Archive for the ‘2007/12 (December)’ Category

A Baker’s Dozen from 1973, Vol. 2

May 27, 2011

Originally posted December 19, 2007

In my first visit to the year of 1973, I wrote about my internal world, about the changes I could catalog in myself from my academic year in Denmark.

This time, I’m going to take a look at the larger world in which those changes took place: What was happening in 1973? Two events that dominated the news come to mind: Watergate and war.

Watergate: In the U.S., Americans were beginning to learn for the first time about the venality and utter rot at the center of the administration of President Richard Nixon. Week after week of testimony before a Senate select committee and day after day of headlines transfixed most Americans. Those hearings were followed in the autumn by the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew – the result of corruption charges dating to his time as governor of Maryland – and the Saturday Night Massacre, during which Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckleshaus resigned rather than fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, whose office was investigating the events that stemmed from the original Watergate break-in in 1972.

(Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third in command in the Justice Department, fired Cox at Nixon’s behest; the resignations and the firing were key moments in the trail of events that led to Nixon’s resignation during the summer of 1974.)

War: On October 6, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the armed forces of Egypt and Syria attacked Israel. For the first week, the Arab armies advanced, but by October 26, when a United Nations-sponsored truce went into effect, Israeli forces had regained territory and gained control of the battlefield.

From the distance of thirty-some years, one can see numerous effects of the war, but perhaps the most visible effect comes when we go to the service station to pump gasoline into our vehicles. During and after the war, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – OPEC – decided to stop shipment of oil to those nations that were supporting Israel: The U.S., the Netherlands (the source for much of Western Europe’s oil) and several other nations. At the same time, OPEC raised the price for oil going elsewhere in the world. The embargo caused, among other things, long lines at service stations in the U.S. and government-mandated bans on driving on Sundays in Europe. The embargo was the first step among many in the long and steady increase in the cost of oil, resulting in the prices we pay for all petroleum products today.

Enough of the serious stuff (although there were plenty more serious things going on during 1973) – what were we doing for fun that year?

The Top Ten television shows were: All in the Family, The Waltons, Sanford and Son, M*A*S*H, Hawaii Five-O, Maude, Kojak, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Cannon.

At the movies theaters, we saw, among others, The Sting, American Graffiti, The Exorcist, Mean Streets, Sleeper, The Way We Were, The Last Detail and Blume in Love.

In the U.S., the top ten singles of the year, according to Billboard, were:

“Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn
“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce
“Killing Me Softly With His Song” by Roberta Flack
“Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye
“My Love” by Paul McCartney and Wings
“Why Me” by Kris Kristofferson
“Crocodile Rock” by Elton John
“Will It Go Round In Circles” by Billy Preston
“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon
“Touch Me In The Morning” by Diana Ross

Most of those are pretty obvious (and only a few are depressing), when one thinks about 1973. On the other hand, I’ve never heard the Kristofferson, which hit the Top 40 in early July and reached No. 16 in a nineteen-week stay on the chart.

The top five albums of the year, listed at the Billboard web site, were:

The World Is A Ghetto by War
Summer Breeze by Seals & Crofts
Talking Book by Stevie Wonder
No Secrets by Carly Simon
Lady Sings the Blues by Diana Ross

Oddly enough, that list is at odds with some other lists I’ve looked at. Even The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums lists a different No. 1 album of the year: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The Carly Simon and War albums listed above are included in the alphabetical list of 1973’s Top Ten albums in Norm N. Nite’s Rock On Almanac. The rest of Nite’s list is:

Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite by Elvis Presley
Billion Dollar Babies by Alice Cooper
Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band
Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player by Elton John
Goats Head Soup by the Rolling Stones
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John
There Goes Rhymin’ Simon by Paul Simon

Nine of the albums on Nite’s list went to No. 1 during 1973. The only one that didn’t was Paul Simon’s, which went to No. 2

As confusing as that may be, however, it gives a pretty good look at what was popular during 1973. But when I crank up my RealPlayer, what does 1973 sound like? Here’s one possibility, random after the first tune:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1973, Vol. 2

“Hallelujah” by Chi Coltrane from Let It Ride

“So Many Times” by Manassas from Down The Road

“Lay Me Down Easy” by Three Dog Night from Cyan

“Good Vibrations” by Bonnie Bramlett from Sweet Bonnie Bramlett

“The City” by Fleetwood Mac from Mystery to Me

“Ship Ahoy” by the O’Jays from Ship Ahoy

“Desperado” by the Eagles from Desperado

“All My Friends” by Gregg Allman from Laid Back

“Mrs. Vanderbilt” by Paul McCartney & Wings from Band On The Run

“Call Me (Come Back Home)” by Al Green from Call Me

“Cam Ye O’er Frae France” by Steeleye Span from Parcel of Rogues

“Sunset Woman” by B.W. Stevenson from My Maria

“Qualified” by Dr. John from In The Right Place

A few notes on some of the songs and performers:

The Chi Coltrane track is the opener to the Wisconsin-born singer’s second album, which went nowhere on its release in 1973. The track, many will note, is a cover of the song originally recorded by Sweathog, which went to No. 33 on the Billboard chart in late 1971. (I just got the Coltrane album in the mail yesterday, and ripped this track as an appetizer, as I’ll be posting the entire album within a week or so.)*

“Ship Ahoy” is a remarkable track by the O’Jays. Here’s what the website Pop Matters had to say about it: “The song ‘Ship Ahoy’ examines what scholars and activist have referred to as the ‘middle passage’ – the literal voyage that enslaved Africans made across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships destined for the Americas and the Caribbean. The song brilliantly personalizes the ‘voyage’ in ways that few black popular artifacts had previously done so – some three years before the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots. The fact that [producers Kenny] Gamble and [Leon] Huff were comfortable enough to use the tragedy of the middle passage and the subsequent enslavement of people of African descent in the West to frame a pop recording speaks to how seriously the duo viewed popular music as a vehicle to ‘teach and preach’ and a sense of the autonomy that they perceived as the heads” of Philadelphia International Records.

