Friday, December 21, 2018

I Want You Back

I'm a big fan of the slowed down, acoustic, soulful covers of upbeat pop, rock and hip-hop songs, while acknowledging that it's an approach which had become overdone well past the point of cliché many years ago.

The unbelievably talented Janelle Monae indeed slows down this unassailably ebullient Jackson 5 hit, but rather than simply go the delightful if well-trod twee route, she takes it in a jazz direction without actually adding any swing rhythms—and yet embuing it with an incredible amount of swing. And the results are simply magical: ethereal and yet thoroughly earthy at the same time.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Baby, It's Cold Outside

It's been fascinating to watch the rise and fall and perhaps rise again of this sorta kinda holiday standard. I don't think I'd ever even heard it until well into this century, nearly this decade. And since I think the first version I ever heard was the version J.D. and Turk from Scrubs put out, the impact was a bit different than it was for many. It was only later that I heard a more traditional version and realized how crazy creepy the song is.

Or is it? I've read several pieces arguing that, taking the era in which it was composed into account, it's actually just the opposite: a female somewhat flaunting conventions in a maybe kinda sorta subtle yet definite way.

There's definitely something to the case. And yet it's hard to shake the (nearly) original predatory feel I had (nearly) originally. Rapey? Transgressive? I haven't decided yet.

But what I have decided is that listening to two of the main voices from Schoolhouse Rock covering the song is incredibly wonderful, as despite her toydoll-like vocal stylings, I can't help but feel that Blossom Dearie did whatever she wanted whenever she wanted.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Election Day Bob Dylan Listening

'Tis that time of year. More specifically 'tis that DAY of the year. Vote. For real. Do it. Today.

As I have stated numerous times in this space, my Election Day listenings always go to Bob Dylan. Why? Probably has something to do with his being the most enduring American voice of the last half-century and more. A voice more often than not for freedom, for empathy and for understanding.

So that's why, I think. And today (Have we done this before? Seriously, I am asking - I've spotlit a lot of Dylan songs here and can't recall if I've done this one yet...oh well. I'm doing it anyway) I choose one of his most perfectly written songs. A song that remembers the forgotten, pities the afflicted, speaks for the voiceless and lifts up the persecuted. It is such a magnificent piece of writing that it's almost a shame that he had to put it to music.


Read these lyrics. And go vote. And keep them chimes of freedom flashing.

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
And for each an' every underdog soldier in the night
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the city's melted furnace, unexpectedly we watched
With faces hidden as the walls were tightening
As the echo of the wedding bells before the blowin' rain
Dissolved into the bells of the lightning
Tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake
Tolling for the luckless, the abandoned an' forsakened
Tolling for the outcast, burnin' constantly at stake
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Through the mad mystic hammering of the wild ripping hail
The sky cracked its poems in naked wonder
That the clinging of the church bells blew far into the breeze
Leaving only bells of lightning and its thunder
Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind
Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind
And the poet and the painter far behind his rightful time
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

In the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales
For the disrobed faceless forms of no position
Tolling for the tongues with no place to bring their thoughts
All down in taken-for-granted situations
Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute
For the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute
For the misdemeanor outlaw, chained an' cheated by pursuit
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Even though a cloud's white curtain in a far-off corner flared
An' the hypnotic splattered mist was slowly lifting
Electric light still struck like arrows, fired but for the ones
Condemned to drift or else be kept from drifting
Tolling for the searching ones, on their speechless, seeking trail
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale
And for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Starry-eyed an' laughing as I recall when we were caught
Trapped by no track of hours for they hanged suspended
As we listened one last time an' we watched with one last look
Spellbound an' swallowed 'til the tolling ended
Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an' worse
And for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
And we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Love Is Blue (and a bit blind)

I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say something along the lines of "music used to be so much better." I've heard old people say it, I've heard young people say it. I remember hearing it back in the 80s, for pete's sake, and music was pretty freakin' spectacular in the 1980s.

Don't get me wrong, I love the old stuff too. And, yeah, it's hard to argue that the 1960s weren't an insanely fertile time for music. That pretty much goes without saying but, hey, we'll say it anyway. And if the shadow it's cast over subsequent decades is somewhat unfair and obscures the fact that the 1970s and 1980s each have solid claims to be at least as good, in terms of output, as 60s, well, that doesn't change how great the 60s really were.

But if you want to rebut the whole "things were better back in ye olden days," take a look at 1967.

So 1967 was, by pretty much any measure, a darn good year for music. Here are just a small handful of the fine songs from that fine year:

“Respect,” “Light My Fire,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Purple Haze,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “Somebody to Love,” “Soul Man,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Nights in White Satin,” “The Letter,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “I Can See for Miles,” “My Back Pages,” “White Rabbit,” “Dance to the Music,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Happy Together,” “Tears of a Clown,” “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” “Penny Lane,” “The Dark End of the Street,” “I Second That Emotion,” “You Keep Me Hangin' On,” “Cold Sweat,” “Get Together,” “Different Drum,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Never Loved a Man,” “Sweet Soul Music,” “All You Need Is Love,” “The Letter,” “I'm A Believer,” “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” “I Can See for Miles,” Let's Live for Today,” “Soul Man,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Happy Together ,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You,” “Carrie-Anne,” “Ruby Tuesday,” and even a little song called “A Day in the Life.”

And there are at least a handful of other songs from most of those artists which could just as easily have made the list.

And yet. Know what the second-best selling single of the entire year was? Thanks to Tom Breihan's The Number Ones, his amazing column exploring every #1 single, I now know it  was this gem:

Don't get me, that's a very likable tune. I've always been fond of it and can hardly imagine getting tired of it. But...I mean...not exactly "Waterloo Sunset" or "Purple Haze" or “Strawberry Fields Forever” or "I'm Waiting for the Man," now is it? And yet it not only went to #1, it stayed there for five weeks. "Ruby Tuesday"? One week. "Penny Lane?" One week. "Respect?" Two weeks. "All You Need Is Love?" One week. "Love Is Blue?" Five weeks. Five damn weeks.

So, yeah, the good old days could be awfully good. But not always, and that part gets overlooked far too often.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue no. 17 in A-flat Major

I am gobsmacked and beyond delighted to find one of my favorite YouTube channels, the utterly delightful smalin, has a new video out—its first to feature not only the greatest of Soviet composers, Dmitri Shostakovich, but a piece from my absolute favorite work of his, 24 Preludes and Fugues, op 87, performed by the greatest of Soviet pianists, the brilliant Sviatoslav Richter.

Monday, October 8, 2018

96 Tears

Of the oh so many amazing things about Aretha Frankin, one of the most astonishing is that it took nearly six years of making records before she really hit the big-time. Six years and 10 albums before the world at large took notice of the Queen of Soul. And the incredible thing about it is that all the record companies really had to do was get the hell out of the way and let her do her thing—rather than try to shoehorn her into some updated version of Judy Garland, simply let Aretha be Aretha.

As though any proof of her greatness is needed, her she is taking that garage band proto-punk classic, "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians and indelibly stamping it with her own genius.

Obviously, having the likes of Spooner Oldham and Roger Hawkins behind you doesn't exactly hurt. But while the bass of the great Tommy Cogbill can only help, in the end—and the beginning and the middle—it's all about Lady Soul.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: My Life

So I was reading this recent interview with the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington. And a few things hit me.

