Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Free Bird

How much more could I love an indie-rock band who clearly spent as much time listening to One More For From the Road as I did?

None more. That's how much.

Well...maybe if they gave me a nice foot rub. But that might just be creepy.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: A Long Chain On

Here’s a song that admittedly is something of an oddball choice for Favorite Song Friday.

I remember hearing it as a kid playing in the house—I think the version I heard back then was by Peter, Paul and Mary. And then a few times during my formative years I would hear it…somewhere. Playing on a car ride. Maybe seen on a public television concert. Somewhere. But after that, for the last 25 or so years, I hadn’t heard it, not even once.

Until I recently found it online and began listening to it. And even learned how to play it on the guitar. Because while I hadn’t heard it in so long, I still thought about it. I still thought about its mournful feel, its strange allegories and its unforgettable and oft-repeated title line.

So sure. With all that in mind, yeah. This song is certainly something I would label as a “favorite.”

Favorite Song Friday – "A Long Chain On"

Haunting is the word that keeps coming back to me when I hear this. There are a number of versions of it available—the author Jimmy Driftwood has one that leans towards country, the Peter, Paul and Mary version I included above runs more the gamut of straight folk. Others are tinged with gospel.

Doesn’t matter. The song comes across as a lonely, muted dirge. Just two chords, both minor (lending to the sense of gloom) carry it all. The words rule the day, but even they aren't entirely clear what's going on, despite the straightforward narrative. There is nothing complex about the melody, although I find it to be lovely and tuneful. But what really tells the story is the feel created by it all—this is what puts a skin on a tale of sadness, burden and, yet, thankfulness.

One night as I lay on my pillow,
moonlight as bright as the dawn
I saw a man come a walking,
He had a long chain on.

I heard his chains a clankin',
they made a mournful sound,
Welded around his body,
Draggin' along the ground.

He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on
He had a long chain on

He stood beside my window,
he looked at me and he said
"I am so tired and hungry.
Give me a bite of your bread"

He didn't look like a robber,
he didn't look like a thief
His voice was as soft as the moonlight,
A face full of sorrow and grief.

He had a long chain on

I went into my kitchen,
fetched him a bowl full of meat
A drink and a pan of cold biscuits,
That's what I gave him to eat

Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
He said a beautiful grace.

He had a long chain on

I got my hammer and chisel,
offered to set him free
He looked at me and said softly,
"I guess we had best let it be."

When he had finished his supper,
he thanked me again and again.
Though it's been years since I've seen him,
Still hear him draggin' his chain.

He had a long chain on

Is it deeply allegorical? Probably. What’s it about exactly? Who knows. Slavery? Bigotry? Oppression? Or mayhap a more general meditation on the long struggle? Again, it doesn’t matter. Because here, while the story moves along, it’s the feel that it creates that really paints the picture. And builds something to which we can all relate; carrying our own weight through our lives, moving along with it, despite how heavy it sometimes feels.

A couple of personal highlights for me.

  • The outright trust the narrator shows the strange, chain-dragging visitor. Isn’t that interesting? He thinks about it briefly, about the danger, but concludes pretty quickly, “He didn’t look like a robber, he didn’t look like a thief.” Instead he sees sadness, grief. And he welcomes the man in. This is where the parable nature of the song is at its strongest, and it lends something timeless and much, much larger to the relatively simple chords and simple words.

  • This verse:
Though he was tired and hungry
a bright light came over his face
He bowed his head in the moonlight,
He said a beautiful grace.

More than any, this is the part that just floors me. Through the loneliness and the constant rattling of the chain that has been with the man for who knows how long, he still takes time to give thanks. And when he does he seems to be temporarily transformed, freed even, from every earthly burden he may be bearing. Sometimes a single line or even word can take a song to a different level. “He said a beautiful grace” does exactly that to “A Long Chain On.”

