Monday, September 30, 2013

Can't Find My Way Home

Imprinting's a funny thing. This was the first version of the song I ever heard. When I later acquired the Blind Faith album and heard the original, I was so disappointed. Steve Winwood's a truly great singer, obviously, better than Eric Clapton. And it's Winwood's song. And yet I much prefer this version, despite the fact that I'm generally lukewarm on mixed gender duets.

Part of it's that I find the dynamics more effective. Much of it's that I like Jamie Oldaker's drumming so much better than Ginger Baker's. Most of all, though, it's that I find Clapton's understated, slightly gruff yet warm vocals far more engaging than Winwood's passionate keening. They simply seem to fit the material better.

His acoustic guitar solo's mighty purty, too.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: September Gurls

There’s no way he could have known.

There’s no way that a teenaged Alex Chilton could have known in 1966, with his voice rich in soulful southern gravel as he belted out rock-n-roll gold like “The Letter” and “Cry Like a Baby,” that he would one day front a band that wouldn’t get half the attention that his Box Tops did, but it would be that very band that would become the proto-postpunk and college rock fore-bearers for a generation to come.

I mean, how could he? He had no idea in 1966 that Big Star would exist. He was 16! And postpunk? Hell, punk rock hadn’t even reared its head yet. At least not as a genuine rock movement, anyway.

But there ‘tis. In the 1960s Alex Chilton possessed the grittiest voice on the pop charts, the archetypical “blue-eyed soul” sound that was raw and throaty enough to become an instrument as vital to the Box Tops sound as the dreamy keyboards or country-fied guitars. And then he hit his 20s and decided to form a band that seemed to lean way more on Roger McGuinn or Stephen Stills’ influence than the Holland-Dozier-Holland sound of his youth.

It was a dramatic turn, that is to say, the transition from The Box Tops to Big Star. Not only that but he had taken to writing his songs (with partner Chris Bell) rather than signing other people’s material. The simple tales of young lust turned to the more introspective 1970s ilk of the singer-songwriter. At which he more than excelled. This wasn’t the same kid who was belting out “Soul Deep.” And for those who noticed, the change must have been alarming.

But that’s the thing. Not many folks noticed. At least not right away. Their three albums between 1971 and 1974 all received good reviews, but the sales were minimal. When Bell died in a car accident after Big Star’s third album, that was pretty much it. Chilton moved on to his next chapter.

Somewhere in there, though, and in the years to follow his legend began to build. That Memphis cool, that grown-up voice now aching with sincere, pained longing, and those lyrics that placed his heart smack out there for all to see. There was a melodic raggedness to Big Star’s sound that was there for a reason, a sound that gave hints to what was soon to come from the CBGB and from Athens and from Minneapolis and from, yes, eventually Seattle.

I mean, it’s easy to see why he had such a profound influence on Paul Westerberg (who of course penned one of the Replacements greatest songs in his honor, eponymously). Paul Westerberg even sounds like a less-refined version of Alex Chilton. But you also get why Michael Stipe and Peter Holsapple and Frank Black and Evan Dando and so many other singer-songwriters of Generations X and Y worshiped him too.

Which brings us to today’s installment of Favorite Song Friday. Which is somewhat appropo, given what month we’re still in.

Favorite Song Friday—Big Star—“September Gurls”

Those opening chords. Those opening chords!

Those scraping, jangly chords that open up the song and carry it to the very end. Those chords sound like someone someone crying in the rain, staring up at a closed window he knows will never open. It’s a jarring and unsettling way to open up a love song, but damn if it also isn’t just so pretty, too!

September gurls do so much
I was your Butch, and you were touched
I loved you, well nevermind
I’ve been crying, all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

September gurls I don't know why
How can I deny what's inside
Even though I'll keep away
Maybe we'll love all our days

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

When I get to bed
Late at night
That's the time
She makes things right
When she makes love to me

September gurls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you, well never mind
I've been crying all the time

December boys got it bad
December boys got it bad

Read these lyrics and one thing you notice—after, I guess, the spelling of “gurls,” which, well, I just don’t know, but it probably has something to do with that eternal obsession of youthful love Chilton always seemed to have—is its never exactly clear who “September Gurls” are or why “December boys got it bad.” (Aside from maybe the plain fact that Chilton was, well, born in December. Occam's Razor and all that.) But really, we don't know. Not at all. Nor is it clear who or what “Butch” is or means. It’s a loveletter, the contents of which are possibly only understood by one person, and maybe not even her.

