Posts Tagged ‘Crowded House’

Defaulting To Random

July 5, 2022

Originally posted December 16, 2009

Today’s post was going to be a look at December 1971. Not that I had any great tale to tell, but I’d recalled a brief anecdote onto which to hang a musical hat.

And the chart – from December 18, 1971 – looked good. I was particularly happy with the presence of “You Are Everything” by the Stylistics and “Superstar (Remember How You Got Where You Are)” by the Temptations. I pulled the vinyl anthologies for both groups and got to work. Regrettably, both pieces of vinyl have skips. At least, I think so. I’m certain the Stylistics track does. Then there’s an odd rhythm at the beginning of the Temptations piece, and I think it’s a skip. I need to dig a little further.

But messing around with those two rips – the two tracks would have been great to share – has taxed my patience, and the brief tale I’m going to resurrect from the last month of 1971 will have to wait. I’m just going to cue up the third track I’d already selected from that week in December 1971 and go more or less random from there. By “more or less,” I mean that there’ll be nothing pre-1950, nothing post-1999, nothing I recall sharing recently, and nothing that might yet end up in the listing for my Ultimate Jukebox.

An update on that project, since it came up: It was relatively easy to find enough records to consider. It’s become quite difficult to pare them down to two hundred. The list right now numbers two hundred and thirty-five, and I hope to get down to two hundred within a week.

A Mostly Random Six-Pack
“So Many People” by Chase, Epic 10806 [1971]
“Maxwell Street Shuffle” by Barry Goldberg from Two Blues Jews [1969]
“Hobo Jungle” by The Band from Northern Lights/Southern Cross [1975]
“Sisters of Mercy” by Judy Collins from Wildflowers [1967]
“In The Light Of Day” by Steve Winwood from Refugees of the Heart [1990]
“Weather With You” by Crowded House from Woodface [1991]

Listening to it today, I’m startled that “So Many People” was essentially unsuccessful. Chase’s “Get It On” went to No. 24 during the summer of 1971, but “So Many People” peaked at No. 81 during the first week of 1972 and then took a week or so to tumble out of sight. And that’s too bad, because from here and now, it was a great horn-band single. But maybe the era of the horn band was ending. A note: I once was silly enough to write that Chase was a group without a guitar player because the review I was looking at mentioned everyone in the group but the lead guitarist. Of course, the group had a guitar player. On this track, it’s Angel South. Others here are Bill Chase, Ted Piercefield, Alan Ware and Jerry Van Blair on trumpets; Phil Porter on organ, Dennis Johnson on bass, Jay Burrid on drums and G.G. Shinn on vocals.

As All-Music Guide notes, Barry Goldberg “was a regular fixture in the white blues firmament of the mid-’60s that seemed to stretch from Chicago to New York.” His name popped up in album credits everywhere, as he played with Harvey Mandel, Mother Earth, the Electric Flag, Jimmy Witherspoon, B.J. Thomas, Maggie Bell, Stephen Stills, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and many more. Two Jews Blues was his own album, and it comes off pretty well, given that he got a lot of his friends to show up and help out. I’m not sure who does the guitar solo on “Maxwell Street Shuffle,” but the guitarists credited at AMG are Mandel, Bloomfield, Duane Allman and Eddie Hinton. (It’s not Allman, according to a Duane Allman discography that’s pretty reliable; the site says that Allman played on one track on the album, “Twice A Man.”)

As much as I love The Band, I’ve never quite figured out how I feel about the album Northern Lights/Southern Cross. Two of the songs on the album – “Acadian Driftwood” and “It Makes No Difference” – are among the group’s best and are so good that the rest of the album seems somehow wanting when taken as a unit. But when other tracks pop up individually – as “Hobo Jungle” did today – they seem better than I remember them being. Which might put The Band in a rare category as a group whose own lesser work still shines when placed next to the best work of a lot of other performers.

I wrote the other week about the albums my sister owned when she was in college, the albums she took with her when she left home. Judy Collins’ Wildflowers was one of them. Collins’ cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” is one of the most evocative tracks on the record; hearing it puts me back into late 1971, the period of time I was going to write about today. It’s evening, and I’m in the rec room in the basement, maybe playing tabletop hockey with Rick and Rob, maybe reading, maybe talking quietly with my first college girlfriend. Collins’ soprano and Cohen’s lyric – enigmatic as it may be – blended so well that “Sisters of Mercy” became one of the songs that made that rec room my refuge.

