Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Sep
27

Love to Burn

Written by Neil Young and performed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The song originally appeared on the album Ragged Glory. You can hear a 1991 version from the Nassau Coliseum here, a live version from 1993 here and version from Bonnaroo in 2003 here. ITunes does not sell the individual song, but you can buy Ragged Glory here. IT also appears on the live album, Weld, which you can buy here.

An often overlooked song, “Love to Burn” proves that the best art offers mystery and exploration. In this case, Neil Young meditates on a tangled relationship, one soaked in love and strife, a relationship torn asunder by demands of the self, individual concerns that make impossible the leap of faith that love demands.

Opening with a wall of sound featuring Young’s backup band, Crazy Horse, as well as Young’s thudding guitar, the music makes palpable the fury, anguish and yearning that drive the song. We can sense the pounding thoughts, the self-recriminations and the loss of direction as the singer dwells on the relationship.

When the lyrics arrive, Young uses a late night walk through the “valley of hearts” as the framework to hold the ruminations on love and the guitars chords whipped by the anguish of the broken relationship. In a minimalist style, Young does not bother with any preamble, has no need to lay out the facts. He’s a man driven to wander and loses himself in his thoughts, so far gone that “a spirit” speaks to him with cryptic wisdom and warnings:

You gotta move to start
You gotta take the first step
You gotta crawl to be tall

Like an unseen object in the far off universe whose presence we detect by the gravity it imposes on other objects, we understand from the spirit’s words what drives the singer to such despair: the pain of a broken relationship. The words offer a truth the singer cannot deny, but not a full truth, not one that fully recognizes the discordant feelings that all lovers can have: the fear of the loss of self, the sometimes irresistible urge to protect the wounded heart and the desire to retreat. The singer wanders alone because the gap with his lover has grown and neither can ford it.

All relationships require vulnerability; the greater the intimacy, the greater the vulnerability. The Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor once said that a wife can hurt a man the most because she understands his loneliness. In their constant melodrama, all high school couples understand this situation: who will pick up the phone first to apologize? Yet Young sings of adult relationships where the stakes are much higher, the hurts much deeper and slower to heal. The spirit exhorts him to start the reconciliation, the spirit urges him to take the first step and the spirit compels him to be humble, for only by risking some loss of self can he attain the upright relationship. The wounded heart may understand these lines, but cannot act on them.

The spirit of love understands the singer’s resistance, so she tells him something else, “something that I’ll never forget.” The music picks up, Ralph Molina crashes the cymbals, the guitars whip into a frenzy and the four voices together cry out the chorus:

You got love to burn.
You better take your chance on love.
You got to let your guard down
You better take a chance,
A chance on love.
Take chance on love
On love.

It is the quandary of the song and all our relationships: love requires a leap of faith that challenges our very being. Our survival has always depended on caution, on the ability to flee from trouble, yet love requires humility, demands a leap beyond the individual concerns. The fresh love may soar on the rising hormones and infatuation (think Elvis’s hunk of burning love”); the more mature affair requires a more conscious commitment. The guitars swirl with desire and fear while Young sets up a crooked call and response with the band as he cries out, “Take a chance on love” and they call back, “on love.”

He continues his journey through the valley of hearts when he comes to “a house full of broken windows.” It is an apparition worthy of Dickens’s ghosts as the singer peers inside the windows (“it’s not a house/it’s a home”):

And the lovers inside just
quarrel all the time
Why’d you ruin my life?
Where you takin’ my kid?
And they hold each other saying:
How did it come to this?

We witness the fights, the urge to flee, to protect one’s self and one’s self-interest, yet we experience the simultaneous desire for love, “How did it come to this?” Young does not offer a prescription; instead, the guitars explode, the drums pound and Billy Talbot thrums a pulsing beat on his bass. The singer knows what he has to do and the music plays out the drama as he wrangles within to swallow his pride, to make that leap or to lose the love.

The song ends with a repeat of the opening verse and the chorus, we hear once again the spirit imploring him to “take the first step,” to be willing to crawl, to be willing to beg if that is what it takes and the ringing lines “take a chance on love.”

My friend Charlie got me to musing on this song. Charlie and Neil Young share much as they each continue on a path of self-discovery far from the maddening crowd. How can we not admire those pilgrims who keep pushing down the road after all these years?

