Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Conviction, Jonathan Kramer (1968)

Forty years ago today, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical known as HAIR opened on Broadway and ran for 1,750 performances. From the standpoint of mainstream theatre, with its interracial cast, nude scene and "Be-In" finale involving the audience, it was pure anarchy.

The first soundtrack album I ever bought, HAIR was positively awash with a lust for life and many of the songs - including the lesser ones - have been indelibly imprinted on my brain. For reasons that I can't begin to fathom, My Conviction, performed by cast member Jonathan Kramer, is one of the songs from that album that to this day I can sing every word of without skipping a beat. I also know the entire What A Piece of Work is Man soliloquy from Hamlet by heart because it was used (slightly modified) in one of the songs on the soundtrack.

With book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, the play was a celebration of life, a plea for peace and an uninhibited enactment of the freedom of youth to say just about anything and get away with it. Most of the people who attended, according to this TIME magazine article from 1968 (complete with Groucho Marx quote), were adults, however.

I always liked the clever My Conviction because it pointed out so minimalistically why it went against the natural order of things to get upset about long hair on boys. In those days, of course, it was common to kick kids out of school for such sins; I myself, part of a very small group of hippies in my school, was sent home more than once because my skirt was too short (the principal was a former Marine and did not take kindly to our bucking the system).

HAIR's original cast included Diane Keaton, Melba Moore and Shelley Plimpton, and apparently many of the alumni will be gathering in New York soon to celebrate. That sounds like a reunion that would be a lot more fun than my 20th high school reunion was!

Friday, April 25, 2008

When A Man Loves A Woman, Percy Sledge (1966)

I just got back from a business trip to Alabama, so wouldn't this be a good time to mention one of the most sublime songs ever to have been incubated there, Percy Sledge's unforgettable When A Man Loves A Woman?

The backstory may very well explain why it feels like one of the most authentic soul ballads ever recorded. Not a song that was handed to him by other composers as was so often the case, Sledge spontaneously belted it out one night when he was being paid to sing songs written by others in a nightclub in Sheffield, Alabama.

According to Gerri Hirshey's Nowhere to Run, one of the definitive histories of American soul music, Sledge's regular singing gig - he worked as a hospital orderly by day - was suffering mightily because a broken heart had put him off his game. One night he asked the bass player and organist accompanying him to give him any key. (He later gave them writing credits on the song.) Howling "a bunch of stray thoughts on the blindness and paralysis of love," according to Hirshey, the anguish streamed out of him in the form of When A Man Loves A Woman. I'm trying to imagine what it must have been like to be in that audience!

Later, he was signed to Atlantic Records following a local record shop audition, having further refined the fruits of that spontaneous combustion into the song we know today. Session musicians from Alabama's legendary Fame studios in Muscle Shoals backed him up on organ and horns, with the result being the perfect expression of a man hopelessly in love and being played for a fool.

I was a mere 13 years old when this was released - as I've written previously, so many of the soul songs of this period were way beyond my maturity level in their focus, yet they left an indelible impression upon me of what life was going to be like down the long and winding road.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Superstar, The Carpenters (1971)

As I noted yesterday, Crazy On You was not in Juno after all, but a fragment of Sonic Youth's version of Superstar was, so this is probably as good a time as any to write about the version I'm familiar with and loved, the one made famous by Karen and Richard Carpenter.

So in the 60s we had this groupie phenomenon, and while I never succumbed to temptation, I often fantasized about being a groupie for Procol Harum's Robin Trower. Hey, guitar players do things to a girl! (When I lived in the dorm in college, the girl next door was a Marmaduke groupie, John 'Marmaduke' Dawson being a member of the Grateful Dead-associated New Riders of the Purple Sage. I was fascinated by the fact that a college girl could even do such a thing. She'd always come back filthy at the end of a concert weekend, I remember. But I digress.)

Originally the group's drummer, Karen Carpenter the singer had a voice both soothing and disturbing - her unusual contralto always seemed tinged with something that transcended the obvious goody-goody aspect of their typical fare. In Superstar, that 'something' came to life.

Superstar (aka Groupie Song) was written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, with inspiration from Rita Coolidge, who supplied some of the ideas for it and sang it originally on Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour. Playing against type, or at least the 'type' with which she was associated, Karen, basking in her brother's arrangement, took it to the hit parade with all of the resonance of which her beautiful melancholy voice was capable. And I think it absolutely works.

In Gold: 35th Anniversary Edition, Richard said he discovered the song when Bette Midler sang it on The Tonight Show, and decided immediately to arrange it for Karen. Despite the growing permissiveness of the time, he felt the need to tone down the overtly sexual lyrics for commercial purposes. Superstar will forever remain an anomaly in the Carpenters' songbook, one that hinted at the deeper waters that were never quite plumbed.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Crazy On You, Heart (1976)

If ever there was an anthem for a certain part of my life when I was without a doubt certifiable due to a tempestuous relationship that brought me to rack and ruin, Crazy On You is it. Ask me to construct my Top Ten list of songs that have the power to stop the heart, this goes right on the top of the heap.

