Thursday, July 12, 2018

I'll Be Your Mirror

See, I'm funny in some ways.

Not necessarily funny in a "ha-ha" way, although, well, I like to think that I am? ("Not to brag, but Reader's Digest is considering publishing two of my jokes.")

Anyway. I'm funny sometimes in what I like and what I don't like. More to the point, I'm funny how I seemingly have the ability to like and dislike things at the same time. Like David Lynch movies, mayhap? I really like what he does but really don't like watching it? Does that make sense?

Dan...please...can you just get on with it?

OK.

Here's what I'm talking about today. The song "I'll Be Your Mirror." Written by Lou Reed and produced by Andy Warhol for Velvet Underground's seminal first album with Nico in 1967. This is such a gorgeous song and one of my favorite pieces of music. It is such a lovely little tune. I mean, look at these spare, delicate and oh-so-lovingly intricate lyrics.

I'll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don't know
I'll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door that shows that you're home.

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you.

I find it hard 
To believe you don't know the beauty you are
But if you don't, let me be your eyes,
A hand in your darkness, so you won't be afraid.

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you.

I'll be your mirror.

That is just so unceasingly beautiful, isn't it? Lou sure knew how to be a poet, how to channel his inner William Blake and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, when he wanted to.

But. Then, on that amazing first record, Nico sings it. It's one of the three spectacular songs that she sings (along with "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties") and, I'm sorry and others may disagree with me, but she butchers them all. I just cannot listen to her angular, toneless voice and be entertained. Or moved. And I don't think that I'm alone here.

So. One of my favorite songs ever and I can't listen to it. Dammit.

But maybe I can! Like here:



I believe that's Doug Yule singing lead and Lou on the harmonies from the classic Max's Kansas City show that I used to actually have on a double-sided cassette tape back in college. It's not perfect, but it gets to a little more of a delicate nature of the song.

Then there's this from the alt-country corner, which is getting warmer:




Now, I think it could use a bit more range on the vocal side, and could really benefit from a harmony over the chorus, but there's more of an earnestness here than I hear on the original or even the VU 1972 version, so I appreciate that.

Moving on, now we hit the sweet spot on all levels:




There are quite a few words I could use to describe this. "Stunning" comes to mind - my God, those angelic harmonies! "Near-perfect" is another. This version is so faithful to the original yet also, somehow, so Beck's own. I love it more and more every time I hear it. And could not imagine a version I adore more.

Only then my girl Susie shows up and changes the game once more:




I mean. I MEAN.

Funny thing is (there's that word again) I didn't even know this version existed until a few days ago. Apparently it's not even technically a Susanna Hoffs song, but rather a guest vocal she did on some pre-Bangled early 80s project. And it leaves me breathless each time I hear it. Yes, I am aware that Beck's version is likely the definitive one here, but my blind spot for Susie will never ever go away.

So. To hell with the original. May the great covers of this great tune keep coming. And get better every time.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

She's Always in My Hair

There are so many things to be said about this performance: what an amazing singer Prince was, what a phenomenal guitarist, what an unsurpassed bandleader, how physically graceful he was. We could discuss what an odd choice it was to put that huge symbol right there, frequently obscuring his guitar playing. How interesting it was that he veered towards hard rock towards the end of his career.

But one thing kept leaping out at me as I watched—or, really, listened to—this performance and that was that there is absolutely no reason for a band like The Eagles or even R.E.M. to bring so many extra backing musicians on tour. Two guitars, bass, drums and keyboard—that's clearly all that's required for the richest, most massive of sounds. Those five musicians create an elegant sufficiency of the numerous harmonic and melodic delicacies; any more would be an unsophisticated superfluity.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Just Another Day in Music History

So.

51 years ago tomorrow, things changed in music.

Like, for forever. For good. For very very VERY good.

Happy Anniversary, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And I'll bet you didn't think I'd remember!

And that this masterpiece of an album isn't even the best record The Beatles ever did, well, that's pretty jarring, innit?

I for one love the outtakes from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe because I've gotten so used to the pristine studio production from an album that basically helped invent pristine studio production, it's kinda weird and kind wonderful to hear the Fabs muddling though some of the tracks while they rehearse.

