Archive for the ‘2008/07 (July)’ Category

Koko, The Wolf & Sonny Boy II

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 31, 2008

Here’s one video of a song from yesterday’s Baker’s Dozen and a couple more that I found while rummaging in the corners at YouTube.

First. here’s Koko Taylor doing “Wang Dang Doodle” in 1967. As the heading says, that in fact is Little Walter on harp.

Not far away, as these things go, I found a 1964 performance of “Smokestack Lightning” by Howlin’ Wolf, whom I referenced in yesterday’s post. (Keep your eyes open for a look at Willie Dixon on the upright bass.)*

And one more look into the corner finds Sonny Boy Williamson II doing a sweet and nasty version of “In My Younger Days.” There’s no date on the clip, but Williamson recorded the song for Chess in 1963 and died in 1965.

*While I believe this is the same performance to which I linked when this post first went up, the video at YouTube is a new one, and it provides more information, most notably that the performance took place in England and that as well as featuring Willie Dixon, the video also includes Hubert Sumlin, the Wolf’s long-time guitarist. Note added July 25, 2011. 

Recalling The Year Of No Crayons

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 30, 2008

I saw the first back-to-school ads in the paper the other week, and we got the first ad supplements in the mail this week. As with every other annual event that carries commercial weight, the back-to-school season begins earlier every year.

Never having had kids, I’ve never had to deal with back-to-school from the parents’ side of the aisle, but I recall coming home from the first day of school from, oh, third grade onward and being quizzed on what it was I would need to survive the scholastic rigors of the school year ahead.

And as soon as dinner was over, my folks, my sister and I would get in the car, head across the river to downtown and walk along with what seemed like hundreds of students and parents to Dan Marsh Drug. We’d find notebooks and pens and pencils, struggling through crowds to get them. Mom and Dad would look over our choices and check them against the lists we’d made that day in school.

(As I understand it, schools these days mail lists of required supplies to students’ homes during the summer. I imagine that makes the first day of school a day with one less chore to accomplish, if teachers no longer have to spend time listing required supplies. And it most likely lessens the madness in the stores: If parents and students have some weeks before the start of school to acquire supplies, then there’s no need for the first-night-of-school mania that I saw many autumns at the drug store. But it also takes away from the student the responsibility of listening during that first day of school to make certain that the list he or she brings home contains everything he or she will need during the year.)

One of the highlights of school shopping during elementary years was the selection of the new box of crayons for the new school year. Most years, my folks were firm that twenty-four crayons provided my sister and me with enough colors to accomplish any art project that might be required. During my later years of elementary school, I looked longingly at the larger sets of crayons. Never mind that I was an indifferent artist, one whose life as well as his art was defined by coloring outside the lines. The thought of all those new colors fascinated me.

My birthday falls in early September, and as I entered sixth grade in 1964, one of my gifts was a canister with forty-eight crayons. I remember the gold crayon and the silver one. There was periwinkle and brick and slate, spring green, sienna and burnt umber. I enjoyed the names for the colors almost as much as the crayons themselves. (That holds true today; I find the art/science of naming paints and fabrics fascinating, an interest that was augmented in 1964, when Dad bought a new car. I remember being captivated by the fact that a car somehow became more desirable when one said that its color wasn’t light brown but was in fact chantilly beige.)

A year later, I entered seventh grade, a move that brought lots of changes. I’d ride a bus to school for the first time, I’d move from classroom to classroom during the day, keeping my things in a locker, and I’d have to shower after phy. ed. And I was no longer required to bring a box of crayons to school. Whatever supplies I needed for projects in art class would be provided, and crayons would not be among them.

As points of passage go, it’s a small one, I guess. It’s nothing as important as a first kiss or a first driver’s license or a first beer. But I noticed it, and although I probably didn’t say anything to anyone, it felt to me like one tiny step on the pathway from kid to adult.

And here’s a random set of songs from the year I didn’t need crayons. Some of them I most likely heard; most I probably didn’t.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1965, Vol. 2
“Just Like Tom Thumbs’ Blues” by Gordon Lightfoot, United Artists single 929

“I’ll Be True To You” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 118

“Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan from Bringing It All Back Home

“Wernher von Braun” by Tom Lehrer from That Was The Year That Was

“Now The Sun Has Gone” by the Beatmen, Pye single 7N15792 (UK)

“007” by David Lloyd & His Orchestra from Sounds For A Secret Agent

“Tired of Waiting For You” by the Kinks, Reprise single 0347

“You’re Going To Lose That Girl” by the Beatles from Help!

“Wang Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor, Checker single 1135

“Don’t Ask Me” by the Staccatos from Come Back Silly Girl

“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from the soundtrack to Doctor Zhivago

“Respect” by Otis Redding, Volt single 128

“It Was A Very Good Year” by Frank Sinatra, Reprise single 0429

A few notes:

Gordon Lightfoot’s take on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” has to be one of the first cover versions of Bob Dylan’s surreal tale of Juarez, Housing Project Hill, Sweet Melinda and all the rest. The arrangement is interesting, and Lightfoot does a pretty good job with it.

