Archive for the ‘2008/04 (April)’ Category

Hang A Basket! Have A Parade!

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 30, 2008

It’s May Day.*

No one’s leaving May Baskets at my door, I am certain, nor is anyone in the apartment complex dancing around the Maypole. A look at Wikipedia confirms my hunch that those are traditional English and Northern European activities, quite likely tied to pre-Christian fertility rites. I remember learning about them – May Baskets and Maypoles, not the fertility rites – in elementary school. It strikes me as I write that we learned very little about the celebrations of most other cultures, and that tells me how insular our culture was during those times (the late 1950s and the first half of the 1960s). We celebrated Anglo-Saxon traditions and – for the most part – ignored others.

I vaguely remember making May Baskets as an art project one year early in my school days. We used little blunt-ended scissors to cut construction paper into the appropriate shapes, and then we glued those pieces together with that white paste that someone in the classroom always insisted was good to eat.

May Day is also celebrated as an international workers’ holiday, and that brings back other memories. During the years of my childhood and youth, we’d see television footage every May Day of the parade in Moscow. The Soviet Union’s workers and soldiers would march, accompanied by tanks and missiles. They’d pass through Red Square, where old men in uniforms and ill-fitting suits – the leaders of the Soviet Union – stood atop Lenin’s Tomb to review them. I remember seeing bits and pieces of the parades on television in shades of gray; once color television became the norm, the parade turned into a celebration in a sea of red. Whether the spectacle was in gray or in red, though, we were taught that it should have frightened us.

Do the believers who remain still march through Red Square? I don’t know. For that matter, does anyone dance around a Maypole anywhere? Again, I have no idea. But to mark May Day, here’s a selection of songs – mostly random; I clicked past a few from earlier years – that have in common the predominant color from those May Day parades.

A Baker’s Dozen of Red
“Red Hot Chicken” by Wet Willie from Wet Willie II, 1972

“Red Box” by Simply Red from Picture Book, 1985

“The Red Plains” by Bruce Hornsby & The Range from The Way It Is, 1986

“Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf, alternate mix from The London Sessions, 1970

“Red Telephone” by Love from Forever Changes, 1967

“Red Cross Store” by Koerner, Ray & Glover from [Lots More] Blues, Rags and Hollers, 1964

“Red Shoes” by Chris Rea from Auberge, 1991

“Red House” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience from Are You Experienced (U.S. version), 1967

“Red Dirt Boogie, Brother,” by Jesse Ed Davis from Ululu, 1972

“Red Flowers” by Martin & Neil from Tear Down The Walls, 1964

“Bottle of Red Wine” by Eric Clapton from Eric Clapton, 1970

“Red’s Song” by the Jayhawks from Tomorrow the Green Grass, 1995

“99 Red Balloons” by Nena, Epic single 04108, 1984

A few notes:

The band Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The group had three Top 40 hits – the best, “Keep On Smilin’,” went to No. 20 in 1974 – and released a series of pretty good albums between 1971 and 1979. The best of those was likely The Wetter the Better, in 1976, but all are worth finding. My thanks to TC at Groovy Fab, whose posts reminded me. (TC also has a great blog: TC’s Old & New Music Review.)

Simply Red’s Picture Book was the group’s debut, and I’m not sure the group ever released a better album. With two Top 40 hits (“Holding Back The Years” went to No. 1, and “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” reached No. 28), the album itself reached the Top 40 with its mix of melodic ballads and grittier numbers.

“Red Telephone” comes from the quirky and beautiful Forever Changes, quite likely the pinnacle of the L.A. group Love. Led by Arthur Lee, the group released three great albums – Love, Da Capo and Forever Changes in 1966 and 1967, becoming a favorite of critics and other musicians in the rapidly changing Southern California music scene. The band soldiered on until 1974 but never regained the odd magic it had during those first years.

The late Jesse Ed Davis wasn’t much of a singer, as one listen to “Red Dirt Boogie, Brother” tells you, but he was a hell of a guitar player. The list of his credits includes session work for artists ranging from John Lee Hooker and Booker T. Jones to Buffy Ste. Marie, Brewer & Shipley, John Lennon and Tracy Nelson. And when it came time to record his own albums – his self-titled 1971 debut, 1972’s Ululu and Keep Me Comin’ in 1973 – he had a wide range of friends and associates to help out. The credits for Ululu list Dr. John, Duck Dunn, Jim Keltner, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell, Clydie King, Venetta Fields, Merry Clayton and more.

The folk duo Martin & Neil of “Red Flowers” was Vince Martin and the late Fred Neil, the latter, of course, better known as the writer of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which was a No. 6 hit for Nilsson in 1969. Neil’s own recordings are worth digging into. Tear Down The Walls was his only record with Martin, and within a year, Neil would release his first solo album, Bleecker & MacDougal. That would be followed by his best work, Sessions, in 1967. Later releases were a bit haphazard but interesting in their own ways.

Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” is the English version of the international hit “99 Luftballoons,” which was recorded in German. Although German is not my favorite non-English language for music – French and Danish rate rather higher – I tend to like the original of Nena’s song more than I do the translated version. I guess it’s a tendency to seek the original and beware the copy.

*Clearly, I was a day ahead of myself. It was not May Day, it was the last day of April. As I explained in a later post. I somehow misdated one of my earlier posts. Well, things happen. Note added June 24, 2011.

Does Album Sequencing Matter In The MP3 Era?

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 29, 2008

Matt the maintenance man came by yesterday with a screen he’d had replaced for one of our windows. (Our kitten, Oscar, had been sitting at the window and began playing with a small rip in the screen. When the Texas Gal and I looked up, he’d enlarged the rip to a cat-sized hole and had his head and shoulders out of the window, twenty feet above the ground!) As generally happens when Matt comes by, we end up talking music.

He said he’d been listening to radio coverage of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of one of the Twin Cities’ record stores, the Electric Fetus, which has a branch here in St. Cloud. “And someone at the radio station made the point,” Matt told me, “that people these days only listen to songs one at a time, for the most part. They don’t listen to albums as albums anymore.”

