Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Jul
22

Boom, Boom

Written and recorded by John Lee Hooker. You can listen to the studio version here. You can find many live versions on the web. Some of the better ones include a recording from the Montreal Jazz Festival, a live BBC show from the mid 60’s and a quiet and intension solo performance from the 1960’s. You can buy a copy of the song here.

No throat clearing here, just the hard guitar beats and roughneck singing. “I’m gonna shoot you right down/Knock you off your feet/Take you home with me.” The way he sings could get John Lee arrested today. Add the primal guitar, the insistent beat, the pounding base and his desire overwhelms. “Boom, boom, boom.”  He’s undeniable.

I love to see you strut,
up and down the floor
When you talking to me,
that baby talk
I like it like that
Whoa, yeah!
Talk that talk, walk that walk

No moon and June spooning here. John Lee’s got this way – raw and hot – that doesn’t merely convey lust; it becomes lust itself. The fuzzy guitar grows raunchier, the singing more guttural. The last line of the second verse reduces his vision to its essence: “Talk that talk, walk that walk.” His guitar playing grows more avid as he moans, “hey, hey, hey.” John Lee’s a man lashed by desire and her every move crashes with ecstasy and agony.

Whisper in my ear,
tell me that you love me
I love that talk
When you talk like that,
you knocks me out,
right off of my feet
Hoo hoo hoo

John Lee Hooker sang this song into his 80’s and it never lost its power. The spare singing, the unembellished guitar, the unabated craving always came through.  Released in 1964 and covered by man, most notably the Animals, “Boom, Boom” remains vivid and vital.

John Lee recorded “Boom, Boom” in 1961 and released in April 1962 for Vee-Jay records.  The band included James Jamerson on bass, Larry Veeder on guitar, Benny Benjamin on drums, Ivy Jo Hunter on piano and Hank Crosby on tenor saxophone and Andrew Terry on baritone saxophone. The Animals had a hit with it in 1964. John Lee Hooker later recorded a version of the song entitled “Bang, Bang, Bang.”

Jul
21

Keep on Movin’

Written and recorded by Green on Red. Originally found on an EP No Free Lunch, You can listen to “Keep on Movin’” here.

Here’s a road song that captures rhythm, joy, despair and rootlessness of roaming the interstates. From the opening strums of the guitar, this music keeps pushing the pedal, drums, piano, and propulsive guitar flying down the highway all lashed together by lead singer Dan Stuarts careening vocals. The pulse builds throughout the song until it explodes in a frenzy of ringing guitars, clashing cymbals and pounding piano. Call it cowboy rock without all the cowboy clichés: a man on the road compulsively moving. The song has a wiry and rugged sound as if putting music to the Arizona desert from where the band hailed, think rattlesnakes and endless stretches of blacktop.

 The chorus makes plain the deal:

Me, I got a keep on moving
I don’t think much about what I’m losing 

That’s Chuck Prophet’s guitar looping around the driving percussion and Stuart’s unique voice.  He’s the guy in the bar late at night who turns to you and says ”Listen,” and you understand more than anything in the world the urgent need to listen to whatever he’s about to say.

The first verse captures the spirit of restlessness, exhaustion and freak show circumstances that constant travelling brews up:

First time I saw Boston town
Been driving three days into a strong wind
Don’t know where I’ve been
This ugly brute of a man
Is telling me to play one more song
You can’t go home

You get in the car, van or truck and keep driving because this ain’t home and you can’t stay so maybe somewhere down the road will be better, even if, in the end, it is the road itself that offers the only solace. Stuck in Boston, the singer knows he needs to escape, needs to put some miles behind him.  He sings, “They say I went crazy one day,” and doesn’t deny the charge, doesn’t pony up any cheap explanations:

The road does funny things to a man
Churns up his mind
He can’t understand
I can’t understand

When Stuart sings that final line, you know how lost he feels. In that moment, he’s not a singer working for a record company or performing for an audience, he’s confessing and begging for help from something larger than himself.

Sometimes you can even think you found home, in this song that’s Austin, Texas:

First time I saw Austin town
I knew I had to live there one day
Find me a rocking chair in the shade

Of course, for the restless spirit, settling down never offers perfect peace. The last verse closes with Stuart recognizing what propels him to keep moving:

Me & Javier will drink away our fears
I’ve got so many fears

So call up “Keep on Movin’,” crank it loud and join the train as it blows through town.

******************************* 

You can listen to “Keep on Movin’” here. To hear the recorded version of Time Ain’t Nothin’ from the No Free Lunch EP, lick here. Here’s a live recording from 1985 that captures the band in fine form, which was not always the case. (I saw them open for the Replacements in New York in 1987 and the bands seemed to compete to prove which was the drunkest). For a recording from a 1987 Spanish TV show, click here.

This band began life as the Serfers in the Tucson, Arizona punk scene of the late 1970’s and came into their own as Green on Red in Los Angeles during the early 1980’s. They are forever linked to the Paisley Underground sound, so named because they veered away from the more violent, nihilistic L.A. punk scene (think Black Flag) towards what we today might call alternative or Alt-Country. That scene included the Dream Syndicate, the Long Ryders and the Bangles. Several members of those groups recorded a glorious one-off called the Lost Weekend as the fictitious band Danny and Dusty with Dan Stuart and Steve Wynn from the Dream Syndicate playing the lead roles. While some early recordings showed some signs of psychedelia, Green on Red clearly evolved to become a gutsy, country-tinged, wild rock band. You can check the blog piece on Danny and Dusty’s “Song for the Dreamers” here and catch a video here.

