Posts Tagged ‘Joni Mitchell’

Learning To Drive

May 6, 2022

Originally posted July 6, 2009

I’ve written a bit about cars here: the 1961 Falcon I called Farley, the first car I owned part of and the one that took Rick, Gary and me to Winnipeg in 1972; my dad’s 1952 Ford, and a few others. (I have yet to tell the tale of Toby the Toyota; someday, perhaps.)

Something this weekend reminded me, however, not so much of cars but of driver’s education, that horrible process required before I could sit behind the wheel of any car on my own. I took the course forty years ago this summer, in 1969.

I was not a good driving student. I got flustered easily. That made my behind-the-wheel training – driving around St. Cloud in an auto owned by the school district and very clearly marked “Student Driver” – a less-than-pleasant experience (for me and, I assume, for my instructor as well). Every Wednesday evening, for five or so weeks, two other students and I would take turns driving around the city, turning, merging, driving down ramps and trying to master parallel parking. I was expert at none of those things.

I did get practice between those weekly sessions. On weekends and during other evenings, my dad would get in the passenger seat beside me in our 1964 Ford, and we’d head out across the railroad tracks to a triangular course he’d determined a few years earlier when my sister was learning to drive. I’d drive along the roads, practicing accelerating and braking – I can still hear Dad holler “brake-brake-brake-brake-brake!” – and turning. After a few times around the triangle, he’d have me turn into a driveway and back out the other way, so I could practice left turns instead of right turns.

It’s funny: I hadn’t thought for years of the triangle route we drove during those evenings. But the lot on which we now live borders two of those three streets. I can see one of them from my study window. And I marvel, forty years later, at my dad’s ability to ride along as I slowly learned to drive and to be comfortable doing so. His patience was, I now know, remarkable. Around the triangle we went, time and time again, and he may have been as frustrated as I was, but he was always willing.

I passed the driver’s education course that summer, the summer before I turned sixteen. Shortly after my birthday, I went downtown, not far from the courthouse, and took my driver’s test. I passed the written test but failed the road test – mostly, I think, because I was nervous. I finally passed on the fifth try, just after I turned seventeen. And a little more than a year later, my long procession of cars began with Farley, that 1961 Falcon.

A Six-Pack of Cars

“Back Seat of My Car” by Percy Thrillington from Thrillington [1977]
“Stolen Car” by Bruce Springsteen from The River [1980]
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” by Billy Ocean, Jive 9678 [1988]
“Car On A Hill” by Joni Mitchell from Court and Spark [1974]
“She Has Funny Cars” by Jefferson Airplane from Surrealistic Pillow [1967]
“Strangers In A Car” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn [1991]

Some folks who stop by here will recognize the name of Percy Thrillington. I think his self-titled 1977 album was the only one he released under that name. It’s an instrumental version of Ram, the 1971 album by Paul and Linda McCartney. Now, why the world needed an instrumental version of Ram is an open question. The answer resides in mind of Mr. Thrillington, who is far better known around the world as Paul McCartney himself. Released with little note six years after it was recorded, the album is quite valuable in the collector’s market; the CD, released and then deleted shortly afterward, is also a collector’s item.

“Stolen Car” is another one of Springsteen’s tales of regular folks caught in lives gone off-track. I wonder sometimes if all those tales in song – “Hungry Heart” comes to mind soonest, but there are many of them in Springsteen’s catalog – are metaphors for a culture that lost its way some years ago and continues to wander astray, or are they just story songs. I’m sure Springsteen’s been asked, and I don’t know what his answer has been or would be. I’d say they’re both metaphor and story, but that’s just me.

I still like the Billy Ocean single, but not nearly as much as I did twenty years ago. Its production sounds dated and over-bearing. But it’s still catchy, with a still-great hook. The record was the last of Ocean’s six Top Ten hits, spending two weeks at No. 1.

“Car On A Hill” is one of those songscapes that Joni Mitchell has put together so expertly during her career, but especially during the early 1970s. With a swooping and slightly cluttered instrumental break, the song sets a mood more than tells a story. As I listened to it again this morning, the words “watercolor landscape” kept coming back to me, and that’s as good a description as any today. The only other thing I can say is that this morning, “Car On A Hill” sounds like 1974 felt.

The drumbeats and then the guitar figure that open Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” put me squarely in the basement rec room in the house I grew up in. Surrealistic Pillow was one of the few albums my sister owned during those years, and I have no idea how often she played it. I played the record a lot, however, and it became one of my favorites. I’m a little amused by how mellow the entire album seems now; at the time, it seemed like a sonic explosion.

“Strangers In A Car” has one of the more disconcerting opening verses I can remember. I know the song is a commentary on isolation, but this morning, at least, I was unable to pay much attention to the rest of the song after listening closely to the first verse:

There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street,
Acts like he knows who you are.
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says,
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car.
Might be the one they told you about.

It had been a while since I’d thought much about it, and it left me shaking my head. Are the times that different? Or would the song have been that disconcerting in 1991? I don’t know.

One From 1969

November 9, 2018

The RealPlayer has been offering tunes from 1969 as I looked at some news online this morning, pondering at the same time what I might write about today. With nothing really shiny coming to mind, I guess I’m going to click through at random and when we land on the tenth click, that’s our tune for the day. Here we go!

