Song of the Day: John Lennon – Watching the Wheels (November 17, 2019)
In the five years between 1975 and 1980 Lennon retreated from public life and holed up in his luxury apartment in New York’s Dakota building, determined to be a better father to his new son Sean than he had ever been to Julian. Absorbed in domestic life, he changed nappies, baked bread, and took his little boy for walks in Central Park, just across the street, where passers-by were cordial but not smothering. John loved New York, and how the people there just let you be, how they were cool with the Beatle in their midst. At night, he would sit in Sean’s darkened bedroom, watching the lights of passing cars make shadow pictures on the wall, and eventually, the urge to make music returned. This is a demo he recorded right there in his apartment, for the final album he ever released. It’s hard not to think, as you hear this, that at that moment he didn’t have long to live.
Most people think Imagine is John’s greatest post-Beatles song, but not me. I always found its rather forced utopian sentiments a little naive and silly, and not at all like the cynical John we all knew (Lennon may have thought so too; at one point he was bitching about royalties or the like when somebody on staff reminded him “Imagine no possessions, John”, to which John responded “it’s only a fucking song”. That’s our boy). I like Watching the Wheels much better, especially this stripped down acoustic version, it’s honest, and reflects perfectly the state of mind that made him content to stay silent and apart for a while. It’s nice to know that what finally drew him out was hearing one of Paul’s latest hits on the radio, and thinking it was fabulous. Accounts vary, but apparently he exclaimed something like “fuck a duck, that’s Paul, that has to be him, it’s fantastic”. Like before, he was filled with the urge to prove he could do that too, and with Watching the Wheels, he surely did.
These days there’s a little slice of Central Park opposite the Dakota dedicated to John’s memory, officially named Strawberry Fields.
Unlikely Song of the Day: Elvis – In the Ghetto (November 25, 2019)
Well, this is odd. I never liked Elvis, not one little bit. By the time I was entering adolescence he was already well into his Vegas self-parody phase, and the sight of him bloating up and bursting out of those preposterous one-piece sequinned jumpers he favoured made me seethe at the idiots who idolized him. Like Sinatra, he may have been an occasionally gifted interpreter of material, when he chose wisely, but he wasn’t a writer, and he didn’t even play an instrument, really (though he was sometimes seen hanging on to a guitar, as pictured above), and sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it. His sneering intonation, and his typically overcooked delivery, left me cold too. Elvis. Yuck. Gimme a break.
Yet I always adored In the Ghetto. Loved it when I first heard it as a kid in 1969, love it now, and I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be bashful about that. You could think of it as maudlin schtick, I suppose, and these days a white guy singing something written by another white guy that purports to say something about the reality of black peoples’ lives in America is probably disreputable, at least as an idea, but damn, I don’t know. Written by a twenty-something Mac Davis, based on the impoverished life of a black kid from the wrong side of the tracks whom he counted as a close pal when he was growing up in Lubbock, there’s something sincere about the song, and it tends toward both musical and lyrical understatement when it might be expected to launch itself over the top. The story plainly inspired Presley, then on the cusp of a major late-sixties comeback, who normally avoided message songs like the plague. His vocal on this beautifully recorded, superbly arranged version of the song is beyond reproach.
I’m temperamentally inclined to scoff at cliches and melodrama, yet it gets me every time, this story of a single mom who needs another hungry mouth to feed like a hole in the head, and can’t stop her kid from growing up angry and winding up dead, face down in the cold wet Chicago streets. Of course privileged white guys like me can’t know the first thing about any of that, yet surely it doesn’t hurt if somebody, anybody, tries to make us understand just enough to realize that there’s something horribly wrong. Maybe it’d be better if we got the message from somebody who actually lived it, I don’t know, but the message still resonates, no matter the source – doesn’t it? In the Ghetto doesn’t strike me as cultural appropriation or musical “blaxploitation”. It’s an artifact of an era when a lot of insular white folk were waking up to some ugly realities, and it was possible to have a hit record that told people like me to be ashamed of their indifference. The story was as real then as it remains today, and yeah, it was written and performed by white guys, but what’s true is true, and maybe that renders questions of authenticity beside the point.
What matters is to get people to listen. If that takes Elvis, so be it. I don’t care if it’s sung by Michael Fucking Bublé . What’s true is true, and we don’t get reminded enough.
Song of the Day: Aaron Copland – Appalachian Spring; Allison Krauss – Simple Gifts (A Night at the Symphony) (November 21, 2019)
While, like the old song says, I don’t get around much any more, I was drawn out of my lair last night by a chance to see Copland’s Appalachian Spring, my favourite piece of music, performed live by chamber ensemble at Roy Thomson Hall. The performance was fine, but the inevitable respiratory distress of audience members planted a couple of big hairy flies in the ointment; virtually every five seconds of the performance was punctuated by somebody in the audience coughing loudly, climaxing with a massive barking sound during the exquisitely delicate denouement that rang out like a rifle shot. Even at that, it was better than the last time I saw Copland’s masterpiece performed, that time by full orchestra, when a very ill fellow one row down and about five seats over spent the entire 26 minutes barking like a harbour seal through what must have been the tertiary stage of terminal tuberculosis.
No matter. You can mar this order of beauty, but it’s almost impossible to kill it.
The deeply moving climax of Appalachian Spring is a set of variations on Simple Gifts, a hymn written in the 19th century by Joseph Brackett to be a dance song for the “Shakers”, the religious sect otherwise known as The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing. They got their name from the ecstatic gyrations that tended to overtake them during religious services. They were odd ducks, the Shakers; once you joined, sex was prohibited and procreation forbidden, a philosophy that tends rather to thin out the ranks over time. There’s only one Shaker community still in existence, in Maine.
