Friday, October 31, 2014

Favorite Song Friday: You

The conventional wisdom has it that George Harrison, with his first proper solo album, All Things Must Pass, recorded not only his best LP, but in the view of many, the best solo record by any former Beatle ever. It sounds crazy, the idea of anyone recording an album better than something John Lennon or Paul McCartney could put out—sorry, Ringo; you know I love you—until you actually listen to All Things Must Pass, at which point a coherent, convincing rebuttal becomes significantly harder.

The conventional wisdom has it that George was then more or less tapped out. His next album, Living in the Material World, was good, maybe even very good, but not great, and certainly not the masterpiece All Things Must Pass was. And from then on, more or less, each album got weaker and weaker, some featuring a few good tracks and lots of filler, and a few not even that.

It's not entirely without merit. When Harrison played his one (sadly all too brief) post-Dark Horse tour in the early 90s, the bulk of the set was drawn from his Beatles days, his first solo LP and (unfortunately) his most recent, Cloud 9, with the 7 albums that came in between represented by at most a song each, and in most cases, none at all. Which would seem to indicate George himself had a pretty decent idea of the relative merits of each of his releases.

But then there's this utterly perfect pop gem. Originally written for Ronnie Spector, and recorded for but not released on All Things Must Pass, it sat in a drawer, forgotten, for half a decade before George finished it off for 1975's Extra Texture. Which just.

How could anyone lose track of a song as flawless as this? Its sparse lyrics say all that need be said, which manages to avoid Harrison's tendency to get a tad preachy. And while Phil Spector could undoubtedly have made it sound like, well, a Spectorian grand production, it actually doesn't sound all that much like a Spector song at its base. Instead, it sounds like the perfect missing link between vintage mid-60s Motown and soon to be released smash hit with all-time great bassline "Silly Love Songs," by fellow former fab Paul McCartney.

Although a hit at the time, "You" has been forgotten over the years, which is a shame. (On the other hand, given what a punchline "Silly Love Songs" has become, maybe there are worse fates.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Warmth of the Sun

Still I have the warmth of the sun
Within me tonight…
My love’s like the warmth of the sun
It won’t ever die.
           —The Beach Boys, “The Warmth of the Sun”

I asked Reason to Believe partner Scott sometime in 2006 how he was ever able to get through his (many, many years earlier) infant daughter having leukemia. It was foreign to me how young parents like Scott and his wife could get through that.

He said, “You get through it. You just do. There’s no practice or manual for it. You have to get through it, so you do.”

It made sense then, a bit. But it makes total sense now. Now that my lovely wife has been diagnosed with—and has undergone surgery and his now recovering from—breast cancer.

Scott and I have known each other for more than 30 years, dating back to our freshman year of high school in 1982. What’s funny is since 1990 or so, we’ve seen each other exactly once—when my family made a trip to the West Coast in 2007 and visited with him and his lovely clan. And in between, for a good 15 years or so from the early 90s to 2006, we lost contact all together. So small, insignificant life events—you know, weddings and child births and moves and career changes and what not—we kinda missed out on all that.

We re-established contact in 2006 and have basically been in cyber-contact every day since. Ours is the utmost in modern day friendships, especially considering (as he likes to point out) we can communicate regularly without ever having to see each other! So it was after we got back in touch in 2006 I learned long, long after the fact that his (now very healthy) oldest daughter had had leukemia as an infant, and that retroactively hit me with the sense of dread and sorrow and fear. And I had to ask how they endured that.

“You get through it. You just do.”

Yeah. You do.

Nothing prepared me for my wife (I like to refer to her as the Prime Minister, because she benevolently rules all and brings joy to a grateful people) having cancer—hell, certainly nothing prepared her for this. And with that in mind I basically did the very clichéd but necessary gut-check—“okay, tough guy. Time to step up. She needs you. Get to it.” So I did.

Providing comfort and support and love, that’s a given and it’s easy. It comes with the vow I took 22 years ago—“In sickness and in health.” Got it. But caring for someone after invasive surgeries? Performing somewhat nursely functions that, seriously, I never saw myself being equipped to handle? Being able to ask the tough questions of surgeons and doctors, evaluate the answers and determine next steps with the Prime Minister in real time?

I know nothing about medicine and, honestly, way too little about cancer. But this is all stuff that’s on me now. Her job is to get better, and she’s doing it like a damn champ. My job is to act as, often at the same time, caregiver, watcher, comforter, scheduler and doting husband for my wife, as well as basically being the spokesperson to the many, many friends and loved ones who want to know how she’s doing and the kind of progress that’s being made.

