Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Oct
15

Jesus, the Missing Years

Written and Performed by John Prine. You can listen to the studio version here and a good live version (low volume) with his funny introduction here. The song originally appeared on the 1991 album, The Missing Years, and later reappeared on the live album, Live on Tour, in 1997. You can buy the studio version from iTunes here and the live version here.

These poets, or in this case, a singer-songwriter, can be trouble. No wonder Plato wanted to exile them from his Republic. These poets are like a force of nature tending towards disorder, challenging what we see, asking questions no one wants asked. It’s Warren Zevon declaring “I was born to rock the boat” (from “Mutineer”) and Bob Dylan declaring, “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken.” Along comes John Prine asking questions and poking fun at Jesus or at least the common notions of Jesus and you know that’s trouble. It’s why parents get so upset about the music their kids listen to. (As the elders issue their cries and objections – where are you now Tipper Gore? – over the supposed violence or misogyny of rap and hip-hop, listening to a good old Chicago folkie begs the question who’s more subservice, L.L. Cool J or Steve Goodman?)

In concert, Prine introduces this song with some humorous patter about his later day discovery that there were these missing years in Jesus’ life. Anyone who pays attention knows this, but most glide right past the point. We hear about Jesus’ childhood that takes him to age 12, then he steps off stage and we hear nothing from him again until he’s thirty. (Thirty seems to be a special age for that’s the point at which Prince Hamlet enters the stage too).

No one asks too many questions about what Jesus was doing all those years. If pressed, most Christians might answer that Jesus hung out in Nazareth with his family, perhaps working as a carpenter with his Dad (Johnny Cash intones a song called Jesus was a Carpenter “Jesus was a carpenter/And he worked with a saw and a hammer/And his hands could form a table strong enough to stand forever”).  Not surprisingly, plenty have offered stories to fill the void ranging from claims that Jesus travelled to India and Tibet where he learned Buddhism or wandered as far north as England or spent years studying at the library in Alexandria. The only problem is that no one has any facts or evidence since, outside the gospel texts, there’s scant independent evidence that Jesus existed (in your spare time, you might check out Albert Schweitzer’s classic, The Quest of the Historical Jesus).

So John Prine lets the idea of the missing years roll around in his head for a few years until he does what a songwriter does: he turns those musings into a song. If there are no facts, he imagines some truth, has some fun, lets loose a little whimsy as he imagines a life for the young Jesus. You might want to ground yourself before reading the lyrics as the lightning bolts might fly if you say them too loud:

It was raining it was cold
West Bethlehem was no place for a twelve year old
So he packed his bags and he headed out
To find out what the world’s about
He went to France he went to Spain
He found love he found pain
He found stores so he started to shop
But he had no money so he got in trouble with a cop

Kids in trouble with the cops from Israel didn’t have no home
So he cut his hair and moved to Rome
It was there he met his Irish bride
And they rented a flat on the lower east side
Of Rome
Italy that is
Music publishers, book binders, bible belters,
Swimming pools, orgies and lots of pretty Italian chicks

Whether you believe or not, what Prine manages to do is recover the human part of Jesus, a little humor, a little longing, some ups and downs. He drinks (“Wine was flowing so were beers”), has trouble with the wife, which allows Prine to throw a zinger at the Catholic Church over divorce, and leads a Zelig-like life:

You see him and the wife wasn’t getting along
So he took out his guitar and he wrote a song
Called ‘The Dove of Love Fell Off the Perch’
But he couldn’t get divorced in the Catholic Church
At least not back then anyhow
Jesus was a good guy he didn’t need this shit
So he took a pill with a Coca-Cola and he swallowed it
He discovered the Beatles
He recorded with the Stones
Once he even opened up a three-way package
For old George Jones

Like any good artist, Prine can make up facts, but he cannot avoid the truth, and the truth here has to do with fate and a messianic mission crammed into the blood and flesh of a human.  Prine’s Jesus is human and God, a mystery that our minds have trouble comprehending, but the artist needs to articulate the ineffable:

On his thirteenth birthday he saw ‘Rebel Without a Cause’
He went straight on home and invented Santa Claus
Who gave him a gift
And he responded in kind
He gave the gift of love and went out of his mind  

Wouldn’t you go out of your mind? After all that running around, the now not-so-young Jesus must come to grips with his fate:

So he grew his hair long and threw away his comb
And headed back to Jerusalem to find mom, dad and home
But when he got there the cupboard was bare
Except for an old black man with a fishing rod
He said, “Whatcha gonna be when you grow up?”
Jesus said “God”
Oh my God what have I gotten myself into?
I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood
They’re gonna kill me Mama, they don’t like me Bud

So Jesus went to heaven and he went there awful quick
All them people killed him and He wasn’t even sick 

You can believe or not believe in Jesus, you can pass it off as a crock of some demonic vision (Leonard Cohen’s “Song of Isaac” declares: you have not had a vision”) but Prine accepts the story of Jesus as is. He can fill in the missing years but the ending is always the same. Is there any more plaintive line than when Prine sings, “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood/They’re gonna kill me Mama…”

What’s a boy to do?