We all have those things we carry with us, some for a short time and some for the long haul. And some of them can feel like chains, no doubt. They stay with us, and as they do, over time we not only get used to them, but we come to rely on them. To count on them being there. Because they are now a part of us. I don’t know exactly what Jimmy Driftwood had in mind when he wrote “A Long Chain On,” but I suspect it had something to do with the nature of personal struggle. And the way he’s written it, it works still, decades and decades later.

The minor chords drive the words, the words tell the story, and the story creates a feel. Presto! That is Music 101, for the most part. All of the parts—none difficult in the least—add up to a whole that presents a fulfilled vision. That’s how it’s done at the most simple level. And when it succeeds, as “A Long Chain On” does, it can stay with us for a long, long time.

That’s why nearly 35+ years later, I still remember this song and still think about it. And likely will keep on thinking about it for years to come. This, again, is the power of music. Something that can remain a part of who we are, as real and present as those chains we drag behind us.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The King of the Whole Wide World

I think one of the greatest secrets in rock and roll, in this century, at least, is just how great Elvis was. Sometimes I even forget just how great he was. Then I listen to him and it all comes rushing back in an instant.

"Huh blatt." Truer words.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ray Manzarek

So Ray Manzarek has died, sadly, at age 74. The man probably most responsible for introducing Jim Morrison to the world (for better and for worse) and, even moreso, for stoking Morrison’s legend after his 1971 death to a degree where the Doors and Morrison saw the most startling post-death surge in popularity in rock history, is gone. And that’s sad.

Like most who came of age in the late 70s/early 80s when the Doors meteoric return was captured by this epochal Rolling Stone cover, I became a Doors maniac when I was in the 7th grade. And like a whole great lot of those people I was thoroughly tired of them by the time 10th grade rolled along. That was about the window. They were awesome when I was 13 and then poof! They were irrevelant by 15.

To this day I don’t know exactly how I feel about them. I'm not a fan and haven't been since about 1983, but to paraphrase something Dave Bry very astutely wrote on The Awl, how can I totally discount something that meant so much to me when I was 13 years old?

On the good side, they had a wholly unique sound, dark and mysterious and as forboding as anything of their era. They had a couple exceptional songs and a few good ones. Despite a total lack of training, Morrison’s deep voice lent itself well to their atmospheric sound. And, let’s face it, no one—not even Robert Plant—has ever more looked the part of rock-n-roll god than Jim Morrison did. The danger, the cutie-pie stare, the sexual aura, the cool—he had it all, and the Doors indeed benefited from it.

On the downside, well…let's face it, they really weren’t that good. For the most part Manzarek’s organ—which along with Morrison’s voice was the focal point of most of the band’s music—was way too lite-jazzy for me and seemed to drone on and on. Morrison’s lyrics ranged from merely indulgent (“And our love become a funeral pyre?” Really?) to just horrible (“Warm me up with your inner stove”—UGH!) The man couldn’t help himself—there are too many examples of bad writing mistaken for Faustian depth to really get into it here. But let’s just say this: English teachers rue the day a line like “I’m gonna love you ‘til the stars fall from the sky for you and I” was written, as it surely spawned 1,000 imitators that were even more trite and displayed even poorer grammar.

Also? Jim Morrison was a cad and a creep, by all accounts. Was he the only one in rock-n-roll? Heavens no. But he seemed to enjoy his status more than anyone, to wear it as a badge of honor. It seemed he wanted that to define him even more than his music. And that kinda sucks.

There’s a passage in No One Here Gets Out Alive, the definitive Morrison bio I read when I was 12—and at the time felt like it changed my life (um, it didn’t)—that speaks to what an asshole he was. To paraphrase, he’s just gotten done having sex with a young prostitute/groupie when his long-suffering girlfriend Pamela Courson knocks on the door. Jim shoos Pam away, and then painfully rips several rings off the young girl’s fingers (the book made it clear this hurt like hell), ushers her out the window and gives the rings to Pamela as a gift. Know what that sounds like? A pure sociopath. So, yeah, forget womanizer or reprobate or whatever other labels can be affixed to so many keepers of rock-n-roll decadence. This is more than that—Jim Morrison was a dick.