Sep
24

Time

Written and performed by Tom Waits. The song originally appears on his Rain Dogs.   You can listen to the recorded version here. You can buy the song from iTunes here.  You can buy Rain Dogs from iTunes here or buy the CD from Amazon here.

A beautifully sad song that will break your heart, Wait’s sings the song in the second person, addressing not only the dying man waiting for the bandages to come off, but each of us. It’s lush and warm with an easy melody that gently holds Wait’s gruff voice.  Listen as he leans closer and whispers with an intimacy that comforts and chills, singing as if breaking news of the inevitable, singing as if on the inside or our minds.

The world he describes is “East of East St. Louis,” which is a forsaken as you can get, though it might be called Desolation Row. It’s a world filled with the lost and forgotten: Harlow and Napoleon, orphans and sailors, shadow boys and a calendar girl who pulls a razor from her boot.

There is no narrator, no easy story line to follow. Instead, we see a world open before our eyes and slip away at the same time.  It’s a hard world, one full of chaos (“the shadow boys are breaking all the laws”) and hints of meaning and the apocalypse (“the wind is making speeches/And the rain sounds like a round of applause”). Everyone’s packing up and vanishing: “the band is going home, it’s raining hammers, it’s raining nails.”

 As life appears to slip away from the recipient of this song, who else can be singing but death itself. So death shares a secret about our memories:

And they all pretend they’re orphans and their memory’s like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget
That history puts a saint in every dream

It’s enough to drive a man to drink (Kerouac once said, “I drink to remember, then I drink to forget.”) But there is no escaping, as if our eyes are wired open (think Clockwork Orange) and forced to watch. People vanish, we are left with whom we are:

Well she said she’d stick around until the bandages came off
But these mama’s boys just don’t know when to quit
And Mathilda asks the sailors “Are those dreams or are those prayers?”
So close your eyes, son, and this won’t hurt a bit

As pathetic as the bandaged man may be, as pathetic as we are, we clamor for nothing more than time. Thus the chorus sung, not with bravado, and tinted by more than a smattering of hopelessness, but sung just the same:

And it’s time time time, and it’s time time time
And it’s time time time that you love
And it’s time time time

Yes, it’s time that we love. Just a little more time to savor, just a little more time to do what we always wanted to do, just a little more time to change, to make right the unholy life we’ve led.

The song ends with glimmers of salvation. No, we never get out of this world alive, but maybe we can have more time, maybe we can have another chance. What will we do with it? Campaign with the fervor of the born again?  Or live the life we always have because that’s whom we are and when death nuzzles up against us the next time, we’ll still plead for more time to let us live in this world inhabitated by so many strangers and broken hearts:

So put a candle in the window and a kiss upon his lips
As the dish outside the window fills with rain
Just like a stranger with the weeds in your heart
And pay the fiddler off ’til I come back again

I can share a Tom Wait’s anecdote from the early 80’s. It was New Year’s Eve and my bride and I decided to make a real night of it, so we splurged on some used tuxedos Antique Boutique, a used clothing store on lower Broadway and headed off to the old Tramp’s on East 15th Street. David Johansen performed that night n his Buster Poindexter persona, this ere the early days of that show, before the album and the video and the flash in the media. We arrived after stopping at two other parties and the Guinness flowed well.  Sometime late that night after all the clocks had stopped, I found myself leaning against the bar next to Tom Waits.

Some years earlier, I listened while a greybeard lectured on the proper etiquette for denizens of Manhattan. New York Cool, he called it, and defined it with a parable: you’re sitting at a diner counter and Jesus Christ himself plops down next to you. You might give a nod, but the most you’ll say is pass the salt.

So I’m standing next to Tom Waits and I blow whatever New York cool I might’ve had. I turn and say, “Hey, Tom Waits.”

He looks at me with his pointy chin and scrabble beard. “Yeah.”

Now I’ve got nothing, no plan, no real thought, other than, how cool, I’m standing next to Tom Waits. I’ve got nothing to say, but I speak anyway. “You know that Swordfishtrombones album, I really like that album.”

He fixes me with eyes too tired to be open. “YOU bought it.”

“Sure, I buy all your albums.”

“You and my mother.”

I knew enough to leave the bar and not tell my bride about seeing Tom Waits till we headed home

 Want more on Tom Waits? There’s a neat Tom Waits website here and you can read another blog piece on this song here.

