Friday, April 28, 2017

Favorite Song Friday: People Who Died

One of the great things about punk, past all of the anger and the pathos and the defiance and so much else, is that so many of the standard bearer punk rock songs, when you cut to the core, are just so melodic. Think Patti Smith at her best. Or the Stooges with "Search and Destroy," among others. Or basically the entire Ramones catalogue. The list goes on, from "London Calling" to "American Idiot" and everything else in between. All of these young (and not so young) punks had something loud and urgent to say, but dammit if you couldn't sing along with it while they did. Or even, in some cases, dance to it.

That's what I love about today's entry in our occasional "Favorite Song Friday" series.

Favorite Song Friday: People Who Died — The Jim Carroll Band

This is punk rock. I mean this is punk rock with a capitol damn P. Jim Carroll was many things and was really really good at all of them. He was a neo-beat poet who grew up worshiping the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He was a best-selling author whose The Basketball Diaries remains as visceral a depiction of the urban nightmare of despair and addiction as anyone has ever written. He hung with and had the respect of the the proto-punk New York crowd, the likes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed and Robert Maplethorpe. He was a young basketball star who lived through addiction and survived addiction, with the scars to prove it. And in his spare time he fronted a punk/new wave band, The Jim Carroll Band, that while they weren't quite The Clash or The Ramones or Black Flag, for a brief while in the early 80s they were pretty damn good and a pretty damn clear representation of what New York City punk rock was really all about. Carroll's poet's soul, his storyteller's mind and, yes, his punk rocker's heart resulted in at least one truly great piece of punk artistry, "People Who Died."



There's not much more to this song that a churning 4/4 beat, a breakneck bassline, a couple of very tasty guitar solos and an eight-stanza glimpse into Jim Carroll's personal definition of hell. "People Who Died" is a literal list of what the title says; people in his life who died young and painfully, either from disease, ODing, war, murder or suicide. Every inch of the eight verses (three of which are repeated at the end) gives us a rapid-fire memorial of people in life whom he lost.

Carroll doesn't really bother trying to sing, he more raps and rasps his way through the hyperpaced list of the lost. And the words are so tragic and gripping you practically want him to stop, to say "No mas." But then comes the chorus and the song shifts from the frenetic poetic dirge to a fist-pumping rally cry to the lost. "Those are people who died, died!" he shouts/sings, "Those are people who died-died! They were all my friends! And they died!"

You shouldn't be able to dance to those words. Or sing along with passion to those words. Or allow those words to liberate you and make you rise from street-level where all the dead bodies lay to a place beyond death and despair where actual life can be celebrated. There's no way that should be possible in a song that is so riddled with death from opening to close. But you can. You can because Jim Carroll didn't just write down a list of people who died. He wrote a song to remember, mourn and, yes, celebrate them.

And read the lyrics. This is gutter poetry at its very finest, something only someone who had lived it and somehow emerged from it could possibly write:

Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from a roof on East 2-9.
Kathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
26 reds and a bottle of wine.
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked 65 when he died, he was a friend of mine.

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
They were all my friends! And they died!

G-burg and Georgie let their gimmicks go rotten
So they died of hepatitis in Upper Manhattan.
Sly in Vietnam took a bullet to the head
Bobby OD'd on Drano on the night he was wed.
They were two more friends of mine, two more friends that died!

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
They were all my friends! And they died!

Mary took a dry dive from a hotel room
Bobby hung himself from his cell in the tombs.
Judy jumped in front of a subway train
Eddie got slit in his jugular vein.
Eddie, I miss you more than all the others - and I salute you brother!

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
All of my friends, they died!

Herbie pushed Tony from a Boys' Club roof
Tony thought his rage was just some goof.
But Herbie sure gave Tony some, some bitchin' proof.
And Herbie said, "Tony, can you fly?"
But  Tony couldn't fly. Tony died!

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
They were all my friends! And they died!

Brian got busted on a narco rap
He beat the rap by rattin' on some bikers.
He said, "Hey I know it's dangerous,
"But it sure beats Rikers."
But the next day he got offed, by the very same bikers!

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
They were all my friends! And they died!