I’m not going to get into a list of Jesus songs (maybe another day), but same in the same vein include Jim White’s “If Jesus Drove a Motor Home” (“playing Bob Dylan and motivation tapes”) and a great reference in Dylan’s “Red River Shore.”  Kris Kristofferson takes a whack at the Jesus story with his song, “Jesus was a Capricorn,”

Jesus was a Capricorn, he ate organic foods.
He believed in love and peace and never wore no shoes.
Long hair, beard and sandals and a funky bunch of friends.
Reckon they’d just nail him up if He come down again.

Kristofferson’s tale winds up on the preachy side, but big-hearted nonetheless.

Prine’s song came to mind after some recent discussions my middle son, James. Now a 17-year-old high school senior attending a Catholic High School, he’s studying his fourth year of Catholic theology as required by the school. Now spending time each day contemplating theory would seem like a good thing. Yet as we walked the campus of a prep school that he may attend next year and he considered their requirement of a religious studies class (a non-denominational school, they have a broad and interesting offering of religious studies classes), James said to me, “It would be good to take a religion class where I could ask questions.” We – his teachers, his parents, all of us who care so much and mean so well – we’re so busy trying to teach the right way, that we sometimes forget the need for exploration, the need for humor, the mystery that exists and we cannot avoid, but should embrace. Plato and all the teachers seek order and obedience, thank God (?) we have the poets who bring a touch of chaos and madness to our lives. So here’s to an education that offers some facts, answers some questions, but leaves more questions than when we started. Here’s to the mysteries and not knowing everything. Here’s the poets and all there verses. Here’s to the missing years.

Oct
14

Written and performed by Warren Zevon. You can listen to a live version from the BBC here and a version from the Letterman show (compete with other bits) here. You can buy the studio version from iTunes here.  It originally appeared on the album Excitable Boy, which you can buy here.

Zevon spikes this song with deadly fun and twisted mischief. It’s a fantastic tale full of fury and signifying what? The plight of a rich kid on a bender calling home for money. A primer on American foreign policy. A boozy tale told by a sometimes mercenary hold up playing piano in a tropical bar.

Zevon’s told multiple versions of the song’s creation:

  • He took a vacation in Hawaii and “I wrote this song late one night on wet cocktail napkins after a long day of improbable and grotesque mischief. Obviously, I survived all that, but I learned something from the experience: I never take vacations.”
  • He travelled to Cuba with his manager. They grabbed a cab and along the way, the cab pulled up in front of a house, the driver explaining that he needed a minute. In he went and out he came leading his daughter by the hand and followed by gun-toting and shooting kidnappers. The driver hops back in the car, his daughter ducking into the seat next to him, and off they go with Zevon and his manager in the backseat.  Zevon turns to his manager and says, “Call my Dad and tell him to send some lawyers.” The manager nods and adds, “and some guns and money too.”
  • Warrens’ working at a piano bar in some tropical hellhole, tinkling the ivies for tips and such, listening to the tales of various mercenaries, which he hones into the verses of this song.
  • Warren was partying in Mexico when someone called out, “the shit has hit the fan.” They took to the road calling out for what they needed: lawyers, no send guns, no send money.

Creation myths prove interesting cocktail talk and may provide fodder for the academics, but the song stands independent of its origin. And what a tale we hear:

I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians, too

Graham Greene in four short lines: the naïve and presumptuous American chasing a woman without thinking of the consequences. Maybe an American diplomat bumbling about, not knowing what he’s doing spun round in circles by the sophisticates of the land he’s invaded. Or just a lark and a tale to tell buddies in the bar when you return with nothing to show for walking home the waitress. Warren’s not saying for sure, just chortling as he powers through the verses.

Next, we’re in Cuba, which Zevon imbues with intrigue and isolation:

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this, ha

More trouble for the frat boy. Or is it the American diplomat who took some crazy chances and now needs good old American dollars and firepower to clean up a mess. Or maybe just another bender when you wake up with a hurting head and one phone call home to cal the lawyer and get me out of here. Warren offers a please and an excuse:

I’m the innocent bystander
But somehow I got stuck
Between a rock and a hard place
And I’m down on my luck
Yes, I’m down on my luck
Well, I’m down on my luck

You know the type, never done anything wrong, never his fault. Can we stop talking and just get me out of here.