Sep
23

Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Written by Jonathan Richman and performed with the Modern Lovers. Several recorded versions exist. Here’s a version released by Beserkely records. Here’s an early recorded version.  Here’s a live version from 1973. Here’s a version recorded live in 1998 for a Joey Ramone Tribute. YOU can find others, incuding covers, on YouTube.

Sometimes you just have to drive. Late at night, find a highway and drive. No particular place to go. Turn the radio up loud (or CD or MP3 player). If you’re near Boston, maybe you take the car out onto Route 128 or drive up and down the Mass Pike; Massachusetts late at night with the radio on. The tires hum, the music sets a beat and maybe your heart matches it all, a Zen triad out on the highway, passing under the power lines, passing pine trees in the dark, going faster miles an hour.  Now you’re a roadrunner, in love with the modern world, Massachusetts late at night, when it’s cold outside and you got the power, you got the magic and you feel alive.

If you’re making that drive on Route 128 in Massachusetts or up and down 95 in the Carolinas or cutting across I-10 or maybe Route 80 pushing across Nebraska, you might tune into Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and their exuberant road song, “Roadrunner.” Propelled by Jerry Harrison’s bass (he later joined the Talking Heads) and David Robinson’s drums (he later joined the Cars), Jonathan Richman hones the music to make you feel that light night drive, all sung in a voice of Richman’s typical child-like wonder, where even the neon of the Stop and Shop glows with hope and meaning.

This Modern Lovers staked a place in history, channeling the Velvet Underground, chasing the perfect three chord song, committing to a low-fi sound before anyone could put a name on such a thing, stripping down the 70’s excesses before the Ramones ever stepped on the stage at CBGB’s or the Sex Pistols ever thought to throw up on old ladies in airports (the Sex Pistols once tried to record this song, failing because Johnny Rotten was too drunk to make it work).  Of course, one measures their mark not in the number of records sold, but in the intensity of experience of those who did listen and the echoes heard in other bands to follow.

It’s not history that has me dialing this song up, it’s the rhythm of the road and the feel of the forever late night sky and the belief in the music that I’m not alone and I can go faster miles an hour. It is that odd feeling of setting out all alone, feeling displaced, disconnected, yet the road and the music envelopes you, and Roadrunner distills that moment:

I’m in love with modern moonlight
128 when it’s dark outside
I’m in love with Massachusetts
I’m in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don’t feel so bad now in the car
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
That’s right

This band made some special music in the early 70’s. You can track down Astral Plane and Pablo Picasso (“Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso”). The center couldn’t hold, members spun out to join other bands that made bigger splashes and more money, though maybe never to capture something so rare as they put together as the Modern Lovers. Jonathan Richman still performs solo, showing up at odds times in Farrelly movies and on Conan O’Brien, singing about that Summer Feeling with such earnestness that it will break your heart or Dancing in the Lesbian Bar to find some freedom.

Sep
22

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive

Written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose. Performed by Hank Williams. You can check out a performance here and buy it on iTunes here.

The last song Hank Williams recorded, “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive” didn’t hit the charts until after his death in January 1953. Coming out so soon after William’s mysterious demise – they found him in the backseat of his Cadillac on the side of the road on New Year’s Day – only added pathos to what sounds like a throwaway ditty. Listen enough and you hear country blues at its finest and maybe even a nihilistic anthem.

Backed by the Drifting Cowboys, Williams fills the song with woe that’s comical in its exaggeration. No dirge, Williams sings with a light-hearted voice and big strums on the rhythm guitar.  Reminiscent of the Ray Charles balled, Busted, Williams makes clear his plight, “I had lot’s of luck but it’s all been bad.” He makes his case with down in the country examples of how bad he’s had it:

My fishin’ pole’s broke the creek is full of sand
My woman run away with another man…
…If I jumped in the river I would prob’ly drown

Throughout the song, he has fun with the idea of how downtrodden he is. He loses his inheritance from a long lost uncle when a lawyer proves he couldn’t be related since “I wasn’t born/I was only hatched.” Like a comedian asked how poor he is, Williams is only too glad to give an example:

These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time
Are full of holes and nails
And brother if I stepped on a worn out dime
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it was heads or tails

Through all the fun and smiles, something stronger that remains. Unlike his fervent country gospel songs (check out “I Saw the Light”), here Williams revels in despair. When he sings the refrain, there’s humor, but there’s also a sense of freedom:

No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

What release this song offers. When overwhelmed with the problems that seem so important, give this song a whirl. Go ahead, sing it aloud. Some will object to the inherent nihilism – is there no meaning to this life – but think of the freedom inherent in the understanding that no matter what we do, we’re all heading for the same grave? Isn’t that what the blues are, a way of taking our burdens and making them lighter?

