drums – something less tranquil lurks not far over the horizon. Paul created this aural effect of something booming but distant in the simplest of ways, by moving kettle drums out of Studio 2 and down the hall for recording, creating an impression of distant thunder heading this way. There’s still time to enjoy one last perfect moment, but the storm is coming, as storms always must. Those beautifully mellow brass instruments make it plain that this is a happy song written in the shadow of coming sadness.
Song of the Day: The Beatles – Penny Lane (December 6, 2018)
This is the text of an e-mail I fired back to a co-worker on a day when the papers reported the death of David Mason, the baroque trumpeter of the London Philharmonic, who famously lent his piccolo trumpet to Penny Lane. She attached a link and asked if I’d seen the item.
I decided I rather liked my missive, and kept it. So this is my response, written in 2012.
Yes – this article is actually nicer than the one that appeared in the print version this morning, which was headlined “The Guy Who Played Trumpet on Penny Lane has Died”, and went on to dismissively equate Mason with various oddball celebrities who were famous for only one silly little thing, trifles like the “peppy little riff” of trumpet that “launches” Penny Lane (the trumpet of course appears first in the middle, and doesn’t launch the song at all).
Made me quite angry, actually! “The Guy” indeed. Sets me off on one of my rants.
Penny Lane has always had an extra special place in my heart – it was the first song I ever loved, as a six year old, listening to its graceful melody wafting out of innumerable open windows and car radios along the streets where I lived, which in memory are always bathed in sunshine (a phenomenon that happens to be the theme of the song). It remains my favourite, 45 years on, and I’m always dismayed when people underrate it. It’s usually described as cheerful and upbeat, which it is on the surface, but as with so many McCartney compositions of the period (like the gorgeous Mother Nature’s Son off the White Album), it contains nuance that hints at layers of yearning and sadness underneath, and also a doubting self-awareness, exemplified by the chord changes that occur in the middle of every verse (on the last word – “know” – before “and all the people that come and go”, on the word “back” just before “and the banker never wears a Mac”, and so on.) It has a quizzical feel to it, a hint that the singer suspects something isn’t quite right about this mental image of the Penny Lane of his youth, even though the song immediately snaps back into the dominant chord of the verse, and that nagging feeling is quickly set aside. Watch this:
And indeed, something is amiss. Author Ian Macdonald sensed a part of this in commenting that the song is “as sly and knowing as a group of mischievous and observant kids straggling home from school”, and there is that element of bemused mockery, but in the service of a much bigger idea – for Penny Lane is about the frailty of memory, and the sad awareness that the way one remembers things, all blue skies and happy goings-on, is not really the way things were. Thus the pretty nurse, dressed up and selling poppies for Remembrance Day, not only has a self-conscious feeling that she’s in a play – she is anyway, just another archetypal character in the pleasant fiction. The Penny Lane that today fills his ears and eyes never really existed, and the narrator knows it. That’s just the way nostalgia works, and even if it wasn’t quite like this, wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it was? Who says you can’t miss something that never was? Penny Lane implies that all of us probably do.
Musically, the song is deceptively and dazzlingly complex, beginning not with trumpet, but a flourish of bass guitar, which sets up a marvellous contrapuntal “walking” bass line, loping along in almost jaunty fashion. Like nearly all McCartney bass lines, this one is tuneful and ingenious, crucial to the song’s harmonic structure. In Paul’s hands, the bass sings a song all its own, and much of the joy to be had in repeated listens of Penny Lane is in the way it intertwines the separate melodies of the bass and vocal lines. Also magical is that the chorus is in a different key to the verse, the song hopping from B to A, with A representing the current reality, and B the distant memory, until the very end, when a modulation brings the chorus into B.
This is expert songwriting.
Apart from the piccolo trumpet, the arrangement boasts a conventional horn section, flutes, a fire bell, and a droning upright double bass that highlights the banker settling in to the barber’s chair for his trim. Of greatest note is the uncanny staccato piano sound that anchors the verses, the product of an arduous recording process that made the most of the four track tape technology then available. No single piano produced the timbre that Paul heard in his head, so he kept layering piano on top of piano on the master tape, until it ‘s not a single instrument, but four playing in unison, some at accelerated pitch, with added hints of percussion (bells, or some sort of xylophone perhaps?) to supply finishing touches. Both Lennon and George Martin contributed overdubs to this uber-piano, creating an effect that is at once indefinable yet perfectly natural; the listener doesn’t know why, but it just sounds right. This is perhaps best heard after the exclamation about the nurse, that “she is anyway” – Ian MacDonald again supplies the apt turn of phrase, referring to this moment as a “shivering ecstasy of grace notes”. There is nothing quite like it in any other recording.
All the elements come together in the final verse, the piccolo trumpet, the flutes, the horns, the super-piano – here we turn to author Jonathan Gould for the evocative image of the “toy trumpet and penny whistles snapping like pennants in the wind” as the final modulation leads to an abrupt and almost disconcerting conclusion. The song just ends. There is a sudden shimmering flourish of close-miked cymbal, leading the listener to experience a sort of aural representation of the reverie ending, almost literally the sound of an illusion dissolving, and as the narrator exclaims one last longing “Penny Lane!” the moment simply passes. It’s almost like somebody has yelled “Snap out of it!” at the day-dreaming singer. Someone once commented that Penny Lane doesn’t so much conclude as hit a wall and ricochet, which I’ve always thought is a good way to put it, yet this doesn’t quite capture the underlying melancholy, the sense of loss. Those who decry McCartney’s shallow good cheer seem never to sense the tears that so often lie just beneath the laughter.