And we land on Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” from her second album, Clouds:

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I heard
Was a song outside my window, and the traffic wrote the words
It came a-reeling up like Christmas bells and rapping up like pipes and drums
Oh, won’t you stay
We’ll put on the day
And we’ll wear it till the night comes

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I saw
Was the sun through yellow curtains, and a rainbow on the wall
Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you, crimson crystal beads to beckon
Oh, won’t you stay
We’ll put on the day
There’s a sun show every second

Now the curtain opens on a portrait of today
And the streets are paved with passersby
And pigeons fly
And papers lie
Waiting to blow away

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing that I knew
There was milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges, too
And the sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses
Oh, won’t you stay
We’ll put on the day
And we’ll talk in present tenses

When the curtain closes and the rainbow runs away
I will bring you incense owls by night
By candlelight
By jewel-light
If only you will stay
Pretty baby, won’t you
Wake up, it’s a Chelsea morning

Mitchell was not the first to record the song: According to Wikipedia, the first recording of “Chelsea Morning” was likely “its interpretation by Dave Van Ronk on his 1967 album Dave Van Ronk & The Hudson Dusters.” Fairport Convention included the song on the group’s self-titled 1968 debut album, and – again from Wikipedia – Jennifer Warnes recorded it for her 1968 release, I Can See Everything. That version was released as a single, but did not chart.

Clouds was released in May 1969. It went to No. 31 and earned Mitchell a Grammy for Best Folk Album. Reprise released a promo single of Mitchell’s version of “Chelsea Morning” (with “The Fiddle & The Drum” on the B-side), but the record failed to chart. The only charting single of “Chelsea Morning” came from Judy Collins, whose version went to No. 78 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August 1969 (and to No. 25 on the magazine’s Easy Listening chart).

‘Green’

September 12, 2013

So today, in the fourth installment of Floyd’s Prism, we come to “Green,” the “G.” in the famous mnemonic for recalling the colors of the spectrum: “Roy G. Biv.”

The RealPlayer provides a total of 576 mp3s to sort. The first tracks to be trimmed are the sixteen covers of 1960s folk from the fine 1999 collection Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village in the ’60s and the thirteen covers from a similar 2009 album, The Village: A Celebration Of The Music Of Greenwich Village.

We also lose many, if not all, tracks from other albums: The Stone Poneys’ Evergreen, Vol. 2, Dana Wells’ The Evergreen, Steel Mill’s Green Eyed God, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River, Dar Williams’ The Green World, Leo Kottke’s Greenhouse, the Pete Best Band’s Hayman’s Green (yes, that Pete Best; it’s a pretty decent album from 2008), the bluesy Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, the Jayhawks’ Tomorrow the Green Grass and a few others, including Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green, an album featured here not long ago that was made up mostly of home recordings from the early 1970s and released in 2006.

We set aside multiple albums by Al Green and country singer Pat Green, and single albums from songwriter Ellie Greenwich, the 1960s groups Green and Evergreen Blue Shoes, and a 2010 album by a European electropop duo called the Green Children.

We also lose tracks by performers Barbara Greene, Cal Green, Eli Green (with Mississippi Fred McDowell), Grant Green, the Greenwoods, Jackie Green, Johnny Green & The Greenmen, Judy Green, the little known R. Green (of R. Green & Turner, who recorded two blues sides for the J&M Fulbright label in Los Angeles in 1948), Rudy Greene, Rudy Green & His Orchestra, Lorne Green, the marvelously named Slim Green & The Cats From Fresno and, of course, Norman Greenbaum.

And a few songs fall by the wayside because of their titles: Jackie DeShannon’s “The Greener Side,” five mp3s titled “Evergreen” (some with numbers attached and none of them the 1976 Barbra Streisand record), Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” Tony Rice’s “Greenlight on the Southern,” a couple versions of “Greensleeves,” three of “Greenback Dollar,” and six tracks with “Greenwood” in their titles, including the wonderful 1970 single “Greenwood, Mississippi” by Little Richard.

But that leaves us many titles yet to work with. We’ll start with a country favorite of mine from 1993.

I didn’t know about the tune in 1993, of course, as I rarely listened to country music then. (A work friend of mine in those days suggested I give a Brooks & Dunn album a listen; I returned it to him regretfully, not yet ready for boot-scootin’.) But come the year 2000, with the Texas Gal on the scene, I began to catch up at least a little on what I’d been missing. And one evening, as we were passing time watching country music videos on CMT, there came Joe Diffie’s “John Deere Green.” The story of Billy Bob and Charlene and the tall green letters on the water tower amused me, and it touched memories of both summer weeks on my grandpa’s farm and of Gramps’ allegiance to John Deere farm equipment. I don’t follow country closely, but it’s on the radio and the CD player occasionally; it’s not nearly as foreign as it was, thanks mostly to the Texas Gal and at least in part to Diffie’s single (which went to No. 5 on the country chart and to No. 60 on the Billboard Hot 100).

There are five versions of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Bitter Green” in the digital stacks: covers by Ronnie Hawkins, Tony Rice and fellow Canadian folk singer Valdy and studio and live versions by Lightfoot. I like them all but decided to go with Lightfoot’s version from his 1968 album, Back Here On Earth. At the time, Lightfoot was known mostly in the U.S. as a songwriter; his performing career was much stronger in Canada (and that imbalance remained until 1970 or so). “Bitter Green” and the story it tells are vintage Lightfoot: an easily embraced melody backed only by guitar and literate and clear lyrics. He’d go on to great critical and popular success in the 1970s and beyond, but many of his early recordings are still worth close listening. This is one of them.

