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Songs of the Day Archive – Part 4

Song of the Day: The Tragically Hip – Bobcaygeon (March 16, 2019)

A beautiful and at first blush enigmatic song, Bobcaygeon is named after a small Ontario town on the Kawartha Lakes, which composer Gord Downie is said to have chosen for the lyrics because he wanted a place name that came as close as possible to rhyming with the word “constellation”.

A close listen to the lyrics, and its description of being on horseback, trying to restore order, reveals what’s made explicit in the video: the protagonist is a cop, grown weary and stressed by the challenges he confronts daily in the concrete canyons of Toronto, where the skies are “dull and hypothetical” – the latter, perhaps, because often, when you’re downtown between the tall buildings, you can barely see the sky at all, those times when you’re actually outdoors. On foggy days, the grey nothing above can blend in with the tops of towers and seem to vanish. I remember telling myself once, it’s gotta be up there somewhere.

One thing that has always struck me in the video is how utterly credible Gord looks, garbed as a police officer.

The narrative’s central event, set out in the bridge, is about things going south at a concert at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern, the place with the “checkerboard floors”. The Men They Couldn’t Hang isn’t a description, but the name of an English band described in Wikipedia as “folk-punk”, whatever that is, and one gathers that Gord must have seen them at the Horseshoe at some point, and heard them perform their song “Ghosts of Cable Street”. The song within a song was about a street battle that occurred in 1936 in London’s Whitechapel district, involving members of the British Union of Fascists led by the notorious Oswald Mosley, the thousands of police detailed to protect them and prevent violence, and a mixed throng of anti-fascists, anarchists, communists, Jewish activists, socialists, and just about everybody else in Greater London who then had an axe to grind. The Battle of Cable Street was no small thing, as detailed in Wikipedia:

The main confrontation took place around Gardiner’s Corner in Whitechapel. An estimated 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators turned out, and were met by 6,000–7,000 policemen (including mounted police), who attempted to clear the road to permit the march of 2,000–3,000 fascists to proceed. The demonstrators fought back with sticks, rocks, chair legs and other improvised weapons. Rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots were thrown at the police by women in houses along the street. After a series of running battles, Mosley agreed to abandon the march to prevent bloodshed. …Around 175 people were injured including police, women and children.

It’s often suggested that Downie was also alluding to a smaller but locally famous street fight that occurred in Toronto in 1933, in which Jewish citizens and supporters from the Italian community clashed with Nazi sympathizers in what came to be known as the Christie Pits Riot. Perhaps. Whenever I hear the song I’m reminded of the neo-Nazi group with which I had dealings as a lawyer, the Heritage Front, who were involved in a similar street brawl in the early 1990s, not long before Bobcaygeon was written. In the video, the neo-Nazi who stirs up trouble on stage actually looks a lot like the Heritage Front’s then-leader, Wolfgang Droege.

Perhaps it’s about all of that, and nothing so specific. In the song, it seems as if the riot is taking place right there at the Horseshoe, forcing the narrator to wade in, but in any case, violence between extremists and their antagonists is something this cop knows more about than he’d care to, and supplies the context for the character’s primary motivation: surprisingly, Bobcaygeon turns out to be a tender love song. It’s the town where his lover resides, his haven, a rural retreat where everything stands in stark contrast to the urban unpleasantness of the GTA. In one of the prettiest sentiments you’ll ever hear in a pop song, Downie contrasts the dull skies of downtown Toronto with what he sees overhead out in the countryside:

’cause it was in Bobcaygeon
where I saw the constellations
reveal themselves one star at time

…a reference not just to the myriad brilliant stars that you can never see in the city, where their existence can indeed seem purely hypothetical, but also to the rejuvenating power of making love when you’re really in love.

Musically, as befits a love song, Bobcaygeon is more sweetly melodic and accessible than a lot of the Hip’s most celebrated songs, which tend to be chord-driven, and often rock pretty hard; this is the one your mom would like. Don’t be misled, though – sweet and tuneful it may be, but Bobcaygeon is no piece of pop puffery. It’s a powerful, emotional song about serious things, which is the only way Gord knew how to write them. There’s a cinematic sort of sweep to it, too, this depiction of the beleaguered riot cop thinking only of getting back home to his love, even as the violence bids fair to swamp both him and his horse. The only sure antidote to the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, it seems, is to be far away in your lover’s arms. If that doesn’t get you right in the pumper, then, well, I guess I just don’t know.

It’s hard to think of Gord Downie, felled young by brain cancer, without tearing up a little. He was the real deal, a great talent, a deep thinker, a quintessential Canadian, and by all accounts a lovely guy. He left behind a trove of that rarest of things, pop songs with lyrics that really mean something, and move the listener in much the same way as good literature, with stories that fascinate, resonate with genuine emotion, and often embrace some pretty big ideas. With Bobcaygeon, he left us a very fine piece of himself, which doesn’t make it all better, but hey, if you can’t live to a ripe old age, then burning brightly while you’re here, and being loved and remembered for your art when you’re gone, has to be reckoned a fair second best.

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Songs of the Day: Remembering Brian Wilson (March 19, 2019)

I was just watching the trailer for Pixar’s upcoming Toy Story 4, and playing on the soundtrack was a song that I always find deeply moving, God Only Knows. I was inspired to dig into the back catalogue and revisit a Beach Boys retrospective I wrote a few years ago, before this blog began, thinking maybe it should see the light of day, to the extent that an appearance on this blog could qualify as an exposure to daylight (it’s also been posted for a while in the virtually unvisited Songs of the Day archive section). I used to write these things just for the fun of it, and circulated them to a few friends, who maybe didn’t read them. When I wrote this one, I was really warming to the process – hence the length. Writing can be a ball, when you care about the subject!

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

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

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

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

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

Throughout the first half of 1966 Brian laboured in the studio to produce his masterwork, and it bears remembering here that unlike anyone in the Beatles, he had to be pretty much a one man show. He was the gifted one; the other Beach Boys were barely useful as part-time session musicians at this point, while Brian, heavily influenced by the “wall of sound” production techniques pioneered by Phil Spector earlier in the decade, filled the role of composer, arranger, producer, and player – in effect he had to be John, Paul, Geoff Emerick and George Martin all at once. It was, actually, a hell of a mental strain for him, at a time when he desperately needed a respite – for poor Brian was in the midst of a mental breakdown that had begun as early as 1964. His problems had their roots in an abusive relationship with his father, drug use (Brian believes LSD affects his mind to this day), filial relations, and so on, and having his sense of self-worth challenged by these English guys wasn’t doing anything to help. Luckily for us he persevered, and in May of 1966, Brian having pushed himself to the limit, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds.