Green on Red’s line up peaked around 1985:

Dan Stuart – Vocals
Chris Cacavas – Keyboards
Jack Waterson – Bass
Alex MacNicol – Drums
Chuck Prophet – Guitars

Another nearly great band, perhaps they came too early as they would fit nicely in the alt-country scene – though the drink and drugs (Dan Stuart wandered the world both chasing and running from his heroin addiction) and strident anti-commercial attitude didn’t help. Here’s Chuck Prophet explaining how he joined the band:

“I was in a band that got thrown on the bill with these ‘Paisley dudes’ at a place in Oakland called Ruthies In. My first impression was that they looked like guys who should be operating the rides at a carnival. They played and it blew my mind. It was chaotic as hell but really entertaining and musical. And the songs were there! All that narrative stuff like ‘Old Chief’. It was funny and sad, and I dug the shit out of it. It’s hard to imagine how unique it seemed at the time… Later, I was in L.A. and I asked Jack to put me on the guest list. When I showed up, he just put a guitar in my hands. I started living on his couch.”

The band held together for a few albums, most notably:

  • Green on Red (EP, Down There, 1982)
  • Gravity Talks (Slash, 1983)
  • Gas Food Lodging (Enigma, 1985)
  • No Free Lunch (EP, Mercury, 1985)
  • The Killer Inside Me (Mercury, 1987)

Band members split up, Stuart vanished and Green on Red seemed like one more dead band. When Stuart resurfaced, he and Chuck Prophet hooked up to write some songs and record a few albums under the name Green on Red. Those albums include:

 1989 – Here Come the Snakes
1989 “This Time Around”
1991″ Scapegoats”
1992 “Too Much Fun”
1997 “What Were We Thinking?”

You can learn about it about the band at their website. There’s also a neat fan site here. Chuck Prophet has released a half dozen or so solo albums with some fun and intriguing songs. You can find out more at his website.

Chuck Prophet sums up his time in Green on Red this way: “We broke a lot of rules and never looked back. And I’ll tell you, I sure learned how to drink and how to sleep sitting up! It was a good run!”

Jul
05

Fourth of July – X

Originally performed by the band X and written by Dave Alvin. You can listen to a version by X here. You can buy the song from iTunes here.

In the relationships that matter, sometimes we need only the slightest glimmer of hope to keep trying. That glimmer can come in the oddest of ways – an off-hand conversation or the stirring of a memory. In this song, the epiphany arrives on the Fourth of July with the spark and sparkle of the Mexican kids shooting off fireworks. In that moment, which the chorus of this song captures, love becomes possible.

For us to understand the rejoicing in the glimmer of hope, we need to understand the sense of loss, the drifting apart and the failure of the relationship. Dave Alvin captures the poignancy of fading love in exquisite detail. The narrator makes it through another long, hot, dreary day, another day of lifelessness and he arrives home full to face another hopeless night:

She’s waiting for me when I get home from work
But things just ain’t the same
She turns out the light and cries in the dark
Won’t answer when I call her name

Where once there was joy, once there was the ongoing conversation that is love, now there is loneliness. You can imagine him climbing the stairs of their walk up apartment, his legs heavy, replaying the conversation that ran in his head all day, swearing that this time, this time, he’ll tell her, this time he’ll hold her and kiss her hard until the feeling comes back. Listen to how Alvin captures the moment of defeat when he loses hope, energy and ambition:

She gives me her cheek when I want her lips
And I don’t have the strength to go
On the lost side of town in a dark apartment
We gave up trying so long ago

He trudges off to the stairway, hunched over with his cigarette, looking out over the hot, sweaty city, the same dull scene he saw the night before and the night before that. Only tonight’s different:

On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone
The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below
Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July
Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July

Here the song rises from the depths of defeat, the band playing hard, the singing trying hard to hold onto the whisper of hope in the face of desperation, that last conviction that love is possible. He goes back upstairs, back into the darkness and implores her:

Whatever happened, I apologize
So dry your tears and baby, walk outside
It’s the Fourth of July

How can she not rise, take his hand and head outside to see the fireworks exploding against the black sky? What triumph! What exuberance! No wonder Dave Alvin, John Doe and the band X keep playing and recording this song.

You can catch a Dave Alvin video here and a live Dave Alvin version here and a version by Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women here. You can listen to John Doe (guitarist and singer from X) do a live version here. You can buy Dave Alvin’s recorded from iTunes here.

Once upon a time, X may have been the best band in the country combining the talents of husband and wife duo Exene Cervenka and John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake with Dave Alvin joining them on occasion. Their music defied simple slotting as they stirred in influences from country, rock, punk and singer-songwriter sensibilities.You can find more at the band’s website. Dave Keller makes an argument that X is overdue for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  No Depression has a few reviews and article you can find here. You can find a heartbreaking acoustic version of “See How We Are” here.

Each of the members have gone their own way and recorded solo work or worked with others, though from time to time they have assayed a reunion, including a tour in 2009. There is bad news on the health front as revealed in this statement from Exene Cervenka’s website:

June 2, 2009

After some months of not feeling 100% healthy, I recently had some medical tests run
and the prognosis is that I am suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.
Apparently, it has been affecting me for quite some time.

Although this is obviously unfortunate news, I am choosing to see the positive in it.
I, and X as a band, have supported the Sweet Relief charity since the mid-1990’s;
the irony of this is not lost on any of us. Sweet Relief was started as an aide to uninsured artists by musician Victoria Williams when she herself was diagnosed with MS in 1992.

While this diagnosis will most certainly mean some changes for me, personally, it will not affect my commitments to the current X U.S. tour, nor will it affect my solo album that is slated for release this fall on Bloodshot Records.

My focus will certainly be on maintaining my health–many people remain strong and continue to live their lives as productively as they had before an MS diagnosis and I plan to be one of those people.

To find out more about Sweet Relief please visit: http://sweetrelief.org/

Exene Cervenka is still performing. She recently played a flood relief benefit in Nashville and can be seen in New York City on July 12 as part of a collaborative show with the Blind Boys of Alabama. You can learn more here.