“In The Light Of Day” was the closing track to Steve Winwood’s Refugees of the Heart, an album that hasn’t been too well-respected over the years: AMG’s William Ruhlmann says, “The key to Steve Winwood’s solo career is inconsistency; Refugees of the Heart was a letdown. The distinction between a great Winwood album and one that’s only okay is dangerously small – it has more to do with performance than composition . . .” I admit to not being blown away when I got the album in 1990 and then again when I found the CD in a budget bin two years ago. But this morning “In The Light Of Day” – essentially a lengthy, grooved prayer – seemed pretty good. The saxophone solo is by Randall Bramblett.

“Weather With You” is one of my favorite Crowded House tunes, but then, CH was a group that rarely did anything I truly dislike. During their heyday – the late 1980s and early 1990s – I heard and read the term “Beatlesque” applied to the New Zealanders so often that it became a cliché instead of meaningful commentary. But “Weather With You” is bright, concise, melodic and infectious, and those are virtues no matter who you’re being compared to.

‘How’

May 9, 2018

So, today we finish our project titled Journalism 101, combing the digital stacks for tunes that have in their titles the various one-word questions that make up the foundation of reporting: Who, what, where, when, why, and how.

It’s finally time to look at ‘how,” and when we sort the 72,000 or so tracks currently in the RealPlayer for that word, we have 1,164 of those tracks remaining. Many, of course, must be discarded.

That includes more than 160 tracks by Howlin’ Wolf, more than 100 tracks from the Old Crow Medicine Show, the soundtracks by Howard Shore from all three films in The Lord of the Rings series, two full albums – Howlin’ and Howlin’ at the Southern Moon – by a group called Delta Moon, the 2005 album titled How To Save A Life by the Fray (except for the title track), full albums by Howdy Moon, Jan Howard, Howie Day, Catherine Howe and Steve Howe, and the wonderful album Showdown! by bluesmen Albert Collins, Robert Cray and Johnny Copeland.

And that’s maybe half of the chaff we have to discard. Still, there’s plenty of grain, and we’re going to let the RealPlayer decide, ordering the tracks by time, setting the cursor in the middle and going random four times.

We start with a track from one of the two acclaimed country rock albums Gram Parson recorded in the early 1970s. (He called his stuff “Cosmic American Music”). “How Much I’ve Lied” come from the 1973 release GP, and it’s a weeper, with Parsons telling the object of his affections that he’s an unworthy and dishonest rascal:

A thief can only steal from you, he cannot break your heart
He’ll never touch the precious things inside
So one like you should surely be miles and miles away from me
Then you’d never care how much I’ve lied

I’ve never liked a lot of Parsons’ stuff. With the Byrds, with the Flying Burrito Brothers and on his own, he got all the notes right, but seemed to miss the feel of the music more often than not. Maybe if I’d heard his work back when it came out, if the music Parsons made with those two groups and on his own had been my introduction to the genre, I’d feel differently. But from where I listen, the music of the short-lived and admittedly tragic Parsons falls short of country glory.

We leap ahead to the 1990s and a far different aesthetic: “How Will You Go” by Crowded House, with the close harmonies and musical production values that meant that nearly every review of the group’s work during the late 1980s and early 1990s included the word “Beatlesque.” The track comes from the group’s 1991 album Woodface, one that I had on cassette about the time it came out. I don’t know it as well as the group’s self-titled 1986 debut album, but I recall liking Woodface on those 1990s evenings on Pleasant Avenue when I turned to the stack of cassettes on my bookshelf instead of the bins of LPs on the floor. I can’t say I noticed “How Will You Go” back then, but it’s pleasant enough listening, though the lyrics seem a bit uncertain in direction. The track includes a surprise tack-on of about a minute of “I’m Still Here,” not noted on early track listings.

And courtesy of the massive Lost Jukebox project we get a nifty, poppy 1970 tune called “Teach Me How” by the Harmony Grass. The record, according to the notes at a site that catalogs all 170 volumes of the LJ (each with, I would guess, more than twenty-five tracks), was a United Kingdom release on RCA Victor. It’s got a nice backing track, it’s got tastefully stacked vocals with some Four Seasons flourishes, and its tale is one of a young man imploring his loved one to teach him how to survive when she leaves him: “You are my shoulder to lean on. What will I do when you’re gone?” Written by Neil Sedaka and Carol Bayer (before she appended the Sager), the record is a gender-flipped cover of a Chiffons B-side from 1968. Today, we’d call the tale one of dysfunction and co-dependence, I suppose, but I would have liked it if I’d heard it come from the speakers of my old RCA radio in 1970.

Our last stop is a familiar one: “You Don’t Know How It Feels” by Tom Petty. Pulled from the 1994 album Wildflowers, a single release went to No. 13 in the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy for Rock Male Vocal. I’ve never written much about the late Mr. Petty, though I like a lot of his work, including this one. So let’s just listen:

‘Cast Your Dancing Spell My Way . . .’