Fun fact: they had an unusual aptitude for carpentry and particularly furniture, and their designs for chairs, desks and so on were astonishingly elegant and modern in appearance. It really is wonderful stuff – check it out:
They also, apparently, knew a terrific piece of music when they heard one. To my ears, Simple Gifts is the world’s most beautiful hymn, bar none. It’s been recycled at various times, and the listener might be familiar with a reworded version called Lord of the Dance. It’s the perfect, quintessentially American melody for a work originally titled Ballet for Martha, in honour of Martha Graham, who commissioned it for a dance piece built around themes of pioneer life. Copland knew nothing of the final choreography when he wrote Appalachian Spring, and didn’t even supply the title – as composed, it drew no inspiration whatever from grand, romantic visions of the New World’s mountains and valleys, or even the Spring season, yet somehow, there’s no way to think of anything else when you hear it. This is the music of a young land settled, amid many challenges, tribulations, and almost infinite hope, by a young people seeking their freedom and independence in beautiful Appalachia. It isn’t, not really; but it is.
Attached up top is a lovely rendition of Simple Gifts by Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma, who perform the classic tune with a purity and austerity that one suspects would have seemed wholly appropriate to the Shakers themselves. You can hear Copland’s magisterial treatment here, excerpted from the larger work:
And here’s a lovely rendition of the entire piece, performed in its thirteen piece chamber orchestral arrangement:
I’ve never been much for religion, and the Shakers were kind of kooky, but merciful Jesus, Simple Gifts makes me want to start a faith of my own, one worthy of its grace and ethereal beauty. I don’t suppose I’d draw much of crowd though, not when I’d likely preach on the impossibility of knowing the mind of God, supposing there is one, and that maybe we shouldn’t carry on as if we actually understand what any of this means. That’s just not what’s selling these days, you know? Maybe if it’s put this way: that by living through all life’s turns, maybe by turning, and turning, we’ll eventually come ’round right, even if we never quite grasp what’s really going on.
Song of the Day: Bright Eyes – Hot Knives (November 26, 2019)
Ladies and gentlemen, I today give you Bright Eyes, the most potent thing to hail from Omaha, Nebraska since Strategic Air Command. A song I stumbled upon by accident, flipping the channels idly until I arrived at the very performance recorded here live on David Letterman, back when Letterman had a show, which always featured superlative musical guests. I was riveted.
Letterman broadcast from the old Ed Sullivan theatre, and when it came to musical acts he imposed the same strictures as Ed always did: it had to be live, no lip-synching, no overdubs. You’ll see in this clip how the band more than rose to the challenge of performing this compelling, highly ambitious, deliciously complex song, with its layers of strings, keyboards, guitars, flutes, several varieties of percussion, and backing vocals all mixed perfectly in what struck me as a something akin to a cross between Strawberry Fields Forever and Street Fighting Man. Speaking of hybrids, pay special attention to the woman on drums, apparently the product of a spectacularly successful genetic experiment to mix the best attributes of Charlie Watts and Keith Moon; she’s rock-steady when she needs to be, and just slams the kit with wild abandon when the song calls for it, and only when the song calls for it. Black eyes to the moron in the booth who made the directorial decision to give her short shrift – you only catch glimpses of her in the wide angle shots, when it would have been better if she’d been the focus of attention.
Special mention too for the second female percussionist who sings backup while alternating between bongos, maracas, tambourine, and xylophone, and the guy who whales away on lead guitar despite being, by all appearances, a mild-mannered certified public accountant. Plus – I always make note of this when it’s in evidence – they know how to bring a song to a tidy, satisfying conclusion.
This is art rock in the best sense, hard-driving and infused with genuine gravitas, and a song that anybody could be happy to claim as the culmination of a career. They don’t write ’em like they used to, except on those odd occasions when they do.
Song of the Day: Tom Waits – Hold On (December 6, 2019)
They hung a sign up in our town
“If you live it up, you won’t live it down”
So she left Monte Rio, son
Just like a bullet leaves a gun
It’s one thing to get the hell out of Monte Rio, but so far nobody’s figured out an economical way to bolt the whole planet. We just gotta hold on.
I respect you all too much to tell you it’ll get better. Hold on anyway.
Songs of the Day: In Praise of Linda Ronstadt (December 26, 2019)
It was nearly, not quite but nearly, possible to be overwhelmed by her looks, and notice nothing else. If you were a guy growing up in the 1970s, and hetero, you almost certainly had a thing for Linda Ronstadt. You probably had a thing for her if you weren’t hetero, or even if you were, but female. You almost had to give your head a shake. It was simply impossible to look away. You could sink so deep into her root beer eyes that you almost didn’t hear her any more, and if she’d ever been inclined to complain that she was so beautiful nobody took her seriously, you’d probably, for once, sympathize – but she never uttered any such whine, and anyway, everybody did take her seriously. She was the real deal.
Songs of the Day is an ongoing tribute to great song writers, so I guess an entry like this is a bit anomalous. I’m not aware of any significant song-writing credit attributed to Ronstadt, but here’s the thing: nobody, nobody ever, had a better ear for a great tune, and nobody, but nobody, was ever able to sing a great tune the way she could. I’d argue she had the finest voice of her generation, and she used it to popularize all manner of compositions by song writers both famous and not so famous, all of them invariably excellent. Her taste was as impeccable as her delivery. She loved really great song writers, and they loved her right back. It must have been such a privilege to listen to her interpretation of one of your songs. It must have felt like hearing your own work for the first time.
Real Emotional Girl
Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father
Ronstadt’s affinity for Randy Newman is evidence enough of her superb taste in writers. Newman, God bless him, is surely one of the best popular composers of the last hundred years, but his singing voice is a bit like Bob Dylan’s – you know, not so good. The material is usually so strong that it doesn’t really matter, but wow, look what happens when he sticks to piano and lets Ronstadt carry the vocals.
Real Emotional Girl showcases her talent for inhabiting a song so thoroughly that she makes gender irrelevant. This is supposed to be a guy talking, and here’s how obstinately perverse Randy Newman can be: he once said in an interview that this wasn’t a love song at all, and that its narrator was supposed to come across as an insensitive lout, since he shouldn’t be talking like this to strangers about the girl’s most private inner self. If you go along with that, Real Emotional Girl is just the drunken rambling of a goof at the local bar.
I flat-out refuse to see it that way. No. You can’t watch this performance and think this is anything but the testimony of someone who loves this fragile young woman so much that it’s actually painful. He’s afraid for her. It isn’t safe out there. She could break. You gotta hold on tight to her. Not a love song? Yeah, my ass. Linda obviously knows better.
