Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My 25 Favorite Songs Part III

Interestingly, Part III (songs 15 down through 11) covers a 30 year swath of time, from 1969 to 1999. I had no idea my tastes were so expansive! (And yes. By "tastes" I mean "waistline.")

Up next, we enter my Top 10. But for now, here's the five songs that make up the middle portion of my personal Top 25.

15) “Desperados Under The Eaves”—Warren Zevon, 1976. Another songwriting giant, and I covered this song pretty extensively a few weeks ago. But Zevon had the uncannily ability to make Los Angeles seem deadly, gorgeous, terrifying, doomed, hilarious, and seductive at the same time. The three times I saw him live there were a few hundred people, tops, in the audience. Which was good. Because it’s nice being able to think you are in on a great, wonderful secret most don’t know anything about. “If California slides into the ocean like the mystics and statistics say it will, I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill.”

14) “Land of Hope and Dreams”—Bruce Springsteen, 1999. An invitation of a journey to a promising future, open to everyone—everyone—who wishes to come. The “need not apply” provision doesn’t exist – this train belong to all of us. Sprawling, soulful, timeless. Right on. “Hear the steel wheels singing…bells of freedom ringing.”

13) “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”—Bob Dylan, 1975. This should be a terribly sad song. But a master lyricist, storyteller and, most important, songwriter as skilled as Bob Dylan knew how to tell the real story and while relaying the pain and loss of a breakup, also remembering the good times and the humanity. That’s what I love so much about it - it’s a goodbye, but it’s a beautiful and affectionate one. “I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love.”

12) “There Is A Reason”—Alison Krause and Union Station, 1996. Alison’s singing is some kind of gift from some far away place – there simply is no voice to match her mix of sweetness and clarity. This is a faith-based song that explains in very simple terms what we’re all really hoping for. As someone who came to the party a bit later in life than most, I can dig it. I really can. “Heaven is the place I call my home, but I keep on getting caught up in this world I’m living in.”

11) “Here Comes the Sun”—Beatles, 1969. Not even Sandy Farina’s saccharine version in the God awful Sgt. Pepper movie (yes, that actually happened, it wasn’t just a bad dream) could make this song sound TOO bad. I have this picture in my mind of George Harrison, taken (just like John) far too soon, arriving at the pearly gates, and having every occupant of Heaven waiting for him, singing this song to him. Well done, sir. “Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Go All the Way

Very possibly my number one nominee for Least Plausible Story Ever in rock and roll. Or maybe I just went to the wrong school. Or maybe I just knew the wrong girls. Or maybe I just didn't know what the girls really wanted. Or maybe I just wasn't what the girls really wanted. At all.

Any way you slice it, Plan 9 from Outer Space is closer to my own personal high school experience than this song. And any way you slice it, it is one insanely great pop song.

[Another thing Plan 9 from Outer Space and my high school experience have in common is that the normal reaction to either is laughter.]

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Lovely Little Elvis Moment

My favorite version of one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs, odd title and all. ("Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4?" Did Bob Dylan come up with the song's name?) Either way, Declan really shows his chops here, going off mic to belt out this lovely, sad little waltz.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

She Smiled Sweetly

I don’t think there is a single band that perplexes the two of us more than The Rolling Stones.

Yes, they are (obviously) an absolutely all-time rock-n-roll band, first ballot Hall of Famers who changed the face of rock-n-roll. We know that and we embrace it. And when they were at their bestlike on 40 or 50 absolutely awesome tracksthere were very few bands who ever topped them.

But therein lies the problem. Because they have so seldom been at their best the last 40 years. For starters they are awful live, and I do mean awful. I have never heard one Stones track live that I thought outdid the studio version. Not one. Some sloppiness is a virtue in rock-n-roll. But when that sloppiness turns into apathetic, garbled, half-assed readings of songs people pay good money to hear? No. Not a good thing. It’s worse than badit’s a cynical slap in the face to the fans and listeners. Do you want to hear Mick atonally shout-sing “Jumping Jack Flash,” or hear Keith get maybe half the licks right on “Honky Tonk Woman?” Me neither. There’s a reason the songs are legendarythey are great freaking songs. And to phone them in onstage, well, it sucks.

