Archive for the ‘2008/02 (February)’ Category

Buddy Miles, 1947-2008

June 15, 2011

Originally posted February 29, 2008

I’ve written at least a little bit about Buddy Miles twice in the past year – once detailing my first reaction to hearing his version of “Down By The River” on a summer night in 1970 and then discussing very briefly Miles’ treatment at the hands of critics when I presented his version of “Midnight Rider” here.

Miles died Tuesday at his Texas home at the age of sixty-one. News reports say that he had congestive heart failure. Probably the best obituary/new story I’ve read about Miles in the past few days was the one by the New York Times, which laid out his career pretty clearly.

I’ve been pondering Miles and his music and his legacy since Tuesday. I’ve enjoyed his work over the years, especially his 1970 solo album, Them Changes, and his earlier work with the Electric Flag. I’m not sure I have anything more to say about him, though, so I guess I’ll let the music speak for itself by sharing an album and a couple of single tracks.

The single tracks are a re-up of Miles’ cover of Neil Young’s “Down By The River” from Them Changes (at a better bit rate than my earlier upload) and the live version of “Them Changes” from the Jimi Hendrix album, Band of Gypsys, recorded at the Fillmore East in New York on the night 1969 turned into 1970.

As to albums, well, it seems that the three albums I view as the essential Miles albums – the Electric Flag’s Long Time Comin’, his own Them Changes and Band of Gypsys – are all available of CD for reasonable prices. Miles’ later work, especially that with Carlos Santana, was good at times, too, but it never grabbed me as much as did the early work. Beyond those three albums mentioned above, not a lot of Miles’ work seems to be available on CD. (My usual source for that information, All-Music Guide, is having its problems this morning. As I clicked on links to get information about Miles’ work, I was connected to pages about Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Britney Spears, the Kelly Family – whoever they might be – and numerous other musicians before finally getting to the information I was seeking. Very odd.)

One album not available on CD is the 1969 record by the Buddy Miles Express, Electric Church, about half of which was produced by Hendrix. (News reports this week credit Hendrix with the entire album, but the record jacket credits Anne Tansey with three of the seven tracks.) Recorded after the Electric Flag collapsed and before Miles joined Hendrix, the record is pretty much of a piece with Them Changes, although none of its tracks are as memorable as “Them Changes” or “Down By The River.” (I found this copy online, and it’s almost certainly from vinyl, as I’ve found no indication online of a CD release of Electric Church. It’s a pretty clean rip, and if I could recall where I found it, I’d thank the original uploader.)

Members of the Buddy Miles Express were: Buddy Miles on drums and vocals, Jim McCarty on guitar, Bill Rich on bass, Duane Hitchings on organ, James Tatum and Bobby Rock on tenor saxophone and Pete Carter and Tom Hall on trumpet.

Miss Lady*
69 Freedom Special*
Cigarettes & Coffee
Destructive Love*
My Chant*
Wrap It Up

(*Produced by Jimi Hendrix)

Buddy Miles Express – Electric Church [1969]

Buddy Miles – “Down By The River” [1970]

Band of Gypsys – “Them Changes” [1970]

Two From Ellen Aim & The Attackers

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 28, 2008

I continue to be ambivalent about the movie Streets of Fire.As I wrote here some months ago, when I rented the movie a few years ago, it didn’t seem nearly as good as it did when in came out in 1984. Yet, this morning, I did my normal Thursday morning casting about at YouTube and took a look at the video for “Nowhere Fast,” the movie’s opening song. And as I watched, I found myself being sucked in again to the story of rock star Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), on the verge of being kidnapped – as the song ends – by Raven, the character played by Willem Dafoe.

I pondered the pull of the scene for a moment, and then realized – to paraphrase a sign in someone’s election headquarters – “It’s the music, dummy!” Jim Steinman’s mammoth production still thrills me. I know some find his work overbearing, and it’s true that his 1980s version of the Wall of Sound didn’t always make for great listening on the radio or at home. But in a film – in particular, in this film – it worked well.

I may have to head over to the movie rental site and have them send me a DVD of Streets of Fire. It’s been a few years since I looked at it, and – even if it’s not quite as good as I thought it was in 1984 – it may not be as lacking as I thought it was in 2001. Anyway, here’s the scene of Ellen Aim & the Attackers performing “Nowhere Fast” from Streets of Fire.*

I thought that, as long as I was digging around, I’d also post the ending sequence of Streets of Fire. It includes the other big number from the film, “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young,” performed after Ellen Aim has been rescued from captivity by her old flame Cody (Michael Paré), who then heads down the road with Amy Madigan’s McCoy. (The clip includes the closing credits, backed by the Fixx’s “Deeper and Deeper.)