Spencer Wiggins’ name and work has popped up here before. A good singer who hailed from Memphis (and went to high school with, among others, Booker T. Jones and William Bell), Wiggins recorded for many years, most often for Goldwax, but never really made a dent in the public awareness. His work for Goldwax was collected and released in 2006 by Britain’s Kent label.

“Wernher von Braun” is one of the tracks from That Was The Year That Was, a live comedy album by Tom Lehrer, who was one of the most on-target satirists of the mid-1960s. Von Braun – whom I met once after he gave a talk at St. Cloud State – was one of the German scientists who designed the first workable rockets during World War II, rockets that were used late in the war to attack London. After the war, von Braun was brought to the U.S. and was one of the chief scientists in the Apollo program that put men on the moon. Lehrer’s song is witty, his audience liked it in 1965, and he makes a point worth pondering: Von Braun’s conduct was open to criticism; his work for Nazi Germany resulted in death and damage in England, and there’s clear evidence that much of that work in Germany was accomplished with the use of slave labor.

This version of “007” from the James Bond films comes from an album mentioned here some time ago. David Lloyd jumped on the Bondwagon in 1965 by recording not only the themes to the three James Bond films already released but by also recording themes for the books not yet turned into films. The record was one of four Bond-related albums I collected in 1964 and 1965, and it may be my favorite of them all.

I’m not sure what a “Wang Dang Doodle” is, but you ought to give Koko Taylor’s song a listen. Taylor takes her listeners through a cityscape peopled by characters that sound as if they came from Bob Dylan’s notebook as interpreted by Howlin’ Wolf. The song actually came from the pen of Willie Dixon, bass player on many Checker and Chess releases and one of the most important writers in blues history.

Otis Redding wrote “Respect” and had a minor hit with the record (No. 35 in late 1965), but of course, the song was pretty much taken away from him by Aretha Franklin and her titanic version two years later. But it’s always good to go back and take a listen to the original, of course.

There are plenty of sad songs out there, always have been and always will be. But few of them are as melancholy as Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year,” which was written by Ervin Drake. Even though the narrator claims that all is well, the fact is: All the wine is gone. And Sinatra nails the song. To me, it’s one of the best performances of his long career.

Near The Heart Of ‘The White Album’

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 29, 2008

One of the exercises into the hypothetical that bloggers and other music fans will on occasion break into is wrestling with the question: What if the Beatles had released The Beatles (more commonly known as “The White Album”) as a single LP instead of two? Which of the thirty songs on the album stay and which are trimmed to get down to forty or so minutes of music?

It’s an interesting exercise, and I’ve seen several good takes on the idea over the past couple of years. It seems to me that – whether they said so specifically or not – those who’ve wrestled with the question of editing the White Album by half begin with the task of deciding which song sits at the thematic center of the album. The Beatles was such a hodgepodge of styles and ideas that it’s perhaps not easy to see a center. There is one, though, and to me that center seems one of grief and loss.

Consider the songs that touch those themes in one way or another, either expressing current grief, grief already endured or grief anticipated: “Dear Prudence,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “I’m So Tired,” “Blackbird,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Helter Skelter,” “Long, Long, Long,” “Cry Baby Cry” and the closer, “Good Night.” (The pretty lullaby has one of the sadder lines in rock music: “Now the sun turns out his light.”)

Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I slid over two songs that belong in that list, the pairing of “I Will” and “Julia,” which end Side Two of the LP version of the album and the first disc of the CD package. “Julia” may be the most gorgeous and desolate piece John Lennon ever wrote, and to my mind, if one looks for the heart of the White Album, one finds it there. But its partner, “I Will,” is not far behind, as Paul McCartney’s brief (1:46) pledge of fealty to Jane Asher hides its grief in a line that’s almost thrown away in the first verse:

“Who knows how long I’ve loved you.
“You know I love you still.
“Will I wait a lonely lifetime?
“If you want me to, I will.”

“Will I wait a lonely lifetime?” Good lord, was there ever a line better written to grab the attention of a teenage youth whose current object of affection was quite happily pledged to another? Well, not that I recall hearing, and from that moment on, the center of the White Album resided in those two songs, “I Will” and “Julia,” with the narrator of the first pledging to endure separation from the one he loves, and the narrator of the second letting us know how that separation truly feels. As a young listener, I embraced the first tune and knew that there was something inside the second one that I did not understand.

And so, though “Julia” may be the better song, “I Will” holds a place inside me. Were I a recording artist, “I Will” would be the song I’d choose from The Beatles for a cover version. (I should note that my favorite song on the album is “Back In The USSR,” but as a musician, I’m a singer/songwriter type and not enough of a rocker – would that I were! – to pull that off.)

I’ve not heard many covers of “I Will” over the years. All-Music Guide lists 224 CDs that have a track titled “I Will.” Of those, a little more than fifty are covers of McCartney’s tune: There are versions by Eddy Arnold, Steve Barta, Big Daddy O, Pat Boone, Pete Calo, Tim Curry, Connie Evingson, Art Garfunkel, Pamela Hines, John Holt, Jeremy, Kristin Jericho, Kathy Mattea, Lauren Kilgore, Don Altars, John McNeil, Fred Mullin, Maureen McGovern, Maura O’Connell, Phish, Julia Rich, Diana Ross, Tom Scott, Tuck & Patti, Kit Walker and Ben Taylor.