Also, let’s face it, they’ve released a lot of drek over the last 40 yearsSome Girls and Tattoo You are solid albums, but not Emotional Rescue. Not Dirty Work. Not Bridges to Babylon. Not Black and Blue. And not (ugh!) It’s Only Rock-n-Roll. For the most part those albums are at best mediocre and at worst downright bad.

It may be unfair, but for a band that produced such amazing music from 1964-1972, including that epic four album run of Beggar’s Banquet to Let It Bleed to Sticky Fingers to Exile on Main Streeta run that no band or artist has ever outdonewe have to expect more. And the truth is the Stones have given us exactly oneoneB+ or better album in the last 40 years (Some Girls). They should have been better than that.

Yet still, all that said, again, when they were great, they were unspeakably great.

Here’s a track that shows why. It likely doesn’t register in people’s minds as one of their Top 25 songs. And maybe doesn’t make their Top 50 in terms of popularity. But it’s so lovely and sweet, with Mick and Keef delivering harmonies as well as they ever did. For a band known as the nasty-ass rockers in that era, it really speaks to their talents that they could put something so delicate together.

They’d done it before, of course, and would do it again (“As Tears Go By,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Wild Horses”) but this track from 1967’s Between the Buttons shows a band as much in transition as the Beatles were the previous year. The Stones were moving a bit away from the early R&B sound (though never abandoning it) and into the world of country, psychedelia, soul and even folk rock. This song gives you a little bit of all of that, yet still backed subtly by that delectable sense of danger they always brought with them.

It isn’t quite as ballad-y as, say, “Ruby Tuesday,” but it conveys a weariness of a band steadily on the move towards something else. Listen to Mick breathily sing the chorus and you can faintly hear the roots of post-punk and even grunge slowly starting to work their way through the soil. It’s always annoying to hear that the Stones were the rockers and the Beatles were the gentler ones. While there are dozens of examples of how hard the Fabs could rock, so too are there prime examples of the softer side of The Rolling Stones.

This is one of them. And it really does showcase the band’s true greatness. How many bands would have killed to have this as their biggest song, their signature hit? For the Stones, it was just one more diamond. Pity we haven’t seen more in the last 40 years.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Psycho Killer

David Byrne turned 60 the other day. The local radio stations played a pretty fair amount of Talking Heads in celebration. At least, I assume they did, because I only listen to the radio when I'm in the car, which is usually not more than a few minutes per day, and I heard a pretty fair amount of Talking Heads.

Which is a pretty swell thing to hear. My brother once remarked that on balance Talking Heads may be the most popular band ever, in that they may not have had a whole lot of people for whom the Heads were their absolute number one all-time band, but unlike U2 or Led Zeppelin or even the Beatles, there was virtually no one who actively disliked them and pretty much everyone really liked at least a few of their songs.

I've always liked Talking Heads and sometimes really, really liked 'em. Never quite verged into "love" territory, I don't think, but always had just oodles and boodles of respect and admiration and even a kind of fondness for them; I mean, how can you not find their combination of downtown NYC cool mixed with total geekiness endearing?

And, like most people I knew, I was pretty crazy about Stop Making Sense when it came out, both the film and the soundtrack. And none of it was more slap-you-upside-the-head awesome than the solo performance of "Psycho Killer" that opens the set. It's an amazing rendition and a fantastic opening.

We should have known then the band's days were numbered.

I've been watching a Talking Heads concert from Rome, their 1980 Remain in Light tour. It's an amazing document and a great show, filled with wonderful performances of great songs. But it's not a Talking Heads show, not really. Adrian Belew is just a monster guitarist. But a putative Talking Heads concert where he gets at least two or three times as much attention on every single song as any Talking Head not named David is not a Talking Heads concert. And the same goes for killer keyboardist Bernie Worrell or extra percussionist Steve Scales or vocalist Dolette MacDonald or, for pete's sake, their second bassist. Their second bassist. Yes, Busta Jones is a phenomenal bassist, clearly far better than Tina Weymouth. But that's not the point, now, is it?