And it's for that reason (well, that and the bad poetry) that I've spent most of my adult years laughing at the Doors when I think of them (which, honestly, isn't that often), rather than any kind of real reverence.

Yet still, for all of the self-importance and lousy writing and debauchery, there were some songs that made them legit, at least for a short while. And Manzarek often times seemed to be the only adult in the room, driving them towards success. It’s Ray’s rumbling bassline, for example, on “Break on Through,” the very first song on the Doors’ very first album, that still stands today as one of the most audacious and menacing opening shots in rock history. It’s Ray’s moody, controlled chaos that lends “Riders on the Storm” its terrifying seductiveness. And it’s Ray whose restrained yet tasetful work augments Robbie Krieger's guitar and drives along my personal favorite Doors song, “People Are Strange,” lending it a haunting, ghostly feel.


Listening to this and I can hear threads leading to R.E.M.’s “Maps and Legends,” or maybe some of the darker tracks by the Pixies and, much later on, even the Decembrists. It’s one of the only songs that seems to successfully make sense of Morrison’s insipid “Lizard King” image—courting the darkness that comes with being an outcast and existing on the fringes. (“Faces come out of the rain when you're strange. No one remembers your name when you’re strange.”) For one of the very few times in the Doors’s five year, six-album career, Jim Morrison actually relies on subtlety and doesn’t overdo it. As a result, “People Are Strange” is a highlight that most anyone would be proud of.

It’d be nice to think that Ray Manzarek, who was more devoted to keeping the Doors music and mystique alive for the past 40 or so years, had something to do with this.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Lads

I'm posting these photos for no special reason, really. Just 'cuz they make me so damn happy.

Both shots taken from the wonderful Beatle Photo Blog which should already be in your RSS feed reader and if it's not rectify that postdamnhaste.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Walk on the Wild Side

Why, hello, creepiest video ever.

And they said you couldn't out-skeev Lou Reed. Challenge accepted.

I keep expecting to see Chris Hansen walk in and introduce himself to Dave Stewart.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Nobody's Girl

I recently admitted to Scott—now that I am clearly well beyond the realm of personal embarrassment and into the “might as well be an open book” phase of my life—that back when we were in high school and Bonnie Tyler’s insidious “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came out, that I had confused Ms. Tyler with Bonnie Raitt.

Yes, really.

And I’d heard (on the local FM radio station in Hartford I spent those years listening to) and read (in favorite magazines of the time like CREEM and Hit Parade) all this stuff about what an awesome guitarist Bonnie Raitt was. And then I hear “Total Eclipse,” and I somehow had myself convinced that this was Bonnie Raitt, and I remember thinking, “I’m just not hearing the awesome guitar.”

Wrong Bonnie, dummy.

Because Bonnie Raitt, high-priestess of the blues and the Madame Curie of the slide guitar? Well, she is no Bonnie Tyler.

Favorite Song Friday – Bonnie Raitt – “Nobody’s Girl”

When Bonnie mounted her big comeback from her high-partying existence with 1989’s sublime, Don Was-produced Nick of Time, her legacy was pretty much already set. She had been a legend for years— “Angel From Montgomery” had pretty much guaranteed all by its jaw-dropping self back in 1974—and if anything it was an album that came out early in the 80s, Green Light (featuring among other things a couple of stellar NRBQ covers, the irresistible “Willya Wontcha” and the mini-hit of “Keep This Heart In Mind”) that showed people Bonnie was also of the 80s (or at least the early 80s). But the truth is by the end of the 1970s Bonnie was better known for being a hard partier who played a mean guitar than a phenomenal blue guitarist who also partied pretty hard. And it was taking its toll on her record sales. Green Light sold…OK, despite how good it was. And the follow up to that, 1986’s Nine Lives, really didn’t do that well and wasn’t particularly memorable.