“Call Me (Come Back Home)” was the fifth of six straight Top Ten hits for Al Green (based on records entering the Top 40) and is an example of what Willie Mitchell accomplished during his years at Hi Records in Memphis. The sound is immediately identifiable but – to my ears – never seems repetitive, whether the singer is Al Green or any of the other singers who recorded at Hi but didn’t have anything near the success that Green had. The Hi sound is to me a good part of what the early 1970s sounded like; nevertheless, it still sounds fresh to me today.

Steeleye Span was one of the British groups that formed after the early success of Fairport Convention in recording traditional British folk and eventually presenting those early folk songs with modern instruments. Parcel of Rogues, which was Steeleye Span’s fifth album, marked the first time that the group used rock instrumentation prominently. All Music Guide notes: “[T]he ominous and dazzling ‘Cam Ye O’er Frae France’ would not have succeeded half as well without amplification, and every fan of the group should hear this track at least once.”

The lyric to B. W. Stevenson’s “Sunset Woman” are unsettling, at first dismissive and bitter and then – at least a little – gentle and hopeful. But the music – melody and arrangement both – is country-ish and better than pleasant and is indicative of Stevenson’s all too slender output. Better known for his single hit, 1973’s “My Maria” and for writing “Shambala,” which Three Dog Night took to No. 3 the same year, Stevenson released eight albums between 1970 and 1980. He died after heart surgery in 1988 at the age of 38.

*As it happens, Sweathog’s version of “Hallelujah” was not the original. The original version of the tune was done in 1969 by the Clique. Note added May 27, 2011.

‘Everybody Likes My Rocket 88 . . .’

May 27, 2011

Originally posted December 18, 2007

Pondering the legacy of Ike Turner, as many have been doing in the past week since his death, I also got to wondering about the legacy of “Rocket 88,” the song that Turner wrote and recorded in 1951 with Jackie Brentson taking the lead vocal (thus allowing Chess to release it under the name of Jackie Brentson and the Delta Kings instead under Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm).

So I took a look at All-Music Guide, which notes that authorship of the song is disputed and credits Brentson with writing the song. Wikipedia says, “Although Brenston was given author credit rather than Turner, it is now agreed that Brenston’s contribution was overstated for financial reasons,” but there is no source listed for that statement. I’ve always heard it was Turner’s song. A few years ago, while planning a trip to Mississippi that did not come about, I spoke to Frank Ratliff, the owner of the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi, who told me that Turner wrote the song in his hotel, which Ratliff said his family has owned for many years. (The hotel was once a hospital, and is the place where famed singer Bessie Smith died in 1937.)

Numerous artists, of course, have covered “Rocket 88” in the more than fifty years since Turner or Brentson wrote it. Among them have been Bernard Allison, Nappy Brown, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Muddy Waters. I’ve heard a few of those versions, but the cover of the song I like the best is the very brief one that James Cotton did with his band for the mid-Sixties series of records called Chicago/The Blues/Today.

James Cotton – “Rocket 88” [1965]

A huge and humble “thank you” to Any Major Dude With Half A Heart. In the inaugural Major Dude awards, Echoes In The Wind was honored as the Best Singles Blog. And once you’ve checked out the awards, bookmark Any Major Dude . . . It’s a great blog itself!*

*Since that post, the Major Dude has moved. He is now at Any Major Dude With Half A Heart, still a great read with great tunes! Note added May 27, 2011.

Dan Fogelberg, 1951-2007

May 27, 2011

Originally posted December 17, 2007

There’s a bar in downtown St. Cloud located in the basement level of an old bank building, one of those lovely red buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries built of what I think is red granite, with the turret standing guard high above the intersection. The building hasn’t been a bank for many years, since maybe the late 1960s, and other businesses have come and gone on its main floor over the years since.

But the lower level has been a bar for more than thirty-five years though its name has changed several times. In the early 1970s, the bar was called the Grand Mantel after a truly impressive fireplace and mantel inside. It was a quiet place, three or four dimly lighted rooms with maybe twenty-five tables, a candle on each one. For a number of years, my companions from The Table and I made the Grand Mantel our home for weekend recreation and for our celebrations of the ending of academic quarters. On the Friday of finals week, we’d gather in the late afternoon or early evening and each toss $10 or $15 onto the table, and then we’d drink until the money was gone. (One could imbibe a substantial amount for $10 or $15 thirty-five years ago.)

In the back of the bar, separated from the front rooms by two doors and a passage, was a larger room with a small stage that hosted live music at least Fridays and Saturdays and perhaps more frequently than that. I’m not sure how wide-ranging the roster of performers was, but I do recall that the favorites of both the bar’s owners and its clientele was a duo called Curto and Newmann. (I am not sure of the spelling of “Curto.”)* The two were very much in the vein of Loggins & Messina and other singer-songwriter-ish performers of the era, and the back room was packed on nights the two of them performed.