Despite my love of Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen and Bowie, I've never—or at least very rarely—subscribed to the "great man" theory of rock and roll, where a genius is so singular that he or she is able to create masterpieces in isolation; in fact, it's because of my love for those gentlemen that I haven't subscribed, as all of them did almost all their best work when collaborating, at least to some extent. Whether it was Elvis with his original trio or later in Memphis, produced by Chips Moman, or Dylan being spurred on by Mike Bloomfield or the Band or relative unknowns from Minneapolis, or Springsteen being kicked in the ass by Jon Landau on his third album or being convinced by Steven van Zandt to release his demos for Nebraska as is, all of them benefited massively from collaboration.

The various Talking Heads, including Byrne himself, seem to acknowledge he was coming to be seen very much as the dominant personality in the band, and understandably—he was the singer and the lyricist and wrote somewhere between much and most of the music, depending upon whom you listen to, and that's just how those things go. But I guess I'd stack what the others have achieved outside the band with what Byrne has: Tom Tom Club had more commercial success and creative influence on later artists with their first few releases than Byrne's had in the past 25 years and, not that money counts for anything, I'm willing to bet Jerry Harrison made significantly more money in the 90s just as a producer than Byrne did as a solo artist.

Which isn't to say Byrne wasn't right to follow his muse, or that he should have stayed in a band that was no longer, in his own words, fun any more. I guess it's just that it's a shame it didn't last longer and, more important, that a reappraisal of just what talent is and does is long overdue, especially when it comes to this band. And that when it comes to the creation of great rock and roll, that guy playing the keyboards or rhythm guitar in the band very likely isn't just some guy playing keyboards or rhythm guitar behind some singular genius.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Wagon

There’s a great rock-n-roll debate built around the question, “What was the greatest year ever for rock-n-roll?” As in which year produced the best music?

And hell, we can start as far back as, say, 1956, when two gentlemen named Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra very much ruled the roost, and others like Fats Domino and Little Richard and Chuck Berry were just getting started.

That was definitely the best year for rock until…the next one. When 1957 gave us “Jailhouse Rock” and “That’ll Be the Day” and “Rock-n-Roll Music” and “Great Balls of Fire.” With the Everly Brothers and Sam Cooke starting things off for themselves as well. Wow.

1966 was an epic year, and I say that without a trace of hyperbole. With full-run albums now the primary vehicle to get the music out, as opposed to singles, this year gave us Pet Sounds, Revolver and Blonde on Blonde—epic indeed. 1968? Not too shabby with The Beatles and Beggar's Banquet and Electric Ladyland and Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Astral Weeks and Lady Soul.

Three years later 1971 gave us What’s Going On, Blue, Sticky Fingers and Who’s Next, while 1972 gave us Exile on Main Street, Talking Book, Led Zeppelin IV and Harvest.

Three more years later, 1975 gave us Born To Run, Horses, Physical Graffiti, Wish You Were Here and Blood on the Tracks. The list goes on—as the man said, as long as you've got a dime, the music will never stop.

But here’s a year closer to the present…well, a little bit, anyway. 1991.

Achtung Baby

Five albums that represented the very, very best of each of those artists, at least four of which are first-ballot Rock-n-Roll Hall of Famers, and the fifth (Matthew Sweet) one of rock's most respected and enduring figures.

On the "second tier" were albums like Out of Time, The Soul Cages, Gish, Luck of the Draw, Woodface, Apocalpyse 91, Badmtorfinger and Dangerous, which should take a backseat to very few.

What's more, Stevie Wonder did his best work in a decade with the Jungle Fever soundtrack. Toad the Wet Sprocket and Cypress Hill and 2Pac debuted. Prince and the Pixies and Elvis Costello and N.W.A. had estimable releases. Guns 'n Roses had two albums that apparently a lot of people liked. Even without anything from our boy Bruce Springsteen, that makes for one hell of a watershed year.

And tucked among all that came one of the finest releases from one of the finest bands of the era. Green Mind by Dinosaur Jr.

J. Mascis and company (OK, mostly J. at this point) never sounded better than  on an album that was loud, fast, tight and just bled nihilistic pathos. As much as any album ever released, Green Mind was a perfect hybrid of the post-punk movement that came before it (The Replacements, Husker Du, The Pixies) and the so-called “grunge” era that made its big splash in 1991 and controlled the early 1990s.