Like here. With "Getting Better."

And yet.  Even here in raw and unready fashion, when the music really kicks in around the :15 mark, you really can feel magic starting to happen.


Happy 51st, Good Sergeant.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sun City

So it's been 33 years or so since the last (and without a question the best) of the Holy Trio of Mid-80s Superstar-Packed Issue Awareness Songs was written and recorded.

"Sun City." By Artists United Against Apartheid.

Thirty-three years.

Feel old, Scott?

(Scott: Bows head and weeps.)

Anyway.

First came "Do They Know It's Christmas" from some of our top British musicians of the time at the end of 1984, by a Rockestra-like outfit calling itself Band Aid and recorded to raise money for relief efforts for war and famine-torn Ethiopia. It was star-studded and catchy as hell, had multiple interior arrangements and actually was not at all a bad tune. Despite some lyrics that made you cringe. ("And there won't snow in Africa this Christmas.") Ugh.

Then three months came the maybe the biggest song of the 1980s and very possibly the most 80s song of the 1980s, "We Are the World." Done for the same very righteous and critical cause and recorded by a very very large group calling themselves USA For Africa. Three things were made crystal clear.

1) This without a doubt the greatest assemblage of musical talent in one room in the 20th century. I mean GEEZ. Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen??? And we haven't mentioned Willie Nelson or Paul Simon or Lionel Richie or Billy Joel or Diana Ross??? Not to mention vocal titans like Cyndi Lauper and Darryl Hall and Steve Perry and James Ingram? Wow. And wow.

2) The song was unspeakably, unavoidably and almost malignantly catchy, not to mention as ubiquitous as any song of that decade.

3) The lyrics were as, well, shallow and acrid as any written in that era. ("You know love is all we need." "Send 'em your heart, so they know that someone cares.") Yikes.

The good news, of course, is both songs generated a ton of public awareness and money, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian relief and making way for that summer's monumental, bi-Atlantic concert spectacular, Live Aid. It worked. It didn't solve the problem, of course, but only a true cynic can naysay the effort or results.

Then came the third installment seven months later. This one had a totally different focus; same continent, different region and different cause. "Sun City" was the brainchild of then-former E Street Bandmate and then-current Disciple of Soul Little Steven Van Zandt, and it was a searing, seething indictment of South Africa's government-sponsored system of institutionalized racism, apartheid.

Hard to think about now, but in 1985 it really seemed that South Africa really was going to have carte blanche forever to enslave, repress and brutalize its 3/4 black population. Any efforts to raise awareness of the subhuman nature of apartheid was blunted, at least in part, by the refusal of the U.S. and Great Britain to push for any kind of action against South Africa, despite United Nations sanctions against the country. The U.S. official policy was coined "Constructive Engagement" by President Reagan's people, which in effect meant that if we kept treating them with generosity and aid they'd be inspired to change their ways.

Jesus.

So anyway. Little Steven traveled to South Africa to learn more and be shown the true and hideous underside of the apartheid government. Working with a TV journalist he became inspired to write the song to scream against the fact that numerous international musical acts were (very very wrongly) playing the signature South African resort venue of Sun City (located in the black township of Bophuthatswana and off-limits to black citizens) in direct defiance of the (very very correct) UN sanctions. Steven decided to write a song in protest of both apartheid and the idea of darkening Sun City's racist doorstep, and created one of the finest multi-racial and musically diverse collections of talent in music history.

"Sun City" didn't tug at the heartstrings; it sought to tear them out. The song was fast and angry as hell. And unlike the first two, it gave centerstage to the (at the time) burgeoning art forms of rap and hip-hop, which lent the song even more urgency and defiant underpinnings. So not only did we get supercool icons like Springsteen, Dylan, Lou Reed, Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin, Bono, George Clinton, Joey Ramone and Bonnie Raitt, but we also got rising stars Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow alongside genuine rap pioneers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Oh, and we also got Miles Davis. And Darlene Love. And Ruben Blades. And Jackson Browne. And Pat Benatar. And Bobby Womack. And Jimmy Cliff. And others. Holy moly what a collection!