Ronstadt sings it with such consummate sensitivity, it’s as if it was written about her, especially for her.
Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father reminds me a bit of James Taylor’s Millworker, which I went on about in an earlier segment (see the Songs of the Day archive). This time it’s her dad, not her grandpa, who was the sailor. He’s being laid in the dirt, and she’s standing all alone in the rain. I do sometimes wish that Randy would stop doing this to me, but no, he didn’t just decide to do it, he decided to up the ante and have Ronstadt sing it, which is just cruel. Go ahead and tell me you don’t fall all to pieces when she sings Papa, we’ll go sailing. It makes me wonder whether she’s so bereft that she means to kill herself so she can join him in the hereafter, and it just wrecks me. That’s just me, though, right? I guess I’m the only sappy one around here.
Back in the sixties, Linda used to front a band called The Stone Ponies, and Different Drum is the song she did with them that made everybody sit up and take notice. It was written by Mike Nesmith – you might recall him as the guy in a toque who filled in as the John Lennon analog for the Monkees, that phony, manufactured-for-TV imitation of the Beatles that couldn’t quite manage to be as big of a joke as it was supposed to be.
I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty she sings, which can only mean that this was another one supposed to be sung by a guy. The whole thing is purely masculine, actually, talking about escaping the clutches of a lover before it’s too late to avoid being tied down and reined-in. It’s the time-worn story, fear of commitment; this is absolutely a typical boy-man talking, but by the time she’s done with it, you’d find it incongruous – off-putting, really – to hear it voiced by a man.
OK, you see what I’m on about here – this is one meant to express the emotions of a lonely and most emphatically male truck driver. Written by Lowell George of the band Little Feat, this is about a guy on the road, out on some endless stretch of empty highway, yearning for a pretty girl way back home in Texas named Alice.
I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow
I’m drunk and dirty, don’t you know
But I’m still willin’
Out on the road late last night
I’d see my pretty Alice in every headlight
Alice, Dallas Alice
And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me weed, whites and wine
And you show me a sign
Then I’ll be willin’ to be movin’
One look at her, and you know Linda was never once what you could call “drunk and dirty”. Even if she ever was, no, actually, she wasn’t. So you tell me. How does someone so quintessentially feminine make this sweaty, brawny lament of a modern urban cowboy entirely her own?
Poor, Poor Pitiful Me
This time the writer is Warren Zevon. He’s usually thought of as a relatively unheralded thinking person’s song writer, so of course she covered him:
Tracks of My Tears
Nor should it come as any surprise that she wanted to sing Smokey Robinson’s best:
At the end, she gives a little shrug, like she’s thinking that she doesn’t actually know herself how she does it. It just comes out.
The First Cut is the Deepest
Then it’s Cat Stevens, and it’s good to be reminded that before he became everyone’s favourite book-hating jihadist, he was flirting with greatness.
Now it’s the Rolling Stones. I repeat: the Rolling Stones. Look, it’s the immutable laws of physics that’re being up-ended here, nobody can perform a credible cover of the Stones circa Exile on Main Street. It can’t be done. You may as well pour out a glass of water, expecting the contents to splatter on the ceiling. Yet she took possession of Tumblin’ Dice so thoroughly that kids like me were surprised to learn later that it was first done by Mick, Keef et al.
Under African Skies
One of Paul Simon’s signature songs off of Graceland. Ronstadt is just the back-up vocalist here, singing harmony. Now, this is Simon at his very best. This is an artist who was awarded the Gershwin Medal for Popular Song. This is his vision, his achievement, and you might suppose his alone. Except, it’s also hers:
I’ve read that the lyrics about the girl from Tucson Arizona were added by Ronstadt herself, who grew up there:
In early memory
Was ringing ’round my nursery door
I said take this child, Lord
From Tucson Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
And she won’t bother you no more
I bet she nailed it on the first take, and that there were ecstatic little shivers in the control room when she lent her soaring accompaniment to the bridge. Try to imagine it without her.
The Star Spangled Banner
This is here just to prove a point. I’m no fan of the piece, believe me. Indeed, if you ask me, the American national anthem is about the most dreadful example of its kind. Its off-kilter melody was stolen outright from an old English drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven, written in honour of a wine-loving Greek poet – no, seriously – and its lyrics, as Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, are peppered with a few too many doubtful question marks to be taken seriously. On top of its other shortcomings, it’s almost impossible to sing, and most of the luminaries who go on TV to give it the old college try manage to make an even more appalling hash out of what’s already a wretched and pre-ordained hot mess. Bad renditions of the thing at various sporting events over the years have become the stuff of legend.
It can be done right, though. I have on disc a video of James Taylor re-imagining the anthem at the start of a baseball game, it’s lovely, and once, back in 1977, I tuned into the World Series and saw Ronstadt sing it in Dodger Stadium. It was game three, I think. Dark where I was, but still sunny out in California. I can’t find a better video, this is pure VHS low fidelity, but it gives you the gist of it. She just belts it out with typical pitch-perfect assuredness. It’s mesmerizing, cheesy organ and all, proving that even the suckiest pile of dog’s breakfast can only suck so hard when you hand it to Linda. At the end, the announcers are beside themselves, one saying “she’s a hall-of-famer, isn’t she? Wow.”
Below is an image I found on line. I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s line from Manhattan, spoken to Mariel Hemingway: “Are you kidding? You’re God’s answer to Job. I do a lot of terrible things, but I can make one of these”. Yeah, OK, and you can do sunsets and beaches, and amber waves of grain, and other such shit, but Lord, let me ask you something, due respect: seeing as you can make one of these, why in pluperfect Hell would you stop at just one?
How unbearably shitty is the Universe? Well, it’s unbearably shitty enough to give Ronstadt Parkinson’s, and cripple her to the point that she can’t sing any more. It’s as if the Cosmos woke up one morning and realized it had mistakenly lavished an unthinkable tonnage of gifts upon one person, and decided it was time to savagely rebalance the books.