Gods and Generals, a 2003 film based on a 1996 novel by Jeffrey Schaara, was focused, says Wikipedia, on “the life of Thomas Jonathan ‘Stonewall’ Jackson,” the God-fearing and militarily brilliant yet eccentric Confederate general.” I’ve not seen the film, and perhaps I should, but my interest in Gods and General this morning is the soundtrack, itself notable to me because Bob Dylan’s haunting “’Cross the Green Mountain” is its closing track. In her review of the soundtrack at All Music Guide, Heather Phares notes that Dylan’s contribution “sounds more contemporary than most of the rest of the album, but still has enough rustic warmth to complement it gracefully.” The video to which I’ve linked has a shorter version of the tune than does the soundtrack; the original version, which runs eight-plus minutes, is available on the soundtrack CD and on Dylan’s 2008 release, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8.

Although I try to dig up relatively rare and different tracks when I do sets like this – for Floyd’s Prism or the earlier March Of The Integers – there are times when familiar tracks simply demand to be included. Such is the case with “Green Onions” by Booker T. & The MG’s. The record – familiar and forever fresh – went to No. 3 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1962. In his 1989 book, The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh wrote that “Green Onions” is “what happens when the best backup band in the universe decides it’s time to get noticed.”

In early 2007, a Houston, Texas, music producer named Kevin Ryan went into his home studio and, as Dan Brekke of Salon wrote that April, “engineered a sort of retro mash-up of two of his favorite artists, Bob Dylan and Dr. Seuss. . . . Ryan took the text from seven Seuss classics, including ‘The Cat in the Hat’ and ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ and set them to original tunes that sounded like they were right off Dylan’s mid-’60s releases. He played all the instruments and sang all the songs in Dylan’s breathy, nasal twang. He registered a domain name, dylanhearsawho.com, and in February posted his seven tracks online, accompanied by suitably Photoshopped album artwork, under the title Dylan Hears A Who.” The Salon piece tells the tale of the copyright claims that followed from the folks who own the Dr. Seuss material, examines the copyright issues at hand and notes that the material is still widely available on the ’Net. That’s true, of course, at YouTube, where Ryan’s version of “Green Eggs & Ham” remains a delight.

When Joni Mitchell released Blue in 1971, the lyrics to “Little Green” must have seemed like typically elliptical Joni Mitchell lyrics, telling a story by circling around it with vague hints and references:

Born with the moon in Cancer
Choose her a name she will answer to
Call her green and the winters cannot fade her
Call her green for the children who’ve made her
Little green, be a gypsy dancer

He went to California
Hearing that everything’s warmer there
So you write him a letter and say, “Her eyes are blue”
He sends you a poem and she’s lost to you
Little green, he’s a non-conformer

Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the Northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed
Little green, have a happy ending

Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the Northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

When one reads those lyrics now, in the light of Mitchell’s having given birth to a daughter in 1965 and giving her up for adoption – a tale that became public in 1993 – “Little Green” becomes a heart-breaking piece of work.

From Henry Mancini To MFSB

April 3, 2012

Among the least used books in my musical reference library is Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Top 10 Album Charts, and I’m not entirely sure why. Back in 2008, when I was doing a monthly look at music and events of 1968, I used the book for most of those posts, tracking albums through the year. Since then, however, I’ve rarely pulled it off the shelf.

I think it’s because the book has few surprises. I might not know right offhand what the No. 10 album was during the first week of April in 1970, but when I see that it was Willy and the Poorboys by Creedence Clearwater Revival, I think, “Yeah, that make sense.” Digging in a Top Ten list is not like digging in the Hot 100, where unknown gems reside in the lower depths.

But an occasional dip into the book might be fun, so I thought I’d take a look at the Top Tens from the first week of a few Aprils past. The book begins with Billboard magazine’s first comprehensive album chart in August 1963, so the first April in the book is from 1964. Here’s the Top Ten from April 4 of that year:

Meet the Beatles by the Beatles
Introducing . . . the Beatles by the Beatles
Honey in the Horn by Al Hirt
Hello Dolly! by the Original Cast
The Third Album by Barbra Streisand
In The Wind by Peter, Paul & Mary
Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues by Nancy Wilson
There! I’ve Said It Again by Bobby Vinton
Peter, Paul & Mary by Peter, Paul & Mary
Charade (original soundtrack) by Henry Mancini

The second album on that list is the famous Vee-Jay album, now a valuable collector’s item, especially in stereo, with prices for a near-mint copy reaching as high as $40,000, according to the “Ask ‘Mr. Music’” feature at DigitalDreamDoor.com.  But according to Wikipedia, nearly every circulating copy of the record – and this is especially true for those labeled as stereo – is a counterfeit. That includes the copy that sits on my shelf. Oh, well.

As to that Top Ten itself, it shows the shift underway from middle of the road tunes, show tunes and soundtracks to rock and pop. I have half of those albums on the shelves – the Beatles, Al Hirt and Peter, Paul & Mary – and I’m a little bit interested in hearing the Nancy Wilson record.