Jul
04

Songs for Independence Day and the Fourth of July

It’s the Fourth of July and here’s a pack of songs you might want to check out. You can find the patriotic songs elsewhere and the songs perfect for your backyard BBQ abound on the web. This list includes songs that make a direct reference to the 4th of July or Independence Day or speak about an Independence Day.  Some do both.  

Fourth of July – X

The best of this bunch of songs, written by Dave Alvin and covered by many (Dave Alvin, John Doe, Robert Earl Keen, among others), this is a powerful tale of a fading marriage when the forgotten fireworks of the Fourth of July provide a spark of hope. Dave Alvin is a master craftsman and it shows in the poignancy of these lyrics and the rousing salvation and pleadings of the chorus:

On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone
The Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below
Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July
Hey, baby, it’s the Fourth of July

You can catch a Dave Alvin video here and Dave Alvin live here. Click here for a live version by John Doe.  

Independence Day – Bruce Springsteen

Not a holiday song, but a coming of age tale when the son finally stops fighting the father and readies to leave:

Now I don’t know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind

Well say goodbye it’s Independence Day
It’s Independence Day all boys must run away
So say goodbye it’s Independence Day
All men must make their way come Independence Day

Tears of Rage – Performed by the Band

Written by Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel, the song dwells on ideas of loyalty, freedom and love.

We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way
Oh what dear daughter ’neath the sun
Would treat a father so
To wait upon him hand and foot
And always tell him, “No?”

4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) – Bruce Springsteen

One of the best of early Springsteen, this song tells the tale of hanging on the boardwalk at Asbury Park waiting for life to take off:

Sandy the fireworks are hailin’ over Little Eden tonight
Forcin’ a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July

Fourth of July – Aimee Mann

Another song where the holiday evokes memories of sadness and lost love, the singer wonders if a pat lover regrets never having told her he loved her:

Today’s the fourth of July
Another June has gone by
And when they light up our town I just think
What a waste of gunpowder and sky

Independence Day – Martina McBride

No reference to the Fourth of July, instead, it’s a song of independence as an abused wife stands up for herself and finds freedom by blowing up her house with her husband inside.

Let freedom ring
Let the white dove sing
Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong
Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay
It’s Independence Day 

4th of July – Shooter Jennings 

Driving cross-country with his girlfriend going real country with their music:

You were pretty as can be, sitting in the front seat
Looking at me, telling me you love me, and your happy to be,
With me on the 4th of July
We sang Stranglehold to the stereo
Couldn’t take no more of that rock n roll
So we put on a little George Jones and just sang along
and I’m looking for you in the silence that we share

Independence Day – Ani DiFranco

More introspection from the poet laureate of Buffalo, this song tells the tale of a love gone bad and it comes to a head on as they watch the fireworks.  Love is war and she’s angry, feeling alone and abandoned:

We drove the car to the top of the parking ramp,
on the 4th of July
and I planted my dusty boots on the bumper and sat out on the hood,
and looked up at the sky

Born on the Fourth of July – Tom Paxton

Anti-war son inspired by the Ron Kovic’s book of the same title:

I was born on the fourth of July
No one more loyal than I
When my country said so, I was ready to go,
And I wish I’d been left there to die.

Independence Day – Elliott Smith

No reference to the holiday, this song dreams of a new life and independence:

I saw you at the perfect place
It’s gonna happen soon, but not today
So go to sleep, and make the change
I’ll meet you here tomorrow
Independence Day
Independence Day
Independence Day

4th of July – Joe Whyte

 Singer-songwriter trying to make a name for himself sings of leaving home and promising to come back home:

 I’ll be back on the 4th of July
I know I said that last time
Yeah, I know it’s the 4th of July
But I need a little more time

You can check out the song at his website.

Fourth of July – U2

A moody instrumental from The Unforgettable Fire

Fourth of July – Soundgarden

Thudding guitars and apocalyptic thoughts:

Cause I heard it in the wind
And I saw it in the sky
And I thought it was the end
And I thought it was the 4th of July

On the Fourth of July – James Taylor

I include this song for completist purposes. Mellow and smoky, James Taylor makes an analogy about lasting love and America, though I don’t really understand any of it:

Unbelievable you, impossible me, the fool who fell out of the family tree,
the fellow that found the philosopher’s stone, deep underground like a dinosaur bone.
Who fell into you at a quarter to two with a tear in your eye for the Fourth of July
for the patriots and the minutemen and the things you believe they believed in then

Roses on the Fourth of July” – Nanci Griffith

A long-term marriage that survives mysteries and shadows from the husband’s past as a Viet Nam veteran:

He still sends her roses on the 4th of July
They’re always white roses and she never asks why
She still doesn’t know where he goes Thursday nights
But his wedding band rests, on the bedside that night

He was a soldier in the Vietnam war
He lost half his right leg whilst daydreaming of her
She lit a candle each holy hour he was gone
“You Were On My Mind” was their favorite song

If you have others you want to suggest, please post away. Thanks.

Jul
03

Hats off (To the Big Queen City)

Music and Lyrics by Phil Cody from Phil Cody’s album Sons of Intemperance Offering. You can listen to the song here.  You can buy the song at iTunes here and buy the album here.

Singer-songwriter Phil Cody resides in Los Angeles, but he grew up in Cincinnati and it’s an exile’s love for his lost home that fuels this high-energy love letter of a song. You can feel the energy right from the opening big strums of the guitar joined by a raucous B-3 Hammond organ followed by some backgrounds shouts, “Hey, hey what are you doing?” Cody steps front and center to the microphone, “Hats off to the big Queens City/She is the lifeline to my heart.” No irony here, no subtlety, just joy and love. Ringing guitars, propulsive drums and that voice, full of yearning, make the case. Even the nonsense lines (“la de da…do it do it”) convey meaning and heart.