In the initial mix, Mason plays one last plaintive trumpet riff over the cymbals, but this was gilding the lily, and it was removed after a first pressing of singles was sent out for airplay. You can hear the original on one of the Anthology discs, and the decision to remove the trumpet coda can be heard to make perfect sense. While pleasing, it’s an ornament that dilutes the finality.
To top it all off is a vocal performance of piercing clarity, typically free of even a hint of tremor or strain. That high-pitched flute-like sound that provides counterpoint to the piccolo trumpet solo in mid-song is McCartney’s own voice. Bob Dylan has said that there never was singer better than McCartney is, or Lennon was, and this is an aspect of their work that is often overlooked, as if it’s just too much that they should have been gifted that way too.
All that subtlety and complexity, yet you can sing it in the shower – the mark of a truly great song. To me, there never has been one better. Yet when Rolling Stone set out to rank the 500 greatest songs of all time, they placed Penny Lane at #449. Four hundred and forty-ninth. Rolling Stone thinks that there are four hundred and forty-eight songs that are better than Penny Lane!! It’s depressing to be reminded how few can really appreciate music; even in rankings of Beatle songs, Penny Lane often arrives somewhere in the middle of the pack, characterized as the acme of good cheer and a typically McCartneyesque counterpoint to the inappropriately more highly rated Strawberry Fields Forever, the flip-side to Penny Lane on what George Martin calls the greatest single ever made. It’s a pretty good litmus test, actually. If you think Penny Lane is a simple and relentlessly cheerful little ditty, you have a tin ear, limited imagination, and quite possibly no soul.
Penny Lane resides on a rarefied plateau alongside the best of Gershwin, Porter and Rogers. It is surely one of the greatest popular songs ever written. So for me it’s really quite sad that “the guy who played trumpet” is no longer with us. David Mason’s contribution is the final touch that elevated Penny Lane into supernatural territory, and I hope it seemed to him that the fame he earned from his afternoon’s work at Abbey Road studios was well deserved. To think he might never have been recruited had McCartney not happened upon Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 on the television one evening, seen Mason play, and realized that’s the sound I need.
Song of the Day: The Tragically Hip – Nautical Disaster (December 8, 2018)
A powerful, hard-rocking recounting of a nightmare, or perhaps a vision, performed by a band that knows far more about history than any group of (then) young rockers should. I think it’s the best of this quintessentially Canadian group’s output, and it still seems quite recent to me, though horrifyingly, it’s now well over 20 years old. It’s about something that happened in 1940, and there’s no reason for you to have ever heard of the event, nor any way that researching the inspiration for this song will help you to find out, since if you look it up you’ll find people (including, amazingly, beloved and sadly departed band member Gord Downie himself) saying it’s about the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck. Yet it simply can’t be, the historical facts don’t even remotely fit the narrative, and more than that, the narrative does fit perfectly a disaster that indeed happened just off the coast of France within sight of a rocky shore (Bismarck was well out to sea when sunk), and the lighthouse at St. Nazaire.
In 1940, the Germans overran France with a speed and facility that was, at the time, stunning. The Germans called it “lightning war”, Blitzkreig – we call it “maneuver warfare” today, and it’s now the manner in which all highly mobile armoured forces, accompanied by mechanized infantry and supported by air power, go about their grim business. As the vice tightened, Allied forces scrambled to abandon the Continent, and while many are familiar with the events at Dunkirk, especially following Chris Nolan’s epic movie, lost to the public consciousness is the sinking of RMS Lancastria, a singular tragedy amidst the general withdrawal of British forces from France in the teeth of the Nazi onslaught.
The Lancastria (reclassified in military service as “HMT” for “Hired Military Transport”) was part of an ongoing effort to evacuate British personnel and civilians under Operation Ariel, which continued for weeks after the Dunkirk sealift. Her ordinary capacity was about 1,300 passengers, but in the emergency she was loaded up with many thousands more, providing a fat target for the merciless German warplanes that sank her. It’s a common estimate that about 4,000 men drowned at a stroke (twice the crew of any battleship, including Bismarck, which had a complement of 2,065). Some sources claim over 5,000, even 6,000 – a huge mass of people going into the water off the coast of France, metaphorically in the pocket of a lighthouse sitting amid jagged rocks on the shoreline. It was the largest nautical disaster in British maritime history.
You can read about it here:
Really, what else could these lyrics be about?
I had this dream
where I relished the fray
and the screaming
filled my head all day.
It was as though
I’d been spit here,
settled in, into the pocket
of a lighthouse
on some rocky socket,
off the coast of France, dear.
One afternoon, four thousand men
died in the water here
and five hundred more were
as parasites might
in your blood
This group has other songs similarly evocative of World War II, like Scared, with its imagery of damaged destroyers limping into the bay, and 50 Mission Cap, ostensibly about the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, which repeats a phrase that evokes a cherished rite of passage for U.S. combat pilots – when their cap became so grizzled, stained and crumpled that it was said to have a “50 mission crush” to it, the mark of a wily veteran.
Since the very first time I heard this song, thoughts of lifeboats designed for 10 men, and 10 only, and paddling away from drowning comrades to the sound of fingernails scratching on the hull, have never lost their capacity to haunt.