Scott said years ago, “You get through it. You just do. You have to get through it, so you do.”

Damn was he right. That’s what I’ve done. That’s what the Prime Minister has done and my family has done. Today, eight days after her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, she’s doing well. Her prognosis is excellent, but the pain of recovery is very real. She’ll be healthy, which is the goal. But recovery is not easy. She has to endure that physical pain. I have to do whatever I possibly can to support her while she does.

It was a few days after her surgery that I stepped outside to do some errands and was struck by the immense and gorgeous sunshine. Had this been July, rather than late October, it would have been a portent for a 90 degree day and something very much expected, so I would have thought little of it. But this is Connecticut and the leaves are all turning their oranges and yellows and reds and are covering my yard and every yard around us and the sun is just not that high in the sky anymore this time of year, so the expectation of having a warm, sunny day is just not there. Particularly since the few days which preceded it were grey and, eventually, torrentially stormy.

But this morning and day were perfect, and that sun just instantly elevated me. My mood was already good—my wife had gotten the news that the surgery got all of the cancer and there was no need for anything else invasive—but I didn’t expect to feel that comfortable glow on my face when I stepped outside. It was, in all seriousness, as surprising as being hit with a snowball. Only so much more pleasant.

For whatever reason, as I walked to the car, I began to hum to myself the lyrics that sit atop this post, part of The Beach Boys’ 1964 pretty and melancholy song “The Warmth of the Sun.” It’s not a song I think about, really, ever. I know it a little, nowhere near as well as I know other Beach Boys songs (including the A-side single to which “The Warmth of the Sun” was the B-side, “Dance Dance Dance.”) But it was still something I knew and something that popped into my head as I walked through a daylight I never expected.

“Still I have the warmth of the sun within my tonight. My love’s like the warmth of the sun—it won’t ever die.”

I kinda hummed this over and over again as I went through my day, enough to make the Prime Minister ask me (tell me, really) to kindly stop.

But here’s why I still can’t shake it. It’s a sad song with a wisp of hope, but only a little. It’s a song with an overwhelming and timeless image of comfort—who doesn’t know the extreme satisfaction we can get of being warmed by the sun?—but it is wrapped in a feeling of loss and emptiness. It covers both sides of the fabled coin; it gives you the good and the bad together and leaves it to you to sort them out.

I knew the lore of the song, that it was written by cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love of The Beach Boys on November 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. And I assumed it was written as a somber reflection of all that was lost that day.

Only…not really. The truth is the song was written that day, but in the early morning hours before Kennedy was killed. Later it was recorded and released, coincidentally, on October 26, 1964—50 years prior to the day I started singing it while walking to my car in the sunshine, seemingly out of the blue.

So the lyrics and melody were done before the tragedy occurred, yet listen to the recording (or really, any retelling of it since, including the rather stunning one I’ve posted below from Brian Wilson and Eric Clapton) and you hear that pervasive sense of sadness. The song wasn’t written as an elegy to the late President, but in many ways it was recorded that way. And remains today as a sweet, simple meditation on fragility and longing, fleeting beauty and the hope that something as elemental as the warmth of the sun can carry us through and keep us going.

That’s how I hear it, especially today, especially after these months of living with a loved one with cancer, months of testing, diagnosis, delay, worry, fear, anger, frustration and, ultimately, meaningful resolution. We get there, because we have to get there. It’s how in my house we have endured her illness and kept our heads up and remained optimistic. It’s how we look to a great future of health rather than a sour recent past of disease. It’s how we move forward. We moved forward because we have to move forward.

But we can’t do it alone, and we don’t do it alone. It would take pages and pages for me to explain how grateful I am to the hundreds of people—really, they number in the hundreds—who have offered their prayers and support, not to mention the gifts and the meals and the flowers. Who have reached out to us to lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder. They are our church community, our friends of 20+ years, our neighbors, our work colleagues, our amazing family and the people who maybe know us a bit more peripherally through social media. They have all been there. I cannot thank them enough for what they have done and I doubt I’ll ever be able to.

Much like a warming sun we don’t expect to feel on our faces, they have all been there. And we have felt the glow, the heat, the comfort that we hoped for but knew was never a guarantee. I think now that’s what Brian Wilson was trying to get across—that through the struggle and the pain, something can linger that either pushes, pulls or carries you through to something better. Or, at least, warmer. And it makes such beautiful sense to me now.