For years, when I heard Dan Fogelberg’s work, I thought of that back room at the Grand Mantel and the nights when the forty or so chairs would be filled with attentive listeners. It seemed to me that whenever I heard Fogelberg’s music, I was being called to listen closely in case I might miss something, just as I had felt about the music I heard on those evenings when I sat in the back room at the Grand Mantel.

This all comes to mind today, of course, because Dan Fogelberg died yesterday at his home in Maine, three years after announcing that he had advanced prostate cancer. That announcement came a year after Fogelberg released his last album, Full Circle, in 2003.

As a listener, I lost track of Fogelberg in the 1990s, as I didn’t have a CD player and his albums no longer came out on vinyl. And anyway, I’d not been impressed with Exiles, the 1987 album that was the most recent work I had. Nor had I been much taken with its predecessor, High Country Snows. So I focused on collecting the singer’s pre-1985 output, getting good vinyl copies of the eight LP’s Fogelberg had released between 1972 and 1984.

And what I heard, I generally liked. I sometimes thought the lyrics were over-wrought and over-written – just a few grades too intense – but the music was always listenable and sometimes excellent. And now and then, Fogelberg came up with a gem: “Part of the Plan” from 1975 brought reassurance to a whole generation of post-Watergate undergraduates that there was some kind of meaning to the jumble of life. “Longer,” five years later, was beautiful and became a standard that I imagine wedding DJs began to dread. And “Same Old Lang Syne” helped listeners rehearse and prepare for those awkward moments when we, too, might meet someone we lost and whom we missed in a setting as mundane as a supermarket.

And in those songs and others, as over-written as they sometimes were, Fogelberg on occasion found a turn of phrase so delicate and complex that I was left shaking my head in wonder. My favorite of those comes from 1982’s “Run For The Roses,” which says in its chorus, “It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance . . .”

How good was Dan Fogelberg? Good enough to me that when I winnow out mp3s from my hard drive – which I have to do every six months or so – his work is never among the music being considered for relegation to the discs that sit next to the computer. I enjoy his early works, and I still consider 1982’s The Innocent Age to be one of the sonically most beautiful albums ever. The eloquence of that album’s music still thrills me.

I realize that there is some ambivalence about Fogleberg’s work, that he was categorized among cynics early on as a Sensitive Seventies Singer-Songwriter. Well, so what? It was a time of quiet conversation in song, when tunes talked to each other and to their listeners in quiet places like the Grand Mantel and a hundred thousand living rooms and dorm rooms. And Fogelberg was far better than most at giving us some of those songs.

Here’s a selection – somewhat random – from Fogelberg’s first seven albums. As always, bit rates will vary.

“Part of the Plan” from Souvenirs, 1974

“More Than Ever” from Home Free, 1972

“Nexus” from The Innocent Age, 1982

“Stars” from Home Free, 1972

“Intimidation” with Tim Weisberg from Twin Sons of Different Mothers, 1978

“Illinois” from Souvenirs, 1974

“Gypsy Wind” from Phoenix, 1980

“As The Raven Flies” from Souvenirs, 1974

“Heart Hotels” from Phoenix, 1980

“The Power of Gold” with Tim Weisberg from Twin Sons of Different Mothers, 1978

“In The Passage” from The Innocent Age, 1982

“Nether Lands” from Nether Lands, 1977

“Innocent Age” from The Innocent Age, 1982

*I originally spelled Curto’s last name as “Curdo,” and I had “Newmann” without its final “n,”  but I’ve corrected those misspellings based on the pleasant comment left here by Pat Curto. Note added November 8, 2011.

Saturday Single No. 46

May 27, 2011

Originally posted December 15, 2007

I don’t do much with Christmas music, either as a listener or a collector. We have a few CDs of holiday music, both current and traditional, but we rarely play them; the same goes with the few traditional LPs I have. It’s not like the Texas Gal and I are auditioning for the roles of Scrooge and Scroogette or anything like that – we celebrate the holidays with our families and everything. We just don’t do it with the soundtrack most people have.

As the season approached, I began to wonder what I would do to mark it here at Echoes In The Wind. Of the 20,000 or so mp3s I have in the player, only three could be classified at all as seasonal. (I’ve since grabbed a few that I like at some of the blogs I visit, most notably from the Three Under The Tree series at AM, Then FM.) So it’s not like I have a wide range of stuff readily available.

I could, of course, dip into the vinyl I have, as I do love some of the traditional Christmas songs and carols. Not many pieces are as melodically beautiful as “O Holy Night,” and the chromatic harmonies in “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are also a treat to my ears. But I’ve decided that holiday music, in general, doesn’t move me enough to do that. I’ll share the three pieces I truly love over the next week and let other bloggers dig deeper into the Yuletide canon.

Back in 1963, when Phil Spector was atop the recording world with his Wall of Sound and his stable of groups and performers – the Ronettes, the Crystals, Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans and Darlene Love (he’d begin to work with the Righteous Brothers in the next year) – he put together his famous A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. The record offered listeners holiday songs performed by those singers and groups and backed by the studio musicians who helped Spector create his Wall of Sound. Among those musicians were Sonny Bono, Jimmy Bond, Jack Nitzsche, Leon Russell, Tommy Tedesco and drummer Hal Blaine.