What we get is a fairly sparse and heartfelt plea. These words mean something to someone, though, and maybe that’s the point. But they are nonetheless breathtaking. And honestly, as someone who very often loves great songwriting and great lyrics above all else, and has assembled myriad lists in his head of his favorite lyrics over the years, this little toss-off:

I loved you, well never mind

…is and remains one of my favorite lyrics of all-time. It’s beautiful and it’s silly. It’s petulant and immature and desperate and defeatist and it’s bluntly honest and plainly confused and it’s all of six words long and I just used 10 words to try and describe it!

Every little inch of this song is lovable and memorable. The sweet and sunny harmonies that hang over it. The lustrous background vocals and cries that take the song up into the ether. Chilton’s shows some damn impressive range, starting high and staying high and going ever higher when he hits the “When I get to bed” bridge. And that weeping, descending guitar line, which you just know Peter Buck must’ve listened to a thousand or two times, seems to offer a pleasant nod to everything that led Chilton to this point – Motown and Stax and Liverpool and his beloved Memphis. It’s all in there, neatly tucked into 2:44 of rock-n-roll splendor.

“September Gurls” is neither a kiss-off or a sappy plea. Or it’s both. It is what you want it to be, as so much of the best music so often is. When Chilton died in 2010, his postpunk godson Westerberg wrote an op-ed about him for The New York Times. He summed up his career thusly:

Success shone early on Alex Chilton, as the 16-year-old soulful singer of the hit-making Box Tops. Possessing more talent than necessary, he tired as a very young man of playing the game — touring, performing at state fairs, etc. So he returned home to Memphis. Focusing on his pop writing and his rock guitar skills, he formed the group Big Star with Chris Bell. Now he had creative control, and his versatility shone bright. Beautiful melodies, heart-wrenching lyrics.

That’s the story of Alex Chilton, leader of Big Star and, as Westerberg would later describe him, “folk troubadour, blues shouter, master singer, songwriter and guitarist.” And what he left behind, with “September Gurls” and plenty more, keeps him going, makes him relevant to those of us who weren’t even alive when “The Letter” was released.

September comes to an end in four days. “September Gurls” exists forever.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


You may know her name is Rio and that she dances on the sand. But her secret is in that really remarkably funky yet melodic bass line twisting through a dusty land.

For years, my good lady wife would try to tell me to see past Simon Le Bon-Bon's gringe-inducing lyrics and the pretty boy looks of them all and that if I did, I'd discover the Pre-Fab Five were actually a pretty kickass rock band. I would pat her knee and say I'm sure they were.

Then I actually paid attention to the actual tracks. And...well, what do you know. Because Le Bon's lyrics are all about how she looks, so that when he finally purrs that he knows what she's thinking, there's no reason to believe him. In fact, it's clear he has no idea what she's really thinking. He doesn't know this woman, doesn't know what makes her tick. He's all about surface.

The bass line, on the other hand...that's her. That's her heart and soul. It takes a while to discover, but once you do...

As usual, Willie Dixon got it right: the men don't know, but the little girls understand.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sgt. Pepper - The Movie

35 years later and, yes, this actually happened.

My God, there is so much to love here. I mean, yeah, this movie is pretty much as bad as bad gets, but somehow that badness makes it really kinda beautiful.

Well, OK, not beautiful. Maybe “awesome” is the better word, in the truest definition. The sheer breadth of awfulness that emits from the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is awe-inspiring. With one felt swoop, Robert Stigwood created an ever-expanding mushroom cloud of awful.

I’ve been wracking my brain for awhile to come up with the perfect analogy here, but the best I can do is this: watching this movie is like watching two circus clowns fighting to the death with lawnmower blades. Horrifying and nightmare-inducing, sure, yet it's still something you really feel the need to tell people about after witnessing it.

Where to begin?