Leading off Green Mind is, in my estimation, the band’s greatest song, “The Wagon.” Just shy of 5 minutes of revved up, rocket-fueled energy, it is all at once chaotic and melodic, reaching full speed literally half a second in and with J.’s vocals surprisingly coherent and a tunefulness to the song that truly surprises you. Not only does the breakneck tempo never let up, but it even speeds up as it careens towards the halfway point. Just before J. unleashes (starting at 2:19 in the below clip) one of the truly great and astonishing guitar solos in rock-n-roll history.

1991 gave us tons to be thankful for, musically. Green Mind and “The Wagon” are right there at the front of the line.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

RIP Donna Summer

OK, so neither of us are exactly what you would call huge fans of disco. It had its good stuff and it had its awful stuff. We don't hate it, but we never really counted it among our favorites either.

But when it was great, it was great.

And Donna Summer was great.

The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Too late to turn back, here we go

I’ve written at length already about my love for the Replacements. But I found them very late in life, as it were. Here's how.

So Scott and I, as our cryptic little bios on the side of this page indicate, have known each other since high school, and have been talking music for most of those years. We share similar tastes with most things, and have introduced each other to important artists over the past 30 years.

He told me to get Before the Flood in high school and I did, and listened with the amazement and awe the live album merits. I told him to get Rattle and Hum a few years later and he did, and went from being a non-U2 fan to a big one. He got me into Dinosaur Jr. long after I should have known, and I like to think I got him listening to the Kinks again.

When added to the bands/artists we simultaneous count among our very favorites—The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Bob Dylan, the Who, Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison—this has been a healthy experiment we’ve conducted over the last 30 years. And the fact that we’ve barely had to see each other in the last 20? Bonus!

Not all of them have worked, mind you. I will never love Brian Eno and Genesis the way he does—appreciate, yes, but love? Not really. He will never feel the love I do for Little Feat and Warren Zevon. Stuff like that.

Oh, and we both think the Wallflowers and John Mayer suck. Which is a quite good thing.

But here is the reason Scott will always be able to lord his musical education of me over mine of him – The Replacements.

He brought me to the Replacements, made me a fan of theirs. I never saw it coming, but once it happened, I was sold instantaneously. And considering how the Mats are now on a plain for me with the Fabs, Bruce and R.E.M. and no one else? Yeah, my Reason to Believe partner wins this round. Dammit, he wins! [Editor's note: by "wins," DT clearly means "crushes like a grape."]

Because it wasn’t that he said, “Dan, you should listen to this band” and I slowly acquiesced over time. No. I literally remember exactly where we were when it happened, and I became a lovestruck devotee (to the band, not to him…what?...WHAT???) in a heartbeat.

It was late 1988. We were home on break from college—me in Connecticut, him in Virginia—and were driving in his LTD across the Bissell Bridge over the Connecticut River, north of Hartford. We were probably going to see a movie or something. He said, “You gotta hear this. You will love.” And he popped in a tape into the car’s cassette deck.

A mid-tempo acoustic guitar came on, melodic and cool. Then within seconds a ragged voice started to sing:

In my waxed up hair and my painted shoes
Got an offer that you might refuse
Tonight tonight we’re gonna take a stab
Come on along we’ll grab a cab
We ain’t much to look at, so
Close your eyes, here we go
We’re playin’ at the talent show

I. Was. Dumbstruck.

“Who are these guys?” I asked, not believing what I was hearing.

“The Replacements. Their new album, Don’t Tell A Soul. This is the first song, 'Talent Show.' Pretty groovy, huh?”


Scott nodded and smiled. Maybe he didn’t know then, maybe he did. But I was hooked. All it took were those first few chords, some great throaty vocals with some delicious little wordplay effortlessly thrown in (“We ain’t much to look at, so close your eyes here we go.”—I mean, that’s brilliant!) and I was on board with the Mats forever. Right then and there, on a bridge over the Connecticut River, eight miles from my home but a million miles away from anything I had ever heard before.