Of the thirteen songs on the record, only one was custom-written for the album, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” a tune written by Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Spector himself. Spector’s plan was to have the Ronettes record the song. But – according to numerous sources I’ve seen – All-Music Guide gives Darlene Love as its source – lead singer Ronnie Bennett (who was also Spector’s girlfriend and later his wife) was unable to find the power and emotion Spector wanted in the song’s vocal. So Spector had Love sing the song.

Love’s performance of the song is the best on an album full of great performances, and the song has become one of the enduring pop anthems of the holiday season (and is further secured in that place by Love’s annual performance of the song on David Letterman’s late-night television show). So here’s Darlene Love and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” today’s Saturday Single.

Darlene Love – “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” [1963]

A Baker’s Dozen of Tomorrows

May 25, 2011

Originally posted December 14, 2007

I remember reading a piece – likely in the newspaper – about a linguistics professor who had taken it upon himself to determine the most beautiful word in the English language. I don’t recall when I read that, nor do I remember which university was involved, but I do recall that the professor concluded that the most beautiful word in the language was “cellar door.”

First of all, that’s two words. (It could be that the professor was considering sets of words.) Second, although the two words together do have a nice sound, words are more than sounds. Maybe as a linguist, one can separate the sound of the word from the meaning of the word, but as a writer, I can’t. And “cellar door” isn’t going to make the cut.

So what are the most beautiful words in the language? After all, if I’m going to quibble about someone else’s judgment, I’d better have some idea of my own, right? Well, I don’t have a Top Ten list, but I do have a couple of words. I think “home” and “tomorrow” top the ranks of English words.

Home, as poet Robert Frost noted, is our last refuge: the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in. We all need such a place. In fact, I don’t think it’s at all far-fetched to say that, whatever else we do with our lives, our main business here is seeking and creating a better refuge, a better place, a better home. In terms of pure sound, it’s a rather plain word, but its meaning makes “home” the sound of belonging somewhere. When we don’t have that, we ache, and when we find it, we are healed. How much better can one word be?

“Tomorrow” comes close. For someone as attuned to the past and as intrigued by memoir and memory as I am, it’s odd in a way that I didn’t select “yesterday” as one of my top two words. But as much as any of us might ponder yesterday and its lessons, we know all about it. And “tomorrow” brings the promise that things can change, that we can use yesterday’s lessons to make things better as they come to us. (Writing that sentence made me realize that there are two other very nice words to consider: “promise” and “change.” Well, another day, I guess.) Thinking about tomorrow is an act of optimism, it seems, maybe even an act of courage, even if all one is doing is putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.

I had planned to rip and post an album today, but the Texas Gal is taking a day off from work and we have holiday preparations to make, so I will invest my time there. In the meantime, I got a note from a reader who asked for a specific song with the word “tomorrow” in its title, and that got me thinking. I’ll get back to “home” and “hope” and “promise” down the road, but for now, we’ll start with the requested song and go randomly from there.

A Baker’s Dozen of Tomorrows

“Tomorrow Is A Long Time” by Glenn Yarbrough from For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, 1967

“Tomorrow” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Uni single 55046, 1967

“Tomorrow and Me” by Mike Nesmith from And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’, 1972

“Till Tomorrow” by Don McLean from American Pie, 1971

“Tomorrow” by Fanny from the Fanny Hill sessions, 1972

“You’re My Tomorrow” by Richie Havens from Now, 1991

“All Our Tomorrows” by Joe Cocker from Unchain My Heart, 1987

“Love Me Tomorrow” by Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees, 1976

“Goin’ Home Tomorrow” by Dr. John from Goin’ Back to New Orleans, 1992

“Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles from Revolver, 1966

“Waiting For Tomorrow” by Bettye LaVette from the Child Of The Seventies sessions, 1973

“Beginning Tomorrow” by Joy of Cooking from Castles, 1972

“This Time Tomorrow” by Sisters Love, Manchild single 5001, 1968

A few notes on some of the songs and performers:

The Glenn Yarbrough track is a Bob Dylan song, one that Dylan wrote in 1962 or so but left unreleased until his second greatest hits album came out in 1971. Yarbrough’s was the first version I heard, and I like it pretty well, but over the years, I’ve come to value the version Dylan released in 1971, which came from a 1963 concert in New York.

The Strawberry Alarm Clock track has its place in history. It reached No. 23 in early 1968 and thus kept the West Coast group from being a One-Hit Wonder. The group’s only other chart entry was, of course, “Incense & Peppermints,” which reached No 1 for one week in 1967.

Once his time in the Monkees ended, Michael Nesmith put together a string of generally very good and sometimes great country rock albums, starting in the late 1960s and continuing through much of the 1970s. His 1972 release, And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, is likely the best of those.

Not long ago, I shared Fanny’s version of the Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog.” The track “Tomorrow” comes from the same sessions.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” was one of John Lennon’s first excursions into tape-loop and odd sound psychedelic experimentation, a track that startled first-time listeners to Revolver when it came on after the Motown-influenced horns of “Got To Get You Into My Life.”

As regular readers might know, Joy of Cooking is one of my favorite relatively obscure bands of the 1970s. “Maybe Tomorrow” is one of the best tracks from Castles, the Berkeley-based band’s third and final release.

I’ve written about Sisters Love before, when I posted their cover of “Blackbird.” “This Time Tomorrow” is a sweet piece of pop soul.