Here's the thing about Ann Wilson - she might be the best female rock singer the world has ever seen. No one commits to a song like she does - this is just one of so many that I consider great - or does so with more power and sheer guts. I just found this video of Crazy On You from a performance nearly 25 years after the song's release, and I literally had to pick myself off the floor and go blow my nose from the experience.

Among the song's virtues is its dramatic structure. Ann's opening solo, followed by sister Nancy's possessed acoustic intro before jumping into the main event of the song - as Elvis Costello said, God give me strength.

The rock musicianship overall was stellar. Longtime Heart lead guitarist Howard Leese, on famousinterview.com, said, "My main job is the guitar solos. I take it real seriously. When you think about it the solo is one of the big points in the song. When Ann sings the second chorus, there's usually a scream, and it's like 'Take It', and you have to come up to that level of intensity and play for awhile, and then give it back to Ann.

"So, that's quite a responsibility, especially if you're playing on a song you think is gonna be a number one record. You have to be very careful with the solo and make it something people aren't gonna get sick of after they hear it a million times. What I try to do, is come up with a melody that I think is as good or better than what the writer wrote for the singer."

I see the song was used in the film Juno (although was not included in the soundtrack - what's up with that?), which just landed on my doorstep from Netflix, so I guess I know what I'll be doing later today. I cannot wait to see how it's used! (UPDATE: Here's how it's used - not at all! Don't believe everything you read on wikipedia!)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Like A Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan (1965)

... the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but rather exercises in tonal breath control ... the subject matter - tho meaningless as it is - has something to do with the beautiful strangers ... the beautiful strangers, Vivaldi's green jacket and the holy slow train

Whatever you say, Bob. Liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited notwithstanding, this song meant everything to an entire generation, and still today - when that snare drum is struck and the opening strains pour out - the power of Like A Rolling Stone over Dylan fans is inescapable. It's one of an elite group of songs from that time period that broke the mold, to the extent that there was one - a song that got so real, with its contempt of the phony, the clueless and the self-important, that it seemed more a palpable organism than a song. Never clear who exactly it was directed toward - some claiming the flagellation was an expression of his own self-loathing at a difficult time in his life rather than any specific individual - it's not at all necessary to know the answer.

In terms of his use of the language, Dylan to me is very Shakespearean. In Macbeth, where Shakespeare writes, "Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," I'm struck dumb by the power of the particular words, weapons of artistry slashing illusions all to bits. Like A Rolling Stone, a work of art from a different century, does the same.

But it's not just the enormous impact of the words on the page. It's the delivery. It's the instrument - the electrifying Dylan voice, bending words into syllables you never knew existed, snarling his verse to his heart's - and our - delight. No one can tell me he has a terrible voice. It is the precise opposite - beautiful, the more so if you can watch him when he sings.

In his 1988 speech inducting Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Bruce Springsteen, remembering when he first heard Like A Rolling Stone on the radio riding in the car with his mother, described Dylan's voice as one that "reached down and touched what little worldliness a fifteen-year-old high school kid in New Jersey had in him at the time.

"Dylan was a revolutionary. Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body. He showed us that just because the music was innately physical did not mean that it was anti-intellectual. He had the vision and the talent to make a pop song that contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording artist could achieve, and changed the face of rock and roll forever."

Was Dylan just a vessel from which the poetry flowed? As with Hendrix, it can seem as though he doesn't have a lot to do with what's happening in front of us, like he was hand-picked to be our generation's oracle and is just bringing us what we're supposed to hear, in that time, in that place.

In 2004, Rolling Stone named Like A Rolling Stone #1 on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, saying, "No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time." That's debatable, of course, but I have no problem with them making the claim. It's a masterpiece.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Miss You, Rolling Stones (1978)

"We had great confidence in what we did compared to other people. We'd say, 'Well, we're better than them. They're rubbish, and they're doing well.'"

So sayeth Mick Jagger, in a Parade interview a few Sundays ago on the occasion of the release of the Martin Scorcese documentary Shine A Light. (Haven't seen it yet.) The question was: Can you explain the astonishing longevity of the Rolling Stones?

There are so many reasons why I've always loved the Stones. And one of them is their pervasive audacity. All of us have a side that just wants to tell everyone to go to hell, and that's what the Stones have been about from the beginning. They were probably the original punks.

The hypnotic Miss You is the quintessential example of this. When other groups were being marginalized as dinosaurs by the emerging disco and punk phenomena, the Stones just went nuts and created one of the best songs of their entire repertoire to that point. It sailed to the top of the charts the week of August 5, 1978 - an achievement of mammoth proportions when you consider that #2-5 were Three Times A Lady by the Commodores, Grease by Frankie Valli, Last Dance by Donna Summer, and Shadow Dancing by Andy Gibb. Take that, disco duck!

In Miss You, the Stones and the studio musicians involved in this recording session together produced one of the most alluring songs of the entire 70s. Not one rhythmic second drags. From start to finish, it's addictive, and you can't wait to see what happens next. Human metronome Charlie Watts has never been better - his four on the floor drum line alone makes the song one for the books. At the top of his game, Bill Wyman shores up the rhythm section with his bass playing. Mick indulges his inner sassy lunatic to perfection.