One was the understated badassness of this bit:
I remember the show at the Garden after the Charlottesville riot when you wore a Star of David. How do you decide when you want to make your beliefs known?  
Wearing the Star of DavidAt his show on August 21, 2017, Joel sported a Star of David on his jacket. At the same concert, Joel had images of Trump officials like Anthony Scaramucci and Sean Spicer — as well as James Comey and Sally Yates — projected behind him as he and guest Patty Smyth performed Scandal’s “Goodbye to You.” wasn’t about politics. To me, what happened in Charlottesville was like war. When Trump said there were good people on both sides — there are no good Nazis. There are no good Ku Klux Klan people. Don’t equivocate that shit. I think about my old man: Most of his family was murdered in Auschwitz.The story of the Joel family’s experience with Nazi Germany is told in full in the 2001 German documentary The Joel Files.The story of the Joel family’s experience with Nazi Germany is told in full in the 2001 German documentary The Joel Files. He was able to get out but then got drafted and went in the U.S. Army. He risked his life in Europe to defeat Nazism. A lot of men from his generation did the same thing. So when those guys see punks walking around with swastikas, how do they keep from taking a baseball bat and bashing those crypto-Nazis over the head? Those creeps are going to march through the streets of my country? Uh-uh. I was personally offended. That’s why I wore that yellow star. I had to do something, and I didn’t think speaking about it was going to be as impactful.
The other was how very much criticism has taken its toll on him over the years. He denies it...again and again and again. He has to, because he very noticeably keeps bringing it up again and again and again. And that sucks. Because someone who's accomplished as much as the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington has should really be delighted with their life.

As one of the guys who's sometimes publicly mocked him ever so gently and lovingly, allow me to take a moment to talk about one of the many Billy Joel songs I really truly love and the thing about it which never ceases to impress me, no matter how many times I've heard it.

"My Life" is quintessential Billy Joel, with a lyric that aims for John Lennon, with perhaps some of Chuck Berry's braggadocio, but falls short (mainly in the second verse, which starts great but fizzles into empty albeit rhyming platitudes). Meanwhile, musically, it's a composition of which Paul McCartney himself could be proud, insanely melodic and with a plethora of hooks, including a few which are strictly instrumental and never actually translate to the vocal line.

It's got a compelling (and not entirely dissimilar to "Silly Love Songs") intro that starts quietly and builds until the whole band kicks in and delivers the first hook, just before the second hook is introduced—and again it's only this second hook which will actually turn into a vocal line and even there only as a faint vocal in the outro. Who does that? A guy who can produce the kind of melodies that the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington can, that's who.

So the song is pretty standard, from a structural point of view. With one exception, but it's a pretty big one, and that's what always strikes me about this one. It's not that the verses and the chorus share the same chord changes and melody, although that is kinda interesting, especially given that the intro and outro—which normally would share either the verse or chorus changes—are different. It's the placement of the bridge and the treatment of the second chorus, as well as the way he repeatedly goes to the intro/outro music, using it almost as a substitute for a guitar or keyboard solo.

The song goes:
  • intro
  • first verse
  • intro/break
  • first chorus
  • first bridge
  • second verse
  • intro/break
  • second chorus
  • second bridge
  • intro/break
  • third chorus
  • outro
For the second chorus, though, he has Liberty DeVitto bring the drums down to half-time, lending (or trying to) gravitas, to the first two lines. Then things kick back in and we go to the break section. Then back to the chorus for a third and final time...but only half of it. And then we're into the extended outro, which is just the intro/break section, but with vocals this time, singing the keyboard hook from the original intro.

It's an odd construction. There are only two verses, he keeps going back to the intro music, and the song gets heaviest almost right before it closes it out—and then once it does get ready to close out, it hangs around for a surprisingly (and pleasantly) long time. It's...weird. It feels like a standard 8-bar pop song, structurally, but it's really not. It's slightly, or maybe even more than slightly, askew, but you don't really notice the first few dozen times you hear it, as you're just caught up by Joel's phenomenally catchy melodies and compelling lyrics.

But he's the late Sir William Joel of Long Islandington, a guy who's a master of songcraft, so he undoubtedly knows what he's doing. Which makes it even more perplexing and, for me, at least, appealing.

Well done, good sir. Well done indeed.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mrs. Robinson

This is one of the greatest things I've ever seen.

I have to believe that Lulu was in on the joke, that she's well aware of how she's completely trampling—in an ever so delicate and effervescent and utterly funk-free way, of course—the point of the lyric.

The way she euphorically sings "any way you look at it you lose" as though she's singing "and flowers make me ever so happy." The way she spins and whirls, so carefree, as she coos about the bleak state of the union, the marital discord and infidelity, the titular character perhaps being locked away in a psychiatric institution.  It's all so gloriously wrongheaded that I have to believe she believes she's representing poor Mrs. Robinson herself, or perhaps Mrs. Robinson's psyche, drugged out of her gourd and beyond reason.

Any way you look at it, it's sublime.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ramble On

Restraint. Knowing when to lay out. Knowing what not to play. As Miles Davis famously advised John Coltrane, sometimes it’s best to just “take the horn out of your mouth.”

Which brings us to, incongruously, John Bonham.

Bonzo. Led Zeppelin’s monster drummer. The man who, more than any other, raised the bar on what it meant to be a rock and roll drummer. Of his peers and predecessors, only Keith Moon was as influential (although his stock has dropped precipitously since his death, while Bonham’s has, if anything, continued to rise) and only Ginger Baker as technically advanced.  Bonham’s technique, his style, his sheer overwhelming volume and speed and most of all power, were mindblowing at the time and, perhaps because of his remarkable influence continuing to this day, don’t sound dated.

From the first very, he amazed. Literally: the first track off their first album has Bonham doing things with the bass drum never before heard in rock and roll. Check out the bass drum triplets he starts playing about five seconds in here—since you’re probably listening on little computer speakers it might be a bit hard to pick up, but for drummers at the time, what he was doing with the bass drum was astonishing.

              "Good Times, Bad Times" outro

Later he, more than any other drummer, would go on to popularize that bane of 70s concert going experiences, the interminable drum solo. Sure, he was a star and a stud…but really? 30 minutes for a drum solo? That’s how long the entire Beatles concert at Shea Stadium was. Even the great Bonzo couldn’t make a solo of that length transcendent.

But when you have a drummer as powerful and inventive and plain musical as Bonham, you overlook such trivialities. (Also, you head for the beer stands.) I mean, you could go through any Led Zeppelin album and find who knows how many amazing Bonham moments. The way he takes songs like “Misty Mountain Hop” or “The Song Remains the Same” or “Trampled Under Foot” or “Kashmir” or “Achilles Last Stand” which are already moving forward like a crazed elephant and somehow manages to shove things up a few notches is just unsurpassed. But just check out these intros:

              "Rock and Roll" intro

              "The Crunge" intro

              "D'yer Mak'er" intro

              "When the Levee Breaks" intro

There's little there that's terribly difficult—but that's one of the points. Simplicity is often best and usually more difficult. And play any or all of those for any serious rock fan who grew up in the 70s or 80s and probably even later and they’ll be able to tell you the name of the song those come from, sing the riff that’s just about to kick in and likely even pinpoint where each song belongs on each album. How many other good drummers have that many signature moments in their careers? ‘cuz those four examples? Are just from two albums. Crazy.