*Both videos had been deleted since this entry was first posted. The best videos now available appear to be official videos released by the studio. Note added June 12, 2011.

A Wake, A Funeral & A Smile

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 27, 2008

This was a two-funeral week here. (Actually, to be technically correct, a one-wake, one funeral week.) Last week, we went and saw my buddy Dan and his brothers and father at the wake for his mother, who died after a long illness. And yesterday, I drove about fifty miles to Cambridge for a funeral; my aunt – the widow of my dad’s elder brother – died last week.

At the wake last week, I saw some friends and acquaintances I’d not seen for years, including Dan’s brother, with whom I’d shared some college classes years ago. I also saw a number of faculty and staff I knew from the university, where Dan’s dad and mine had worked together for years. And yesterday, I saw cousins I’d not seen for a while, since my dad’s funeral almost five years ago.

As I noted last fall – and I don’t think this is in any way out of the ordinary for life here in America – as I move deeper into my fifties, I more and more catch up with my, relatives, friend and acquaintances at funerals. During a light lunch in the church after yesterday’s funeral, I mentioned that it was my second such event of the week, and my cousin Ron’s wife, Vickie, mentioned that it was her fourth in the past week. “And I imagine,” I said, “that it’s only going to accelerate.” We all nodded glumly.

One other thing made yesterday’s funeral more than a little un-nerving. As I and six other of her nephews carried Aunt Marion’s casket in the cemetery and then stood by with others for a brief graveside service, I realized that I was standing very near the place where someday – many years from now, I hope – the Texas Gal and I will be laid to rest.

The afternoon wasn’t one of utter gloom, though. Catching up with my cousins was enjoyable, and there was a moment of levity when I learned something from my sister. I was wearing new slacks and she commented on it. I told her that since the last time I’d worn anything even halfway dressy – I wear jeans most of the time I’m out and sweatpants most of the time at home – the slacks in my closet had gotten smaller.

She nodded. “That happens,” she said. “What happens is that when you leave clothing hanging in the closet, the air leaks out from between the threads of fabric, and when you come back after a while, all your clothes have gotten smaller.” She nodded judiciously. “It’s a scientific fact.”

It was a welcome moment of levity in an otherwise mostly somber day.

Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes
Not long ago, I shared the second of two early 1980s albums by Gary U.S. Bonds, and when I wrote about Dedication, I said: “Not surprisingly, nine of the record’s ten tracks have a familiar sound, a combination of the E Street Band’s sound with the sound of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, for whom [Bruce] Springsteen and [Steve] Van Zandt did a fair amount of production work around the same time.”

The comment got me thinking and digging into my collections. I had very few mp3s from Southside Johnny and the Jukes, but I have five LPs. So I did a little looking around, and I discovered that at least a few of those records, despite being released on CD a few years ago, have fallen out of print. So here’s the first in a planned series of shares: I Don’t Want To Go Home, the 1976 debut album by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

It’s a pretty good album, rooted in the R&B horn band sound that founders John Lyon and Steve Van Zandt envisioned for the band when it was formed in 1974. By the time the debut was being recorded, Van Zandt had moved to Springsteen’s E Street Band, but he produced the record and brought along some songs.

Essentially, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes is a bar band, but certainly one of the greatest bar bands ever. The group performs little if any original material, but its sweaty effort lifts the group from being just a cover band to the status of unique interpreters. Add to that the benefits of having Van Zandt’s production sense, the punch of the Miami Horns and material written by Van Zandt and by Springsteen, and you’ve got a good record.

Highlights? Well, the title track – a Van Zandt composition – for sure, as well as “The Fever,” one of two Springsteen contributions. “Fanny Mae” and the sassy “It Ain’t The Meat (It’s The Motion)” are also standouts. A couple of guest performances liven the record: New Orleans R&B legend Lee Dorsey (“Working In A Coal Mine,” “Ya Ya” and many more) drops by for a duet on “How Come You Treat Me So Bad,” and Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes joins in the album’s Springsteen-penned closer, “You Mean So Much To Me.”

Johnny and the Jukes would release better albums – I’d say that 1978’s Hearts of Stone was their best – but I Don’t Want To Go Home was a good start.

I Don’t Want To Go Home
Got To Get You Off My Mind
How Come You Treat Me So Bad
The Fever
Broke Down Piece Of Man
Sweeter Than Honey
Fanny Mae
It Ain’t The Meat (It’s The Motion)
I Choose To Sing The Blues
You Mean So Much To Me

Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes – I Don’t Want To Go Home [1976]

‘I Look At The Floor . . .’