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

Paul McCartney

Have a listen to this Pet Sounds sampler:

Wouldn’t it Be Nice

Caroline, No

Sloop John B

God Only Knows

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

Crushing for Brian, then, that Pet Sounds didn’t sell. It just wasn’t the Beach Boys that people had come to expect, and peaked at number 10 on the Billboard charts – not bad, but for the love of God, the Beatles could get to number 10 with the sound of a flushing toilet. Always psychologically fragile, Brian was now teetering on the edge of full-blown psychiatric chaos, his masterpiece scorned – or was he wrong about that? Perhaps it wasn’t that good after all? The public had amply proved that it could grow along with its favourite artists, and surely if the masses were tin-eared philistines unwilling to let their idols break out of pre-conceived boxes, Rubber Soul would not have sold in its millions. What had he done wrong? What more could he do? He couldn’t have imagined that decades hence, no list of the ten best albums ever made would dare to omit Pet Sounds, and he also seems not to have registered a congratulatory telegram that McCartney took the trouble to send him upon the album’s release.

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

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

And Revolver, naturally, sold in its millions.

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

Good Vibrations

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

In all, something like 80 hours of recordings were distilled down to make the record, over a span of seven months and at a cost that was ten times the price of a contemporary top-of-the-line Cadillac. It was, without doubt, worth every minute and every penny.

The title came from something some relative had told Brian about a pet dog, that it seemed to sense people’s good or bad intentions as if they were putting out vibrations that only it could sense. From this point on, the idea of good vibes and bad vibes became part of the popular lexicon, because at last, blessedly, Good Vibrations was a massive hit. Said Brian, much later: “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. It’s hard to say that one song is the top floor of the building you’re trying to build … but nothing’s higher than ‘Good Vibrations.’”

Across the Atlantic, McCartney sat up straight and realized the gauntlet had been thrown down yet again. He was quite enjoying this trans-Atlantic tennis match, and knew nothing of the terrible mental strain that afflicted his sad, suffering peer in America. For Paul, this was a friendly (if intense) competition, good for both of them; for Brian, it must have seemed more akin to blood sport. The role of his rivalry with the Beatles in Brian’s mental breakdown has perhaps been overstated over the years, and Lord knows, he had enough other problems to account for everything that was going wrong inside his head, yet it’s hard not to believe that being one-upped repeatedly, and with apparent ease, was contributing to his woes. Seen in that light, the release, only a few months later, of the mind-bogglingly brilliant double A-Side single Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever – perhaps the only single ever released that could plausibly be considered better than Good Vibrations – must have seemed less like a friendly riposte than a snide kick in the pants. Those fucking Beatles had done it again. It’s been reported that when Brian first heard Strawberry Fields Forever coming out of his dashboard radio, he had to pull over, then broke down, crying, and said “They got there first.”

In a fever, Brian returned to the studio to work on something to surpass Pet Sounds and race back in front of the Beatles, a project called Smile that absorbed him to the point of unhealthy obsession. While he was hammering away at that, God help him, Paul paid him a personal visit in California and, by various accounts, either played live on a piano, or from copies of master tapes, a few cuts from the soon to be released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson’s recollection is that Paul performed a piano rendition of She’s Leaving Home, and that Brian, almost inevitably, found it so beautiful that he cried – it was, after all, his kind of song. Apparently, after Brian had heard what was coming, Paul playfully said something like “You’d better hurry up!”, or so the story goes.

To the extent the account is more than apocryphal, it bears remembering that it would never have occurred to Paul that Brian was dying inside, his Smile project in danger of being eclipsed even before he could finish it. Paul, we know, was more than eager to see what Brian would do next, and whatever he said, he would have meant Brian to take it in a more jovial spirit, like the guy across the net saying “You’re serve!”. Paul adored Brian, more, probably, than Brian could ever have believed, just as Brian probably never believed that the way Paul saw it, the Beatles had never managed to one-up Brian at all.

In June, 1967, Sgt. Pepper was released to a universal and utterly unprecedented chorus of rapturous acclaim. Meanwhile, Brian finally succumbed to his demons, and the Beach Boys began a long artistic decline from which they never recovered. Sgt. Pepper didn’t do Brian in, any more than Revolver did, but as always, it couldn’t have done him much good, either, to watch the Beatles bathing in praise and global success while his Smile project laid in pieces on the floor.

If only George Martin could have told him then what he said many years later to an interviewer: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.

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

Song of the Day: Will Bradley (Ray McKinley and Don Raye, vocals) Down the Road Apiece (March 27, 2019)

When the day’s news is really, really god-awful, as it is every f@*king day lately, the battered soul grasps for something, anything, that might lighten the mood, maybe even provide enough of a distraction that it’d be possible to forget for a second what’s been so upsetting.

How about an old eight-to-the-bar boogie-woogie classic? Try it! It works!

Written by Don Raye, and recorded way back in 1940 by the Will Bradley Orchestra, Down the Road A Piece just has to get your toes tapping, supposing you like music at all – man, if the coroner slapped this on the platter in his dismal basement morgue, a corpse two days cold would be keeping time.

This one has been with me pretty much from the day I was born, and from the way I took to it as a child, I suspect I might have heard it first in the womb. My Dad had it on an old 78 (how long before nobody but the odd techno-geek will know what I mean if I say “78”, or “45” for that matter?) and it was so scratchy that you could barely make out the quieter bit in the middle, which made that wonderful upright bass work almost indiscernible, though you bet I heard it. I think the signal:noise ratio was close to 1:1. Didn’t matter. My brother and I just loved it. It’s a revelation, now, to hear the pristine copy of the master, without all that crackle and hiss. It might not be 64 track digital stereo, but damn, it’s pretty good.

This sort of boogie has in it the germ of all the rock ‘n roll that came after, and it should come as no surprise to learn that both Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones covered it; it’s just a short step from here to Johnny B. Goode, and if rock ‘n roll scared the crap out of conservative white folk and evangelicals back in the day, I can’t imagine why this didn’t. Maybe it didn’t seem rebellious, I don’t know, but it sure as death and taxes mates with the same universal, primordial receptors in the brainstem. I bet you could find some remote tribe in the Brazilian rain forest and lay ’em flat in the aisles, as it were.

I’ve always been particularly tickled by the banter that punctuated the music:

Where’s you goin’, I saw you goin’ down the street the other night?

I wasn’t goin’ nowhere, I been where I’s goin.’

That’s all right, I didn’t see you ’til you was plumb out of sight.

I remember Dad’s favourite was Hey, look out where you’re steppin’, that ain’t second base.

Six-year-old Graeme thought those guys must be the coolest dudes who ever lived. Fifty-eight-year-old Graeme thinks so too.

Below, I attach another version that seems to sound even better, it’s really remarkable.