Now I’m hiding in Honduras
I’m a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan

Why Honduras? Good drinks, good cigars, plenty of chaos. It’s where fugitives from Mexico and Panama disappear and even O. Henry made the trip. With enough money, guns and lawyers, you can get out of anything.

Zevon caught the long black Cadillac out of here, though when making the rounds in these parts, he always attracted talent to his recordings.  The original recording of this song features the soaring guitar of Waddy Wachtel, Warren plays piano, Kenny Edwards (of the Stone Poneys) plays bass Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (of Fleetwood Mac) provide the rhythm section and Linda Ronstadt provides backing vocals.

Oct
13

Performed by Solomon Burke. Witten by Dan Penn, Carson Whitsett and Hoy Lindsey. You can listen to the studio version here and a good live version here. You can buy the song on iTunes here and the album of the same name from iTunes here.

The big man passed on Monday morning while en route to a concert in Amsterdam. My 17-year-old son just walked in and asked if Solomon Burke died why it’s not big news, why aren’t the flags at half-mast. He suggests a train like Lincoln’s carrying the body around the country. We would all do well to mark his passing by listening to the music and inspiration of the King of Rock ‘n Soul.

My son only knows the greatness of the songs. Not the meandering career, the early gospel songs, the early 60’s disks with Atlantic records, the wanderings for nearly three decades until the audience caught up with this King of Soul and his release of Don’t Give Up on Me where he covers songs written by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison and others.  

As much a myth as he is a man, Burke’s biography tells of how his grandmother – Mother Moore – foresaw her grandson’s birth and established a church – Solomon’s Temple – several years before his birth. Like many myths, Burke’s origins are hard to pin down. He claims to have been born upstairs from a church or even in the church, his first wails mingling in perfect unison with the choir. He was born in 1936, 1938, or 1940; take a choice.

Fact. Fiction. Parables. Life lessons. They all merge as a single, true stream flowing through his voice. The man who reportedly told Jerry Wexler he would not sing R & B since he was an ordained preacher, so he covered country songs: “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)” became his first R&B hit in 1961. In a reality that proved true for much of Burke’s career, Ray Charles followed his lead crossing from soul to county and it was Ray Charles who found great success on the charts, not Burke.

Throughout the early 60’s and the early days of Atlantic Records, Burke churned out R&B hits, though a crossover hit eluded him and even his R&B success failed to bring him a number one hit. Not that others didn’t notice his performance. Jerry Wexler, who produced his share of great singers, called Burke, “The greatest soul singer of all time.” Soon after the release of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” in 1964, the Stones did a cover on which it’s clear that Mick spent many hours learning Burke’s phrasing. (Check out this more recent video of the Stones and Burke together complete with some Stones commentary on Burke’s presence).  

As the 60’s drew to a close, many soul singers (Al Green, Aretha, etc.) found great success, while Solomon Burke found himself wandering a musical wasteland. He drifted across labels and spent time raising his children (he ultimately fathered 21 children) and preaching his gospel of love. From time to time, his presence bubbled up as it did when his song “Cry to Me” appeared in the movie Dirty Dancing.

In the past decade, Solomon Burke, bishop, reverend, preacher, singer, magnificent presence, found a new audience. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him in 2001. He recorded blues, soul, country and a mix of it all done solo or in big name duets. He went into the studio guided by the likes of Buddy Miller and Willie Mitchell. The album Don’t Give Up on Me kick started this phase and is full of covers that capture Burke at his best – mixing singing and preaching – his voice smooth, at times intimate, calling you closer as he whispers in your ear, at times powerfully proclaiming great joy to all who hear. The recording won the Grammy for Best Blues Album in 2003.

On stage, he created a vast presence – his weight easily sailed north of 400 pounds. He sat in an oversized red throne with a gold-leaf frame, opened his great mouth and unleashed a stream of smooth singing punctuated with passages of spoken word preaching and wails and cries that made him sweat and tremble. His grandmother taught him to enunciate and even in his later years, every word rings true, every line takes on meaning.

The song “Don’t Give Up on Me” starts with a quiet intensity, a voice the leans in with an urgency that what he has to say is of the upmost importance. He is man confident in his humility, strong in his faith:

If I fall short
If I don’t make the grade
If you’re expectations aren’t met in me today
There’s always tomorrow, or tomorrow night
Hang in there, baby
Sooner or later I know I’ll get it right

And when he begs for more time, when he begs for one more chance, when he pledges that his time, this time he will make it right, who can refuse him. It is not the words alone, but the singing, stretching, pushing, hoping:

I know It’s late
But wait please, please, please, please, please
Don’t give up on me
Promise, will you promise me,
Will you promise me
Please don’t give up on me
We can make it if we try
I’m going to hold on, hold on with me

He’s a man who can make you believe. RIP Solomon Burke.