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 26, 2008

Heading out to meet the Texas Gal at the mall yesterday afternoon, I found myself grumbling a little as I waited in a long line of cars to cross one of the city’s major roads. Having spent ten years living in the Twin Cities, I shouldn’t complain about St. Cloud traffic; in the metro area, the evening rush hour begins to clog the roads at about four o’clock and does so until long after six.

Here in St. Cloud, the Texas Gal and I often joke, we have rush minute, with only a few places in the city subject to much congestion. One of them is the intersection I was at yesterday. Moderately annoyed, I pushed the buttons on the radio, running quickly through a few stations before settling on Cities 97.

And then I heard the unmistakable dissonance of “I Want To Tell You,” a George Harrison-penned track from the Beatles’ classic album, Revolver. The light changed, and I crossed the intersection and then wound my way through the parking lot, all the while tapping my hand on the steering wheel in time to the music.

As I did, I wondered: Why play that particular song? It’s not one that ever gets a lot of airtime. You have to dig pretty deep into the Harrison catalog to end up at “I Want To Tell You.” And just before the DJ told me, I realized that it was just past five o’clock, a time when KTCZ plays several tracks by one artist and frequently digs pretty deep into an artist’s catalog. And it hit me at about the same instant that yesterday’s date was February 25. George Harrison would have turned sixty-five yesterday.

I don’t store in my memory a lot of performers’ birthdays. Only two, actually. Harrison’s and Ringo Starr’s (July 7). I know John Lennon was born in October (October 9, but I had to look), and I never can remember when Paul McCartney was born except I know it’s in spring (June 18). And once we’re past the Beatles, the only similar thing I know is that Bob Dylan has a springtime birthday, too (May 24). Beyond that, I’ve never paid attention to birth dates in the music world. (Well, I remember that Louis Armstrong was supposedly born on July 4, 1900.) Does it mean anything that I know two Beatle birthdays and come close on the other two, as well as on Dylan’s? Nothing more, I guess, than that the Beatles and Dylan are important to me and once were so important that I absorbed nearly any detail I could.

I do remember one of Harrison’s birthdays, however, the day he turned twenty-nine, in 1972. At the time, at KVSC, the St. Cloud State radio station, the late night DJ could play full album sides for a couple of hours, from eleven p.m. to one a.m., interrupted only by three-minute news updates at about the forty-minute and eighty-minute mark – in other words, at the points where full albums would end. On February 25, 1972, I was the newsman. I have long since forgotten the DJ’s name, but I recall he was a fan of Iron Butterfly, and he intended to fill his two hours that evening with that group’s music, including two versions of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” one from the studio and the other from a live album.

When I heard his plans, I blinked. And then I pointed out that the first hour of the show was the last hour of Harrison’s birthday. He thought for a second and then agreed that the first hour could be Harrison’s. Once midnight hit, though, it was time for the Butterfly. So he played the first two sides of All Things Must Pass and I did my three-minute newscast. Then he played the third side of the Harrison album, followed by the second side of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, with the members of Iron Butterfly noodling around on the title tune for seventeen minutes. I delivered my second – and final – newscast of the night.

As one might expect, I did no reporting during those hours; I simply pulled off the AP teletype the stories that I thought most interesting. Given my quirky sense of humor, I’m sure both newscasts were at least a little odd. I do recall the DJ laughing at one of the items in my second newscast of the evening. As he chuckled, I got my coat and headed out the door, leaving him to his laughter and his Iron Butterfly.

I thought of all of that in the few moments that I heard the end of “I Want To Tell You” yesterday afternoon. Following that came the thought that I should find a good cover of a Harrison tune for today. So this morning, I began sorting tunes on the RealPlayer. There were plenty to choose from – about sixty covers of Harrison songs, I would guess.

And I decided to take a look at “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Besides the various versions from Harrison himself – with the Beatles and as a solo performer – I have three versions of the song, and one of those is McCartney and Eric Clapton teaming up for a performance during the Concert for George in 2002.

According to All-Music Guide, the song has not been covered a great deal. The site lists just about ninety CDs that include the song, and about a third of those are performances by the Beatles and by Harrison. Some interesting names – some familiar, some not – do pop up among the others: The Assembled Multitude (shared here about a year ago), the Brazilian Tropical Orchestra, the Drowners, Peter Frampton, the Hot Club of San Francisco, Kenny Lattimore, Martin Luther “M.L.” McCoy (in the 2007 film Across the Universe), the Munich Symphonic Sound Orchestra, Phish, Kenny Rankin, Todd Rundgren, Toto, Joe Sachse, Rick Wakeman and many more.