Song of the Day: Sting – All This Time (March 29, 2019)

I don’t know if I’m supposed to like Sting or not. A lot of people seem to think he’s pretentious and tedious, and some days I can see that, but sometimes he writes something snappy, and rather clever, and who doesn’t like that?

I’ve always enjoyed All This Time, it’s bouncy and tuneful, well recorded, and well arranged, and the ideas it expresses – and listen, at a minimum, it’s no small thing that a pop tune expresses ideas, right? – well suit my predilections and prejudices. The stone atheist in me enjoys the scorn for organized religion, and the morose philosopher with a bent for history just eats this with a spoon:

Teachers told us the Romans built this place.
They built a wall and a temple and an edge of the empire garrison town.
They lived and they died, they prayed to their gods,

but the stone gods did not make a sound.
And their empire crumbled ’till all that was left
Were the stones the workmen found.

Pretentious? Well, I don’t know, it sounds about right to me, and it instantly reminded me of another pretentious fop named Shelley, who wrote a little poem about a fellow who answered to “Ozymandias”:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I’m not sure whether this sort of thinking is comforting or depressing. On the one hand, this too shall pass. On the other hand, so will I, and I’ve got a real feeling that I do before this does.

Anyway, listen to Sting’s bass work. He’s said he models his playing on McCartney’s, whom he calls “the Guv’nor”, and that makes the guy all right by me.

Song of the Day: Billy Bragg – Cindy of a Thousand Lives (March 30, 2019)

A tribute to photographer Cindy Sherman, considered one of the most important artists of her generation, according to what I just found on Google, and a major figure I would never have known the first thing about if I hadn’t tried to figure out this song. I guess this demonstrates what I’m sure Billy would tell me, that popular songs don’t have to be mere entertainment. They can tell stories about things you never knew, and make you curious enough to do some digging on your own.

Billy Bragg first came to my attention in the mid-1980s, in a video of one of his most affecting songs, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, which managed to make it into the rotation on Much Music. This was back when there were whole channels devoted to nothing but music videos, and the form was slowly evolving from the trashy, glossy, empty flash of “artists” like Duran Duran – virtual fast food commercials in which the music, such as it was, was almost entirely beside the point – into something more self-consciously arty and serious. This was the era when U2, the Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel and the like were trying to say something beyond “please buy my record, so that I might be stinking wealthy and buried up to my neck in drugs and hot babes”. Video Art Rock, if you like.

Levi Stubbs’ Tears was serious and meaningful, all right, but belonged to none of the prevailing trends – it wasn’t slick, it didn’t include scenes in exotic locales, or animation, or wild photo angles, or the use of colours and lighting to make it look like a fashion shoot on tape, or anything arty at all – it was just Billy, standing there with his sleeves rolled up, guitar in hand, in a dark empty studio. It wasn’t a video of Billy playing over the recorded version of the song, either, or doing cinematic things while the song played underneath. He just stood there, live and utterly unpretentious, played the song for the camera, and according to legend was in and out in a single take. Thus like the song, the video never ages.

Just your typical romantic ditty assembled according to the familiar formula: worthless lout meets girl/worthless lout marries girl/worthless lout leaves girl to wallow in terrible loneliness/worthless lout comes home and shoots girl full of holes. Moon, June, spoon and all that.

I loved the song from the get go, and it has an extra-special place in my heart because it turns out that my wife-to-be did too, from before I met her, and I think it surprised her that a goof like me could appreciate such a thing. My standing increased further when I was able to explain to her who Levi Stubbs was, and Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong, and Holland and Holland and Dozier too. I was able to pull the Motown CDs off my shelf and show her, coming on all sage and well-versed in explaining that the woman in the song was consoling herself with songs by the Temptations and the Four Tops. From then on I pretty much had the inside track.

This type of jangly solo guitar ballad was typical of his output back then. Billy positioned himself as a sort of angry young leftist folk singer on a mission, Woody Guthrie with an electric guitar, but so quintessentially British in his accent, slang, and verbal imagery that to those of us on this side of the pond he seemed almost from another world, almost exotic. His output oscillated between portrayals of everyday life, which on the surface, at least, embraced no particular agenda, and outright agit-prop that railed against The Man and all manner of social injustice. One track would be something like There is Power in a Union, or Between the Wars, the latter a moving tribute to blue collar workers struggling for a living wage during the Great Depression, and hoping for help from the 1930s political system. Then the next might drop the dialectic in favour of a poignant coming-of-age tale about young longing and lost romance, like the beautiful St. Swithen’s Day, with its wistful remembrance of days past:

The Polaroids that held us together
will surely fade away
like the love that we spoke of forever
on St. Swithen’s Day

…or the wonderfully honest and self-aware A New England:

I don’t want change the world, I’m not looking for a new England – I’m just looking for another girl. Look, you can’t always be on the front lines throwing Molotov Cocktails at the capitalist oppressors, right mate? A young man has his needs.

Billy’s politics might have put some people off back then, as they did me sometimes, before I clued in a little more and went all lefty myself, but you couldn’t help but be drawn in by the compassion, the vast reservoir of human sympathy that he brought to the music. After a while, you realized that Billy wasn’t so much angry as profoundly saddened and deeply frustrated by the sheer, unnecessary cruelty of the ordinary person’s lot, feelings that are perhaps easier to understand as we look around at what’s become of us here in our new 21st Century Gilded Age.

Don’t Try This at Home, released in 1991, marked a bit of a departure, containing songs set against broad, complex, multi-layered studio soundscapes reminiscent of Phil Spector’s Walls of Sound. Cindy of a Thousand Lives, my favourite, has the vocal riding above the sombre strumming of a small orchestra of acoustic guitars, numerous, insistent, and in perfect synchrony, sounding just as Phil would have liked. For years I took it to be mournful dirge for the lost innocence of a mythical long-gone America, shattered forever in the wake of Viet Nam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and the plutocratic predations of the Reagan years:

Blue velvet America
half glimpsed in the headlights between the trees
Who punctured your beauty
and invited monsters such as these?
The pig-faced boy
The corrupted clown
The grotesque figure who never comes in to town

Looked at that way, it seems more relevant today than ever, doesn’t it? Yet it isn’t about the political landscape at all, save to the extent that it’s written in praise of the reputedly subversive politics embodied in the photographic work of Cindy Sherman. She’s the pig-faced boy, the corrupted clown, and hundreds upon hundreds of other archetypes and oddballs depicted in her curious, challenging, and sometimes upsetting images, which appear to comment on the way women are portrayed, and thus shaped in real life, by modern media.

