Saturday, March 29, 2008

I've Just Seen A Face, The Beatles (1965)

For some, the most perfect Beatles album is Revolver, but I've always reserved that honor for Rubber Soul, which in the eyes of many marked a sea change in the way the Lads from Liverpool presented their gifts to the world. I still remember my heart pounding the day I bought the glorious-looking package to the right, my anticipation over its contents was that intense.

Digessing for just a moment (although there is a Rubber Soul connection), today is a special day where other avocations are concerned, to wit - I accomplished the unthinkable this morning and finished, without googling, the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle.

For those who may be unaware, the Saturday puzzle is the hardest of the week and, very often for me, impossible in terms of gleaning more than a few answers, much less finishing it. That I did is probably as much a testament to today's puzzle constructor, the devious and delightful Mike Nothnagel, as it is to my growing solving skills, but in any case, I want to remember this day forever. My fellow daily solvers and bloggers (check out an example of our underworld here at Madness ... Crossword and Otherwise) will understand the rush.

The connection between the puzzle and Rubber Soul is that one of today's clues was "it's heard on the Beatles' Rubber Soul" and of course that answer is SITAR. So today's as good a day as any to share one of my most favorite songs from that LP, albeit one without a sitar, I've Just Seen A Face.

In the UK, fans will associate this song with Help! instead; it was common to release slightly different versions of Beatles albums on both sides of the pond. Confusing, and never clear what the nuances were that led to such decisions. My research now reveals that in this instance it had to do with Capitol Records wanting to take advantage of the surging interest in folk rock, so this acoustic number - on which George Harrison shines with his 12-string - was one of several replacements for harder-edged songs like Drive My Car and Nowhere Man.

In the U.S., however, it was the first song on Rubber Soul, and what an exhilarating, joyful one it was. What fun it was to marvel at Paul McCartney's vocals on the tumbling lyric; he sang line after line with no apparent intake of breath. I love to sing this song.

A film I've not seen yet, but which is a rage among some of my young co-workers, Across the Universe, has a cover of the song by the actor who portrays Jude, Jim Sturgess, and the recasting is pretty interesting. If it introduces a new generation to the Beatles, I'm all for it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Case of You, Joni Mitchell (1971)

"At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. ... I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."

- Cameron Crowe's 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Joni Mitchell, speaking of the period in which she produced the Blue album

If ever there was an artist who embodies for me the Feminine, it is Joni Mitchell. Her musical poetry and her unearthly voice had the singular ability to wash away any pretensions I might ever have made in my college years to being invulnerable to men.

Firmly in touch with her muse and uncompromising in her honesty, Joni described as well as anyone ever could - though we were in the throes of the women's liberation movement - that it didn't matter how strong we thought we were, when it came to the men we loved, we were anything but. But of course in those days, it was easier to regain one's equilibrium ...

A Case of You is thought by many to be about Leonard Cohen, one of the many high-profile musicians with whom she had relationships (Rolling Stone once called her the Old Lady of the Year and actually diagrammed all of her romances). But its universal appeal is that it's a shimmering ode to all of those someones who caused us excruciating pain, and yet ... the bloodletting was so worth it. Oh I could drink a case of you darling / Still I'd be on my feet / I would still be on my feet

Saturday, March 22, 2008

All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)

There must be some kinda way outa here, said the joker to the thief ...

In a week where a major presidential candidate got real about race, and the 5th "anniversary" of the Iraq war was remarked upon more times than I care to count, I don't think there can be a more appropriate song to examine than Jimi Hendrix' incendiary cover of Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower.

I've been reading pages online of the book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America by Craig Werner, and in it a chapter explores how much Hendrix' music resonated with the integrated troops in Vietnam. Excerpting now from another source referenced in the book, Nine Meditations on Jimi and Nam, Roger Steffens says, "He represented a way to listen to the sound of your own outer limits. Being there and listening to him, no matter what the kids back home thought his music meant, they could never connect at the level we did. We were in the right zone to tune in. More intensity, more extremism ... "

Hendrix was a game-changer, there can be no doubt about that. I have been wrestling with what song best exemplifies his essence, zig-zagging between one original song of his and another, but in the end, the All Along the Watchtower cover is the powerhouse to me - the one that best showcases Jimi in all his glory in relation to the times in which he lived.

That it was an entirely different kind of song in Dylan's hands perhaps makes it even more fascinating; Dylan himself was blown away by its transformation and said in a 1995 interview, "It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day."

Maybe this version of the song has been part of the soundtrack of too many China Beaches and A Bronx Tales, but if so, it's only because it evokes exactly what you'd want it to, with the first 18 seconds of the intro screaming out War Zone! whether it's on our soil or someone else's. I can't think of another intro that comes across as ominously as this one ... and it's probably a good thing, because it is so harrowing.