I plead guilty, generally. I usually have the RealPlayer set on random and jump from song to song, style to style, era to era. When I get new music, I sometimes play it all the way through – first track through last – but not often. I usually jump around a bit in the CD – something that would have been awkward to do with vinyl – or else just let the tracks pop up when they will at random. I imagine a lot of other people do the same. And that brings me to a question: Do artists take as much care these days with the sequencing of songs on a CD as many performers seemed to do with vinyl say, thirty years ago and more?

I’m sure some – maybe many – do. From what I’ve read over the years, Bruce Springsteen does. Maybe most of them do. I’m not sure. But the care and attention a performer invests in sequencing can be frustrated by the ease with which a listener can jump around in an individual CD and can also intersperse the songs on an individual CD in the rest of a music collection. A performer might wonder if there’s a point to caring and decide not to worry about the sequence. I don’t know.

I’d already been pondering the question when Matt brought up the comment he’d heard. A little while back, I’d gotten hold of 3+3, a 1973 album by the Isley Brothers, recorded at a time when the original trio of Isleys brought three musician into the group to alter and expand their sound. I ripped the album and put into the player without listening to much of it. And the other evening, a funky bass and clavinet (I think) came frogging out of the speakers, pulling my attention away from whatever it was I was doing. The drums came in, and then – after twenty-five seconds – came the almost dirge-like vocal: “Sunshine move away today, don’t feel much like dancing.”

It was, of course, a cover of “Sunshine,” the song that Jonathan Edwards wrote and recorded in 1971 and took to No. 4. But Edwards’ version of the song was a peppy, almost light-hearted, take that has a running time of just more than two minutes, with only acoustic guitars and a little bit of percussion to carry the song along. I was never all that fond of the record, although it was pleasant enough – and brief enough – that hearing it on the radio was no great trial. But I’ve always thought that the record was a little too upbeat for the message the words were carrying, making Edwards seem a little disconnected from the meaning of his own work.

The dirge-like quality of the Isleys’ version, though, seemed much more in tune with the heart of the song, and I wondered how it fit in with the rest of the 3+3 album. And as I looked at the sequence of the album, I began to think. From what I can tell, “Sunshine” – listed as “Sunshine “(Go Away Today)” by the Isleys – is the second song on Side Two of the original configuration. The side begins with “What It Comes Down To,” a propulsive, danceable track with a catchy chorus and a decent love lyric. The contrast between the end of that track and the foreboding intro to “Sunshine” makes for a fascinating contrast.

And when “Sunshine” ends with a slashing guitar atop the clavinet, there’s another contrast when the next track starts, as the Isleys slide into a mellow and soulful version of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.”

In the days when my new music came entirely on vinyl, I always listened to an album in sequence when I played it for the first time. And after my experience with the Isleys and my conversation with Matt this week, I’m thinking I might need to go back to that practice. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to end my habit of offering recordings here that are pulled from albums, but I think I’m going to be a little more aware of the original context of those recordings, when I can be.

And I still wonder whether the sequence of songs on albums today is as important as it was when music came solely on vinyl. While you’re pondering that, here’s the Isley Brothers.

Isley Brothers – “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” [1973]

Hand-Ground Coffee, Home-Made Music

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 28, 2008

One of the greatest day-to-day pleasures in my life is coffee.

There are others, of course: The love and companionship of the Texas Gal, certainly, and the joys of music, writing and reading. In terms of the order of those five pleasures entering my life, coffee came third, after learning to love reading and music. I learned to love writing a little later, and I encountered the Texas Gal and all the riches she brought to my life most recently of all.

I have written and will no doubt write again of various aspects of all five of those pleasures. Today, coffee is on my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, the Texas Gal and I drove to Maple Grove, the suburb on the northwestern edge of the Twin Cities where my sister and brother-in-law live. For her birthday, they’d given the Texas Gal a gift card for Trader Joe’s, a chain of fascinating grocery stores, one of which had opened in Maple Grove. Our plan was to shop there for a while, check out a few of the other stores in the newly developed shopping area and then meet my sister and her husband for a Chinese dinner.

All went as planned. We bought some interesting groceries, among them some breads without white flour, some snacks, two Spanish side dishes with, respectively, white beans and lentils in tomato sauces, and a few other things. I also pulled from the shelf two canisters of whole bean coffee, one labeled “Dark Sumatran” and the other “Moka Java.” And we went to a bookstore and then on to dinner.

At dinner, we heard tales of the trip to Hawaii from which my sister and brother-in-law had just returned and then we discussed the goings-on in all our lives. The food was delicious and the conversation fun. As we were leaving, my sister handed to me a half-pound bag of Kona coffee beans from Hawaii, which are among the most expensive beans in the world.

So I had plenty of coffee beans when we got home that Saturday evening just more than three weeks ago. I also had about a half a can remaining of my regular coffee, French Market, a brand sold out of New Orleans. Since then, I’ve been experimenting, trying to determine the best amount of beans to grind of each of the three types to make ten cups of coffee. (My coffee maker holds twelve cups, but my thermos bottle only holds eight; so I brew ten cups, drink from a large mug and keep the remaining eight cups hot in the thermos bottle. If you leave brewed coffee on the hotplate of the coffeemaker for more than a few minutes, it burns the coffee.)

The Kona beans are the best of the three types, a dark roast with some almost sweet undertones. The Sumatra is darker, with a heavier body. And the Moka-Java – the Moka beans coming from Ethiopia and the Java beans from the Indonesian island of the same name – is lighter. And in the back of the coffee cupboard, I found some beans I got as a gift shortly before we went to Maple Grove, a pretty standard blend, but better as fresh-ground than are grounds dipped from a can (although the French Market is pretty good for canned coffee).

So I’ve been having a pretty good time each morning deciding which of the four coffees to grind and brew. I use an electric grinder that I’ve had for a few years; it has a whine that irritates the cats. And I guess it irritates me, too.

