Friday, March 29, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Fast Car

One little person, one resonant voice, one crystal clear acoustic guitar, one heartbreaking story.

One masterpiece.

Favorite Song Friday—Tracy Chapman—“Fast Car”

Sorry I couldn't find the studio version, but this live version sans production is awesome.

What a song.

The first time I heard it I really didn’t know what to think. It was 1988. Glam rock (Aqua Net rock, really) ruled the roost with a faux-iron gloved fist. “Sparse” was not a term of art of the day. Nor was “folky” or even “acoustic.” Or, really, “socially conscious.”

I mean sure, there were bands that had a social and political heartbeat. Big time. U2 and REM and the Smiths and Sting and Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen had their fingers on the pulse of what was happening in America and in the world. (More on that in a minute).

But not like this. Not the way Tracy Chapman hit the scene.

In an era defined by noise and production, Tracy Chapman offered silence. In a genre that at the time was all about strutting and cocksure, Tracy Chapman brought a clear, plaintive, solitary plea for action. Or at least understanding.

"Fast Car" is riveting in its sparseness, haunting and unforgettable in its ability to tell a such a lonesome story. That Tracy Chapman made such an honest, stark debut (it was the first single off of her self-titled debut album) at a time of such excess is admirable. That the song became as big as it did at the time? Remarkable.

I once saw “Fast Car” described as “Born to Run for the disillusioned.” That’s a good analogy. Because much like Bruce’s greatest song, “Fast Car” is about the dream of departure, of a literal vehicle of escape from misery into something better. When Bruce sings, “Someday, Wendy, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go,” it’s very similar to Tracy singing, “Maybe together we can get somewhere.” In fact, the sentiment is identical.

The difference, of course, is tone and tenor. Where Bruce’s dream is a sonic boom of hopeful romanticism, Tracy’s is a fading heartbeat, a last whisper of desperation. And despite the sheer motionlessness of “Fast Car”—whose ghostly emptiness, interestingly enough, evokes another Bruce Springsteen masterpiece, his Nebraska album—there is power in Tracy’s voice. Enough to create images that will not go away.

The song is all about that voice—poetic and blunt, almost professorial—and the simple, circular acoustic guitar that hangs over every verse, every word. Its delivery is so subtle you could miss it if you don’t pay attention. But the words—the story of a woman longing to catch one break and to flee with her family from crippling poverty—pack the blow of a sledgehammer.

You got a fast car
And I want a ticket to go anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Anyplace is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we'll make something
But me myself I got nothing to prove

You got a fast car
And I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
We won't have to drive too far
Just 'cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living

You see my old man's got a problem
He live with the bottle that's the way it is
He says his body's too old for working
I say his body's too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody's got to take care of him
So I quit school and that's what I did

You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way

There are glimpses of hope that run through the words, despite the crushing despair of that fourth (and eventually, twice more repeated) verse, and despite the awful circumstance of the story. The car is a symbol and a means of escape at first, a chance to find something better. It seems reachable for awhile, and remains so at the bridge, where the song seems to snap awake and very briefly bathe itself in that joyful noise that Springsteen chose to tell his story a decade earlier.

I remember we were driving driving in your car
The speed so fast I felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

The notion is a seductive one, and Tracy delivers it masterfully. “Hey, this could work! Remember all the good times we’ve had? We can make this happen!” But reality returns when the verse quiets down, once more, into that simple, sad guitar that leads the story onward.

You got a fast car
And we go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a big house and live in the suburbs

You got a fast car
And I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving

Hope is replaced by hardness here, and the image of the car now turns into one of inertia, of being stalled. What good is a fast car if you’ve got nowhere to go? What good is it if it doesn’t even run?

I’ve focused an awful lot on the lyrics of this song, which are of course critical in that Tracy’s voice is the main instrument on display and the song is so story driven. But that guitar, that simple four-chord pattern, is as integral to the song as the words are.

In the very first rock-n-roll song about rock-n-roll stardom, “Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry uses a staggering guitar solo between the second and third (and final) verses to bring the story to life. It’s almost as if he says, “I’ve told you about this young boy and his ability in these words, but now I’m going to show you.” The guitar does the talking for him and completes the story better than any words ever could.

Tracy Chapman does something very similar with her acoustic guitar on “Fast Car.” It’s a pretty enough little melody, but there’s a droning quality to it as well, a loop that never seems to close. And each time she returns to that chord pattern, never changing in volume or pace, the story seems to get further away from the plan of escape and deeper into the reality of unceasing hopelessness. It’s a masterful musical decision to spotlight the guitar the way she does, and much like Chuck did with his solo on “Johnny B. Goode,” it gives “Fast Car” its true soul.