As to the others, neither Hello Dolly! nor the Streisand or Vinton records interest me, but being a soundtrack geek, I like Mancini’s work for Charade a lot, especially the title tune. A single release of the title tune had gone to No. 36 earlier in 1964, and the soundtrack album peaked at No. 6 a week later.

Let’s jump ahead five years to the Top Ten albums from the first week of April 1969:

Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell
Blood, Sweat & Tears by Blood, Sweat & Tears
Ball by Iron Butterfly
Goodbye by Cream
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly
Donovan’s Greatest Hits by Donovan
Greatest Hits by the Association
Cloud Nine by the Temptations
Help Yourself by Tom Jones
Bayou Country by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Yes, there was a time when Iron Butterfly ruled the land. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever heard Ball, but I think I had a copy of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida at one time, and I know I had a copy of the group’s live album. Lots of folks did. Whatever Iron Butterfly I had on vinyl, though, I sold long ago. (I do have digital files of the seventeen minute album version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and the single edit as well as the group’s 1970 album, Metamorphosis, which isn’t bad.)

As to the rest, it’s a decent set of records, and they all have a place in my stacks except for the Tom Jones album. I do recall the title track, “Help Yourself,” which went to No. 35 on the singles chart. The album peaked at No. 5.

And we’ll jump another five years to the first week of April 1974:

John Denver’s Greatest Hits by John Denver
Band on the Run by Paul McCartney & Wings
Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell
Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield
The Way We Were by Barbra Streisand
Love Is The Message by MFSB
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John
Rhapsody in White by the Love Unlimited Orchestra
Hotcakes by Carly Simon
The Sting (original soundtrack) by Marvin Hamlisch

Boy, that’s a jumble of stuff. The soundtrack to The Sting was notable for its resurrection of the music of Scott Joplin, and two more of those albums were connected with movies: The title track of the Streisand album was also the title track of the movie in which she starred with Robert Redford, and excerpts from Oldfield’s side-long suites were used in The Exorcist.

Beyond that, folks looking for classic albums could find two, perhaps three here: Band on the Run and Court and Spark are great records, and some will make the argument for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but I’m not sure I’d be persuaded. As long-time readers might anticipate, I’m ambivalent about the John Denver album, and singles are all I really need of MFSB, the Love Unlimited Orchestra and Carly Simon.

Thinking about the way things sound, however, it comes to mind that nothing sounds to me more like 1974 than almost anything from Court and Spark, which peaked at No. 2. We’ll close this brief exercise with the title track.

A Long Overdue Thank You

February 15, 2012

Originally posted February 27, 2009

I don’t really remember much about the day I graduated from St. Cloud State, thirty-three years ago tomorrow. There are pictures in boxes somewhere, showing me in my cap and gown, some taken with my folks and some taken with my girlfriend of the time, but I don’t recall walking across the stage to get my diploma.

I know we went to lunch at a restaurant called The Griffin Room in the Germain Hotel. The building still stands, but it’s condos or apartments now, and the restaurant closed long ago. Beyond that, the day is a blank spot. I imagine I was just relieved to be done with college and done with my internship at a Twin Cities television station. I was ready to get started on my career in television sports.

And a funny thing happened on the way to that career. I never got there. Oh, I tried: I sat at the table in the basement rec room three or four evenings a week, typing letters to television stations in smaller markets in the Upper Midwest, expressing my interest in working for them, should they have any openings in their sports or news departments. (This was, of course, in the days before computers, when every letter had to be typed individually; the letters also had to be error-free and without many erasures and corrections, in order to make the best impression. It was slow work.)

I got a few courteous letters back from news and sports directors. But there was a little something called a recession going on: In the late winter and spring that year, the economy was stalled and advertising revenues at television stations were flat. So hiring an inexperienced kid right out of college wasn’t an attractive way for a news or sports director to use his resources. I did get four interviews that spring: I drove to television stations in Fargo, Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities suburbs. I got no offers, but in Fargo, Rochester and Duluth, the news directors told me that I needed to go back to school and learn how to operate a sixteen-millimeter camera.

These were the days before portable video cameras were widespread; the technology was becoming available, and in a few years, it would become affordable for even stations in small markets. But for the time being, stations used film, and in those small markets, reporters were expected to shoot their own film. I’d focused so much on my writing during college that I’d missed that.

The last of the four interviews was at the Twin Cities station that at the time was an ABC affiliate. I drove into the Minneapolis suburb of Edina very early one day. The sports director was a fellow named George McKenzie (it could have been “Mackenzie,” but I don’t think so). He interviewed me briefly and then handed me a pile of wire stories. He told me to sit down at the typewriter and put together a five-minute sportscast and then go down the hall to the studio, where the cameraman and director were waiting to tape me. I did all that, and then sat in a small room with a cup of coffee, waiting.

George McKenzie came in and sat. “You,” he said, “are a terrific writer, and you have a good memory. You hardly ever looked at your script. Your eyes were on the camera, and that’s good.” He paused, looked at the table and nodded, and then he looked at me. Then he changed my life.

“This is going to be hard for you to hear,” he said “but you’re not going to make it in television. Some people have the ability to come through the camera and be alive on the screen, and some people don’t. You are one of those who don’t. I’d suggest you focus on your writing. You’ll do fine with that. You have a bright future, but I’m afraid it’s not going to be in television.”