In other words, the usual mix of knowns and unknowns that take a shot at recording any good song. I’m sure some of them do a creditable job, but they’d have to go some distance to better the one cover version of “I Will” I have in my collection.

Guitarist and banjo player Tony Furtado recorded the song for his 1992 CD, In Reach. And he was wise enough to enlist one of the best voices in American music to take on the vocal: Alison Krauss. As I wrote, I’ve not heard a lot of covers of the song in question, but any versions I hear would have be extraordinary to be better than the job that Furtado and Krauss do on “I Will.”

Tony Furtado & Alison Krauss – “I Will” [1992]

‘It’s A Nine-Inch Pan!’

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 28, 2008

I spent a little bit of time doing some basic math this morning. Why? Because when I began working on this post, I opened a new Word file. The previous file had gotten large enough that it was beginning to be unwieldy to work with.

So I opened a new file, the 20th file I’ve used to write this blog since I began it in January 2007. And I began to wonder how many words I’ve written for this blog.

That kind of mathematical wondering often leads me down odd alleys and musings. One day at a family dinner, while discussing cake pans, someone – my sister, my niece, I’m not sure who – wondered by what proportion a nine-inch square cake pan was larger than an eight-inch square pan. The conversation of the others at the table wandered on while my mind spun:

Let’s see, eighty-one square inches in a nine-inch square pan, and sixty-four square inches in an eight-inch pan. That’s a difference of seventeen square inches, divided by the original sixty-four square inches. “It’s a little bit more than twenty-five percent larger,” I told those gathered around the table.”

Blank looks all around. “What is?” someone asked.

“The nine-inch pan. It’s about twenty-five percent larger than the eight-inch pan.”

“Oh.” And they all went back to their dessert, which had been served from an eight-inch pan.

Since that time, whenever I become involved beyond the point of immediate need in a question of math or statistics, the Texas Gal usually tells me, “That’s good enough. Don’t make it a nine-inch pan!”

(If there are those who are curious, the precise answer was that the nine-inch pan was 26.56 percent larger than the eight-inch pan.)

And I dug into another (figurative) nine-inch pan this morning. After I opened the new Word file for the raw material for this blog, I wondered how many words I’ve published here. So I went to the folder, added the sizes in KB of the nineteen files filled since January 2007, averaged the size of those files and learned that the average file is about 218 KB.

So I found a file that was about that large – one I filled last November – and ran a word count for that file. It had 19,240 words. Multiply that by the nineteen files I’ve filled, and one comes up with a word count for this blog of 365,560. Some of that is formatting, of course, and there are some notes to myself in the files, so the actual total of words published here is a little smaller than that.
Still, even with a small proportion of words trimmed away, that’s an impressive – almost daunting – number. Only once have I ever written anything in that kind of volume: A novel that I wrote during my time in Minot, in 1988-89, ran a little more than 500 typed pages, about 140,000 words. I was planning when I began that project to write a long short story, maybe about eighty pages, and I’ve many times told friends that if I’d had any idea how large a project it would become, I don’t think I’d have had the guts to start it.

Of course, when I’m writing here, I’m not writing one long project. That word total is made up of more than four hundred shorter projects, some of them very short, and a few of them very long. But they’ve added up so far into an impressive statistical bloc, just as individual bricks make up a large wall. And I’m reasonably sure – based on the number of people who stop by and based on the comments I get – that some of the bricks in my wall have been worthwhile for my readers.

And I’m also reasonably sure I have quite a few more bricks to place in that wall in days to come.

Malo – Malo (1972)
Last month, when I wrote about my Saturday evening bike rides during the summer of 1972, I mentioned “Suavecito,” the single by the group Malo, as one of those I heard while sitting in the bleachers at the city swimming pool.

“Suavecito” has always been one of those singles that never quite laid itself firmly in my memory. For years, when I’d hear it played on one oldies station or another (and it does get occasional airplay; it went to No. 18 in 1972), I’d think, “Oh, yeah, I really like that!” But when shopping time came, it was far from my mind, and I’d not think at all of Malo – whose leader was Jorge Santana, brother of Carlos – while in the record emporium. Until the next time I heard “Suavecito” on the radio, of course.

I’ve always linked Malo – reasonably, I think – with El Chicano, another Latin rock band of the early 1970s. El Chicano had two Top 40 hits: “Viva Tirado, Part 1,” which went to No. 28 in 1970, and “Tell Her She’s Lovely,” in 1973. That latter single is one of the rare records that’s as slender a hit as can be, sitting at No. 40 – the lowest rung of the chart – for only one week. But “Tell Her She’s Lovely,” like “Viva Tirado,” was a nice if not overwhelming record.

Because I tend to link the two groups, when the time came in the 1990s that I found some Malo, I began to look for El Chicano’s work, too. I found three of Malo’s four Seventies albums in 1998, and I acquired four of El Chicano’s first six albums – from their best period in the Seventies – in the next year or two. I enjoyed them all.