October 10, 2013

So how many covers are out there of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Who knows?

There are sixty versions – including Dylan’s – listed at Second Hand Songs. There are more than 500 mp3s – with much duplication – offered at Amazon. Beyond that, I’ve found covers at YouTube not listed in either place.

(I checked at both BMI and ASCAP, as I’m not sure which organization administers Dylan’s songs. I found no listings for Dylan at either place, which eithers means I’m doing something wrong while searching or his compositions are administered elsewhere. Either way, it’s no help.)

The listing at Second Hand Songs starts with Dylan’s original and the Byrds’ ground-breaking cover in 1965 and goes on to the 2012 version by Jack’s Mannequin, which was included in the four-CD set Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. The first cover listed after the Byrds’ cover is a 1965 misspelled offering of “Mr. Tambourin Man” from a group called the Finnish Beatmakers. Except for the Finnish accent – which I kind of like – it’s a copy of the Byrds’ version, starting right from the guitar introduction.

And that’s the case for many of the covers I’ve listened to this week: they’re warmed-over fowl. One of the few with an original sound came, interestingly, from Gene Clark, one of the members of the Byrds when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.” His version of the Dylan tune – with a reimagined (and very nice, to my ears) introduction – was included on his 1984 album, Firebyrd.

The originator of the Byrds’ classic guitar lick, Roger McGuinn, shows up on a 1989 version of the tune recorded live in Los Angeles with Crowded House. As might be expected in that circumstance, it’s pretty much a copy of the Byrds’ version, with the Finn brothers et al. backing McGuinn.

Other early versions of note came from the Brothers Four and Johnny Rivers in 1965, from a young Stevie Wonder (with, one assumes, the Funk Brothers behind him), the Lettermen, the Beau Brummels and Noel Harrison in 1966, and from the Leathercoated Minds and Kenny Rankin in 1967. Versions from 1966 that I’d like to hear came from Billy Lee Riley and Duane Eddy. Odetta, as might be expected, offered an idiosyncratic and austere take on the tune in 1965.

Easy listening folks got hold of the tune, too. Billy Strange is listed at Second Hand Songs as having recorded a cover in 1965; I haven’t found that one (though my digging is not yet done), but I did find an easy listening version – with banjo, no less – recorded in 1965 by the Golden Gate Strings. And Johnny Harris & His Orchestra recorded the tune for the Reader’s Digest’s Up, Up & Away collection, which seems to have been released in 1970.

Speaking of banjo, the bluegrass/country duo of Flatt & Scruggs took on the song for their 1968 album, Changin’ Times. It’s nicely arranged with some nice harmonica in the background, but they’re too, well, square for the song, and that’s true right from the start, when they drop the “ain’t” and sing “there is no place I’m goin’ to.”

We’ll look at a few more versions of the tune – some of them quite nice – next week, but we’ll close today with a foreign language version of the tune. (Did you honestly think I would not drop one of those in?) Titled “Hra tampuurimies,” it’s a 1990 version from the irresistibly named Finnish group Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung.

Time To Rake Some Leaves

June 1, 2012

Originally posted on April 17, 2009

Our home sits on a fairly large lot, probably the equivalent of half a city block, as a guess. The other day, as I wandered across the lawn, I counted thirty-four oak trees. And there are a few others: one ash tree, some evergreens and two elms that have somehow managed to survive the ravages of Dutch elm disease. And there’s still room for a few shrubs. It’s a pretty good-sized patch of ground for one house in the city.

A couple of weeks ago, after winter retreated and the snow disappeared, the Texas Gal and I looked out at the leaves that had been buried under the snow and the branches that had fallen during the winter. It was quite a mess. And she, with the burden of work and school, and I, with my lame leg, looked at each other. “We need to get some rakes,” she said.

I nodded glumly. For some reason, there are few chores of yard work quite as daunting to me as raking. If I could stand to be in the exhaust fumes, I wouldn’t mind mowing the lawn. (As it happens, though, the fumes from almost any engine put me to sleep.) I won’t mind watering the few flowers we’ll have this summer, and a small vegetable plot, if we decide to invest in some peppers and tomatoes. (Of course, having been apartment dwellers, we’ll need to get gardening tools and a hose. We are lamentably unprepared for tending our garden.)

But the thought of trying to rake a lawn as large as ours filled me with something close to despair. It needed to be done, I agreed. I wondered if we should call our landlord and ask what’s been done in other years. We could, the Texas Gal said. Or we could go ahead and start working, little bits by little bits, and if our landlord showed up to clear the leaves, well, he’d know we had some initiative and that we care about the place.