Years ago, when I began to dabble in grinding coffee, I got a hand-cranked grinder as a gift. A few years later, when it began to break down, I got another. They both worked well, but in 1999, I became highly sensitive to tobacco smoke and quit smoking when my throat closed up one Saturday evening. After that, I learned that being in an environment with a lot of smoke had contaminated the coffee grinder (and lots of other things, too, which I may write about at other times). So I went without a grinder for a while.

A couple years later, I got the electric grinder as a gift. It grinds exceedingly fine, even when set on coarse, and that’s – not to make a joke – fine. I don’t dislike it, but in the years I’ve owned it, I’ve found that I don’t get as much satisfaction from pushing a button and hearing the grinder whine as I used to get from turning a crank and feeling the resistance of the beans as they were turned into coffee grounds. I think a lot of people will identify with that feeling, that satisfaction gained by doing something by hand that more often than not is these days routinely done by machine.

So when the Texas Gal asked for suggestions for my birthday – which is still some months off – I said I wanted a hand-cranked coffee grinder. She asked for suggestions, and – being the thoroughly modern fellow I am – I emailed a suggestion to her. We’ll see.

Why discuss this today? Because first, I’m once again grinding my own coffee every day after going some time without doing so very frequently, and even using an electric grinder, that brings me some satisfaction. And second, when I listened to today’s album share, I closed my eyes and thought: What does this remind me of, make me feel like, put me in mind of?

And as I heard The Joy, a 1977 collaboration between Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite, I thought of things being done by hand: playing acoustic instruments, sewing quilts, making tables and, yes, grinding coffee. The record has that same hands-on homemade feeling as do the three records that Brown and Garthwaite made with Joy of Cooking in the early 1970s.

There’s some electric instrumentation here, certainly: John Blakely is credited with electric guitar, Elvin Bishop adds slide to “Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone,” and William D. Smith is listed as playing electric piano. But the bulk of the record’s sound – from the first strains of Van Morrison’s “Come Running,” through the end of Judy Mayhan’s “Wrap the World” – is of music being made by hand, of music that could have been made at home. And it’s a very sweet sound to hear.

Highlights? The flowing unselfish love song “You Don’t Owe Me Spring,” the funky “Morning Man” – a tribute to a disk jockey – and “Maybe Tomorrow,” with its sweet optimism, are favorites of mine. The mellow “Feel Like Heaven” has its moments, and Bishop’s slide guitar and the horns of Steve Madaoi and Jim Horn makes “Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone” about as driving a workout as you’re going to find on The Joy.

Production was credited to Michael Stewart, with James Gadson co-producing “Beginning Tomorrow.”

The credits list Brown on piano and vocals; Garthwaite on vocals, guitar and voice box; Reggie McBride on bass, James Gadson on drums; Steve Mitchell on drums (“Spring” and “Feel Like Heaven”); Smith on electric piano; Blakely on electric guitar; Bishop on slide guitar (“Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone”); Taj Mahal on harmonica and dobro (“Come Running” and “Morning Man”); J.D. Mannis on pedal steel (“Snow”); Steve Madaio and Jim Horn on horns; Jimmy Roberts on sax and flute (“You Don’t Owe Me Spring”); Bill Napier and Johnny Rotella, clarinets (“On the Natch”); and the duo called Honey Creek (Michelle Harris and Marjie Orten) on dulcimer and mandolin (“Wrap the World”).

Tracks:
Come Running
You Don’t Own Me Spring
On the Natch
Feel Like Heaven
Till Your Back Ain’t Got No Bone
Morning Man
Snow
Beginning Tomorrow
Steal Away
Wrap the World

Toni Brown & Terry Garthwaite – The Joy [1977]

Saturday Single No. 69

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 26, 2008

It snowed last night, or rather, early this morning. On April 26, for Odin’s sake!

Well, I’m aware that April snows are not unheard of here in the Northland. Cold and wet weather is a specialty of Mother Nature in these parts. And it didn’t snow all that much, an inch at the most, if that. But we might get more: There’s a 20 percent chance of more snow today and a thirty percent chance for tomorrow, and on neither day will the temperature reach fifty degrees (about 10 degrees Celsius).

If readers have thought, “Geez, he obsesses about the weather,” well, they’re right. Almost all of us in Minnesota do. We talk about the weather when it’s bad, which covers everything from a cloudy day with a light drizzle to a two-foot snowfall with sixty-mile-an-hour winds. On days when the weather is ok but nothing spectacular – maybe a little cloudy and/or maybe a little cool, we talk about bad we think it’s going to get. And on those gorgeous summer days that we get now and then – brilliant blue sky, about 75 degrees (24 C.) with just the hint of a breeze – we talk about how it won’t last. So we’re not only obsessive about the weather, we’re obsessively gloomy about it. I think it’s a genetic aberration present in Nordic peoples, and the other folks who live here have picked it up by osmosis.

But I for one am tired of April feeling like March. So last night, as I sat thinking about this post, I wondered what songs I had about April. If I posted one of them, maybe the weather imps would notice what month it is and start behaving themselves. So I sorted the tunes in the RealPlayer for April.

And I got 243 responses. Turns out that I have a few songs with “April” in the title, and I have a lot of songs that my notes say were recorded in April. (I also have several albums of folkish material that I found at the now-deleted – and superlative – blog 8 Days In April and the comment tags reflect that.)

So what are the songs about April? We start with “April Anne” by John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas, released on his first solo album, the self-titled album that has become better known as John, The Wolf King of L.A. It’s a sweet song, but it’s about a girl and not the month. I thought about Simon & Garfunkel’s “April, Come She Will,” but I’d like something a little more assertive, something like “April, Get In Here And Clean Up This Mess.”

There’s “April Fool” by the all-woman Seventies funk-rock group Isis (kind of a distaff Earth, Wind & Fire), and “April Fools” by Aretha from her Young, Gifted and Black album. Better, but still not quite what I’m looking for (although I mentally tag both the Aretha track and the group Isis as candidates to show up here sometime soon).