As usual, I’ve heard some of those and have not heard many more. But the name I pulled out of the list this morning was that of the Jeff Healey Band. Healey came to prominence in 1988 with the release of See The Light, an impressive debut. The band gained attention, as well, from the fact that Healey is blind and plays his Fender Stratocaster on his lap instead of standing up. In 1990, the group released its second album, Hell to Pay, which, if not quite as impressive, was still considered a solid effort. And it’s on Hell to Pay that Healey and his mates delivered a good version of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Jeff Healey Band – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” [1990]

A Baker’s Dozen From The Movies

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 25, 2008

Every time I watch the Academy Awards – and that’s pretty much every year – I think a little bit about “What if?”

For a brief time in college, I dabbled in film, taking several workshops and classes and hanging around with others who did the same. I wrote a lot of short films, many of them adaptations of short stories, some of them originals. I also wrote some music for film: themes, background music and songs, written with certain projects in mind and then shelved when those projects either didn’t happen or went another way.

I thought I might actually make a living at one of those crafts in the context of filmmaking. And I might have. But I had absolutely no idea how to get from the thought of making a living in film to the actuality. So I never went that direction and became a journalist instead. I still did some other writing, more when I was teaching than when I was working at newspapers, and I still wrote songs and other music from time to time. But the movies and I have never been more than friendly strangers, not the friends I once thought possible.

I don’t regret that my path never went that direction. If it had been intended to be, I would have found my way there. But I admit that once a year, when I watch writers and songwriters collect their cherished statues, I wonder what might have been if I’d had even half a clue about what the first steps in such a path should have been.

A Baker’s Dozen of Songs From Movies
“Between Trains” by Robbie Robertson from The King of Comedy, 1983

“Songs to Aging Children Come” by Tigger Outlaw from Alice’s Restaurant, 1969

“Don’t It Feel Good To Be Free” by Edwin Starr from Hell Up In Harlem, 1974

“We Have All The Time In The World” by Louis Armstrong from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969

“Look What You’ve Done To Me” by Boz Scaggs from Urban Cowboy, 1980

“Love Theme (A Time For Us)” by Nino Rota from Romeo and Juliet, 1967

“Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” by Quicksilver Messenger Service from Revolution, 1968

“Route 66” by Manhattan Transfer from Sharkey’s Machine, 1981

“Nowhere Fast” by Fire, Inc., from Streets of Fire, 1984

“Child of the Universe” by the Byrds from Candy, 1968

“Un Homme et Une Femme (A Man and a Woman)” by Francis Lai from Un Homme et Une Femme, 1966

“The Harder They Come” by Jimmy Cliff from The Harder They Come, 1972

“Midnight Cowboy” by John Barry from Midnight Cowboy, 1969

A few notes:

A recent visitor said that among the lost treasures he’d like to hear were Jennifer Warnes’ deleted album on Reprise and the Robbie Robertson track “Between Trains” from the soundtrack to The King of Comedy. I don’t have any leads on the Warnes album, but as soon as I got the note, I wandered to the shelf where I keep my soundtracks, pulled out The King of Comedy and ripped an mp3 of “Between Trains” from the vinyl. Joining Robertson in the studio were – among others – Richard Manuel on background vocals, Garth Hudson on synthesizer and famed session drummer Jim Keltner. It’s a good track.

Some time ago, I posted Joni Mitchell’s version of her “Songs to Aging Children Come,” noting that it had been performed in the movie Alice’s Restaurant by Tigger Outlaw. I said, “Mitchell’s version – the original – is probably more accomplished, but there is an awkward earnestness in Outlaw’s version that is somehow endearing.” That still holds true, having had Outlaw’s version pop up as I listened to songs from movies last night.

The Hell Up In Harlem soundtrack by Edwin Starr is pretty good, with Starr giving fierce readings of some of the songs from Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell. The gospelly “Don’t It Feel Good To Be Free” was the B side to one of the singles released from the film and was a pretty good track on its own.

The Quicksilver Messenger Service song was one of several rock songs used to back Revolution, a 1968 documentary on the counterculture of the late Sixties. The film’s description at All Movie Guide reads, in part: “Primarily filmed in San Francisco, this documentary features a series of interviews with those who call themselves hippies, or in some way identify with hippies. The countercultural revolution is revealed in discussions about sex, drugs, philosophy and lifestyle. Casual nudity and marijuana use is the main activity of one group. A nun who has left the order reveals her decisions to join the counterculture. Others decry the dehumanization of the modern industrial world, choosing to lead a hand-to-mouth existence. Communal living, psychedelic shows, love-ins and diverse fashion statements accompany the hippies who are many things to many people. All share a feeling of human togetherness and a live-and-let-live philosophy as they cope with the rapidly changing spectrum of social and political events in their lives.” Other groups whose music was used in the film were Country Joe & The Fish, the Steve Miller Band and Mother Earth.

