Posts Tagged ‘Cowboy Junkies’

Saturday Single No. 342

May 18, 2013

I know it’s Saturday, but I’m going to talk a bit about Sundays past, which used to start here with bacon. Nearly every week, Sunday morning would find the Texas Gal frying a pound of bacon to start the day. I’d slap some Miracle Whip (and sometimes a slice or two of Swiss cheese) on a couple of slices of bread and have myself a mega-sandwich, while the Texas Gal took her bacon neat.

As I noted a while back, however, the two of us became involved a little more than a year ago in the activities of the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. That has made our Sunday mornings a fair amount busier, as we now leave the house about 10 o’clock and rarely get home until sometime after noon. Bacon has been left for the other six days of the week, if we happen to think of it. And we often haven’t thought of it at all.

But earlier this week, the Texas Gal pulled a pound of the stuff out of the freezer, and today was Bacon Saturday. I had my sandwich, she nibbled pieces from a green bowl, and even the catboys Cubbie Cooper and Clarence got to have a few crumbles (a major treat for both of them). And as I ate my sandwich, I wondered about songs with “bacon” in their titles.

I have only five in the collection. One of them, Taj Mahal’s 1969 version of “Bacon Fat,” showed up here on a Saturday some time ago, so we’re down to four. One of those four is a 1975 version of the same tune by Jesse Ed Davis, so we’ll skip that. Peter Yarrow’s “Beans, Bacon And Gravy,” also from 1975, doesn’t really resonate with me, so we’ll pass that by, too. And “Bacon in the Skillet,” a 2005 track by Chatham County Line, is a nice fiddle workout, but it’s not much more than that, so we’re left with one.

And that last tune with “bacon” in its title turns out to be about a different type of bacon: “Sir Francis Bacon At The Net” is a track from the Cowboy Junkies’ 2010 album Renmin Park. The album was named, says All Music Guide, after the park in Zhengzhou, China, where Junkies’ guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmons spent much of his time while adopting two children from China. As to the song, it’s about . . . well, beyond the recurring sounds of a tennis match in China (in the Renmin Park of the album’s title, I imagine), I’m not entirely sure what it’s about:

Merciless nature, human and mother walk this land
Each through the arm of the other
Their tithe they count in millions
In a Land that loves its villains

So calculating it parses a man
Between the hand that held the dream
And the sword being held by the hand
Their golden frames hang gleaming
Tangled bones of their crimes bleaching
Their golden frames hang gleaming
Bleaching bones of their crimes tangling

There he stands a mere mist of a thing
Waiting his turn to challenge the King
He counts his time in centuries
He lives on the smallest of mercies
He counts his time in centuries

As the map is unrolled the dagger comes out
And that which was certain will now end in doubt
Thank you Sir Francis Bacon
Another piece of advice not taken
Thank you Sir Francis Bacon
Another piece of advice not taken

Whatever it’s about, I like it a lot, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘In The Coolness Of Your Shadow . . .’

June 19, 2012

Driving down Lincoln Avenue toward some fast food last evening, I was listening – as I generally do in the car – to WXYG, the low-power album rock station that popped up on the AM band here in the St. Cloud area about a year ago. And as I pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot, I heard a familiar and mournful violin introduction come from the speakers, followed by the breathy voice of Jesse Colin Young:

Darkness, darkness, be my pillow, take my head and let me sleep
In the coolness of your shadow, in the silence of your deep.

The song was Young’s “Darkness, Darkness,” an eloquent and haunting surrender to despair recorded by the Youngbloods for their 1969 album, Elephant Mountain. Some listeners have heard a metaphor in the song for the anguish in Vietnam going on at the time the album came out, but I’m not so sure. Either way – or any other way – it’s a chilling song that gets a little trippy in the middle:

I’ve run across numerous covers of the tune in the last decade or so, including versions by Richie Havens, Richard Shindell, the pair of Elliot Murphy & Iain Matthews, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, Mott the Hoople, Robert Plant and the Cowboy Junkies. So with the song running through my head this morning, I dropped by Second Hand Songs to see who else might have covered the tune. The website listed ten versions of the song, including the original; I’ve heard eight of them, missing only those by Cassell Webb from 1990 and Golden Earring from 1995.