It turns out that we don’t get to choose what we love. Phil Cody may have wanted Los Angeles for all the right reasons – job, family, a woman he chased – but it’s Cincinnati that he knows and loves. There is no line separating the public from the personal so we hear shout outs to an anonymous fur trader whose wanderings led to the establishment of the City (“He thought he found the way to China/but he only found the Louisville Falls”), Stephen Foster (“Oh Susanna what can I do”), Pete Rose and the singer’s sister (“My sister she got married on the show boat Betsy Ann”). He doesn’t sing about an idealized lost city, but a real place whose very being inspires, his voice conveying a mixture of pride, awe and even surprise at his own emotions. As is often the case, we have to leave to appreciate our hometown and may see it clearest when looking from a distance.

Listen to how the song swells to carry these lines:

“The moonlight on the Ohio river
No sooner will the damn thing freeze than rise
right up and flood”

Phil Cody understands: to hell with the perfect. It’s why I’d rather listen to Tom Waits croak his dark songs then anything by Mariah Carey and why there is nothing as lovely as the scar on my wife’s right shoulder, a blemish that evinces character, experience and real beauty.

Don’t know much about Phil Cody. He’s released two albums: this song appears on the Sons of Intemperance Offering, a terrific album with ballads, rockers and plenty that define character, including a searing version of the Clash’s “Go Straight to Hell.” The backing musicians included Rami Jaffee, keyboard player for the Wallflowers.

Phil Cody is still out there performing. You can learn more and find his upcoming shows at his website.  You can also check out his My Space page for more info, photos and some free music, including versions of The Clash’s “Go Straight to Hell” and Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.”   You can read a review of Phil Cody’s music at Guy’s Music Review Site.

Jul
02

Radical

Written and performed by Catie Curtis. You might be able to listen to the recorded verison at iLIke here. You can hear a live version here (the video is muddled). You can find the song on Catie Curtis’s album, Truth from Lies. You can buy the song at iTunes here. You can find the lyrics here.

In a day when so many make sure they express their stand in the loudest way possible, a whisper can be powerful. The world is loud enough already and filled with dire arguments. Personal anecdotes become mere fodder for arguments and political stances. Sometimes we need stories that are personal and tender.

Catie Curtis delivers just such moments on her 1996 song, “Radical.” I imagine this song as the singer responding to her lover after an argument: meditative, generous and heartfelt.  Arising from a lesbian relationship, the song avoids stridency and large political statements in favor of intimacy, a stripped down performance that centers on the voice and delivers lines that get to heart of this relationship.

The first line of the chorus captures the essence of the song: “But I’m not being radical when I kiss you.”  She can break your heart when you hear the fullness of love and desire she pours into the four words, “When I kiss you.” The chorus continues:

I don’t love you to make a point
It’s the hollow of my heart that cries when I miss you
And it keeps me alive when we’re apart

The personal becomes political not because of the public aspirations, but because of the undeniable truth of the connection. True love is not political posturing, yet it can destroy the false constructs of so many hollow political arguments. This song never mentions the debate on gay marriage, but one listen undermines all the arguments that deny two people in love the right to form a legal union. So many pontificate and bellow, yet their words are mere gonging compared to the bare sincerity of Curtis’ song and singing.

I love the generosity of the opening verse when she sings, “Let’s give my mama and my daddy a little time.” Her voice is full of warmth when delivering those lines and she conveys a deep sense that familial love is never about drawing lines and taking positions. The singer is not hiding or denying her essence, not failing to make a point, only allowing time and patience. Of course, not all of us have such compassion. I think of my youthful battles with my Dad, so strident, so bereft of compromise, each of us so right as we broke each other’s heart.

The singer has such conviction in the love that it erases the doubt that leads to defensiveness. “We go downtown, some people stare/But there are lots of people who really don’t care.” Her worldview is not divided into supporters and opponents, but allows for the vast majority who don’t notice us and don’t care. “I just want to hold your hand/I don’t feel like making some big stand.”

“Radical” is not an anthem, it does not proselytize. It is a simple love song that understands the world can be too much with us, that all the fuss and fury of the world merely distracts us from what matters. “Love is stronger than words anyway.” This song comes across as if the singer is leaning forward on a stool, guitar in hand, making sure that she connects, making sure that we hear, making sure we understand the love she has for her partner from the tenderness and ache in her voice.

You can see a poor quality video of a live recording of this song from 2009 here. You can buy the album Truth from Lies from iTunes here and Amazon here.

Catie Curtis grew up in Maine and lives in the Boston area now. You can check out her other music and performance schedule at her web site by clicking here.

Jul
01

Spell of Wheels

Performed Peter Case and written by Peter and Joshua Case.

You can listen to the song here. You can buy it at itunes here.

Two beats on a bodhran sets the pulse, then the pedal steel unwinds and a Mellotroncompletes the swirling enchantment as Peter Case’s “Spell of Wheels” envelopes in a dream-like state, flowing, kinetic, drawing us forward. Images appear “Kansas City as the first snow of the year begins to fall,” and you can almost see the fat white flakes against the black sky. In the first few seconds, you understand this is a true road song, not about the idea of the road, but it puts us on the road.

Next we’re in a party, five kids, floating, moving almost dream-like between the revelers – names like Skip, Wolf and Faceboy – and a girl “drunk & leaning against the wall.” You want to lean in a kiss her. They’ve got, no place to be and nowhere to go, but someone has an idea, the pace of the music picking up with an accordion and harmonica enriching the hypnotic spell:

We leave KC at midnight heading north on the interstate
Snow is falling hard & fast we’re glad to get away
Five kids in a beat up car kickin’ up their heals &
Heading out into the dark beneath the spell of wheels

The narrator is in the story (“we’re glad to get away”) then he’s not as he stands outside watching the five kids, five kids with no home, no place to be, no place to go so they drive through the snow. Kids known forever to rock and roll (think Jonathon Richmond’s “Roadrunner”, Elliot Murphy’s “Drive All Night” or the Silos “Let’s Take Some Drugs and Drive Around;” I’ll get to those songs on another day).