“Nowhere Fast” was one of two Jim Steinman epics in the soundtrack to Streets of Fire, the rock and roll fable that came out in 1984. Overblown and overproduced? Yeah, probably. But I still like it. Every time I hear it, I find myself for a day or two with “Godspeed, godspeed, godspeed, speed us away,” running through my head.

“Child of the Universe” is a decent Byrds track that got swallowed up by the movie Candy, an atrocious 1968 film based on the “erotic” novel of the same title by Terry Southern. The book was one of those passed around surreptitiously in junior high with little notes inside the cover alerting us to the pages that had the hot stuff. The song – written by Dave Grusin – also wound up on the 1969 album Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde. The movie, available through at least one standard on-line service, is essentially unwatchable.

John Barry’s instrumental theme to Midnight Cowboy might be the best thing on this list although the preceding track, Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” is a great recording, too, and was, I think, one of the first reggae records to get much attention outside of Jamaica.

Saturday Singles Nos. 58 & 59

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 23, 2008

Once again, odd stuff pops up in the record store.

On our way home from dinner last evening, the Texas Gal and I stopped in at the Electric Fetus to check the most recent used CDs and vinyl. And a few minutes later, we had three nice finds: She filled a gap in her Melissa Etheridge collection. I found Sting’s Songs From The Labyrinth, performances of fifteen songs written by John Dowland (1563-1626) and one by Robert Johnson (1583-1633), with the accompaniment on instruments faithful to the period. I’d seen a piece on the project on a television show a while back and, although I hadn’t looked too hard for the CD, I was pleased to run into it by accident.

And then the Texas Gal went poking into the budget vinyl bin. A few seconds later, she held up a record jacket for me to glance at, while I was still checking out the CDs. The jacket showed Glenn Yarbrough, wearing a nifty little captain’s hat and grinning into the sun. The album is called My Sweet Lady. The Texas Gal looked a bit closer at it as I came over. “It’s still sealed!” she said.

It was. A 1974 album still sealed! And for ninety-nine cents, at that.

Well, that went into our small pile of things that were going to go home with us. And I looked at bit closer at the record jacket as we wandered around the store. And I noticed something even more odd yet.

The record was released on the Stax label. The home of Sam & Dave, of Isaac Hayes, of Booker T & the MGs . . . and Glenn Yarbrough?

Now, I like Yarbrough’s stuff. A while back, I wrote about two of his records that remain among my favorite albums, The Lonely Things and For Emily Whenever I May Find Her. I expect I’ll enjoy My Sweet Lady when I open it, though I also expect that in the context of 1974, Yarbrough’s sound would have been even more dated than it had been in 1966 and 1967. But finding Glenn Yarbrough recording on Stax, well, that’s like . . .

Actually, I can’t think of a pairing of things odd enough to use as a simile. The best thing to do might be to look at the Stax discography. According to the Stax discography at Both Sides Now Publications (a website that’s a marvelous tool for research), the Stax release that immediately preceded the Glenn Yarbrough album was I Wanna Get Funky by blues genius Albert King. And the Stax release that followed My Sweet Lady was Friction by the Soul Children, which had the single “I’ll Be The Other Woman.”

An odd juxtaposition, to be sure.

I suppose I really should post something here from the Yarbrough. But, as I noted above, I haven’t opened it yet, and I’m going to wait to do so. Instead, I’m going to post Glenn Yarbrough’s only Top 40 hit, followed by the only Top 40 hit for the Soul Children, just as the Soul Children follow Yarbrough in the Stax catalog. (Unfortunately, I can’t put my hands right now on any usable mp3s from I Wanna Get Funky.)

So here is an odd pair of Saturday Singles.

Glenn Yarbrough – “Baby The Rain Must Fall” [1966]

Soul Children – “I’ll Be The Other Woman” [1974]

From A Muscle To The Junkyard

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 22, 2008

As some cliché writer once said, there’s a first time for everything. I’m still not sold on the “everything” in that, but I do seem to have cataloged a “first time” that I don’t believe I’ve ever thought about.

I’ve been fighting a cold for a couple of days, and last evening, while sneezing, I pulled a muscle in my ribcage. I never knew one could do that. But I did, and one of the results is that I’m not very comfortable writing. So I’m not going to do much of that today, beyond a short introduction and some comments about some of the songs that pop up.

Several of the online outlets where I buy CDs have had sales and promotions lately, so there is an appreciable pile of CDs waiting to be logged into our collection here. Most of them are albums from the 1960s and 1970s, as I continue to fill gaps. In an effort to fill one such empty space, I finally picked up last week Wanted, the first album by the country-rock group Mason Proffit. So we’ll start today’s walk through the junkyard with “Two Hangmen,” the Vietnam-era protest song dressed up as a Western morality play. In the year it came out, I used to hear it through whispers of static on KAAY in Little Rock.