Now and then, despite being a total egomaniac, I read something and think that I couldn’t have said it better myself. Here’s an example:
Song of the Day: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset (January 24, 2020)
Almost lost amid the psychedelic explosion that followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper, the Kinks’ more conventional 1967 album Something Else included many of the best songs Ray Davies was ever to compose, none better than his masterpiece, Waterloo Sunset. There may be nothing else in all of popular music quite so wistfully evocative as this poignant, eligiac, and characteristically nostalgic paean to the famous neighbourhood of central London, over which Ray saw many a sunset as he looked out the window of his room in St. Thomas hospital as a very ill young boy. The beautiful melody came to him in a dream, like Yesterday‘s did for McCartney, and Ray at first thought the title should be “Liverpool sunset”, but he knew and loved London better, and the now familiar lyrics flowed readily as childhood memories of his view over Waterloo washed over him. There’s a curiously moving, philosophical, and almost olympian quality to the narrator’s depiction, as he gazes out over the city, with its bright lights and bustling people, content to stay at home all by himself. It’s chilly outside, but he’s safe, warm, and happy in his solitude, taking satisfaction in the lovely view, while the sun goes down and the Thames keeps rolling as it has through thousands of years of the old city’s history.
Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is the evening time
Waterloo sunset’s fine…
Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander, I stay at home at night
But I don’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise
Millions of people swarming like flies ’round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river where they feel safe and sound
And they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset they are in paradise
The Terry and Julie characters are often said to be Terrance Stamp and Julie Christie, at that time the “it” couple of Swinging London, but Ray was actually thinking of family, saying in one interview “I think the characters have to do with the aspirations of my elder sisters, who grew up during the Second World War and missed out on the 60s. I was thinking of the world I wanted them to have.” One can’t help but hear an underlying tinge of sadness upon learning that the eldest of his six sisters, Rene, died when Ray was just 13, the very day she’d bought him his first guitar as a birthday present, and the listener’s mood grows more somber knowing that two others who served as Ray’s muses, Joyce and Rosie, died within three weeks of each other in 2014. Yet Waterloo Sunset remains an uplifting celebration of life, and of the soothing, heart-warming beauty of everyday, ordinary things as taken in from a certain remove. Ray once described himself as living with “an abiding sense of apartness”, and that inherently melancholy point of view is certainly evident here, but Waterloo Sunset is written from the perspective of a moment at which the sadness has all been boxed away, and everything is, after all, still right with the world, or at least as right as it’s ever going to be, which might, in a naturally sad person’s reckoning, be one definition of paradise.
The story goes that upon finishing the recording session, Ray had his wife drive him down to stand for a while on Waterloo bridge; he wanted to soak it all in and be sure he’d gotten it right. Looking around, contemplating the nighttime scene, he decided that he had.
Song of the Day: Jackson Browne – For a Dancer (January 26, 2020)
There’s a mother lode of memorable thoughts and imagery packed into the suite of beautifully intertwined piano ballads of Jackson Browne’s landmark 1974 album, Late for the Sky. One remembers with almost cinematic clarity the metaphorical picture, conjured by The Late Show, of the narrator parked outside a mournful girl’s house in his early model Chevrolet, her standing in the window, him mentally urging her to bundle up her sadness, leave it at the curb, and just get in the car so they can go far away from whatever it is that’s breaking her heart. There’s the photo of a former lover he finds in a drawer in Fountain of Sorrow, so clear in the mind’s eye; she’s turning around to see who’s behind her, unaware that her picture’s being taken, and thus caught off guard betrays her true feelings with the unmasked sorrow in her eyes. There’s the open road, stretching on forever like the highways do in places like Arizona and Utah, which I always see when I listen to Farther On. There are frank, rueful sentiments, like maybe people only ask you how you’re doin’ cuz that’s easier than lettin’ on how little they could care. Every song is a finely wrought study of loss, regret, doubt, and a steadfast refusal to give up, but the finest has to be For A Dancer, which showcases Browne’s rare capacity to mix profound sadness with a clear-eyed, rational hopefulness that acknowledges all the mishaps, mistakes and misfortunes that drag down our spirits, tells itself no lies, harbours no illusions, yet refuses to accept that our lives must be futile, no matter how much it may seem that way. Written in memory of a friend who died pointlessly in a house fire, For a Dancer is poignant, philosophical, and steeped in almost unbearable emotional honesty, confronting head-on the terrible, unfathomable reality of death.
I don’t know what happens when people die
can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
it’s like a song I can hear
playing right in my ear
and I can’t sing it
but I can’t help listening
What can anything mean when you can be alive one minute and permanently gone the next, when somebody you know can simply vanish, and all the things that were unique and endearing about a friend can be rubbed out like they never existed in the first place? Why maintain the forward momentum when all paths lead us over the edge of an abyss? Once we’re gone, will it matter at all that we were here for just a little while?
The special grace of For A Dancer lies in Browne’s admission that he just doesn’t know, but he’s not going to let that stop him from squeezing as much out of his time among the living as he can. You never know what will be coming down, and if you don’t know what it’s all about, and can admit of the possibility that it might not be about anything at all, you also have to accept the flip side, and allow that after all, our seemingly inconsequential lives might form a part of something larger and mysteriously, perhaps unknowably, meaningful. It might not be the answer we’re hoping for, but maybe we can still take solace in realizing that the doubt cuts both ways.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound
Into a dancer you have grown
from a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
and somewhere between the time you arrive
and the time you go
may lie a reason you were alive
that you’ll never know
Somehow, the closing lines of For A Dancer always manage to break my heart and mend it at the same time. I know of nothing else in popular music that offers such an honest and unblinking rationale for continuing to hope against hope. Maybe our lives don’t matter. Maybe they’re too meaningless to justify the pain. Maybe, though, there’s a reason that we’ll never know.
Words to live by.
Song of the Day: ABBA – Dancing Queen (February 3, 2020)
No, I’m not kidding. And no, this isn’t Bizarroworld Songs of the Day. Listen to this with an open mind and it’s immediately obvious why this unlikely crew burst out of Scandinavia to take the world by storm.