Oh sure, there are the obvious reasons why this landfill of a movie is so bad. Reasons like:

1)      The “actors” (Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees) were reportedly so bad that Director Michael Schultz actually dubbed out every second of their dialogue and replaced it with George Burns’ narration.
2)      There is a 10-minute scene based around the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” sung by the doctor from Halloween. Yes, that is true.
3)      The female lead’s name is Strawberry Fields. (Apparently, this movie was made long before ironic parlor games like “What would you porn name be?” were created.)
4)      Billy Preston, legendary enough to have actually played with the Beatles, plays a character named Sgt. Pepper, who wears a gold lame suit and bandleader cap and possesses human resurrective powers. Read that sentence again.
5)      It inspired maybe the single greatest Internet Movie Database (IMDB) “Trivia” note in the website’s history: “Aerosmith was the second choice to play the Future Villain Band. KISS was approached first, but turned down the role fearing it would hurt their image. They instead opted to star in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.”

Mind you, this wasn’t Billy Jack or even The Room, both made (particularly in the splendidly putrid case of the latter) on shoestring budgets by relative unknowns. This was a big budget movie –it cost nearly $20 million in 1978. It was made by the biggest producer of the moment (Robert Stigwood became something of a god with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, both of which immediately preceded Sgt. Pepper), and starred not only the biggest band in the world at the time (the Bee Gees), but also one of rock-n-roll’s biggest pop stars too (Peter Frampton), along with other notable stars like Aerosmith, Earth Wind and Fire and Alice Cooper. It also had Steve Martin in his first film role and, lest we forget, starred George Burns. Who might have been the most recognizable man in America in 1978.

Oh, and lastly? George Martin himself – yeah, that guy who produced the Beatles – was the film’s musical director. And all I can say to that is that I hope whatever fiends were holding Mr. Martin’s family members hostage at the time and forcing him to do this have since let them go.

In short, this was not a movie that was made just for mockery, or for camp purposes. It was very real and was meant to be taken seriously. It just, in glorious fashion, turned out the exact opposite.

What it was, I guess, was an attempt to make a story out of 25+ Beatles songs, including most of the epochal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road albums, as well as a few other Beatles classics thrown in, like “Get Back” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” And while it's hard to specifically point to any one part of this suckfest and call it out for not making sense, the choice of “Strawberry Fields Forever” was particularly bizarre, as it seems to be chosen only because it’s also the name of the female lead. And to have a character named Strawberry Fields sing "Strawberry Fields Forever" is just a logical step. Huh? Couldn’t she have been called “Lovely Rita” instead? It’s on the freaking Sgt. Pepper album! There's a fully fleshed out character, right there! Hell, she even has an occupation! And yet this was one of the only songs off the album not used in the movie!

Yeah, Dan, because THAT would have made all the difference.

Fair point. Moving on.

So the “plot” to this thing is, I think, that this hot young band out of the town of Heartland is making it big but has to fight the evil, seductive forces of the music industry. Which aim to steal their instruments and thus do away with their music. Because apparently there are no music stores in Heartland. While at the same time they are being seduced into signing a big record deal with the aforementioned Michael Myers-pursuing doctor from Halloween. Who as best I can tell shows up for one mind-bendingly silly scene and is never seen again.

Anyway. That’s the plot. And while it’s being executed we get to see such memorable things as George Burns performing “Fixing a Hole” while playing a white Les Paul, the character of Strawberry Fields getting killed and then brought back to life by the magical Billy Preston, and some astonishingly bad acting from, well, everyone. There are literally too many to count, but check out Robin Gibb’s performance here, starting at the :47 second mark, where he genuinely seems confused as to whether the camera is off or on.

So, yeah. Awful movie, awful everything. I could go on and on. And I kinda have. But three things I particularly want to point out. Because honestly they need to be seen/heard/both to believed.

1) "She's Leaving Home," sung by robots.

Sung. By robots.

(Unfortunately I have not found any video footage of this, but audio...yeah, it's here.)

2) The previously mentioned Strawberry Fields (played by the simply lovely Sandy Farina, who if I am not mistaken was whisked away in the Witness Protection Program shortly after the filming wrapped up)

3) Finally, the coup de grâce. The funeral scene for Miss Strawberry Fields.