And isn’t there a truth underlying the fun? Forget about living only for the next world. Forget about a culture that seeks to deny death. Take experiences for what they are. Find meaning not in what the present means for the future or the afterlife, but in the texture of the moment. It makes me think of a favorite poem by James Wight

Saint Judas
  

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

A friend an ex-work colleague, Bob Dawson, once told me that if you put together any list of the ten best country songs together that Hank Williams would have written eight of them. (Bob has some songwriting and performing chops himself and you can check out the Dawson Brothers web site at http://www.dawsonboys.com/.)

Sep
21

Girl from the North Country

Written by Bob Dylan

There are many recorded versions of this song, included a duet with Johnny Cash that you can listen to here. You can purchase the original version from iTunes here. There’s an interesting version by Roseanne Cash here.

A Dylan staple for over 45 years and covered by others “Girl from the North Country” can first seem like nothing more than a romantic remembrance of a past love, one told with great affection and telling detail. Yet this song is not as simple as it seems; it skirts the edge of sentimentality to resonate with a potent mix of desire, loss and longing not for a past love, but for meaning. It is not an easy song, refusing to wallow in the past and refusing to deny the loss of the love and a younger self.  Nor does the song take the easy way out, refusing to conclude with familiar bromides or clichéd resolves. Instead, the song ends with an uneasy sense of how our present depends upon the past.  

Like so many Dylan songs, “Girl from the North Country” takes inspiration from an earlier creation, in this case the English folk ballad “Scarborough Fair,” most well known from the Simon and Garfunkel rendition, though one Dylan learned from British folkie Martin Carthy in 1962. The main line from the refrain – “Remember me to one who lives there” – comes from the source material. Yet, as always, Dylan makes something new of his raw materials.

The song opens with the wistful wishes of the singer musing on a past love:

Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

The language harkens to an earlier time (“north country fair”) and draws on the source material of “Scarborough Fair.”  The reference to the north country also mixes in some autobiographical facts as Dylan hailed from northern Minnesota. Like many men who want to appear unaffected by a past relationship, the opening affects a casual, almost coincidental tone. He addresses a traveler and mentions his past love only in case the traveler happens to be in the area, an attitude that re-appears years later in “If You See Her, Say Hello.”

The singer doesn’t have any specific message for her, no plea to come back, no wishes for a reunion, instead, he offers the more neutral, perhaps tentative, “remember me to one who lives there.”  Yet the singer makes clear of his affection for her, “she once was a true love of mine.” Surely, the song borders on the sentimental, casting back for memories of an earlier affair, yet Dylan stamps the relationship with meaning as a “true love.” The phrasing sets this relationship part from others; it is the one he remembers, it is the true one.

After the opening refrain, the singer turns his attention to the girl:

Well, if you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds

There’s a certain sadness in this scene. We picture the bleakness of winter; the words and singing stretch the long vowels in “snowflakes” and “storm.” The singer is leaning into the past, but pulls back with the wish for her well-being, “please see if she’s wearing a coat so warm/To keep her from the howling winds.” These lines sing of tenderness, of well wishes, but he does not fall into abject longing for the past love, nor does he forsake her.

With the focus on the season, the singer ties his love for this woman to his youth, a season that’s come to an end. The frolicking of summer has ended and now he is in the austerity of adulthood.

The next verse hones in on the girl:

Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair hangs long,
That’s the way I remember her best

We can feel his longing, picture her hair, the yearning that the image of her breasts brings, but again the song pulls back from sliding over the edge into a pool of melancholy. As in the last verse where he wished for her a long coat to guard against the wind, here he wishes that she still wears her hair long.

The next verse provides the pivot for the song. Here we are no longer looking to the past, but living in the present with memories of the past:

I’m a-wonderin’ if she remembers me at all
Many times I’ve often prayed
In the darkness of my night
In the brightness of my day

The song has flipped; the perspective has changed. Now it is not him musing about her, it is him wondering if she thinks of him. He doesn’t want to be forgotten. It is not a longing to rekindle the romance, it is a hope, a prayer, that their time together has meaning, that it remains alive in memory. We can hear the neediness of an insecure man: he remembers her, for her not to think of him would diminish him. But there’s something more here.  He wants their time to have meant something, to have made a mark.  Isn’t that what we all want? Meaning in our lives, meaning in our relationships.