Teddy sniffing glue, he was 12 years old
Fell from a roof on East 2-9.
Kathy was 11 when she pulled the plug
26 reds and a bottle of wine.
Bobby got leukemia, 14 years old
He looked 65 when he died, he was a friend of mine.

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
They were all my friends! And they died!

G-burg and Georgie let their gimmicks go rotten
So they died of hepatitis in Upper Manhattan.
Sly in Vietnam took a bullet to the head
Bobby OD'd on Drano on the night he was wed.
They were two more friends of mine, two more friends that died!

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
They were all my friends! And they died!

Mary took a dry dive from a hotel room
Bobby hung himself from his cell in the tombs.
Judy jumped in front of a subway train
Eddie got slit in his jugular vein.
Eddie, I miss you more than all the others - this song is for you my brother!

Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
Those are people who died, died!
All of my friends, they died!

Jim Carroll died in 2009 at 60, far too young but, I suppose, way longer than he may have ever expected to live given his descent in his young life into heroin and hell. But he left behind a diverse and indelible canon of work that any writer would have been proud to call their own.

"People Who Died" was part of that canon. A big part. A song for the dead and dying. Written and delivered by someone who was and remains very much alive in a world he helped to shape.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Season of the Witch


Call this a guilty pleasure song, I guess. Or maybe it's a really really good song. I mean, I think it's a really really good song. So that should count for something, right?

I've always been a little funny when it comes to Donovan. I tend to err on the side of appreciating him more than I think others of my generation do. Which is to say, people who were nowhere close to being alive when many of his biggest songs like "Catch the Wind," "Mellow Yellow," "Sunshine Superman" and the song I am writing about today were written. And barely alive when his career peaked and started to fade by the late 60s. But some obvious annoyances notwithstanding, like his tendency towards overwroughtedness in his voice and his seeming penchant to take himself way too seriously at times, he was a pretty solid songwriter who had a fine understanding of melody and was never afraid to take chances. So sue me. I like Donovan!

(Actually, don't sue me if you don't have to. My kid starts college this fall and that's really the last thing I need).

So. "Season of the Witch." Yeah, guilty pleasure or not, I love it. So there it is.



No, I don't know what's talking about or singing about. His talent for writing sweet and moving lyrics (like the lovely and aforementioned "Catch the Wind") kinda takes a vacation in this one. ("When I look out my window, so many sites to see" is the kinda line that would merit an "Incomplete - please elaborate" if turned in for a high school English class. And the rest of it just seems to be filler until we get to the title line.) That annoying voice thing comes back, sounding like someone trying to sound grown up as he orders his meal in a really fancy restaurant.


The music, however, is outstanding. It starts with these haunting, twangy guitar strands that seem to lean more on a band like the Yardbirds than on the usual Donovan hippy-dippy-trippy stuff. There's a seething nature to the way the bass lopes menacingly underneath it, like an animal waiting to strike. Even those damn lyrics and that damn singing voice don't get in the way of the music setting an eerie stage. And when Mr. Leitch then goes up a register and actually "sings" for realsies the way we know he can, the song starts to get fully realized. It's almost like he's setting a trap and waiting patiently for it to be tripped as the music builds behind him.


But then, oh man. Once he gets to the "chorus," repeating the "stitch" line three times before that spring-loaded trap releases and we are hit like a right-cross with the payoff: "Must be the SEASON OF THE WIII-III-ITCH," all bets are off. The song becomes as commanding and overpowering as any of that era. And dammit if that isn't a great rock-n-roll moment right there. It's got everything we love about music. Tension, mystery, delightful moments of interplay and one mother of a punchline. And at each chorus, when Donovan employs this time-tested trick, it works like gangbusters; every time the song reaches its highest height with the thrice-repeated title line, it's as fresh and startling as the first time we've heard it. Well done, sir. Well done.

Lastly there's the guitar. Which starts as forboding little fills but when Donovan rips out that "witch" line, there's some awesome guitar work going on alongside it, a jangle that seems to be the marriage of blues and electric folk and seems to be borrowed from the likes of the Animals and (here's that band again and, hint hint, remember I said this) the Yardbirds. It's some serious chops and technique on display here, and honestly, I didn't think Donovan had it in him; nothing he's done before or after really reminds me of this kinda playing. I mean, he seems to be a fine acoustic guitarist, but this doesn't sound like him.