So this unprecedented pairing of black and white musical stylistic royalty (which I believe even preceded the epochal Run DMC/Aerosmith "Walk This Way" pairing) resulted in a sprawling, nearly seven-minute indictment of one of the earth's most despicable countries and practices. And it wasn't a plea for understand or money. Nope. It was way more visceral and way more simple.

Got to say I, I, I
ain't gonna play Sun City!
Everybody say I, I, I,
ain't gonna play Sun City!


And as you see above, it had a video that accompanied it that, damn, remains one of my favorite videos of all time. It's a frenetic, multi-dimensional splatter painting that evokes the same rage, outrage and bitterness that the song does. Everyone is in top form vocally and musically, and everyone is in top form as a dominating visual presence. Check out Bonnie Raitt's strut. Check out Run-DMC's glorious intro. Check out Bob Dylan's detached cool. Check out Darlene Love's...command of the camera. And those aren't even my favorites.

But I do have favorites. Here's a list.

The Top 10 Coolest Thing About the "Sun City" Video, In Order of Coolness, From Awesomely Cool to the Coolest Thing Imaginable

1. (:29) Miles' haunting image to accompany his haunting horn at the outset.
2. (2:15) George Clinton's incredulous and petulant wide-eyed look that accompanies the incredulous and petulant words he sings.
3. (3:09) John Oates and Ruben Blades sharing a perfect harmony with a mesmerizing camera gaze.
4. (2:14) Bruce, Eddie and David slapping fives at the end of their verse.
5. (2:18) Joey Ramone seemingly popping into the set unannounced to spit some venom at the then-U.S. President.
6a. (4:38) Nona Hendryx just bringing the damn attitude with her "don't fuck with me" stare.
6b. (5:09) Ringo Starr and son playing drums together.
7. (:58 and 4:06) Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootie just holding court every second they're onscreen, including Duke brazenly flipping up his shades not once but TWICE!!!
8.(4:40)  Bono's coiled snake presence, which event outshone his mullet.
9. (first around 4:15 and then really around 6:15) Those unspeakably joyous crowdshots around Little Steven.
10.(3:12)  Lou Reed. Every single thing about him.

The Uncoolest Moments of the "Sun City" Video

1. (5:37) Peter Wolf's dancing.
2. There are no other uncool moments in the "Sun City" video.

What a moment in time. A truly great musical experience that crossed so damn many lines.

As the man sang, "Look around the world, baby. It cannot be denied."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: Into Your Arms

I confess, the Lemonheads never really did it for me.

Even at the height of the alt-rock explosion in the early 1990s, which was right at the time they entered the mainstream with so many others, I just didn't feel that connection with them. I liked a few of their songs, sure (as may be obvious right now, given the title of this post), but the connection I felt to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Sonic Youth? Nope, just wasn't there.

Hell, I felt more attached to the Gin Blossoms and Jayhawks and Smashing Pumpkins than I did to this Boston-based trio. Not to mention some other bands I truly dug (and still do) like Toad the Wet Sprocket and Counting Crows. The Lemonheads just didn't ring my bell the way others did.

It may have been the fact that Head Lemonhead (LemonHead?) Evan Dando annoyed the hell out of me. Much the way that Chris Martin's antics have always gotten in the way of Coldplay's music for me, Dando's slacker cum pretty boy poseur lean (fair or unfair) just made me say, "Yeah. No. Not for me." Despite the fact that he sang well and created some damn melodic music.

But his look seemed more like that, a look. Nowhere near as honest as the hard, tortured realism of Kurt Cobain or the detached introspection of Chris Cornell or the guarded, seething rage of Eddie Vedder (although granted, Eddie's act grew tired within a few years, though fortunately he changed his tune and today seems to personify veteran rock-n-roll cool). Dando's pose struck me as unearned; again, right or wrong. And it turned me off.

I've softened since. I'm older! And I've come to really appreciate the loose, dreamy breeze of a lot of what the Lemonheads did. And never moreso than today's entry for Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday - The Lemonheads - Into Your Arms


I've said it before about other songs and I'll say it again. This is perfect pop. Period.