Yes, I know now it wasn’t their best song. It wasn’t their best album. And it wasn’t even their “best” lineup (or at least their original lineup). Didn’t matter. This was music for me. It rocked, it wept, it presented honesty and effort, and spoke nothing of glamour or conquest or glory. Instead it was about outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, about self-discovery and self-realization and even a little bit of self-loathing.  It was amazing songwriting, something I looked for heavily back then. It was angry and defiant, but didn’t sound like young punks. Instead it sounded like punks and/or geeks who’d grown up a bit, were a bit wiser, but still needed to be heard. It was for me.

Within weeks I owned their entire collection. I would see them open a year later for Tom Petty on their ill-fated tour with him. I'd see them in the front row in Springfield on their final tour and on their last legs—still a thrill with nearly no equal for me. And every time I would mention my love for the band to Scott in the 24 years that have followed—whether in person, via email or on the phone—he would smirkingly say, at some point, "You're welcome."


But he's right.

See, that moment when I first heard "Talent Show" left me with something all music fans should have, yet I fear many do not. It gave me a freeze-frame moment that I recall crystal clear, a moment when I knew I was hearing pure greatness for the first time. When I knew I was hearing something that was going to change my life. I wish, for example, I could recall the first time I heard, say, "Backstreets" or "Tomorrow Never Knows" and knew it was among the greatest things I have ever heard. But I can't. With the Mats, though? I can. It's quite something to have, really.

Truth was, I felt like an idiot after that for not hearing the Replacements sooner. But I was so consumed with Springsteen and R.E.M. and Gabriel—they were pretty much all I was listening to at the time—that I didn’t have time for anything else. And I was so disgusted by the overproduced, underwritten, crotch-grabbing glam metal that ruled the day that I pretty much shut my eyes to everything else around.

Until that night that Scott popped in the tape, the night my musical DNA changed—forever. And I had no choice—the Replacements gave me no choice. This was my band now, formed and created for me. And I was hooked forever.

After all, as they sang in that first song I heard that night, it’s too late to turn back, so here we go.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Automatic Baby

Read someone on the internets today make the incredibly stupid statement that this version of "One," by the one-off supergroup Automatic Baby (consisting of R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe on vocals and Mike Mills on guitar and U2's Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen on percussion) is actually superior to any actual U2 version.

And then I relistened. And...huh.


I like Bono. I love U2. But Stipe's more modest voice does actually seem to reach into the heart of the song a bit better than Bono's bigger and bolder delivery. And Mills' backing vocals are just perfect.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"Pepper? No, Pepper."

It was during one of the summers we were both home from college, 1990 or so. I called Scott at his parents’ house one day, looking for him, and one of his older brothers answered. Here is the conversation as he heard it.

“Hi, is Scott there please?”

“No, he’s not home. Can I take a message?”

“Sure. Just tell him Dan Pepper called.” (NOTE: I said Dan Tapper, my actual name. That is not what he heard.)

“Dan Pepper?”

“No. Dan Pepper.”

“Dan Pepper?”

“No. Dan Pepper.”


“No. Pepper.”

(pause) "I’ll just tell him Dan called, OK?”

“That’s great. Thanks.”

Thus, I have been referred to as Dan Pepper by a small, concentrated part of the population ever since.

My point to all this? There is some musical tie-in, no? This is kind of a music-based blog, not a quirky story-based blog, right? RIGHT?


I want to talk briefly about an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. By the Beatles. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

So nearly every “Best Of” list ever produced regarding rock-n-roll albums has this 1967 opus at the very top, literally looking down on every other album ever released in rock-n-roll history. Sgt. Pepper is as widely accepted as the Greatest Album Ever as Wayne Gretzky is as the Greatest Hockey Player Ever.

Only…no. Not here it isn’t, anyway.

(Cue dramatic organ music and haunted house laughter)

Oh, sure, it’s in the Top 10 of all time. But it’s not as good as Revolver, which is the greatest album ever released by anyone. And it’s not as good as Abbey Road, and it may even come in behind Rubber Soul and The Beatles (The White Album). That’s not to say it’s not a great, great record, an absolute masterpiece of the highest order, in the most select of classes in modern music history. It’s Ted Williams. It’s Larry Bird. It’s Mario Lemieux. It’s just not, you know, Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan or the Great Gretzky.