Three Dog Night, of course, recorded “Pieces of April,” which went to No. 19 in 1972, but I don’t want pieces; I want a full April. And Danish songstress Sanne Salomonsen recorded “Sometimes It Snows In April” for her New York Minute album in 1998. Of course, it sometimes snows in April! That’s the problem! (Salomonsen’s song turns out to be a pretty piano-driven ballad with a really cool and emphatic key change during the chorus and words that are so intensely personal that listening to it made me feel as if I were reading her journal.)

So instead of a song about April, let’s take a look at a few songs recorded in April, starting many years ago.

Samantha Bumgarner, whose name pops up frequently if one digs into early recorded popular music, recorded mountain music in the 1920s. She sang and played banjo and fiddle. And according to my notes, she recorded “Big-Eyed Rabbit” and “Worried Blues” in April 1924. My musical interests, as I’ve said earlier, range widely, and this is one of those times when one thinks of the audience and says, “No, I think not.”

The same hold true for most of the songs that I have noted as having been recorded in April (I have session date information for only a fraction of the music I have, and I note it only if the information is easily accessible, so I know there have to be thousands more songs in the RealPlayer recorded in this cruel month – a nod to T.S. Eliot – than I can find this morning.) I don’t think there’s a real yearning to listen to “Pass Around The Bottle And We’ll All Take A Drink,” recorded in 1926 by Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. And I think I can safely pass by Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” from 1928.

Blind Willie Johnson had one of the greatest days in blues history in April of 1930, recording all in one day “John the Revelator,” “Soul of a Man” and “Trouble Will Soon Be Over,” but as astounding as those performances are – and they are astounding to blues aficionados – they’re probably of limited interest to my audience.

A couple more blind folks recorded blues in April in the 1930s: Blind Boy Fuller and Blind Willie McTell. Heading into the 1940s, we find Sonny Boy Williamson No. 1, Lil Green, Big Boy Crudup, Hank Williams (a little country to lay on what’s been a load of the blues) and then Edith Piaf, with “La Vie En Rose.” It’s a lovely song, but I think it translates to “Life In Pink,” which is not really what I want for April.

For some reason in the months immediately after World War II, the word “voot” became part of the vernacular among swing musicians and those in the developing style that would become known as rhythm & blues. The word shows up in, oh, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred or more, titles recorded in California (and perhaps elsewhere). I have six examples in the collection, thanks to Tuwa’s Shanty and The Roots Canal, another fine blog that’s gone out of business. And one of those songs was recorded in April, 1948: “Rock That Voot” by the Nelson Alexander Trio,” which tells the listener, “I wanna rock that voot, baby just for you. I wanna rock that voot, baby, all night long,” over a bed of piano, bass and guitar in which one can hear the promise of rock ’n’ roll.

As I look through the Fifties, I see April blues and R&B from Howlin’ Wolf, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Boy Williamson II and others, and I find rockabilly from Wanda Jackson and others. Bob Dylan performed in the Town Hall in New York City in April 1963, and Mississippi John Hurt’s April 15, 1964, concert at Oberlin College in Ohio is a gem. But not right for today.

I scan the list of April-recorded songs all the way through an April 18, 2003, performance of “Terrorized” by Willie King and the Liberators, recorded in Prairie Point, Mississippi. And I move the cursor back to the Sixties for a nice piece of synchronicity.

On April 26, 1968, Stephen Stills was part of what was likely a recording session for Judy Collins’ album Who Knows Where the Time Goes and, after the session, evidently slipped the recording engineer some cash to sit with his guitar and record a batch of songs he’d been working on. Somehow, that tape has surfaced and is now making its way through the blogworld. It provides a chance to listen to early forms of songs that ended up on albums by Crosby, Stills & Nash, CSN&Y, Stills’ own solo work and his work with Manassas, as well as providing four songs (I think) that were never released at all.

The collection was posted at a forum I frequent (thanks, Old Hippie!), and I find it fascinating. Maybe by posting a song recorded exactly forty years ago today, I can find in the music some kind of April mojo.

So here’s a very early version of Stephen Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” today’s Saturday Single.

Stephen Stills – “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” [1968]

‘Hallelujah! It’s A Car From Idaho!’

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 25, 2008

Sometime this weekend, I’m going to have dig out the largest screwdriver I own and change the license plates on the Sentra. Its registration runs out at the end of April and – just as it does for every car in the state every seven years – the state of Minnesota sent us not only those little adhesive tabs but also new license plates.

That means a new plate number, too, one more number to memorize or at least recognize for those occasions when I’ve forgotten where I’ve parked the car and the lot is full of small blue vehicles. I’m not sure why we can’t keep the same number when we change plates. Drivers in other states do, I think.

We ordered the new plates online, and we thought for about three seconds about getting one of the special plates that the state offers. There are two versions of the plates that promote preservation of natural resources – one with a deer on it and one showing a loon (which is the one I would have selected) – and one plate designed to support the troops. A greater number of specialty plates are available for those who go to the various offices around the state: Among them are license plates showing the logos of more than twenty different colleges and universities in Minnesota.

If we’d bought our new plates in an office instead of online, I might have considered the St. Cloud State plate. The logo on the plate, however – showing the letters SCS inside a larger U – is the old logo. About twenty years ago, famed hockey coach Herb Brooks headed the Huskies’ program for a year, and he brought with him a logo that – as I understand it – had been used by an amateur hockey team in St. Cloud. Not long after the SCS hockey team began using it on its sweaters, all of the university’s athletic teams adopted it. Eventually, it became the official logo for the entire university; owing a great deal to the Montreal Canadiens, it’s the ST inside the C shown here.*

The thought of license plates reminded me today of a pastime I had when I was in my middle teens. Every January 1st, I’d pull out from a folder a blank map showing the continental United States with all the states outlined. Below the map, in what would have been the Gulf of Mexico, I’d carefully inscribe the names of Alaska and Hawaii and draw small boxes next to those names. And on an upper corner I’d write the new year, 1968 or whatever. And I’d be ready to look for out-of-state license plates.