From the opening rake of that simple D/D major chord bounce, "Into Your Arms" is so damn listenable it almost seems to have been manufactured in a lab. It's pretty much I-IV-V all the way from there, save for the stopover at E minor which lends a nice little gentle edge to it. But everything works without tricks and, surprisingly, without pretensions or any overplay. It's just a plaintive, simple love song played out over plaintive, simple chords.

I know a place where I can go
And be alone
Into your arms, into your arms I can go

I know a place that's safe and warm
From the crowd
Into your arms, into your arms I can go

And if I should fall
I know that I won't be alone anymore

Dassit, baby. Two verses repeated twice each. One bridge repeated twice, Maybe 25 words total in the whole song? You don't need to rewrite Beethoven's 9th to produce essential and lovely pop rock. Hell, you don't even have to rewrite "Hey Jude." If you're gonna go simple, you stay simple. That's "Into Your Arms."

Dando's voice is a perfect instrument to meet this song's lonely and heart-on-sleeve plea. He sounds like he's leaning over his last drink at the bar, telling the girl next to him that he doesn't want much, only to be able to feel safe with her. His voice is weary and tested, but it jumps to profoundly powerful when he hits the end of the bridge ("...won't be...alone...be alone anyMORE.") He takes his time to get his thoughts out and when he does, he doesn't say much. But just like the unbending, jangly chord pattern, it's all he needs. His agency is earned in this song by never veering from the path.

And when it's done, it's done. The song almost sounds like a windup toy running down at the end as it just slowly, faithfully grinds into silence.

I don't love the Lemonheads, probably never will. But I love this song. Because the band knew all along what it was and what it wasn't. And let it exist as the sweet slice of poppy goodness it was meant to be.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Miss You

Now this is how you cover a song. It's (almost) instantly recognizable and yet with only relatively minor modifications completely transmogrified through force of will and strength of personality. The irony of another artist taking a song by perhaps the most famous white blues band exploring disco and bringing their disco hit back into the blues is delightful. Admittedly, it's not quite as surprising, given that it's the undeniable Etta James but still. One has to assume the Rolling Stones were more than a little pleased, if possibly also a little abashed.


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

RIP Bob Dorough

My oldest kid told me the other day about some tumblr thing where you're supposed to list the 10 albums which had the biggest impact on you. She laughed at the absurdity of such a notion, and then looked astonished as I ripped off my top 10 list of the albums which had the biggest impact on me. It was far from the first time I'd ever pondered that exact question, I explained.

But when it comes to songs, to artists, one who's up there for me, personally, with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Brian Eno is Bob Dorough.

He had a fine career as a jazz pianist and singer, but for people of my generation, it was as the creator of Schoolhouse Rock that he'll forever be remembered, and rightly so. He created dozens of enduring tunes with catchy lyrics designed to actually make you learn without even realizing you were and succeeding magnificently. He sang a large percentage of them, too, and his friendly, accessible voice was absolutely perfect, as the gentle but propulsive "My Hero, Zero" makes obvious.

And yet look at his versatility: the same guy who wrote that and "Three Is a Magic Number" wrote the genuine funk of "I Got Six," sung by brilliant drummer Grady Tate, and the delicately haunting "Figure Eight," sung so tenderly by the ethereal and impossibly wonderfully named Blossom Dearie. And those are just some of the multiplication songs he wrote, never mind the history and science and grammar.

Thanks, Bob.




Friday, April 6, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: "Heroes"

All three of our loyal readers may have noticed it's been a bit somnolent 'round these parts for the past year or two, at least in comparison to the first four years of the blog—the dropoff is pretty precipitous.

There are, of course, a lot of reasons for that. Life, as it will, intrudes. Novelty wears off. We run out of semi-pseudo-insightful insights to inflict upon an innocent world. The anti-Christ took office.