But I know that I’m not all that well-equipped to make any kind of critical judgment about the work of either group, as both groups draw heavily on their Latin roots, a tradition I do not know well. I don’t know whether those in the tradition hear the work of either Malo or El Chicano as extensions of their heritage or exploitation of that same heritage. Given that I am thus unequipped, all I can say is that when I listen, I enjoy what I hear.

The album I’m sharing today is Malo’s first album. The single version of “Suavecito” (Warner Bros. 7559) was an edit of the longer album track on the record, so I’ve included the single in the zip file as well. (I cobbled the album together from several sources some time ago; some of the tracks I found at other blogs and I ripped at least one of the tracks from my vinyl.)

Here’s what All-Music Guide has to say about the album:

“Malo’s debut album remains their best and best-known work, primarily for the inclusion of the hit single ‘Suavecito.’ That track managed to make a Chicago-like pop-soul song sound hip with its smooth integration of Latin rhythms and irresistible ‘la la la’ chorus. However, it represented just one facet of a band who, despite some expected similarities to Santana, played some of the most exciting and exuberant fusions of rock, soul, and Latin music. The six extended tracks (all clocking in at over six minutes apiece) leaned more heavily on hot Latin jazz brass than Santana did, though Jorge Santana himself generated plenty of friction with his burning electric guitar. It’s not an exaggeration to state that by the time this came out in 1972, Malo’s Latin rock blend sounded fresher than Santana’s, if only because they sound hungrier and less formulaic than Santana did by that point. The Santana comparisons are unavoidable, though in this case it’s to Malo’s credit, as they too boasted a deft balance of improvisatory instrumental passages, solid multi-layered percussive rhythms, and emotional, romantic singing in both Spanish and English.”

I don’t hear “Suavecito” having any resemblance to Chicago’s work, but that’s okay. Here’s the track listing:

Suavecito (single edit)
Just Say Goodbye

Malo – Malo [1972]

Saturday Single No. 82

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 26, 2008

One of the constants of my first four years of college was that I avoided phy. ed.

Never an imposing physical specimen, I’d had enough opportunity in high school to climb ropes, do push-ups and pull-ups – none of which I accomplished with any great proficiency or pleasure. When I started at St. Cloud State in the fall of 1971, four credits of PE were required to graduate, and men were required to take as their first course a basic PE class that most of us called Push-ups 101, made up of exactly the same sort of stuff that I’d detested in high school.

So for four years, I ignored PE, hoping it would go away. By the time the summer of 1975 came around, I knew I was going to have to deal with it. The coming fall quarter would see me clear out the last of the required courses for my degree, and I’d do an internship during the winter. If I wanted to march across the stage for my diploma come the end of February, I was going to have to confront PE. So I dug into the college catalog, and I learned that although I would still have to get four credits in PE, Push-ups 101 was not listed. No longer required, it had in fact gone away.

Relieved, I filled out my summer schedule with bowling, ballroom dancing, archery and tennis. I added two all-college seminars in sociology and the humanities that I’d also avoided for a long time, making the course load for the summer sweetly easy.

The first half of the summer, I bowled and discussed humanities in the morning and shot archery in the afternoon. My archery partner was a woman who’d lost an eye when she was young and as a result, had some difficulties with depth perception. She’d accepted her loss with a greater degree of grace than I think I could have found, and she nearly collapsed in giggles the third time that our instructor came by and urged her to keep both eyes open when she shot. “I can’t tell him now,” she said through her laughter after he’d moved on. “He’d be so embarrassed!”

The second half of the summer, my morning was taken up partly by ballroom dancing and sociology and my early afternoons found me on the tennis courts, where I learned that one of my classmates had been the girls’ champion at a Twin Cities suburban high school. During the five weeks of the summer session, we played a lot of tennis, in class and out (she won with regularity), and spent some evenings wandering through student gathering spots downtown with another couple.

It was a great summer, with my class work – such as it was – supplemented by my work on the campus-wide audio-visual inventory headed up by my friend Murl. And it was, as are all my seasons, full of music.

A look at the Billboard Hot 100 from this week in 1975 brings back sounds – some that were good music, some otherwise, but all of them good memories – of that summer: “The Hustle” by Van McCoy and 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love.” “One of These Nights” by the Eagles and “Listen to What the Man Said” by Paul McCartney and Wings. “Midnight Blue” by Melissa Manchester and “Rockin’ Chair” by Gwen McCrae. All of those were in the Top Ten during the last week of July that year. Falling down the chart was one of the songs that triggers memories of that season more than most: “I’m Not Lisa” by Jessi Colter.

And holding steady at No. 21 was a song that says “Summer of ’75” even more than that: Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire,” today’s Saturday Single.

Michael Martin Murphey – “Wildfire” [Epic single 50084, 1975]

Packing, Greetings & Gypsy

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 25, 2008

As I look around my office/study/cave, I come to the realization this morning that this place is beginning to look like a liquor and beer warehouse.

