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.