The world was too much for Jimi Hendrix; what he was able to tap into to produce the music he did, the way he did it, would probably have killed a lot of us even sooner than it did him. In some of the footage of him in performance, it almost looks like he's just a vessel through which the intensity and extremity of that time was pre-ordained to flow. He would be 65 now ... it's difficult to imagine what else he might have given us had he lived.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Bell Bottom Blues, Derek and the Dominos (1970)

OK, Eric Clapton, just how many groups was it necessary to play in? No wonder he was a wreck - coping with the dynamics of the six groups with which he was associated between 1963 and 1971 in itself could have fueled his excesses of substance abuse. With everything in a rock musician's life heightened, often to negative effect in someone not well balanced, that was way too much testosterone immersion in too compressed a period of time.

Formed in 1970, disbanded in 1971, Derek and the Dominos followed the Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith and Delaney & Bonnie and Friends as Clapton's last 'supergroup.' With Bobby Whitlock, Carl Radle and Jim Gordon, refugees from the disbanded Delaney & Bonnie, Clapton, seeking a certain anonymity and desiring to recede into the background - impossible for someone of his achievements, who was being touted as God at that point - gave birth to what I believe to be my favorite song of his from that era, Bell Bottom Blues.

A YouTube commenter writes, "Clapton is such a gifted communicator of all of our fears and hopes," and I think that about sums up the power of this song. From Eric's voice and Fender Stratocaster, the naked anguish just pours. I'm sure some will argue, but it is far and away a superior song to the interminable Layla.

Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?
Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?
I'd gladly do it because
I don't want to fade away.
Give me one more day, please.
I don't want to fade away.
In your heart I want to stay.

Man, those were some distraught lyrics. At the time of its release, I knew nothing about Clapton's chaotic, messy life. I didn't know he was lusting after Pattie Boyd Harrison, George's wife, to such a degree he was driving himself mad. I didn't know he had a world-class drug habit and addiction to alcohol. I didn't know how temperamental, hyper-critical of himself and others, and insecure he was until I recently read his autobiography, Clapton. Under the circumstances, it's a wonder he was able to produce the kind of music he did, and frankly, that he's still with us today, happy and healthy.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Eight Miles High, The Byrds (1966)

The most evocative psychedelic record of the 60s, to me, is generally believed to be one of the first, Eight Miles High, written and performed by the Byrds. A cornucopia of complexity, it had many distinctive features, not the least of which were the spectral voices in alternating unison and harmony against the mesmerizing riffs of Roger McGuinn's then-unconventional 12-string guitar and Chris Hillman's throbbing bassline.

This is another one of those songs where just hearing the first notes triggers an immediate magic carpet ride back to my turbulent adolescence. The almost menacing intro, followed by "eight miles high, and when you touch down, you'll find that it's stranger than known" signaled a radical departure from the group's previous hits, such as Turn, Turn, Turn and Mr. Tambourine Man, which were Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan covers, respectively.

McGuinn, David Crosby, Gene Clark, Michael Clarke and Hillman distinguished themselves with music that seemed a hybrid of British Invasion and contemporary folk. In fact, their first tour of the UK positioned them as America's answer to the Beatles. Unlike the Beatles, however, they all had cut their teeth in the California folk scene and, knowing next to nothing about amplified instruments, might have seemed an unlikely pioneer of this new genre. In the liner notes to the Byrds box set There Is A Season, Tom Petty writes, "Without a single member with a rock background, they came from folk trios, bluegrass, Christy Minstrels and beatnik coffee houses. It was almost like a lab experiment, mixing the elements and seeing what came out."

What came out in Eight Miles High was an acknowledged homage to John Coltrane and the emerging influence of Ravi Shankar. The Byrds' first foray into psychedelia was surrounded by controversy from the outset, with baffled radio stations banning the record in the belief that the title was referring to drugs - which it probably was to some degree. (As with so many of these songs, the real story of what the song was "about" takes different forms depending on the source. There's an entire discussion about the song's genesis that can be read online in Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock by Richie Unterberger.)

It's interesting to me now how unsettling I found the shifts in the output of many groups circa 1966. It might seem strange, but I still remember being filled with foreboding, at age 14, as I witnessed the metamorphosis of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Byrds, just to name three, from their comparatively clean cut origins to new realms that were fraught with allure, yes, but still on some level, danger.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Can We Still Be Friends, Todd Rundgren (1978)

My sister, who is 4 years younger than I, likes to remind me that the baby boomer years covered people who were born as late as 10 or 12 years after I was. The early-60s songs weren't really part of her experience, while the mid-to-late 70s songs bookended her college years. Her point? I don't have to cut off my song selections at 1974 just because that's when I turned 22 and got a real job. It's all still baby boomer music.