I learned many moves ago that the best thing to use for moving records and books is lots of liquor boxes. So far, I’ve filled about thirty of them in this room alone, and I’ve barely started on the main record shelves. I’ve packed away all but the most essential music reference books, and I’ve packed all of my country, blues, classical and soundtrack LPs, as well as all the anthologies and all the LPs of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Band. (Complete sets that they are, those three collections get their own shelf.)

I have remaining on the shelves all the rock, pop rock, soul, R&B and anything else that comes between Joan Baez and Warren Zevon (I got the A’s boxed up yesterday.) I figure I’ll need another fifty boxes for the records that are left. Just thinking about it this morning makes me weary. But soon after I get this post up, I’ll wander down to the neighborhood liquor store and harvest as many boxes as I can, and I’ll do the same tomorrow. They know me pretty well by now.

Receiving Greetings
One of the most interesting things about doing a music blog is getting the occasional note from someone whose music is posted here. I’ve had a few of those over the past eighteen months.

The two most obvious are Bobby Jameson and Patti Dahlstrom. Then there was Alan O’Day, with whom I had an email conversation about “Rock & Roll Heaven,” which he co-wrote. But I’ve also heard from a few others. One was Dave Thomson, who played bass and guitar with Blue Rose and wrote several of the songs on that band’s 1972 self-titled album. Another was Peter Welker, who played horns on Cold Blood’s 1973 album, Thriller! And most recently, I got a nice note from Dorian Rudnytsky, a member of the New York Rock Ensemble, who thanked me for my comments on his band’s 1970 album, Roll Over. Hearing from folks whose music I enjoy is all kinds of cool.

Gypsy: Unlock the Gates (1973)
I finally got around this week to ripping the fourth album by the 1970s group Gypsy, the sometimes-fascinating band that evolved from the Underbeats, one of the most popular mid-Sixties bands in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

By the time Unlock the Gates came out in 1973, Gypsy’s moment was passing rapidly. The group’s first two albums – 1970’s double LP Gypsy and 1971’s In the Garden – had been released on the Metromedia label, a label that in retrospect didn’t have the marketing clout to take advantage of the band’s unique sound. Later in 1972, the band moved to RCA for Antithesis, and a year later, Unlock the Gates also came out on RCA. (The Metromedia label closed up shop in 1974, but one can question its effectiveness as a label even from its start in 1969; the biggest-selling artist in the label’s brief history was Bobby Sherman.)

That said, the record was still pretty good. There are flashes of the distinctive sound – layered guitars and organ, with close vocal harmonies – that made the group’s 1970 debut so remarkable.

I have some reservations: The use of strings as a sweetener in some of the tracks – “One Step Away” and “Unlock the Gates” are examples – is a bit disconcerting. And using the horn section from Chicago – Walter Parazaider, James Pankow and Lee Loughnane – on four of the record’s ten tracks was a risky idea but one that turned out well. The risk was that the horns – and all three players were outstanding musicians – would overshadow the band, but that didn’t happen, as I hear it. “Need You Baby and “Is That News?” work best of the tracks with horns, and “Bad Whore (The Machine)” does too, although the cacophonic ending is just a little too weird. The only track with horns that doesn’t seem to work is “Toin It,” but I don’t think that’s the horns.

Overall, there’s some nice stuff here. I particularly like “Don’t Get Mad (Get Even),” “Precious One” and “Unlock the Gates” (despite the softening by the strings). In general, though, the material here isn’t as strong as the songs on the first two Gypsy albums, but it’s not bad. (It’s better, I think, than the material on Antithesis.) And the musicianship is solid, as was always the case with Gypsy.

Is That News?
Make Peace with Jesus
One Step Away
Bad Whore (The Machine)
Unlock the Gates
Toin It
Need You Baby
Smooth Operator
Don’t Get Mad (Get Even)
Precious One

Gypsy – Unlock the Gates [1973]

Janis, Bob & The Wailers & The Boss

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 24, 2008

Doing my normal Thursday wandering at YouTube this morning, I found some nice things related to yesterday’s Baker’s Dozen.

Here’s a clip of Janis Ian performing “At Seventeen.” It came from the April 23, 1976, episode of Midnight Special, on which Ian was the guest host and performed six songs. Other guests that night were Joan Baez, the Electric Light Orchestra, Larry Groce and Flora Purim.

I also found a remarkable concert performance of “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. There’s no date on the clip, but the song was first released on Natty Dread in 1974, and Marley, of course, died in 1981. Beyond that bracket, the best I can do is guess. Does anyone out there have any more information?*

And here’s a black-and-white clip of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band performing “The Promised Land” at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, on September 19, 1978. The visuals are a little grainy, but the music is excellent.

*The Marley video to which I originally linked has been removed. I found instead a video of another remarkable performance of “No Woman, No Cry” at the Amandla Festival of Unity, which took place July 21, 1979, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Note added July 25, 2011.

‘Travels Through The 20th Century’

July 25, 2011

Originally posted July 23, 2008

Every once in a while, I come across a book that I just have to tell people about.