I also took a look at the mp3s available at Amazon, and that brought up quite a few other names, some of which I knew – like Michael Stanley (with the Ghost Poets) – and many that were unfamiliar. I listened to some samples but left my pocketbook untouched this morning (although there were a few versions that might merit exploration down the road).

So with all those names, what’s actually out there? Well, the Wilson sisters’ version, which showed up on Ann Wilson’s 2007 album, Hope and Glory, is just okay, and the same is true for Robert Plant’s cover, from 2002’s Dreamland. Mott the Hoople’s 1971 version from Brain Capers is good (if a little too Mott-y, if that makes any sense). Ian Matthews’ solo take on the song – found on his 1976 album Go For Broke (released before he changed the spelling of his first name to “Iain”) – felt too matter-of-fact at the start; it became more compelling as it went along but eventually did not match the version he recorded with Elliot Murphy for La Terre Commune in 2000. I do like Lisa Torban’s version (featured here eighteen months ago), which was used in the soundtrack of the 2003 film about the Titanic, Ghosts of the Abyss.

Keeping all that in mind, four versions of “Darkness, Darkness” stand out. Almost five years ago, I wrote that Matthews and Smith’s take on the tune was at the top of my list. Well, lists like that can change, and I now think that three other covers of Young’s song are a little better:  The Cowboy Junkies’ version of the song, released on a bonus EP with their 2004 album One Soul Now, seemed a bit leaden at first, but the slower tempo eventually pulled me in. And my growing appreciation for Richie Havens’ interpretation of the song will, I’m sure, be unsurprising to most readers. His version came out in 1994 on his Cuts to the Chase album.

But the cover that I prefer these days comes from folk artist Richard Shindell, who I think found the center of Young’s song when he recorded it for his 1997 album, Reunion Hill.

‘One Last Chance To Make It Real . . .’

February 8, 2012

Down on East St. Germain – the main street here on the East Side – there’s a pawnshop. It’s right around the corner from Tom’s Barbershop, and I pop in from time to time. Granite City Pawn Shop, it’s called. It’s kind of dusty, and it’s well-stocked with tools and outdoor sports equipment.

And in the middle of the shop, sometimes guarded by a gantlet of other merchandise – a telescope tripod the other day – is an alcove filled with CDs, all priced at $1 apiece. Over the past couple years, I’ve made a few interesting finds there – probably the best was Blue & Sentimental by 1950s sax player Ike Quebec – and filled some gaps, most of them in my country collection.

I stopped by there the other day and found three CDs from the 1990s by country singer John Berry, about whom I’d read a few nice things. They’re all pretty good, and it turns out that one of them – Saddle the Wind – was an album Berry recorded and released in 1990, before he was signed to Liberty Records. Liberty released it in 1994, and that’s the version I found. And when the CD got to the fifth track, here’s what I heard:

He sings it well, but to my ears, the track hews far too closely to Bruce Springsteen’s version to make it more than interesting. But for the last ten days or so, I’ve had “Thunder Road” running through my head as Berry’s cover inspired me to make my way through various versions of one of Springsteen’s greatest songs.

Along the way, I’ve been wondering if the harmonica and piano that lead off “Thunder Road” on Born to Run might not be the very first things that lots of folks ever heard from Bruce Springsteen. My reasoning: It was with Born to Run, of course, that Springsteen made the leap from regional favorite to national artist, and I figure a lot of folks picked up the album on the basis of the national noise without having heard anything from Springsteen before, even the single “Born to Run.” The album reached the Billboard chart on September 13, 1975, showing up at No. 84, a week before “Born to Run” jumped into the Hot 100 at No. 68. And “Thunder Road” leads off the album. So that introduction could have been the introduction to Springsteen for a lot of people.

Well, it’s an interesting thought (to me, anyway), but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that “Thunder Road” is one of the sturdiest songs Springsteen’s ever put together. Wikipedia notes that in 2004, the song was ranked No. 86 in Rolling Stone magazine’s assessment of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” And, as Wikipedia notes, the song has shown up highly ranked on several similar lists.