You can check out more at the website for Solomon Burke and you can read a great profile of Burke by David Cantwell as No Depression website. Peter Guralnik devotes a chapter in his book, Sweet Soul Music to Solomon Burke and it is well worth tracking that down.

Oct
08

Written and performed by Michelle Shocked. The song originally appeared on the album Arkansas Traveler. You can listen to the studio version here in a funky video. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album here.

Floating on an irresistible melody and a pulsing rhythm section, “Come a Long Way” uses a Los Angeles travelogue to tell the story of a girl falling in so far in love that’s she’s afraid of losing herself.  That helpless feeling of love moprhs into anger as she storms away from her man and kick starts the tale:

Kicked in his door at 5 AM
“I’ve come for my bike,” I told the repo man
My 920’s gonna take me far today

She had the bike taken away – thus the repo man – but now wants it back, wants to reclaim her freedom. She takes flight through the barrios and sparkling neighborhoods of L.A., running from a love that she can’t deny. And what joy she finds in her journey.

I drive by the Plaza where the gay boys pose
Stand in their windows wearing no clothes
I heard the screams of the dying dark
Through the sweet green icing of MacArthur Park
And then I crossed the river into East L.A.
Pescado mojado me encontre
And I’ve given up on rock ‘n roll
And I’m saving up for norteno
The river she runs by the railroad tracks
I swear I’ll never take it back
A train, she cries on the midnight hour
All along the Watts Tower
Ohhhhhhhhhhh

Shocked does more than name check the sights, does more than experience them, she conveys the sheer excitement of life teeming in the city that opens before her. Think Whitman and his visions of America or Galway Kinnell on the avenue bearing Christ’s initial. What fun she has? Of course she references Jimmy Webb’s song when sailing past MacArthur Park (is the sweet green icing the cake left out in the rain?). She’s willing to leave behind what was hers – rock roll – to play the Mexican music (norteno) she hears in the street. Yet no matter how far she travels through Los Angeles – which may as well be the whole wide world – she can’t get away from the love that she fears.

 I gunned it down to San Pedro Bay
Watched my ship sail in, watched her sail away
The sun was sinking into the sea
But a ball of fire inside of me
Was burning my motor and driving me hard
Past the big hair on the Boulevard
And up Mulholland where I made the scene
Like the one that took little Jimmy Dean
And then I shimmied up Wilshire like a little silk worm
Past the rodeo and the pachyderm
And then I stopped for coffee at an art cafe
I saw the repo man and made my getaway
Doing the Eagle Rock
Heading for the hills
Oh try to let my engines cool
And it is not my fault that this town shakes
I saw the falling rock and I hit my brakes 

The love burns inside her (“burning my motor and driving me hard”) and later she heads for the hills to “try to let my engines cool.” Whole loves pass on her now epic journey (“Watched my ship sail in, watched her sail away”). She discovers that this whole world rocks with the love she’s fleeing. It’s not her fault the town shakes and the rocks come tumbling down.

 She reaches the end of her journey when our heroine accepts the love and is willing to give up the bike.

 Now you tow it to the repo man’s front door
And you give him these keys, I don’t need them no more
You tow it to the repo man’s front door
And you give him these keys, I don’t need them no more 

She’s explored all of L.A. and found it’s big enough for the whole world, big enough for all that lives inside her, big enough to hold her love.

 I’ve come along way
And never even left L.A.

There is no defeat here, no resignation. She sings those lines with great gusto, relishing the world that vibrates with love. It’s not an either or choice, not a choice between love and self. She’s not giving up Los Angeles or the world. There is no choice: she’s falling in love and the world doesn’t collapse, it shimmers.

I’ve got a soft spot for Michelle Shocked going back to the first time I saw her perform. It was probably 1988, just before Shocked released her first album, Short Sharp Shocked. My bride and I trucked down to CBGB’s to catch the Mekons (now that’s a rock and roll band) and got there early enough to hear some of the opening acts. Out steps Michelle Shocked, the perfect embodiment of a punk-folk queen, telling tales of East Texas and stunning us with “Anchorage” (another song sailing on a melody and unabashed enthusiasm).  She closed that night with a performance of Steve Goodman’s “Ballad of Penny Evans,” which even in memory’s hearing leaves me with chills.

 Ani DiFranco rightfully earns kudos for her blaze of energy and productivity, but Michelle Shocked deserves similar praise for the breadth and depth of her songs and performances. She takes risks and keeps trailing her muse. It’s a trail worth following. You can catch up with the latest from Michelle Shocked at her website.

Oct
07

Written by Irving King and Harry M. Woods. Performed here by Otis Redding. You can listen to the Otis Redding studio version here and an electric live performance here and another live version from London here.   You can buy the studio version from iTunes here.