Because as I have now learned, it isn't. It's this little fella here:






















Mayhap this was common knowledge to some, that Jimmy Page played on many of Donovan's tracks during this time (including "Sunshine Superman") but it was news to me. I mean, I knew he was a coveted sessions player in his pre-Yardbirds days and even during, but never ever knew this was his handiwork until very recently. And I was as delighted as I was fershimmeled. Huh!

So there we go. Great rock-n-roll, as least as far as I'm concerned. Guilty pleasure or not. And regardless of whatever the hell he's talking about.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Daybreak

Congratulations to one of my favorite ever musical artists.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

We Don't Talk Anymore

This is one of two Cliff Richard songs that I loved when I was a kid, yet only discovered was by Sir Cliff some time within the past few years, decades after I'd first learned of the British Elvis.


Great tune. But boy howdy that spinning dance at the end, followed by the lumbering side to side shuffle is...not Elvis-like.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Rebel Rebel

Well, all right. Rickie Lee Jones makes this Bowiest of songs her own. And while she goes the unplugged route, she doesn't slow it down (or, god forbid, turn it into an anemic shuffle—that's right, Slowhand, I still love you, but I also still haven't forgiven you for what you did to your own greatest creation), but manages to keep a surprising amount of the original's energy.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Johnny B. Goode

This is one of the greatest, most apropos covers I've ever seen, up there with Springsteen covering Dylan and R.E.M. covering CCR, from the trademark Green Day energy and sound to the oddly appropriate lackluster approach to the lyrics.


Long live rock.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

RIP Chuck Berry

"If you tried to give rock-n-roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry.'"—John Lennon

Chuck Berry is gone. He died today at the age of 90.

In a musical genre where old age is much more wishful thinking that anything based remotely in reality, Chuck beat the odds and fooled 'em all, like he always did. He outlived basically everyone who came up with him in the early days of rock-n-roll and so damn many who came up under his influence. 90 years in rock-n-roll is an ice age, and era, so much more than a lifetime. And still it hurts so much that he's gone. Gone too soon. RIP Charles Edward Anderson Berry. And damn.

It's hard to say that Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll, because so many people played a part in this magical and in many ways still indescribable invention that we now call rock-n-roll. Did Chuck invent it? Did Elvis Presley? Did Roy Brown and Louis Jordan and Big Joe Turner? Did Hank Williams? Did Ike Turner? Did Jerry Lee Lewis? Hell, did the amazing Big Mama Thornton?

Yes to all. And no to all. Rock-n-roll emerged from the lava, from the magma. Thanks to giants like all of those mentioned above and others. Thanks to people with the talent, the vision and, yes, the balls of Chuck Berry.

Here's what we know. If Chuck Berry didn't invent rock-n-roll—and I am not contending he did (see above paragraph)—he sure as hell refined it. He did what Miles Davis did to jazz. What Marvin Gaye did to soul. What Johnny Cash did to the American songbook and what Michael Jackson did to pop. He wasn't the first, but it's really hard to argue that anyone did it better. And in Chuck's case, that anyone did it better for longer.

Here is what I will say tonight, while mourning a man I never met (I saw him in concert once in the late 1980s, something I now am just so damn grateful for) but have listened to devoutly and worshipped since I was just a young white boy in Catholic high school 30+ years ago.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll guitar.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll songwriting.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll as therapy for the twisted, haunted soul.

And Chuck Berry invented a sound. A sound so unique, so whole, so complete and so overpowering that the only way to describe it is "the Chuck Berry Sound."