But upon reflection, a large part of it's because the death of David Bowie hit us pretty hard. Hard enough that a good friend who knows me well pinged me the next day and asked, simply, "so, nothing but Bowie or no Bowie at all?" The answer was pretty much no Bowie at all, for nearly a week. I just couldn't. (DT, on the other hand, went the opposite route, listening to pretty much nothing but DB.) This is the hardest I've been rocked by a musician's death since Kurt Cobain, in no small part because—to some extent, as with Cobain—it was so unexpected.

Fuckin' Bowie, man. He headfaked us yet again. After his heart attack in 2004, he virtually disappeared almost entirely for nine damn years. A very few live appearances here, a very few guest recordings there, a delightful turn as Nikola Tesla, but nothing substantive. And it seemed like that was that. And that was okay. Bowie had by that point more than given us more than anyone could ever expect from one artist.

I've been listening to an awful lot of Bowie recently—surprise surprise, I know, that I should have turned away from my temporary Thin White Duke asceticism and gone entirely in the other direction—and I realized that on his last tour, when he wanted to reward the audience by playing an old favorite (out of, say, 25 songs played on a given night, often no more than half and sometimes quite a bit less would be from his most popular period, with the majority being "newer" material completely unfamiliar to the casual fan),

And then out of nowhere he released a single and then an album and then just before his death his most acclaimed new album in decades...and then he's gone. Brilliant and unpredictable to the last. Dammit.

***

Here's a piece I wrote a few years back about the song which is often my favorite Bowie song, as well as the one I generally think is probably his best. When it comes to an artist of Bowie's stature, best is rarely easy to definitively pin down, and varies according to whatever metric the judge is going by. And when it comes to our most-beloved artists, which song or album is the favorite doesn't always track with what's the best. And yet this song, more than almost any of his others, is almost always in my personal top five for both categories, and often in the pole position.

***

So I read one of those “best of” lists recently. Silly as those lists tend to be, I do love them so, and not just because they frequently give me an excuse to get angry. But this one—a list of “best covers ever”—was worse than most, if only for the inclusion of The Wallflower’s version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

A great cover brings something new to the table. Sometimes, as with the Beatles version of “Twist and Shout,” it brings an irrepressible energy, and perhaps the greatest single vocal from one of the greatest singers in rock history, a performance so powerful you can literally hear his voice shredding by the end. Others successfully recast the composition itself, pulling it from genre to another, as with Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” a reconceptualization so effective that Bob Dylan himself adopted it.

The Wallflowers do none of this. Instead, they perform the song as though it were a full band karaoke.



It’s a fine performance, in some respects: the drummer is your typical 90s post-grunge drummer, which is to say, he bashes enthusiastically. The aural background relies much more heavily on mildly distorted guitars than Bowie’s original, with its emphasis on synthesizers. If the musical backing doesn’t add to anything to our understanding of the song, neither is it especially embarrassing.
That’s left up to singer and bandleader Jakob Dylan. He starts the song with the kind of jaded, slacker ennui that’s practically a parody of the era. Later, when the “emotional” part kicks in, he can finally be arsed to sing above a seductive whisper, but even here his voice has a kind of blank, dead-eye stare quality to it. It seems to imply he doesn’t mean any of it, but his phrasing of the final chorus, with its long, drawn-out assertion that they can indeed “be heeeeeeeeroes” would belie that interpretation. The result is a bunch of pretty sound and half-hearted attempts at fury which mean less than nothing.

Generic mid-90s and flawed as their version is, it’s made even worse by the video, a mix of lip-synching and footage from the Godzilla remake. Bowie, of course, was one of the first artists to realize and explore the possibilities of video, as well as the most nakedly savvy about the potential for commercialization of not just one’s art but one’s own self, as when he sold stock in his own back catalog. But this video make it absolutely blatant that the Wallflowers viewed the song as nothing but commerce, with not even a nod to actual art, as Dylan sings about being a hero while casually dodging Godzilla’s tail—a particularly humorously unironic bit of stupidity, as Dylan is, in fact, doing nothing heroic, not even bothering to warn his band members that they’re about to be crushed to death. It’s crass and vacant, which makes its inclusion on any “best of” list perplexing, to say the least.