So one of the tasks scheduled for this weekend is a trip to Handyman’s, our nifty East Side hardware store, for a rake. As it turns out, we won’t have to do the entire lawn. Late the other afternoon, as the Texas Gal came home from work, our landlord pulled up into the driveway with his lawn tractor, and he spent a couple of hours clearing the leaves and branches. The lawn looks pretty good, with the grass beginning to green.

We’ll still need a rake. There are still leaves packed into the flower beds, and there are a few piles of leaves close to the house that we’ll have to deal with. And I imagine we’ll soon make some decisions about what we might want to tend in our garden this summer.

A Six-Pack for Yard & Garden
“Sticks & Stones” by Joe Cocker from Mad Dogs & Englishmen [1970]
“Tall Trees” by Crowded House from Woodface [1991]
“Grazing in the Grass” by Hugh Masekela, Uni 55066 [1968]
“Leaves That Are Green” by Simon & Garfunkel from Sounds of Silence [1966]
“Wildflowers” by Tom Petty from Wildflowers [1994]
“Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James & the Shondells, Roulette 7028 [1968]

“Sticks & Stones” is Cocker’s live cover of the Ray Charles tune from 1960, with Leon Russell and the best big rock band ever assembled racing Cocker to see who can get to the end of the song first.

I’ve heard/read the label “Beatlesque” attached so many times to the 1980s and 1990s work of Crowded House that it’s ceased to mean anything. (I acknowledge that I may have attached said label to said work myself and thus contributed to my own confusion.) If the label is shorthand for “concise, melodic songs that insinuate themselves into the listener’s brain and heart,” then the label-users have it right.

I’ve written before about working at the state trapshoot, sitting in the little concrete hut and putting targets on the machine while listening to the radio. I wasn’t entirely familiar with everything I heard during my first trapshoot in 1968, but the cowbell announcing Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” soon became a familiar and welcome sound. And I imagine I had a few chances to hear it over the four days I sat there: The record was No. 1 for two weeks in late July, right about the time of the trapshoot.

I’m actually not that big a fan of either the Simon & Garfunkel or Tom Petty tracks offered here. There’s nothing particularly wrong with either song or either record. In the case of “Leaves That Are Green,” I think I overdosed on the song during my early days of listening to Simon & Garfunkel, and in the case of the Petty tune, it came along at a time when I wasn’t listening to his stuff. In addition, both S&G and Petty had so many offerings that were better than these two. But these two had titles that fit into today’s package.

The occasionally cryptic lyric of “Crimson and Clover” fit in perfectly in the late 1960s and is still kind of goofily fun today. The record was one of several big hits for James and the Shondells (“Hanky Panky,” “ Mony Mony,” “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” as well as “Draggin’ the Line” for James on his own), and it spent a couple weeks at No. 1 in February 1969. Beyond the lyric, some of the record’s other vestiges of the time, like the phasing, might not have aged as well. Still, as I said, it’s fun.

Reposts
Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars [1977]
Levon Helm by Levon Helm [1978]
American Son by Levon Helm [1980]
Levon Helm by Levon Helm [1982]
Original post here.

Dinner’s On Me!

March 29, 2012

How about a five-course meal?

“Cheese & Crackers” by Rosco Gordon is our appetizer. This disjointed, stop-and-start track from 1956 came to me on the two-CD set The Legendary Story of Sun Records, and I admit it’s confused me. At points it sounds like classic rock ’n’ roll, at other moments I hear rockabilly (and neither of those would be startling for Sun Records in 1956) and then I hear something else. A hint of what that is might come from a comment on Gordon by Bryan Thomas at All-Music Guide:

Rosco Gordon was best known for being one of the progenitors of a slightly shambolic, loping style of piano shuffle called “Rosco’s Rhythm.” The basic elements of this sound were further developed after Jamaican musicians got a hold of 45s Gordon recorded in the early ’50s – which were not available to Jamaicans until 1959 – and created ska, which took its name for the sound of this particular shuffle as it sounded being played on an electric guitar (ska-ska-ska).

“Soup For One” by Chic is the soup course. It’s a fairly straightforward serving from the R&B/disco group that producers and musicians Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers loosed on the world in the late 1970s. While not nearly as propulsive as “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” or “Le Freak” from their early days, “Soup For One” glides nicely across the floor. The 1982 release – the title song from the movie Soup For One – went to No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 14 on the R&B chart), the last charting single for the group.