He dwells on these thoughts in the “darkness of my night.” Think of a more recent song, “Red River Shore,” where the singer tells of nighttime fears:

Some of us turn off the lights and we live
In the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark

It is natural to lie awake in the dark and worry, to fear that our time meant nothing, that our presence wasn’t felt, as if we did not exist. Yet it the next line that tells the tale, for the singer lives on “in the brightness of my day.”  Life does go on; the sun does come up. And here the singing matters, the way in every recorded version, Dylan lifts this line, for he is not wallowing in the past, he is not stuck in time. Instead, the past live on in the present. The singer does not look to return to the past, or to escape it. Quite contrary, his present depends on the past. It is vitally important that his old flame remember him as he remembers her.

We return to the opening refrain with a very different perspective. He wants the traveler to remember him to the past love for to be unremembered would invalidate this past and undermine his present. He’s not pining for the past, he’s in the present which, in part, depends on the validity of the last claim, “She once was a true love of mine.” No wonder in the duet with Johnny Cash they repeat this line for so much depends on the truth of that love.

Sep
20

Take a Letter Maria

Written and performed by R. B Greaves. You can listen to the original version here. You can purchase the song at iTunes here. You can see a funky video here from a TV show with Greaves’ pacing in an office as he performs the song.

I kept my cool, I ain’t no fool.

Take a Letter Maria is the very definition of hip-swinging, sophisticated soul. R. B. Graves, who wrote and performed the song, sings with a voice so full of confidence and hipster’s grace that you can picture his sharp suit and wry grin, maybe even the cocked hat as he unfurls his tale. His voice is so smooth that it will come as no surprise that he’s a nephew of Sam Cooke. The Latin beat and mariachi horns add to the jauntiness of the tale. In the end, Greaves writes with such subtle complexities and sings with such smooth soul that his performances makes new and vibrant what would otherwise be a tired story of betrayal and romance alive.

Recorded and released in 1969, Graves laid down the tracks in the Muscle Shoals Studio using the stable of Muscle Shoals studio musicians to back his singing. The rhythm guitar and syncopated drumming set the foundation over which Graves’ voice sings. In the opening verse, the singer walks in on his wife “In the arms of another man.” The next four lines establish the direction of the song:

I kept my cool, I ain't no fool
Let me tell you what happened then
I packed some clothes and I walked out
And I ain't going back again

The singer-songwriter might fall into a maudlin trap of wallowing in lost love; the blues singer might moan all night. This singer’s too cool for those traps; he simply packs up and starts moving on. The spry chorus punched up with the horns makes clear that there’s getting lost in acrimony or revenge:

Oh, take a letter Maria
Address it to my wife
Say I won't be coming home
Gotta start a new life
So take a letter Maria
Address it to my wife
Send a copy to my lawyer
Gotta start a new life

I love the reference to his lawyer. Graves’ is just taking care of business.

The two verses that follow weave the threads of the old romance with his new life.  The pretense of the song is that he’s dictating a letter to his secretary Maria, yet he’s also starting to romance her:

You've been many things, but most of all
A good secretary to me
And it's times like this I feel you've
Always been close to me

 He turns the cliché of the executive leaving his wife for his sexy secretary on its head. It’s only when his wife cuckolds him that the singer begins to notice his secretary. He confesses to Maria about his failed marriage:

Was I wrong to work nights to try to build a good life?
It seems that all work and no play has just
Cost me a wife

What’s so neat is the way that he doesn’t deny what has happened nor does he blame his wife. He’s learned his lesson and is moving on. In comes the chorus and the Mariachi-horns, you can imagine Greaves’ swinging his hips and popping his fingers.

The final verse completes the arch. We started with the betrayal and now touch on it for the last time in poignant terms:

When a man loves a woman
The way it's hard to understand
That she would find more pleasure in the arms of another man

He’s not unfeeling. He acknowledges the hurt, but no wallowing for Greaves. He turns from the past romance and focuses on what lays ahead:

I never really noticed how sweet you are to me
It just so happens I'm free tonight
Would you like to have dinner with me?

The song follows a perfect story arch full of fresh singing and lines. It sounds as original today as it did in 1969.