A classic soul performance that starts out slow, even melancholy, and builds, Redding unwinding his voice a little more with each chorus, Booker T and the MGs providing the fuel, until we reach the furious R&B ending with Redding fully engulfed in the passion of the song. It makes for great music and great theater.

Otis Redding demonstrates the full force of his singing in this cover, taking an old big band ballad and recreating it, climbing into the song until he possessed its very spirit. “Try a Little Tenderness” first appeared in 1932 recorded by Ray Noble Orchestra with vocals by Val Rosing.  Other crooners followed, including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, not exactly the pedigree of a song that would be a hit in the 1966.

One version that caught Redding’s ear came from Sam Cooke, who sang it live, though never released a studio version. (You can hear a live version on Live at the Copa that he sings as part of a medley). The story goes that the executives at STAX records wanted Redding to cut his own version, but he resisted. Funny, how the record company prevails in these cases. So Redding entered the studio backed by Booker T & the MGs, the house band, with the sessions helmed by Isaac Hayes (a producer of many classics, you’ve heard his ”The Theme from Shaft” and maybe caught his character Chef on South Park).

There are claims that Redding said he’d record the song in such a way that STAX would never release it. Maybe these circumstances gave him some freedom, for what he laid down proved so electrifying, that it can still leave you trembling. Listen to the mournful horns that introduce the song, the sad voice telling of how “young girls they do get wearied/Wearing that same old shaggy dress.” Like a shaman working his magic, Redding’s voice conjures this Cinderella, let’s us feel how she’s longing for what she can never have:

You know shes waiting
Just anticipating
The thing that she’ll never, never, never, never possess

The beat picks up, the percussion grows more prominent, the organ a little louder. We hear Dr. Redding’s prescription for lifting her up, for connecting, for loving this woman:

She has her grieves and care, yeah yeah yeah
But the soft words they are spoke so gentle, yeah
It makes it easier, easier to bear, yeah

 Like a preacher consumed by the spirit, the love, the eroticism of which Redding sings begins to take hold, to possess him. The intense intimacy that opened the song starts to slip away. A frenzy begins to build, the lyrics hardly mattering, simply providing sounds to carry the emotions. It’s as if the man bursts into flames. The recording flames out with Redding reduced to raw emotion. Try a little tenderness.

Contemporaries of Redding recorded the song, Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin cut cover versions and Three Dog Night had a hit with it, but Redding so took possession that it can be hard to listen to other versions.

I have an odd and quirky personal connection to Ray Noble, who originally recorded this song and that connection offers a glimpse into building a stage name and a musical career. My wife’s uncle is a pianist, singer, songwriter and has perfumed at nightclubs lounges for many decades.  He changed his name to Bud Noble many decades ago.

In the mid-80’s, Bud Noble was performing at an old New York club, Jimmy Weston’s. Excited by his taking the stage in the City, the whole extended family descended upon the act, including my father-in-law, who is Bud’s brother, the one not named Noble. Now stage names are not new, but my father-in-law learned much about Ray’s family ties. It turns out not only did Bud adopt a new name, but he adopted some new family as well. Bud Noble explained that he was actually related to Ray Noble and when Henny Youngman stopped in for a few minutes, Ray Noble introduced Henny as his uncle. The fact that his real brother sitting in the audience knew otherwise had no bearing on the evening.

It turns out that Bud took the name Noble and claimed the new heritage as a way of standing out in a crowd of performers. He keeps up the claim to this day. In fact, in 1996 he accepted the deceased Ray Noble’s induction into the songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

What does all this mean? I’m related by marriage to both Ray Noble and Henny Youngman.

Oct
06

Written and performed by Greg Brown. You can listen to the studio version here and a live version here. Originally released on the album Dream Café (Red House Records -1992), you can buy the song from iTunes here and the album here.

An autumnal drama, “Laughing River” tells the story of an aging minor league baseball player forced to watch his dreams slip away and learn to face a world with smaller dreams and colder reality. Soaked with the melancholy that the changing of the season and the falling of the leaves can bring, Brown gives voice to those moments when we see all too clearly that we have lost our youth and the grand hopes we nurtured, a moment when forced to accept the realities of growing up.

Metaphors abound as the guitar strumming lays a base over which Brown’s voice and harmonica meander like the river of the title, the water and time passing inexorably. We listen to Brown’s intimate and resonant singing about the moment when our hero leaves behind his ball playing days:

I’m goin away,
’cause I gotta busted heart.
I’m leavin’ today,
if my TravelAll will start.
And I recken where I’m headed,
I might need me different clothes–
way up in Michigan,
where the Laughing River flows.