“Still I have the warmth of the sun within my tonight. My love’s like the warmth of the sun—it won’t ever die.”

Scott said, “You get through it. You just do. You have to get through it, so you do.” And he was right.

And there are factors that help you to get through. Sometimes they are the angels in your life. Sometimes it is the unceasing love you feel for your spouse and family, a love you know will prop you up when you need it. Sometimes it is undying faith in God and His grace. Sometimes it is friends sending flowers, meals, prayers, well-wishes and smiles.

And sometimes it’s just a day you walk outside and feel, unexpected but so very much appreciated, that warmth of the sun.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

RIP Jack Bruce

Well, this is a bummer, if not entirely unexpected—after all, it was his close call with death that led to the previously impossible to even imagine Cream reunion in 2005.

Jack Bruce's (very) relative lack of commercial success post-Cream has always been a mystery to me. In that band of ferocious talent and even more ferocious egos, he was the main driver, musically (if not personally—that'd have to go to the most overrated drummer in not just rock but all musical history, one Ginger Baker). Jack Bruce wrote far more songs than the other two, he sang most of them (although Eric Clapton sang more and more towards the end of the band's short life) and, of course, he was an amazing bassist.

So why did he achieve but a fraction of Clapton's success, given all that? Some of it is clearly that he followed his muse, and his muse wanted to go in some uncommercial directions, such as fusion and complex, almost prog-like hard rock. But even so, he released enough albums clearly designed to be palatable to a broad rock and roll market with only limited success. I'm going to assume, then—Paul McCartney and Sting aside—it's a matter of the primacy of the guitar in rock and roll.

I don't know. But when you've written and sung a song as grand as this, not to mention a good half dozen others, you've had an amazing career right there.

Also, because it's Clapton's guitar that gets all the attention on this particular track, check out the bassline and don't drop your jaw on the floor:

I think bars 65-66 are my favorite. (Seriously.)

Monday, October 20, 2014


I walk into the living room and hear the sweet sounds of Wayne Shorter and see the 13-year-old
staring at my computer intently. I slowly peek over her shoulder. She's starting at the iTunes window.

She side-eyes me and says, "I need to practice piano, but there's only a little over a minute and a half left of the track. And it's against my personal beliefs to stop a song in the middle if you can possibly avoid it."

That's my girl.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


In case you ever wondered what classic rockers sound like when they're asleep.

If you made it all the way through all 27 minutes of that without falling asleep yourself, you're a far stronger (or more caffeinated) person than I.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Viva la Vida

I have to say, I don't entirely get the hatred Coldplay engenders. I get that a lot of people are turned off by their open attempt (success?) at being the biggest rock band in the world, as it's been decades since such naked desire for popularity has been cool. But their music seems to be the flashpoint just as much as their ambition. And try as I might, I cannot remember almost any of their biggest hits, even after I made a point of listening to several of them many, many times in a row, in a futile attempt to create some lasting impression of the band.

Which is when I realized what I really, really don't get is the love of the band. I know people who like them. I also know people who like them a lot. I've even encountered a few people who love them, and that I really don't understand. Maybe they just have much better memories than I. In fact, I'm sure they do. In fact, I think I probably said that before, somewhere in the first paragraph.

On the other hand, when you actually see the band, rather than just hear them? The hatred becomes far easier to understand. I just watched the Coldplay episode of Austin City Limits and good golly are they annoying visually. And by "they," of course, I mainly mean, "Chris Martin." Which is too bad, since I really liked his induction of Peter Gabriel into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But none of that can take away from the fact that this is, no kidding, one of the greatest pop songs ever. It is utterly perfect, and deserves a place with the Beatles and Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys and Prince and even Carly Rae Jepsen. It is flawless. Naturally, I place most of the credit for that producer Brian Eno, but whatever. It's a gem and a half.

Yeah, I didn't use the official video. Remember what I said about visually annoying?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Paranoid Eyes

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think people tend to associate the word “beauty” with the music of Pink Floyd too often. At least I don’t.

Pink Floyd is one of the greatest and most important rock-n-roll bands in history for myriad reasons. That's a given.

The sheer audacity of Roger Waters’ vision and propensity to not only aim for the fences so many different times, but to reach them. David Gilmour’s jaw-dropping guitar ability. The fact that Waters-Gilmour-Mason-Wright made one damn fine, tight and meticulously instinctive band. And that unique atmospheric quality attached to so much of Pink Floyd’s work—think of how recognizable and distinctive that decade-long thread running from Meddle through The Wall (and even through The Final Cut) is. It’s hard to think of a band with a more identifiable sound or feel, or a band more in command of that sound and feel.