The music compels us forward “past places we’ll never know/flashing lights and highway signs”) when what should appear but the black car, the demon car rising up in the night, chasing them. Who? Why? Where did it come from? They drive on cause there’s nothing else to do and still the black come comes. Have you had that nightmare? The oversized car following, pulling up next to you. Cop car or murderer. In the song, the narrator looks out and sees the black car “has rolled its window down/& when I see the shotgun there/I know we’re graveyard bound.”

We’re still moving, looking up through the snow, lights in the night “a thousand faces sleep in flight,” whole lifetimes adrift in the sky, lives that never touch, “down here the road turns like a screw/”I’m on my way hack home to you.” In this one moment, the song puts us in two places at once – the plane floating overhead and the car driving forward. Who is heading home and whom is he heading home to? Is that the narrator or a passenger in the sky or one of the five longing for a girl, maybe the drunk girl leaning against the wall? The answer to all these questions is yes and that’s the faint tissue that connects the strangers in the plane and the kids in the car.

The plane floats past, the shotgun and car still staring and the music keeps driving, the droning of the wheels. “Skippie jams down on the brakes that demon car blows past/we pull off on the roadside everybody pulls a knife.” How lost and lonely in the snowy, expanding universe, pulling knives at a gunfight. “The black car keeps on goin’ & I guess so do our lives.”

In dreams, we can’t stay still and the music won’t let us stop, the harmonica adding resonance and energy to the drive. They follow the road to Minnesota “spend the winter in monochrome. The five kids “fall in with small time criminals jut like the ones at home” nothing changes, but there is solace in connecting to what one knows and not seeing the black car rising in the night and the shotgun staring out the window.  They’re “waitin’ for the spring to come,” hope, maybe change, maybe hit the road again.

The music, so insistent, so memorizing, captures the spell of the highway wheels, the voice like smoke entwined in the music, the images float like the snow in a snow globe, only we’re not on the outside looking in, we inside looking up at an endless universe full of snow. Peter Case co-wrote the song with his son, Joshua, who claims to have seen the black car somewhere on the highway after leaving Austin. But that black car belongs to all of us as dos the moment when our breathing stops before the world fast-forwards again.

And what lines Case writes. He captures the dullness and disaffection of a winter indoors with “spend the winter in monochrome.” And what do those plane passengers see if they look down and see “the road turn like a screw”? Even the minor details add to the weight of the song – the escapade starts at a party in Westport, a section of Kansas City.

Peter Case sang this on his first solo album, Full Service No Waiting and it also appears on retrospective that Vanguard assembled, Who’s Gonna Go Your Crooked Mile?“ Both albums have much to recommend them.   

You cannot mention Peter Case without making reference to his former band, the Plimsouls, but he’s been performing solo for thirteen years now and has released eight solo albums to a mere three for the Plimsouls. His solo work stands on its own. As to how to define his music, here’s his own explanation:

I tell people now I play folk-rock, & they seem to understand …but the whole truth is more complex: I’m a singer/ songwriter that uses all the American styles to get my stories across : Blues. Rock.nRoll. Country. Soul. R&B …& Folk..plus some rhythmic influences from around the world. I’m trying to forge my own style out of those inherited materials…I’ve always been into dynamic emotionally charged music you could use to tell a story or paint a picture.
So in other words, yes.

You can find more about Peter Case at his website or check out his blog.

Jun
25

Song for the Dreamers

Performed by Danny and Dusty. Written by Dan Stuart and Steve Wynn. Click here to listen to the original recording. You can check out a 2007 live version here. You can buy the song on iTunes here and buy the album, The Lost Weekend, here.

It’s 1985 and there’s a music scene cooking in Los Angles dubbed the Paisley Underground, their sound ranging from pop to roots rock to psychedelia.  The leading bands included the Bangles, Game Theory, The Long Ryders, The Dream Syndicate and Green on Red. On one particular weekend, Dan Stuart (lead sing form Green on Red and Steve Wynne (lead singer from the Dream Syndicate) pulled some band mates and some friends from the Long Ryders into a studio for a weekend. Over the next 36 hours, they consumed combustibles by the bucket load and recorded a complete album put out under the moniker Danny and Dusty with the title, The Lost Weekend.

Thankfully, the recordings were not lost. In many ways, what they laid down in that studio exceeded what any of the bands did on their own. That album features some great songs, including “The Word is Out” and “Miracle Mile,” but nothing beats “Song for the Dreamers.”  A rollicking tribute to losers, hustlers, schemers an dreamers, Wynn and Stuart trade vocals as if they’ve been barnstorming roadhouses for twenty years while the band unleash a frenzy behind them that makes like a Thunderbird convertible flying down the highway.

Sing me a song for the dreamers

With Donnie Duck pounding the drums and smashing cymbals, Chris Cacavas looping piano notes in and around the beat, and Steven McCarthy driving his guitar, you can’t help but feel the surge of energy and enthusiasm. It’s a song that leaves you smiling and wanting to shout along. It’s about a carousing faith, a belief in dumb luck, a bow to the hard luck losers and the misfits that stick out. The bands having a great time performing and you want to join the fun.