“Poke Salad Annie” by Little Milton is the salad course for those who prefer greens. It’s a fine cover of the Tony Joe White swamp song from Little Milton’s 1994 album, I’m A Gambler. There’d been a time when Little Milton was a pretty regular presence on the charts, with thirteen records in or near the Hot 100 between 1965 and 1972 and twenty-one records on the R&B chart between 1962 and 1976. Even when the hits dried up, though, Little Milton kept on working, releasing twenty-three more albums from 1981 until 2005, when he passed on at the age of 70. And no, I don’t know why Little Milton (or whoever made the decision) spelled the song “Poke Salad Annie” instead of the original title of “Polk Salad Annie.” Makes no difference; Little Milton kills it.

“Memphis Women & Chicken” by T. Graham Brown is our main course. I mentioned Brown’s version of the Dan Penn song a couple of years ago, when I wrote about all the songs I have that mention Memphis in their titles. Greasy, juicy and a little bit sly, this track from Brown’s 1998 album Wine Into Water is a tasty main dish for this musical dinner. I’ve only heard a little bit of Brown’s work – one full CD and a few other tracks – but his name is high on my list of artists to listen to further.

“Chocolate Cake” by Crowded House is one of our two dessert choices. Even though it’s snarky and surreal, this track from 1991’s Woodface nevertheless has that Crowded House sound to it, a glossy finish that the Finn brothers lay on most everything I’ve ever heard from them. The pop culture references date the song considerably, placing it in a post-Soviet and pre-9/11 niche, which makes its ironic shadings seem like more of a pose than anything thoughtful. Or maybe the record was itself an ironic comment on post-Soviet irony. And then again, it might have been just a record.

“Ice Cream” by Sarah McLachlan is our alternate dessert. What better way to close out dinner than with a light, jazzy and sweet love song? “Your love is better than ice cream . . . It’s a long way down to the place where we started from,” McLachlan sings. “Your love is better than chocolate.” That’s pretty damned good, and with this sweet tune from 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, our meal is over. I’ll take care of the bill.

A Baker’s Dozen for the Texas Gal

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 26, 2007

Sometimes the Texas Gal and I look at each other and marvel that we ever met, that our lives took the turns they did to bring us together, first in a small corner of the Internet and then – in a leap that took courage and faith for both of us – in a small corner of Minnesota.

Other times, we smile and acknowledge that, well, where else could we have ended up? As I’ve written before, we find the places and the people we are meant to find, no matter how crooked our paths might have been. And she and I are where we belong.

We’re not young, but there were reasons – ones we’ll never know – that our meeting was delayed until midlife. We find solace in knowing that the lives we led before we met are what made us each who we are. Those lives – we hope – have provided us with some level of wisdom that has guided us during the seven years we’ve known each other and will continue to guide us.

If this sounds solemn, it is. This afternoon, we’re going to go down to the courthouse, where we’ll formalize the marriage that took place long ago in our hearts. It’s something we’ve been planning to do for a while, and it’s time.

So here are some of the songs that have been important to us during the past seven years (with one ringer that I threw in). This is a Baker’s Dozen for the Texas Gal, who from today on will be my wife.

“Loving Arms” by Darden Smith from Little Victories, 1993

“Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer from Sixpence None the Richer, 1998

“Rest of My Days” by Indigenous from Circle, 2000

“Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, Capitol single 5614, 1988

“I Knew I Loved You” by Savage Garden from Affirmation, 1999

“If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen from Lucky Town, 1992

“Precious and Few” by Climax, Carousel single 30055, 1971

“Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden from Savage Garden, 1997

“This Kiss” by Faith Hill from Faith, 1998

“Levee Song” by Darden Smith from Little Victories, 1993

“Two of Us” by the Beatles from Let It Be…Naked (recorded 1969)

“Wedding Song” by Tracy Chapman from Telling Stories, 2000

“Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison from Moondance, 1970

A Baker’s Dozen From 1986

May 12, 2011

Originally posted October 10, 2007

Well, 1986.

In late 1992, as the year was nearing its end, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth characterized it as the annus horribilis, or horrible year. As 1986 turned into 1987, I felt the same way.

The year had started all right. A consortium of weekly newspaper publishers for whom I’d been covering government in Wright County as a freelancer had decided in December, not unexpectedly, not to continue the arrangement into the new year. And as January approached, I sought new employment. It wasn’t urgent, as I was married at the time and had been house-husbanding while I was a freelancer. But I wanted to get back into the workforce on a more substantial basis.

I was already teaching one course – a weekly night class: Introduction to Mass Communication – at St. Cloud State, so in mid-January I drove from Monticello to St. Cloud and the campus to nose around for possible additional jobs there. I dropped in at the university’s public relations office, where the director was a long-time family acquaintance. (My father had retired only two years earlier after thirty-three years as a teacher and administrator.) He took my resume and told me, regretfully, that he didn’t foresee any openings in his operations.