This was written in connection with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art:

Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954) is widely recognized as one of the most important and influential artists in contemporary art. Throughout her career, she has presented a sustained, eloquent, and provocative exploration of the construction of contemporary identity and the nature of representation, drawn from the unlimited supply of images from movies, TV, magazines, the Internet, and art history. Working as her own model for more than 30 years, Sherman has captured herself in a range of guises and personas which are at turns amusing and disturbing, distasteful and affecting. To create her photographs, she assumes multiple roles of photographer, model, makeup artist, hairdresser, stylist, and wardrobe mistress. With an arsenal of wigs, costumes, makeup, prosthetics, and props, Sherman has deftly altered her physique and surroundings to create a myriad of intriguing tableaus and characters, from screen siren to clown to aging socialite.

The most fascinating aspect of her work, about which, let’s be clear, I know nothing – I only started to look into it when doing the homework to write this post – is how hard it is to tell that every single picture is really the same person, as she serves as her own photographic subject across thousands of images that show women in all sorts of settings, postures, costumes, and emotional states – even, in some of them, apparently deceased – each so distinct that it’s hard to believe that every one of them is her. Hence, Cindy of a thousand lives, and Billy calling out “Cindy, which one of them is you”? as the song fades to black. This video, not an “official” release, but put together by an admirer and posted on YouTube, will show you what I mean. Those are all her:

Something broken, something stained, something waiting for the worms to claim.

Here’s further reading, if you’re keen.

I’m almost sorry I finally understand what Billy was on about. I liked the mystery – before you learn the real story, those lyrics are as perplexing as they are evocative, and somehow just as powerful in a different way, allowing you to attribute your own meanings as if they’re a sort of aural Rorschach Test.

Ever get the feeling that you’re just not perceptive enough to understand, and that all genuine art, with all its many nuanced strata of meanings, is utterly wasted on you? My guess is that Billy, an everyman, yes, but also an intellectual artist if ever there was one, never gets that sense.

Song of the Day: Jane Wiedlin – Our Lips Are Sealed (May 16, 2019)

The only annoying aspect of the huge success of the irrepressible Go-Gos back in the Eighties was the way everybody focussed on the lead singer, Belinda Carlisle, and ignored the group’s far more interesting songwriter, one of the most talented pop composers of her era. You can hear the extent to which Jane Wiedlin owns the Go-Go’s biggest hit, Our Lips Are Sealed, in this acoustic demo. This woman knew her way around a melody, and the clever lyrics, skewering the politics and gossip of toxic high school society, are much easier to discern in this version. Plus, this song boasts a number of clever chord shifts and one of the most sublime middle-eights on record.

When the group split up, Jane had some success, but nowhere close to what she deserved. One assumes she’s set for life, though, just on the royalties from this song alone (even though she has to split them with purported co-writer Terry Hall of Fun Boy Three, with whom Wiedlin had a brief fling). Nobody does pop better than this.

She was prettier than Carlisle too, you ask me.

Song of the Day: The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever (May 29, 2019)

Lennon’s masterwork.

Every Beatles fan is familiar with the story, how John liked bits of one take, and other bits of another, and wanted George Martin to splice them together, an impossible request in late 1966 as the two taped versions were recorded at different tempos and different keys; but Martin was able to match them up by slowing one of them down and speeding the other up, bringing them into perfect synch, as if the Music Gods had willed it.

At top is one of the earlier versions, fully realized and gorgeous in its own right, which languished in the vault, a thing of rumour and legend, until released as part of the Anthology project. It’s a much more gentle rendition, and sounds particularly wistful and philosophical when compared to the final track, with its urgent, martial drumming, sawing cello, staccato brass, and Lennon’s weary vocal, its pitch slowed down from the original. Over many takes, and with the almost magical splicing of two versions into a coherent whole, what began as a rather sad remembrance of things past was transformed into something that was much more confused and frustrated, no longer a fond recollection of happier times, but a desperate expression of an urge to retreat into memory and escape the present.

Strawberry Fields Forever was released at the beginning of 1967 as half of a “double A-side” 45 RPM single, along with Penny Lane, two of the first songs recorded for the Sgt. Pepper album. EMI was chafing for a new single, and these exciting recordings were the best new material available, so they were pillaged, thus gutting the album to come – in those days, songs released as singles weren’t included on albums, not in England anyway, on the theory that it was unfair to make the consumer buy them twice. Sgt. Pepper suffered, two of its three greatest songs removed, but at least the world got the greatest single ever released, and Pepper went on to vast commercial and critical success anyway. Still, what might have been…George Martin kicked himself ever after, wishing he’d fended off the rapacious record company executives, and always referred to the pre-emptive release as the greatest mistake of his professional life.

It’s impossible, now, to grasp how astonishing this record was when first issued. It was barely more than three years since the North American public had first been exposed to the Beatles; while there were those, mainly professional musicians and composers, who’d understood what they were looking at that night in February, 1964, none could have imagined it would come to this, not in 36 months, not in a thousand. Something magical was going on, something that should have been impossible, and for a moment everyone was listening, astounded, and wondering what was next.

Over fifty years gone by. When will we ever feel that way again?

Further reading:

Revisiting Beatles’ Rare, Revelatory ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ Early Take

Song of the Day: Joel Plaskett – Shine On, Shine On, Shine On (June 9, 2019)

Plaskett, a good Maritime boy from the beautiful Nova Scotia South Shore town of Lunenburg – a UN World Heritage site, don’t you know – is maybe my favourite artist working today, and I’ve promoted his songs in this space before. This is another one from his terrific Three collection, not coincidentally his third solo record, on which almost all the titles repeat themselves three times, and the number three and its multiples are repeatedly incorporated in almost mystical fashion, it being a triple album, broken into three collections of nine songs apiece, while the overall work is about going away, being lonely, and coming back home, a true Maritimer’s trio of themes.

This one’s about being lonely, and expresses emotions that all of we East Coast economic refugees will recognize, feeling lost under the unfamiliar stars of a foreign sky, dreaming of home and trying to forget where you are, and hoping that somebody back home is keeping the porch light on for you, just in case.

There’s a poignant, delicate quality to so many of Joel’s songs, reminiscent in a way of Nick Drake, though sweeter, and if anything even more melodic. Joel’s not depressed, like Drake was; it’s just that sometimes he’s terribly sad, a much different thing that afflicts a lot of us when we’re out here, so far from home. It’s no wonder that so many of us find our way back, just as I did.

Song of the Day: Spirit of the West – Dark House (June 13, 2019)

Mis-identified above as “Darkhorse”, this deeply affecting lament for a disappearing way of life, as flesh and blood is replaced by automated machinery, may come from a group billing itself as Spirit of the West, but it’s pure, Celtic-influenced East Coast all the way.

Released in 1988 on their very fine album Labour Day, Dark House is about the replacement of human lighthouse keepers with electronic devices that could perform all the necessary functions. This was back when lighthouses themselves were still necessary, before the advent of GPS made beacons that mark dangerous reefs and shoals all but irrelevant, taking the process to its logical conclusion. Some of these coastline sentinels still exist, even to this day, but surely they’re not for long, except maybe as historic monuments, and anyway there won’t be any people in them, tending to the gears, polishing the lenses, and looking out over the ocean with a care for the sailors who might find themselves in peril. It’s over with that.