So what was she coming back from in 1989? Middle-age, somewhat. With Nick of Time, Bonnie really kinda did what Paul Simon did three years earlier with Graceland—showed that the proverbial old dog could indeed blend some new tricks into a great assortment of all the good things she’d been doing for years. So alongside her hard-charging, hell-bent version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” there was the keyboard-driven subtlety of “Nick of Time.” Alongside the slide-driven cool of “Have a Heart” you had the sheer delicacy of “Cry on My Shoulder.” It all made for Nick of Time easily being one of the best albums she ever made, and one of the best albums ever made by someone a full two decades into her career.

In other words, Bonnie was still of her roots, big-time. But she also was very much in touch with this odd new era in which she was now existing, and she was showing all the whipper-snappers out there just how one cool-ass lady could do it. Hell, even the album cover (see above) showed it—a lovely Bonnie, a touch of grey peaking out of her shock of wild red hair, standing as confidently with her guitar slung over her shoulder as Bruce Springsteen once did as a very young man. It was as bold as that Molly Shannon “I’M 50!” character (even though Bonnie was only 40 at the time), yet instead of being played for laughs, it was stone serious. Bonnie was back. And badass as ever.

“Nobody’s Girl” traipses the tender line between Bonnie’s freewheeling early years and the wise-sage days that began with Nick of Time. It is stark and beautiful, just Bonnie and a pristine, crystalline guitar. She sings in a voice steeped in well-earned wisdom, yet lends some vulnerable lace to her familiar raspy leather. Like most of her songs, she didn’t write “Nobody’s Girl.” But it could easily be seen as her story.

She don't need anybody to tell her she's pretty;
She's heard it every single day of her life.
He's got to wonder what she sees in him
when there's so many others standing in line.
She gives herself to him;
but he's still on the outside.
She's alone in this world.
She's nobody's girl.

She's shows up at his doorstep in the middle of the night.
Then she disappears for weeks at a time.
Just enough to keep him wanting more
But never is he satisfied.
And he's left to pick up the pieces
Wondering what does he do this for.
She's off in her own little world.
She's nobody's girl.

The girl Bonnie sings about is her own version of Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, beholden to no one and the object of desire to so many, yet still infused with that little girl spirit that wants—needs—to sometimes be taken care of. Bonnie understands the story as she tells it, for sure, but she also understands the story of the suitor who longs to be with the song’s main character. She’s played both roles in her life, and here, she gets them both at once. That’s what gives “Nobody’s Girl” is rich, deep soul. Everything it has has been hard-earned.

And it’s never more apparent or profound than at its bridge.

He said, "Before I met her, I didn't love nothin'.
I could take it or leave it - that was okay.
She brings out a want in me
of things I didn't even know that I need."

As she sings, Bonnie accompanies herself with one of the prettiest, most fragile guitar lines of her career, little blue notes shining over her words, tinkling like the charms on a bracelet dangling from the title girl’s wrist. The song is lonely, unique, yet vaguely reassuring. A paean to those things, as she sings, we didn’t even know that we need. Yet we still continue to need them. We always do. Bob Dylan ridiculed such self-contradiction “Just Like a Woman.” Here Bonnie Raitt embraces it, at least for a few moments, however reluctant and doubting that embrace may be.

She does anything she wants any time she wants to
with anyone - you know she wants it all.
Still she gets all upset over the least little thing
Man, you hurt her, it makes you feel so small.
And she's a walking contradiction,
but I ache for her inside.
She's fragile like a string of pearls.
She's nobody's girl
She's fragile like a string of pearls.
She's nobody's girl.

Meet the new Bonnie, same as the old Bonnie. In some ways it’s true. “Nobody’s Girl” is a gorgeous little ballad about such disparate wantings: independence and companionship, self-reliance and vulnerability, wanderlust and cold comfort. And that is exactly what it aims to be. Because in this way it can speak to everybody. Even as it remains beholden to nobody.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Friday, May 10, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Silly Love Songs

Paul McCartney’s "Silly Love Songs" is both one of the more reviled as well as ingenious pop tunes ever, a song that manages to be both a catchy little ditty and a surprisingly complex composition.