(And it’s a good thing I have outlets with which to do so – this blog and my monthly meeting of Bookcrossing – or I fear I’d be out on the streets, gripping folks by the elbow, showing them a book: “Have you read this? You need to read this! It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a long time.” It would not take long before I’d either be warned by the police to quit or else taken away for some observation.)

Anyway, during my regular stop at the public library last weekend, I spotted a book on the new reading shelf that looked interesting enough to take a chance on: In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Max. I sifted the pages quickly, and got the impression that it was a collection of travel pieces from through the years. It sounded interesting enough, so I dropped it in the book bag and brought it home.

I’ve shared a few books here over the past year and a half, and always with the note that the book in question is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Not wanting that claim to be diluted, I should note that I read – at a guess – six to ten books a month. I’m a rapid reader, and even with the blog and my other writing and my househusband duties, I have a good chunk of time every day for reading. So in the past year and a half, let’s say I’ve read eight books a month; that comes out to 144 books.

Some of those were just okay, a couple I recall as actually very bad. Most were good, and there were a very few that were superior. In Europe is one of them. It turned out to be something far more interesting than an anthology of travel journalism.

In 1999, Max – a writer for the Dutch newspaper, NRC Handlesblad – was assigned to travel Europe for a year, researching and writing pieces on the history of the Twentieth Century on the continent. The book is arranged in chronological order, beginning with his January 1999 travels, during which he covered the years from 1900 to 1914. For that segment of the century, Max traveled to Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna, the four main capitals of Europe during the time when the stage was being prepared for World War I.

Using diaries, histories and publications from the time, and combining those accounts with his observations of the current state of the various locales, Max (aided, no doubt, by what appears to be a remarkable job by translator Sam Garrett) weaves a readable and fascinating history of Europe in the last century. His February travels shift from Vienna and focus on Belgium and northern France, as he chronicles the lives and deaths of millions of young men in the carnage that was the deadlocked Western Front during World War I.

And as he tours a Belgian war cemetery at Houthulst, he brings that long-gone war back to the present:

“I hear a dull thud. A blue mist comes floating across the frosty fields. In the field behind the cemetery, the DOVO, the Belgian War Munition Demolition Service, has blown up another heap of First World War ammunition. They do it twice a day, one and a half tons a year. When the farmers find grenades they leave them at the base of the utility masts, and the miners collect them. And so it goes on here. Generation after generation, this soil continues to vomit up grenades, buttons, buckles, knives, skulls, bottles, rifles, sometimes even a whole tank. The Great War never ends.”

I am tempted every day to rush through my obligations – or to ignore them – so I can that much sooner pick up Max’s book and continue my explorations through the history he found on his travels.

As I read his account of World War I, I thought – as a writer tends to do – about the only time I ever wrote about that first great war. It was in 1978, a piece timed for November 11, Veterans Day, which would be the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended the brutal battle of attrition in France. Still rather new to Monticello, I asked around a bit and found a veteran of World War I who was still alert and was willing to talk about his experience in France.

Frankie was never at the front, but he said he saw enough of the work of the battlefront as wounded and dead soldiers came back through the rear echelons. I took notes and reported his words, our photographer got a picture of Frankie and his wife, Marie, and we borrowed a 1918 picture of Frankie looking every inch the doughboy in his uniform. But I could not find a way as deadline approached that week to describe the look in Frankie’s eyes as he cast himself sixty years back and recalled for me the dirt, the fear, the noise, the blood, the horrible waste that he saw from the edges of the war.

Some things are too profound for words. In In Europe, I think, Max uses his finely chiseled prose and his eye for fine detail to come closer than most can to finding a way around that barrier.

As sometimes happens here, there’s no graceful way to move to the music. Here’s a generally random selection from the year when I wrote about World War I:

A Baker’s Dozen from 1978, Vol. 2
“Do You Wanna Dance” by Janis Ian from Janis Ian

“Heavy Horses” by Jethro Tull from Heavy Horses

“Lookin’ For A Place” by Chilliwack from Lights From The Valley

“Don’t Look Back” by Boston from Don’t Look Back

“Shattered” by the Rolling Stones from Some Girls

“Is This Love” by Bob Marley & the Wailers from Kaya

“Lotta Love” by Neil Young from Comes A Time

“You Belong To Me” by Carly Simon, Elektra single 45477

“The Darker Side” by the Lamont Cranston Band from El Cee Notes

“Here Goes” by the Bliss Band from Dinner With Raoul

“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town

“Never Make A Move Too Soon” by B.B. King, ABC single 12380

“Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads from More Songs About Buildings and Food

A few notes:

I have a soft spot for Janis Ian. Anyone who can chronicle high school desperation the way she did in 1975’s “At Seventeen” deserves a pass now and then. Her 1978 self-titled album, though it had its moments, generally deserved that pass, as it was her third album in three years that didn’t come up to the quality of 1975’s Between the Lines. On the other hand, not many albums from anyone else can meet that standard, either. Luckily, “Do You Wanna Dance” is one of the better songs on the 1978 album.

Heavy Horses saw Jethro Tull continuing the back-to-the-roots shift that the band had started with 1977’s Songs From the Wood, with both albums celebrating English folk. Horses, as All-Music Guide notes, is “chock-full of gorgeous melodies, briskly played acoustic guitars and mandolins, and Ian Anderson’s flute lilting in the background, backed by the group in top form.” That’s not to say the album is lightweight, just noting where its inspirations came from.