The next day he called. The main writer in his office had given him a week’s notice, and he wondered if I would fill in while a search began for her replacement. He added that I could certainly apply for the permanent position. So the following Monday, the last in January, I began to commute to St. Cloud every day. The thirty-mile drive, I learned, gave me time to organize my day in the morning, and time to wind down from it in the evening.

On my second day in the public relations office, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated in the Florida sky just more than a minute after it was launched. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but that horrible event can be seen in retrospect as an omen. In about May, my life – not a bad one at the time, as these things go – began to disintegrate as well, unraveling at the seams like a poorly sewn garment.

I don’t want to rehash the events of 1986, and I don’t want to bore anyone else with them. Let it suffice to say that by the end of the year, I could sit in my easy chair in Monticello and see, figuratively, the tatters of my life on the floor. It took a long time to clean up the mess and an even longer time – with a couple of false starts – to create a new garment in which to live my life.

So I wasn’t listening much to music in 1986, having other things on my mind. And in retrospect, that was good. If I had been attentive to music, then many of the tunes from the year would carry a layer of grief with them and would be nearly intolerable to hear even today. As it turned out, I generally absorbed the music of 1986 at a later date, so listening to the year’s music is not an unhappy exercise.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1986

“Welcome to the Boomtown” by David & David, A&M single 2857

“Precious Memories” by Bob Dylan from Knocked Out Loaded

“I Ain’t Drunk” by Albert Collins from Cold Snap

“Shanghai Surprise” by George Harrison with Vicki Brown, Shanghai Surprise soundtrack

“All I Need Is A Miracle” by Mike & the Mechanics, Atlantic single 89450

“Under African Skies” by Paul Simon from Graceland

“Amanda” by Boston, MCA single 52756

“West End Girls” by Pet Shop Boys, EMI America single 8307

“The Spirit” by the Moody Blues from The Other Side Of Life

“Something So Strong” by Crowded House, Capitol single 5695

“Still Around” by Robert Cray from Strong Persuader

“Mercy Street” by Peter Gabriel from So

“The Way It Is” by Bruce Hornsby & the Range from The Way It Is

A few notes on some of the songs:

“Welcome to the Boomtown” is one of the best singles that I think almost everyone forgets about. Its atmosphere, its story and its production values all sparkle as it tells its tale of dissolution, ennui and despair in the big city. Although Columbia, Missouri – which I’d left in 1985 – was no double for L.A., the reference to Denny’s always makes me think of the Denny’s along the freeway in Columbia. I would occasionally stop by for a late-night omelet, and the cast of characters I saw regularly there could easily populate a story set in any city about lives whirling into hard habits and out of control.

The Bob Dylan track is one of the lesser songs from one of his lesser albums. I had hoped that if a track from Knocked Out Loaded popped up during the random run, it would be “Brownsville Girl,” the eleven-minute epic Dylan wrote with playwright Sam Shepard. That track contains two of the more fascinating, disruptive and frankly strange verses ever to appear in a Dylan song:

“Well, we crossed the panhandle and then we headed towards Amarillo.
“We pulled up where Henry Porter used to live. He owned a wreckin’ lot outside of town about a mile.
“Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back. She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust.
“She said, ‘Henry ain’t here but you can come on in, he’ll be back in a little while.’
 
“Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin’ of bummin’ a ride back to where she started.
“But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up.
“She said, ‘Welcome to the land of the living dead.’ You could tell she was so broken-hearted.
“She said, ‘Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt.’”

Sounds like Bob Dylan meets Sam Shepard to me.

If you don’t recall “Shanghai Surprise” even though you’re old enough to do so, that’s not really startling. It was the title tune to a film starring Madonna and Sean Penn, then newlyweds. George Harrison’s Handmade Films produced it, which is how the one-time Beatle ended up doing the soundtrack, which was never released as an album. There are a few single-sided 45s of the title tune out there, selling for more than $1,000. “Shanghai Surprise,” along with “Zig-zag,” a song from the film that had been released as the b-side of the single “When We Was Fab,” ended up as bonus tracks on a 2004 CD reissue of Harrison’s 1987 album, Cloud Nine.

“Amanda” came from Third Stage, Boston’s long-awaited and long-delayed third album. In general, I have little affection for the music labeled arena rock. Boston, however, I like, and “Amanda” may be my favorite track by the group. Listening to it today for the first time in a while, though, I hear echoes of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” from three years earlier.

The Robert Cray tune is an album track from Strong Persuader, the record that made Cray famous and, to my mind, signaled the blues boom that was to come in the 1990s. Cray’s R&B-tinged blues have aged well.