Compare and contrast Bowie’s various versions. His original studio version has a cold, mechanical backing, made up largely of washes of synthesizer, and highlighted by Robert Fripp’s slippery lead guitar. His opening vocal, detached and chilly, fits in perfectly, its resigned air somewhat frightening.



As the song progresses, his emotions begin to change, to become rougher and more open. In the second verse he laughs gently, as though the idea of making plans when the future is so uncertain—and the most likely outcome unpleasant—is darkly ironic, yet all the more attractive for that. “We can be heroes,” he says to the song's fantasy queen, “forever and ever. What you say?” The only response is Fripp’s echoing guitar lines. Come the third verse, Bowie takes his doomed daydream even further, wishing his dream girl could swim like a dolphin, convinced they could be heroes if only she could.

And then he gets to the fourth verse and Bowie lets loose vocally in a way he rarely had before or would after, taking the melody up an octave and almost shouting his determination that they should be rulers, if only for a day. The fifth verse clues us in to what it is that has him so beaten down, and yet determined to fight back—he and the female to whom he's singing are standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and soldiers are firing and reality has crashed down and there’s no chance they’re going to make it: they’re never, ever going to be king and queen, they’re not going to swim like dolphins and they’re not going to be heroes. And, yet, in his refusal to meekly acquiesce, even if in his own heart, there is something heroic, something noble, in his defiantly doomed stand.

Or so it seems. Because after you think the song’s over, a last verse comes in out of nowhere. “We’re nothing,” he admits. “And no one will help us. Maybe we’re lying.” There’s a reason the punks never turned on Bowie, the way they did the Beatles and Stones and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—this is every bit as true to the spirit of punk as anything by the Clash or the Pistols.

It’s instructive to note how Bowie himself has approached the song in subsequent years. During his fabulously successful 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, he approached it, as with most of his catalog, in a sort of Elvis-Goes-to-Vegas manner. But whereas that same approach was horrifying when Dylan tried it in the late 70s, in Bowie’s case it felt more like an affectionate look at his own history, sharing it at last with the mass audience he’d so long craved and sought; because Bowie was so famous and critically acclaimed, it's easy to forget that until the Let's Dance LP, he'd only ever had one real U.S. hit single, and that had been eight years earlier: an eternity in pop terms.

The performance is kicked along by Tony Thompson, the most dominant, aggressive drummer he’d ever play with; Dennis Davies is one of the most underrated drummers in the history of rock and roll, with a resume only a handful of drummers could match, while Zach Alford and Sterling Campbell may actually have been more technically accomplished, but couldn't compete with Thompson's accomplishments and the subsequent power he held, in terms of both importance and prestige. If the performance is a long way from its origins, it’s still enjoyable—the jaunty horns may undercut, rather than provide a fruitful juxtaposition of, the lyric’s theme…but, on the other hand, you know: horns. Horns are pretty much always good. And pastel, smoothly dancing Bowie was such a change, such an enjoyable new character from the chameleon.



But compare that to his acoustic performance at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit in 1996. Proving—as though there were necessary—that acoustic doesn't have to mean laidback, Bowie is intense, whispery, almost defeated at times, all of which is appropriate to the song and never less than gripping. This is, perhaps, sorta kinda what the Wallflowers were going for, and proves that, with the proper approach and a ton of talent, it was indeed possible...just not by them.



And then there's Bowie's treatment of the song on his 2003 Reality tour. Only about a third of the songs during a typical show were from the most popular parts of his songbook, with the vast majority being pulled from his less than blockbuster albums of the 1990s and 2000s—an interestingly deliberate act of non-pandering. “Heroes,” would be one of the last songs of the show, and it’s presented almost as a gift to the fans, a thank you to them for sitting through, say, the lesser known “Never Get Old,” rather than, say, “Space Oddity.”

There's quite a bit of self-assured banter with the crowd before he cues the band. But note the way he enters concurrent with the band, rather than allowing the typical musical intro to tip off the crowd. The backing is relaxed, sparse, and laid back, almost an unplugged treatment, with few of the prominent synths and, initially, none of the classic guitar hook. He smiles, he croons, a master toying with…something. The song? The crowd? His own mortality? Although he couldn't have known at the time, this was, after all,  Bowie’s last tour.