What it comes down to is this: you never know where you’re going to find a great pop song, and there’s nothing but snobbery in giving short shrift to a tune just because of who performs it. Yes, ABBA was often very sugary, very Europop, and way too calculated. Yes, a lot of their biggest hits (think Fernando, Mama Mia, or Take a Chance on Me) put one cringingly in mind of feathered Farrah-dos, bell bottoms, and disco balls, while tending, as some wag of a reviewer whose name escapes me once wrote, to promote both mindless toe-tapping and tooth decay. It was all very slick and prefabricated, no doubt, but boy, the formula – smooth, soaring harmonies, classic pop chord shifts, lilting melodies, and layered production that owed everything to Phil Spector – gelled perfectly in Dancing Queen, producing something that was at once a danceable earworm and something a little more. Maybe a lot more – I don’t care what anybody says, this is transcendent pop, and not at all as shallow as ABBA’s reputation would lead you to expect. To my ears there’s a positively wistful quality to the chorus; I always imagine it sung from the perspective of an older woman, watching the seventeen-year-old having the time of her life, and remembering, with a hint of sad nostalgia but no trace of regret, that lost, ephemeral moment of her own youth, when the world was full of possibilities, and none of those choices that set one’s path in life had yet been made.
Go on and dance, young lady, they seem to be singing. You owe it to yourself to revel in your youthful vitality, and make as many joyful memories as you can while the making’s good.
Song of the Day: Blondie – Dreaming (February 3, 2020)
Look, I rail against the horror of Seventies music all the time, but the decade certainly had its highlights, especially along the roads less travelled by. As the decade closed, though, few would deny that an appalling ennui had overtaken the zeitgeist, with West Coast singer-songwriters vying for chart position against guys shrieking 4/4 Disco (with rhythms so simple even white people could find them) in manic falsetto, while John Travolta strutted around in white suits across illuminated dance floors. It got so bad that rock ‘n roll became ripe to breed its own counterculture – and then, all too briefly, something wonderful happened.
For a few years there, until the likes of Lionel Ritchie, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis imposed a new, bland consensus on the Eighties, there was a tremendous burst of energy and creativity. In England, as the shock of the Sex Pistols played itself out and faded away, bands like XTC and Squeeze were cranking out first order British pop that hearkened back to the best days of the Who and the Kinks – some thought even the Beatles. A Buddy Holly-looking dude named Elvis Costello was cutting high energy discs. A fantastically rebellious outfit calling themselves The Clash, supposed punks who weren’t punks at all, being politically engaged, talented, and passionate, rather than nihilistic and deliberately ham-fisted, were beginning to make a name for themselves. Back in CBGBs in New York, the Ramones were tearing the cosmos a new one, the Talking Heads were introducing pop music to an exotically rhythmic form of art rock that fairly boggled the mind, and a gorgeous blonde named Deborah Harry came out of nowhere, fronting a band called Blondie, and proceeded to blow the doors off the whole bloated pop radio edifice.
Everybody remembers Heart of Glass, and The Tide is High, but those eminently catchy tunes were mediocrities next to Dreaming, which fired on all twelve supercharged cylinders, combining the melodicism of traditional pop with the ferocious energy of punk to create a level of excitement that still stirs the blood over 40 years later. Propelled along by drumming reminiscent of Keith Moon at his peak, and accentuated by ripping guitars and soaring synthesizers, Dreaming is made whole by the sheer power of Harry’s piercing, unwavering vocal. An audience long since stunned into decadent, ambient passivity by the metronomic thump of songs like Do The Hustle and Shake Your Booty, and the empty pop stylings of Captain and Tennille and The Starlight Vocal Band, was jolted abruptly into full consciousness. All of a sudden it wasn’t Muskrat Love and Midnight at the Oasis. The DJs might just as well have announced “we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to bring you this special report”, while the dashboard radio started screaming at us: Wake up, numb-nuts!! Something is happening!!
It couldn’t last, of course. All too soon it was Duran Duran, Culture Club, Bananrama, and the Spice Girls. As the Eighties wore on, there were, again, highlights, especially on the roads less travelled by. But for just a couple of years there, the airplay was going to the most energizing stuff any of us had heard for years, and popular music seemed set on a trajectory that would take us back to the exhilarating heights we’d thought we’d never revisit.
Song of the Day: Crowded House – Recurring Dream (February 14, 2020)
Within myself, there are a million things spilling over…
A sweet little symphony of harmonious chord shifts swirling around a sinuous, rolling lead guitar line, Recurring Dream showcases Neil Finn’s expert grasp of tight, disciplined, melodic pop songwriting. For decades now, whether on his own, with his brother Tim, or fronting the bands Split Enz and Crowded House, Finn has regularly supplied discerning listeners with many of the greatest musical pleasures of the post-Beatles era, enjoying significant yet entirely insufficient commercial success along the way. In pessimistic moments it’s easy to imagine that Neil’s compositional style has gone out of fashion, with all the chart action these days going to rhythmic shouting, tuneless moaning, and formulaic dance tunes sounding like they were written by algorithms. Yet surely there’ll always be an audience for the genuine article, for songs which, however different they may seem on the surface, share DNA with a long line of compact masterpieces stretching back decades, through Lennon-McCartney, Bacharach, Wilson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Goffin-King, and the rest of the pantheon all the way through to Rodgers, Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin.
Great songs, whatever the style, share a common set of virtues; there’s a sort of master tunesmith’s toolkit of chords, keys, rhythms and melodies that all the greats employ, discernible whether you’re listening to God Only Knows or My Funny Valentine, Here There and Everywhere or Someone To Watch Over Me. It’s there in Wouldn’t it be Nice just as surely as in Night and Day. I wish I had the background and the training to properly explain it, and I suppose, given my rank ignorance of music theory, it’s possible that I’m full of old rope, yet I swear I can hear it, there’s a difference to really fine songs that’s as plain as the distinction between stilted prose and beautiful writing, even if I can no more account for it than I can tell you why, exactly, There once was a man from Nantucket / who kept all his cash in a bucket just isn’t the same thing as I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Some songs, most really, belong in the Dirty Limericks League, while a few, hardly any in the scheme of things, are more like Prufrock. Have a listen not just to Recurring Dream, but Fall At Your Feet, You Better Be Home Soon, Angel’s Heap, Don’t Dream It’s Over, She Will Have Her Way, or Twice if You’re Lucky, just to suggest a sampling, and see if you agree that Neil’s best stand among the few.