In the fall of 1988, not long after her debut album came out and around the time the  album was  rocketing to the top of the charts and the song was making its way into the Top 10, Tracy Chapman joined a team of megastars—Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen—on a tour for Amnesty International. While her songs and style fit right in, the placement was still odd. Here was this little black woman in just her early 20s, onstage by herself with only her acoustic guitar, joining three veritable rock legends who each became known for their larger-than-life personae on the stage. I saw the show in Montreal and wondered how she would be received.

The response was unforgettable. 60,000-plus fans in the horrible Olympic Stadium applauded her longer and louder than any of her better known and longer established colleagues that night. And Tracy offered a shy smile of thanks as a result before getting back to work and offering up her next story of social enlightenment.

With “Fast Car,” one woman stands alone, telling a story of, essentially, being alone, yet hoping for something better. The hope never arrives, but the words and the song still ring as loud as anything of that era. Louder, even.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead

That sound.

An electric guitar being plugged in, the expectation being set up, the tension building, albeit ever so slightly, because there's almost no time before the first chord's played and my God what a chord. What a way to start a song and an album.

XTC has never been one of my favorites. I admire and respect them and enjoy the hell out of some of their stuff but there's something about them I find them off-putting—almost certainly the fact that we don't click is a flaw in myself. So when they had their early new wave-ish hits on MTV, I was unmoved. When Skylarking was proclaimed the Sgt. Pepper's of the 1980s, I was unimpressed. When my imaginary friend Chris brought this home from his job at MTV, I...well, we put it on, since all we had was a small boombox and about five CDs, so beggars and all that.

That initial noise caught me, the first chord punched me in the face and then those drums, larger than Mount Everest gave me sweet, sweet CPR with breath vaguely redolent of honeysuckle and optimistic anger. And then...a harmonica? No, not a harmonica. An utterly asskicking harmonica, a strange, such a strange choice for the lead instrument and absolutely perfect.

And then the lyrics started. And the very first words are the name Peter Pumpinkhead. Which is just such a stupid name that I was immediately...nope, the melody wins. And then the gist of the lyrics, about a guy with his priorities so perfectly straight that of course he has to be killed, turned the name from something dumb into something whimsical, something which not only fit the lyrics, but managed to turn the entire thing into a not-entirely-obvious allegory rather than a hectoring screed.

It's still got the little XTC touches, the kind of obsessive attention to detail I don't normally love in my rock and roll, but which here works perfectly: the cymbal crashes on the offbeat rather than the expected downbeat, the cheers of "hooray!" only every other chorus, the unusual switch from the major to the minor at the end of the chorus, the way the bassline in the first verse ascends...and then just hangs there, toying with you, the sonics so pristine you could eat off them.

In the end, it's a perfect marriage of words and music, composition and performance.

Oh my.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Two Sides of Peter Banks

Oh, 1970s—I do love you so.

Reason #293788: please to consider Two Sides of Peter Banks, a 1973 solo album by the late Peter Banks, the original guitarist for Yes, before he was booted aside in favor of Steve Howe. It's a lovely instrumental collection, with contributions from the like of Phil Collins and Steve Hackett, then both of Genesis, and John Wetton, then of King Crimson. Check out this, "The White Horse Vale: On the Hill/Lord of the Dragon," the LP's second track: note the Ye Olde Englishe track name and subtitles. Check the lute-like guitaring. It's pretty and engaging...and then 0:49 rolls around.

Fonky! Even Merrie Olde Englande couldn't escape the inexorable pull of the wah-wah in the early 1970s. It rears its funked-out head, like a badass pastoral Putin in a gritty urban environment, then drops back, but its presence is never fully forgotten, its magnetism too damn strong.

But we're not done! Wait until 2:57! Why, if that ain't a powerfully familiar damn riff—a riff Banks always claimed he himself had written. And the accompanying guitar cries, the volume fading up and down—a hallmark of his successor—shows that he may have gotten passed over by the band he helped create, but he wasn't going quiet.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cyprus Avenue

Beautiful, transcendent, melancholic, yearning, ethereal, tapping into the mystic and finding it utterly beguiling and more than a bit disturbing and even creepy or perhaps just terribly sad and yet ultimately revelatory? Sure and damn begorrah.

My tongue gets tied every time I try to speak and my inside shakes just like a leaf on a tree yarrrrragh

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Simple Twist of Fate

My old college roommate just introduced me to this recently, at which point it shot way the hell up on my personal Greatest Dylan Covers list.