Which brings us, in my meandering way, to “Ramble On.” Off their second album, the song’s notable for several things: it’s perhaps the earliest rock and roll song with Tolkien allusions—especially ironical, given that making Lord of the Ring references is shorthand for mocking geeky prog rock groups, while Led Zeppelin is generally the coolest of the cool when it comes to rock bands, and yet they’re by far the most prominent offenders. It’s good to be the king.

Then there’s lovely bass playing by Led Zeppelin’s secret weapon, John Paul Jones, contributing the most melodic, catchiest element of the music, as well as the odd percussive sound during the verses, Bonham tapping on something which has never been conclusively identified.

And finally we have the point of all this, which is Bonham’s playing. Check it:

                           "Ramble On" 

Notice how tasteful and tasty his playing is? That five note drum riff he plays each time his drums enter? The way he plays half a measure, then pulls his snare out for the next half measure, filling the space with a quartet of syncopated bass drum kicks, and then comes back in on the snare double time for a measure. And then he does the whole pattern again. Chorus over, he again lays out for the verses.

When it comes to the brief instrumental solo section he plays it straight, with a nice smattering of syncopated semi-ghosted notes on the snare before a tiny fill leads into him dropping out for the final verse. Another few runs through the chorus and we’re out.

See what he did there? Or rather what he didn’t do? Four and a half minutes and the world’s greatest rock and roll drummer, the spiritual (if not literal) inspiration for the muppet drummer Animal, the most notorious wildman in the most notorious rock and roll band of wildmen, doesn’t even really play a single drum fill. Instead he simply sticks (no pun intended) to his pre-composed drum part. That is, to quote Luke Skywalker, improbable. And yet there 'tis.

It’s this side of Bonham which often gets overlooked in the justly deserved praise for his power. It’s the fact that Bonham wasn’t just an insanely powerful drummer—although he most certainly was that. But he was also a monster musician sharing an unlikely philosophy with the likes of Steve Cropper, Paul McCartney and Miles Davis: just because you can play something, it doesn’t mean you should.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

American Girl

If the slowed down, stripped down cover of an uptempo classic has become more than a little clichéd, well, it's for a reason: it works.

This isn't going to cause anyone to forget the Tom Petty original but it's (almost) always nice to hear one major artist paying tribute to another major artist and putting their own stamp on things.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Thursday, August 16, 2018

RIP Aretha Franklin

The greatest American singer of our lifetime? The greatest female singer of our lifetime? Or simply the greatest singer of our lifetime? Pace Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon and Prince, it's pretty damn hard to argue that the Queen of Soul wasn't just the first two but all three—certainly until yesterday she was the greatest living pop singer in the world.

But she was also a brilliant artist, who knew how to make the most of her spectacular instrument, turning in mind-blowing performance after mind-blowing performance. Taking "Respect," a song already done fantastically by its writer, Otis Redding, and blowing his version away by adding a bridge and her pipes and transforming it into a feminist anthem should not have been possible. And for the Queen, it was a day's work, and a life's triumph.

And if that was all she had done, her place in history would have been assured. But of course that's just the tip of the iceberg.  "Chain of Fools," "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," "Think," "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," "Rock Steady" and dozens of others don't even begin to scratch the surface of her contribution to popular music. And that's without even getting into her importance to the civil rights movement.

For many of us suburban white kids, her incendiary performance in The Blues Brothers was our first conscious introduction to Aretha, although of course her music had been in the air since we'd had ears.

I was deep in my hard rock Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith phase the first time I saw the film, and this kind of soul music was not in my wheelhouse. And yet I remember being utterly transfixed from the moment she began singing, barely breathing until the song was over. I've probably watched it two dozen times since then and it's never lost one bit of its power.

Steven Hyden wrote about her performance at Montreux:
If you’re like me, it’s impossible not to compare what she’s doing to what Art Garfunkel did. In the Simon & Garfunkel version, the part when Garfunkel sings “…and pain is all around” always chokes me up. He’s a friend offering solace, but you can tell he’s not exactly in the best way, either. He’s trying to be strong, but he can’t help but expose his inner pain.
Aretha does not sound weak. She is not praying to God for deliverance. She is the voice of God.
When Simon & Garfunkel perform “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the final “sail on silver girl” verse seems superfluous after that “pain is all around” verse — the song’s emotional peak has already been reached. But when Aretha does it, that last verse feels like a legitimate climax. As a listener, you feel yourself ascending toward the divine. She’s reaching out, extending herself to give all of humanity a big bear-hug. “Your time has come to shine / all your dreams are on their way,” she sings, and you believe her, because her voice has automatic authority when it comes to such matters. She sounds immortal, and this is a relief, because what is immortal can’t ever die.

Damn skippy.

That performance, obviously, also features some sweet damn piano playing from Ms Franklin—if your band was auditioning for a new pianist, and she walked in and started playing the way she does here, you'd sign her up after about three bars...and that's without even hearing her sing.

For further proof, let's turn to her takeover of Elton John's "Border Song."

Again, that fantastic piano is courtesy the Queen herself, a reminder that had she wanted to go in that direction, she absolutely could have beaten the likes of Elton or Billy at their own games—hell, she could have been a leading studio pianist without even ever opening her mouth. And while I've never actually heard him say it, I like to think Elton John (an avowed fan) had the same reaction to hearing her cover of his song as Otis Redding did (with admiration) when he heard her version of "Respect": "that woman stole my song." I mean, from literally the first line, when she's barely singing above a murmur, she's in complete and utter command—of both her voice and the song. And, of course, being Aretha, she just builds from there.

And yet the recording I keep finding myself going back to is this, for reasons which I suppose are pretty obvious.

As with the recent losses of Prince and David Bowie and B.B. King, there's a gaping hole in the soul left by their absence. But those holes are only there because those brilliant artists made room in the soul, stretching and pulling and pushing and enlarging, through their art in the first place. And for that we should be eternally grateful.

Rest in peace, Queen. And thank you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Time Song

I'm trying to wrap my head around having this song, this recording, in your vault and thinking, "nah...not quite good enough."

As if anyone required further proof of just how great the Kinks were...

Monday, July 16, 2018

Five Days in July

So I heard this at our local pizza joint the other day. I've been listening to a lot of Neil Young recently, so the opening harmonica immediately grabbed my attention, sounding as it does like an amalgamation of several different NY tunes, most especially "I Am a Child" and "Comes a Time," but shifted into the minor.

I couldn't hear very well, but enough to grok that it wasn't ol' Neil on vocals, and then some of the harmonic movement made it clear that if the song was written by Mr Young, it wasn't one I knew.

But then came the solo at the end I thought, damn, if these boys don't have the Neil Young aesthetic down pretty cold.

I've embedded this oh so pretty version of the song rather than the official video because the official video is about half the length and doesn't have the guitar searage.

Turns out Blue Rodeo was founded in the early 1980s and I'm only listening to them now. Seems about par for the course.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I'll Be Your Mirror

See, I'm funny in some ways.

Not necessarily funny in a "ha-ha" way, although, well, I like to think that I am? ("Not to brag, but Reader's Digest is considering publishing two of my jokes.")