As I saw plates from each state, I’d take colored markers and fill in that state on the map. Things were generally pretty slow for the first four months of the year, but Minnesota is a pretty good vacation state, so as the weather heated up, I’d be able to fill in more and more states. My rules were simple but firm: It had to be an out-of-state plate. So I could not fill in Minnesota unless I’d traveled out of the state and seen a Minnesota plate there. Most years I’d get out of the state at least once, usually to Wisconsin, twice in those years to Canada, so I think there was only one year out of those four or five years when I had to leave my home state blank.

Most of the map was filled every year. A couple of states were pretty rare to see: I was able to mark off the box for Hawaii only once, and I only saw two cars from Idaho, ever. My memory tells me that Delaware was also a pretty rare sight. If nothing else, the hobby kept me alert as we drove, whether it was the relatively brief trips we occasionally took to the Twin Cities or the one long vacation trip we took from Minnesota to Pennsylvania and back in 1968. (I didn’t keep track of Canadian provinces, but I generally saw most of those during a year; Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were toughies.)

Why would I bother? Well, I’m one of those folks who have a strong impulse to collect and catalog information, whatever information that might be. Back then, it was license plates on a map. (And Cadillacs; for some reason, there was a four-year period when I counted every Cadillac I saw during the year, too. This was when Cadillacs had a distinctive design and were clearly different from every other car on the American road. One year I saw more 2,500 of them, and a year later, I quit counting. ) I’m what one might call a record-keeper, I guess. I have boxes of notebooks containing the results of thousands of table-top baseball and hockey games. I have large computer files detailing the records and CDs that I’ve bought over the years.

So for a few years, I kept track of license plates. I never saw the plates of all fifty states in one year. The year I saw the Hawaii plate was one of those years when I did not see a car from Idaho. I imagine – being the packrat that I am – that those four or five maps are packed away in one of the boxes in my closet. I got rid of a lot of unnecessary stuff a couple of years ago, but I would imagine I kept the maps, as they take up little space.

I recall one of my better years was 1971. I’m not sure why, as I took no major trips. I do remember one trip toward the end of the year. My fellow college freshmen Dave and Rick (not the one from across the street) had stayed in town during quarter break, and the three of us took off one late afternoon for one of the Twin Cities suburbs, one that was home to the gal with whom Dave had been spending a lot of time.

The only thing that makes the trip notable was that it was the first time I’d driven to the Twin Cities. We got there safely, spent some time driving around, Rick and I in the front seat yakking about sports and music while the happy couple sat in the back seat. An hour or two later, we dropped the young lady at her home, and headed back to St. Cloud, grabbing a burger on the way and arriving sometime near midnight. And I remember that during that drive home, we heard Sweathog’s “Hallelujah” come from the radio. It had just begun to get airplay, and the three of us liked what we heard.

The song would climb only to No. 33 in a four-week stay in the Top 40 and quickly passed from our memories. I never went out and looked for Hallelujah, the group’s 1972 album, or for the 1970 self-titled release. To be honest, I forgot about Sweathog for a good, long while. Then, about a year ago, when I was poking through my records for things to rip, I came across the Columbia sampler The Music People, one of the samplers in my collection about which I wrote not long ago.

And there was Sweathog and “Hallelujah,” a song I’d not heard for years, although I’ve thought since then that it would be a great addition to the playlist of any oldies station. So I ripped the song and dropped it into the mp3 collection, and a week or so later, having actually looked for it, I found a rip of the entire Hallelujah album, which has never been released on CD. (My thanks for Bob H. at GF.)

I should note an error I made along the way when discussing “Hallelujah.” When I posted Chi Coltrane’s cover of the song a while back, I said that Sweathog’s recording was the original. I’ve since learned that the song was originally recorded by the Sixties sunshine pop group The Clique, which included the song on its only album, a self-titled 1969 release.

Also a while back, I made a reference to Sweathog as kind of a Steppenwolf Lite. As I listen to Hallelujah, I’m thinking that might not be quite right. The group rocks, certainly, and the sound is very clearly that of the late 1960s and early 1970s with some highly charged guitar. But on a number of tracks, piano and organ are very prominent in the mix, and there are a lot of horns in the background throughout. The sound is a little more complex than a Steppenwolf clone would present.

My favorites? The title track, of course, remains a good piece of radio rock. (I’ve included the single edit in the zip file.) The group’s cover of the Joe Cocker-Chris Stainton tune “Change In Louise” (titled “Ride Louise Ride” for some reason) has a kind of gospel groove to it and moves along well. “Questions and Conclusions” shows that two-keyboard effect nicely. “Working My Way Back Home” is one of those back-to-the-land songs that were seemingly required during those times, but it’s a pretty good song.

What doesn’t work? Well, “Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice” sounds like a Led Zeppelin outtake, only with vocals by Styx. “In the Wee Wee Hours of the Night” is a pedestrian blues that has an odd horn part popping in (as well as the vinyl rip’s only skip, which – unavoidable as these things can be – doesn’t help). And even though Sweathog covers “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo,” the group doesn’t perform the song nearly as well as did Johnny Winter in 1970 nor as well as the song’s writer, Rick Derringer, would in another couple of years.

So it’s not great art, but it’s fun music, for the most part. I should note that I’ve seen both 1971 and 1972 as the release date for the album. I used 1971 when I tagged the mp3s, but I think now that 1972 is accurate. Sorry.

Tracks:
Road to Mexico
Ride Louise Ride
Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo
Questions and Conclusions
Things Yet to Come
Rejoice Rejoice Rejoice
Hallelujah
Darker Side
Working My Way Back Home
In the Wee Wee Hours of the Night
Rock and Roll Revival
Hallelujah (single edit)

Sweathog – Hallelujah [1972]

*Had I purchased a St. Cloud State University plate at the time this post was originally written, it likely would have displayed the current logo shown above. I believe now that the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s website was out of date and was showing the older version of the SCSU plate. Note added June 24, 2011.