He almost piles on with the details of the TravelAll (an early version of the ubiquitous SUV) that may not start and the chill coming on; it’s a chill of fall, of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, of the barrenness he feels. And the river only laughs. The opening verse captures a man forced to give up, forced to abandon what matters most – thus the “busted heart” – and leave beaten and downtrodden.

In a deft verse, Brown shares the details of the narrators playing days:

Twenty years in the minor leagues–
ain’t no place I didn’t go.
Well I gotta few hits,
but I never made the show.
And I could hang on for a few years,
doin what I’ve done before.
I wanna hear the Laughing River,
flowin’ right outside my door.

Ten years in the minor leagues is a long time, so our hero is a baseball Methuselah, a man in his late 30’s whose better days slipped past years ago, a man playing a game with boys in their teens or twenties, boys who the year before may have been waiting on the corner for a yellow bus. He toiled in a business where failing two out of three times marks great success, yet he never achieved the success needed to make the major leagues (“the show”). He’s still tempted to “hang on for a few years,” to cling to the only life he’s known. How hard to give up our dreams? If his life was defined by the playing in the big leagues, by the fame and fortune that would follow, what does he do when forced to admit it will never happen? How does he account for the last twenty years of his life?

The song turns on the next verse as our narrator looks to the future:

My cousin Ray,
said he’s got a job for me.
Where the houses are cheap,
and he knows this nice lady.
He said she even saw me play once,
said she smiled at my name.
Well upon the Laughing River,
could be a whole new game.

There won’t be crowds; there won’t be fortunes. He imagines a life full of practicalities (a house he can afford) with the possibility of love. Played against the chill of the first verse and that cold river in the Upper Peninsula, the lines about the “nice lady” who “smiled at my name” is enough to break your heart. A man who has drifted his whole life – there is no more itinerant life than that of the minor leaguer – who hoped to hear his name announced before thousands of cheering fans, now confronts a world where it the highlight is a woman who might recognize him and welcome him. And that’s it right? If we can find someone to love us, find a home and a way to make a life, that may be all we can ask. It may be small, but it’s dense with meaning.

In the next verse, our man brings himself to say good-bye to his old life and the good and bad that came with it:

So goodbye to the bus.
Good bye to payin’ dues.
Goodbye to the cheers,
and goodbye to the booze.
well I’m trading in this old bat,
for a fishing pole.
I’m gonna let the Laughing River,
flow right into my soul.

He’s able now to look with a colder eye, to hear the cheers and see the booze filled days and he’s now looking forward to a new life. When he sings about the Laughing River, it offers joy and he welcomes it, wants it to “flow right into my soul.” In the recorded performance and the live versions heard in concert, Brown sings this song with a conviction that conveys both the regrets of the fading hopes for glory offered as well as welcoming the small, but lasting joys of fishing in the Upper Peninsula and making a life with a nice lady.

While the song opens with a forlorn spirit, by the end a transformation has occurred. Brown feels the loss of what the narrator leaves behind, but finds meaning in the new life. As he repeats the opening voice, we hear it differently now. He wants that TravelAll to start and welcomes the new clothes he’ll don in a new life. The old life is neither forgotten nor cheapened; it does hurt to leave behind those hopes. The new life is not overplayed and nor are the smaller hopes and pleasures trivialized “Laughing River” leaves us with a man and his hard-earned wisdom.

Oct
05

Written by Sid Griffin and performed by The Long Ryders.  You can listen to the song here and a live version here. You can buy the song on iTunes here. The song appeared on the album, State of Our Union and you can buy that album here.  

 “Looking for Lewis and Clark” cracks opens like a thunderbolt of rage and righteousness fueled by crashing drums, slashing guitars and a howl of anger.  It’s a cry over what should be and what we wind up with. The anger wells up from a faith betrayed, from a belief in a United States that’s possible – think Whitman’s America – and the one delivered by tawdry politicians. It’s a cry over a music world that grinds up the likes of Gram Parsons and Tim Buckley while the moneymen get rich and fat. It’s that Biblical moment when the Jesus takes to the traders befouling the temple.

The Long Ryders were a great bar band that rose to prominence in Southern California in the early to mid-80’s and became part of the Paisley Underground. Mixing the country of the late Byrds and Gram Parsons with the fury of X and Black Flag, the Long Ryders chased broken American dreams broken by poverty and false promises. Led by Sid Griffin, with Stephen McCarthy on guitar, Greg Sowders on drums and changing bass players, the Long Ryder’s staked out their claim with a combination of hard-driving rock and the pedal steel longing of deep Country soul.

Sid Griffin opens this song in a rage of the betrayal of ideals for money:

I thought I saw some diplomat hawking secret plans in the park
I thought I saw my President walking through Harlem late after dark
In a world of love where they burn like Nero
You write them a check and you then add zero
In a world of love where they burn like Nero
You write them a check and you then add zero
Looking For Lewis and Clark

Lewis and Clark are the ideals, the real hero and instead we’re left with the money changers, those who want nothing more than the fast buck and will sell their souls and their country for a fast payout.