Anyway. I'm funny sometimes in what I like and what I don't like. More to the point, I'm funny how I seemingly have the ability to like and dislike things at the same time. Like David Lynch movies, mayhap? I really like what he does but really don't like watching it? Does that make sense?

Dan...please...can you just get on with it?


Here's what I'm talking about today. The song "I'll Be Your Mirror." Written by Lou Reed and produced by Andy Warhol for Velvet Underground's seminal first album with Nico in 1967. This is such a gorgeous song and one of my favorite pieces of music. It is such a lovely little tune. I mean, look at these spare, delicate and oh-so-lovingly intricate lyrics.

I'll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don't know
I'll be the wind, the rain and the sunset
The light on your door that shows that you're home.

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you.

I find it hard 
To believe you don't know the beauty you are
But if you don't, let me be your eyes,
A hand in your darkness, so you won't be afraid.

When you think the night has seen your mind
That inside you're twisted and unkind
Let me stand to show that you are blind
Please put down your hands
'Cause I see you.

I'll be your mirror.

That is just so unceasingly beautiful, isn't it? Lou sure knew how to be a poet, how to channel his inner William Blake and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, when he wanted to.

But. Then, on that amazing first record, Nico sings it. It's one of the three spectacular songs that she sings (along with "Femme Fatale" and "All Tomorrow's Parties") and, I'm sorry and others may disagree with me, but she butchers them all. I just cannot listen to her angular, toneless voice and be entertained. Or moved. And I don't think that I'm alone here.

So. One of my favorite songs ever and I can't listen to it. Dammit.

But maybe I can! Like here:

I believe that's Doug Yule singing lead and Lou on the harmonies from the classic Max's Kansas City show that I used to actually have on a double-sided cassette tape back in college. It's not perfect, but it gets to a little more of a delicate nature of the song.

Then there's this from the alt-country corner, which is getting warmer:

Now, I think it could use a bit more range on the vocal side, and could really benefit from a harmony over the chorus, but there's more of an earnestness here than I hear on the original or even the VU 1972 version, so I appreciate that.

Moving on, now we hit the sweet spot on all levels:

There are quite a few words I could use to describe this. "Stunning" comes to mind - my God, those angelic harmonies! "Near-perfect" is another. This version is so faithful to the original yet also, somehow, so Beck's own. I love it more and more every time I hear it. And could not imagine a version I adore more.

Only then my girl Susie shows up and changes the game once more:

I mean. I MEAN.

Funny thing is (there's that word again) I didn't even know this version existed until a few days ago. Apparently it's not even technically a Susanna Hoffs song, but rather a guest vocal she did on some pre-Bangled early 80s project. And it leaves me breathless each time I hear it. Yes, I am aware that Beck's version is likely the definitive one here, but my blind spot for Susie will never ever go away.

So. To hell with the original. May the great covers of this great tune keep coming. And get better every time.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

She's Always in My Hair

There are so many things to be said about this performance: what an amazing singer Prince was, what a phenomenal guitarist, what an unsurpassed bandleader, how physically graceful he was. We could discuss what an odd choice it was to put that huge symbol right there, frequently obscuring his guitar playing. How interesting it was that he veered towards hard rock towards the end of his career.

But one thing kept leaping out at me as I watched—or, really, listened to—this performance and that was that there is absolutely no reason for a band like The Eagles or even R.E.M. to bring so many extra backing musicians on tour. Two guitars, bass, drums and keyboard—that's clearly all that's required for the richest, most massive of sounds. Those five musicians create an elegant sufficiency of the numerous harmonic and melodic delicacies; any more would be an unsophisticated superfluity.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Just Another Day in Music History


51 years ago tomorrow, things changed in music.

Like, for forever. For good. For very very VERY good.

Happy Anniversary, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And I'll bet you didn't think I'd remember!

And that this masterpiece of an album isn't even the best record The Beatles ever did, well, that's pretty jarring, innit?

I for one love the outtakes from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Maybe because I've gotten so used to the pristine studio production from an album that basically helped invent pristine studio production, it's kinda weird and kind wonderful to hear the Fabs muddling though some of the tracks while they rehearse.

Like here. With "Getting Better."

And yet.  Even here in raw and unready fashion, when the music really kicks in around the :15 mark, you really can feel magic starting to happen.

Happy 51st, Good Sergeant.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Sun City

So it's been 33 years or so since the last (and without a question the best) of the Holy Trio of Mid-80s Superstar-Packed Issue Awareness Songs was written and recorded.

"Sun City." By Artists United Against Apartheid.

Thirty-three years.

Feel old, Scott?

(Scott: Bows head and weeps.)


First came "Do They Know It's Christmas" from some of our top British musicians of the time at the end of 1984, by a Rockestra-like outfit calling itself Band Aid and recorded to raise money for relief efforts for war and famine-torn Ethiopia. It was star-studded and catchy as hell, had multiple interior arrangements and actually was not at all a bad tune. Despite some lyrics that made you cringe. ("And there won't snow in Africa this Christmas.") Ugh.

Then three months came the maybe the biggest song of the 1980s and very possibly the most 80s song of the 1980s, "We Are the World." Done for the same very righteous and critical cause and recorded by a very very large group calling themselves USA For Africa. Three things were made crystal clear.

1) This without a doubt the greatest assemblage of musical talent in one room in the 20th century. I mean GEEZ. Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen??? And we haven't mentioned Willie Nelson or Paul Simon or Lionel Richie or Billy Joel or Diana Ross??? Not to mention vocal titans like Cyndi Lauper and Darryl Hall and Steve Perry and James Ingram? Wow. And wow.

2) The song was unspeakably, unavoidably and almost malignantly catchy, not to mention as ubiquitous as any song of that decade.

3) The lyrics were as, well, shallow and acrid as any written in that era. ("You know love is all we need." "Send 'em your heart, so they know that someone cares.") Yikes.

The good news, of course, is both songs generated a ton of public awareness and money, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian relief and making way for that summer's monumental, bi-Atlantic concert spectacular, Live Aid. It worked. It didn't solve the problem, of course, but only a true cynic can naysay the effort or results.

Then came the third installment seven months later. This one had a totally different focus; same continent, different region and different cause. "Sun City" was the brainchild of then-former E Street Bandmate and then-current Disciple of Soul Little Steven Van Zandt, and it was a searing, seething indictment of South Africa's government-sponsored system of institutionalized racism, apartheid.

Hard to think about now, but in 1985 it really seemed that South Africa really was going to have carte blanche forever to enslave, repress and brutalize its 3/4 black population. Any efforts to raise awareness of the subhuman nature of apartheid was blunted, at least in part, by the refusal of the U.S. and Great Britain to push for any kind of action against South Africa, despite United Nations sanctions against the country. The U.S. official policy was coined "Constructive Engagement" by President Reagan's people, which in effect meant that if we kept treating them with generosity and aid they'd be inspired to change their ways.


So anyway. Little Steven traveled to South Africa to learn more and be shown the true and hideous underside of the apartheid government. Working with a TV journalist he became inspired to write the song to scream against the fact that numerous international musical acts were (very very wrongly) playing the signature South African resort venue of Sun City (located in the black township of Bophuthatswana and off-limits to black citizens) in direct defiance of the (very very correct) UN sanctions. Steven decided to write a song in protest of both apartheid and the idea of darkening Sun City's racist doorstep, and created one of the finest multi-racial and musically diverse collections of talent in music history.