Considering Ike Turner’s Legacy

May 25, 2011

Originally posted December 13, 2007

How does one balance the admiration one has for an individual’s performance – be it music, writing, art, acting or what have you – with the repugnance one might feel for the same individual’s private actions? In the field of music alone, many names come to mind when pondering that question. At a bulletin board I frequent, more than one writer has said that he or she has difficulty enjoying the works of Frank Sinatra or Muddy Waters because of the two men’s attitudes and actions towards women. The same concern can be expressed, another writer posted, about at least a portion of the life of John Lennon.

What social responsibility, if any, does the consumer of popular art have in the face of obvious anti-social conduct by any creator of that art? Is it enough for the listener, in the case of music, to be aware of the moral (and possibly legal) shortcomings of an artist while still listening to the music created by any such individual? Or is listening to the music created by an individual whose actions place him beyond the pale an immoral act in itself? Frankly, despite having pondered those questions for at least a little while, I don’t know.

Those questions arise today because of the death yesterday of Ike Turner, who was seventy-six. Widely regarded as a beast, at minimum, for his treatment of women – including his one-time wife and partner, Tina Turner – Ike Turner was also one of the architects of the music that became known as rock ’n’ roll. He was the writer, arranger, producer and piano player for the first recording of “Rocket 88,” a 1951 record that is considered by many (including me) to be the first rock ’n’ roll record. The song was recorded at a Memphis session by Turner’s Kings of Rhythm with the group’s saxophone player, Jackie Brentson singing lead, but was released on the Chess label under the name of Jackie Brentson and His Delta Cats.

So what responsibility does the listener have in the face of vile conduct by a performer? I don’t know, as I said. I listen to John Lennon, to Muddy Waters, to Frank Sinatra, and yes, on occasion to Ike Turner and to Ike & Tina Turner. Even as I listen to their music, I’m aware of the shortcomings of those men, just as I am aware through news reports and books and magazines of the failings of other creative individuals whose works – music, art, literature, films – I enjoy.

Certainly any discussion of Ike Turner – to return to the individual whose death spurred these thoughts – will be incomplete without any reference to his moral shortcomings, which were large. Similarly, any discussion of the development of rock ’n’ roll and of rhythm and blues of the 1950s and 1960s will incomplete without any reference to his contributions, which were also large. For me, Turner is far more difficult to listen to than the other three musicians mentioned above. When his music – with or without Tina – pops up on the jukebox, I wince and cannot ignore his failings as a human being as I listen. But neither, I find, can I ignore the music and its influence on our culture. If that’s an unsatisfactory awkward balance, so be it.

Here’s a video I found at YouTube backed by “Rocket 88,” showing Oldmobiles, record jackets and labels, pictures of Brentson, Turner and the Rhythm Kings/Delta Cats, and – unaccountably – footage of what looks to be Fifties icon Bettie Page putting on stockings.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1976, Vol. 2

May 25, 2011

Originally posted December 12, 2007

I’m gonna talk football a little bit today. A while back, I assessed the on-going season of the Minnesota Vikings – a team I’ve rooted for since its inception in 1961 – as pretty dismal. The boys in purple had been thrashed 34-0 by the Green Bay Packers the day before I wrote, an outcome that left many Minnesotans resigned to another season of mediocrity.

Something unforeseen has happened since then. The Vikings have won four games in a row and now have a 7-6 record. Tavaris Jackson, the young quarterback whom I dismissed as being too raw and maybe not being good enough for the pro game is beginning to look like a decent quarterback. I’m even beginning to think that the second-year coach, Brad Childress, might have had an idea of what he was doing all along.

It generally doesn’t take an awful lot for those of us who follow the Vikings to poke our heads out of our burrows with a sense of optimism. I’m being cautious, though, which only makes sense when one is a Vikings fan. After all, the Vikings share the record for the most Super Bowls lost, four, with the Denver Broncos, but the Broncos also have two Super Bowl victories to their credit. And we fans remember the two times we had great teams that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl: in 1975 through a blown call and in 1998 through what I still think was poor coaching. Then add 2000, when a fairly good Vikings team lost what appeared to be a winnable playoff game through what looked to fans like simple disinterest.*

So I’m being careful, at least a little bit, this time. During the successes of the past month, I’ve spend a fair amount of time trying to decide whether the improvement I see in the Vikings is real or whether it’s a confluence of luck and schedule, making the seeming resurgence one of the cosmic jokes that the football gods sometimes play.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know one thing that makes me nervous: People around the National Football League are starting to take the Vikings seriously. Peter King at Sports Illustrated put the Vikings into the seventh slot in his top fifteen this week. I heard someone say on television this week that the Vikings are the kind of team that no other team would want to play in the playoffs right now. And NBC has decided that the game between the Vikings and the Washington Redskins is significant enough to be the Sunday evening game on Dec. 23.