But beauty? Sure, there’s plenty of it in their songs. Parts of “Echoes,” the gorgeous guitar run in “Fearless,” Gilmour’s impeccable solos that play out “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” and “Comfortably Numb,” the sentiments of loss and regret that permeate every inch of “Wish You Were Here.” It’s there. I’ve just never looked at a Pink Floyd song before and had my first response be, “That’s beautiful.” I’m more apt to be amazed, or floored, or sometimes even bewildered or startled than to notice the outright beauty.

But it’s there. 

And here’s a very, very deep cut from very, very late in their career that clearly shows how capable these guys were of creating something that, first and foremost, was beautiful. Even though, yes, David Gilmour doesn’t play on it, and even though, unfortunately, Rick Wright was no longer part of the band at this time. It still has the Pink Floyd name on it. (Just like “Yesterday” has the Beatles name on it and is without question a Beatles song, even though Paul is the only Beatle who's there.) And it’s still a beautiful and moving little song.

Mayhap you agree? And if not, well, listen anyway!

("The pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high. And you hide hide hide, behind brown and mild eyes.")

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

1968: it was a very good year

I tend to get irritated whenever someone talks about music today sucks, and how much better it used to be and yadda yadda yadda. That's, of course, exactly what people said in 1956 about the golden days before Elvis, Chuck, Buddy and Little Richard appeared, and it's what Elvis said when the Beatles appeared and so it goes.

On the other hand, you run across information like just some of the albums released in the final few months of 1968 and it kinda staggers.

September 1968
The Who—Magic Bus
Miles Davis—Miles in the Sky

October 1968
The Jimi Hendrix Experience—Electric Ladyland

November 1968
Neil Young—Neil Young
The Beatles—The Beatles (The White Album)
The Kinks—The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
Van Morrison—Astral Weeks
Elvis Presley—Elvis (soundtrack to his comeback special)

December 1968
The Rolling Stones—Beggars Banquet

...okay. Okay, sure. BUT.

Yeah, I got nothin', except maybe to point out that just November alone would have made 1968 a damn good year. When you can list five out of the dozen plus major releases and Neil Young's solo debut is the weak spot by far? That's, uh...that's a pretty list. And, again, that's just from the final third of the year, so not even talking about, say, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, White Light/White Heat or Lady Soul, all of which came out in the month of January 1968. Crazy.

Sing us out, Raymond.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Big Red Sun Blues/Dry Lightning

I admit it, Lucinda Williams didn't really come across my radar until suddenly Car Wheels on a Gravel Road was seemingly everywhere—and by that, I mean, was being lauded in every music magazine I read, although I've still never heard a single note of her music on the radio. Undoubtedly I'm not listening to the right stations.

Maybe because the praise set the bar too high, or I just wasn't in the right place for it at the time—I was in my nothing but jazz phase at that point, I think—Car Wheels didn't do much for me, much to my disappointment. But I believed the non-hype, so I checked out what I'd heard was her first major critical success, her self-titled LP from 1988. And although I approached it with some trepidation—my understanding was that she didn't fit comfortably in the country scene at all, being far too much her own artist prone to go her own way—that still implied she was at heart country-based, and that's the one major American music for which I still have something of a blind spot. So imagine my delight when I discover a wonderful album that sounds, to my ears, more than anything like a slightly (but only slightly) more country female Jackson Browne.

Until it came to "Big Red Sun Blues." Which I loved from the very first.

Everything is goin' wrong 
it's not right anymore
We can't seem to get along the way we did before

Sun is hangin' in the sky
sinkin' low and so am I
Just for the love of someone and a big red sun

How'm I gonna lose these big red sun blues
Big red sun big red sun big red sun blues

True love to hold is worth everything
It's worth more than gold or any diamond ring

But this little diamond and a heart that's been broken
Are all I got from you big red sun

How'm I gonna lose these big red sun blues
Big red sun big red sun big red sun blues

Look out at that western sky out over the open plains
God only knows why this is all that remains

But give me one more promise and another kiss
And I guess the deal's still on you big red sun

How'm I gonna lose these big red sun blues
Big red sun big red sun big red sun blues

But the thing is...I knew this song. Except I couldn't, because it was an original, and I'd never heard it before. And yet I did. From where? The bassline, which sounds like the Drifters? Not quite.