It’s ‘The Green Hornet’!

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 24, 2008

Wikipedia notes: “Inspired by the success of the Batman series, ABC brought The Green Hornet to television in 1966.”

The character of the Green Hornet had been the focus of a radio show that ran from 1938 to 1952 and the subject of two movies in the 1940. The televised Green Hornet was played by Van Williams, with his sidekick, Kato, played by the late martial arts star Bruce Lee. Unlike Batman, in which the camp element was played for hoots – “Holy light show, Batman!” – The Green Hornet was presented as a straight crime-fighting drama, running from 7:30 to 8 p.m., Eastern Time on Thursday evenings.

The show was canceled after only one season, leaving as its legacy the fame of Lee – his popularity was so great in Hong Kong, Wikipedia notes, that the show was marketed there as The Kato Show – and the theme song. As I noted yesterday, the theme is an adaptation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and features Al Hirt performing an arrangement by Billy May. Much of its current-day fame comes from its use by film-maker Quentin Tarrantino in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

Here’s what’s likely the opening sequence to the television show. My only question is whether the still photos at the start were used that way. It seems awfully static to me, even for 1966. Anyone out there know?

A Baker’s Dozen Of Green

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 23, 2008

JB the DJ from The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ made a couple good points in the comment he left yesterday about my gloomy Earth Day post.

He said, “Actually, it seems to me there’s some cause for optimism on this Earth Day. Despite the best efforts of many to convince us otherwise, more people today seem willing to accept that climate change is real, that fossil fuel is finite, and that we can no longer sit idly by and hope everything will be OK because it things have always worked out before.

“Has it happened in time and will it be enough? Too soon to tell. But it’s definitely happening.”

Those things are true and more even-tempered than were my glum words yesterday. But that was how I felt as I wrote yesterday morning; for whatever reason, I was not in a good state of mind. This morning seems better. And I take some solace in pondering the first sentence JB left here yesterday:

“All we can do is the best we can do.”

So it’s one foot in front of the other, and we end up where we end up. And it’s no doubt true – as I was reminded by some of the news coverage yesterday – that the air and water quality is better here in the U.S. and in many other places than it was on the first Earth Day in 1970. There is much yet to do, so much, in fact, that the prospect of what remains to be done is likely what soured my mood yesterday. But I can see this morning that much has been done.

Here, then, in recognition of the progress that has been made, is a Baker’s Dozen of Green:

“Green Flower Street” by Donald Fagen from The Nightfly, 1982

“Green Hornet” by Al Hirt, RCA single 8925, 1966

“Bitter Green” by Valdy from Landscapes, 1973

“Greenwood Creek” by the Doobie Brothers from The Doobie Brothers, 1971

“In The Land of Green” by Zager & Evans from In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus), 1969

“Green-Eyed Lady” by Sugarloaf, Liberty single 56813, 1970

“Green, Yellow, and Red” by Rosanne Cash from King’s Record Shop, 1987

“Green Lane” by The Sun Also Rises from The Sun Also Rises, 1970

“Little Green” by Joni Mitchell from Blue, 1971

“Green Rolling Hills” by Emmylou Harris from Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, 1978

“The Greener Side” by Jackie DeShannon, probably from the Laurel Canyon sessions, 1967

“Green Power” by Little Richard from The King of Rock And Roll, 1971

“Little Green Bag” by the George Baker Selection, Colossus single 112, 1970

A few notes:

Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly is a jazzy piece of work – of a kind with the latter-day work of Steely Dan around the same time – that takes a look back at American life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The lens Fagen uses to look at those times, however, is of his own unique grinding, resulting in the same skewed and misshapen observations that came in the best of Steely Dan’s work.

Jazz critics of Al Hirt were wont to complain that he played too many notes too fast in his popular recordings. I’ve always thought that the frenetic pace of “The Green Hornet” – which owes a huge debt, of course, to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” – was his response: “Too many notes, you think? I’ll show you too many notes!”

“Bitter Green” is an early Gordon Lightfoot song – one of his better early compositions – and Valdy is one of Lightfoot’s countrymen, a Canadian whose recordings have gotten little attention over the years anywhere else. I first came across Valdy when I bought one of his records at a garage sale in Minneapolis, and I’ve gotten a few more of his records since. They’re pretty good, if a little bit thinly produced at times.

Sugarloaf released “Green-Eyed Lady” in two versions: the six-minute-plus album version, and the single edit, which went to No. 3 in the autumn of 1970. This version is the edit, and, as I wrote some time earlier, I’m still not sure if I prefer the edit or the long version. Both have their strong points.

The self-titled album by The Sun Also Rises was in a style All-Music Guide calls acid-folk: “The record very much reflects the influence of the foremost exponents of the style, the Incredible String Band, with its wavering harmonies and use of glockenspiel, vibes, dulcimer, kazoo, bells, and other miscellaneous instruments to complement the standard folk guitar.” It was the only album released by the duo of Graham and Anne Hemingway, and it’s very much an artifact of its time.

The Little Richard selection comes from The King of Rock & Roll, one of the three albums that the rock pioneer recorded for Reprise in the early 1970s. A 2005 box set, King Of Rock ‘N’ Roll: The Complete Reprise Recordings collected the three albums along with outtakes and songs recorded for a fourth album that was never released. For some reason, the box set was limited to 2,500 copies and has become a collector’s item.

I Got The Earth Day Blues

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 22, 2008

Well, it’s Earth Day.

I would guess, without really digging too deeply into it, that most of us are more environmentally aware in 2008 than we were in 1970, when the first Earth Day was observed. It seems to me that we did a decent job for a while cleaning things up, being better stewards of this place where we live. And then, I think, a lot of people, many of them in the United States – especially those who make the rules or know those who make the rules – decided that taking care of the planet we live on wasn’t as important as using the planet to make money. And we’ve got a lot of work to do, again.