The second verse turns to the music world and is full of inside references. We hear about Mabuhay Gardens, a Philippinese restaurant in San Francisco’s North Beach that became a punk club. He’s thinking of Tim Hardin, singer-songwriter of “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Reason to Believe,” who never reached the fame his talent seemed to deserve and died of a heroin overdoes in 1980.  He’s thinking of Gram Parsons, who helped bring country into rock with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Griffin wants to stand in their company:

I was standing alone in Mabuhay Gardens (looking for Lewis and Clark!)
I was thinking about the late Tim Hardin
Well, when Tim gets to heaven hope he told Gram
About the Long Ryders and just who I am
Yeah, no one gave Tim reason to believe
So he just packed his bags to leave

The final verse mixes the betrayal of the music business with the betrayal by the government: “I thought I saw my government running away with my heart.”

The Long Ryders faced the same fate as their musical heroes. They churned out a series of great songs – State of My Union, I Want You Bad, I Had a Dream, Lights of Downtown, etc. – yet never reached the critical claim they might have deserved. By 1987, they had broken up, the four band members scattered across the U.S. and England. In addition to releasing several solo albums, Sid Griffin has written a biography of Gram Parsons (Gram Parsons: A Music Biography) and two books on Bob Dylan’s music. Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy also played on the one-off masterpiece Lost Weekend put out under the name Danny and Dusty. That album included the anthem, “Song for the Dreamers.”

Sep
30

Written by Mark Germino and Performed by Mark Germino and The Sluggers. You can listen to the recorded version here. The song appeared on his album Radar Town, which you can find on Amazon. You can find Mark Germino out on my space: http://www.myspace.com/markgermino.

A paean to a mythical disc jockey, Rex Bob Lowenstein represents a rapidly fading or possibly vanished time when radio disc jockeys infused personality in the music they played. Full of gusto and bathed in real love for great radio, Germino performs the song as a fist-pumping rejection of all things corporate infringing on musical freedom. Rex Bob Lowenstein plays John Henry against the steam shovel of programmed radio and the Clear Channels of the world.

What fun Germino has in creating his character. The name alone – a mix of good old boy and New York Jewish intellectual – both avoid cliché and spreads its arms wide to encompass often competing traditions. And what music does he play? Germino is only too happy to tell us:

You can call and request ‘Lay Lady Lay’
He’ll play Stanley Jordan, The ‘Dead and Little Feat
And he’ll even play the band from the college down the street

He’s an ornery sort, taking the music seriously, sticking to a mission. Our man does not suffer fools gladly:

His request line’s open, but he’ll tell you where to go
If you’re dumb enough to ask him why he plays Hank Snow

And

His request line’s open but he makes no bones
About why he plays Madonna after George Jones

He’s a working stiff (“He puts two or three eggs in him/And he’s in your car by 6 a.m.) who speaks to all willing to listen, no market segmentation here:

He’ll talk to the truckers on the interstate strip
The housewife and the car dealership
And when his second wife left him for a paper millionaire
He cried unashamedly right on the air

Every hero needs a villain and Germino gives us one in the “man in a pinstriped suit” pitching to the owner “you’ll increase your sales/if you only play the song list we send I the mail.” He’s promising bigger numbers and higher points. Of course, that’s bad news for our man Rex, as the pinstriped devil tells the station owner, “Your drive-time jock won’t get to do his thing.”

We know how this story goes. Radio stations are not in the music business, they’re in the business of delivering ears to advertisers. Like John Henry before him, Rex Bob won’t go down without a fight, even if it kills him. In this case, he quits the station that has abandoned him, locks himself in the control both “and played smash or trash till they cuffed him on the floor.” This does not end well for our man

Well they drug him into court and the judge said, “Rex
I’ve got to lock you up, for what I’m not sure yet
But your boss here says he thinks you’re wrapped too tight.
But, by the way thanks for playing ‘Moon River’ last night

And so it goes. We add more and more stations, each drawing fewer people. The disk jockeys try hard, but play form scripts that read the same no matter what city or what station. Connections are lost, shared music and shared texts vanish and where once we could tell where we were by what the local radio station played – New York different form New Orleans different form Austin different from L.A. – now we have satellite radio guaranteed to play the same thing no matter where we are. It’s as if we all lived in Holiday Inns amid amber waves of grain.

Of course, you can still find the cranky, ornery true believer disk jockey who will surprise you, help you see the connection between Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, JayZand the Avett Brotehrs. People like Vin Scelsa in New York, now down to two hours a week on WFUV or Tom Reney in western Massachusetts. You may have your own favorite who stands like a lost beacon in a dark night.