I went back to St. Cloud, sad and uncertain. I took a few graduate courses and a year later – after some thinking and some scuffling – I began taking the courses that would add a minor in print journalism to my degree. In time, I realized that George McKenzie had been right. I may have been too stunned at the moment to thank him. I do so now.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, February 28, 1976)
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees, RSO 519 (No. 18)
“Love Is The Drug” by Roxy Music, Atco 7042 (No. 35)
“In France They Kiss On Main Street” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum 45298 (No. 66)
“Union Man” by the Cate Brothers, Asylum 45294 (No. 74)
“New Orleans” by the Staple Singers, Curtom 0113 (No. 88)
“Train Called Freedom” by the South Shore Commission, Wand 11294 (No. 98)

I was surprised to learn that I’d not posted “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” as it’s one of my favorite singles from the winter of 1975-76. In the years just before, the Bee Gees had re-emerged: With “Fanny” and the rest of the Main Course album, they were heading toward the falsetto plus disco sound that they used to rule a good portion of the world in 1977-78 with “Stayin’ Alive” and the other tunes from Saturday Night Fever. That said, “Fanny” – which peaked at No. 12 – is nowhere near disco; it’s just a sweet slice of pop that still brings a smile to my face.

I do not recall the Roxy Music single from the time. If I’d ever heard it, I think I would have shaken my head and passed the dish on down the table. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1980s, when I picked up Avalon more or less by accident, that I gave Roxy Music more than a glance. I still find the band’s music cold and fussy, but in small doses, it can be compelling. And “Love Is The Drug” is, come to think of it, the perfect song for the seeming lack of emotional commitment that the band brought to its music. It peaked at No. 30 and was the band’s only Top 40 hit.

“In France They Kiss On Main Street” is – if there is such a thing – a typical Joni Mitchell 1970s single: Light and airy, with a delicate melody and sometimes cryptic lyrics that meander a little bit before getting to the point. That might sound like I don’t care for it, but that’s not the case. I like both the single and the album it came from, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. But, as is the case with a lot of music, I like Mitchell’s stuff mixed in with other tunes rather than heard as an entire album on its own. The single spent four weeks in the Hot 100, three of them at No. 66, before falling out of the chart. Best word combination: “Rock ’n’ roll choirboys.”

I’ve posted a couple of albums by the Cate Brothers here, and I’ve posted “Union Man” separately, too, but that was almost two years ago, which is something like a couple thousand blogyears. The music business is littered with the hopes of those performers and groups that should have made it big; the Cate Brothers are pretty high on my list of shouldas. “Union Man” got up to No. 24 but was the brothers’ only Top 40 hit. They kept on playing, though, touring the American South through the 1980s, and in the 1990s, they released a couple of CDs, followed by 2004’s Play by the Rules, which the folks at All-Music Guide like pretty well.

The Staple Singers’ “New Orleans” is a nice piece of funky R&B that got only as high as No. 70. Its failure to do better is another one of those mysteries in life, because it surely deserved more attention. The single comes from Let’s Do It Again, a movie soundtrack written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. It’s an album that’s well worth finding, as is the case with most anything done by the Staples.

All I really know about the South Shore Commission is what I’ve found at AMG. The group’s self-titled 1976 album and the single edit of “Train Called Freedom” were produced by Philadelphia’s Bunny Sigler, and the group’s sound fits in well with what’s come to be called the Philly Sound. “Train Called Freedom” is a pretty good track, but its lyrics beg for comparison with the O’Jays’ 1972 hit, “Love Train,” a competition that the earlier single, unsurprisingly, wins. That said, the South Shore Commission record is still fun. It peaked at No. 86.

One Chart Dig: December 29, 1973

December 29, 2011

The Texas Gal is on vacation for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day this year, which means that she’s only got a couple days left before we get back to what passes for our regular routine. And that also means that I’m not all that committed to spending more time than necessary here in the EITW studios today.

So I took a quick look at the Billboard Hot 100 from December 29, 1973, to see what I could find. I recall very few of the records listed there from that time; when that Hot 100 was released, I was visiting friends near Århus, Denmark, and we were all preparing for a New Year’s celebration capped with red and white fireworks.

Most of those one hundred records are familiar now. I’ve noticed a few that aren’t, however, and I’ve spent a few minutes wondering which way I should go for one chart dig this morning: familiar or unknown? And I’ve decided to go familiar.

“Raised on Robbery” was – I think – the first single Joni Mitchell pulled from Court and Spark, which would be released in January 1974. As the year was ending, “Raised on Robbery” was sitting at No. 89; it would peak in a few weeks at No. 65. (Two other singles from Court and Spark would do much better in 1974: “Free Man In Paris” went to No. 22 and “Help Me” went to No. 7.)

Here’s a live performance of “Raised on Robbery” from the 1980 video Shadows & Light, which All-Music Guide says was taken mostly from a September 1989 performance.

Johnny & Joni, Big Country & Bob

November 30, 2011

Originally posted January 15, 2009

As I generally do on Thursdays, I went looking around YouTube with the past few posts in mind. I found a number of nice videos of performance of Bob Dylan’s “Girl From The North Country,” but I couldn’t find the Joe Cocker/Leon Russell performance. I did find a nice one by Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell (even missing the first few seconds and mistitled though it is, as “Girl of the North Country”). It’s from an episode of The Johnny Cash Show, which ran on ABC from June 1969 through March 1971.