What Chuck Berry did was he took everything his brilliant ears and body ingested and made it into something more. The blues and doo-wop and boogie woogie and jazz and country and gospel and the sweetest soul sounds you ever heard. And he took them all and he added those elements that only he had, those tortured and lovely and brutal things lurking inside his brain, and he strapped on his Gibson guitar and he mixed them all together in a musical jambalaya that no one had ever tasted before, and he hooked us in one bite. From the opening, ear-splitting strains of "Maybelline" on through, he fed us rock-n-roll like no one had ever heard or imagined before. And in doing so he foretold so much of what was to come. From the Beatles and Rolling Stones who worshiped him to Jimi Hendrix who bled him, from Stevie Wonder who channeled him in unimaginable sensory ways to Chuck D. and the forerunners and geniuses of rap and hip-hop who used his streetwise tales and too-cool-for-school skat-a-tat lingo to blaze their own trails, Chuck Berry saw it all. Maybe he's not  the father of rock-n-roll (or maybe he is). But to me, anyway, he is more. He's the father of the 20th century sound. And beyond.

As an equal parts musical fanatic and sports fanatic, the best comparison I could always make to Chuck Berry was Magic Johnson. Outsized and overbearing, playing the same old game in a way we never imagined it could be played. To picture Magic is to picture Chuck—the effervescent smile and devilish gleam in their eyes, always one step ahead of everyone else, seeming to make it up as they go but always in such dynamic and rhythmic control, 1,000 different ways to wow us waiting at their fingertips. And at the end, a wink. And a promise of more to come. Magic Johnson leading the fast break and firing a no-look pass was the first cousin to Chuck Berry's duck-walking across the stage and stretching it all out in the spirit of unbridled musical ebullience.

The songs explain it all far better than I ever could. The sheer fun of "Too Much Monkey Business." The epic travelogue of "The Promised Land." The torrential sadness of "Memphis." The very  raison d'etre of rock-n-roll stardom that was "Johnny B. Goode." The statement of purpose(s) of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock-n-Roll Music." The rumbling fever of "Downbound Train." The rebellion of "School Days." The outright glory gush of "Back in the USA." The aching of "Carol" and "Nadine." The youthful joyride of "You Never Can Tell." The naughty wink of "My Ding A Ling." On the tale rocks, on the train rolls. Take those Chuck Berry creations and dozens of others and put them under glass. Paint them in oils. Preserve them in amber. Their likes we will never see again. And that we did get to see and hear them, for 60+ years, makes us so lucky. So damn lucky.

Hail, hail rock-n-roll, Mr. Berry. Thanks to you our hearts are beatin' rhythm and our souls will always, always be singin' the blues. 




Dreams

This cover is interesting in its execution, yes, but also because while it's obviously immediately recognizable, I can't help but feel if it were the only version you knew, it'd be nearly impossible to reverse-engineer it to get the original.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pigs (Three Different Ones)

So I'd known this existed for a while but hadn't watched it until just now and hokey smokes is it ever so much better than I'd anticipated. Roger Waters' voice sounds surprisingly supple, the band is expectedly red hot, and the graphics are not surprisingly top notch.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Achin' To Be

This post is not exactly going to be one that in the business world they call a "value-add." There's not a ton of new ground I'll be covering here, and I hope that is OK with you, dear reader(s).

It's fairly obvious and simplistic. Just my favorite song by one of my absolute most favorite bands that ever lived.

I listened to the song (actually to the entire Don't Tell a Soul album this morning) on my ride into work today. No real reason why, other than it had been a while. And this was the first Mats album I ever fell in love with; my love affair with everything else they did would literally come seconds later. But "Achin' To be" always struck me as a great rock-n-roll band at their very very greatest.




Did it rock as hard as the Replacements were capable of rocking? Nope.

Was it a touch more produced than a lot of their vintage stuff? Yep.

Was it representative of their total work? Which is to say if an alien landed tomorrow and gave you one song to define for him or her who the Replacements were (and wouldn't that just be an awesome reason for an alien coming to Earth? Seriously!), would this be the song you'd play? I don't think so. I really don't. Not with this out there. Or this. Or even this. Or this. 

Anyway.