It very well, however, may be the most important album ever released, changing the face of music forever. In production, in grand form, in concept, in cover art and in every element of staging and presentation it stands alone. Not to mention that no record of the past century has been more discussed, dissected, analyzed or broken down to its very marrow than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It remains a cultural touchstone 45 years later, and will still be one 50 years from now.

So after all this, you could say it is virtually impossible to make the claim that any part of this album is underrated, right? Nothing this talked about and this explored can possibly be underrated. Can it?

It can.

This part, right here.

Seventy-nine seconds is all it takes to remind the listener that you  never, ever underestimate The Beatles, or predict what may come next. Tucked near the end of an album that redefined studio production and gloss, "Reprise" is instead raw and jagged. George’s raunchy, blistering guitar carries the day immediately after Paul’s count-in (which no doubt evokes memories of “I Saw Her Standing There from four years earlier.) The band is loose and fast and having a ball—if the Beatles were ever a jam band, this is what they might have sounded like. (And three years later, on “The End,” did sound like).Which is to say, great.

And what we get is a reprise that outdoes the estimable original title track that opens the album. The rare key change that comes right in the middle is startling. Paul’s pumped up bass and Ringo’s drumming lends it a joyous, raucous edge. And then there are all the little touches—from John’s cheeky “Bye” during the count-in to Paul’s celebratory “Woooo!” at the end—that make this seeming afterthought one more little unpolished gem. Finally, that it leads seamlessly into “A Day in the Life”—the single greatest album closer in rock history—is the cherry on top. Or mayhap, appropo of the subject matter, the final dash of pepper.

Pepper? Yes indeed, Pepper.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Come Together

Ringo and some guy
Ringo Starr once said he was the greatest rock and roll drummer in the world. There are two ways for rock fans and/or musicians to react to this statement.

One is to laugh/scoff/mock the absurdity of such an assertion. The other is to think about it for a moment or two and then nod and more or less agree. Those who fall into the second category are people like Tony Williams and Steve Gadd, serious contenders for the title of Greatest Drummer Ever, or Jim Keltner and Max Weinberg. Phil Collins and Steve Smith and Dave Grohl. John Lennon and Paul McCartney and George Harrison. In other words, people who know what they're talking about. Into the first category goes, well, people who don't so much know what they're talking about. (Note: very often they're the ones who think they know what they're talking about. Very, very often they themselves are drummers, but have probably been playing less than a half dozen years, have been in only one or two bands or none and are big fans of playing in compound time. Chances are they'll learn eventually. Chances also are that in the meantime they'll worship Neil Peart.)

Check out the isolated drum track to "Come Together":

Pretty elementary, right? Two quick crash cymbal hits, four on the hi-hat and then an ascending roll on the toms and do it again. The verses are even more basic, just bass and toms. It's the kind of thing a drummer who's been playing for a year—or maybe even a few months—can do.

Except. As was once said of Miles Davis on Kind of Blue: there were literally dozens of other musicians who could've played everything he played on that album, no problem...but not one other person in the entire world who could've written it.

You know who wrote a drum part like "Come Together" before Ringo?

No one.

No one. 

No. One. 

There was no drum part like this.

No one else thought outside the box the way he did, in an almost orchestral manner. Not his friends, fellow rock superstars Charlie Watts or Keith Moon, nor monster technicians Ginger Baker or John Bonham. Maybe it's because, for all the jokes about drummers in general and Ringo in particular (especially his voice), he was a hell of a musician. His timing, his feel, his personality, his understanding of what a song needed and his willingness to play just that, no matter how monotonous for the drummer it may have been, all added up to make him the one and only guy who could have been the drummer for the Beatles.

Dave Grohl, a guy who knows just about all there is to know about amazing rock drumming, had a comment that was right on the money: "No one needs to defend Ringo Starr—he's fucking Ringo Starr. He was in the Beatles. Without him the Beatles wouldn't have sounded like the Beatles. And if the Beatles didn't sound like the Beatles, there would be no Beatles."

Listen to the track. Even with only the smallest hint of the other instruments and the vocals, it sounds just like the Beatles. Because it is.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Girls in Their Summer Clothes

"The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
Girls in their summer clothes
Pass me by"

Over on Facebook, Scott and I are counting down the Top 50 Bruce Springsteen songs in alphabetical order. Hopefully, when complete, the list will run here someday. Hopefully. Hope is a good thing, Red.