That’s a very simplistic exposition, I know. But I think in broad strokes, it’s accurate. I’m not really concerned with details this morning – an oddity for me. I’ve never been too deeply involved in the environmental movement, but I’ve tried to do my part on the small scale of everyday living: recycling; driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars; riding my bike or taking the bus instead of driving when I lived in areas where that worked. On the other hand, I look around my study as I write this blog and I see so much plastic, so much stuff that – when I someday dispose of it – will linger for years and decades, maybe centuries, without breaking down back into its constituent parts. How does riding a bicycle or a bus with any regularity balance off all that? And I am only one of billions.

I know. This is supposed to be a blog about music. Well, I guess I’m singing the Earth Day Blues.

Being aware of the damage we’re doing to our planet is fine. Awareness can be the first step to change. But in my scrapbook – somewhere in my closet – is the armband I wore on the first Earth Day thirty-eight years ago. We’ve been aware for a long time. Has that done any good? Being glum this morning, I’m inclined to answer, “Very little.”

I can’t help but chuckle mordantly when someone who means well tells me – on television or radio or wherever – that we have to save the planet. You know what? The planet will be just fine. The Earth will continue to revolve around the sun and rotate once every twenty-four hours. But unless we take better care of it, we won’t be here to see the sunrise. It’s not the Earth that’s in peril; it’s us.

As I think about that gloomy prospect, I turn to music, as I generally do. And I hear in my head: “Before the breathing air is gone; before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime . . .” The song is “Out In The Country,” written by Roger Nichols and Paul Williams and recorded by Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends in 1968.

Others who recorded the song included the 5th Dimension, someone named Brian Gari, R.E.M., Paul Williams himself, and, of course, Three Dog Night, who included it on It Ain’t Easy in 1970 and released the song as a single, which went to No. 15 that autumn. Here’s the original version and Three Dog Night’s cover.

Roger Nichols & The Small Circle of Friends – “Out In The Country” [1968]

Three Dog Night – “Out In The Country” [1970]

The History Of A Wall

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 21, 2008

As a member of the first generation that grew up with television, it would not be hard at all for me to make a long list of astounding images and events, many of them horrible and sad, that I’ve seen through the medium. For all the violence and sorrow that I’ve seen through television’s window, however, one of the images that stays in my mind the most clearly is the vision of the exultant crowd dancing atop the Berlin Wall in November 1989, on the night when the government of East Germany surrendered and opened the gates.

I’d visited some friends for dinner, and afterward, we’d listened to some music I’d brought along. About nine o’clock, as I prepared to head home, my host turned on the television and we saw the crowds celebrating the fall of the Wall. We stood in my friends’ living room, mouths agape. Even though the news in recent weeks had told of greater and greater pressure for change being placed on the East German government – one of the more repressive among the communist states in Central and Eastern Europe – the sight of Germans from East Berlin mingling freely with their brothers and sisters from the west was unexpected. And being so, it was an image that stays with me.

I recall driving home that evening – about thirty miles – shaking my head in amazement as I listened to the news. When I got home, even though I had to work early the next morning, I stayed up quite late, watching and absorbing more as Berliners celebrated into the dawn.

That evening and those images come to mind these days as I read The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989 by Frederick Taylor. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book, and even though I know the wall will eventually fall, I’m angered as I read of the suffering endured for those twenty-eight years by the citizens of East Germany and East Berlin. The casual cruelty of the men who led that nation – a nation formed by default out of the tragedy of World War II – can still astound, even though so much has been revealed of their character and their conduct in the nearly twenty years since the Wall fell.

Taylor begins his book with a brief history of Berlin itself, examining how the city became the capital of first, Prussia, and then the united Germany before it was divided into occupation zones in the aftermath of World War II. He also examines the lives of those who would create the wall, chiefly Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, who were essentially the creators, respectively, of East Germany and the Berlin Wall.

And then Taylor examines in great detail how the wall, once in place, evolved over the years from simple concrete, brick and barbed wire to a complex barrier as wide as a river, intended to do nothing other than make East Germany and its capital, East Berlin, into a prison camp. My reading has gotten me to the autumn of 1961, just after the first barbed wire barrier was put into place, during the time when that first barrier was becoming the Wall. In the pages I read last evening, the East German guards for the first time shot and killed those who attempted to cross into West Berlin. Even though I know the Berlin Wall will eventually come down, Taylor’s book can be difficult reading.

But it’s a good read, too. Taylor puts the construction of the Berlin Wall in context, noting how relations between WWII’s Western Allies and the Soviet Union were not always mirrored accurately in the relations between West Germany and East Germany, chiefly because the goals and wishes of Germans on either side were quite different than the goals and wishes of the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Taylor makes clear that the Wall was the creation of the East German leadership, acceded to reluctantly and after the fact by the leaders of the USSR. And he makes clear as well that when the Wall went up, the U.S. and its allies had no intention of ever challenging its existence; to simplify a little: as long as West Berlin – still nominally occupied by the Western Allies – was safe, all was as well for the west as it could be at the time. Short of war, there was no way the west could alter the sad fate of East Germany and East Berlin.

It’s a good enough book that after I finish it, I’ll be seeking Taylor’s earlier book about the fate of another tragic German city: Dresden.

For this morning, I thought about putting together a Baker’s Dozen from either 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up, or from 1989, the year it came down, but decided that instead of a random selection of songs, an album that always provides me with solace might be a better choice.

Daniel Lanois first came to my attention when he produced Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo album and U2’s The Joshua Tree in 1987 and then Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy in 1989. Lanois released Acadie, his first album, in 1989 as well. I picked it up about a year later and immediately wished I’d done so much earlier. It’s a stunning album, musically and lyrically, one of those I like so much that I tend to lapse into blathering fandom when I talk or write about it.