Song of the Day: Randy Newman – Louisiana, 1927 (December 13, 2008)
In 1927 a horrible flood of the Mississippi, the product of almost Biblical sustained rainfall, drove over 700,000 people out of their homes in Louisiana. Newman commemorated the event as part of a song cycle of the South called Good Old Boys, which was released in 1974. I discovered it around 1980 or so, and it quickly became, and has remained, my favourite of all of his songs – and he’s written some incredible songs.
The tragedy is narrated in a dry, fatalistic fashion that only adds to the poignancy: Some people got lost in the flood. Some people got away all right. That’s just how luck breaks, you know? Its mournful refrain, “They’re tryin’ to wash us away”, evokes that very human intuition that a calamity of this size can’t just be the product of dumb luck, no, it must be part of some deliberate plan to wipe you off the face of the earth; this just has to be somebody’s doing, there just has to be someone to blame. And indeed, to a certain extent for some, yes, because some of the flooding was the result of dynamiting levees, in order to relieve the pressure and spare New Orleans, deliberately sacrificing smaller communities upstream. It didn’t help.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, this song seemed almost prophetic. When George Bush flew over to observe the devastation from the comfort of Air Force One, you can bet the lines about the President’s visit in 1927 leapt to mind.*
This was, almost inevitably, the first song performed at the 2005 benefit concert for the victims of Katrina, and it’s since become a sort of anthem to memorialize that eerily similar fiasco. It was a powerful thing even before the levees broke and the Lower Ninth all but vanished underwater. These days, I’ve read, it brings crowds down there to tears.
I recently discovered this chorale, which gives more overt expression to the song’s underlying emotions:
Song of the Day: Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas – Trains and Boats and Planes (December 19, 2018)
The first time I heard this song I was a kid in the mid-1960s, I’m not sure what year, maybe 1967 or so, which would have made me six or seven years old. It’s one of those snippets of memory that jumps out of the general haze; you can’t remember what year it was, how old you were, or much of anything else that might have happened that whole year, but this one moment is frozen with complete clarity in your mind’s eye.
It was a dark winter evening, and I was sitting next to my Mom in the front seat of the car, waiting for a grocery store employee to load our purchases into the trunk. That was the norm back then, the cashier handed you a numbered chit, and you drove around to collect the brown paper bags, which came out of the store in plastic crates on a roller system. Why do it yourself, when the kid can do it? The bins were made of red plastic. I had to push myself up in the seat to see them out the side window. My main perspective from my low perch on the big bench seat in the car was almost straight up through the windshield, looking at some fluorescent lights, and I’m pretty sure we were at one of the IGA chain of stores, because I remember my favourite part of going with Mom to get groceries was getting the little stamps that IGA handed you with each purchase, about the same size as postage stamps, which you licked and stuck into a booklet in a sort of Stone Age version of collecting Air Miles. They called them “Gold Bond Stamps”. It would have been a Thursday – Thursday was grocery day. I even remember the car, or think I do, a dark green Ford Custom, (maybe Custom 500?), which was a classic mid-60s sedan, and might have been one from the 1967 model year. In the dash, glowing a sort of yellow-orange, was one of those AM radios that had the big analog silver buttons under the dial, which you pushed in with a “clunk” to arrive at one of the four or five available pre-set channels. As you pushed one of them in, the one last selected would pop back out. I liked that feature especially. The radio itself sounded awful, I now know, but it was just fine back then. I can still hear the chirpy musical station identifier: “92 C-J-C-H!”
Billy J Kramer’s lovely version of Bacharach’s Trains and Boats and Planes, attached above, was playing on the radio. That’s why I remember the whole tableaux. It was one of the first times I found myself fully enthralled with a melody, which was one of Bacharach’s finest, and the idea of trains, boats, and planes appealed to my young mind – I thought it was a sort of ode to transportation, not a pining love song. Little boys think a lot about machines, especially the bigger ones that move. The song is unconventional for its era, in that it has a bridge, but no chorus, just verses. I think. The farther I go with this Songs of the Day series, the more it seems to me that it’d be better if I knew even the first thing about music theory.
Hal David’s lyrics are typically crisp and emotive:
We were so in love
and high above
we had a star to wish upon
wish, and dreams come true
but not for me
the trains and the boats and planes
took you away, away from me
It’s as if the deflated, lovesick narrator ascribes the motive to the vehicles, not the girl who left him, and thinks maybe some day they’ll decide to bring her back, if only his prayer can cross the sea for them to hear.
In the popular consciousness, Bacharach is not usually put in the pantheon with Lennon, McCartney, and Dylan, but I doubt that professional musicians and songwriters rate him as any less accomplished. His melodies are too sharp, the chords and time signatures too clever and unconventional, for him to be anything but one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th Century. He wasn’t topical, and sure wasn’t about to write Blowin’ in the Wind, or A Day in the Life, but sometimes you aren’t really up for contemplating modern alienation and media-saturated apathy, or railing against the depredations of The Man. Sometimes you just need to hear a sad, beautiful love song.
Song of the Day: Songs For a Christmas Eve (December 22, 2018)
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?
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. There’s an almost straight line to be drawn from the ideal of Wenceslas to the ideas that much later gave impetus to the American Revolution.
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 this poor peasant by his humane and caring monarch, that stormy night of the second day of Christmas, over a thousand years past.