The majority of the song is based around a repeating three-chord-structure. These basic chord changes are first heard in the oddly industrial-sounding introduction—seriously, what the hell's up with that? Is it meant to counterbalance and highlight the most basic element of humanity throughout the rest of the song? An ironic counterpoint to the lushness to follow? Or on his own ability to seemingly churn out perfect pop ditties with automaton-like efficiency?—where they’re run through twice. A simple but unusual pattern, it consists of the tonic, mediant and subdominant, rather than the far, far more common tonic, subdominant and dominant; making things even a bit more interesting, the mediant and subdominant are both seventh chords, adding a certain amount of tonal richness and ambiguity.

Then we’re into the main body of the song. The chord changes are heard once again, but this time the feeling is completely different. Where before we had sixteenth notes on the high hat and factory-like percussion with whole note chords on the piano, the percussion has disappeared to be replaced by standard (if outstanding) drumming (courtesy of Joe English), with eighth notes on the high hat. The piano’s still there, but it’s no longer just playing bare chords, instead comping tastefully.

The main difference, though, is the bass line, certainly one of the finest in rock history as well as one of the most memorable and, not incidentally, mixed extremely high. In fact, it’s the lead instrument of the song, louder than either the drums or piano. Which, astonishingly, are the only instruments for this first verse. Just bass, drums and a little bit of colorization from the piano comping quietly in the background. That's it. Drums, some restrained piano, and carrying much of the melody and harmony simultaneously, lead bass—not at all standard for your typical silly love song. I can't think of another hit that's almost entirely just bass and drums.

Then, of course, there’s the vocals, singing one of those instantly catchy melodies McCartney literally used to be able to write in his sleep (cf. "Yesterday).  Even if you haven't heard the song in decades, I'm sure you can sing the melody flawless. Except, here's the thing: mind-bogglingly, this fantastic melody is never heard again until the very end of the six-minute-tune.

Think about that for a second. Imagine being able to write a melody as lovely and catchy as the first verse’s: "you’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs." Now imagine you’ve got so much talent that you can simply toss it to the side and move on. After all, you’ve got plenty more where that came from. That's unreal.

But that's not all. Oh, no. In fact, before the song’s over, McCartney will come up with five different melodies to go over that one basic set of chord changes, as well as others for the different sections of the song. Many of them are related to each other yet remain distinctly different, thanks to augmentation, diminution, interpolation, extrapolation and so on. Tasteful New Orleans brass suddenly pop up to introduce the chorus, during which they disappear, to be replaced by strings. This is the "I love you" section and, sure enough, it’s the same three chords again with a new melody on top.

After the chorus, we get the second verse, the "I can’t explain, the feeling’s plain to me, say, can’t you see" (hey, I never said the lyrics were brilliant) verse, whereupon McCartney comes up with a different, yet equally catchy melody—his third, for those keeping track at home—over the same chord changes. This time, Linda’s singing the "I love you" melody from the chorus in the background, kept company by the horn section.

Another chorus, this time both Paul and Linda singing the "I love you" melody and then we come to the bridge, the "love doesn’t come in a minute" section, which is played over an entirely different set of chord changes—the first that's happened in the song.

And then it’s right back to the good ol’ three-chord-structure again, this time for the solo. But as there’s no noticeable guitar in the song and the piano’s been relegated to simple comping and the bass has been taking the leads all along, what’s he to do? Why, he has the horn section take the solo, playing yet another melody, this one a variation on what they’d been playing in the background during the second verse, related to the original melody, only now each of their phrases is answered by the strings.

Then we’re into yet another section. It could be the chorus or it could be a verse, since they’re over the same set of changes. Since Paul’s singing yet another melody, the "how can I tell you about my loved one" line, however, it might simply be a whole new section, especially since it’s over a setting similar to the industrial introduction. Sans percussion sounds, however, its effect is completely differently, largely thanks to the addition of the drums and bass. After two runs through this, Linda begins to sing the "I love you" chorus part behind Paul’s lead line.