A Walk Through the Junkyard
“Two Hangmen” by Mason Proffit from Wanted, 1969

“Kid Charlemagne” by Steely Dan from The Royal Scam, 1976

“Wolves In The Kitchen” by John Stewart from Lonesome Picker Rides Again, 1971

“Hurt So Bad” by El Chicano from Viva Tirado, 1970

“Everything Is Gonna Be OK” by Dino Valente from Dino Valente, 1968

“Stranger Than Dreams” by Lowen & Navarro from Scratch at the Door, 1998

“Keeping the Faith” by Billy Joel from An Innocent Man, 1983

“I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Muddy Waters, Chess single 1571, 1954

“Poems, Prayers & Promises” by John Denver, RCA single 0445, 1971

“So Easy” by Aztec Two-Step from Aztec Two-Step, 1972

“Love at the Five & Dime” by Nanci Griffith from Last of the True Believers, 1986

“That Girl Could Sing” by Jackson Browne from Hold Out, 1980

“One Fine Day” by Carole King, Capitol single 4864, 1980

“Out In The Country” by Three Dog Night from It Ain’t Easy, 1970

“Moses” by the Navarros, GNP Crescendo single 351, 1965

A few notes:

I’ve learned from conversations and correspondence with radio folks that “Two Hangmen” is one of those songs that brings a buzz when it is aired: The phones light up as listeners have questions, comments and just plain gratitude for being able to hear the song one more time.

Steely Dan’s sound was unique and so consistent from album to album that sometimes the group’s body of work can blend into a whole. While the Dan never released a truly bad album, there were a couple that weren’t as good, and I think The Royal Scam was one of those.

I’m not sure if Lowen & Navarro were as popular elsewhere in the 1990s as they seemed to be in Minnesota. Every two or three months, it seemed, the duo would stop by Cities 97 for a live-in-studio performance. Their acoustic folk-pop was well-done, and I enjoy the couple of CDs I have, but there never seemed to be much change or growth: the songs on 1998’s Scratch at the Door could easily have fit into Walking On A Wire, the duo’s 1991 debut CD.

I have seven LPs and three CDs of Billy Joel’s work in my collection. I’m not sure I need that much. That said, An Innocent Man is a good album, and if “Keeping the Faith” isn’t the best track on the record – I think that title goes to “Uptown Girl” – it’s nevertheless a good one. Maybe someday I’ll write a post examining why I’m not all that fond of Joel and his work, and maybe by the time I’m finished with that post, I’ll understand the ambivalence he brings out in me.

Aztec Two-Step was a folk-rock duo that released four albums during the 1970s and a few more sporadically since then, including 2004’s Days of Horses. Their self-titled debut in 1972 created some buzz, but by the time the duo recorded 1975’s Second Step, folk-rock was falling out of favor. The first album is the best, though all of their work is pleasant.

I’ve noticed that whenever I post a Nanci Griffith song among either a Baker’s Dozen or a Junkyard, it almost always has fewer hits than the other tracks posted that day. Do yourself a favor: Listen to “Love at the Five & Dime.” I think that if I were to make a list of the one hundred best songs in my mp3 collection – which now numbers around 23,600 – “Love at the Five & Dime” would be one of them. I know that Nanci Griffith is not as well known as other artists whose recordings are posted here. I know that her delivery can be quirky. But the woman can write a song, and this one is most likely her best, from where I listen.

The Carole King track was the single pulled from Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King, a 1980 record for which King recorded some of the songs she and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin crafted during the Brill Building days in the early 1960s. I’d call the album a must-have.

The Navarros’ “Moses” is not quite a novelty record, but it comes close. I almost skipped over it when it popped up at the tail end this morning, but then I decided it’s a good day for a little bit of a chuckle.

‘Two Drifters, Off To See The World . . .’

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 21, 2008

Very little from yesterday’s Baker’s Dozen is available on YouTube, it seems, at least not in forms that make sense to share here. But that doesn’t mean that the video I’m sharing by default – Audrey Hepburn’s Hollly Golightly being overheard by George Peppard’s Fred Varjak as she sings “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – isn’t of some interest.

According to the Internet Movie Data Base, “The song ‘Moon River’ was written especially for Audrey Hepburn, since she had no training as a singer. The vocals were written to be sung in only one octave.”

The site goes on to note: “At a post-production meeting following a screening of the film, a studio executive, in reference to ‘Moon River,’ said, ‘Well, I think the first thing we can do is get rid of that stupid song.’ Audrey Hepburn stood up at the table and said, ‘Over my dead body!’ The song stayed in the picture.”