You could argue that looking upon such progress with sadness is merely sentimental nonsense, pointless nostalgia for an inferior way of getting things done, but the group is giving voice to the very human sense that there’s something deeply, existentially threatening about this constant erosion of tradition, and the elimination of living, breathing people from so many roles and functions. It’s not just about paying jobs. It’s about dignity, and purpose. When robots staff the production lines, bank machines serve as tellers, cashiers are replaced by self-checkout stations, cab and truck drivers are kicked to the curb in favour of vehicles that drive themselves, retail outlets disappear as our on-line orders are filled from warehouses staffed by more robots, who might soon send the things to be delivered to our doorsteps by drones – when soon, artificial intelligence answers our questions and even lawyers and doctors may find themselves supplanted by machines – what, then, are we all for? What gives us the feeling that we make a contribution? And will the displaced be looked after if they can find nobody who needs them?

A lot of this was still in the future when Dark House was released, but it seems that Spirit of the West saw it all coming. It won’t be long, now, before the ships that the lighthouses used to warn won’t have any people on them either. Yes, times change. Must they change for the worse? Must we be castaways on a push-button planet, where progress is measured by how much we lose?

Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Song of the Day: Ben Folds Five – Brick (June 21, 2019)

Oh, this is one full of pain, regret, and loss.

It’s also a beautiful and very tightly constructed little symphony, there’s a formal precision to it that always impresses me. Ben Folds is a piano-based songwriter, a mode of composition which tends, somehow, to produce songs that feel structurally different from those composed on guitar. I’m at a loss to explain it, yet I can hear it. I suppose somebody who really understands music theory could lay it out for me.

Brick is a straightforward and very moving account of a young guy taking his young girlfriend to have an abortion, full of raw emotion, sadness, fear, and yet no sort of blame. No finger pointing, no recriminations, just the inability to really deal with it, or each other, until they both feel more alone than they ever have before. This is personally devastating. They aren’t yet at an age and stage to handle this. They blundered into it, and now here they are, sitting amidst the wreckage of their perhaps over-exuberant, perhaps reckless love, damaged forever, overwhelmed, their relationship in tatters.

I love how, though he’s feeling like the weight of helping her through this mess is drowning him, he fully understands how this is hurting her very badly, how he knows this has done her serious psychological harm. Him too, but her especially, and if she can see this through, then surely he can too. I’m also touched by the narrative in the bridge, how her parents can see something has gone dreadfully wrong in their daughter’s life – and when confronted, the two just break down and tell the truth, they’re just so tired of lying. You can see them in your mind’s eye bursting into tears as they confess all, and it’s wrenching.

There aren’t a lot of songs out there that tell such a story with such emotional authenticity. This is something that really happened to him, you just know it, and the account transcends judgment. You simply feel sad for the both of them.

Song of the Day: The Waltons – Really Beats the Hell Out Of Me (June 24, 2019)

Maybe you don’t like Country music? Yeah, me neither. White redneck nonsense. So why is it that this quintessentially country song beguiles me so?

Maybe it’s a fine song, despite its supposedly disreputable genre?

My Dad was a stalwart proponent of classical music, a devoted follower of Ludwig van, and when it came to popular music he advocated strenuously for the songs he grew up with, the Swing Era hits that in retrospect really were great, but one thing he taught me was that good music can come from anywhere, from quite unexpected places, and there’s no accounting for it, or predicting of it. You had to keep your mind open and your ears receptive. Excellence – even genius – could show up in the damndest places. When I was a kid in the late sixties and early seventies Dad expressed great affection for many acts that were supposed to be on the opposite side of the generation gap, CCR, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkle, listen, music was music. Now, if there’s any such thing as a “generation gap” any more, those are acts are on my side of the divide, and I try to discipline myself against musical bigotry, whether it comes to era, or genre. I don’t like Country. But I like lots of Country songs. Hell, even the Beatles did Country – look up the tracks on Beatles for Sale.

Beats the Hell Out of Me was one of those songs for which Dad, later in life, developed what might have seemed an unexpected affection, if you weren’t up to speed on the governing principles. Surely after one listen you can see why. It combines so many classic elements, and makes so many deft moves. Plus, it’s one of those hurtin’ songs that makes sense, that isn’t about rage and righteous resentment, or even sorrowful betrayal, but contemplates why the protagonist sticks with this relationship that isn’t working, and wonders about where the finger of blame should properly point. Who’s abusing who here? Who’s he most disappointed with – himself maybe?

Besides, the conclusion is sublime. That, folks, is how you end a song.

Song of the Day: The Rolling Stones – Moonlight Mile (June 27, 2019)

Jimi Hendrix was dead, Janis Joplin was dead, Jim Morrison was dead, Brian Jones had drowned in his swimming pool, and the Seventies were upon us. It seemed like a long, good party was grinding to an end, but maybe not yet, not quite yet. The Beatles had broken up, but there were still the Stones, and Sticky Fingers captured them in their ascendancy, approaching their zenith at a time when it was inconceivable they’d ever lose the thread and fade into mediocrity and self-parody. They were the biggest group left standing, the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band, still capable of growth, still maturing, and now, with the final cut of this album, showing a capacity to produce something that punched in the same weight class as Golden Slumbers, if not quite with the same mastery of form.

Moonlight Mile is a bluesy, dark, ambitious and altogether majestic evocation of loneliness and living rough, sleeping under the stars in the cold and the snow (which might not be the powder that first comes to mind), and dreaming of a respite that might just be a ways down the road.

Graced with tasteful orchestration, lovely piano work, Charlie doing some of his best drumming, and generally expert musicianship, particularly during the gorgeous, extended guitar coda in which Mick Taylor’s superb playing brings the piece home, Moonlight Mile is a song best heard in the lightless wee hours, all alone, headphones on, drink in hand, feeling philosophical and maybe just a little bit beaten down. It’ll soothe you, then. There’s a sort of eyes-wide-open hope to it. There must still be a way back home, right? You just gotta press on, one more mile, one foot after the other, and tough it out through the dark, the howling wind, and the snow, whatever sort of snow it happens to be.

Song of the Day: Billy Bragg – The Space Race is Over (June 30, 2019)

A lovely, nostalgic song about a moment that lives on in memory as the high point of a better time to be alive.