Having a female voice narrating this previously seemingly autobiographical and very male story is disorienting, yet utterly delightful—suddenly, "I still believe she was my twin" is entirely different, even as the words remain exactly the same. And the way she plays with the melody in the last verse? And the stark beauty of her solo accompaniment? Jeez louise. Awesome and gorgeous and so damn haunting.

She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate and forgot about a simple twist of fate.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Bizarre Love Triangle

I didn't like New Order. I didn't really know anything about them at the time, mind you, just that they were British and—and this is vital—from the 1980s. See, if they'd been from the 1960s and British, well, I'd have been all over them. 1970s were a bit dicier, but by the 1980s, especially the late 1980s, British bands equaled no for me, sight unseen and sound unheard. Yes, I was an idiot.

My (first) senior year of college, I ended up in a falling-apart, fire-damaged house in a dicey part of town with four other guys, only one of whom I knew at all. I got to know the others fairly quickly, of course, and one of the ways was through the habits and rituals most humans have. And one of the things a couple of my roomies did—the two who lived in the large room right above mine—was to blast this song repeatedly every Friday night as everyone (well, except me, of course) was getting ready to go out.

Naturally, I hated it from the first. And the fact that I had to listen to it three or four times every Friday night didn't help.

That's not exactly true. It turns out I actually really liked it, I just couldn't admit it, even to myself. It took seeing Michelle Pfeiffer dancing to it in the film Married to the Mob, and the surprising (to me) rush of joy hearing it in that context brought, to be able to admit that, by gosh and by golly, it was an utterly perfect pop song in every way.

The lyrics are...well, they're not good. They're not terrible, they're just little more than a series of loosely-connected phrases connoting romantic confusion and unhappiness clearly chosen more for their adherence to the rhyme scheme—one of my favorites, incidentally—than as a serious attempt to elucidate this most mysterious human mystery. Or, who knows, maybe they did try and just failed.

But it doesn't matter. Because the music—driven almost entirely by an usual IV-V-iii chord pattern, with the tonic only lightly and briefed touched upon during a few of the instrumental sections—carries the entire thing with a propulsion that makes even someone with one and a half left feet such as myself feel like he can and must dance. And when you combine that melody and those burbling synths, suddenly you realize that together they "say the words that I can't say." And when you get to the end, to that final moments, the music drifts off, unresolved, and ain't that ever so often the way? 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sweet Child o' Mine

So this comes on.

The 6-year-old, who'd been utterly immersed in her coloring, immediately gets down and, without a word, begins running back and forth in the kitchen, occasionally leaping as far and as gracefully as she can. The 9-year-old comes in and listens a moment, then says, "What's this song called?" Such is the power of rock and roll.

Axl Rose may be a nutjob and a d-bag and the Gunners may have quickly flamed out but that all pales in comparison to the majesty and the glory of Slash's guitar on this song, in the solo, yes, but primarily on the song's main riff. Sure, they had other popular songs and albums but nothing will ever touch this—but, then, nothing ever needs to.

These days the band may very well be known more for their poseur histrionics than their music, and while that's entirely their own damn fault, it's also a shame. Because the first thing people should always think of when they think of Guns N' Roses should be this: guitar writing and playing so magnificent it could have made even Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix proud.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Life on Mars?

You may have been wondering, "say, what on YouTube has the combination of the most beautiful sounds and the most unintentionally hideous visuals?" Well, wonder no more!

I ask you to focus on sailors fighting in the dance hall—oh, man, look at those cavemen go.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Down by the River

I did not see this one coming.

I am staggered to discover that maybe my favorite version ever of "Down by the River"—a Neil Young song I've probably heard at least a dozen versions of, which, I know, makes me a piker compared to true blue Shakey fanatics—is with Phish as his backing band.

Phish. The jam band which inherited the Grateful Dead's throne—two bands I've tried hard to like over the years without ever succeeding. I want to like them. I should like them. I just don't.

And yet. And yet there's this. 20 minutes of noodling and shredding and yowling and it's absolutely, to my ears, magnificent.

Live and learn, man. Live and damn learn.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Walls

Has Tom Petty written better songs? Sure he has. “The Waiting” is his masterpiece, after all, and “Refugee” and “American Girl” and maybe even “Free Fallin’” and “Wildflowers” could be considered better songs than this. He’s written so many good songs, some of them surely have to be “better” than the one I’ve picked today for Favorite Song Friday.

Has he written more popular ones? Sure thing. See above. Hell, this isn’t even the most popular version of the song. He released a different version that got more airplay and placed higher on the charts than this one.