I looked at the video for Dennis DeYoung’s “Desert Moon” and found a copy that I am unable to embed here. It’s pretty good for a 1984 video, and in the context of the video, the song works much better, I think. You can see the video here.

By the time I placed this post in the blog archives, the video was available for embedding. Here it is. [Note added June 12, 2011.]

A Baker’s Dozen Of Moons

June 12, 2011

Originally posted February 20, 2008

I must have been about seven, which would put it sometime during the winter of 1960-61, when my dad showed me the darkened and red moon.

I’d been in bed a few hours, I imagine, with bedtime for a seven-year-old being about eight o’clock back then. But Dad woke me and had me look to the south, out the bathroom window. Floating above the trees, there rode the Moon, looking larger than usual, its normally pale white face colored a dusky red.

“It’s a total eclipse of the moon,” he told me. “The Earth comes between the Sun and the moon, and we can see the Earth’s shadow on the moon.” We looked for a while. I asked why the moon was red. He said he thought it had to do with the atmosphere, with the weather. (He was right.)

We looked at the moon for a little while longer and then went back to bed. It’s been nearly fifty years since Dad showed me the red moon. I imagine other total eclipses have come and gone, maybe many times, since then. There’s another one tonight, visible in most of North America. Starting at 7:43 Central Time, the Earth’s shadow will fall across the Moon. From 9:01 to 9:51, according to NASA, the eclipse will be total.

I hope lots of dads show their kids the darkened moon tonight.

A Baker’s Dozen of Moons
“Under the Darkest Moon” by Boo Hewerdine and Darden Smith from Evidence, 1989

“Moon River” by Henry Mancini from the soundtrack to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961

“Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn from Brand New Man, 1991

“Love on the Moon” by the Sutherland Brothers & Quiver from Reach For The Sky, 1975

“Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, Private Stock single 45,036, 1976

“Blue Moon” by Elvis Presley , RCA single 47-6640, 1956

“All Around The Sun And Moon” by Joy of Cooking from Castles, 1972

“Copper Kettle (Pale Moonlight)” by Bob Dylan from Self Portrait, 1970

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Levon Helm, from Coal Miner’s Daughter soundtrack, 1980

“Desert Moon” by Dennis DeYoung, A&M single 2666, 1984

“Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers from Yellow Moon, 1989

“Underneath the Harlem Moon” by Randy Newman from 12 Songs, 1970

“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fantasy single 622, 1969

A few notes:

“Under the Darkest Moon” comes from one of my favorite albums, one I shared here a while back. When I found it, I began to follow the solo careers of the two artists. In the past few years, though, I’ve pretty much quit following Hewerdine while continuing to track Smith, whose music continues to inhabit the intersection of rock, country and folk. (He’s issued nothing since 2005’s Field of Crows, so I’m waiting patiently.) Why did I quit following Hewerdine? His melodies are artful, sometimes beautiful, and his words are often eloquent, but, to me, the more I listened, there was a lightness in his work that was unrelieved; they needed a little more weight.

When I was working at the newspaper in Eden Prairie in the early 1990s, one of my colleagues, an ad man, was a country music fan, though he liked oldies as well. On his recommendation, I ordered through my music club one of Brooks & Dunn’s albums. I listened to it a couple of times, shrugged, and passed it on to Alan. Since the Texas Gal came into my life eight years ago this month, I’ve listened more to country music than I ever had before, and Brooks & Dunn are quite likely my favorite country performers. (Whenever they pop up on the RealPlayer, the little message box tells me that the only recording duo that has sold more records than Brooks & Dunn is Simon & Garfunkel. If that’s true, and I have no reason to doubt it, that’s an astounding fact.)

For most of the summer of 1976, the Starbuck tune was as inescapable as it is catchy. It spent fourteen weeks in the Top 40, beginning in mid-May, going as high as No. 3. It has to be one of the few Top 40 hits with a marimba solo. (I think it’s a marimba.)

When it was released in 1970, Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait was greeted with confused stares and derision. Among other things, critic Greil Marcus wrote, “I once said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing hard. But I’d never said I’d buy an album of Dylan breathing softly.” “Copper Kettle (Pale Moonlight)” has been one of the few tracks that, over the years, has been given some respect. Wikipedia reports that it was written by “Alfred Frank Beddoe (who was ‘discovered’ by Pete Seeger after applying for work at People’s Songs, Inc. in 1946).” (Exactly who was doing the applying there is unclear, but never mind.) To me, “Copper Kettle (Pale Moonlight)” is not just the best track on the album, but one of Dylan’s best tracks ever.

I was never a Styx fan, but I found I enjoyed 1984’s Desert Moon, the first solo album by the band’s keyboard player and vocalist, Dennis DeYoung. Part of that was no doubt familiarity with the title track, as the song’s video was in heavy rotation on MTV that year, the first year I had cable. It’s still a nice song, but it sounds a little bit slight after twenty-four years.