So I'm leaping far ahead in time, to 1978, to pay homage to one of my favorite songs by the mondo-talented Todd Rundgren. A musician of extraordinary virtuosity with a lush voice who also wrote, arranged and played all the instruments on his solo records, in Can We Still Be Friends Rundgren created a song of haunting beauty, a window upon the desperate sadness one feels when a relationship hits the skids but a life without that other person in it at all is unfathomable.

Throughout his entire career, Rundgren has been a trailblazer. Also in 1978, he pioneered the first interactive concert, wherein subscribers to the cable TV experiment Warner/QUBE could vote, in real time, for the songs he was to perform. This happened in Columbus, Ohio, where QUBE debuted, and where I lived at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't have the service, which was pretty pricey for that era, so I didn't get to experience this. His Time Heals video was the second video played on the fledging cable network MTV in 1981. Check this out to see all the other milestones, and what he's up to now.

If you can find it, grab the double-live album Back to the Bars for a great sampler of Rundgren's best work through the 70s, with and without Utopia. I don't usually like live albums, but in this his humor, musicianship and gorgeous voice lure me again and again.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ain't No Mountain High Enough, Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (1967)

And speaking of duets ... I've been wrestling for weeks now over which Marvin Gaye song to include here. There were so many, and he was such a gifted, though tormented, soul. The obvious choice is What's Going On, which is anthemic and for the ages, but something keeps calling me back to Ain't No Mountain High Enough.

And I know the reason for it. In any video you see of Marvin singing this Nick Ashford-Valerie Simpson classic with his beloved Tammi Terrell, you see a man who was, at least for those moments, the personification of happy. I remember seeing this video on a Motown retrospective and being overwhelmed by the joy emanating out of these two doomed people. What came through couldn't be faked. See it again in this video.

So in this instance, context might not be the deciding factor for me. At the time it was released, no one was the wiser; it was just a great love song with a killer beat served up by the Funk Brothers' Uriel Jones, sung, seemingly effortlessly, by two of Motown's many uber-talented artists.

It's only when you know that Tammi collapsed in Marvin's arms during a performance later this same year, never to perform again and dying of a brain tumor in 1970 at the age of 24 ... and that Marvin was so heartbroken he didn't perform live again for several years ... and that Marvin himself, though he would go on to further greatness after his 20-year Motown contract ended and he went out on his own, would die violently at the age of 44 ... it's only when you know all of these things that this song becomes more precious.

Compounding the tragedy is that Marvin's death was at the hands of his father, a Pentecostal preacher who as much as anyone was the catalyst for Marvin's career - at the age of 5, he sang at one of his father's religious meetings where everyone present knew this was a prodigy through whom a spiritual force flowed that would take him places.

Although the exact nature of Marvin and Tammi's relationship has never been completely established and was purported by some to be entirely platonic, regardless, they had a singular alchemy that transformed a simple Motown song into incandescence.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Close Your Eyes, Peaches & Herb (1967)

Living in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. between the ages of 10 and 16, I was exposed to lots and lots of soul and rhythm and blues. I feel fortunate to have cultivated my musical tastes at a time when the segmenting of music by genres was a very limited phenomenon; there was a chart devoted entirely to R&B, but songs from that chart crossed over all the time to a white audience.

Flipping the dial among WEAM, WPGC, WINX, and WWDC, I almost never had the radio off in those days. WINX was the first station to broadcast 24/7 - such a luxury late at night when I couldn't sleep.

(I now pause to make a movie recommendation for those whose lives would have been bereft without the music and personalities of radio in those days - Don Cheadle's Talk To Me. Rent it, you'll be glad you did.)

Anyway, soul music touched very deep-seated parts of me from my very first exposure to it, as it does to this day.

One local soul duo who made it big was Peaches & Herb. Their beautiful harmonies on Chuck Willis' song Close Your Eyes were a mainstay on D.C.-area high school dance floors. Wow, something I just found: a site where a professional DJ group is compiling the top 100 most requested songs at parties 1950-1999! And Close Your Eyes is #71 on the 1967 list. Nice.

And in case it sounds more recently familiar, many years later, in 2003, two more artists with killer harmonies duetted on this song, Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville, on his Love Songs CD.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Midnight Train to Georgia, Gladys Knight & the Pips (1973)

I don't know precisely what it is about the first 15 seconds of this timeless classic by Gladys Knight & the Pips, but those seconds will forever whisk me back to the summer of 1973, when this song was just an integral part of the musical landscape of my life.