Long live Rex Bob Lowenstein.

Mark Germino is a poet form North Carolina who dabbled in truck driving to pay the bills and has slung some awfully good music across the years. It can be hard to find his albums, but search if you can. His album Radar Town is an underappreciated great disk (find it on Amazon). In addition to “Rex Bob Lowenstein”, another favorite from that album is “The Exalted Rose”.

Sep
29

Last February 22, Bob Dylan performed at the White House. He sang “The Times They Are a Changin’,” a perfect song to sing when invited to such an august performance. Turns out that President Obama had a good sense of humor (and history) about the event. Here’s what the President told Rolling Stone magazine about the occasion:

Here’s what I love about Dylan: He was exactly as you’d expect he would be. He wouldn’t come to the rehearsal; usually, all these guys are practicing before the set in the evening. He didn’t want to take a picture with me; usually all the talent is dying to take a picture with me and Michelle before the show, but he didn’t show up to that. He came in and played “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A beautiful rendition. The guy is so steeped in this stuff that he can just come up with some new arrangement, and the song sounds completely different. Finishes the song, steps off the stage… comes up, shakes my hand, sort of tips his head, gives me just a little grin, and then leaves… That was our only interaction with him. And I thought: That’s how you want Bob Dylan, right? You don’t want him to be all cheesin’ and grinnin’ with you. You want him to be a little skeptical about the whole enterprise.

Check out the performance below. Not quite protesters hurling Dylan songs at the Chicago police in 1968, but a poet’s way of speaking truth to power:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FS2belEBXyM

Sep
28

Written Smokey Robinson and Ronald White. Originally performed by The Temptations, this article concerns the version by Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger. You can listen (and check out a neat video) to the Tosh and Jagger performance here. You can check the Temptations version here. You can buy the Tosh-Jagger version from iTunes here.

A great song, written by members of the Miracles (Smokey Robinson and Ronald White) and originally recorded by The Temptations, “Walk and Don’t Look” has been recorded by dozens of artists, but never better than the version by Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh.

Peter Tosh usually eschewed love songs, but the positive message of this song combined with the opportunity to sing with Jagger proved irresistible. Tosh’s politics mesh perfectly with the optimism that love can solve our problems. Tosh sings the opening verse:

If it’s love that you’re running from
There is no hiding place
Just your problems, no one else’s problems
You just have to face

The ease of Tosh’s voice, the calm of the music makes it easy to accept his wisdom. The reggae merges perfectly with the theme of the song crystallized by the chorus:

If you just put your hand in mine
We’re gonna leave all our troubles behind
Gonna walk and don’t look back

The joyous, swaying rhythms makes all the more convincing the message of trusting in love to make our problems disappear. Then Jagger takes the second verse about failed love:

Now if your first lover let you down
There’s something that can be done
Don’t kill your faith in love
Remembering what’s become

His cocky exuberance propels the song forward. Their two voices – the rooted Jamaican and the strutting Brit – play-off each other well.  They repeat the chorus with fervor and fun that it sweeps you up and carries you along. Who cannot believe?

The recording ends with some banter between Tosh and Jagger that adds intimacy to the whole performance and conveys the ease and friendship that buoys the entire performance.

The Stones and Peter Tosh

This song proved to be the highlight of a brief and intense business and musical relationship between the Stones and Peter Tosh. A member of Bob Marley’s group, the Wailers, Tosh broke out on his own in the mid-70’s, performing gritty reggae songs with great passion. He released his first solo album in 1976 and had a minor hit with “Legalize It,” an anthem calling for the legalization of marijuana.  Columbia dropped him from their label after the one album.

Both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were fans of Bob Marley and they both attended the One Love Peace Concert held in 1978 at the height of the Jamaican civil war. Sponsored by Bob Marley, the concert aimed to bring peace to Jamaica. After hearing Peer Tosh perform, the Stones signed him to their new label.

Tosh moved into Keith’s villa and Mick and Keith helped him record one album on which “(You Got to Walk) Don’t Look Back” appeared. Peter Tosh performed as one of the opening acts on the Stones tour of the U.S. in 1978. Despite the support of the Stones, the album did not sell well.  Tosh recorded a second album for the label, but this time did not have the active support of the Stones. He went his own way after that album frustrated that he did not reach the popularity he had dreamed his association with the Stones would produce.

Peter Tosh died when shot during a break in at his home in Jamaica in 1987.

The Temptations recorded the song with the title “Don’t Look Back.”  It is somewhat noteworthy because Pal Williams, the original lead singer, took the lead vocals on this one even though Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin had taken over the led vocals by the time they recorded this song in 1965.

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