I’d rather no one noticed that the Vikings seem to be turning into a pretty good team. I’d prefer that the Vikes continue to sneak up on people. But visibility and relevance are nice worries to have, as it seemed just a month ago that the last weeks of the season would mean nothing at all here in the Northland. And, given the pleasant anxiety I and the rest of the Purple Faithful are beginning to feel, it seemed only right to share a Baker’s Dozen from 1976, which marked the last time the Vikings went to the Super Bowl.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1976, Vol. 2
“You Take My Heart Away” by DeEtta Little & Nelson Pigford from the soundtrack to Rocky

“Jeans On” by David Dundas, Chrysalis single 2094

“Lord Grenville” by Al Stewart from Year of the Cat

“Long May You Run” by the Stills-Young Band from Long May You Run

“Ride Me High” by J. J. Cale from Troubadour

“Show Me The Way” by Peter Frampton from Frampton Comes Alive

“Life Is What You Make It” by Side Effect from What You Need

“Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash” by Ian Thomas from Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash

“Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon” by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, RCA single 10827

“Rocky Mountain Music” by Eddie Rabbitt, Elektra single 45315

“Dance the Body Music” by Osibisa from Ojah Awake

“Sheldon Church Yard” by Larry Jon Wilson from Let Me Sing My Song to You

“Tuscumbian Lover” by Pete Carr from Not A Word On It

A few notes on some of the songs and artists:

“You Take My Heart Away” was used as source music in Rocky. During a love scene between Adrian and Rocky in his apartment, this is the song that’s playing on the radio. It was released as a single (United Artists 941) but didn’t make the Top 40. I think it’s a nice track, but then, I’ve long thought that Bill Conti’s soundtrack to Rocky was one of the better soundtracks ever written.

“Jeans On” is a nice little bit of fluff that provided David Dundas with his only hit. The record reached No. 17 after moving into the Top 40 in late November 1976. I recall hearing it that winter, my first winter on my own, as I lived in an old house without central heat on the north side of St. Cloud. For that reason and no other, the sound of Dundas’ voice gives me chills.

Finding both Peter Frampton’s “Show Me The Way” and Dr. Buzzard’s “Cherchez La Femme/Se Si Bon” in this random list is entirely appropriate. The first of the two went to No. 6 in the spring and was the first of three Top 40 hits for Frampton in 1976. The Dr. Buzzard track hit the Top 40 in December and reached No. 27 in early 1977. A juxtaposition of the two gives one a pretty good idea of the range of sounds on radio that year, as disco was beginning to dance its way into the mainstream.

The title of the Ian Thomas track might need some explanation, though some of this can be inferred from the lyric. The title comes from a phrase used by Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), a singer, comedian and actor whose career began in vaudeville and continued through numerous radio and television shows and movies. Durante invariably closed his radio and television performances with the phrase, “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” He never explained who Mrs. Calabash was, and – having seen Durante on some television shows as a young child – I always thought that was kind of neat and maybe even poignant.

Several of the artists in today’s random selection are pretty obscure. Side Effect was an L.A.-based group that has a lot in common with Earth, Wind & Fire; Osibisa was a group from Ghana that mixed African and Caribbean influences into a fun sound; Larry Jon Wilson was a gritty southern singer-songwriter; and Pete Carr was, among other things, a member of the Hour Glass, Duane and Gregg Allman’s early band, and a well-known session guitarist.

*To that sad litany, Vikings fans can now add the fate of the 2009 team, when an ill-timed penalty for having twelve players in the huddle followed by the interception of an ill-advised pass by quarterback Brett Favre denied the Vikings a chance at a field goal that would have almost certainly put them in the Super Bowl. Note added May 25, 2011.

Looking At Lennon’s Best

May 25, 2011

Originally posted December 11, 2007

Pondering John Lennon’s life and career – a result of noting the anniversary of his death last Saturday – I began to wonder which of his songs might be categorized as his best work. It’s a question I’ve dabbled with at various times over the years – I think most music fans do the same with any group or performer they like – but I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about the question: Which John Lennon composition stands above all others?

The first problem one encounters is that for much of his career, anything Lennon wrote – and anything Paul McCartney wrote, too – was credited to the songwriting partnership as a Lennon-McCartney composition. One can generally assess which Beatle wrote a specific song by the identity of the lead singer. But things can get complex, as many of their songs – particularly in the early days – were in fact team projects. One bit of help there, though, is that the early songs are not as strong as the later ones; knowing whether Lennon or McCartney was the chief author of, say, “This Boy” or “I Wanna Be Your Man” isn’t truly crucial.

Another help for me as I waded through the idea this morning, was Beatlesongs, a 1989 book by William J. Dowlding that examines in depth every song recorded and released by the Beatles. One of the things examined – using as sources newspapers, magazines and other books as well as a wide variety of interviews on record – is the authorship of the Beatles’ songs. Half credits are granted for those songs that were truly shared, and partial credits are frequently granted through the Sgt. Pepper era; from then on, rarely are songs credited to more than one of the Beatles. So with that as a help, I began to look at the songs that were assessed as being John Lennon’s.

So what are the greatest John Lennon songs? As I once wrote about Bob Dylan, John Lennon could have given a four-hour concert and still had enough great songs/records left to put together a greatest hits package that would top the charts.

Here are some I thought of that didn’t make the Lennon Top Ten: From the Beatles era, “Help!” might be the best, followed by “No Reply,” “Ticket to Ride,” “Girl” (a Rubber Soul track), “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is a great recording, one that I love, but it’s not a great song.

There are fewer from Lennon’s solo work, partly because he wasn’t as prolific, and partly because – especially during the Lost Weekend years – his output wasn’t nearly as good as it had been. Songs from that era that just missed the Top Ten were “#9 Dream,” which is probably my favorite, “Working Class Hero,” and “Nobody Told Me.” Lennon’s performance on “God,” from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is some of the best singing of his life, but it’s not a great song, and, similarly, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” is a great record, again one I love, but the song itself isn’t great.