And then I realized.

Lyrically, they may not have a whole lot in common, but thematically they surely do.

I threw my robe on in the morning
Watched the ring on the stove turn to red
Stared hypnotized into a cup of coffee
Pulled on my boots and made the bed
Screen door hangin' off its hinges kept bangin' me awake all night
As I look out the window the only thing in sight

Is dry lightning on the horizon line
Just dry lightning and you on my mind

I chased the heat of her blood like it was the holy grail
Descend beautiful spirit into the evening pale
Her appaloosa's kickin' in the corral smelling rain
There's a low thunder rolling 'cross the mesquite plain
But there's just dry lightning on the horizon line
It's just dry lightning and you on my mind

I'd drive down to Alvarado street where she danced to make ends meet
I'd spend the night over my gin as she'd talk to her men

Well the piss yellow sun comes bringin' up the day
She said "ain't nobody gonna give nobody what they really need anyway"

Well you get so sick of the fightin'
You lose your fear of the end
But you can't lose your memory and the sweet smell of your skin
And it's just dry lightning on the horizon line
Just dry lightning and you on my mind

I'm going to guess I'm not the only one who can see the similarities between the two sets of lyrics, and that's before even mentioning that the bit about "the piss yellow sun" being not only a skewed echo of the "big red sun" but the line in the song that gets mentioned the most.

Circumstantial? Sure. Hard to hear? Nope.

Friday, October 3, 2014

You Missed My Heart

RtB mainstay Chris Barton thanked us recently for reminding him of just how much he loves the Osmonds and how no earworm could possibly be more welcome than "Crazy Horses." It was, of course, our pleasure, but if hard Zeppelin-influenced rock isn't so much your jam, we offer as a light alternative this ever so warm and comforting Mark Kozelek ditty.

For those who prefer their pop slightly more stripped down, the same tune in a more barren package. Different vibe, same lovely story, and both distinctly Osmondian in tone.

I broke into her house, saw her sitting there
Drinking coke and whiskey in her bra and underwear
I saw him in the kitchen hanging up the phone
I asked him nicely once to pack his things and go

He gave her a reassuring look and said he wouldn't leave
But I asked him one more time and this time pulled out my shiv
I stuck him in the back and I pulled it out slow
And I watched him fall down
And as the morning sun rose

He looked at me and said
"You missed my heart, you missed my heart
You got me good, I knew you would
But you missed my heart, you missed my heart"
Were his last words before he died

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Crazy Horses

Okay. So it's easy (and largely justified) to laugh at the Osmonds. A very white version of the Jackson 5, with amazing teeth and less good songs (and dance moves).

It's also easy to single out "Crazy Horses" as one of the exceptions, given its critical re-establishment this century, due to (perhaps initially ironical) covers by younger bands.

But it also stands up. This is one badass jam.

The brothers wrote and played everything on this album themselves, in a bid for critical respect. It didn't seem to work much at the time, but history has proved kinder. And props to the boys for being pro-environmental, whether trendy or not. As my imaginary friend Chris said:
It really tries to be be "of the time" while also having a very dorm-room-at-3am vibe -- "Man, did you ever notice that cars are, like, really just a kind of crazy horse?"
The reason you don't see a drummer in this video is that they're lip-syncing to the studio version, and the drums you're hearing are really being played by lead singer Alan. Which, given that drummers are usually, you know, behind the drums, might explain his what-if-Joe-Cocker-were-in-great-shape-but-still-tripping-balls dance moves...except that Alan was also the band's (and The Donny and Marie Show's) choreographer.

Wayne, on lead guitar, looks remarkably like Jimmy Page. And if he's not got Pagey's chops—no sin, by any means—his solo is actually pretty cool. Not exactly a masterclass in technique, it's interesting in how catchy, yet slightly raunchy, it is, while not echoing any melody heard elsewhere in the song, but rather providing some sort of basic counterpoint. Not bad.

And then there's Merrill, playing the bass and singing the lines right before the chorus. Okay, sure, his teeth might be beyond perfect—boy, howdy, they sure look like they are, even by Osmond standards (which, apparently, are still considered The Gold Standard in dental school)—but homeboy sells this damn song, with range and grit. And check out the bit after the solo, where he repeated "what they've done" line: he sings that not four times, and not eight, but seven, holding on the final, a nice bit of asymmetry that works to build the tension for the final chorus.

The keyboard horse effect does get pretty old, though. But we'll put up with it, if that's the price to be paid for a guitar riff that awesome.