R.B. Greaves (born Ronald Bertram Aloysius Greaves III) is not quite a one-hit wonder as he built a solid career in the Caribbean and England. While “Take a Letter Maria” was his biggest hit, in 1970 he had a minor follow up hit with “Always something There to Remind Me” and the song “Margie, Who’s Watching the Baby.”

Sep
16

Rock and Roll

Performed and written by the Velvet Underground. You can listen to the original version from the album, Loaded, here. You can buy the song here or the album here.

Some songs document moments, but the best create moments. So it goes with “Rock and Roll,” the Velvet’s wall of sound coursing through us as if the band plugged not into amps, but directly to us, Moe Tucker’s drum beat becoming our pulse. The song sweeps us up and as an earlier New York author wrote, “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth.” It’s not the idea of rock and roll; it is rock and roll.

Lou Reed sings of Jenny, but it could be you and me, so much happening, but nothing happening at all. A world blurring around us, then she puts on the radio and the music rivets her into a time and place:

Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station
You know, she don’t believe what she heard at all
She started shakin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by rock ‘n’ roll
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
And dance to the rock ‘n’ roll station

It was alright

This song captures that moment when we hear a song that connects to the world. It’s not a cure or an answer or therapy, but a way of seeing the world, a way of feeling. Growing up we’re told by parents, teachers and preachers of how the world is, of what it is we’re supposed to see and how we’re supposed to act. Only the world never appears as we’re told and the prescription of how to act can only carry us so far. What we see inspires fear, anxiety, joy and anger. And when we turn on the radio, sometimes, not often enough, but sometimes, we hear that song which allows us to see the world we experience, which validates us, which invites us to get up and dance or sit down and cry or punch our fists in the air.

I love how this song pegs the source of light and life to New York City. Think Dean Moriarity and Sal Paradise pushing towards the City and knowing they’re getting close when they hear Symphony Sid. The physical location matters less than the music. Bob Dylan spoke of how he’d lie awake at night in the Minnesota hinterlands tuning his AM radio to pick up WDIA out of Memphis and the rhythm and blues, country and blues that still fill his head today. Or Van Morrison, listening to his father’s Leadbelly and John Lee Hooker records or playing with the dial until he could pick up Radio Luxembourg.

For me, a Catholic school kid on Long Island, I understood what Jenny meant:

You know my parents are gonna be the death of us all
Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars –
Well you know it ain’t gonna help me at all
Not just a little tiny bit

When I plugged into Dylan, Springsteen, Van Morrison and Patti Smith, the disconnect between the world the others described and the world I could see became tenable. The ability to see and act differently became possible. No matter how I felt, no matter how messed up things became, I could immerse myself in the music and feel a connection to the singer and a larger world. As if the music vibrate with the pulse of the universe and those vibrations ran right through me.

I remember a teenage afternoon, surprisingly alone in the house, going down to the living room with a small stack of records, putting them on the turntable in the console on which my parents listened to show tunes and Christmas albums and I had once listened to Disney music and “The Little Engine that Could.” I played the Eagles “Take It Easy” as loud as the speakers would allow, cranked “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and the Stones “Beggar’s Banquet.” I didn’t see or hear my father come in, until he lifted the needle off the record, and shook his head, in disappointment and disgust. I was a lost teenager and we both knew it. “This music will ruin you.” We couldn’t have been farther apart. I knew what he meant, yet I understood that my life was saved by rock and roll and had no way of conveying this to him. It would be years before we could hear each other.

The music heard over a lifetime envelopes me though those moments when I hear something new still has the opportunity to shock me, to quicken the pulse. Like the Avett Brothers “Murder in the City” or the Hold Steady or Arcade Fire or even Bob Dylan’s “Red River Shore.” Songs that connect me to mysteries, that tap into some unknown reservoir of energy and emotion. Songs that tell a truth and create a moment.

Ooh, She started dancin’ to that fine fine music
You know her life is saved by rock ‘n’ roll,
Yeah, rock n’ roll
Despite all the computations
You could just dance to that rock ‘n’ roll station

And baby it was a l right
And it was all right
Hey it was all right
It was all right
Hey here she comes now!
Jump! Jump!

Aug
11

Ring of Fire

Written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore.  Performed by Johnny Cash. You can listen to the studio version here. For a neat duet of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, click here. Catch a live Cash version form 1963 here.

“I’ll give you about five or six more months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m gonna record it the way I feel it.” Johnny Cash to Anita Carter, who first recorded the song.