Song of the Day: Suzanne Vega – Edith Wharton’s Figurines (January 10, 2019)
Immensely talented, cerebral, beautiful, and tragically under-appreciated, with the sort of unwavering voice that conveys formidable intelligence independent of her always sensitive lyrics, Suzanne Vega has had me under her spell since the mid-1980s. Like Aimee Mann, she’s apt to be characterized as “feminist”, since she sometimes writes about her own experiences and the truths she perceives as a woman, as if that’s deserving of a special label, as if the slanted perspective of gender is ever absent from the work of male songwriters. She had a couple of top 40 hits back in the eighties, most notably Luka, the story of an abused child who lives upstairs, insisting that his various marks and bruises come from being clumsy and walking into doors. It’s a spirited and melodic piece (which perhaps makes its mainstream success all the more mysterious), and a good representation of the style and substance Suzanne always brings to her compositions, but she’s done so much more in her long career. Throughout, she’s displayed a distinctive gift for melody, harmony and arrangement, matched to nuanced lyrics that always seem to make something real about one’s own life stand out in stark relief.
Before Jewel, before Alanis Morissette, Sheyl Crow, Liz Phair and so many others, Suzanne was setting the standard. She has, to my mind, established herself as a worthy successor to Joni Mitchell, and a peer to the likes of Jackson Browne and Randy Newman. Few can write with the understated grace and emotional heft that characterizes Vega’s best work, of which Edith Wharton’s Figurines is perhaps my favourite.
Novelist Edith Wharton wrote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about high society in the Gilded Age, and the travails of those seeking to secure their place within the tight little circle of New York’s upper classes, with all their snobbery, taboos, and mock-sacred conventions. Her characters need their wiles and wits about them as they struggle against the current, while failing, usually, to break out of the corrupt and hypocritical little bubbles within which their fates were probably sealed since birth. She’s known today for the novels Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence – the latter earned her the first Pulitzer ever awarded to a woman – and, most relevant here, The House of Mirth, in which the heroine, Lily Bart, feels her beauty fading and her prospects for a good marriage drifting out of reach, as she approaches the wholly undesirable age of 30. Lily has a best before date, her standing among the elites being set to expire as soon as she’s no longer the sort of pretty young thing that the right kind of wealthy gentleman invariably prefers. For Lily, this is a matter of survival.
In Vega’s poignant portrayal of the anxieties that afflict all women as they struggle to live up to the feminine ideal, Edith Wharton’s “figurines”, the barely fictional characters like Lily Bart, are with us still, little having changed despite the passing of a century:
Edith Wharton’s lovely figurines
Still speak to me today
From their mantelpiece in time
Where they wrestle and they play
With passions and with prudences
Finances and fears
Her face and what it’s worth to her
In the passing of the years
Wharton’s observations provide the context, but the song isn’t about her. It’s about Olivia Goldsmith, the author of (among many other books) The First Wives Club, a satire about women thrown over by their husbands in favour of more youthful arm candy, a rather Wharton-esque theme that lent itself to a highly successful movie in 1996. Goldsmith had herself been divorced by a husband looking to trade up – it was messy – and it was in the wake of that nastiness that she began writing books about men’s mistreatment of the women they once purported to love. I see here, as I dig around on the internet, that a somewhat desperate resort to cosmetic surgery often figured into the stories.
Olivia thus had insight, but she wasn’t immune. Not long after her 50th birthday, in 2004, she decided to have plastic surgery, a simple “chin tuck” to improve her looks.
Now Olivia lies under anesthesia
Her wit and wonder snuffed
In a routine operation
Her own beauty not enough
Her passions and her prudences
Finances and fears
Her face – what it’s worth to her
In the passing of the years
The tragedy of Olivia’s story, something too ironic and melodramatic to ever find its way into her own fiction, is that the simple cosmetic procedure killed her. She fell victim to the irreducible minimum risk inherent in general anesthesia, lapsing into coma and dying of cardiac arrest within minutes of going under.
Her own beauty not enough. Heartbreaking. Look, I’m just a guy, which presumably disqualifies me from even having a view on this – a woman might tell me that this is a song about a reality I’ll never experience, and can never understand. Yet the point of this series has been that a powerful song can make you understand – if not fully, then enough. I’ve never parachuted out of a C-47 on top of a forest fire, either, and I’ve never been the survivor of a nautical disaster or a young girl terrified of becoming pregnant, but the songs have given me a feel for all of those predicaments. Besides, you don’t have to be female to understand this fundamental truth:
In the struggle for survival
Love is never blind.
You just have to listen. See, she doesn’t just tell you. She makes you feel it.
The final verse is a thing of remarkable beauty, the counterpoint of the cello communicating a world of grief and regret. There are just a few minor variations in the words at this point, which seem to expand the message to embrace all of us, gender aside. All of us struggling, one way or another, to meet the standards others have imposed; all of us out there trudging through our routines, careful to conform in our eagerness for approval; all of us numb and hiding deep inside ourselves, lest we be found out for the frauds we are; all of us fearing that everything we have to offer is yet insufficient. As the song closes, Suzanne makes the message universal:
We lie under anesthesia
Our wit and wonder snuffed
In our routine operations
Our own beauty not enough
Not enough. Everything we hold inside, every little insight we’ve gleaned over the decades, everything we love, despise, fear, or dream about, all the things we like to believe make us special, it all sits there on the auction block waiting vainly in the silence for somebody to bid so much as the minimum asking price. Olivia has been quoted as advising that “the secret to true happiness is low expectations and insensitivity”. Have a care for the hopeful, sensitive souls who can never make that work.