Still it is just so raggedly beautiful, so jaggedly heartfelt and, yes, aching. There's not an ounce of strut or pose in the band here, particularly not from the inimitable Paul Westerberg. His voice is tired and raw, as it always was, but there is a longing underneath. Like these are words he just has to get out and has only a tiny window of time to do it. The rest of the band is perfectly in form; Tommy Stinson does his thing by adding some pop to the loping bassline, Slim Dunlop adds a few small country licks into the mid-tempo mix, and Chris Mars kept perfect time just the way Chris Mars always did. Combining that with Paul's peerless songwriting and shattered glass voice, this is what I mean when I say while this might not represent the quintessential Replacements song, it does show them doing it as well as they ever could.

And if you're like me and buy into the theory that Paul really was singing about himself here, only with flopping the gender and putting it into the third person to throw us all off the trail, then read these lyrics again. And tell me you're not achin' to be right there with him. Hearing every single syllable and, what's more important, getting it. Getting it all.

Well she's kinda like an artist
Sitting on the floor
Never finishes, she abandons
Never shows a soul
And she's kinda like a movie
Everyone rushes to see
But no one understands it
Sitting in their seats

She opens her mouth to speak and
What comes out's a mystery
Thought about, not understood
She's achin' to be

Well she dances alone in nightclubs
Every other day of the week
People look right through her
"Baby doll, check your cheek."
And she's kinda like a poet
Who finds it hard to speak
The poems come so slowly
Like the colors down a sheet

She opens her mouth to speak and
What comes out's a mystery
Thought about, not understood
She's achin' to be

I've been achin' for a while now, friend
I've been achin' hard for years

Well she's kinda like an artist
Who uses paints no more
You never show me what you're doing
You never show a soul
Well I saw one of your pictures
There was nothing that I could see
If no one's on your canvas,
Well I'm achin' to be

She closes her mouth to speak and
Closes her eyes to see
Thought about and only loved
She's achin' to be
Just like me

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Orange Crush

You know, even as a huge fan, I find it easy to forget just how hard these guys could rock.


But, man, they really did tear it up at times.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Follow You, Follow Me

I was reading a discussion the other day about who the greatest prog keyboardist of the 70s was: Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman? And what about Patrick Moraz? Where does he fit in?

I don't nearly enough about keyboards or Emerson to have any kind of an educated opinion. I know I certain prefer both Wakeman's and Moraz's playing, given that Close to the Edge is absolutely one of my favorite albums ever, and Fragile's not far behind, and for that matter, I have recently come to appreciate Relayer despite the fact that Bill Bruford doesn't play on it, but he didn't play on the two albums he made with Moraz and I like those too. Meanwhile, I've never had much desire to hear any ELP beyond what was frequently on the radio and didn't even enjoy that handful of tunes all that much.

Still, there's no question that when it comes to technique, Wakeman, Emerson and Moraz stand head and shoulders above the other most famous prog keyboardists, Tony Banks and Rick Wright, and that's assuming you even consider Pink Floyd a prog band. (You should.) Both are certainly fine players, but neither come close to the kind of technical excellence so freely displayed by Wakeman and Emerson.

And yet. For all their unquestioned chops, and for all I adore Close to the Edge and it and Fragile have enriched my life, I have never heard Rick Wakeman play anything as lovely, as melodious, as absolutely perfect for its setting as the solo Banks plays from 2:49-3:10, never mind Keith Emerson.


And we haven't even touched about the stuff he wrote with Genesis—which is to say, most of Genesis' output. (That's at least a slight exaggeration. Sometimes he only co-wrote stuff.) But, I mean, "Cinema Show"? "Apocalypse in 9/8"? "After the Ordeal"? I mean.

So. Best keyboardist? By most criteria, Banks isn't even close to being in the running. But I would surely pick just about anything he ever wrote with Genesis over not only just about anything ever written by Wakeman or Emerson, I'd pick just about anything he's ever written over just about everything written by those guys.

(Full disclosure: Rick Wakeman seems like he's been pretty much one of the coolest guys on the planet since at least Hunky Dory.)

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hushabye Mountain

I'll tell ya, I'd pay good money, or give up one of my kids—and possibly all of 'em (hi, Max!)—for an album of Dave Gilmour singing minor key Dick van Dyke songs.


Toss in him doing "Pure Imagination" and I wouldn't have to pay anything, 'cuz I'd die of happiness.