Song of the Day: John Darnielle – Surrounded (March 18, 2020)
I was just sitting here up in my third floor office, the “tree house”, keeping my extreme social distance (even Kathy is two floors away!), staying something similar to calm, as my life’s savings literally evaporate before my eyes, by playing with my very expensive audio toys – what could be more soothing than watching the reels spin on an Akai GX-77, I ask you – and being thus comforted put me in mind of this song.
I discovered Darnielle because he shared the stage in the song writers’ forum Ships and Dip, from which I once supplied a clip for One Great City, the wonderful ballad to frozen Winnipeg performed by John K Samson. Darnielle fronts a band called the Mountain Goats, an “indie” outfit that often releases its music in penny packets of a thousand units or so. Surrounded is from a “concept” album and proposed rock opera about, get this, a government-run organ harvesting conspiracy being perpetrated in secret facilities on the Moon. The clip starts with Darnielle explaining the underlying concept, and you’ll probably share the reaction of the guy sitting next to him.
Yet this a powerful song, which to me has always seemed quite Townshend-esque. Here we have a rock opera with a wild and out there story line, and a ferocious acoustic number that features almost frantic strumming of the sort heard in Flamenco music. Doesn’t this bring to mind the story of a deaf dumb and blind kid named Tommy, the subject of a similarly strummed little number called Pinball Wizard?
Anyway, how could I resist a song that portrays a character who doesn’t mind being separated from the general population, so long as he has his 96 inch widescreen to keep him company?
I’m just fine. I’ve got my friends here with me.
Song of the Day: Sophie B Hawkins – Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover (March 18, 2020)
Totally, immediately immersive. Two seconds in, and you’re underwater.
Maybe there’s a torch song somewhere out there more feverishly evocative of pure, desperately unrequited feminine lust as felt in the lonely dead of night, but if so, probably best to just leave it well enough alone. Hard to believe, now, that this thing was melting the grilles off of boom boxes way back in 1992, sharing space on the charts with the likes of relics like Baby Got Back and Whitney Houston’s crooning of I Will Always Love You, the hit that launched a thousand bellowing Divas. This isn’t a song that belongs to an era. It doesn’t share a “sound”, or any particular place or time. It just is, all hot and bothered and fit to burst. They say it’s about lesbian longing, which I don’t know, maybe it is, but one things’s for sure, somebody else is dominating the one she wants, and she’d lie, cheat, steal and probably murder if it’d get her love object to kick that other worthless bastard to the curb. You can feel her frustration boiling over into something close to hatred:
That old dog has chained you up alright
Give you everything you need to live inside a twisted cage
Sleep beside an empty rage
I had a dream I was your hero
This is white hot. This is twelve million candlepower incandescent desire. You don’t play this in the morning. You don’t play it when you’re sober. You don’t play it in polite company. You don’t play it above ground, either – darkened basements only, preferably after midnight, and then you play it loud.
Maybe get a doctor’s note first.
Song of the Day: Matthew Sweet – Get Older (March 21, 2020)
Matthew Sweet is another one of those songwriters who ought to be a hell of a lot more popular than he is. His stuff, which often sounds like a tuneful cross between the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, just soars. Get Older is the purest power pop, typical Sweet, and bounces along with such energy that you might not notice the sadness, not at first. Listen, though, to the poignant counterpoint of the repeated high-pitched piano chord being struck in the background (almost like the flutes in Penny Lane), and the words that accompany the descending melody. Written as if speaking to his younger self (that’s him in the headphones), this is the essence of everything you wish you knew when you were a kid, the advice you never got and wouldn’t have had the sense to follow if you had. Who cares if they don’t think you’re cool? Who cares if you don’t know what you want? One day, child, when you get older, you might wish you’d had the sense to be happy when you could have been, instead of worrying yourself sick about what all of those cool kids, every one of them peaking early and destined for a soul-destroying career in middle management, thought about your hair style and footwear.
You’ll get older, faster than you can imagine. For now, you’re too young to fret over their cliquish rules. This will pass. Resist.
No kid mired in adolescent angst and the agony of not fitting in could ever really adopt such an olympian perspective, of course. God knows I didn’t, and these days, so I gather, it’s even worse than it was when I went through it. It seems like they’re ahead of the game if they can tough it out without being taunted and bullied literally to death via social media. All those gawky, uncomfortable, anxious kids wondering where it is they’ll ever be able to go where they aren’t humiliated and embarrassed just to walk the halls. Kids, perhaps, just like the ten-year-old pictured on the album cover.
This one’s for them.
Song of the Day: Bonzo Dog Band – Death Cab For Cutie (March 31, 2020)
Anybody need a yuk or two?
The Bonzos, A.K.A. the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, were an oddball group of former art students who happened to be quite talented musicians, a comedy troupe of a sort who hung around with the Monty Python crew and participated with Python alumni in various side projects, including the proto-Python series Do Not Adjust Your Set. Formed initially by Vivian Stanshall, who played tuba (!) and Rodney Slater, the outfit came to include a whole host of multi-talented members, among them the great Neil Innes, who can be seen playing Sir Robin the Chicken Heart’s travelling minstrel in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (for which he wrote the immortal songs Robin the Brave and Knights of the Round Table), and was one of the members of Eric Idle’s satirical take on Beatlemania, The Rutles.
The Bonzos, steeped in the traditions of the English music hall, which they fused into a bizarre but effective combination of rock, jazz, and oom-pah music, put out a number of albums that enjoy cult status today, and gave us such charming, quirky numbers as Mr. Slater’s Parrot, My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies, Tubas in the Moonlight, and the hilarious The Intro and the Outro. Their truncated version of I Left My Heart in San Francisco belongs in the Smithsonian, or some sort of hall of fame. They weren’t huge, exactly, but they’ve always had a devoted following, and even had a top 5 hit in England with I’m the Urban Spaceman, a record produced by some guy named Paul McCartney.