Song of the Day: Bruce Springsteen – Reason to Believe (January 11, 2019)
Whenever I hear this song, I’m reminded of a movie.
Back in the Seventies, director Terrence Malick produced Badlands, from where I sit one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a visually gorgeous and unexpectedly poetic account of the cross-country killing spree of a couple of otherwise unremarkable young lovers, played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Malick’s inspiration was the murderous saga of Charles Starkweather, who killed eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming over a short stretch of just a couple of months in the late 1950s, teenaged girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in tow. In the film, the protagonists are little people set against a vast, empty landscape that’s as flat and featureless as the open ocean on a calm day, him gunning his way mercilessly toward the only sort of fame he’s ever going to attain, her along for the ride as an almost neutral observer, and a model of dull affect. She describes her feelings at one point as being “kinda blah, like when you’re sittin’ there, and all the water’s run out of the bathtub”. The final act of the movie has them on the run, tearing across the badlands of Montana in a stolen Cadillac, moving fast and seeming to go nowhere, surrounded on all sides by this:
Sheen’s character, “Kit”, might be a dangerous predator, but he’s still over-awed by his societal betters. You can sense this when, in an interlude little short of surreal, the two of them take a break from being on the lam, and carry out a home invasion of a “rich man’s house”, aiming to stock up on food and sundries. He and “Holly”, Spacek’s character, wander around the house like little kids, wide-eyed at the trappings of wealth. They try out sitting in the ornate chairs. They take a turn at the big dining room table, while Holly rubs the rim of a leaded crystal goblet to hear it sing. Kit parks for a while at the rich man’s desk and plays with his Dictaphone, trying to record something profound for posterity. When they reckon it’s time to leave, you expect Kit to kill the wealthy homeowner, held captive throughout, since after all, Kit kills just about everybody that crosses his path. Instead, the “rich man” is locked in a closet with his maid. It’s as if Kit feels that somehow, you don’t just up and kill somebody who lives that high on the totem pole, it just isn’t done. It’s almost like a sub-conscious, instinctive deference. Those are the people whose respect he craves, and never gets.
In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska, an incomparably bleak collection of what were originally intended to be demos, recorded at home on cassette, just Bruce and his guitar, telling the stories of small people desperate for a break. One look at the album cover and I felt like I was back with Kit in his stolen Cadillac, on a long road through the badlands going nowhere:
In a lot of the songs we hear a voice not so different from Kit’s, less pathological, but just as small, just as unimportant to anybody that matters, and sometimes just as flat and matter-of-fact. The one that grabs me most powerfully is Reason to Believe. Springsteen often writes from the perspective of small-time hustlers and grifters, and in my mind’s eye the narrator of Reason to Believe is one of those, maybe under interrogation in a small room somewhere, maybe in a little trouble, referring to his listener as “sir” as if by reflex, ever mindful of his obligation to pay due deference. It’s like he’s talking to someone off camera, while the conversation comes around to how he just doesn’t understand where people find hope, or how they manage to persist when hope runs counter to what’s obvious:
Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog
lyin’ by the highway in a ditch
He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled
pokin’ that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open
he’s standin’ out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough
that dog’d get up and run
Struck me kinda funny
seemed kinda funny, sir, to me
Still at the end of every hard day
people find some reason to believe
You see it all the time, sir, don’t you? Abandoned women who can’t believe that Johnny isn’t coming back. Some stiff left jilted at the altar, who must have been nuts to think that girl really loved him. People full of hope who get their kids baptized – man, those kids are likely going to die alone in some shotgun shack. When that time comes, they’ll lay them in the ground while everybody prays, doing them about as much good as it did when everybody mumbled prayers back when they were little kids, and some priest trickled water on their heads. Perhaps the good Lord could tell us what it means.
He’s not angry at anybody, he’s not even frustrated, and he’s not asking when the poor slobs are going to wake up and smell the pile of crap they’re standing in. He’s just sayin’. No matter what, they still believe. Maybe he envies them.
For years I wondered, did Springsteen see Badlands? The movie is full of little moments that Bruce could have scripted. Kit, warned by his girlfriend’s father to stay the hell away from the girl, backing away respectfully, apparently without rancour, saying only that “it takes all kinds, sir.” The two fugitives out in the middle of nowhere, bickering about something until Kit gives in with a flat and ambivalent “well, I’m not sayin’ I know”. Holly, in voice-over, relating how when she got bored with Kit, she stopped listening, and spelled out whole sentences with her tongue on the roof of her mouth, where nobody would ever read them. Kit, working as a garbage man, staring down bemusedly at a dead dog that somebody put out with the trash. “I’ll give you a dollar to eat that collie” he says to his co-worker, who doesn’t seem to think that’s a strange thing to say. “I wouldn’t eat it for a dollar”, he answers, as if he might for a little more, “and I don’t think that’s a collie neither…it’s some kind of dog though”. Some kind of dog, thrown out in the garbage. I saw a man standin’ over a dead dog.