‘One & One & One Is Three . . .’

June 11, 2011

Originally posted February 19, 2008

Even before I listened to Top 40 radio, it was impossible to escape Diana Ross & the Supremes. In its most simplistic terms, the Motown formula was to take girl-group harmonies singing songs whose writing had echoes of New York’s Brill Building – in their hooks and melodies if not always in their subject matter – and lay the resulting product over a bed of R&B that cooked, but cooked nicely. Berry Gordy’s genius was in overseeing the creation of a sound that would, in the early to mid-1960s, be embraced by teens of all races and social strata. He knew what he was doing; he called Motown, “The Sound of Young America,” not the sound of any other aspect or subculture of America.

There were other geniuses involved, too, of course, chief among them Smokey Robinson, who wrote and produced records for numerous Motown groups, including his own Miracles, and the team of Brian Holland, LaMont Dozier and Eddie Holland, with all three of them writing and two of them producing. It was their work, chiefly, that helped the Supremes reach the top of the charts and stay there for twenty-three Top 40 hits, sixteen of which reached the Top Ten and twelve of which went to No. 1.

Even an unhip kid in the Midwest couldn’t escape the sound of the Supremes (and to a lesser extent the rest of the Motown stable: the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey and the Miracles and all the rest). No matter that he didn’t purposely listen to the radio much; his older sister and kids all around the neighborhood did. And the Supremes’ songs poured out of Motown and into the radio stations and out of the speakers: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back In My Arms Again,” and so many more.

(Here’s a dare: Go ahead and read that list of titles one more time. It’s a hard person – or one who cares nothing about music, in which case, why are you here? – who can read through that list even today, forty years down the pike, without at least one of those song titles sparking a melody in his or her head. The one that may be the most insidious is “Where Did Our Love Go,” with its “Baby, baby . . .” but the one I find the most arresting is “Come See About Me.” And remember, those five singles came out in less than one year’s time. The Supremes had another ten years of hits to come, although the last four years of Diana Ross’ time with the group were much more successful than the six years that followed.)

So even if I’d wanted to avoid the Supremes and the rest of Motown during the middle 1960s, I couldn’t have. I heard the music all around me, and the hooks and melodies and superb production slid their way into my head in a way that maybe only the Beatles’ work was also doing at the time. Motown’s music, especially that of the Supremes, was part of the landscape, and thus, when it comes time to assess the work critically, it becomes very difficult to do to.

Diana Ross’ work, on the other hand, is easier to consider, maybe because it wasn’t so omnipresent, maybe because it never seemed as good as the work she’d done with the Supremes. She sold well: Through the middle of 1981, when she left Motown, she had  nineteen Top 40 hits, six of which went to No. 1. Eight more hits followed through 1985, the best of which went to No. 7.

Even so, I never thought much of her solo work. Of the hits, I liked “Touch Me In The Morning,” a judgment that I think separates me from a lot of critics, and “Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” is another single I liked. In addition, I enjoyed Ross’ excellent work for the film Lady Sings the Blues, including the single “Good Morning Heartache.”

Otherwise, I didn’t pay much attention. Her first solo album, 1970’s Diana Ross, did well enough and was fairly well received. It spun off a No. 1 single – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a record I don’t much care for – and went to No. 19 on the album charts. Her second album, Everything Is Everything, in 1972, went nowhere. But it’s on that album, oddly enough, that one finds perhaps the funkiest track Ross has ever recorded. And it’s a cover of a Beatles’ song.

Plenty of people have covered “Come Together,” the song that led off 1969’s Abbey Road. Aerosmith had a hit with it in 1978, and others who have recorded the song include the Bankrupt Sugar Daddies, the Count Basie Orchestra, Blur, the Brothers Johnson, Michael Jackson, Herbie Mann, Marilyn Manson, Ike & Tina Turner, Paul Weller and many, many more. (All-Music Guide is being uncooperative this morning, which makes this list shorter than I would like. The site notes that there are currently 340 CDs that include a version of “Come Together.” That total includes a large number of duplicates, of course.)

Even though I’ve only heard a handful of versions of “Come Together,” I’d be willing to put Ross’ version pretty high on the list. Her waifish voice surrounded by a halo of echo, she doesn’t try to make sense out of John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics, and the backing – maybe by the Funk Brothers still? I don’t know – is chunky, clunky, spooky and, I would imagine, immensely fun to have played. I doubt if the record sounds like anything else Diana Ross ever recorded, but that’s okay. I think it’s a great track.

Diana Ross – “Come Together” [1970]