Actually originally recorded by Cissy Houston, who had a minor hit on the R&B charts earlier the same year, it went mainstream big time, becoming Gladys Knight & the Pips' first #1 hit for Buddah Records after their contract expired with Motown. Considered by many to be as close to perfect as a ballad gets, Knight's smooth soulful delivery and the seductive call-and-response of the suave Pips made for a class act if there ever was one.

Part of its appeal, I think, is how it parlays a realistic backdrop and an idealistic sensibility - without sugarcoating it - into one neat little package. Mississippi songwriter Jim Weatherly told a very simple but unforgettable story of one woman's devotion to and compassion for her man.

I've always thought some songs are blessed with precision lyrics that make them irresistible; this is one of those. When Gladys sings: I'm going to be with him / On that midnight train to Georgia / I'd rather live in his world / Than live without him in mine ... there is no escaping the shivers. How many of us have had those feelings about someone? For better or worse, I know I have.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Chicago, Graham Nash (1971)

This summer, when the Democratic National Convention nominates its historic candidate for president of the United States, it will be 40 years since the shameful events of the August 1968 convention that turned the streets of Chicago into suffering and mayhem. I was reminded of it the other day when I listened to an interview Fresh Air's Terry Gross did with filmmaker Brett Morgen, whose new animated film, Chicago 10, takes a fresh look at that tragic time in our history.

Bearing in mind that just months earlier both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated and the outrage at our involvement in the Vietnam War was at its peak, the convention drew many protesters, including the men who would become known as the Chicago Eight - Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, Bobby Seale, David Dellinger, John Froines and Lee Weiner.

Chicago police officers, acting on orders from Mayor Richard Daley, beat protesters to a pulp live on national television which, although hard to believe on one level, on another I have a distinct memory of a certain numbness setting in as our society became more and more polarized and violent.

So why was Graham Nash's powerful solo effort Chicago released in 1971? I've tried to figure it out, but it's not very clear to me, unless Nash just held onto it until he could release it on his first solo album, Songs for Beginners. I've seen some mention made of its purpose being to implore Steve Stills and Neil Young to stop fighting long enough to do a benefit concert in Chicago around that time, but haven't seen anything verifiable on that. Here's the history, though, for those who want to take a trip down memory lane or weren't around and just want to know:

The year after the convention, the Chicago Eight were indicted in federal court on conspiracy charges related to inciting a riot under a new civil rights law. (Said Abbie Hoffman, "Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch.") Their 5-month-long trial, run essentially as a kangaroo court by Judge Julius Hoffman, degenerated quickly when Seale's various outbursts and lapses in court decorum in seeking to represent himself or delay until his own counsel was available to appear resulted in the infamous decision wherein Seale was bound and gagged for the duration of the trial, an event to which Nash refers in Chicago. (After a point, Seale was severed from the case to be dealt with separately, and the group became known as the Chicago Seven.)

The complicated verdict in early 1970 did result in some convictions, which were eventually overturned by the appeals court in 1972. Anyone interested in the minutiae of the trial has a good resource in law professor Douglas O. Linder's account from the Famous Trials website; it's fascinating stuff.

Getting back to the song ... as I sit here in Ohio waiting for the results of our primary on Tuesday (I stood in line for an hour and a half to vote early yesterday), the anthemic nature of this song taps into my sensibilities right now - a burning belief in Barack Obama, a surrealistically inspiring candidate from Chicago who, if he's given the chance, will - with our help - change the world. Of that, I have no doubt.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Nutbush City Limits, Ike & Tina Turner (1973)

A church house gin house / A school house outhouse / On highway number nineteen / The people keep the city clean

One of the first truly funky songs I can remember and still relish from my college years is Nutbush City Limits, the Ike & Tina Turner classic that was an homage to Tina's Tennessee hometown.

Although they had bigger hits, there was no better song to shake a tail feather to than this one. Significant too because it was written by her instead of Ike and would be the last big hit they would have before their relationship disintegrated altogether, it was a rhythmic marvel and transformed me into a Tina-esque whirling dervish whenever I heard it.

Tina could belt out a song like nobody's business. And however debilitated he was by drugs, Ike was an innovative, exciting guitar player and arranger who fed a synthesizer through a wah-wah pedal to make this song a true original.

In her autobiography, I, Tina: My Life Story, Turner notes that it was around the time Nutbush came out that she was really starting to come to serious grips with how she was being dominated by Ike in her life and career. In retrospect it certainly seems a turning point in her move toward independence. Yet the two together changed the face of the soul music scene and that is their legacy.