These are Springsteen’s sort of characters. They seem imbued with a sort of detached fatalism. They don’t have much to say, and nobody would listen if they did. They’re used to life on the bottom rung, swimming in boredom and banality. They aren’t noble. They’re just people, none too bright maybe, but they might have been able to do better than this, if they ever got a fair shake. They know the score, though: by the rules, they belong at the bottom of the heap, that’s just how it works, and you just have to accept that none of your betters are there to cut you a break, or leave you with something to feel proud about. Of course, the downtrodden folk who populate Bruce’s songs are usually much more sympathetic, and often still have hopes of busting out of their current ruts, like the characters in Meeting Across the River, Atlantic City, and Thunder Road. Still, they’re made out of a lot of the same stuff as Kit and Holly, and even in his love songs they sound a lot like Kit to me. Take this from I’m on Fire:
Sometimes it’s like
someone took a knife, baby,
edgy and dull,
and cut a six-inch valley
through the middle of my skull
At night I wake up
with the sheets soaking wet
and a freight train running
through the middle of my head
In Badlands, there’s a scene with Kit lying awake on a bed, his eyes fixed and glazed over, while Holly’s narration relates how when he’s awake at night, he hears a constant roar like somebody is holding a seashell up to his ear.
It’s all about the class system we like to pretend doesn’t exist, when you get right down to it. That’s what Springsteen writes about, and that’s a large part of what Malick’s movie was about, too. About ten years after Badlands was released, a scholar named Elliott Leyton produced what’s come to be regarded as a classic psychological study of mass murderers, Hunting Humans. He has a chapter about Starkweather. Leyton’s conclusion is what Malick had already communicated with eloquent clarity on film: mass killings are very often a kind of class warfare. It’s revenge against the people that hog the top of the pyramid, often displaced and meted out on the wrong targets, but revenge nonetheless. Keep enough people down, and let them stew in a culture that glorifies violence, grants fame to mass murderers, fetishizes guns, and romanticizes loners who aren’t going to take it anymore, and look what you get.
You get the feeling this is something Springsteen would understand. The plight of the common people from the wrong side of the tracks isn’t merely unjust. It’s dangerous.
In a way, there are two Springsteens. One writes thundering stadium rock tailor-made to get people out of their seats, and the other writes quiet, contemplative vignettes of people leading mournful and often desperate lives. There might seem to be a world of difference between Reason to Believe and, say, Born to Run, and there is, musically, but no matter how he writes it, Springsteen is always writing about the same thing. His concern is for the little guy, and all the crap he’s put through by those above him, whether that’s losing a job, watching his beloved home town corrode into Rust Belt dust, or being sent to fight a pointless war in some jungle or god-forsaken third world sandlot. He writes songs about guys who work border patrol, and guys whose wives stopped loving them a long time ago. Sometimes they’re resigned, sometimes they’re determined to take a chance, but they’re all starting behind the 8-ball, one way or another. They all sound real. I can’t think of anybody else who’s so determined to tell their stories, not since Woody Guthrie, anyway.
Nebraska, its songs as cheerless as its cover photo, isn’t for the faint of heart; but Bruce knows, and a large enough part of the public seems to have appreciated, that sometimes you have to take an unblinking look at reality and tell it like it is, and the truth is, a lot of the time it’s desolate and brutally unfair.
Last year, I read Springsteen’s autobiography, and sure enough, he cites the films of Malick as part of his inspiration for Nebraska.
Of course, prior to that he also had a song titled Badlands, off the album Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Song of the Day: Electric Youth – A Real Hero (January 17, 2019)
A couple of days ago, January 15, marked the 10th anniversary of the date upon which Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, his Airbus crippled just after take-off by bird strikes that took out both of his engines, mentally calculated his altitude, airspeed, and the distance to the nearest plausible landing strip, and realized he couldn’t make it.
Ever so calmly, he informed air traffic control that no, he wouldn’t be trying for LaGuardia, and couldn’t make Newark. He was ditching in the Hudson.
This simple, yet to my ears rather lovely little piece of electronica was written in honour of what Sully managed that day. I first heard it on the soundtrack of the underrated movie Drive, went searching for it on iTunes, and listened to it happily for a long time before it hit me that it could only be about one thing:
A pilot on a cold, cold morn’
One-hundred fifty-five people on board
All safe and all rescued
From the slowly sinking ship
Water warmer than his head so cool
In that tight bind knew what to do
And you have proved to be
A real human being and a real hero
It wasn’t just the piloting skill that impresses. It was the presence of mind, the preternatural calm with which the crisis was handled. Sully would have known that ditching an airliner in water is almost guaranteed to end in disaster, but that’s because water landings almost always happen at sea, with high waves that invariably catch a wingtip, or slam into and over-stress the airframe as the plane tries to settle in. A river, though, is different. The Hudson was placid that day, and while smooth water isn’t tarmac, it’s actually a lot better than a dead stick landing on some bumpy patch of ground that’s liable to be too short, and surrounded by buildings, or maybe trees. Ditching in the river is thus a perfectly good option, even a great one, provided you can bring it in just right: gear up, nose a little high, catch the tail first, and ease it down. The smooth, rounded bottom of an airliner is almost like a boat. You could skid to a nice, slow stop and settle down relatively smoothly, though you’d have do it with finesse – water is incompressible, and if you hit it fast enough you may as well be landing on concrete. So, finesse it would have to be.