So when did this happen? According to the Internet Movie Database index of Cash’s show, Mitchell performed on the Cash show three times, including the first episode on June 7, 1969 (when Cash and Bob Dylan performed “Girl From The North Country”). Her third appearance, on October 7, 1970, was the date that she and Cash performed the song, IMDB says.

Here’s what I assume is the video for Big Country’s “In A Big Country” from 1983. (I don’t recall seeing the video on MTV at the time, so I’m not certain.)

Video deleted.

And here’s a 1964 performance by Bob Dylan of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from the Steve Allen Show.

For tomorrow’s post, I think I’ll have the Texas Gal pull three records at random from the box of 45s that sits on the floor near my desk. That will be Grab Bag No. 3.

A Tale Of Shelves And A Saw

August 5, 2011

Originally posted September 12, 2008

My dad, along with being an educator, was a craftsman. His undergraduate degree was in industrial arts, which he’d hoped to teach in a high school. Biding his time until there was a teaching position open somewhere near St. Cloud, he returned to the campus of St. Cloud Teachers College – now St. Cloud State University – after he graduated. (Family lore says it was the next day, but I’m not certain.) He took what was expected to be a temporary position and wound up retiring thirty-three years later from St. Cloud State as an assistant professor of learning resources. He never taught industrial arts.

But he put his industrial arts training and experience to good use, doing a lot of the maintenance on our home – painting, minor electrical work, some carpentry and more – when I was a kid and in the years after I was grown. One of his major projects was turning half the basement into a rec room when I was in junior high. Local contractors installed wall studs, electrical outlets and carpet, and Dad took it from there, wrestling paneling into place and nailing it to the studs, measuring and installing a hanging ceiling with its tiles, and all the rest, creating a room that was a haven for my sister and me and our friends during our teen years and later.

Along the way, Dad gathered together an immense collection of tools and equipment, and when we cleared out the place on Kilian after he died, some of it came my way: his Montgomery Wards tool chest – much larger and better stocked than the rudimentary toolbox with which I’ve been making do over the years – and some additional tools, including a power drill, a power sander and an electric sabre saw.

Power tools, for some reason, have always scared me – a lot. I’m not sure why. The only one I’d ever used was a borrowed power drill to install a set of mini-blinds about ten years ago, and even that small drill made me uneasy. I’ve never done a lot of carpentry or other work requiring tools, anyway. During the mid-1980s, I did design and build some simple bookcases, but that’s been about the limit of my work. And I did those jobs with handsaws and hand tools.

This week, as I was installing my well-traveled brick and board bookcase in the study, I realized I was going to put more records on it than ever before, so it would need more support, a column of bricks in the center of the shelves to match the columns at the ends of the shelves. I wandered around town yesterday and managed to find three additional large patio blocks that matched the ones I’d bought almost twenty years ago. (The sales agent at the masonry yard was disappointed I didn’t need more of them; he wanted to clear as many of the antiquated blocks from his storage as he could.) And the guys at the lumberyard gladly cut the additional pieces of wood plank I needed to put on my shelves under the new blocks to extend the blocks’ height so the shelves would accommodate LPs.

But I could not find one piece I required, another foot, as it were: a masonry piece to put on the floor, centered under the first shelf, that would match the height of the two thick masonry pieces that held up the ends of that first shelf. As I left the masonry yard and headed home with three bricks, six wood pieces to put under the bricks and more than six feet of extra wood, I realized that three thicknesses of that extra wood plank would equal the thickness of the two masonry pieces already serving as feet. All I had to do was saw off three pieces of the extra board I got at the lumberyard, and I could stack those pieces for the missing foot.

So after hauling everything inside, I took the extra board down to the rudimentary workbench left by earlier residents of the house, where I’d installed Dad’s toolbox and the other things that had been his. With the measuring tape, I marked off three lengths of five inches, and then I grabbed a saw and got to work. It went slowly, of course. And a third of the way into the first cut, I stopped. In a box on the shelf, I realized, was the sabre saw.

I shuddered a little, thinking of the mayhem a potential mishap could cause. Once I shooed the cats upstairs and closed the door, I got out the sabre saw and plugged it in. Wanting to get a sense of how it felt before I applied it to wood, I tentatively turned it on, then off. And then I got busy. A few minutes later, I had the three pieces of board I needed. I put the saw back in its box and the box back on the shelf, and I swept up the sawdust, honestly trembling a little.

A few hours later, the revamped shelves were up and loaded: three shelves of records topped by a shelf of books. The three inexpertly cut pieces of wood are hidden under the first shelf. I don’t know when I might next have an occasion to use the sabre saw. But now I know I can if I have to.

A Baker’s Dozen of Saws
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” by Joni Mitchell from Blue, 1971

“When I Saw You” by the Ronettes, Philles single 133, 1964

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” by Roberta Flack, Atlantic single 2864, 1972

“I Saw Her Again” by the Mamas & the Papas, Dunhill single 4031, 1966

“I Saw The Light” by Mason Proffit from Bare Back Rider, 1972

“Ride My See-Saw” by the Moody Blues from In Search of the Lost Chord, 1968

“The Last Time I Saw Jacqueline” by the Neon Philharmonic from The Moth Confesses, 1969

“See Saw” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic single 2574, 1968

“Jigsaw Puzzle of Life” by Kate & Anna McGarrigle from Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 1975

“Junior Saw It Happen” by the Steve Miller Band from Children of the Future, 1968

“You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” by the Pearls, Bell single 1254 (UK?), 1972

“I Saw It On T.V.” by John Fogerty from Centerfield, 1985

“Crosscut Saw” by Albert King from Born Under A Bad Sign, 1967

A few notes:

This is mostly a random selection. The only song I chose was the closer, Albert King’s “Crosscut Saw,” because it seemed appropriate.