Anyways, we just got to “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” as part of our countdown (yeah, we’re only on the Gs. What of it?) It’s not an obscure song—it’s newer (2007) and all, though fans seem to appreciate it—but it’s not exactly one of the first, say, few dozen songs you think about when you think of Bruce Springsteen.

What a song, though. As if Bruce spent a day with Brian Wilson (in a good way), walking along the beach and then later exploring some warm, breezy pop stylings in the studio. This is a close to a Pet Sounds sound as Bruce ever came, with layers of guitars and keyboards and effortless timekeeping by Max and Brendan O’Brien’s lush and glossy production. At once hopeful (“Things been a little tight, but I know they’re gonna turn on my way”) and then suddenly mournful (“She went away — she cut me like a knife”) and then back to hopeful again right away (“Hello beautiful thing — maybe you just saved my life.”) When Bruce shows you more than one side of the coin, the results are almost always impressive.

And then there’s the video, which I found and posted on Facebook and I’d almost forgotten about. Because sadly, these days I just don't think about music videos anywhere near as often as I once did.

Bruce has never made a prettier vid, and this is certainly in the running for the prettiest videos ever produced.

A gruff but resolute Bruce walks along a chilly early summer beach under hazy sunshine all alone, through a light fog as the waves crash in foamy white splendor. Sand-drawn hearts disappear as the water takes them out to sea. Seagulls fly and in and out of the frame in chaotic precision. The video shifts from whitewashed tones to black and white to brilliant, popping blues and reds. Angelic images mesh with windswept beach scenes as Bruce sings, sometimes with a guitar, sometimes not. And intertwined with these shots over and over, but never once in the same shot as Bruce, are the girls.

Old ones, young ones, black ones, white ones, some running, some posing, all quickly in and out of the frame with a smile or a knowing gaze, or sometimes both. Bruce has spent so much of his life as a singer/songwriter watching the pretty girls and pursuing them, it was about time he put as many of them as possible into one hypnotically lovely video. And what’s fascinating is the way the video echoes the song: the girls he sings about all “pass me by,” leaving him alone. There are dozens of comely female faces that pop up in the four minutes of this video. None of them are with our singer. That’s a perfect touch, one that wonderfully conveys the song’s ethereal mix of melancholy and whimsy.

My favorite part of the video comes around the 2:41 mark, just after the bridge, as Bruce sings “Hello beautiful thing…” Four shots come, all in a row. The first is Bruce, alone by a pier, sans guitar, beckoning the “beautiful thing” to come to him. The next is a positively stunning young woman shot in closeup, smiling sweetly amidst a fog that breezes past her, which is then followed by a statue of an angel, nearly bleached out in the sunlight. Finally we are back to Bruce, now with guitar and familiar cocksure pose, again singing straight into the camera about “Just a glance….”

Only about 7 seconds pass in this time, yet so much ground is covered. The longing for closeness from the singer, followed by two stark ideals that have played such tremendous roles throughout Bruce’s career: the gorgeous face and the literal angel, neither of which stay around longer than a glancing vision. Finally, we have the confident and driven singer again, alone with the guitar, ready to move on after one more glance. It’s a wondrous sequence that spotlights the fleeting sense of romance that Bruce has been chasing for his whole career.

As the video fades into a chorus of “La la la las” and more images of the girls hit the screen and run away, Bruce ends up as he started. By himself on the beach, bathed in sunlight. Alone for now, but ever hopeful.

My 25 Favorite Songs, Part II

20) “Bad”— U2, 1985. A terrifyingly gripping song, mixing tragedy and hope in one six-minute swell. I never wanted to like U2 in the mid-80s when they started to get huge—just because, I guess. But watching Bono do this at LiveAid led to a grudging “Mm hmm” from me. And then watching it a few years later during Rattle and Hum put me over the edge. No pun intended (heh...The Edge. Heh.) Anyway, it's symphonic in the way it builds to a climax and then lets up very slowly, very deliberately. Sad and astonishing. “True colors fly in blue and black, blue silken sky and burning flak.”