That’s the physics of it, but figuring that out and deciding to go for it in the time allotted would, for anyone else, be a superhuman and highly improbable exercise in dispassionate logic. Laguardia was tantalizingly close to being within reach, and other pilots might have felt an overwhelming urge to try for a proper runway landing. You get the impression, though, that the river as Option C was just part of Sully’s hard-wiring, no extra thought required, let alone second thoughts. They might not make LaGuardia, but the river was a sure bet, as well as the longest runway on Earth, if you looked at it that way. Option C thus posed the least risk, and there’s no indication that Sully had any doubts at all, as if he’d run the equations and come up with the irrefutably higher value. This is the stuff of test pilots.
Listen to the exchange between “Cactus 1549” and the tower, attached below. You can hear Sully realize very quickly that he might end up in the river, even as they try to divert him to Newark or maybe Teterboro airport in New Jersey, and clear runways for him; while at first still hoping to make it to an airport, any airport, Sully was considering the Hudson just 40 seconds after sucking Canada Geese through both turbofans. As the conventional options are eliminated, Sully’s voice doesn’t even rise in pitch.
Tower: OK Cactus 1549, it’s going to be left traffic on runway 31.
Just like that. “Unable”. I don’t sound that calm, cool, and collected if I can’t get the cork out of a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
Then, simply, We can’t do it. We’re going to be in the Hudson. He doesn’t even cuss.
With the plane ditched as gently as possible (still hard enough to rip up the tail section), and the Airbus sinking slowly enough to get everybody out the doors, Sully did a last search of the plane, up and down the aisle, making sure that nobody was still left on board, and then exited himself, the last man off.
In its breathy melodicism, A Real Hero seems to celebrate not just Sully’s raw skill and cool-headedness, but the care and concern with which he did his best to get everybody down safely, with all that weight on his shoulders. It wasn’t self-preservation. It was duty.
Here’s a great piece on the incident from Vanity Fair, well worth a read if you’re interested:
Song of the Day: Liz Phair – Perfect World (January 30, 2019)
Liz Phair has had her creative ups and downs, but on a good day she can be wry, cynical, scathing, brutally honest, and wonderfully adept at pop songcraft. I submit that Perfect World, my favourite, was written on a very, very good day.
I’m always a sucker for a song that bewitches and then wraps up tidily before you’ve had enough, and this compact and almost formally perfect guitar piece clocks in at just a little over two minutes before it’s done and out. It’s a marvel of tight construction, and while it’s easy to get lost in Liz’s unwavering voice, listen too to the lovely contrapuntal bass line. In typical Liz fashion, Perfect World matches a pretty tune to lyrics that contemplate her own quirky femininity with almost mournful bitterness, describing herself as not cool enough, not tall enough, too opinionated, too mouthy, and, if you dig just a little into the subtext, too damned smart, to be desirable.
The “perfect world” is the one she can’t enter, where prettier, more vapid girls get the man who has everything – what a pretty life you have, she sings, oh boy it’s a pretty life you have. It sounds like he does well for himself, in more ways than one. You’d need a map just to navigate the guy’s backyard, for chrissakes. Guess who gets in to frolic:
I know the girls that live inside your world
Just sitting next to a mortal makes their skin crawl
And that ain’t her, those aren’t the circles she travels in, though she wishes most fervently, just now, that it was.
I want to be cool, tall, vulnerable, and luscious
I would have it all if I’d only had this much
No need for Lucifer to fall if he’d learn to keep his mouth shut
I wanna be involved, be involved, be involved, be involved
I would be involved with you
You get the feeling she doesn’t really want to be like the other girls, and this is just a crystallized moment of extreme frustration. Anyway, she’s never going to be, because she’s never going to learn to keep her mouth shut, no matter how hard she tries.
Good. I want to hear what she has to say, and with that voice she can say anything at all, and it’s fine by me.
By the by, it’s perhaps symptomatic of our toxic culture of ludicrous idealized femininity if this woman really thinks she isn’t desirable.
Song of the Day: Bonnie Raitt – I Can’t Make You Love Me (February 22, 2019)
Everybody feels the need for a good, cathartic hurtin’ song sometimes, but I bet for a lot of folks this one hurts a bit too much. It’s beautiful, but it’s real, and this level of emotional honesty cuts pretty deep.
It kind of guts me, too, but I can’t help myself.
It seems such a perfect expression of a particularly feminine point of view, and the way women process heartbreak, that it may come as a surprise that it was written by a couple of guys, who based it on a true story that was purely about male folly. The composers, Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, were inspired by a newspaper article. The report was in the “crime and punishment” genre on the back page of the morning edition, and concerned this fairly pathetic back-hollow sort of country boy who, one gathers, had been dumped by his girlfriend, and wasn’t ready to accept it. Sad, frustrated, and angry, he got himself all drunked up on moonshine and shot her car full of holes, like that was going to show her something. Well, that lands you in the slam, sonny. At sentencing the judge asked him if he’d learned anything from all this, probably expecting him to admit that guns and alcohol don’t mix and he was powerful sorry, but instead he looked balefully at the bench and said “Yes your honour. You can’t make a woman love you, if she don’t.”
Mike Reid remembers that when they finished the song, it was the only time he ever really felt they’d done something they couldn’t improve upon. Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt were the only ones they felt could possibly do right by it, and Raitt got the first crack. She didn’t need time to think about it. Her first impression was that it might be one of the greatest songs ever written. Other songwriters agree, including the great Carole King, who described it as “torn from the depths of feeling, from the bottom of that place where your love is unrequited”.