I saw the Stones live for their Tattoo You tour in 1981. Even back then, the critics were asking how these guys could keep going, suggesting to do so was undignified. What they don't seem to understand is that the Stones have never been about dignity. They've got music in their souls, and it's gonna come out one way or the other. And that may be one of their biggest strengths.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Right Down the Line, Gerry Rafferty (1978)

One of the most delicious singer-songwriters of the late 70s, who faded from view in part because he had no appetite for touring and his record label was sold out from under him, was the melodious Scotsman Gerry Rafferty. I once drove the West Virginia Turnpike listening to nothing but his music.

Rafferty first came to the public's attention for his stint in Stealers Wheel, which had a major hit with Stuck in the Middle With You. Earlier, he was part of a Glasgow folk trio that included the comic Billy Connolly, a group called the Humblebums. Sure, why not?

But Rafferty hit his stride as a solo artist, and Right Down the Line is actually just one of many songs that his fans love, other notable ones being Days Gone Down and, of course, Baker Street. One reason is there's always a lot going on in his songs instrumentally; they are works of art in themselves. In this, B.J. Cole's pedal steel guitar licks are extraordinary, the other guitar work is arresting in the atmospheric vein of another Scot, Mark Knopfler, and his vocals are stacked, so the vibrancy of his voice in the chorus is just stunning.

A YouTube commenter says, "I would love to meet the woman this song is about." Right Down the Line is that kind of song - a valentine that any woman would have wanted to receive from her man. In Rafferty's hands, it's pure delight.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Go Now, The Moody Blues (1964)

If I was coerced into making a Top 10 list of most-beloved British Invasion songs, unquestionably making the cut is the Moody Blues achingly beautiful hit Go Now. Right up there with the Zombies' She's Not There in the pantheon of perfection, this was one of those stunning songs that stopped me dead in my preteen tracks whenever I heard it.

The original blues-infused Moodies of Go Now fame were lead vocalist and guitarist Denny Laine (who later co-founded Wings with Paul McCartney), bass guitarist Clint Warwick, flautist and percussionist Ray Thomas, keyboardist Mike Pinder and drummer Graeme Edge. This is not the Nights in White Satin Moody Blues!

This incarnation of the Moodies never had another hit of this magnitude, and Laine and Warwick quit in frustration, to be replaced by Justin Hayward and John Lodge (who are the Moody Blues of Nights in White Satin).

The big thrilling payoff for me today in writing about this is discovering that Go Now was a cover, originally recorded, also in 1964, by an American blues singer who it appears is still living, Bessie Banks, and produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

And here's her astonishing version of the song, with Cissy Houston on backing vocals. I found a page maintained by Corey Banks, the son of Bessie's former husband, Larry (who wrote Go Now with Milton Bennett) that goes into considerable detail on how her career was overshadowed after the Moody Blues charted with the song in the same time frame as her version was starting to get American airplay.

Along with affording an opportunity to learn about the other side of the coin, the site also offers a treasure trove of priceless audio clips of blues recordings written, produced, composed and arranged by Larry Banks. If you love blues, prepare to spend some time. My mind is blown.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Simple Song of Freedom, Tim Hardin (1969)

Come and sing a simple song of freedom /
Sing it like you've never sung before /
Let it fill the air /
Tell the people everywhere /
We, the people here, don't want a war

How telling is it that, on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated 40 years ago tomorrow, I cannot remember even one song from that horrific time? It's like a slate wiped clean of a single note.

To pay my respects, I'll choose one of the first folk songs I remember really loving: Simple Song of Freedom by the singer-songwriter Tim Hardin. The story goes that Bobby Darin, who is the song's composer, gave the song to Hardin, whose If I Were A Carpenter had been a hit for Darin in 1966. Simple Song of Freedom became Hardin's only hit. As protest songs go, it is profoundly lovely.

What would Dr. King think of the colossal mess we find ourselves into today? Almost a full year before his death, he was one of the first prominent Americans to come out against the Vietnam War. Listen here to his sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in which he laid out his reasoning in eloquent detail, further observing that our integrated troops were fighting in "brutal solidarity" 8,000 miles away in Southeast Asia when they still could not be "seated together in the same schoolroom" or live on the same street in cities across the country.

When he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, I was living in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., which erupted into riots for almost 4 days, burning large parts of the city to the ground. Our schools were closed that Friday - we were close enough to D.C. that keeping people home seemed prudent, especially as my Montgomery County school district was one of the few integrated ones in the area. No one knew what to expect as we helplessly watched the violence escalate on television and federal troops trying to subdue crowds that at various points swelled to 20,000 in number.

My parents a week later decided to drive the family down to the District to survey the damage. To this day I don't know precisely what possessed them to do such a thing, but I will always remember the devastation. Some blocks in D.C. remained in rubble for decades afterward, so neglected was the city in the aftermath.

The evening of King's assassination, Robert Kennedy announced the news to an audience in Indianapolis, a mere 2 months before his own death in the same manner. In his heartbreaking remarks, he quoted from Aeschylus' tragedy Agamemnon - "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

When is it, exactly, that we're going to see this wisdom made manifest? How many more have to die? And for what?