It’s even a little more obscured in that it didn’t appear on a traditional studio release, but rather on the soundtrack to the 1996 semi-hit She’s The One, which to be fair was a Tom Petty album in that he did the entire soundtrack. But still, by 1996 the alt-revolution had taken place and even the best of those artists of the Classic Rock genre—like Mr. Petty—were kinda getting pushed to the backseat for a bit, with both commercial sales and radio play.

Still, for my money, this may be my favorite song Tom Petty ever did. Which says a lot, because I love so much of Tom Petty’s career output.

Favorite Song Friday – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Walls”

Some days are diamonds
Some days are rocks
Some doors are open
Some roads are blocked

So simple. Yet so wonderfully stated. “Walls” is a mildly forlorn love song about the choices we make, done in mid-tempo major key fashion that Petty always worked to an art form.  Three verses and three choruses, no bridge. Four basic chords on the verses, five on the chorus. Easy and breezy, over and out, done in about three minutes. Featuring words on the chorus that once more showcased Petty as a first-rate songwriter.

You’ve got a heart so big
It could crush this town
And I can’t hold out forever
Even walls fall down

Years ago I was talking with my wife about these lines and remarked that the first part of the chorus seems on its face so silly, almost childish: “You’ve got a heart so big it could crush this town.” Seriously, left alone it’s just a goofy line.

She said, “But then he follows it up with, “And I can’t hold out forever, even walls fall down.' That line says a mouthful. Maybe anyone could have written that first part, but not the second part. That’s songwriting. And that’s what makes the song.”

She was right. Still is, really. About most things. But definitely about “Walls.”

Simplicity works when it comes to the written word, and few singer-songwriters over the past generation have used the formula of making the simple sound like far more than that than Tom Petty has. It’s how he finds heartfelt beauty, for example, by following oft-repeated rock-n-roll credo, “I’m free!,” with the line, “Free fallin’!” With just one word he goes from rebellious triumph to total directionlessness.

The same applies on “Walls.” Little toss-off maxims—“Sometimes you’re happy, sometimes you cry, half of me is ocean, half of me is sky”—are given a much grander meaning when coupled with that concluding line of the chorus, or the last line of the final verse, “Part of me you’ll carry, part of me is gone.” Each part of the song feeds the next, and while all the parts are wrapped in that (sorry for this word again) simple pop structure, put together they add up to something greater.

When I was in college Raymond Carver had just died, and the minimalist style he had brought to the literary fore was being aped by most of the fellow-English majors I ran with. It was the writing equivalent to wearing flannel and ripped jeans a few years later; everyone wanted to do it. Everyone wanted to write like Raymond Carver—as few words as possible, direct, dramatically understated.

Only what I realized when I went back and read most of what Carver left behind was this—the dude could write! He didn’t write in minimalist form because it was trendy, or because it’s all he could do. He did it because he was a magnificent writer and this is the way he chose to write, and his words, while sparse, echoed with meaning and depth.

Many of Tom Petty’s lyrics remind me of that. Including “Walls,” first and foremost. It works not because it’s easy, but because he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he knows exactly how to craft something that is understated, melodic and unceasingly lovely.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Hey Jude the minor.

If I may?


(Although I do like the way it suddenly sounds like a Russian folk tune about the slaughter of an entire village of adorable orphans—talk about a sad song.)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Beatles: Perfect Band, Perfect Haiku

That The Beatles were a perfect band, and remain so today, goes without saying. Seriously, don't even say it. DON'T.

But here's one more piece of utter perfection about the Fab Four:

Paul McCartney and
John Lennon and Ringo Starr
and George Harrison

See that? The band names form the perfect haiku. 17 syllables, 5-7-5 structure. Perfect.

One more reason, maybe the best yet, why Pete Best just wasn't gonna work out.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Art Garfunkel's known for the staggering purity of his crystalline vocals, and rightfully so. Still, I have to assume the first time he heard Lady Soul zoom up an octave as she approached the chorus of his signature song, he thought, "well...shit."

Also note the beauty of awards shows: Aretha Franklin is introduced by Andy damn Williams, of all people. I mean, I just. Also, it takes nearly two minutes before Miss Franklin graces us with her vocals—and it feels like about 15 seconds, thanks to her lovely piano playing. But note to the director: the organist is awesome, but we really didn't need to see his hands as much as we needed to see Aretha.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Back on the Chain Gang

I love Chrissie Hynde. Don't we all?

So badass and so sweet. So leather-tough and so vulnerable. Such a mystery, yet so willing to keep throwing herself out there. When she insisted “I’m special, so special” we were right there to nod along and say “Yes! Yes you are!” When she pouted and preened words like “You’ve changed!” with such kittenish pluck we were ready to drop to our knees and beg forgiveness. Chrissie called the shots. And we were cool with that.