On July 20 it will be fifty years since Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of the fragile little spacecraft named Eagle and planted his feet in the Sea of Tranquility. It was a moment grade school nerds like me had been anticipating for practically our entire lives, having followed the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs since we were old enough to look at the pictures in Life magazine. For a lot of us it was a fascination bordering on obsession. We pored over the details of the technology, the size of the rockets, how the Gemini capsule was bigger than Mercury but smaller than the Apollo Command Module, and brushed up on details such as how fuel cells manufactured electricity in space. We knew the names and mission titles of the astronauts, and we read up on how the landing would work, with the orbiting Command Module piloted by Michael Collins dropping the Lunar Module containing Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong down to the surface. We familiarized ourselves with the landing zone – I had a National Geographic map of the Moon on my bedroom wall, with a pin stuck in Mare Tranquillitatus. There was a model of the Lunar Module on my bedroom shelf, and a lot of the kids I knew had three foot high models of the entire Saturn V Rocket, a coveted kit that was a little too expensive for me to purchase. I had the stats memorized; the Saturn V was 363 feet tall, weighed almost 3,000 tons, and produced seven and a half million pounds of thrust. To get to the Moon its third booster stage, the S-IV-B, would reach a velocity of over 20,000 MPH for “trans-lunar injection”, and it would take about three days to get there.

July 20, 1969 was a hot day in Halifax, and when the house heated up to the point of discomfort my brother and I sometimes pitched a makeshift tent in the backyard and slept outdoors, where it was cooler. In my memory, that’s where we were when one of our parents – I recall it was Dad, my older brother Mark thinks Mom – came to fetch us, so we could watch the astronauts get out and walk on the Moon on live TV. We both recall being told that in years to come we’d be glad we were there to see it. It was about 11 PM, and the image on our black and white console TV was indistinct, making it hard to tell what was going on, but we were there, our family and hundreds of millions of others, watching it go down in real time. Only the Americans, my Dad said. Only the Americans would do that on live TV. If something went wrong, well, everybody, everywhere, would see it happen, just as we would have if that huge rocket had blown up on launch. But of course the Americans were happy to gamble that nothing would go wrong. It wasn’t even a consideration, really. Only them.

I once heard somewhere that when Neil Armstrong planted his boots in the Moon dust, a wild cheer rattled the walls of Russia’s equivalent to Mission Control, where they’d been following the mission closely. The Soviet Union’s bid to beat America to the Moon had literally gone up in flames with the catastrophic failure of their N1 L3 rocket, almost as big and powerful as the Saturn V, which blew up in the early stages of repeated test flights until the program was abandoned. Up on screen, they were watching the Americans beat them in the Space Race and take the glory, but at that moment, so the story went, it didn’t matter; they cheered.

I don’t know if that story is true, but I’d like to believe it is. The Space Race was a Cold War competition between the US and USSR, no doubt, each holding up its space achievements as emblematic of national superiority. Yet the drive for the Moon was in some ways bigger than geopolitical rivalry. The race was about winning, yes, but it was also about the aspirations of all of humankind, and it was possible to believe that those clean-cut, archetypically American astronauts were going there for all of us. They seemed to think so too – upon landing, they planted an American flag, sure, but the plaque they left behind didn’t talk about the triumph of the United States, or even point out the mission’s country of origin on the map of the globe:

We came in peace for all mankind. Like Dad said, only the Americans.

The Sixties weren’t all great, especially if you weren’t white and middle class. It was a time of social upheaval, student riots, inner city riots, toxic race relations, and a seemingly widening, unbridgeable “generation gap”, when our heroes were repeatedly assassinated and the US military was pounding the crap out of a previously obscure corner of South East Asia. Yet the Sixties also gave us thrills and episodes of wonder the like of which nobody who wasn’t there has ever experienced, and we boomers have missed them ever since. Even a left wing activist like Billy Bragg, who might be expected to take a jaundiced view of all things American, pines for the feeling we all shared about Project Apollo.

What could be more evocative of the shambolic state of post-Trump America, and its lost standing in the world, than remembering Apollo, and how the whole of humanity was taken along for the most inspiring ride of the century? That July night in 1969 we were all pulling for them, and if the Americans were prepared to define themselves for posterity simply as people from Planet Earth, then for that moment we were all Americans. They’d carried all of our hopes and dreams along with them, all the way to the surface of the Moon, and when they got there we all looked back in spiritual awe at the little blue ball where, almost inconceivably, every one of us lived.

That was them, once. For all their flaws, that was them. Now look. Lots of people don’t even believe it any more. If you type “moon landing” into Google all you get back are conspiracy theories that it was all a lie, a hoax, filmed on a soundstage somewhere. I guess it always seemed almost too wonderful to be true, and must appear particularly implausible to younger skeptics looking at America as it is today, with its mean-spirited politics, inequities, violence, fumbling incompetence, and its craven, farcical liar of a President. You mean to tell us that those guys did that? Get real.

It’s enough to make you weep.

I see they’ve reissued that model kit I couldn’t afford when I was eight. I’ve half a mind to get one.

Song of the Day: The Bangles – If She Knew What She Wants (August 27, 2019)

A sad, sweet, almost philosophical portrayal of heartache, with a poignant question at its centre: what do you do when the thing that makes her most alluring is the thing that makes her impossible to please? He’s crazy for this mercurial girl, and he can’t do a thing to make her happy.

The first thing anybody noticed about the Bangles, when they rose to prominence and started getting heavy rotation on MTV, was that they were all pretty, but their lead singer was beyond good-looking. She was gorgeous. That, and the general consensus that the group was just a riff on the formula perfected by the Go-Gos, tended to obscure that the Bangles were the real deal. The beautiful singer could really sing, in a clear, supple, unwavering voice utterly free of vibrato, while the band was tight, and much more than just a backup group for the main attraction – and they could sing too. Moreover they had a fine ear for material. Whether it was the silly but insanely catchy Walk Like an Egyptian (Billboard’s number one song of 1987), or the much more substantial pop masterpiece Manic Monday, penned for them by Prince, their music was always full of lilting melody and hardly ever less than eminently listenable. They covered the tuneful yet rocking Goin’ Down to Liverpool, a superb bit of Brit-pop originally performed by Katrina and the Waves, Paul Simon’s Hazy Shade of Winter, and this, If She Knew What She Wants, maybe the best of them all.

Written by Jules Shears in 1985, it might seem an odd choice, being essentially a pained complaint about a woman voiced from a man’s perspective, except it’s such a humane and loving complaint, neither angry nor dismissive. The girl is complicated, that’s all, she’s difficult, but for all of that fascinating too, though maybe a little bit self-absorbed – the narrator explains that she has so many thoughts rolling around in her head that she sure doesn’t need any from him – and oh, how he’d love to give her what she needs, if only she had any idea what that was. The call and response makes clear his dilemma:

But she wants everything
(He can pretend to give her everything)
Or there’s nothing she wants
(She don’t want to sort it out)
He’s crazy for this girl
(But she don’t know what she’s looking for)
If she knew what she wants
He’d be giving it to her
Giving it to her

It’s a beautiful bit of pop tune-smithing, and by making it their own, the Bangles create such an atmosphere of sympathetic female energy that one can imagine the singer wishes the guy would just give up, and give her a look instead. Look at this good guy having a hard time; there’s real warmth to it.