The music is as improbably wild and idiosyncratic as the characters running around in this song. Danny (Stuart) sings the first half of each verse, with Dusty (Wynne) responding in the second half. The song opens:

Took a ride on the 505
Woke up in Fresno at Sarah’s dive
She’s got one eye and a way of talkin’ dirty that’s nice
Old Bill lives on the hill
He’s got 25 wives and a Coupe De Ville
Likes to hang out way by the still at night

You get the sense that Bill is holding a sweaty log neck in the midst of Sarah’s dive bopping to the band. It would be no surprise that Stuart and Wynne made up the lyrics as they went along in a hilarious game of “Can You Top this?” Danny starts the next verse by singing:

Lady Luck drives a pickup truck
She runs numbers for Pearl S Buck
She’s got a laugh like a wild coyote in heat

You could ask why Pearl S. Buck would be running numbers, but why bother. Dusty doesn’t beat an eye, he replies with the even more ludicrous:

My brother Rod must get some kind of nod
He fell asleep drunk behind the wheel of a ’56 Dodge
Woke up ten miles outside of Cape Cod the next morning

Dusty gets in the last verse, this time pointing at his singing partner and laughing:

Now one last verse about my friend Dan
He lucked in to one hundred grand
Blew it all at the MGM Grand in three hours

This verse may hit close to home as Dan Stuart has seen his ups and downs and has, at times, blown much of his money.

Throughout the choruses and through the end of the song, the singers name check various characters in a random pattern that defies explanation. Here’s the first rendition of the chorus:

Sing me a song for the dreamers
Sing me a song for Bobby Chacon and Al Capone and the boys
Sing me a song for the dreamers

I put together a key to their mad references:

Name Notes
Bobby Chacon A boxer with a tragic personal life, he’s known for his hard punches, wild lifestyle and sad life. His first wife committed suicide after she failed to convince him to quit boxing and his son was later murdered.
Al Capone Notorious Chicago gangster
Pearl S. Buck American writer who lived manly in China. She wrote the Good Earth and won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Fidel Castro Baseball loving, cigar smoking Cuban dictator
Jackie O. Fashion icon and lady about town, Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s wife became known in the press as Jackie O. after marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis
Johnny O’Wynn They got me on this one. If you know about whom they sing, please drop me a line.
Fred Gwynne Large, loveable actor who starred in Car 54, Where Are You? and as Fred Munster in The Munsters. He later gained fame as the judge in My Cousin Vinnie.
Count Basie Big band leader
Ryne Duren A fireballing reliever known for his thick glasses and wild pitches
Jim Thompson Writer of dark pulp fiction novels. His best known include After Dark, My Sweet and The Grifters. Dan Stuart named a Green on Red album after Thompson’s novel, The Killer Inside Me.
Ryan Sandberg Star second baseman for the Chicago Cubs

I first heard this song on Vin Scelsa’s radio show and it turned me on to a host of great bands. I tracked down Lost Weekend, then headed over to Green on Red, the Dream Syndicate and the Long Ryders, all worthy bands and worth the time to track down their music. You can find several live performances from Danny and Dusty recorded in 2007 when most of the original members got together again to perform.  You can find “The Word is Out,” “Baby We All Gotta Go Down,” and another live version of “Song for the Dreamers.”

Jun
24

James Connolly

Performed by Black 47. Written by Larry Kirwan, lead singer of Black 47. You can listen to the original recording here and buy it from iTunes here. You can see a live video here.

If you don’t know the song or the person, in a brief listen you’ll learn that James Connolly rose to prominence as a union organizer and socialist leader in Ireland and became one of the key figures in the Easter 1916 Uprising that sparked the Irish Revolution and led to independence from England.

It’s almost quaint to hear a rock song about a historical figure who died nearly 100 years ago. It would be akin to a song about Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin. Yet the Black 47 song is no relic and no sentimental ballad about romanticized times. It’s a powerful anthem performed with great fervor and conviction, a tale of a mission and a man’s very personal plight, a tribute to one of the men who gave rise to an Independent Ireland, yet the whole point of the song is that Connolly’s work and dream didn’t die when killed by that firing squad at Kilmainham Jail.  With horns, sax, crashing guitars and fist-pumping vocals, “James Connolly” calls to life the memory of the man and his cause and manages to both inspire and challenge.

Here’s Larry Kirwan, lead singer of Black 47 and the man who wrote the song on what he wanted to accomplish:

With [1916 Irish socialist hero] James Connolly, I hated the old standard song “The Ballad of James Connolly.” As a socialist myself, I resented that he had been railroaded by tears-in-the-beer nationalism. I thought that Connolly would have resented that, too. I always have to find a way to enter [the person’s] spirit, as it were. With Connolly, it was quite simple. What must he have felt-knowing that he was going to be executed-about leaving his family fatherless and penniless? Once I found that chink in the armor, the rest was just a matter of diligent and knowledgeable songwriting.

Kirwan succeeds with a brilliant turn of songwriting that frames a first person, almost hallucinatory last request with a third person description of the events from the Easter 16 uprising. The song opens in the midst of the rebellion:

Marchin’ down O’Connell Street with the Starry Plough on high
There goes the Citizen Army with their fists raised in the sky
Leading them is a mighty man with a mad rage in his eye

O’Connell Street runs through the heart of Dublin and the Starry Plough was the flag of the Irish Citizens Army, which Connolly led.  Connolly came out of the union and socialist movement and the flag represented Ireland’s ability to control its destiny from the plough to the stars (Sean O’Casey titled one of his plays after both the flag and the idea).  The Easter 1916 Uprising, which began on the Monday after Easter (April 24), ran for six days. In addition to Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, the Irish Brotherhood, a nationalist group led by Patrick Pearse and Sean McDermott, also led the effort. While most Irish songs celebrate the unity and heroism of the Easter 1916 leaders, they were not a well-organized or unified group. Connolly distrusted the Nationalists as being weak. They were a bunch of dreamers, poets and speechmakers; he was a bare-knuckles pragmatist.  In fact, Connolly refused to work with the Irish Brotherhood until a rumored meeting with Pearse and McDermott over three days in early 1916. Rumor has it that the Irish Brotherhood kidnapped Connolly to give them time to convince him of the need to work in unison. Others claim that Connolly told the Brotherhood that he was ready to start the uprising and if they did not come along, they’d be left behind. (Larry Kirwan has written a play, Blood, about the supposed kidnapping and meeting of Pearse, McDermott and Connolly.)