Chrissie is rock-n-roll incarnate, one true lifer who seems to encompass every nifty little corner of the genre. Raised in Ohio and honed on 60s pop sensibilities. Expatriated to England where she ran with the earliest of the early punks. The darling daughter of new wave, with leanings as far and wide as ska and folk and soul and even a bit of blues.  

And she seemed to exist in this cross-pollination of so many musical stylings so easily—everything Chrissie did seemed to be accompanied by such unwavering confidence, like she knew she’d do it right. She knew who she was and what she was doing, Hell, this is a woman who once proposed to Sid Vicious. To SID FREAKING VICIOUS.

So. The lovely and awesomely awesome Chrissie Hynde and the band she so ably fronted, The Pretenders, give us this week’s installment of Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday—The Pretenders—“Back on the Chain Gang”

This is a beautiful song. It’s sad and it’s tender and it expresses feelings of loss and detachment as well as any ever has. I remember in the early days of MTV, when this song first hit in 1983, when the video would start with bodies flying through the air with a carefree look that would indeed belie what was to come. I would always watch and listen, and I would always feel so exhilarated by what I heard and saw.

“Back on the Chain Gang” is a remembrance of lost souls and lost times. Specifically it is written for James Honeyman–Scott, the highly influential guitarist who plated such delicious leads in The Pretenders early years before dying way, way too young in 1982. The funky strut of “Brass in Pocket,” the retro glow of “Stop Your Sobbing,” the loping growl of “Message of Love”—Jimmy Scott created those sounds. Chrissie had the swagger, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers formed one of the great rhythm sections of that or any era. Put together they made The Pretenders irresistible.

When Scott and Farndon died within about a year of each other in 1982-83, it would have made perfect sense and been perfectly acceptable for Chrissie and Martin to fold up their tent and go home. Half of a great band is dead. Time to go home.

Instead they regrouped and released arguably their greatest album, Learning to Crawl. And the first single was “Back on the Chain Gang,” a song of such poignance that it makes you wonder how someone barely in her 30s at the time could find such pathos and such wisdom.

It begins with a folky jangle slightly evocative of Scott’s soaring guitar line on “Talk of the Town” a few years earlier, before guest guitarist Billy Bremner delivers one of the most melodic leads you will ever hear,  running up and down the neck with these lovely little teardrop notes that perfectly set the elegiac mood.

Chrissie takes it from there, singing in a voice much softer than we’d heard on those earlier tunes, not entirely devoid of the brass but tinged with a more worldly melancholy and whimsy. She sings of finding an old picture of a lost friend, recalls those times in the past where the good and the bad weren't always the easiest to tell apart, recalls the regrets of not having enough time, recalls the fights and struggles. But instead of letting it get the best of her, she instead chooses to get “back in the fight.”

Now I’m back on the train, yeah
Oh-oh, back on the chain gang

I’ve been going on for a while about the allure and power of Chrissie Hynde here, but the trump card of this song lies in Martin Chambers drumming. As the band offers workmanlike cries of "Huh! Ah!" behind the chorus, clearly recalling the same sounds heard on Sam Cooke’s similarly titled “Chain Gang” from decades earlier, Chambers pounds away like a man swinging his sledgehammer on the railroad line, giving the song its heightened pulse and urgency.

A solo from Bremner, the same run as began the song, comes just before the bridge and flows like rainfall against Chambers relentless slap, lending an ethereal, dreamy level to Chrissie’s words. And then at the bridge itself, Chrissie offers the most personal lines of her entire songwriting career, complete with a promise to a fallen friend.

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part.

It is unapologetic and unflinching, trading in any regrets for a vow to never forget this picture she keeps looking at. But then at the final verse, she moves on, though not without one last look that lifts the veneer, leading to a confession that serves as a simply stunning goodbye.  

I found a picture of you
Those were the happiest days of my life.
Like a break in the battle was your part,
And the wretched life of a lonely heart.
But now I’m back on the train, yeah.
Oh-oh, back on the chain gang.

The Pretenders' prime didn't last long beyond Learning To Crawl. A few hits followed over the next half-decade (“Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “I’ll Stand By You”) but by the time the latter hit came out Martin Chambers was gone and Chrissie was the only of the original four left.  But this was a band that mattered in its day and it matters today, one that traipsed on a quirky line between punk, new wave and rootsy folk, creating a sound that was and remains wholly unique.

“Back on the Chain Gang” was a farewell forced to come way to soon, but one that remains indelibly etched upon rock-n-roll’s vast landscape. With a heart that won’t stop beating and a push to keep moving. To get back on that train, back in the fight.