"Sun City" didn't tug at the heartstrings; it sought to tear them out. The song was fast and angry as hell. And unlike the first two, it gave centerstage to the (at the time) burgeoning art forms of rap and hip-hop, which lent the song even more urgency and defiant underpinnings. So not only did we get supercool icons like Springsteen, Dylan, Lou Reed, Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin, Bono, George Clinton, Joey Ramone and Bonnie Raitt, but we also got rising stars Run-DMC, Afrika Bambaataa and Kurtis Blow alongside genuine rap pioneers Kool DJ Herc and Grandmaster Melle Mel. Oh, and we also got Miles Davis. And Darlene Love. And Ruben Blades. And Jackson Browne. And Pat Benatar. And Bobby Womack. And Jimmy Cliff. And others. Holy moly what a collection!

So this unprecedented pairing of black and white musical stylistic royalty (which I believe even preceded the epochal Run DMC/Aerosmith "Walk This Way" pairing) resulted in a sprawling, nearly seven-minute indictment of one of the earth's most despicable countries and practices. And it wasn't a plea for understand or money. Nope. It was way more visceral and way more simple.

Got to say I, I, I
ain't gonna play Sun City!
Everybody say I, I, I,
ain't gonna play Sun City!

And as you see above, it had a video that accompanied it that, damn, remains one of my favorite videos of all time. It's a frenetic, multi-dimensional splatter painting that evokes the same rage, outrage and bitterness that the song does. Everyone is in top form vocally and musically, and everyone is in top form as a dominating visual presence. Check out Bonnie Raitt's strut. Check out Run-DMC's glorious intro. Check out Bob Dylan's detached cool. Check out Darlene Love's...command of the camera. And those aren't even my favorites.

But I do have favorites. Here's a list.

The Top 10 Coolest Thing About the "Sun City" Video, In Order of Coolness, From Awesomely Cool to the Coolest Thing Imaginable

1. (:29) Miles' haunting image to accompany his haunting horn at the outset.
2. (2:15) George Clinton's incredulous and petulant wide-eyed look that accompanies the incredulous and petulant words he sings.
3. (3:09) John Oates and Ruben Blades sharing a perfect harmony with a mesmerizing camera gaze.
4. (2:14) Bruce, Eddie and David slapping fives at the end of their verse.
5. (2:18) Joey Ramone seemingly popping into the set unannounced to spit some venom at the then-U.S. President.
6a. (4:38) Nona Hendryx just bringing the damn attitude with her "don't fuck with me" stare.
6b. (5:09) Ringo Starr and son playing drums together.
7. (:58 and 4:06) Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootie just holding court every second they're onscreen, including Duke brazenly flipping up his shades not once but TWICE!!!
8.(4:40)  Bono's coiled snake presence, which event outshone his mullet.
9. (first around 4:15 and then really around 6:15) Those unspeakably joyous crowdshots around Little Steven.
10.(3:12)  Lou Reed. Every single thing about him.

The Uncoolest Moments of the "Sun City" Video

1. (5:37) Peter Wolf's dancing.
2. There are no other uncool moments in the "Sun City" video.

What a moment in time. A truly great musical experience that crossed so damn many lines.

As the man sang, "Look around the world, baby. It cannot be denied."

Friday, May 18, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: Into Your Arms

I confess, the Lemonheads never really did it for me.

Even at the height of the alt-rock explosion in the early 1990s, which was right at the time they entered the mainstream with so many others, I just didn't feel that connection with them. I liked a few of their songs, sure (as may be obvious right now, given the title of this post), but the connection I felt to Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Sonic Youth? Nope, just wasn't there.

Hell, I felt more attached to the Gin Blossoms and Jayhawks and Smashing Pumpkins than I did to this Boston-based trio. Not to mention some other bands I truly dug (and still do) like Toad the Wet Sprocket and Counting Crows. The Lemonheads just didn't ring my bell the way others did.

It may have been the fact that Head Lemonhead (LemonHead?) Evan Dando annoyed the hell out of me. Much the way that Chris Martin's antics have always gotten in the way of Coldplay's music for me, Dando's slacker cum pretty boy poseur lean (fair or unfair) just made me say, "Yeah. No. Not for me." Despite the fact that he sang well and created some damn melodic music.

But his look seemed more like that, a look. Nowhere near as honest as the hard, tortured realism of Kurt Cobain or the detached introspection of Chris Cornell or the guarded, seething rage of Eddie Vedder (although granted, Eddie's act grew tired within a few years, though fortunately he changed his tune and today seems to personify veteran rock-n-roll cool). Dando's pose struck me as unearned; again, right or wrong. And it turned me off.

I've softened since. I'm older! And I've come to really appreciate the loose, dreamy breeze of a lot of what the Lemonheads did. And never moreso than today's entry for Favorite Song Friday.

Favorite Song Friday - The Lemonheads - Into Your Arms

I've said it before about other songs and I'll say it again. This is perfect pop. Period.

From the opening rake of that simple D/D major chord bounce, "Into Your Arms" is so damn listenable it almost seems to have been manufactured in a lab. It's pretty much I-IV-V all the way from there, save for the stopover at E minor which lends a nice little gentle edge to it. But everything works without tricks and, surprisingly, without pretensions or any overplay. It's just a plaintive, simple love song played out over plaintive, simple chords.

I know a place where I can go
And be alone
Into your arms, into your arms I can go

I know a place that's safe and warm
From the crowd
Into your arms, into your arms I can go

And if I should fall
I know that I won't be alone anymore

Dassit, baby. Two verses repeated twice each. One bridge repeated twice, Maybe 25 words total in the whole song? You don't need to rewrite Beethoven's 9th to produce essential and lovely pop rock. Hell, you don't even have to rewrite "Hey Jude." If you're gonna go simple, you stay simple. That's "Into Your Arms."

Dando's voice is a perfect instrument to meet this song's lonely and heart-on-sleeve plea. He sounds like he's leaning over his last drink at the bar, telling the girl next to him that he doesn't want much, only to be able to feel safe with her. His voice is weary and tested, but it jumps to profoundly powerful when he hits the end of the bridge ("...won't alone anyMORE.") He takes his time to get his thoughts out and when he does, he doesn't say much. But just like the unbending, jangly chord pattern, it's all he needs. His agency is earned in this song by never veering from the path.

And when it's done, it's done. The song almost sounds like a windup toy running down at the end as it just slowly, faithfully grinds into silence.

I don't love the Lemonheads, probably never will. But I love this song. Because the band knew all along what it was and what it wasn't. And let it exist as the sweet slice of poppy goodness it was meant to be.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Miss You

Now this is how you cover a song. It's (almost) instantly recognizable and yet with only relatively minor modifications completely transmogrified through force of will and strength of personality. The irony of another artist taking a song by perhaps the most famous white blues band exploring disco and bringing their disco hit back into the blues is delightful. Admittedly, it's not quite as surprising, given that it's the undeniable Etta James but still. One has to assume the Rolling Stones were more than a little pleased, if possibly also a little abashed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

RIP Bob Dorough

My oldest kid told me the other day about some tumblr thing where you're supposed to list the 10 albums which had the biggest impact on you. She laughed at the absurdity of such a notion, and then looked astonished as I ripped off my top 10 list of the albums which had the biggest impact on me. It was far from the first time I'd ever pondered that exact question, I explained.