Like all sturdy songs, it’s been covered fairly frequently. Among those who’ve tackled the song are Badly Drawn Boy, Frank Turner, Tori Amos, Mary Lou Lord and Bonnie “Prince” Bill with Tortoise. I’ve heard some of those, and I’ve come across a few more. Melissa Etheridge sang the song in concert at least once after Springsteen performed the song with her at an earlier show. (Her solo performance of the song is listed as being in 2009, but I don’t know when the duet took place.) I also found a few studio covers that I thought were interesting: Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners recorded the song for his 1999 album My Beauty, but – according to a comment at YouTube – the track was held back because Springsteen thought Rowland took too many liberties with the lyrics. I thought the Cowboy Junkies did a nice version; it was released on the bonus CD that came with their 2004 album One Soul Now.

And I came across this version by a string quartet calling itself the Section; it came from the 2002 CD Hometown: The String Quartet Tribute to Springsteen:

 There are other covers out there, but my energy waned. Of the covers I found, I think I like the Cowboy Junkies’ version best; Margo Timmins can do little wrong from where I listen. But the best version of the song I found on YouTube isn’t really a cover at all.

In 2005, Springsteen toured as a solo artist after the release of Devils & Dust, and for that tour, he shelved a lot of the songs he normally performed live. But he did “Thunder Road” once, backing himself on the piano. And it’s neat to know that the performance took place in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium on October 12, 2005. (No, I wasn’t there, but I sure wish I had been.)

Corrected and edited slightly after posting.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1988

June 1, 2011

Originally posted December 26, 2007

I was out on the prairie in Minot, North Dakota, for not quite two years, from August 1987 to the end of June 1989. That makes 1988 the only full year I spent there, living in the front end of a duplex on a quiet street not all that far from the state university where I taught.

That summer was the warmest year since the Dustbowl and droughts of the 1930s, with temperatures routinely topping the hundred-degree mark. With the university not in session, I moved my computer from my home – which had no air conditioning – to my university office and wrote there. My weekday routine during most of that summer was a good one: Mornings, I’d edit and revise the previous day’s production, and late afternoons and evenings, I’d go back to the office and write new material, working on a novel with a writing partner in Minnesota and another one that was solely my creation. (The first has never been finished, though work resumed on it during this past year; the second was finished in 1989 but has never been published.)

For some reason, the state of North Dakota allowed its university faculty members to take their salaries over the nine months that school was in session or spread out over only eleven months. That second option meant that at the end of the summer, there would be one month with no income, and for those whose budgeting skills were challenged – and here I raise my hand without hesitation – that meant finding another source of income during that last month of summer. Accordingly, I found myself in the office of a temporary staffing firm, being interviewed by a young woman.

She glanced over my application and smiled brightly. “Now,” she said, “tell me about yourself. What specialized training have you had?”

I thought for a moment. I’d been a public relations writer, a reporter, an editor, and I’d taught all those things at one time or another. I’d also taught the history of journalism. As I finished my mental cataloguing, I chuckled. The young woman looked askance at me, the wattage of her smile dimming a little.

“I’m a journalist,” I said. “Beyond that, I have no specialized training.”

She persevered, still smiling. “What do you do well?”

I smiled back. “I read and write very well.”

Her smile dimmed appreciably, and – as it turned out – she had no place for me to work. Now, reporting is more than just reading and writing, of course. Research and analysis, interviewing techniques, the ability to listen carefully and other skills are essential. But reading and writing are the core skills of a good journalist. And I was being honest.

I wound up spending fifteen days late that summer doing telephone sales, calling individuals in Minot who’d expressed an interest one way or another in joining a health club, trying to sell them memberships. I was pretty good at it, but I was relieved when I walked out of that office for the final time, my pocket holding a check large enough to tide me over until I got the first check of the new academic year from the university.

I continued to make the rounds of the flea markets and the garage sales that summer, scavenging LPs wherever I went. I also made plenty of new purchases in stores around Minot and during a quick trip back to St. Cloud in August. It was during that year that music publications like Rolling Stone and others began to publish pieces about the death of the LP in the face of the popularity of the newly marketed CD. I began to find new LPs a little more difficult to find.