I was glad to see something from Peter Gabriel’s So show up during the random run. I was never much of a fan of Genesis, so I was surprised by the depth and beauty of the album. Even twenty-one years after its release, it remains fresh and truly beautiful at points, which is a rare thing.

‘. . . And The Red Light Was My Mind’

September 8, 2010

The first bit of a Robert Johnson song I ever heard, I once theorized, was the short excerpt of “Come On In My Kitchen” that started off “49 Bye-Byes” on the album Crosby, Stills & Nash. I can’t put a specific date on when I heard it, but I know I got the album in early May of 1971.

Nor, it turns out, can I put a precise date to the first time I heard one of Johnson’s song performed in its entirety. I do, however, remember the circumstances. It was a Friday in the spring of 1972, almost certainly April. I headed out for some record shopping that evening, no doubt beginning at Axis, the store on St. Germain – St. Cloud’s main street – that stocked a good selection of new and used LPs as well as leather coats, hats and other goods. I went pretty quickly to the used records.

It should be remembered that in the spring of 1972, I was still catching up on about eight years of pop and rock history. I’d listened pretty consistently to Top 40 music during my last two years of high school, and had caught up then on some things I’d missed. I’d spent a good deal of my first year of college hanging around the campus radio station, and now I was digging into albums, trying again to catch up at least a little, this time with my radio station colleagues and my buddies in the dorms.

And in the bins at Axis, I found a record with a strange cover: It showed a flat landscape, and in the foreground there was a leaping, grinning man dressed in white, a guitar in each hand and an absurd Uncle Sam hat topping things off. To his right was a donkey laden with a drum set and another guitar. The record was, of course, ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out’, subtitled The Rolling Stones in concert.

Well. I knew of the Rolling Stones, of course. Like the Beatles, the Supremes and a few other performers and groups, they’d been an inescapable portion of the musical landscape through the years when my peers listened to Top 40 and I had my ears still tuned elsewhere. I might not have known the names of all the Stones’ hits from the years before I began listening, but I knew the records. And I knew “Honky Tonk Women,” the single that had been No. 1 for the first four weeks of my tenure as a football manager during my junior year of high school.

Intrigued, I turned the record over and scanned the titles. There was “Honky Tonk Women” on the second side. Other than that, I sheepishly admit, I recognized only one title: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But I didn’t know the Stones’ version well. My best knowledge of the song came through Leon Russell’s performance of it during the Concert for Bangladesh; I’d gotten that box set for Christmas. Given those two bits of familiarity – and my knowledge that the Rolling Stones were important and thus it was important for me to know more about them – I took the record to the counter. The price tag is still on the front of the record, some thirty-eight years later. I paid $1.99 for it.

Anxious to show off my find to a buddy or two, I stopped at St. Cloud State’s Stearns Hall on my way home. I found my pal Dave and his girlfriend hanging around in his room, and they chuckled when they saw “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” listed on the back; I’d made no secret of my admiration for Leon Russell’s performance. Dave cued up the record, and we listened to that track, the first on the record. After that, as it was obvious I’d interrupted something that Dave and his girl wanted to resume, I took my record and headed home.

And in the basement rec room, I cued up the record once again and listened to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Chuck Berry’s “Carol” and “Stray Cat Blues.” I was pleased but puzzled. This wasn’t the Rolling Stones that I remembered from the radio. Keep in mind, first, that I only vaguely recalled the Stones’ studio version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and that I’d not heard the album tracks from Beggar’s Banquet. Secondly, since no singles from it had reached the Top 40, I’d likely never heard anything from Let It Bleed. And there was no way that “Honky Tonk Women” – the only Stones’ song I knew at all well – could have prepared me for this earthy and bluesy music.

Then came the introduction to “Love In Vain.” And I heard an entire Robert Johnson song for the first time. I stared at the floor as Mick Jagger bit off the desolate words and I stared at the stereo across the room as Mick Taylor took his slide solo, and then I heard Jagger sing about the blue light and the red light, all of it pulling me along into the blues.

I didn’t stay there long that time; I was eighteen. In later years, of course, I’d delve deeply into the blues and wander through all the genres, including blues rock. Much of that later exploration opened another world to me – especially the larger-than-life work of Howlin’ Wolf – but I’m not sure I’ve ever been pulled into a song as deeply as I was that evening when I heard “Love In Vain” for the first time.