The Bangles broke up when they were at peak popularity, but reformed in the late 1990s. They still play together, showing off the musical chops that once propelled them to the top – see the second clip above – and a fella can’t help but note that Susanna Hoffs remains almost supernaturally beautiful, having somehow managed to become even more attractive with age (and that ain’t fair). Now 60, she can still sing like nobody’s business.

Song of the Day: Jefferson Airplane – Embryonic Journey (September 9, 2019)

Since I’m wallowing in wistful nostalgia these days, here, have a listen to a really fine example of something you don’t hear much anymore, the brief instrumental, and my favourite track on Surrealistic Pillow despite the presence of the more famous pair of Sixties classics, White Rabbit and Somebody to Love. It was composed and played on record by ace guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who wrote it back in 1962 as part of a guitar-playing workshop, years before Paul Kantner enlisted him to play with the Airplane. It was the album highlight for a lot of people, especially those aspiring to master the acoustic, for whom the piece is considered a sort of acid test.

The sound is so complex and lush that it’s hard to believe it’s just a single player, neither accompanied nor double-tracked. It has the rare quality of being both timeless and very much of its time, evoking the Sixties like few others, a classic artifact of 1967 psychedelia which, despite its far-out title, wasn’t really psychedelic. The lesser songs of that era can sound dated and silly today (Electric Prunes, anybody?), but the esteem for Embryonic Journey has grown to the point that you can find any number of YouTube videos showcasing the talent needed to play it properly, including this one, by the composer himself:

I was only about six years old when Surrealistic Pillow came out, and I didn’t hear it for the first time until the early 1980s, yet somehow this one takes me back to that high summer of 1967, the Summer of Love, the summer of Sgt. Pepper, from which I remember only a few little musical snippets – Ruby Tuesday, Penny Lane, The Monkees, and a couple of singles that were kicking around the house, particularly the Boxtops doing The Letter. I do have vivid recall of the excitement around Expo 67, the world’s fair marking the Centennial of Confederation, when all of us school kids received a commemorative medallion:

It was considered cool to punch a hole in it and hang it around your neck on a piece of string. I’m sure that’s what happened to mine, before I lost it.

For my fellow Canucks, a blast from the long-vanished past:

Song of the Day: Thomas Newman – The Farm (September 20, 2019)

Not a song, really, but an excerpt from a soundtrack, though just like a song, compact, with a clear beginning and end, only two minutes and ten seconds of the most beautiful, sorrowful, yet not quite despondent music.

Thomas Newman has been my favourite of the modern crop of film composers ever since I first heard his score for the lovely 1990s remake of Little Women. He combines popular, folk, and traditional themes and instrumentation with classical elements in a way that I’ve always found haunting and intriguing, and his uncanny ear for structure, melody, and inherently melancholy keys has lent moments of wonder, joy, sadness, and deep, philosophical contemplation to many of my favourite films. He’s done a fair bit of work for Pixar, adding heft to some of the most emotional scenes ever rendered in animation, such as the moment at the start of Finding Nemo, when the papa clown fish Marlin finds just a solitary egg left after a predator has taken his mate and a whole nursery of little clown fish to be, and the beautiful scene in Wall-E, as the robots perform a sort of euphoric minuet out in space, scored to a segment titled Define Dancing. I blogged about that one, a couple of years ago:

Great Movie Scenes: Wall-E

The Farm comes from the terrific and strangely overlooked drama Road to Perdition, a moody period piece set in the 1930s starring Tom Hanks, Jude Law, and Paul Newman, which on the surface is about life as a foot soldier in Al Capone’s mob, but’s really a story about fatherhood, tragic loss, moral ambiguity, painful choices, and the terrible, inevitable momentum of events that can push everybody knowingly and yet unwillingly towards the only possible outcome. It’s the score for a montage in which a worried son waits to see whether his dad is going to survive and recover after being shot, as he’s nursed back to health by a kindly old couple who happen to live on the first rural property the child could find, after he drove his dad away from a shoot-out, desperately looking for help. The father does recover, but the music is written from that sad, frightened place that precedes the good news, when the boy isn’t sure whether he’s soon to be orphaned, and all he can do is wait.

It’s almost funereal, but not quite. There’s hope there too. The outcome isn’t certain. Things are grim, but might still turn out all right, and it’s that delicate combination of fear and hope that makes this little piece so special.

Song of the Day: Kate and Anna McGarrigle – Love Over and Over (October 10, 2019)

I’ve walked upon the moors
On many misguided tours
Where Emily, Anne and Charlotte
Poured their hearts out

I first heard this captivating song while I was up a ladder, burning thick layers of ancient paint off the shingles of a house in Dartmouth, NS, little drops of molten paint, probably full of lead and a dozen other carcinogens, searing little red pits into my forearms. We had a boom box going on the lawn. Summer of 1984.

Kate and Anna were from Montreal, and were the sort of musicians and songwriters who enjoy only moderate success with the public while earning the adoration of their peers. Their compositions were liable to be covered by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Linda Ronstadt, who made Anna’s Heart Like a Wheel the title track of her breakthrough number one album of 1974 (they allude to that success in the lyrics of today’s selection: You ask me how I feel / I said my heart was like a wheel / why don’t you listen to it some time?). Love Over and Over manages to be bouncy, melodic, wry, doubtful, straightforward, complex, very clever, joyful, and highly exasperated all at once, wondering what the hell anybody really knows about love when even the frickin’ Brontë sisters couldn’t figure it out.

That’s Mark Knopfler on guitar.

In Canada, at least, they’re perhaps most famous for something they didn’t write, Wade Hemsworth’s Log Driver’s Waltz, which they performed for an endlessly charming little cartoon produced by the National Film Board. If you’ve never seen it, you simply must:

They recorded well-received albums up until 2008, by which time they’d both been awarded with an Order of Canada, a bunch of Junos, and several other such gongs. Then Kate, beset with cancer, died in 2010, at only 63. The Guardian posted a nice obit:

Songs of the Day: Tracy Chapman – Change; Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution (October 29, 2019)

Her guitar isn’t emblazoned with the slogan “This machine kills fascists”, but it might as well be. Chapman writes with a direct, unaffected, challenging honesty that reminds the listener how a song can do so much more than merely entertain. She’s angry, and sad, and wants to know what the hell and why, and in just a couple of minutes you’ll feel the same.