This one needs to be explored a little more in-depth.

  • The clear glass casket. The Clear. Glass. Casket. Which allows for Peter Frampton's acting tour de force from the :25 - 1:22 mark. 
  • Paul Nicholas' wardrobe for the funeral, first revealed at 1:23. Would you like to say a few words while you're here, Rabbi?
  • Barry!!! Check out the way he tosses his lustrous mane at the 3:08 mark. I have watched this about 15 times so far and I am still not tired of it.
  • The return of George Burns' narration at 3:49: "The instruments were safely back in Heartland. But at what a cost." Hey, can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right?
  • Starting at 4:12 and for the next 40 seconds or so, here's what best I can tell is happening:
    • 4:12 - Peter Sad. Peter so sad. And Sad Peter is making a mental note to have a serious sitdown with his agent when this is all over.
    • 4:13 - MAURICE: "Tough break, mate. Yer girl is dead, eh?"
    • 4:15 - ROBIN:  "Hey, good to see you! You take care and keep in touch, 'k?"
    • 4:18 - BARRY: "Would a hug from Mr. Barry Gibb help?!"
    • 4:20 - PETER: "No."
    • 4:22 - ROBIN: "Dude. WTF? That was BARRY EFFING GIBB you just sloughed away from!"
    • 4:24 - MAURICE: "Never mind them. I'll come with you."
    • 4:26 - PETER: "Please don't."
    • 4:27 - BARRY: "Did he just slough away from Mr. Barry Effing Gibb??!!"
    • 4:29 - ROBIN: "Hey Barry? If you flip your hair again, can I do it too?"
    • 4:30 - BARRY: (flips hair) "Whatever."
    • 4:32 - ROBIN: "Yes!" (flips hair)
    • 4:33 - DIRECTOR: "Screw this. How about a nice nature shot. Ah! There! A nice nature...Dammit Peter! DAMMIT PETER! You're in my shot!"
    • 4:42 - MAURICE: "Well, we're still the biggest act in the world, right? Wanna go count our Saturday Night Fever residuals?"
    • 4:45 - BARRY: (sigh)"Sure."
    • Exit Brothers Gibb. Cut to Peter Frampton walking through some Douglas Sirk stock footage for a bit.
But there is still SO much more to love in what follows:
  • 5:30 - FLASHBACKS! HAPPY TIMES!  Oh MAN! They had a DOG??? Now I'm really sad.
  • 6:35 - "Hey! My lifesized Frampton Comes Alive cutout!"
  • 6:37 - "Stupid lifesized Frampton Comes Alive cutout!"
  • I'm pretty sure that around 8:27 we are literally watching Barry Gibb walk off the set, finally fed up.
  • 8:55 - 10:35 - So, we're just, like, done with the whole Peter Frampton/funeral thing?
  • 10:37 - Ah, there we go.
  • 10:50 - If you can, pause it at exactly 10:50. You won't be disappointed.
  • 10:59 - "I AM A GOLDEN GOD!"
  • 11:04 - Will it go 'round in circles?
  • 11:05 - Yep, that's what happens. The wind blows hard enough to turn the weathervane into Billy Preston. Oh, and shortly after this he zaps the dead Strawberry Fields back to life. Because ending it any other way would just be stupid.
So, well, there you go. Pretty amazing, huh? And just to remind you once more...this movie was designed to be huge. HUGE.

How huge?

Yep. They made trading cards for it. And I am fairly certain I even had some.

There is just so damn much to love here. So damn much.

Monday, September 16, 2013

When You Walk in the Room

Sometimes stuff just don't make sense. When you consider she had a smash hit as the singer of "What the World Needs Now Is Love," and was the writer of "When You Walk in the Room," "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" and, yes, "Bette Davis Eyes," and that she was cute as a damn button—check out the way she comes in early in this clip and the embarrassed look she gets—how on earth was Jackie DeShannon not a much, much, much bigger star? It's as if Reese Witherspoon wrote great pop songs.