But then the band ramps up a bit after the first chorus and by the time of the second verse, he seems to get more serious. The playfulness disappears, replaced by a more searching demeanor. This isn’t the Bowie of the 1980s revue. This is closer to the tormented Bowie of the 70s Berlin grimness.

After the second chorus, the band is fully kicked in, and by the third verse, Bowie himself seems intense, searching. And the fourth verse has Bowie utterly committed, but with a kind of fierce joy.

We get to the triumphantly repeated chorus, and he grins and claps…and then comes that final verse, and for the first time, he grabs the microphone and walks away from center stage. “We’re nothing,” he sings, off to the side and closer to the audience than before. “And no one can help us. Maybe we’re lying…you’d better not stay. We can be heroes, just for one day.”

And boom. The music ends on his drawn out last note.

The band kicks back in for another round of sing along, and Bowie joyfully holds the microphone out for the crowd to sing along—but it’s an odd place to have ended, even if the moment’s swept away.

That’s with the hindsight of repeated viewings, though. What strikes you immediately is just how happy, how beautiful, even how, yes, triumphant Bowie seems during those final moments.

Of course, one of the things that always must be kept in mind when analyzing David Bowie is how openly chameleonic he is—he’s always been open about being fascinated by the idea of personas, changing them every album or two. He’s interested in approaching rock and roll the way a writer approaches a novel—as a means to tell a story and explore various ideas, and not just to sing one’s diary. With his theatre background, it’s impossible to know when, if ever, he “means” something, the way we always assumed, when we were teenagers, our musical heroes meant the things they sang. So with Bowie, when you find an especially impassioned performance, it’s simply not possible to ascertain whether he was really that passionate during that particular performance or whether he was just doing an especially convincing job of being passionate.

David Bowie’s a genius when it comes to synthesizing disparate elements in a larger and more effective whole, and with this song he reached the kind of rarified air only the very greatest can ever hope to even glimpse. That lightweights like the Wallflowers even considered attempting this song illustrates as well as anything could just how hopelessly overmatched they were before they even started.

As a wise man once said, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Monday, April 2, 2018

That's All Right, Mama / Blue Moon of Kentucky / Glad All Over

It's always so pleasant—if (or perhaps because it's?) rare—to see footage of George Harrison openly happy. But it's not surprising that so much of that rare footage tends to happen when he's playing with one of his idols.

Such as this great clip of George—along with Ringo, Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, a pair of Stray Cats, a David Bowie lead guitarist and Roseanne Cash—harmonizing with Carl Perkins on "It's All Right,  Mama" before playing a remarkable version of the original Scotty Moore guitar solo. Later, Clapton plays one of his more country solos ever, which is great, of course.

But the star is George. I mean, sure, the star is Perkins. But George's harmony vocals are fantastic throughout, and he takes over for "Glad All Over," easing the older master into the song, seldom taking his eyes off his hero, and seldom not grinning.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

#9 Dream

Some people are simply born with more or higher quality raw materials. Some of those people do little or nothing with those materials. And some of them work with and on them until they get to the point where they can literally write an utterly perfect pop song in their sleep.


Because there's never enough examples of artists who don't understand their own work as fully as others do, here's John Lennon talking about this song:
That's what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I'm not putting it down, it's just what it is, but I just sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I'd had.
"Churned that out." Completely in keeping with John Lennon being the only person in history who didn't like the sound of John Lennon's own voice.

Friday, March 9, 2018

She's Gone

It must kinda suck to be John Oates. I mean, there are worse fates than to get to be an extremely successful, working musician your entire life, with absolutely no financial worries once you're in your late 20s. But no matter how much money in your bank account, it must suck to be a musical punchline. I assume Ringo is too removed to know how often he's (stupidly) mocked, or maybe he's just so easygoing and balanced it doesn't bother him. But we know it took a toll on perhaps the most commercially successful white male singer of the 80s, as Phil Collins spiraled down into depression and alcoholism, in large part because of how reviled he'd become, for pretty much no fault of his own. And then there was that devastatingly funny "I'm Oates" Behind the Music MTV parody Saturday Night Live did. It really captured what most people—understandably—thought of Oates's contribution to Hall & Oates, the most commercially successful white male duo ever.