We come out of that for a quick trip to the brass and strings running through the changes once, and then it’s back to the new version of the introduction section. This time through it’s Paul singing the "I love you" melody while Linda soon adds the "I can’t explain, the feeling’s plain to me" part from the second verse. After a bit Denny Laine chimes in with the "how can I tell you" line that Paul’d had the first time but has since discarded. And, of course, all this is interlocking over the same three chords.

Finally we get back to a verse, and at long last we get the triumphant reappearance of the first melody, more than five long damn minutes after we first encountered it. Whereupon the entire song wraps up—and yet, interestingly, it ends not after another chorus, as would be expected, but at the end of this verse and, enigmatically, on an unresolved mediant chord rather than the expected tonic, giving a strangely unsettled feeling to the entire thing, as though McCartney's daring people to look more deeply into what would seem at first or second or ninth glance a simple pop throwaway, knowing that if they did they'd see a composition that's light years away from merely being a simple silly love song, its title notwithstanding.

There are but a small handful of artists ever who could have pulled off a feat this tricky and and audaciously hide the whole damn thing in plain sight. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Prince are the obvious contenders, but I'm not sure any of them (certainly, Spector seems especially unlikely) would have had the restraint to pull off the curiously minimalist instrumentation at the beginning. (The fact that while McCartney's a multi-instrumentalist, like the rest, he's perhaps first and foremost a bassist obviously has more than a little to do with that.) 

But here's the kicker, and the reason that this song I've always loved is one of my all-time favorites: rumor has it that McCartney wrote it as a one-fingered-salute to the critics (some even say it was John Lennon himself) who’d said he was no longer capable of writing anything other than silly love songs.
McCartney picked up the gauntlet and created a complex composition disguised as the fluffiest of pop hits so successfully that even today few look past the title—and made millions off it.

Know what that is? That's ninja. Hell, that's beyond ninja: that's punk. That's punk on a level Malcolm McLaren never even dreamt of.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Summer Breeze

I had no idea this was coming. I'd bought the Isley Brothers album 3+3 because (I think) it'd been recommended in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, and I was looking to fill gaps in my education. And did this ever.

I saw the song title, I suppose, but I did all my listening in those days while commuting, so I rarely had time to do more than glance at the CD cover. But even if I did see the title, I doubt I really expected this great R&B/soul/funk band to take on the (admittedly, beloved) soft-rock wimpfest.

I was very, very wrong.

Makes me feel very, very fine. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Stage Fright

There are many things in rock history nearly impossible to believe. That John Lennon was not clearly the dominant musical force in the Beatles, for instance—nor was Paul McCartney. That there are people who still don't understand how staggeringly talented Elvis Presley was. That Buddy Holly was only 22 damn years old when he died. 22! The mind boggles.

But I'm not sure anything surpasses the fact that Rick Danko was only the third-best vocalist in the Band.

This guy. This guy. Wasn't even second-best. He was third.

Just does not seem possible. And yet.

(Also, yes, The Last Waltz was beautifully shot, but never more so than this song. Even for Scorsese, this is just gorgeous.)

Look, George Harrison was a fine singer...but he was very clearly not one of the two best in his group. Same with John Entwhistle and Mike Mills.

But Rick Danko? All but a small handful of top-+notch bands ever would have been pleased as punch to have him as their lead singer, and he could easily have made a very good band a top-notch one. Yet so loaded with talent was the Band that he was relegated to last place as a vocalist. (We'll ignore Robbie Robertson's blessedly rare forays into singing back then.)

The magical thing about the Band, of course, was that as musicians, they were all—including the otherwise rapacious Robertson—incredibly generous, able to step to the front and happy to fade into the back. The result, when everything aligned just so, was perfection. And never more so than on this, one of the great examples of a great band not only firing on all cylinders, but gracefully and graciously passing the ball back and forth.

Then some returned to the motherland The high command had them cast away And some stayed on to finish what they started They never parted, they're just built that way

I sometimes wonder if Robertson knew he was writing so autobiographically there.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I would like to say something intelligent about this. But Janelle Monáe is so goddamn awesome that she drives most logical thoughts from my head. Except that every time I listen to her, I think she's the David Bowie of this young century.

"Categorize me? I defy every label."