19) “Red Shoes”—Elvis Costello, 1977. Geek bravado at its apex. As a geek who likes to think he’s brave (I’m not), it kinda speaks to me. Usually saying, “Get out of my face.” But still I love the way it smiles and hisses at the same time. “I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused.”

18) “America”—Simon and Garfunkel, 1968. In college I took off one night on a plane ride halfway across America and spent a couple of days on the road, from Texas out to New Mexico, searching for…something. I never found it, and neither does the narrator of this song. But the search for something real and personal continues, Paul Simon put together a travelogue of the soul here. “'Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping.”

17) “Me and Bobbi McGee”— Kris Kristofferson, 1971. This probably should be higher, but being on this list should be good enough for now. It’s Jack Kerouac condensed to four lovable minutes. And it’s a genuine piece of my childhood—on every car trip we’d take as a family, my parents had this playing on the tapedeck. It’s now embedded, as it should be. Love, adventure, and loss without regrets, a landmark tale of affection that takes us straight across the U.S.A. “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday, holding Bobbi’s body next to mine.”

16) “The Pretender”—Jackson Browne, 1976. The man knew pain. And he knew how to write about it. Self-deprecating and self-realizing without an ounce of self-pity. My favorite Jackson Browne song. “We’ll get up and do it again. Amen.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

I'm not sure anything is ever going to dethrone Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" from its perch as the #1 Greatest Bob Dylan Cover ever. But this should be a serious, serious contender for first runner-up. It's not only magnificent, it answers the question "what would Mick Jagger sound like if he could actually sing?"

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My 25 Favorite Songs, Part I

What's your favorite song? Your favorite 5 songs? 10 songs? Impossible to answer, right? Whittling down a lifetime of music listening and appreciation into one tiny little box?

Well, no, not quite impossible. But yes, very difficult. And the only way to do it, as they say, is to do it. That’s what I did.

I thought of those songs that please me the most. Those songs that I’ll stay in the car to listen to until they finish, even though I’m already sitting in the driveway. Those songs that have etched a place in my heart, mind and soul. Those songs that, in their own small ways, play a part in who I am now.

Without further ado, here begins my Top 25 Favorite Songs Ever.

25) “Can’t Help Falling In Love”—Elvis Presley, 1962. My favorite Elvis song, which has to count for something. Plus, it says it all so easily and so sincerely. “Some things are meant to be.”

24) “So. Central Rain”—R.E.M., 1984. This wasn’t their first great song—“Radio Free Europe” was—but it was their finest early attempt to get directly personal. And maybe more important to me, it was the first R.E.M. song I ever heard,  being allowed a quick listen on a friend’s Walkman backstage during a high school musical in 1984. Peter Buck’s guitar lines ring with haunting clarity, and Michael Stipe was only beginning to show was he was capable of doing with his voice. “Go build yourself another home, this choice isn’t mine.”

23) “Mercy Street”—Peter Gabriel, 1986. A stunning, muted tribute to troubled poet Anne Sexton, with images so real you can see Gabriel staring out over the empty streets as he writes. I have always been amazed by how sweetly he sings these lines, at the richness and soulfulness in his voice. “Dreaming of the tenderness, the tremble in the hips, of kissing Mary’s lips.”

22) “Visions of Johanna”—Bob Dylan, 1966. This is high poetry, with which Dylan sets the bar at an impossibly lofty level for himself. I am emotionally invested by the second verse, and I never want it to end as the song keeps building and the images of Johanna’s face and Madonna and nightwatchmen with flashlights and Mona Lisa with the “highway blues” keep flooding in. If William Blake did his stuff to music, it may have sounded like this. “The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.”

21) “Fat Man in The Bathtub”—Little Feat, 1973. Around every corner of this song I hear something a little different from what I’d previously expected of rock-n-roll. Before being introduced to them in college by pal Tim, I thought they were a Grateful Dead-like jam band.  Which as Scott once said (about something else, not this) is a little like saying the Beatles were a great cover band; accurate but only a tiny fraction of the whole truth. The meshing of so many musical flavors into one glorious tune sucked me in right away. As did the best of Lowell George’s surreal, depraved imagination. “All I want in this life of mine is some good clean fun. All I want in this life and time is some hit and run.”