In the two years since the release of its self-titled debut, Boston hadn’t changed much. “Don’t Look Back” is a decent song, but it – and any of the other seven songs on the album Don’t Look Back – has the same sound as the debut album. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but I kind of wonder why the group bothered.

If I had to go through my 1978 collection and rank the albums, I think that every time, I’d come up with Neil Young’s Comes A Time in the top spot. Far more country-ish than most of his other albums, it’s also the one that Young seems most relaxed with. It sounds like he had fun making the record, and I rarely get that sense about his music.

When I did my long post for last year’s Vinyl Record Day, I wrote “the Bliss Band sounds to me a bit like Pablo Cruise or the Little River Band, both of which were hitting the charts about the time Dinner With Raoul was recorded. There’s a touch of Steely Dan in there, too.” I stand by that, but it’s a sound that’s grown on me in the past eleven months. (A note: This year’s blogswarm for Vinyl Record Day, August 12, is once again being organized by JB the DJ at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.)

“The Promised Land” is one of my favorite Springsteen tracks of all time. (I suppose I should do an all-Springsteen post someday, listing my favorite thirteen.) He’s done some that are a little better, but what makes “The Promised Land” work is its setting: It’s an anthem that carries at least some hope amid the desperation and drear of the rest of Darkness at the Edge of Town.

‘He’s Never Near You . . .’

July 20, 2011

Originally posted July 22, 2008

You could call it the accidental hit.

The Billboard Book of Number One Hits tells the tale: In 1969, producer Paul Leka joined Mercury Records, and he brought to the label a friend from his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a musician named Gary De Carlo.

De Carlo and Leka put together four songs and brought them to Bob Reno, the head of Artists & Repertoire for Mercury. Reno thought all four of them sounded like hits and told the duo to go back into the studio and record a B-side. On the day of the session, an old friend of De Carlo and Leka’s – Dale Frashuer – stopped by the studio. The three men had been in a group called the Chateaus in Bridgeport, and Leka and Frashuer dug through the songs they’d written together when they were in the Chateaus

In that jumble of songs, they found a 1961 up-tempo ballad called “Kiss Him Goodbye,” and began to record a B-side for one of De Carlo’s singles. The song ran about two minutes, and the three decided to lengthen it to discourage deejays from flipping the single over and playing the B-side.

In the Billboard book, Leka says, “I started writing while I was sitting at the piano, going ‘na na na na, na na na na . . .’ Everything was ‘na na’ when you didn’t have a lyric.” And someone else added “hey, hey, hey.”

Early in the morning, the track was done, except for the lyrics of the chorus. Agreeing it was just a B-side, the three included the “Na Na Hey Hey” chorus on the record, repeating it a few times.

Well, you know how things sometimes go. Reno heard the song and said it sounded too good for a B-side. He persuaded Leka and De Carlo to let Mercury release it as an A-side on the Fontana label, with the duo and Frashuer agreeing that the record could go out under an assumed group name, not as De Carlo’s single.

“It was an embarrassing record,” Leka said. “Not that Gary sang it badly. But compared to his four songs, it was an insult.”

So Leka came up with a name. He recalled walking out of the studio in the early morning after finishing the record and seeing steam coming out of a manhole. The record would go out under the group name of Steam.

And of course, it went to No. 1, and De Carlo’s records went nowhere. Leka and Frashuer pulled more material from the Chateaus period for an album and composed some new material in De Carlo’s range. Unhappy with the turns of events, De Carlo refused to record as Steam, and Leka went back to Bridgeport and found a local group willing to be Steam.

For my part, I think the single – which spent two weeks at No. 1 during December 1969 – is a great one. Not a great song, mind you. It’s only an okay song. But it’s a great record with an unforgettable hook. One feels for De Carlo, but folks who follow music know that stuff happens. Actually, stuff like that happens in every arena: The gods, the Fates, the dice of the universe – whatever it is that shapes events – turns things one person’s way for no other reason than that he or she was standing there.

The song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” shows up on about one hundred and forty CDs, according to All-Music Guide. At least half of those are anthologies that include the original single by Steam, but there are still some interesting names on the list: Axxis and Bananarama. The Belmonts, Fancy and the Hermes House Band. The Countdown Singers, those studio phantoms and inveterate cover artists familiar to TV viewers, are listed, as are James Last, Liberace and the Ohio Express. Edwin Starr took a crack at the song, as did the Pioneers. And so did the Nylons.

The Nylons’ version on the Open Air label went to No. 12 during the summer of 1987 under the title “Kiss Him Goodbye” and was included on their Happy Together album. The recording showed up as well, this time titled “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye),” on the group’s 2003 album Illustrious.

So, here is the Nylon’s version from 1987, and although it’s a little omnipresent, I thought I’d post the original by Steam as well.