But when it comes to songs, to artists, one who's up there for me, personally, with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Brian Eno is Bob Dorough.

He had a fine career as a jazz pianist and singer, but for people of my generation, it was as the creator of Schoolhouse Rock that he'll forever be remembered, and rightly so. He created dozens of enduring tunes with catchy lyrics designed to actually make you learn without even realizing you were and succeeding magnificently. He sang a large percentage of them, too, and his friendly, accessible voice was absolutely perfect, as the gentle but propulsive "My Hero, Zero" makes obvious.

And yet look at his versatility: the same guy who wrote that and "Three Is a Magic Number" wrote the genuine funk of "I Got Six," sung by brilliant drummer Grady Tate, and the delicately haunting "Figure Eight," sung so tenderly by the ethereal and impossibly wonderfully named Blossom Dearie. And those are just some of the multiplication songs he wrote, never mind the history and science and grammar.

Thanks, Bob.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Favorite Song Friday: "Heroes"

All three of our loyal readers may have noticed it's been a bit somnolent 'round these parts for the past year or two, at least in comparison to the first four years of the blog—the dropoff is pretty precipitous.

There are, of course, a lot of reasons for that. Life, as it will, intrudes. Novelty wears off. We run out of semi-pseudo-insightful insights to inflict upon an innocent world. The anti-Christ took office.

But upon reflection, a large part of it's because the death of David Bowie hit us pretty hard. Hard enough that a good friend who knows me well pinged me the next day and asked, simply, "so, nothing but Bowie or no Bowie at all?" The answer was pretty much no Bowie at all, for nearly a week. I just couldn't. (DT, on the other hand, went the opposite route, listening to pretty much nothing but DB.) This is the hardest I've been rocked by a musician's death since Kurt Cobain, in no small part because—to some extent, as with Cobain—it was so unexpected.

Fuckin' Bowie, man. He headfaked us yet again. After his heart attack in 2004, he virtually disappeared almost entirely for nine damn years. A very few live appearances here, a very few guest recordings there, a delightful turn as Nikola Tesla, but nothing substantive. And it seemed like that was that. And that was okay. Bowie had by that point more than given us more than anyone could ever expect from one artist.

I've been listening to an awful lot of Bowie recently—surprise surprise, I know, that I should have turned away from my temporary Thin White Duke asceticism and gone entirely in the other direction—and I realized that on his last tour, when he wanted to reward the audience by playing an old favorite (out of, say, 25 songs played on a given night, often no more than half and sometimes quite a bit less would be from his most popular period, with the majority being "newer" material completely unfamiliar to the casual fan),

And then out of nowhere he released a single and then an album and then just before his death his most acclaimed new album in decades...and then he's gone. Brilliant and unpredictable to the last. Dammit.


Here's a piece I wrote a few years back about the song which is often my favorite Bowie song, as well as the one I generally think is probably his best. When it comes to an artist of Bowie's stature, best is rarely easy to definitively pin down, and varies according to whatever metric the judge is going by. And when it comes to our most-beloved artists, which song or album is the favorite doesn't always track with what's the best. And yet this song, more than almost any of his others, is almost always in my personal top five for both categories, and often in the pole position.


So I read one of those “best of” lists recently. Silly as those lists tend to be, I do love them so, and not just because they frequently give me an excuse to get angry. But this one—a list of “best covers ever”—was worse than most, if only for the inclusion of The Wallflower’s version of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

A great cover brings something new to the table. Sometimes, as with the Beatles version of “Twist and Shout,” it brings an irrepressible energy, and perhaps the greatest single vocal from one of the greatest singers in rock history, a performance so powerful you can literally hear his voice shredding by the end. Others successfully recast the composition itself, pulling it from genre to another, as with Jimi Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower,” a reconceptualization so effective that Bob Dylan himself adopted it.

The Wallflowers do none of this. Instead, they perform the song as though it were a full band karaoke.

It’s a fine performance, in some respects: the drummer is your typical 90s post-grunge drummer, which is to say, he bashes enthusiastically. The aural background relies much more heavily on mildly distorted guitars than Bowie’s original, with its emphasis on synthesizers. If the musical backing doesn’t add to anything to our understanding of the song, neither is it especially embarrassing.
That’s left up to singer and bandleader Jakob Dylan. He starts the song with the kind of jaded, slacker ennui that’s practically a parody of the era. Later, when the “emotional” part kicks in, he can finally be arsed to sing above a seductive whisper, but even here his voice has a kind of blank, dead-eye stare quality to it. It seems to imply he doesn’t mean any of it, but his phrasing of the final chorus, with its long, drawn-out assertion that they can indeed “be heeeeeeeeroes” would belie that interpretation. The result is a bunch of pretty sound and half-hearted attempts at fury which mean less than nothing.

Generic mid-90s and flawed as their version is, it’s made even worse by the video, a mix of lip-synching and footage from the Godzilla remake. Bowie, of course, was one of the first artists to realize and explore the possibilities of video, as well as the most nakedly savvy about the potential for commercialization of not just one’s art but one’s own self, as when he sold stock in his own back catalog. But this video make it absolutely blatant that the Wallflowers viewed the song as nothing but commerce, with not even a nod to actual art, as Dylan sings about being a hero while casually dodging Godzilla’s tail—a particularly humorously unironic bit of stupidity, as Dylan is, in fact, doing nothing heroic, not even bothering to warn his band members that they’re about to be crushed to death. It’s crass and vacant, which makes its inclusion on any “best of” list perplexing, to say the least.

Compare and contrast Bowie’s various versions. His original studio version has a cold, mechanical backing, made up largely of washes of synthesizer, and highlighted by Robert Fripp’s slippery lead guitar. His opening vocal, detached and chilly, fits in perfectly, its resigned air somewhat frightening.

As the song progresses, his emotions begin to change, to become rougher and more open. In the second verse he laughs gently, as though the idea of making plans when the future is so uncertain—and the most likely outcome unpleasant—is darkly ironic, yet all the more attractive for that. “We can be heroes,” he says to the song's fantasy queen, “forever and ever. What you say?” The only response is Fripp’s echoing guitar lines. Come the third verse, Bowie takes his doomed daydream even further, wishing his dream girl could swim like a dolphin, convinced they could be heroes if only she could.

And then he gets to the fourth verse and Bowie lets loose vocally in a way he rarely had before or would after, taking the melody up an octave and almost shouting his determination that they should be rulers, if only for a day. The fifth verse clues us in to what it is that has him so beaten down, and yet determined to fight back—he and the female to whom he's singing are standing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, and soldiers are firing and reality has crashed down and there’s no chance they’re going to make it: they’re never, ever going to be king and queen, they’re not going to swim like dolphins and they’re not going to be heroes. And, yet, in his refusal to meekly acquiesce, even if in his own heart, there is something heroic, something noble, in his defiantly doomed stand.

Or so it seems. Because after you think the song’s over, a last verse comes in out of nowhere. “We’re nothing,” he admits. “And no one will help us. Maybe we’re lying.” There’s a reason the punks never turned on Bowie, the way they did the Beatles and Stones and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd—this is every bit as true to the spirit of punk as anything by the Clash or the Pistols.