As always, the music I did find helped ease my way through the year, providing solace during a year of massive personal and professional challenges, about which nothing more need be said than that they existed.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1988
“Love Me Like a Soldier” by Darden Smith from Darden Smith

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen from Chimes of Freedom

“Silvio” by Bob Dylan from Down In The Groove

“Trouble in the Fields” by Nanci Griffith from One Fair Summer Evening

“Zimbabwe” by Toni Childs from Union

“I’ll Tell Me Ma” Van Morrison & the Chieftains from Irish Heartbeat

“Never Die Young” by James Taylor, Columbia single 07616

“Eternal Flame” by the Bangles, Columbia single 68533

“To Love Is To Bury” by the Cowboy Junkies from The Trinity Session

“Loving Arms” by Livingston Taylor (with Leah Kunkel), Critique single 2486

“Last Night” by the Traveling Wilburys from The Traveling Wilburys

“Let It Roll” by Little Feat from Let It Roll

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, Elektra single 96412

A few notes about some of the recordings and artists:

I’ve shared much of Darden Smith’s early work here. “Love Me Like A Soldier” is from his major label debut, which also includes reworkings of three songs from his first album, Native Soil. This track, I think, is one of the better ones from Darden Smith, which found the Austin-born performer getting some help from such luminaries as Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett.

This version of “Born To Run” is the slowed-down acoustic version that Springsteen performed frequently in the 1980s. In a short story around that time, I described the transition over the years between the two versions like this:

He used to end his concerts with ‘Born to Run,’ guitars and drums and saxophone wailing while the road went by and he and the girl on the cycle roared toward whatever tomorrow would bring them because they knew it had to be better or at least no worse than what they had tonight and the roaring of the cycle that the narrator rode got mixed up with the roar of the crowd at the Boss’s feet and the music pounded and thundered with a noisy momentum that carried the E Street Band and its Boss and the audience in the arena toward some wonderful finish, and baby, we were all born to run.

But when he toured a few years later, at the end of the shows, when the audience might have been ready to rock but when Bruce and the guys with him were ready to go home, he’d play it slow. Solo, with only a quiet acoustic guitar. It was almost thoughtful and sad, and the crowd was quiet. And it was right to do it like that: We had what we had, even if it wasn’t what we all dreamed of. And none of us were running anymore.

Bob Dylan’s Down in the Groove is kind of a ramshackle album, pieced together – or so it seems – from bits and pieces that Dylan found himself with after a series of low-key sessions. It’s an amiable album, but it makes no grand statement – nor any statement at all, actually. Still, it’s a fun album, a mix of originals and covers, and “Silvio” is pretty representative.

Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman were two members of a diverse group of young women who came to prominence in the late 1980s, a group that the observing media carelessly lumped together in the category of New Folkies. Among the others so lumped were Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls. Sometimes the category fit well – as it did with Chapman and the Indigo Girls – and sometimes it didn’t, as with Childs. She was a singer-songwriter, but her work was more ornate and opaque, with production techniques being laid over her swirling songs in a way that didn’t happen with the others. Union was Child’s first release, and to my ears, the parable of “Zimbabwe” is its centerpiece. Two more albums followed: House of Hope in 1991 and The Women’s Boat in 1994. All are well worth finding. The same holds true for the larger output of Tracy Chapman, of course, which to my ears is more rooted in folk than is Childs’ work. From her first self-titled release – “Fast Car” was the first single – through her most recent release, 2005’s Where You Live, Chapman has been firm in calling for change, both internally in her listeners’ hearts and externally in the world in which she and her listeners live. The narrator of “Fast Car” is hopeful but realistic, a posture that seems more reasonable than most. And it was a great radio single, too!

“Let It Roll” is the title track from the first Little Feat album recorded when the group reconvened following the death of founder Lowell George. Some fans were offended by the band’s regrouping, but the fact was that George’s involvement in the band’s efforts had diminished more and more during the years he struggled with the difficulties that finally took his life. Let It Roll is a pretty good album by a group that decided to go on doing what it did best: make music.