Such is life. As sweet solace, at least we have guitars playing lovely tunes.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Favorite Song Friday: Please Come to Boston

I used to call this a “guilty pleasure” song. As in I felt kinda guilty for liking it as much as I do.

But then I thought, “Guilty? Why should I feel guilty?”

And then I realized that being raised half-Jewish and half-Catholic answered that question for me, so I decided to narrow it down in scope just a tid.

Why should I, or anyone, feel guilty for liking a song? Any song?

We shouldn’t. Such is the subjective beauty of music. One man’s drek could be another man’s wedding song, or a song that reminds him of a loved one who’s no longer here.

Warren Zevon wrote, “When the sky is grey, the way it is today, I remember a time when I was happy.”

That really could be exactly it and nothing more. We can conceivably find great pleasure in pieces of art that otherwise could be considered second or third rate. But if it makes us happy, if only for a few seconds, what’s wrong with that?

Nothing at all.

Favorite Song Friday – Dave Loggins – “Please Come to Boston”

Okay, for starters, there is plenty here that could easily make hardcore music fans groan. I get that.

Start with that flangy guitar, which very well might have seem dated the second Loggins stopped recording, and brings to mind one of those swirling, dreamy kaleidoscope effects we used to see on TV just before a cheesy flashback. There’s that.

The song is produced within an inch of its life as well. So much so that one feels all the studio gloss could cause even Don Henley to say, “Hey, man—ease up!”

And yes, the vocals seem to traipse dangerously close to the line between sincere and overwrought, damn near sounding like the whiny navel-gazing so many think of (albeit unfairly) when 1970s singer-songwriters come to mind.

That’s all fair.

I don’t care. I still love the song.

Because it’s a gentle and sweet little thought at heart. A countryish ballad with some nice twangy guitar that hangs over it and gives it some soul. What's more, despite some of the above-mentioned overreaching (“Pleaaaaase come to L.A. to live forevUH…”), Loggins voice is earnest and true. He sets out to tell a rather unconventional love story, one with an unresolved and possibly very unhappy ending, and he does just that.  

A singer—the narrator—wants to hit it big in the business, and he wants to go places. Boston, Denver, eventually Los Angeles. And what he also wants is the love of his life to join him on these adventures. Only she doesn’t want that. All she wants is the man she met and fell in love with. The man she is happy to be with right here at home, away from the glitz and stardom. That’s the man she fell in love with. She says it over and over again:

I’m the number one fan
Of the man from Tennessee

(NOTE: I and many others I know once thought this was a tribute to Elvis, and that he was the “Man from Tennessee.” And that line above does sure sound like a fan singing about him; after all, this is clearly a song about a singer leaving home to make it big. And Elvis did famously live in Tennesse. Alas, it’s not. “The man from Tennessee” is simply the singer himself at home, before all the stardom.)

(ALSO OF NOTE: I thought until like 3 minutes ago that Dave Loggins and Kenny Loggins were brothers. They are not. They are second cousins. Which now changes everything.)

Loggins structures the song like a series of flashbacks, three separate conversations he recalls having with his wife/girlfriend, all with the same ending. The more the singer drifts away, the more difficult it gets. He begs her to come away with him to these cities, and each time it’s clear he’s getting bigger and bigger—he goes from crashing on a friend’s floor in Boston to living in the mountains outside Denver to living in a virtual L.A. paradise that looks out over the ocean. And he wants her there to be with him, to complete the picture.

It’s the same thing that she wants—him there to complete her picture. Only her picture is entirely different. And each time he suggests a new great place for them to move on to, she responds the same, “No. Would you come home to me?”

Please come to Boston for the spring time.
I'm stayin' here with some friends
And they've got lots of room.
You can sell your paintings on the sidewalk
By a cafe where I hope to be workin' soon.
Please come to Boston.
She said, "No.
Would you come home to me?"

And she said, "Hey, ramblin' boy,
Now won't you settle down?
Boston ain't your kind of town.
There ain't no gold and
There ain't nobody like me.
I'm the number one fan
Of the man from Tennessee."

Please come to Denver with the snow fall.
We'll move up into the mountains so far
That we can't be found.
And throw "I love you" echoes down the canyon
And then lie awake at night until they come back around.
Please come to Denver.
She said, "No.
Boy, would you come home to me?"