There are ten Lennon songs that I think are better than those thirteen (although those thirteen would make a pretty good album!). In no particular order except for the song I judge to be Lennon’s best, the Lennon Top Ten are:

“You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” – Written for the movie and album Help!, this pensive confessional showed a new approach for Lennon’s songwriting, one that he openly acknowledged was influenced by Bob Dylan. According to Dowlding’s book, the line “Feeling two foot small” was originally supposed to be “two foot tall,” but Lennon mis-sang it during a rehearsal and decided to keep the error as the lyric.

“Norwegian Wood” – More likely remembered for the first use of a sitar on a popular song, “Norwegian Wood,” from Rubber Soul, has one of the more spare lyrics in Lennon’s oeuvre. The spareness works well, as Lennon masks in cryptic fashion his tale of an affair. I’ve always wondered if the narrator burns the place down at the end of the song: “So I lit a fire. Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?”

“A Day In The Life” – Dowlding credits forty percent of this song, which closes the Sgt. Pepper album, to McCartney, and it’s true that McCartney supplied the middle portion of the epic: “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head . . .” But the general tone of the song, its theme and its overall carriage, are all Lennon’s. Dreary with fatalism and pessimism, the song is a downer, but a well-written downer.

“Revolution” – Three Lennon compositions share this title: The rocking single that ended up collected on the Hey Jude album, the slower and slightly funky “Revolution 1” that was on The Beatles (commonly called The White Album), and “Revolution 9,” the tape-loop and noise experiment that was the next to last track on The Beatles. That last is not under consideration. The first two are essentially the same song, except Lennon sings “count me out . . . in” on the slower album version, showing more ambivalence toward any impending revolution than he did on the faster single, with its emphatic “count me out!” As to the recordings, I prefer the single version, but it’s a great song whether it boogies or ambles.

“Julia” – Lennon’s memorial to his late mother is one of the most lovely songs in rock history, never mind just in Lennon’s catalog. Dowlding credits Lennon with seventy-five percent of the song, with twenty percent to Yoko Ono and five percent to Kahlil Gibran. The line “Oceanchild calls me” refers to Ono, as in Japanese, Yoko means “oceanchild.” The phrase “Julia, seashell eyes” came from Gibran’s writings.

“Across the Universe” – Recorded in 1968 during the sessions for The Beatles, “Across the Universe” was set to be released as a single in March 1968, but McCartney’s “Lady Madonna” was released instead. A version of the song appeared on a charity album for the World Wildlife Fund in 1969 (available, in the U.S. at least, on the Rarities album released in 1980; I don’t know off the top of my head about CD releases of that version). The song provides me with one of the more tolerable earworms, as the phrase “Nothing’s gonna change my world” sometimes cycles around and around in my head.

“Watching the Wheels” – This is one of only two entries in the Lennon Top Ten from his solo work after the dissolution of the Beatles, and the only entry from the last years of his life. I guess what I admire about the song is the sense of clarity and of purpose one finds in the lyric: I’ve been there, I’ve done enough of that, and I’m taking some time to figure out who I am.

“Come Together” – I dithered on this one for a while, wondering if it’s the record I like more than the song. The record is a great one, but so, too, is the song, with its sly wordplay. And it rocks!

“Imagine” – Lennon, as I see him, was a man of many facets, some of them not always noble. (In that, he was no different than you or I, except that his tremendous fame made public those less-than-noble aspects of his life and personality.) His most admirable persona, I think, was that of the utopian dreamer, an identity that carried with it a hint of mysticism. “Imagine” was Lennon’s best and most clear expression of that utopian mysticism.

“In My Life” – Dowlding notes in his book that Lennon and McCartney disputed the creation of this song, with Lennon noting that McCartney helped with the melody and McCartney claiming he wrote the music alone. The music is important, certainly, but it’s the lyrics that make “In My Life” a great song, and there’s no dispute that those are Lennon’s. I’ve long admired the clarity and tenderness with which Lennon looks back, as well as the sense of purpose he finds in balancing the lure of memory with the treasure of the present. To my mind, this is not only Lennon’s greatest song – certainly his greatest lyric – but one of the great songs in the history of rock.

All Music Guide lists more than two hundred and sixty CDs that include a version of “In My Life.” Subtract twenty to account for the Beatles’ version of the song, and you still have an astounding number of cover versions. I’ve not heard them all, of course, but I doubt if many of them could be as moving and affectionate as the version George Martin produced in 1998. It was the closing track and the title track of his last album before retiring, an album made up of cover versions of twelve Beatles songs. (Some of the pairings and performances are odd, others are impressive; In My Life is a CD well worth finding.)

Instead of having a vocalist sing Lennon’s words, Martin decided to enlist one of the greatest voices in the English-speaking world to recite Lennon’s words over a musical background. So here’s Sean Connery performing “In My Life.”

Sean Connery & George Martin – “In My Life” [1998]

The Authentic Hippie Chick

May 25, 2011

Originally posted December 10, 2007

I recall reading in an edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide an assessment of the Mamas & the Papas as a collection of late Sixties archetypes that worked in tandem with the group members’ undeniable talent. The reviewer, Paul Evans, said Michelle Phillips’ visual slot was a the “mistily gorgeous hippie chick.”

That’s true, I guess, but to those of us listeners and observers in the late 1960s and early 1970s who were fascinated by such creatures, the real hippie chick was Melanie. As good as the Mamas & the Papas were – and they were mighty good, indeed – their work often seemed to be all too carefully produced and packaged, a triumph of craft over creativity, and the group’s image seemed to be carefully crafted as well. Melanie, on the other hand, seemed a lot more free in her music, and she was as gorgeous in her dark way as was the blonde Michelle.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Mamas & the Papas’ music. It holds up well after forty years. But it always seemed – and still does, even as I sing along – to be carefully calculated. Maybe that’s why my favorite moment in their music is Denny Doherty’s errant entrance after the instrumental bridge in “I Saw Her Again,” an unplanned moment that worked so well that the group left the error intact.