And then you see a video like this. And you realize Oates isn't anything like Wham!'s Andrew Ridgeley. He's more akin, perhaps, to The Who's John Entwhistle—extremely talented, a good writer, a good singer, a great player, who happens to be in a band with a phenomenal talent.


I mean, how many times had you heard this song before you realized how many of the vocals were Oates? And once you see him sing them, you have no choice but to accept that he is a no kidding truly good soul singer. He was simply both lucky enough and perhaps unlucky enough to be the musical partner of one of the greatest white male soul singers ever.

Even the video itself gives an indication of what happened: note how much more evenly the vocal duties are split during the first half of the song, and then how Daryl Hall takes over more and more as the song progresses, if not quite to the extent he would in the 80s, where Oates would seem to largely be just one of the half-dozen backing singers onstage.

I'm sure cashing the enormous checks made it easier to bear, but as a fan of great pop, I wonder how much better some of their later, wonderful hits might have been if this kind of call-and-response, give-and-take had continued.

(It's also interesting to note how ragged they are at the beginning; it's hard to imagine them ever having to find their way into a locked groove in the 80s, but here it takes a while, and it seems to be Hall whose timing isn't quite solid.)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monkberry Moon Delight

I knew the name of this tune for literally decades before I ever heard it, due almost entirely to the largely negative reviews of the entire Ram album I'd read over the years. So as a Paul fan with a limited income, I gave it a pass in favor of other stuff. But then Al Gore invented the internet and I was able to hear a few tracks and decided it was more than worth a serious listen and what do I discover but perhaps his second best studio album ever?

Now, I'm not going to go quite so far into revisionism as to claim it's better than the fantastic Band on the Run, but damn if Ram isn't a great LP; only Macca could release a collection this strong and have it not just overlooked but actually panned, rather than universally lauded as a peer of Pet Sounds when it comes to pop gems, as it should have been.

"Monkberry Moon Delight" isn't my favorite track on the album, but it may have been the biggest surprise, given that the title always made me assume it'd sound more along the lines of, say, the impossibly bittersweet "Junk," or the lovely, tender "The Back Seat of My Car." Instead, it's Paul in Little Richard mode and my god can McCartney rock when he wants to.

The lyrics may be the kind of nonsense Paul slapped down when he couldn't be arsed to work up something legit—or, perhaps, was stoned enough that he thought they did make sense at the time—and which only serve to illustrate how difficult it really is to pull off the sort of Carrollian wordplay John Lennon and Kurt Cobain were so good at. But when you've got the voice of a rock god it doesn't really matter what you're singing, as long as you're singing like that.


Monday, March 5, 2018

Purple Rain

You know, whenever my fellow whiteboys refer to Bruce Springsteen as perhaps the greatest bandleader in the history of rock and roll, I have to smile sadly and die a bit inside, thinking about how much better at every single aspect of being a performer Prince was. I may (I, in fact, do) prefer Springsteen as an artist, and brilliant as The Purple One was as a songwriter, I think Bruce is better. But when it came to the live show, the Artist Formerly and Again Known as Prince was very simply the best.

But today I was thinking of how justly lauded his guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was, and how fitting the great Nils Lofgren's solo was in tribute, as Nils—like Prince at the Hall—quotes extensively from the original while adding his own touches and infuses the entire thing with his own inimitable style. It's searing, it's soaring, it's lovely. As befits Prince.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

I Saw Her Standing There

I actually find the Who—despite being one of the five greatest bands in rock history—a bit hit or miss when it comes to their covers. When they're on, they're phenomenal but, for some reason, many of their covers are just kinda okay. And when you're dealing with a band of their stature and ability, just okay is not something that really passes muster.

But this...this is pretty damn glorious. And its tossed-off character makes it clear that had they practiced it even a tiny bit and then given a damn about the final performance—meaning, if any three of them, much less all four of them were sober—it could literally have been the greatest cover of any Beatles song ever. And that is a high damn bar to clear.