Steam – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” [Fontana 1667, 1969]

Nylons – “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” [Open Air 0022, 1987]

(I have two mp3s of Steam’s version, one that clocks in at 4:04 and one that runs 4:08. The album version is timed at 4:12, so that’s no help. Not being sure that it’s the original mix, I posted the mp3 with the higher bitrate.)

A Baker’s Dozen from 1966, Vol. 3

July 20, 2011

Originally posted July 21, 2008

One of the joys of music blogging is the occasional discussion that rises up, either here or at other blogs I visit. One of the questions that almost always sparks discussion is an attempt to identify the perfect single. I’ve joined in that conversation at several blogs over the past eighteen months, and my candidate for the perfect pop-rock single is always the same: “Cherish” by the Association.

It’s got a gorgeous melody, wonderfully glistening production (by Curt Boettcher, if I’m not mistaken), and its lyric tells a tale of unrequited love accepted sadly and with grace, probably far more grace than almost any of us could muster when faced with the reality that our beloved will never stand next to us.

I came to know the song in the autumn of 1966, when it was No. 1 for three weeks. It was a record that could not be avoided, even by those who were not particularly enamored of pop and rock. I liked it even though I had no real understanding of its lyric. That came three years later during my junior year. The young lady was kind but made it very clear that her interests were not congruent with mine. The next time I heard “Cherish,” I understood it much better.

It’s one of those songs perfectly crafted to provide teen-age solace: While so many songs about love embraced can be tabbed by happy young couples as “their” song, “Cherish” is one of very few records that a loving yet solitary young person could hold as his own, with the substance and eloquence of the lyric providing both consolation and the awareness – maybe for the first time – that love unreturned is not love in vain.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1966, Vol. 3
“Cherish” by the Association, Valiant single 747

“Loving You Takes All Of My Time” by the Debonaires, Solid Hit single 102

“Can’t You See” by the Countdowns, N-Joy single 1015

“Hey Joe” by the Leaves, Mira single 222

“Sweet Wine” by Cream from Fresh Cream

“Must I Holler” by Jamo Thomas, Chess single 1971

“Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing” by Lou Rawls, Capitol single 5709

“At the River’s Edge” by the New Colony Six, Centaur single 1202

“Searching For My Love” by Bobby Moore & the Rhythm Aces, Checker single 1129

“Stanyan Street, Revisited” by Glenn Yarbrough from The Lonely Things

“Cherry, Cherry” by Neil Diamond, Bang single 528

“Happenings Times Ten Years Ago” by the Yardbirds, Epic single 10094

“Pushin’ Too Hard” by the Seeds, GNP Crescendo single 372

A few notes:

The Debonaires – mistakenly listed as the “Debonairs” when “Loving You Takes All Of My Time” was originally released – were Joyce Vincent Wilson and Telma Hopkins, two Detroit-area cousins, and a few other people who, according to All-Music Guide, have never been identified. The group released a number of records on a number of Detroit-area labels in the early to mid-1960s, but never had a single reach the Top 40. Wilson and Hopkins ended up performing with Tony Orlando as Dawn, beginning with Dawn’s second hit, “Knock Three Times” in 1970.

The Leaves’ version of “Hey Joe” may not be the first recording of the song – the song’s lineage is one of those difficult to trace – but it was the first version to chart, reaching No. 31 during the summer of 1966.

The New Colony Six was from Chicago, a decent group that ended up putting two records into the Top 40: “I Will Always Think About You” in 1968 and “Things I’d Like To Say” in 1969. A college friend of mine was from the Windy City and took every opportunity he could during beer-fueled evenings in Denmark to let us know how good the New Colony Six was.

I’ve written here a few times about my affection for two of Glenn Yarbrough’s mid-1960s albums: For Emily Whenever I May Find Her and The Lonely Things. I acquired the first of those on CD some time ago and found the latter online recently. “Stanyan Street, Revisited” is sentimental – with Rod McKuen providing the lyric, how could it not be? – and its production values are clearly more in line with traditional pop than with rock. But set aside irony and give it a listen.

This set ended up with some good garage-y sounds: the Countdowns, the Leaves, the post-Clapton Yardbirds and the Seeds. The Countdowns’ single didn’t chart, and – as noted above – “Hey Joe” went to No. 31. The Yardbirds’ single went to No. 30, and “Pushin’ Too Hard” reached No. 36.

Corrections and clarifications:
I got a note this morning from Patti Dahlstrom, who gently corrected a few errors in my piece on her fourth album, Livin’ It Thru, which I posted here a week ago. She wrote: “Though I did play piano on stage for a song or two, I never played on my records.” The keyboard parts on Livin’ It Thru, she said, came from Larry Knechtel, Michael Omartian, Craig Doerge and Jerry Peters. The credits listed at West Coast Music, which I used as a jumping-off point, are incorrect in listing Daryl Dragon as playing keyboards on the record; Patti said he arranged the background vocals.

She also answered two questions I had: First, the astounding harp solo on the track “Lookin’ For Love” was by Knechtel. And second, Jay Cooper, who was listed in the credits on the record jacket, is Patti’s attorney and has been since 1967, “a powerful man with great heart and integrity . . . quite an unusual combination.”

Edited slightly from original posting.