Death Cab for Cutie, the title of which was pilfered for the name of late-nineties alt-rock band, is a not-so-gently mocking slice of faux Elvis, with the singer sneering and Southern-drawling his way through the tale of a shameless two-timing girl who steps out on her boyfriend, but winds up getting hers. You can practically see Stanshall’s hips wriggling as the teen tragedy à la Teen Angel, The Last Kiss and Tell Laura I Love Her plays out to its gruesome car crash conclusion. She’s such a hottie, you see, that the cab driver can’t take his eyes off her in the rearview mirror – and, well, baby don’t you know that curves can kill?
Song of the Day: Kelly Clarkson – Since U Been Gone (April 1, 2020)
Believe it or not, the professional songwriters who penned this one, Max Martin and Lukasz Gottwald, had to shop it around a bit. For some reason Pink didn’t like it, and Hillary Duff, bless her heart, couldn’t sing it – the high notes were beyond her – so lucky for us, it wound up with American Idol victor Kelly Clarkson, who manifestly and most emphatically could hit the high notes, and then some. This is a great pop tune, and likely would have been a hit no matter who sang it, but Clarkson makes it her own with what has to be one of the standout vocal performances of the modern era, spanning the melody’s two octaves, climaxing on a high G, not merely with ease, but outright ferocity. My God, it sounds like she could shatter plate glass at 200 paces if she felt like it, and her impeccable musical phrasing, her sense of of the song’s inherent drama, captures perfectly the enraged essence of this anthem of a woman who’s just as relieved as she is angry to have finally been scorned by her worthless louse of an insensitive boyfriend. Screw him. Up his with a wire brush. Free at last!
It’s said that when the demo made its way to her, Clarkson didn’t much care for it, finding the arrangement bland and a bit generic. She wanted to punch it up, big time. She wanted a faster tempo. She wanted lots of howling guitars, with a bitchin’ solo in the middle. She didn’t want a power ballad – she wanted balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n roll, goddammit. So she did the same thing with the raw material that George Martin did to Please Please Me, changing it from a good song with potential into a guaranteed chart-topper that nobody – not even the hipsters and skeptics whose instinct was to scoff at anybody who arrived by way of frigging American Idol – could possibly resist.
It’s powerful, defiant, righteous, and royally pissed off. A triumph.
Song of the Day: The Songs We’ll Never Hear (Eulogy for Adam Schlesinger) (April 2, 2020)
My brother called me last evening with dreadful news he figured I needed to hear, and better from him than from Facebook or Twitter. He must have picked up the phone reluctantly, dispirited himself, and knowing how I was going to take it, but there was nothing for it; I had to know. Adam Schlesinger was dead. Covid-19 took him down. That’s terrible in the same way that all the premature deaths that’ve been piling up lately are terrible, but this one is a particular loss to me, and feels personal, like the death of a good friend. He was somebody I’d long admired – a gifted songwriter, I’d argue one of the very best of the past three or four decades, whose work has always been, for me and a legion of discerning listeners, a reliable source of deep aesthetic satisfaction. Perhaps you’ve heard of him, though his was never a household name, as it would have been if fame was always commensurate to merit.
It can’t be right that the possession of special talent made his life any more valuable than others, or his demise any more tragic than the rest of the thousands upon thousands to which we’ve already grown far too inured, not in any absolute moral sense, but maybe I can be forgiven if that’s how it feels to me. Schlesinger was dear to my heart because he was one of those rare people whose work had the capacity to improve my quality of life. His music did the trick, time and again.
His songs, always clever, disciplined, full of wordplay, and instantly memorable, would perhaps have been better received in the 1960s, when Top 40 radio put a premium on such things. One can easily imagine him toiling away in the Brill Building, cranking out hits for the girl groups. In interviews he often cited The Kinks and Ray Davies as an important influence, but to me, perhaps predictably on account of my own preferences, he always sounded more like the young Paul McCartney. Like McCartney, he played bass, and like McCartney, he had an intuitive appreciation of the classic elements of songcraft, what writer Adam Gopnik once referred to as Paul’s “grasp of the materials of music”, empowering him to repeatedly produce little gems that often exhibited a certain formal perfection. Again like McCartney, he was a natural collaborator, but perfectly competent when working on his own, writing for the movies and TV. He had three Emmys to his credit, two for songs he wrote for telecasts of the Tony Awards, and one for a number he composed for the CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, called Antidepressants Are So Not A Big Deal – none of which I’ve heard, or even knew about before today – and he should have won an Oscar for That Thing You Do, the snappy, eminently listenable, marvellously Beatle-esque title song to the charming 1996 movie written and directed by Tom Hanks.
It’s worth dwelling for a few moments upon this special little masterwork, which exemplified so many of Schlesinger’s particular gifts. Few could have risen to the daunting challenge this period film posed for the songwriter: he was tasked to compose a tune so pleasing that the viewer would be happy to hear it again and again, as the story followed its budding pop star protagonists (the “Wonders”) from garage band obscurity to fleeting fame as the latest ephemeral top-of-the-pops hitmakers. Moreover, it had to sound like an authentic artifact of the early 1960s. Adam pulled it off with an ebullient gem that didn’t so much copy the early Fab Four as channel them, right down to the trademark closing notes lifted from I Saw Her Standing There. It really does sound as if it could have been a hit in the British Invasion era, and would have slotted in perfectly in an AM radio playlist, right between I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Fun, Fun, Fun. Throughout the film, the boys play it repeatedly, at home, in bars, in clubs. They’re still performing it at the movie’s climax, as the main attraction in a big Hollywood variety show (which looks a lot like Ed Sullivan circa February, 1964), and it’s still exhilarating, even though by now you’ve listened to it six or seven times. If you’ve never heard it, really, you have to. Here:
Isn’t it magical, the way he captured the essence of that moment in pop music history?