The chorus that follows rouses the band and the audience and makes plain both Connolly’s leadership, but also his cause:

“My name is James Connolly – I didn’t come here to die
But to fight for the rights of the working man
And the small farmer too
Protect the proletariat from the bosses and their screws
So hold on to your rifles, boys, and don’t give up your dream
Of a Republic for the workin’ class, economic liberty”

Not many songs get away with singing seriously about the “proletariat” and “economic liberty,” though step into Paddy Reilly’s on Manhattan’s Second Avenue or any other venue to hear Black 47 play this song and you’ll see the audience jamming their collective fists in the air to these lines. The British would call him a terrorist, yet he’s the hero here. There’s no denying or minimizing Connolly’s willingness to take up arms for his cause. Kirwan’s theatrical tendencies serve him well here as the music rises with the claims the song makes in Connolly’s name.

We get more of the story as the song moves forward and we hear from Connolly again:

Then Jem yelled out “Oh Citizens, this system is a curse
An English boss is a monster, an Irish one even worse
They’ll never lock us out again and here’s the reason why
My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die…..”

It is not enough to replace the British overlords with Irish overlords, the system must change. These populist principles were not ones espoused by Pearse and McDermott and not ones that show up on the earlier ballads about Connolly.

The Easter 1916 uprising ended with the rebels holed up in the General Post Office (GPO) on O’Connell Street. Surrounded by the British Army, badly injured and running out of supplies, by any measure, the uprising had failed. The rest of the country did not take up arms against the British and much of Dublin seemed more annoyed at the inconvenience than anything else.

And now we’re in the GPO with the bullets whizzin’ by
With Pearse and Sean McDermott biddin’ each other goodbye
Up steps our citizen leader and roars out to the sky
“My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die…

The leaders were captured and taken to Kilmainham Jail except for Connolly. Shot so many times, he barely survived the battle and the British doctors predicted he would not live more than 24 hours. They took Connolly off to a hospital to patch him up so they could shoot him.

Here’s where the song takes a different tack. Where the opening verses march to a militaristic rhythm with high energy and potency, the tone changes as we hear from Connolly as if calling out from his deathbed. He speaks to his wife, Lilly, with thoughts of their children on his mind:

Oh Lily, I don’t want to die, we’ve got so much to live for
And I know we’re all goin’ out to get slaughtered, but I just can’t take any more
Just the sight of one more child screamin’ from hunger in a Dublin slum
Or his mother slavin’ 14 hours a day for the scum
Who exploit her and take her youth and throw it on a factory floor
Oh Lily, I just can’t take any more
They’ve locked us out, they’ve banned our unions,
they even treat their animals better than us
No! It’s far better to die like a man on your feet
than to live forever like some slave on your knees, Lilly
But don’t let them wrap any green flag around me
And for God’s sake, don’t let them bury me in some field full of harps and shamrocks
And whatever you do, don’t let them make a martyr out of me
No! Rather raise the Starry Plough on high, sing a song of freedom
Here’s to you, Lily, the rights of man and international revolution”

Kirwan is letting Connolly have the final word on his memory, decrying the efforts to defang him, to strip him of his dedication to the cause of workers. Pearse wrote lovingly of his desire to die for Mother Ireland, but not Connolly. He came to win and wanted to keep fighting. Much of the song’s success comes from railing against the efforts to wrap Connolly’s memory in some hackneyed green flag.

The song ends with Connolly marching forward (think Joe Hill):

We fought them to a standstill while the flames lit up the sky
‘Til a bullet pierced our leader and we gave up the fight
They shot him in Kilmainham jail but they’ll never stop his cry
My name is James Connolly, I didn’t come here to die….

But to fight for the rights of the working man
And the small farmer too
Protect the proletariat from the bosses and their screws
So hold on to your rifles, boys, and don’t give up your dream
Of a Republic for the workin’ class, economic liberty”

The British won that battle, but lost the war. To teach the Irish population a lesson, they kept Pearse, McDermott, Connolly and the others alive so they could execute them. The British turned them into martyrs and Ireland loves her martyrs. The time from the end of the Easter 1916 Uprising until the executions gave them men time to write letters, particularly form Pearse, and essays for publication that fanned the embers of support into flames of rage. The shooting of the wounded men turned the public against the apparently barbaric British.

Connolly spoke eloquently in his actual last statement, given to his daughter Nora the day before his execution (read it here) and his heroic resistance made him a shining hero. The British lined the others up and had them killed by a firing squad. Connolly was too weak to stand, so the British took him by stretcher from the hospital to Kilmainham Jail. They strapped him to a chair so they could shoot a kill him. The last killed, the shots that slay him proved to be the shots that started the Irish revolution and led to the British defeat.

Black 47 won’t change the world and they haven’t given rise to a new revolution, one built not on who was in charge, but how they lead. Nonetheless, this song brings to life not just the ideas of James Connolly, but a sense of the man himself and maybe it plants a few seeds.

Not only is this one of my favorite Black 47 songs, but it also helped us name our second son, James Connolly Cronin. As parents will do, we batted back and forth a host of names, not quite agreeing and not quite falling in love with any one name. One night we had Black 47 on the stereo at our apartment in Greenpoint and when we heard this song, a song we both liked and had heard plenty of times live and on record, it just clicked. It helped that my mother’s family were the Connolly’s, and she and her four sisters were a feisty bunch that would inspire any child, but it was the Black 47 song that gave us the idea and sealed the deal. Who wouldn’t want their child to carry the name of a man so committed to the cause of workers and every day people, one so willing to fight and not become distracted by fame, pity or comfort?