“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was omnipresent during early 1972. Originally recorded for Flack’s First Take album in 1969, the song – written by British folksinger Ewan MacColl – was used as background music in Clint Eastwood’s film Play Misty For Me, which came out in late 1971. After that, Atlantic trimmed about a minute from the track and issued it as a single. The record entered the Top 40 in March and spent six weeks at No. 1, eventually earning Flack and MacColl Grammy awards for, respectively, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Bare Back Rider was the second and final major label release from Mason Proffit, one of the best bands never to make it big. In its review of Bare Back Rider, All-Music Guide notes: “You’d have thought that music this impressive could get a hearing, but Mason Proffit appeared at a time when music fans were more polarized than musicians, not only by music but by politics and culture. Despite the band’s evident affection for traditional country music, their left-wing political stance and status as hippie rock musicians meant they could never be accepted in Nashville. And their music was too overtly country for them to score a pop hit. Thus, they were doomed to appeal only on the country-rock-oriented Los Angeles club scene and to some music critics.”

“The Last Time I Saw Jacqueline” is a nice bit of trippy pop from the Neon Philharmonic, better known for the same album’s “Morning Girl,” a sweet coming-of-age single that went to No. 17 in the spring and summer of 1969. The Neon Philharmonic, according to the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, was a chamber-sized orchestra of Nashville City Orchestra musicians. Tupper Saussy did the writing and Don Gant handled the vocals. Bonus points for rhyming “restaurant” and “debutante.”

The McGarrigle sisters show up here now and then, and every time they do, especially when it’s a track from 1975’s Kate & Anna McGarrigle, I think back to the first time I read or heard about them, in the 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide: “Two sisters from Montreal make music that’s crisp, nonelectric and utterly magical. Singing now in English, now in French, they suffuse their records with brightness and wit, proving that the inspired amateurism of the mid-Seventies can be dazzling.” Were/are they that good? Yes.

“You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” by the Pearls is a cover (from the United Kingdom, I believe; anyone know?) of the Ronettes’ version, which was released as a single on A&M in 1969. The Pearls’ version is not bad, but the echo on the record is a faint whisper of the echo in the Ronettes’ single, which itself was a faint whisper of the Phil Spector Wall of Sound that made them famous.

Eddi, Jackson & Joni

July 7, 2011

Originally posted June 5, 2008

Found a few interesting videos at YouTube this morning. The first is Irish singer-songwriter Eddi Reader’s take on “The Dolphins,” the Fred Neil song I discussed the other week. The performance was pulled from an April 2005 episode of “Other Voices, Songs from a Room,” a program produced by Ireland’s RTE Television.

Running along with the Jackson Browne entry from yesterday, here’s a performance of “The Load Out/Stay” from Browne’s 1978 Running On Empty tour. It’s a good pair of songs, only slightly dated: I love the references to eight-tracks and truckers on CB. The other vocalists who take solos are Rosemary Butler (who will show up in this space soon with her Seventies band, Birtha) and David Lindley.

And finally, here’s Joni Mitchell with a sweet live performance of “Help Me” from sometime in the mid-1970s, based on appearances and clothing. My guess is that the backing group is Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. (Anyone know for sure?)*

Tomorrow, as it’s the first Friday of the month, we’ll take a look at June 1968 and cap that off with an album from that difficult year.

*If my memory is accurate, a reader left a note confirming my guess: The L.A. Express is backing Joni Mitchell in that performance, which came from the 1974 Court & Spark tour. Note added July 7, 2011.

‘The X-Rays . . . Look Odd’

June 29, 2011

Originally posted May 30, 2008

Someone whose name I never knew saved my life thirty-four years ago this week.

I’d returned to St. Cloud from my academic year in Denmark on May 21, and by May 28, I was coughing every five minutes, feeling weak and winded. For a couple nights, I slept sitting up because every time I lay on my back, I started coughing uncontrollably. I’d started smoking during my last weeks in Denmark and had continued when I came home; thinking the cigarettes were the culprits, I laid them aside. But I continued to cough, and I felt weaker every day.

Finally, my mother took me to our family doctor. He tapped my chest, listened to my lungs and all that, and he sent me to the local hospital for some X-rays. At the hospital, when the X-rays had been shot, the technician asked me to wait there until he was sure they came out all right. I sat there with Mom, reading magazines and coughing. At length, the technician came out. He said, “The X-rays are all right, but they look odd. I’d like you to stay here until I can have a doctor look at them.”

And that almost certainly saved my life.

A doctor on call looked at the X-rays and had me admitted to the hospital. For half an hour or so, I went through tests – one of which determined how long I could exhale, in other words, lung capacity. I had blood drawn for lab work. About three hours or so after Mom and I walked in, I was sitting up in a bed – reading the morning paper, I think – waiting to find out what was going on.