Given that, I’ll just share what Paul Evans wrote about the album in the 1993 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide:

“Having lent his supple production skills to such heavyweights as Bob Dylan and U2, it’s fitting that Lanois would craft his own record, Acadie, with the care that makes it sonically gorgeous—warm, immediate, bell-like. [Brian] Eno is Lanois’ collaborator and secret weapon, the avant-garde experimentalist adding subtle effective oddities—cello sounds, whistling synthesizers—that transform the folk-based melodies into textured mood-music that’s more self-consciously distinct. New Orleans provides the spiritual home for the project: ‘O Marie’ is sung in French, ‘Jolie Louise’ has a soft, Cajun lilt. Fascinating in its mix of high technology and rootsy integrity, Acadie is artful without being precious, studied but still passionate.”

Along with the tracks that Evans mentions, I’d tag “Still Water” and “Where the Hawkwind Kills” as standout tracks. It’s a remarkable piece of work.

Tracks:
Still Water
The Maker
O Marie
Jolie Louise
Fisherman’s Daughter
White Mustang II
Under A Stormy Sky
Where The Hawkwind Kills
Silium’s Hill
Ice
St. Ann’s Gold
Amazing Grace

Daniel Lanois – Acadie [1989]

Saturday Singles Nos. 67 & 68

June 24, 2011

Originally posted April 19, 2008

In anyone’s collection of anything, I imagine, odd little artifacts somehow creep in.

One such artifact in my music collection is a 45-rpm single that, until yesterday, was played maybe once. It’s a record by a group called the Swingers, and the A Side is a tune called “Bay-Hay Bee Doll.” The flip is an instrumental version of the same tune.

I remember getting the record during a summertime shopping trip to the Twin Cities. It was Mom, my sister and I heading down the highway about seventy miles to one of the major malls in the suburbs. A vague memory tells me that it was the mall north of St. Paul called Rosedale. (And an earworm pops up: “Traveling Riverside Blues” by Robert Johnson: “Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side . . .”)

The date on the record says it was 1966, which means I was preparing to go into eighth grade, and I think the summertime trip to the mall was aimed at supplying my sister and me with clothes enough for at least the first portion of the school year. Which means I spent a good portion of the shopping day trying to dissuade my mom and my sister from selecting for me the newest, coolest and hippest clothing the mall had for thirteen-year-old boys: Let me not stand out, I tried to tell them without actually saying so. If I could have found a way to go to school dressed as a bookcase, I would have.

Eventually, we made our way to J.C. Penney, an emporium that to this day supplies a large portion of my wardrobe. I don’t remember what we bought there – maybe those collarless shirts – one blue, one burgundy, both with white trim – that were called surfer shirts. (For a couple of years, everyone my age had to have something that had the adjective “surfer” attached to it; never mind that we were more than a thousand miles from the nearest surf.) But we bought something, and at the cash register, the clerk reached under the counter and handed me a copy of “Bay-Hay Bee Doll” by the Swingers.

I pondered the record and its jacket on the drive home. The front of the sleeve proclaimed, in typefaces that still clash like medieval armies, “The Swingers & BAY-HAY BEE DOLL.” Fine print said, “Words and music by Warren Parker, Copyright 1966, J.C. Penney Co., Inc.” The front also had a catalog number: JCP 100.

On the back was an ad, copy above and below one of those wonderful Sixties drawings of clean-cut boys playing guitar, drums, saxophone and banjo (?) while around them dance other clean-cut boys and very nicely dressed girls. The copy read: “Get into The Swingers, Penney’s color coordinated sportswear. Dig spring-summer’s cool color combos of Fortrel polyester ’n cotton from our 333 and Picket ’N Post collections . . . All to the sweetest sounds you’ll ever hear . . . Penney prices.”

I played the record when we got home. The A-side, with the vocals, was pretty bad, especially the parts where one of the singers goes into a off-key falsetto to sing “Bay-Hay Bee Doll.” He does so frequently enough that, in a home where the record got regular play, the repeating falsetto would drive adults mad. The B-side, the instrumental version of the A-side, was innocuous but nothing that grabbed me.

As I’ve noted before, I wasn’t truly plugged into rock and pop music until 1969, three years later than this. But the music was all around me, and I knew what the current sounds were. At a guess, let’s call it early August. Here’s the Billboard Top Five for the second week of August 1966:

“Summer in the City,” by the Lovin’ Spoonful
“Lil’ Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs
“They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa” by Napoleon XIV
“Wild Thing” by the Troggs
“The Pied Piper” by Crispian St. Peters

An interesting Top Five, at the least, but discounting the novelty of “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa,” there are some distinct sounds there, some pop-folkish sounds and a bit of real rock. And I knew that The Swingers and “Bay-Hay Bee Doll” didn’t fit into any one of those sounds.

(The very fact that Penney’s was still handing out records that touted its spring/summer wardrobe at a time when spring was a memory and summer was beginning its slow fade – I can’t imagine our going shopping for school clothes any earlier than August or maybe late July – tells me that the record was a promotional idea that didn’t work at all. It seems to have been one more example of adults trying – and failing – to be hip, cool, with it or whatever other term we used back then. I think marketing has gotten more savvy over the years, but I would bet that a lot of campaigns aimed at the younger sets still bring eye-rolls from them. Am I right, parents?)

So the record went back into the jacket and the jacket went on the shelf, and about fifteen years ago, I took out of my parents’ house a few remaining records of mine, including “Bay-Hay Bee Doll.” I stuck it into a carrying case for 45s that I bought at a garage sale and forgot about it. Something reminded me of it yesterday, and I did a little digging online. There’s still no indication of exactly who Warren Parker or the Swingers were, but they were likely just some studio musicians making a buck.

And it’s still not a very good record. In fact, one forum where I found a reference to it had nominated “Bay-Hay Bee Doll” as the worst record of 1966. In a year that includes “They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haa,” that’s quite a feat.

So here are both sides of “Bay-Hay Bee Doll,” today’s Saturday Singles.

The Swingers – “Bay-Hay Bee Doll” [1966]

The Swingers – “Bay-Hay Bee Doll” (Instrumental) [1966]