Falling in love, a simple and powerful idea, yet those words have been so overused that they’re stripped of meaning. From the opening mariachi horns, Johnny Cash wakes us up to the meaning of falling in love, of falling into that “ring of fire.”  His voice, at once tough and desperate, conveys the truth of the experience, makes us understand that “love is a burning thing.”

Falling in love is not a deliberate act, not one we can pre-plan or guide. The heart goes and we follow. It’s a helpless feeling to want someone so much. In that early love, we don’t know what will happen, we don’t k now if the other loves us back or can ever feel the way we do about them. It is less a letting go, then a falling. No rational person would make that choice, and yet we can’t help ourselves. Johnny sings in that hard voice:

I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
And the flames went higher

He knows. There is no cautious way down, no easy path. We fall and fall and fall, all the while our passions, our “wild desires,” rage.  There is no controlled burn, no way to direct our feelings. This is a wild fire, people get damaged.

June Carter and Johnny Cash knew of the biblical fire, the purifying fire that burns away the imperfect and impure. The ring of fire scorches what is untrue, burns away what doesn’t matter, leaves us alone with our desires.

The story goes that June Cater took the inspiration from a book of poetry that her uncle A.P. Carter had, yet the inspiration came from Johnny Cash. In the early 60’s, Johnny had tumbled into a spiral of drugs and booze, a hellion on the loose. Just look at his gaunt face in the pictures and videos of those days. June Carter came from the monumental Carter family, raised on the Bible and the right way of living. Yet she saw that man and could not help herself, could not pull back from the fall into that burning ring of fire.

The taste of love is sweet
When hearts like ours meet
I fell for you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

She was a child, a young girl touring with this married man. She knew better. Anyone could see he was trouble, the type of man good girls shunned.  Yet when it came to love, none of that mattered. The heart will have its way and we have no choice but to follow. That fire torments as much as it pleases, that passionate love is an exquisite anguish. In a recent song, Bob Dylan sang, “Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you/It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow.” He knows the mix of suffering and pleasure, the ring of fire.

In the banality of our everyday lives, we wish love upon our children. We often hope they find a partner. When we do so, we forget the agony of love or we trivialize it. We forget that sense of falling, the loss of balance, the loss of all restraint. We forget the sweet torture of the flames, that burning desire. How do you prepare someone for that ordeal, for that passage through the fire? Play “Ring of Fire” and play it loud.

*****

June Carter co-wrote this song with Merle Kilgore and took the inspiration from a line of poetry her uncle A.P. Carter had underlined in a book of poetry. Anita Carter, June’s sister, released the song in November 1962, though her version never gained much traction. The story goes that Johnny Cash had a dream where he heard the song with mariachi horns. He supposedly told Anita, I’ll give you about five or six more months, and if you don’t hit with it, I’m gonna record it the way I feel it.” When Cash released his version, it shot to number one on the charts and revived a career that had begun to ebb. (Read notes from Otto Kitsinger on the song’s origins here.)

 In interviews, June Carter explained that the song captured the feeling she had for Johnny, her desire for him, yet she hesitated given his marriage and the downward spiral of drink and drugs. We know the large screen version of this story: they eventually marry and June helps lead Johnny back into the light of day.

Years later, an ad agency wanted to use the song for a hemorrhoids commercial. Roseanne Cash blocked their efforts saying, “The song is about the transformative power of love and that’s what it has always meant to me and that’s what it will always mean to the Cash children.” Amen.

Aug
04

Bastards of Young

Written by Paul Westerberg and performed by the Replacements. You can see the video discussed here. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album Tim here.

The Replacements, true to their mix of anarchy, stubbornness and virtues, swear they’ll never make a video. They’re about the music, the rock n’roll; screw the star-making machinery and their vapid three-minute faux movies. Of course, principals and the music industry don’t mix, so when the Replacements sign their major label deal, they reluctantly agree to do a video. True to their subversive spirit, they do the video their way, which means making a non-video video.

The created their first video to support, “Bastards of Young,” a great anti-hero anthem. The visuals consist of a close-up of a vibrating speaker, then the black and white scene pulls back to show the poor man’s stereo rack – cheap components on milk crates – and fragmentary views of a faceless man (Paul Westerberg?) sitting on a couch, smoking and listening to the song. When it ends, he stands up and goes Peter Townsend on the speaker, putting his foot through it. A video you can’t watch? That’s the point, right? Just listen to the music.  