Attached are two versions of Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution, one recorded live, and the studio track from her first album, each powerful in its own way. When I first heard this in the mid 1980s, blasting out of the boombox while I rolled paint on to the walls of a Rosedale mansion, it seemed out of time and place, written for a less happy era – what did I know? I thought the people I worked for deserved what they had. I thought things were getting better. Thirty years on, the song sounds almost painfully on point, doesn’t it? Who really thinks any more that anything around us in this new Gilded Age smacks of fairness? Who really supposes there’s been progress in race relations, wealth concentration, or criminal justice? Who even believes in progress? Who thinks this isn’t a plutocracy run mainly for the benefit of about two thousand rich white men? Look, there are 26 billionaires who together hold as much wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population, 26 guys on one side of the ledger, almost four billion souls on the other, and here we sit, complacent, practically brainwashed, nodding along whenever they meet any proposal to do even the smallest thing to mitigate human misery with the old refrain: “Where’s the money going to come from”?

Thirty years ago, it was just a catchy protest song. Now when I hear Tracy sing of the poor crying at the Salvation Army doorsteps, I feel anxious. It puts me in mind of Harlem, that great poem by Langston Hughes – what happens to a dream deferred? You wonder how much more of this people are going to take, and whether we’re just one more Wall Street meltdown, one more police video of a fleeing, unarmed black kid being shot to death, from the whole thing exploding. Yet what am I prepared to do? That’s what she’s asking: what is it going to take? Which unbearable truths am I going to acknowledge, and what will happen if I do? The question is pretty much rhetorical, because Tracy already knows that I’m not going to do a damned thing, and I guess it’s a little odd to admire her for saying so, being as she’s calling me out.

Yeah, but I always was a little odd that way. Something I get from my dad, I think.

Song of the Day: The Beatles – All You Need is Love (September 7, 2019)

Yes, he’s at it again. Bloody song of the day.

I have an excuse – I’ve been stimulated by third party provocateurs. You see, I just finished watching a popular music documentary series produced for CNN by Tom Hanks’s Playtone company, which went decade by decade up to the 2000s, with clips and commentary by various famous people, some of whom even knew what they were talking about. I’m a sucker for this sort of retrospective, and the nostalgia that’s always evoked.

One thing that struck me was the way that the talking heads almost invariably wound up concluding that the decade under review was for sure the best. The 80s were the best. No, the 2000s were the best. Nobody had ever heard anything like the stuff in the 90s. Name any form of popular music you like, and the very best example comes from the 70s. Disco was great. Fleetwood Mac was great. Madonna was great. Nirvana was great. Tupac was great, and Biggie Smalls too. Lady Ga Ga is great, and so’s Katy Perry, and Kanye.

Yes, well…there’s great music in every decade, sure enough, and every decade has its peaks. Yet I always find myself drawn back to a time now receding into the distant past, when the very greatest music of its era was not only uniquely plentiful but also the most popular, when every second song you heard really was revolutionary, when the melodies soared, the words were ever more poetic, and the arrangements ever more elegant and complex – when that new thing on the radio really was unlike anything you or anybody had ever heard. This wasn’t the music of my formative years; my time was the Seventies and Eighties, I was still just 15 when Kiss was big, and 22 when Culture Club was huge, and if I was in love with the music that was in the air when I was growing up and paying attention, I’d be waxing eloquent about Convoy, Disco Inferno, Bohemian Rhapsody, My Sharona, Ran So far Away and Saved By Zero. I hated the most popular music of my adolescence and early adulthood, and cast about desperately for an alternative, finding it in the songs of a decade prior, which seemed a long time ago, even then.

There are peaks, and then there are peaks, you know? For me, one in particular stands out, more than 50 years on. It was in June of 1967, and the occasion was the very first international satellite broadcast, Our World, during which nations from all over the globe were given a few minutes to beam out anything they pleased, anything at all that they thought would convey something interesting or meaningful about themselves. There were just a couple of rules: no heads of state or politicians, and it had to be live, not taped. Other than that, participating countries were told to have at it. Canada’s contribution was an interview with Marshall McLuhan, as befit this first real-world realization of the instantaneous global village. Spain broadcast a segment with Pablo Picasso.

The UK, most famously, offered up its Beatles.

Something between 400 and 700 million viewers (estimates vary widely) were thus ushered in to Abbey Road Studio Two, to see the boys laying down a backing vocal track for a new song soon to be performed live, George Martin and Geoff Emerick in the booth tweaking the knobs (most video clips omit this part of the segment, which is attached in black and white, above). This is a genuine recording session. Once the backing vocal track is laid down, the tape is rewound, the orchestra is ushered in, and the Beatles debut live their brand new song, All You Need is Love, singing and playing over parts that were previously recorded.

Contemporary luminaries such as Donovan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, Graham Nash and Marianne Faithful are in attendance, sitting cross-legged on the studio floor, as, improbably, the orchestra opens with the familiar strains of the Marseillaise. Then they’re off.

The rollicking, anthemic song for the whole world was written by Lennon, whose mandate was to produce something light on words with a simple message that would be more readily understood by the non-English speakers in the audience. He obliged with the chorus (which was helpfully set out in different languages on sandwich boards that audience members displayed at the end), but being John, he sprinkled the verses with apparent non-sequiturs that have had even the most accomplished English speakers guessing ever since, though to me the message seems quite simple, and consonant with the theme: strive all you want, and imagine yourself accomplishing great things, if that suits you, but you’ll never transcend the bounds of the possible, and really there’s nothing that matters except the love you manage to give and receive while you’re here. There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done, nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. You don’t need the hollow achievements touted by our shallow, materialistic culture. What does it prove? That stuff is an illusion. You’re missing the point. All you really need is love.

People really believed in that sort of thing in those days.

Just look at them sitting there, headphones on, enjoying the hell out of making the record. They’re just coming off the dizzying success of Sgt. Pepper, and they are at that moment, without question, the coolest people alive, with the world at their feet, and everybody listening, everyone at once all over the planet for the very first time.

There’s a small, lovely little interaction near the conclusion, when Paul shouts All to-gether now! Every-body! – he looks over at John, and their eyes meet as both smile at each other, enjoying the moment as they lay down what sounds like a perfect take (though John was typically unsatisfied, and insisted on further overdubs). Endless discord and mutual antagonism were just over the next rise, but at that moment they were still in complete sympathy and perfect harmony, Lennon-McCartney, symbiotic, almost a single being, doing what nobody had ever done before in a manner that would never quite be replicated.

As if aware of the status they’d one day enjoy in the annals of Western music, they had the song close out with interwoven strains of notable works selected from several different eras: Greensleeves, Bach’s Invention No. 8 in F major (the baroque trumpet voiced by David Mason, of Penny Lane fame), In the Mood, and then, cheekily, their own She Loves You, as John inserted the Beatles into the pantheon.

Their best song? Nah. Their finest moment? Absolutely.

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