Melanie, who came out of Queens, New York, in 1969, about two years after the Mamas & the Papas’ moment had ended, no doubt put as much care into her music and her recordings as did the California quartet, but the overall sense I got from her music was that of an artist a little more relaxed and a lot more experimental. And the content of her music was closer to the hippie ethos, it seemed to me at the time and still does today, than was the product of the Mamas & the Papas.

The most enduring of Melanie’s work, of course, is the result of her performing at Woodstock on August 16, 1969. “Lay Down (Candles In The Rain),” a gospel-inflected 1970 single that reached No. 6, was written as a tribute to the Woodstock audience and was recorded with the Edwin Hawkins Singers (fresh from their own Top 40 hit, “Oh Happy Day” in 1969). The single became the centerpiece of Melanie’s third album, Candles In The Rain. (The album’s cover, showing a portrait of the twenty-three-year-old singer smiling beatifically while strumming her guitar in candlelight, says “gorgeous hippie chick” to me more than any picture I ever saw of Michelle Phillips!)

The album itself went to No. 17, and two more of Melanie’s albums reached the Top 40 as well, with Leftover Wine going to No. 33 in 1970 and Gather Me reaching No. 15 in 1971 (at least in part on the strength of “Brand New Key,” a single that spent three weeks at No. 1 as 1971 turned into 1972). All-Music Guide notes that Gather Me, released on Melanie’s own label, Neighborhood Records, may be her best album (and gives her props for using “Brand New Key” to sneak Freudian imagery into the Top 40). The follow-up album, Stoneground Words, according to AMG, is “a mature, intelligent and ambitious work, easily as good as most singer/songwriter fare of its time.” Despite that, Stoneground Words failed to reach the Top 40, and Melanie’s time in the spotlight was done.

(Melanie has never quit recording. The AMG discography shows consistent entries released by a wide variety of labels nearly to the present, with the most recent collection of new work being – from what I can tell – 2004’s Paled By Dimmer Light, which appears to be available only as a download. Her most recent work available on CD, it seems, is 2002’s Crazy Love.)

Although it may not be quite as realized a work as Gather Me or Stoneground Words, Melanie’s 1970 album Candles In The Rain remains, to me, the foundation of Melanie’s work. Along with “Lay Down,” the album featured the lovely “Leftover Wine,” nicely done covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” and James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind” as well as the original version of “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma,” a song that the New Seekers took to No. 14 in the autumn of 1970.

I’ve included in the zip file the long version of “Lay Down” that was released by Buddah in 1972 on the anthology, Four Sides of Melanie.

Candles In The Rain
Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)
Carolina In My Mind
Citiest People
What Have They Done To My Song Ma
The Good Guys
Loving Baby Girl
Ruby Tuesday
Leftover Wine

Bonus Track
Lay Down (Candles In The Rain) [Long Version]

Melanie – Candles In The Rain [1970]

Saturday Single No. 45

May 25, 2011

Originally posted December 8, 2007

Well, today is the twenty-seventh anniversary of the death of John Lennon, something that’s being noted on more blogs than I care to number this morning.

I wrote not long ago about my memories of that Monday evening and the day that followed, so I won’t repeat that. As a reporter, I look back and nod, seeing the confluence of talent, fame, death at a young age and violence that made the story of Lennon’s death so huge, and I wonder: If the same thing were to happen today, how much more of a media frenzy would we see, and would that frenzy make the central event – the death of a famous and relatively young father, husband and musician – seem larger or smaller?

I don’t know the answer to that with any certainty, but I fear that the central fact – the story of the death – would become smaller than the story of the story. That’s something to chew on some other time, though.

When I take off my reporter costume, the events of December 8, 1980, just become sad. I, like all other Beatles fans, especially those of my generation, lost part of my youth that night. And I think it took some time – more than days, more than weeks, maybe more than months – for that to sink in.

Paul McCartney, confronted in the early morning with the news of Lennon’s death as he emerged, tired, from a recording session, could muster no more than, “It’s a drag, innit?” His seeming callousness brought bitter criticism. But think of this: How would any one of us react when told, at the end of a long workday and in the view of a phalanx of cameras, of the death of our childhood friend and long-time business partner?* Would we have the words? Most likely not. It takes some time for the import of any life-changing event to sink in.*

And when it sank in, over months, Paul did for his friend the best he could. I saw McCartney in concert in St. Paul in 2002, and maybe midway through the show, he said he was going to perform a song he wrote “for my dear friend, John.” There was applause, and McCartney said, “Yeah, let’s hear it for John!” and the Xcel Energy Center erupted with one of the loudest and longest ovations I have ever heard.

And then McCartney took up his guitar and performed the song he wrote for his dear friend, John: “Here Today,” today’s Saturday Single.

Paul McCartney – “Here Today” [1982]

*Looking back, I understand that McCartney had learned earlier of Lennon’s death and the confrontation with reporters served as reminder, not revelation. Still, the point remains: How many of us would have the right words were we confronted with glaring cameras and shouted demands for comment shortly after such horrible news? Note added May 25, 2011.