And she said, "Hey, ramblin' boy,
Why don't you settle down?
Denver ain't your kind of town.
There ain't no gold and
There ain't nobody like me.
'Cause I'm the number one fan
Of the man from Tennessee."

Please come to L. A. to live forever.
California life alone is just too hard to build.
I live in a house that looks out over the ocean.
And there's some stars that fell from the sky
And livin' up on the hill.
Please come to L. A.
She just said, "No.
Boy, won't you come home to me?"

And she said, "Hey, ramblin' boy,
Why don't you settle down?
L.A. can't be your kind of town.
There ain't no gold and
There ain't nobody like me.
'Cause I'm the number one fan
Of the man from Tennessee."

“I’m the number one fan
Of the man from Tennessee.”

The song is unbelievably catchy and seems to capture that inescapable sadness that can come with confronting those choices we make in life—those things we need vs. those things we want. What’s interesting (and in my opinion, well done) about “Please Come to Boston” is Loggins really never takes a side. Both cases are laid out plainly and simply, and while each case is compelling, he never signals a winner, or even tries to nudge one way or the other. (As opposed to, say, many of The Eagles' biggest hits, where if there’s a conflict, it’s pretty much always the girl who’s to blame...and I just realized I am kinda laying into The Eagles today in this post. Oh well...tough.) Clearly both the narrator and the love to whom he sings believe they are in the right, and they make their pleas to one another with bare, raw honesty. But Loggins still leaves it to us to decide who is right and who is wrong. Or, maybe even better yet, for us not to decide.

And that’s what I appreciate the most about “Please Come to Boston.” I mean, I love the melody, and the “Man from Tennessee” tagline at the chorus is a serious trump card, and he gives us some downright gorgeous imagistic lines along the way (“We'll throw ‘I love you’ echoes down the canyon, and then lie awake at night ‘till they come back around”). But I appreciate, as I indicated many Fridays ago when writing about a very different Favorite Song Friday entry, when an songwriter gives us enough credit to not have to spell everything out for us. Loggins never feels the need to indicate to us, “See, she makes some good points but you know I’m right.” Even if he thinks it.

That’s why I am such a fan of “Please Come to Boston.” Listening to it is not a guilty pleasure. Just a pleasure.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Star Wars!

I dunno, maybe it's just me, but I feel like the riff in this song is insanely familiar. It's a nod to one of British Invasion bands, I think, but it's so hard to pin down exactly which one. Maybe it's a really obscure tune, originally, but it dances just out of the reach of recognition.

[I have been informed that this joke only becomes clear if one listens past the first fifteen or so seconds.]

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ho Hum

Another day. Another glimpse at immortality. Beatles-style.

So what were the Fab 4 doing on THIS date in history? September 4th, 1968? Forty-five years ago?

Not much.

Only performing and filming this:

Oh. And this too:

Again. (YAWN). Nothing too interesting to see here.

Unless, y'know, you like watching one of the final live glimpses at the single greatest rock-n-roll band ever to walk this planet or any other.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Waitress in the Sky

Oh my good golly. All those years and I'd been getting one of my favorite songs completely backwards.
“‘Waitress In The Sky’ has been misconstrued since day one. It came from my sister, who was a flight attendant, and she used the phrase in disgust, explaining that she was treated like a waitress in the sky. So I took the role of the demanding bastard in the aeroplane who expects the flight attendant to be a nurse and a maid. Some took it as a slam, but it was me trying to speak through her experiences. Nobody ever threw a drink on me over it."
Paul Westerberg

Oh ho ho.

It's funny, what I took to be the class consciousness of the lyric always appealed to me, but I had trouble with what a jerk the narrator seemed to be. Not that his resentment was necessarily without some justification, but how he appeared to be taking it out on the wrong person.

And now I know why all that was. My oh my.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Happy Labor Day

Hope the burgers and dogs are delish.

Every hour will be spent filling a quota, just getting along
Handcuffs hurt worse when you've done nothing wrong

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life

God damn, I need a God damn job 
Right now right now 
An honest job, if I can find one