You can’t make a woman love you, if she don’t. Maybe to some that sounds kind of dumb. Not to me. It is, actually, one of the most painful and important lessons every young man needs to learn, and one he’ll ignore at his peril.
Anyone familiar with the work of Bruce Hornsby, who had a couple of hits in the 80s, will immediately recognize his playing on the piano accompaniment.
Song of the Day: Cyndi Lauper – True Colours (March 1, 2019)
Cyndi didn’t write this one, it’s from the team of Tom Kelley and Billy Steinberg, but she sure sings the hell out of it, and she came up with the arrangement – I read here in Wikipedia that it started life as a sort of gospel song. Steinberg liked Cindy’s take better, and found her arrangement “stark and breathtaking”.
Cyndi herself is a bit of an enigma. Her first album, She’s So Unusual, was inordinately huge, almost Thriller huge, with seven top 40 singles on it. You’d swear it was a greatest hits collection. She showed real range too, veering from not-so-silly pop in Girls Just Wanna Have Fun to hard Van Halen style rock in Money Changes Everything, to sensitive love balladry in Time After Time. The album was on the charts all year, sold over 20 million copies, and looked to be the beginning of an amazing career. Conventional wisdom at the time was that this Madonna person was just a flash in the pan, cranking out danceable ephemera, while the real sustainable talent was Cyndi.
True Colours became a sort of anthem for the gay community – it wasn’t written to be, but Cyndi has always said she’s glad they adopted it as their own. It really does sound like a gentle exhortation to come out of the closet, but it’s really about how it ought to be possible for all harmless folk to simply be who they are, unafraid of scorn or disapproval, which just goes to show how all of us are the same, in the same boat, with the same fears. Steinberg actually wrote it for his mother, who must have been a gentle soul.
I sure wish I could have written something so kind and loving for my Mom.
Song of the Day: The Kinks – Oklahoma USA (March 4, 2019)
Some songs are built around questions, a simple device and old trick of the trade, like call-and-response. What do the simple folk do? Will you still love me tomorrow? Do you know the way to San Jose? Do you love me, surfer girl? In the sixties some of those questions became rather serious: have you ever seen the rain? How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? Writing about Eleanor Rigby, and its refrain that asked after all the lonely people, where they all came from and where they could all possibly belong, author Jonathan Gould noted that some questions aren’t rhetorical – they’re just unanswerable. That’s what you get in Oklahoma, USA, about a woman who lives a fantasy life to escape the dreariness of her mundane working days, in which the great Ray Davies poses one that could only spring from the deepest fount of melancholy: If life is for living, what’s living for?
Pete Townshend once said in an interview, rather ruefully, that as the Sixties progressed he and Ray Davies had to get comfortable with the idea that The Kinks and The Who were never going to be as big as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Pete didn’t think that was quite fair, and when you listen to a song like Oklahoma, USA you can see why. Concise, melodic, thoughtful, and sad beyond words, it’s one of Ray’s very best, and might seem off the beaten path to those who know him only for his early proto-power chord hits, like You Really Got Me and All Day and All of the Night. Ray could rock, all right, but he could also write songs that were out of time and for the ages – this is the guy who didn’t just give you Lola, he also gifted you the beautifully wistful and ethereal Waterloo Sunset.
Ray actually wasn’t so much a rock ‘n roller as a dreamer, a romantic, and his songs are often gentle and nostalgic – when it came to the state of modern England, fiercely nostalgic (who but Ray could write a rollicking pop tune celebrating the age of Queen Victoria?) – and very sad, in an understated sort of way. They only tugged at your heartstrings with full effect once you’d listened a few times, and absorbed the words.
So here’s our unnamed woman, head in the clouds, passing the time by imagining herself living large within the worlds depicted in big Broadway musicals and Hollywood romance pictures, while the days turn to years and time keeps evaporating.
She walks to work but she’s still in a daze,
She’s Rita Hayworth or Doris Day,
And Errol Flynn’s gonna take her away,
To Oklahoma U.S.A…
All life we work but work is a bore,
If life is for for livin’ then what’s livin’ for?
If I knew, dear imaginary reader, I promise I’d tell you.
Song of the Day: Paul Westerberg – Love Untold (March 13, 2019)
Sometimes a highly enjoyable pop tune isn’t so much extraordinary as perfectly executed within the limits of what it is. They can’t all be Strawberry Fields Forever. They can’t all have astonishing chord sequences, unexpected key changes, innovative structures, and bold conceptual underpinnings. Yet a song that objectively might offer nothing particularly new might still be assembled with such craftsmanship that it’s just plain delightful – sometimes a really good rock ‘n roll song adopts all the tried and true conventions and just does it right, all of it just so, leaving you wanting to hear it again. I think one of the best recent examples of this can be heard in the Lumineers’ Ho Hey, which you can find on this blog site under Graeme’s Video Emporium, or on YouTube etc., if that suits you better.
Paul Westerberg’s Love Untold is that sort of song. Westerberg is a very good songwriter who cut his teeth in a much admired if commercially luke-warm band called The Replacements. On his own he’s enjoyed only moderate success, but this song gleaned a little airplay for a while, and should have got more. All the traditional elements are in perfect balance, the power chords, the descending melody of the verses, the forceful middle eight. It’s one of those songs that manages to be poignant even as it rocks pretty hard, and tells a story about missed chances and unrequited love that has real emotional heft.
Does anyone recall the saddest love of all, the one that lets you fall, nothing to hold?