Our James Connolly recently turned seventeen and is making his way in the world, figuring out who he is and how best to lead his life. Whether grappling with school, writing his rap lyrics or playing football, I like to think that he has a few thumbprints of James Connolly, our citizen leader, on him.

You can find much about James Connolly and Black 47 on the web. Go see the band live (check their website for tour dates). They play regularly in New York City and as fairs and festivals across the country all year long, but particularly in the summer.  You might want to check out Roddy Doyle’s novel, A Star Named Henry, for another fictionalized take on Connolly.

Jun
22

Junkman

Performed by Genya Ravan and Ian Hunter and written by Joe Droukas. You can listen to the song here and buy it at iTunes here. The song first appeared on Genya Ravan’s And I Mean It and appears on the Ian Hunter Collection, Once Bitten, Twice Shy.

It’s 1979 and singer, producer, all-around tough girl, Genya Ravan goes into the studio to cut her second solo album. By then she had evolved through every genre that would have her, beginning with her girl band roots (Goldie and the Gingerbreads). She led the New York-based rock band Ten Wheel Drive, signed with Columbia, who thought she was the next Janis Joplin, discovered and produced the Dead Boys after a night at CBGBs and sang with everyone from Buddy Guy to Ronnie Spector to Dusty Springfield and jazzman Buzzy Linhart.

She entered the studio with a song penned by Joe Droukas that called for a duet, a rock ballad with some possibilities. Van Morrison was supposed to provide the male voice, but a tour kept him from the recording session. Ravan’s manager reached out to Bruce Springsteen cause he may have been tough enough and had the swagger to match Ravan’s fierceness. While Springsteen dawdled, Mick Ronson, lead guitarist for Mott the Hoople wandered into the studio. He had a natural suggestion: Mott’s front man, Ian Hunter. Is there anyone who does the combination of jaded and vulnerable better than Ian Hunter? He’s the ultimate cad who turns out to have a heart. One listen and you know that Hunter and Ravan made the perfect pairing for this song.

Play “Junkman” now and you’ll wonder how this didn’t become a monster hit; why isn’t it a hit now? After a few listens, you’ll have the song floating round your cranium and you’ll be repeating, “Should’ve listened to the junkman.” Forget those lists of run-of-the-mill power ballads (“November Rain” indeed), cause this here’s the real thing: a song that starts small and intimate and grows to a raging wall of sound and emotion, singers who make us believe and performances the that tear the paint off the walls.

First, we hear the acoustic strums of Ronson’s guitar lulling us into a quiet moment, drawing us closer, then comes the plaintive, incredibly sexy voice of Ravan. “The Southside girls they told me/That you were hot as fire.” Her voice is constrained, but you know it won’t be for long, you can feel the pent-up longing and lust. “And I remember every word you said/When you told me I’d get burned/I said don’t worry baby/I’ll just live and learn.” And she meant it, you know she did, even if remorse already drenches the line.

She sings the first chorus as if a gentle rebuke, “should’ve listened to the junkman…it’s a sin that takes a love and loses.”

Ian Hunter’s voice responds with the perfect combination of British cockiness and world-weariness, telling her, “You’ve been confusing lust with love/I think I’m gonna let you go.”

There they are: the girl who won’t get burned and the been-around-the-block guy who never falls in love. You know where this is headed. “Oh, baby we play these games/I’d never thought we’d do it/But we done it just the same.”

The song rises on Ronson’s guitar and swirling keyboards and those voices, growing more powerful as the truth of their longing overwhelms their coolness. Next thing you know, Ravan’s singing, “I sweep away that shattered heart that one time got away.”

The song soars with combination of desire and loss and the revelation that these hidebound creatures couldn’t help themselves. Call it love, call it lust, all the reasons in the world couldn’t keep them apart. The chorus repeats, “You should’ve listened to your junkman,” but the voices make clear the disbelief as to how far each went. “I don’t want to beg,” they sing over and over, begging for one more time. The song builds to a crescendo of Ronson’s guitar licks and the full-lunged wailing of Ravan and Hunter venting their irresistible longing and regret, their voices transcending the lyrics to full-throated cries of love.

Melodrama comes when a song reaches for emotions it doesn’t deserve, but this near six-minute explosion of desire generates real passion that comes to life in the perfect pairing of Ravan and Hunter’s voices. He swings low, damning himself while she keens, whirls and flies above, each burned and giving voice to the anguish of their desire.

We often connect people with songs, especially people who introduce us to new music. When this album came out in 1979, I hosted a college radio show and a friend turned me on to Genya Ravan and “Junkman.” I was immediately smitten with the song – as this small appreciation clearly indicates – and played it as often as I did Neil Young’s “Thrasher,” Graham Parker and the Clash. Genya Ravan wasn’t a household name – no one else at our less than edgy station had heard of her – so it took some explorations and special knowledge to find her music and a particular person to become a fan. Which brings me to Carol, the woman who did the exploring and the experimenting and had the combination of toughness to like Ravan enough to own two of her albums. It turns out that Carol knew a lot more music than just Genya Ravan, in fact, she knew a lot more about a lot of things, and that combination of riskiness, daring and high standards added to her charms. I was a fool back then, still am, but I knew enough to follow that friend and still do, since Carol became my bride. You might have seen her recently shaking her hips to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings cause she still has a thing for tough women and a weak spot for fools like me.

The song originally appeared on Genya Ravan’s album And I Mean It, which you can get at ITunes. You can listen to the now 70-year-old Ravan on her radio show that is part of Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius Radio. Check out her website here.

Ian Hunter still performs and you can find this song on his compilation album, Twice Bitten, Once Shy, also available at ITunes. You can check out the latest on Ian Hunter at his website.

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