That’s pretty good advice when it comes to “Bastards of Young.” From the opening guttural guitar riffs, Chris Mar’s violent drums and Paul Westerberg’s wail, waves of anguish and anger overwhelm. The song demonstrates why Westerberg needed Bob Stinson on guitar for the lashing guitar gives the song the edge it needs, fueling Westerberg’s singing so that his screams and screeches carry as much meaning – despair, longing, loneliness – as his lyrics. We hear cutting cynicism (“Income tax deduction, what a hell of a function”), raw hate (“We are the sons of no one, bastards of young”) and utter confusion (“God, what a mess”). Amid all the anger and rage, Westerberg slips in a little confused tenderness, which really makes the song:

The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please
If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them

The refusal to participate in the video-making business could only last so long. The Replacements later created videos for their songs and Paul Westerberg went on to write songs for the soundtrack of Singles and the score and soundtrack for the animated film, Open Season.

Jul
27

Kathleen

Written and performed by Josh Ritter. You can listen to the song here and buy the studio version on iTunes here, though I recommend this live version.  You can find many live versions of this song on YouTube.

“All the other girls here are stars – you are the Northern Lights”

As long as poets have written their verses, they’ve sought metaphors to convey the beauty and spirit of the objects of their affection. So few succeed, yet here comes Josh Ritter out of Moscow, Idaho with an opening line to make you swoon. That he sticks to the metaphor speaks to the depth and conviction of his craft:

They try to shine in through your curtains – you’re too close and too bright.
They try and they try but everything that they do
Is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.

I’ve witnessed the Northern Lights but once on a mad midnight drive across upstate New York, stunned by the hallucinatory flares painting the sky, neither night, nor day, another worldly brilliance that had us dancing and bowing. No other light in the night can compare and when Josh Ritter sings the verse with sung with driving exuberance, we understand much about Kathleen and even more about the singer.

Set at a party, he’s a boy in the shadows watching the girl he adores and “the boys in your line.” She’s royalty accustomed to the boys waiting on her, yet our watcher imagines he knows her secret:

You act like you’re hip to their tricks and you’re strong,
But a virgin Wurlitzer heart never once had a song.

Is it his heart waiting for a song or hers or does he imagine they share a kinship of a heart waiting to explode, a heart waiting for the song it’s fated to perform?

It’s late and he fantasizes about her needing a ride home; he may not be the chosen one, he may not stand a chance, but if only he could:

I know you are waiting and I know that it is not for me,
But I’m here and I’m ready and I saved you the passenger seat.
I won’t be your last dance, just your last good night.
Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.
I’ll be the one to drive you back home, Kathleen.

He’s timid and courteous in this near medieval romance, so pure of heart that he’s willing to forgo the dance and the kiss, just to be “your last good night.” Again, he sees her heart plagued by a malaise he feels, “every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.”

The courtly imagery continues into the last verse as the singer pictures the scene when he gets her home:

So crawl up your trellis and quietly back into your room,
And I’ll coast down the length of your drive by the light of the moon.

You might recognize that trellis. We’ve heard the stories of magical princesses with mythical hair and romantic leads chasing them the trellis.

If only he can drive her home, you can imagine him as the earnest suitor promising to do nothing more than give her a ride home, but he believes given the time he can forge a bond:

And the next time we meet-a new kind of hello,
Both our hearts have a secret only both of us know,
’bout the night that I drove you back home Kathleen.

The song rides atop a swirling organ and hard strummed acoustic guitars. The singing captures that yearning which is both painful and delicious, a yearning for a love he cannot have, except just maybe. And he doesn’t ask much, just a ride home cause that’s all it will take. It’s a song of hope and faith.

“Kathleen” comes from Josh Ritter’s third album, Hello Starling, which brought more attention and deservingly so. He’s one of the better performers working today. Committed to the craft of his songwriting and full of ambition all the while his voice and stage performance continues to grow in confidence. If you’re new to Josh Ritter, you might want to check out Hello Starling and The Animal Years, a concept album released in 2006, which takes his songwriting to another level, standing as one of the best albums of the past decade. You can also check out one of his live albums, which do a good job of capturing his enthusiastic performances.

You can find out more by checking out Josh Ritter’s website. You can read an interview with Ritter in Q Magazine here. The New York Times ran a large profile last May; you can read it here and catch an PBS video here. No Depression offers a number of articles and review on Josh Ritter here.

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