(I should note that when I first heard the Stones’ live version of “Love In Vain,” it wasn’t listed as a Robert Johnson composition; the album credits said the song was “Traditional arr. Jagger/Richard.” I’m not sure when the songwriting credit was changed – I’d guess the early 1990s – but the 2002 reissue of the CD credits the song to Johnson.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 33
“Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White from Black and White [1969]
“Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones from ‘Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out’ [1970]
“Love Train” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3524 [1972]
“December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the 4 Seasons, Warner/Curb 8168 [1976]
“Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978]
“Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House from Crowded House [1986]

Talk about another world! The swamp rock of Tony Joe White was unlike pretty much anything else in the Top 40 during the last weeks of August 1969, when “Polk Salad Annie” went to No. 8. (Creedence Clearwater Revival had two songs in the Top 40, but I think Tony Joe came from a little deeper in the swamp.) The bluesy tale of the gal whose mama was workin’ on a chain gang intrigued me whenever I heard it coming out of the radio speakers, especially White’s growled introduction and his spoken interjections. Of course, I didn’t do anything about it: I never bought the single, and I didn’t get the album that was home to the single – Black and White – until sometime in the 1990s. But I still love the record. “Polk Salad Annie” brought White his only hit, although he continues to perform and record; his most recent album, The Shine, came out earlier this year.

When the O’Jays called us out to the station in 1972, I’m not sure that anyone who heard the infectious “Love Train” didn’t want to get on board. As I detailed the other day when I wrote about “Back Stabbers,” the group had seen singles move into the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B chart for years before Top 40 success arrived. And arrive it did: “Love Train” went to No. 1, and was No. 1 for four weeks on the R&B chart as well. The group would hit the Top 40 seven more times before the string of hits ended in 1980. (The hits on the R&B and related charts continued, and as recently as 2004, the O’Jays had a track – “Make Up” – get to No. 74 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart.)

I was sitting at The Table at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center in early 1976 when the 4 Season’s “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” came on the jukebox. My friend Stu shook his head. “Man,” he said, “what a great bass line. One of the best ever.” I took that judgment under advisement, and over the years, I’ve polished it to the point where I credit the 4 Seasons’ hit – it was No. 1 for three weeks – with having the best pop music bass line ever. And it is the bass line that moves the song along as it tells its tale of a one-night stand. The 4 Seasons had thirty Top 40 hits between 1962 and 1976 (with a dance remix of “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” going to No. 14 in 1994 for a thirty-first hit). But “December 1963” is the only one that does anything at all for me.

“Badlands” was the first Bruce Springsteen song I recall hearing. As I’ve noted before, I was aware of the hoopla surrounding Born To Run when it came out in 1975, but I don’t recall ever hearing the title track on the radio (which is odd, as it went to No. 23). I suppose I heard it but didn’t pay much attention. But I do remember hearing “Badlands” one day when I was working for the Monticello newspaper. My boss had a new Suburban, which we used to bring the 3,000 or so copies of each weekly edition back from the printer in a town ten miles away. One Wednesday during the summer of 1978, it was my job to drive to Buffalo, put the final touches on the newspaper and then bring back the finished product. One of the benefits of driving the Suburban was the FM radio, something my vehicle did not have. So after I started the Suburban, I tuned it to KQRS, an album-rock station in the Twin Cities, and the first thing I heard was Max Weinberg’s brief drum riff and then – I had the volume turned up high – the crash of “Badlands,” with its stinging, octave-jumping guitar riff and Clarence Clemons’ own defiant solo. Over the years, because of that moment and because of its musical and lyrical toughness, “Badlands” has remained one of my favorite Springsteen songs. It just missed the Top 40, peaking at No. 42 in the Billboard Hot 100, but it deserved better, if for no other reason than the line: “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

We’d had a spat one day, the Texas Gal and I. It was the summer of 2000: She was still living and working in the Dallas area, and I was living in my apartment on Minneapolis’ Bossen Terrace, a half-block from the international airport. I don’t recall what the argument was about, but troubled, I tried to think of a way to apologize without interrupting her during a busy afternoon. I wasn’t quite certain she wanted to talk to me at the moment, anyway. As I sat at my computer, my RealPlayer settled on a Crowded House tune, one that I liked a fair amount. It had been a No. 2 hit in early 1987, but I recalled it from my second year in Minot; one of the young women who edited the Minot State yearbook brought mixtapes in for the yearbook production sessions, and the sounds of those mixtapes came unavoidably through my door into my office. Happily, I’d liked most of the tunes I’d thus heard, including the Crowded House record that was now playing. As the song went on and I worried about how the Texas Gal felt after our argument, I opened my Yahoo! messenger and changed my status to: “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I knew that the program – which she also had on her computer at work – would alert her to my change of status. A few moments later, I got an alert that her status had also changed. I don’t recall the exact wording – and neither does she – but her message was reassuring. And since that day, “Don’t Dream It’s Over” – a beautifully written, performed and produced piece of pop music – has been one of our favorite songs.