It’s instructive to note how Bowie himself has approached the song in subsequent years. During his fabulously successful 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, he approached it, as with most of his catalog, in a sort of Elvis-Goes-to-Vegas manner. But whereas that same approach was horrifying when Dylan tried it in the late 70s, in Bowie’s case it felt more like an affectionate look at his own history, sharing it at last with the mass audience he’d so long craved and sought; because Bowie was so famous and critically acclaimed, it's easy to forget that until the Let's Dance LP, he'd only ever had one real U.S. hit single, and that had been eight years earlier: an eternity in pop terms.

The performance is kicked along by Tony Thompson, the most dominant, aggressive drummer he’d ever play with; Dennis Davies is one of the most underrated drummers in the history of rock and roll, with a resume only a handful of drummers could match, while Zach Alford and Sterling Campbell may actually have been more technically accomplished, but couldn't compete with Thompson's accomplishments and the subsequent power he held, in terms of both importance and prestige. If the performance is a long way from its origins, it’s still enjoyable—the jaunty horns may undercut, rather than provide a fruitful juxtaposition of, the lyric’s theme…but, on the other hand, you know: horns. Horns are pretty much always good. And pastel, smoothly dancing Bowie was such a change, such an enjoyable new character from the chameleon.

But compare that to his acoustic performance at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit in 1996. Proving—as though there were necessary—that acoustic doesn't have to mean laidback, Bowie is intense, whispery, almost defeated at times, all of which is appropriate to the song and never less than gripping. This is, perhaps, sorta kinda what the Wallflowers were going for, and proves that, with the proper approach and a ton of talent, it was indeed possible...just not by them.

And then there's Bowie's treatment of the song on his 2003 Reality tour. Only about a third of the songs during a typical show were from the most popular parts of his songbook, with the vast majority being pulled from his less than blockbuster albums of the 1990s and 2000s—an interestingly deliberate act of non-pandering. “Heroes,” would be one of the last songs of the show, and it’s presented almost as a gift to the fans, a thank you to them for sitting through, say, the lesser known “Never Get Old,” rather than, say, “Space Oddity.”

There's quite a bit of self-assured banter with the crowd before he cues the band. But note the way he enters concurrent with the band, rather than allowing the typical musical intro to tip off the crowd. The backing is relaxed, sparse, and laid back, almost an unplugged treatment, with few of the prominent synths and, initially, none of the classic guitar hook. He smiles, he croons, a master toying with…something. The song? The crowd? His own mortality? Although he couldn't have known at the time, this was, after all,  Bowie’s last tour.

But then the band ramps up a bit after the first chorus and by the time of the second verse, he seems to get more serious. The playfulness disappears, replaced by a more searching demeanor. This isn’t the Bowie of the 1980s revue. This is closer to the tormented Bowie of the 70s Berlin grimness.

After the second chorus, the band is fully kicked in, and by the third verse, Bowie himself seems intense, searching. And the fourth verse has Bowie utterly committed, but with a kind of fierce joy.

We get to the triumphantly repeated chorus, and he grins and claps…and then comes that final verse, and for the first time, he grabs the microphone and walks away from center stage. “We’re nothing,” he sings, off to the side and closer to the audience than before. “And no one can help us. Maybe we’re lying…you’d better not stay. We can be heroes, just for one day.”

And boom. The music ends on his drawn out last note.

The band kicks back in for another round of sing along, and Bowie joyfully holds the microphone out for the crowd to sing along—but it’s an odd place to have ended, even if the moment’s swept away.

That’s with the hindsight of repeated viewings, though. What strikes you immediately is just how happy, how beautiful, even how, yes, triumphant Bowie seems during those final moments.

Of course, one of the things that always must be kept in mind when analyzing David Bowie is how openly chameleonic he is—he’s always been open about being fascinated by the idea of personas, changing them every album or two. He’s interested in approaching rock and roll the way a writer approaches a novel—as a means to tell a story and explore various ideas, and not just to sing one’s diary. With his theatre background, it’s impossible to know when, if ever, he “means” something, the way we always assumed, when we were teenagers, our musical heroes meant the things they sang. So with Bowie, when you find an especially impassioned performance, it’s simply not possible to ascertain whether he was really that passionate during that particular performance or whether he was just doing an especially convincing job of being passionate.

David Bowie’s a genius when it comes to synthesizing disparate elements in a larger and more effective whole, and with this song he reached the kind of rarified air only the very greatest can ever hope to even glimpse. That lightweights like the Wallflowers even considered attempting this song illustrates as well as anything could just how hopelessly overmatched they were before they even started.

As a wise man once said, you come at the king, you best not miss.

Monday, April 2, 2018

That's All Right, Mama / Blue Moon of Kentucky / Glad All Over

It's always so pleasant—if (or perhaps because it's?) rare—to see footage of George Harrison openly happy. But it's not surprising that so much of that rare footage tends to happen when he's playing with one of his idols.

Such as this great clip of George—along with Ringo, Eric Clapton, Dave Edmunds, a pair of Stray Cats, a David Bowie lead guitarist and Roseanne Cash—harmonizing with Carl Perkins on "It's All Right,  Mama" before playing a remarkable version of the original Scotty Moore guitar solo. Later, Clapton plays one of his more country solos ever, which is great, of course.

But the star is George. I mean, sure, the star is Perkins. But George's harmony vocals are fantastic throughout, and he takes over for "Glad All Over," easing the older master into the song, seldom taking his eyes off his hero, and seldom not grinning.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

#9 Dream

Some people are simply born with more or higher quality raw materials. Some of those people do little or nothing with those materials. And some of them work with and on them until they get to the point where they can literally write an utterly perfect pop song in their sleep.

Because there's never enough examples of artists who don't understand their own work as fully as others do, here's John Lennon talking about this song:
That's what I call craftsmanship writing, meaning, you know, I just churned that out. I'm not putting it down, it's just what it is, but I just sat down and wrote it, you know, with no real inspiration, based on a dream I'd had.
"Churned that out." Completely in keeping with John Lennon being the only person in history who didn't like the sound of John Lennon's own voice.

Friday, March 9, 2018

She's Gone

It must kinda suck to be John Oates. I mean, there are worse fates than to get to be an extremely successful, working musician your entire life, with absolutely no financial worries once you're in your late 20s. But no matter how much money in your bank account, it must suck to be a musical punchline. I assume Ringo is too removed to know how often he's (stupidly) mocked, or maybe he's just so easygoing and balanced it doesn't bother him. But we know it took a toll on perhaps the most commercially successful white male singer of the 80s, as Phil Collins spiraled down into depression and alcoholism, in large part because of how reviled he'd become, for pretty much no fault of his own. And then there was that devastatingly funny "I'm Oates" Behind the Music MTV parody Saturday Night Live did. It really captured what most people—understandably—thought of Oates's contribution to Hall & Oates, the most commercially successful white male duo ever.

And then you see a video like this. And you realize Oates isn't anything like Wham!'s Andrew Ridgeley. He's more akin, perhaps, to The Who's John Entwhistle—extremely talented, a good writer, a good singer, a great player, who happens to be in a band with a phenomenal talent.