And a doctor, a nurse and two orderlies – all with grim faces – came literally running into my room, the orderlies hauling an oxygen tank. The doctor watched as the nurse threaded a plastic tube through my nose and down into my breathing passage. She connected it to the tank and one of the orderlies turned the valve, sending oxygen into my lungs. The doctor said that no one knew why, but my lungs had – over the past week – filled with fluid to an alarming degree. I was drowning.

The doctors who cared for me in the next week gave some information to my parents that they did not share with me. From what I learned later, as I understand it (and I’ve never done much digging), the amount of oxygen, or O2, present in the blood is measured so that a normal level is somewhere around 100. When one’s O2 level drops to 50, some very bad things can occur. When it drops to 35, things get much worse. And – again, as I understand it from many years ago – when it drops to 25, one does not have much of a future. I have been told that my O2 level as I went through those tests that afternoon was 32.

That explains the grim faces on the doctor, the nurse and the orderlies.

That evening, I was moved to a room with an oxygen tank built into the walls and was given one of those oxygen masks with the nozzles that fit into one’s nose, which was much more comfortable. The internist assigned to my case told my parents and me that he was going to put me on Prednisone, a steroid. Over the course of a week, that cleared the fluid in my lungs, and doctors determined that there had been no permanent damage. I was very lucky. But the doctors never figured out why my lungs had filled; they called it an allergic reaction of unknown origin.

So I went home breathing and whole. My doctors, being understandably cautious, recommended that my activities be limited for at least the first six weeks of summer. I negotiated with them the right to walk every morning to the neighborhood grocery store a block away to buy a newspaper. And for the first half of the summer of 1974, that was just about all I was allowed to do. Oh, I imagine my folks took me out to dinner, and I know friends stopped by. But I was strongly discouraged from leaving the house on my own for anything other than that brief morning walk.

That was difficult enough for a man of twenty who was beginning to feel much better. But worse yet, I continued to take the Prednisone through the summer, and the drug had an effect on me similar to what I imagine low-grade speed would. I could sleep no more than six to seven hours a night, and when I was awake, I wanted to go, go, go. Those six weeks got long, and it was a major relief in July when I was allowed to leave home every weekday and work four to five hours at St. Cloud State’s Learning Resources Center.

Luckily, I had things to read – nearly nine months’ worth of Sports Illustrated and Time, which my dad had set aside for me while I was in Denmark – and I had music: Records in the rec room in the basement; the piano in the dining room; my guitar, which I played as I sat in our front yard overlooking the street; and radio, which was on as background most of the rest of the time, especially in the evenings, when I read late into the night.

Here’s some of what I heard that summer, thirteen songs pulled from the Billboard Top 100 for June 1, 1974:

A Selected Baker’s Dozen from 1974
“Please Come to Boston” by Dave Loggins, Epic single 11115 (No. 98 as of June 1, 1974)

“Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, T.K. single 1004 (No. 93)

“Keep on Smilin’” by Wet Willie, Capricorn single 0043 (No. 81)

“Waterloo” by Abba, Atlantic single 3035 (No. 76)

“Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, RCA single 0232 (No. 71)

“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan, ABC single 11439 (No. 55)

“Let It Ride” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Mercury single 73457 (No. 50)

“If You Wanna Get To Heaven” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, A&M single 1515 (No. 45)

“Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia single 46007 (No. 33)

“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, Virgin single 55100 (No. 25)

“Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely” by the Main Ingredient, RCA single 0205 (No. 24)

“Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John, MCA single 40198 (No. 21)

“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum single 11034 (No. 8 )

A few notes:

When I do a Baker’s Dozen, I usually let the RealPlayer select the songs randomly, so I always hear at least a snippet of each song. Today, I selected the songs from the Billboard list, so I heard bits of only a few. “Please Come To Boston” was not one of those I heard this morning, but I find as I think about it that it rings more clearly in my head than almost any other song on this list, throwing – as it were – echoes around the canyon. Was it that good a song? Or was it just pervasive? It peaked at No. 5 that summer, Loggins’ only hit, and it was, I guess, a not-bad chip from the singer-songwriter block. But in the end, more pervasive than good.

I wrote a few weeks ago that Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The same is true with “Keep On Smilin’.” There wasn’t much southern about it, at least not what a listener would expect of a Capricorn release. But it was fun, it moved along nicely, and it had a good vocal and a good hook.

“Rock the Boat” is another one of those songs whose lyrics roll through my head without hesitation whenever I stop to think about it. The song reached No. 1 that summer, another example of the value of a good hook.

“Tubular Bells” began as an LP with two long compositions, one on each side. The single came about when an edit of Oldfield’s composition was selected for use as the theme to the movie The Exorcist, which came out in 1973. The single was released after the film’s success and eventually made its way to No. 7.

I tend to think that “Help Me” is the best thing Joni Mitchell has ever recorded over the course of her long career.

One day in July, having received approval from my doctors, my folks let me drive to the local mall on my own. There wasn’t a lot to do there, although I imagine I checked out the paperbacks at the drug stores and then looked through LPs at Musicland and Woolworth’s. But to be out on my own again was liberating, and I sat on one of the benches in the mall, sipping a soft drink, just watching that bit of the world. As I did, I heard from the sound system of a nearby store “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” And for more than thirty years, that song has been to me the sound of freedom and relief.