His best work, though, was not as a solo artist but as part of a woefully under-appreciated power pop combo named, idiosyncratically, after a New Jersey lawn and garden accessories emporium: Fountains of Wayne, whose songs have popped up a number of times in this blog’s Songs of the Day series. Composing in a team with bandmate (and lead singer) Chris Collingwood, with whom he always shared equal songwriting credit, he and his partner repeatedly caught lighting in a bottle, with Radiation Vibe, No Better Place, All Kinds of Time, Hat and Feet, Kid Gloves, I’ll Do the Driving, Hey Julie, and numerous others, including my particular favourite, Troubled Times, a wistful, sadly hopeful tale of a guy who split up with his girlfriend and now desperately wants her back, even though he knows he doesn’t deserve a second chance, not after how he treated her. If you like, you can read what I had to say about a few of these tracks here:
Fountains of Wayne were critical darlings, but never as popular as they should have been (this seems to be a theme with the artists featured in Songs of the Day). In the way of such things, they had their biggest hit with one of their least inspired songs, Stacy’s Mom, which was for them almost a throwaway, written to sound a lot like the Cars à la Just What I Needed, I suspect in order to have a big seller that would get the record label off their backs.
Much better (and thus not a big hit) was another of my favourites, Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart, a deceptively subtle and complex rocker that drives pretty hard without sacrificing any of the melodicism characteristic of their most satisfying songs:
This one was bound to have shown up as a Song of the Day at some point. I’ve always loved the chorus (which has a tricky time signature difficult to get right when you’re trying to sing it in the shower), the change of pace that occurs in the unexpectedly sombre middle eight, and the thoughtful lyrics so typical of their authors, as was often overlooked:
And the traffic goes round and round
swallowing the road and spitting out clouds
and the spirit she hides
on a damp path of moss and stone
from a fear we are born with and never outgrow
As I said in a prior post, not exactly moon/June/spoon.
Like everybody else in popular music, Schlesinger wrote a lot about romance and its entanglements, but there was always something unusually poignant about his “relationship” songs. You won’t find many about the unmitigated joy of first love, or the rush of infatuation. They were far more likely to be about going separate ways, doubts, regrets, unrequited feelings, anything but standard boy-meets-girl and happily ever after. The focus was always upon regular people, and always with sympathy and uncommon humanity, with a keen attention to the mundane little details that fill ordinary people’s lives – the boredom of watching the cruddy stores and diners that line the interstate roll by, the misery of toiling away in a dead-end office job under unkind supervision, the agony of waiting in line at the DMV to get your licence renewed, the dismal feeling of being alone and lonely at a party, or longing for that girl who doesn’t know you exist. They were often terribly sad yet wry and even genuinely funny at the same time.
They also veered off in unexpected directions. In the beautiful All Kinds of Time we get inside the head of a high school quarterback destined for greatness, everything moving in slow motion around his swift, observant mind as he assesses the evolving play, and finds the open man right where he’s supposed to be, as if illuminated in a shaft of light. With this going on he has time to daydream about the warm comforts of the home and family he’ll no doubt soon be leaving, college football scholarship in pocket; he can see them there in his imagination, clustered around the big screen TV in the rec. room, and he’s utterly calm and at peace. This is an eerily precise depiction of what athletes and fighter pilots call “situational awareness”, the cool, dispassionate ability to rise above the moment and plot the trajectories of dozens of moving objects in the mind’s eye, seeing not just where they all are, but far more important, where they’re all going to be. Wayne Gretzky has talked about it, as have Joe Montana and Chuck Yeager. I remember wondering, when I first heard it, how a guy in some alt-rock guitar outfit could possibly understand something like that so thoroughly, and how it occurred to him to turn it into a song.
So often, it was like watching Orr skate, or Koufax pitch: how does he do that?
I was heartbroken when Fountains of Wayne broke up. Their split shattered a rare and precious Lennon/McCartney sort of alchemy, though at least, like John and Paul, Schlesinger and Collingwood parted ways when they were still at the top of their game. I suppose I was wishing, in the back of mind, that one day they’d get back together.
Now there are songs we’ll never hear, lovely, melodic, well-crafted little pop masterpieces that Adam surely would have gifted us, but for this damnable virus – truly sublime popular music that should have been, but now won’t exist when I need it to shine its light into the gloom of all of those grey, rainy days to come. This is a very great pity. It’s miserable when an artist dies too soon, and Adam wasn’t finished.
A good career retrospective can be found at this link, to a Rolling Stone site at which the writers favour a whole heap of songs not mentioned above:
Song of the Day: John Southworth – Life is Unbelievable (May 20, 2020)
A succinct, spooky, almost unsettling little number with DNA derived partly from the songs of Leonard Cohen, and partly, perhaps, from something played after hours by a performer in some decadent underground Berlin nightclub, circa 1927. For some reason, I always see in my mind’s eye a lonely figure on stage in a darkened room, singing to nobody save the janitor as he mops up the night’s mess. The delivery is detached, dispassionate, almost bemused in a way; the singer might just as well be an entomologist serenading an anthill.
Like we’re all just bugs. Bugs are Unbelievable.
Song of the Day: Blue Rodeo – Outskirts (August 6, 2020)
The title song from their very first album, back when Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister, and I had yet to go to law school. Outskirts is a chronicle of the Kennedy Curse, as manifested in the life and torment of David Kennedy, son of Bobby. What must it be like to be the son of a famous assassinated father, living in the public eye, weighed down by expectations to pick up the torch, heartbroken and harried? Where are you going to hide when everybody knows your name? How can you suppress the memory of that picture we’ve all seen, taken in the L.A. Ambassador Hotel, his father shot and already dead, with a busboy kneeling down beside him; how do you stop projecting that over and over in your head? “On to Chicago” said Bobby to his supporters, having just won the California primary, and looking forward to being nominated as the Democratic candidate for President at the upcoming convention. The last words any of us heard from him.
Bobby Kennedy was maybe the last hope for a whole generation that wanted to believe that the political process might yet provide answers, and positive change. And everybody knows California wasn’t going to be the end.
We got Nixon instead.
Bobby’s body was taken home from California, across the continent, by rail in June 1968. All along the tracks, whenever any sort of station was passed, people stood to watch the train go by and pay their respects. Mile after mile, station after station, there they were, some saluting, some standing at attention, some with signs, people of all ages, many of them children, as parents assembled their families to attend and bear witness. That day, no matter what your politics were, you stood in silence and paid your respects.
Son David was 13 years old when his father was shot. Sixteen years later, having developed the almost inevitable substance abuse problems, he died of a heroin overdose in his room at the Brazilian Court Hotel in Palm Springs.