I mean, how many times had you heard this song before you realized how many of the vocals were Oates? And once you see him sing them, you have no choice but to accept that he is a no kidding truly good soul singer. He was simply both lucky enough and perhaps unlucky enough to be the musical partner of one of the greatest white male soul singers ever.

Even the video itself gives an indication of what happened: note how much more evenly the vocal duties are split during the first half of the song, and then how Daryl Hall takes over more and more as the song progresses, if not quite to the extent he would in the 80s, where Oates would seem to largely be just one of the half-dozen backing singers onstage.

I'm sure cashing the enormous checks made it easier to bear, but as a fan of great pop, I wonder how much better some of their later, wonderful hits might have been if this kind of call-and-response, give-and-take had continued.

(It's also interesting to note how ragged they are at the beginning; it's hard to imagine them ever having to find their way into a locked groove in the 80s, but here it takes a while, and it seems to be Hall whose timing isn't quite solid.)

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Monkberry Moon Delight

I knew the name of this tune for literally decades before I ever heard it, due almost entirely to the largely negative reviews of the entire Ram album I'd read over the years. So as a Paul fan with a limited income, I gave it a pass in favor of other stuff. But then Al Gore invented the internet and I was able to hear a few tracks and decided it was more than worth a serious listen and what do I discover but perhaps his second best studio album ever?

Now, I'm not going to go quite so far into revisionism as to claim it's better than the fantastic Band on the Run, but damn if Ram isn't a great LP; only Macca could release a collection this strong and have it not just overlooked but actually panned, rather than universally lauded as a peer of Pet Sounds when it comes to pop gems, as it should have been.

"Monkberry Moon Delight" isn't my favorite track on the album, but it may have been the biggest surprise, given that the title always made me assume it'd sound more along the lines of, say, the impossibly bittersweet "Junk," or the lovely, tender "The Back Seat of My Car." Instead, it's Paul in Little Richard mode and my god can McCartney rock when he wants to.

The lyrics may be the kind of nonsense Paul slapped down when he couldn't be arsed to work up something legit—or, perhaps, was stoned enough that he thought they did make sense at the time—and which only serve to illustrate how difficult it really is to pull off the sort of Carrollian wordplay John Lennon and Kurt Cobain were so good at. But when you've got the voice of a rock god it doesn't really matter what you're singing, as long as you're singing like that.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Purple Rain

You know, whenever my fellow whiteboys refer to Bruce Springsteen as perhaps the greatest bandleader in the history of rock and roll, I have to smile sadly and die a bit inside, thinking about how much better at every single aspect of being a performer Prince was. I may (I, in fact, do) prefer Springsteen as an artist, and brilliant as The Purple One was as a songwriter, I think Bruce is better. But when it came to the live show, the Artist Formerly and Again Known as Prince was very simply the best.

But today I was thinking of how justly lauded his guitar solo on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction was, and how fitting the great Nils Lofgren's solo was in tribute, as Nils—like Prince at the Hall—quotes extensively from the original while adding his own touches and infuses the entire thing with his own inimitable style. It's searing, it's soaring, it's lovely. As befits Prince.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

I Saw Her Standing There

I actually find the Who—despite being one of the five greatest bands in rock history—a bit hit or miss when it comes to their covers. When they're on, they're phenomenal but, for some reason, many of their covers are just kinda okay. And when you're dealing with a band of their stature and ability, just okay is not something that really passes muster.

But this...this is pretty damn glorious. And its tossed-off character makes it clear that had they practiced it even a tiny bit and then given a damn about the final performance—meaning, if any three of them, much less all four of them were sober—it could literally have been the greatest cover of any Beatles song ever. And that is a high damn bar to clear.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ray of Light

Thanks to this Rolling Stone article, I discovered that this big and great Madonna hit was a cover. Who knew? Obviously, many, but not I.

But as I read elsewhere, it's not so much a cover as a reimagining, really. Not a deconstruction, but a dramatic reinterpretation, not only changing its setting from its folky original to a new and insanely propulsive dance beat, but also moving it from a dark, minor-inflected feel to the upbeat version that's best known today.

It's worth noting that the track features future Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, but (sadly) not former Bodast bandmate Steve Howe. Ah, well. Such is life.

Of course, great as the original is, and Madge's reinvention, the finest version remains the phenomenal Sex Pistols mashup.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ray of Gob

One of the first and still the single greatest mashup I've ever heard. What we have here is no less than one of the truly great supergroups ever, in itself an extreme rarity: two disparate yet tremendously important artists, Madonna (perennially underrated by rock and roll fans due to her choices of genres and her gender) and the Sex Pistols (perhaps the most underrated famous band ever), coming together to create something unique and brilliant. In other words, it's two great tastes that taste great together. It's a shame that they never actually existed in reality.

It's worth remembering that Madonna came out of the underground, and something of a street urchin, the kind of poor, struggling artist which many of the early middle-class punks could only wish they were. Stripping away the original's dance beat and replacing it with the incisive, searing guitar of Steve Jones and the feral, punishing drums of Pete Cook works so much better than it should. And yet if you didn't know any of the original tracks, you'd have no idea this was a mashup. It takes two (or, really, three) brilliant recordings and manages to create an entire new and equally brilliant piece of art by mashing them together. This isn't why the internet was created, but it should have been.

Madge should really do a short run of club dates backed by only a small punk combo.

And I feel like I just got home

Monday, February 19, 2018


So how on earth did I miss this? It is awesome and very nearly rock and roll happiness personified:

I am incapable of hearing that song without thinking about how staggeringly homoerotic it is and how delightful it is that it literally doesn't seem to have ever occurred to the lads, and once it finally did, in the 00s, Ringo was all, "the hell with it—I'm Ringo: I do what I want."

To which I can only say: damn skippy. Rock on, Ringo.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I'm obviously engaging in hyperbole when I say this is approaching war crime territory...but not by much.

Monday, January 15, 2018

RIP Dolores O’Riordan

Well, this one hits surprisingly hard. Although never close to being one of my favorite bands, The Cranberries nevertheless created some absolutely top-notch pop, a commodity that is always in demand and eternally short supply.


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

two years down the road

And still no easier.

Who knew that The Man Who Fell to Earth was also The Man Holding the World Together?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Don't Think Twice, It's All Right

I know this is not the greatest thing ever. Objectively, I know this. But neither the heart nor the soul always listens to objectivity.

I mean, I shouldn't love this so deeply. It seems the kind of rather facilely hep take that usually repulses me. But that voice, that kind of nerdy, insanely white voice that was such a massively formative influence on me growing up, covering what is often my favorite Bob Dylan song ever...I just...

Monday, January 1, 2018

She Bop

I loves me some Slowhand—in fact, I loves me nearly all the Slowhand—but boy howdy did he screw up with his unconscionably tepid (to put it politely) unplugged version of "Layla." There are few more heart-rippingly desperately passionate songs in the history of rock and he somehow turned it into EZ-listening cream of wheat at the early bird special. Gross. What's worse is that other artists took exactly the wrong lesson and similarly neutered some of the best songs. Blech.

Now compare and contrast that with the superb deconstruction Cyndi Lauper gives one of her biggest ever hits here.

Do she want to go out with a lion's roar? Turns out a sinewy growl from a mountain cat is just as effective and even more unsettling.