Saturday, November 29, 2008

634-5789, Wilson Pickett (1966)

The simplicity of a particular song can provide a canvas for many artists to interpret it their way while not diminishing the original one little bit.

I found this to be true yesterday when I stumbled upon the Wilson Pickett hit 634-5789. For a while there I was virtually mainlining it and several other versions (those of Tina Turner with the divine Robert Cray and Sam and Dave, specifically). Such a life-affirming, finger-popping, backbone-slipping song and greatly needed right now.

A product of the hands-down-great Stax writing partnership of Steve Cropper and Eddie Floyd, concocted specifically for Pickett to follow up his smash hit In the Midnight Hour, 634-5789 and its braying horns boils over with soul - the happy kind. The "Wicked" Pickett, as he called his bad self, didn't care for it at first, to put it mildly. Gerry Hirshey relates the story in Nowhere to Run: Pickett threw the lyric sheet in the trash and he and Floyd "went down like scrapping bearcats, flailing at each other until Cropper managed to get them apart." Obviously he got over it.

Always rough and ready, Pickett left the Alabama cotton fields to live with his father in Detroit. For several years he sang in a gospel group called the Violinaires. In time he was lured by his neighbor Willie Schofield to put his raspy gospel stylings to work in a secular group that Eddie Floyd had formed in 1956, the Falcons. The depth of Pickett's remarkable talent just before it was unleashed on the larger world can be experienced in his singing lead as a Falcon on I Found A Love at the Apollo Theater; truly spine-chilling stuff.

After a record label that Floyd was later associated with in Washington, D.C. struck a distribution deal with Atlantic Records, which also distributed for Stax, it was just a matter of time before Floyd and Pickett were reunited in Memphis. Atlantic bought out Pickett's contract with the small label he had been recording for in Detroit after he left the Falcons, and fame and fortune became his.

Friday, November 28, 2008

You're Only Lonely, J.D. Souther (1979)

I'm not sure why J.D. Souther has eluded the limelight as much as he has over the past decades, but something reminded me of the gem You're Only Lonely today, so I thought I'd give him his due.

But in a way, he is in the limelight again, although until just this moment I didn't know how. Last week I woke up from a stuporous sleep in front of the TV to Joe Walsh's grizzled aspect and then the realization that I was looking at a live performance of the Eagles, who it seems have once again reunited.

And what the Eagles were singing was an early Souther composition, How Long, apparently the debut single from their first studio album in 28 years. Huh! And Souther recently released his own album, If the World Was You. I've been living under a rock, apparently.

Anyway, back in the 70s J.D. Souther was a talented singer-songwriter and sought-after session man in the burgeoning, oh-so-melodic Southern California scene that kind of defined that period in American music in my mind - Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt et al.

Souther and his buddy Glenn Frey had their own obscure acoustic band, Longbranch Pennywhistle, which released an equally obscure album in 1969. Frey went on, with Don Henley, to form part of Ronstadt's touring band, while Souther became a third of the country-rock supergroup Souther Hillman Furay Band, with Poco's Richie Furay and Chris Hillman of the Byrds, a marriage reportedly not made in heaven. Souther continued as a solo act and songwriter for others, especially the newly-formed Eagles. My favorite: New Kid in Town. Another is Ronstadt's cover of his White Rhythm and Blues, which was my introduction to that song.

Conventional wisdom has it that You're Only Lonely was an homage to Roy Orbison, who, like many, Souther admired, but on his website he describes the actual genesis thusly:

I actually didn't write "You're Only Lonely" with Roy in mind, but for a very beautiful singer and songwriter who, it seemed to me, worried herself into knots with language inappropriate to her real issue. She was, like many artists, simply insecure about being alone. The song was written to reassure this wonderful woman that she was not, probably had never been, and would not likely be alone unless she wanted it. ... when Waddy Wachtel and I were arranging songs for the 1979 album ... and he was trying to find a song of mine faster than a dirge and asked, as only he can something like: "What the hell, Jake, don't you have anything like, you know, a single?" I said, "Well, there's this little rockabilly thing but it has no bridge and no third verse. I played it for him. He looked at me like I was mental and I said, "But there's no third verse!" He said, "So sing the first verse again!" So I did.

Sometimes it's just that simple.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

She's About A Mover, Sir Douglas Quintet (1965)

Where have I been? All this time I thought Sir Douglas Quintet was a British Invasion band, and it took until today, when original member Augie Meyers and the West Side Horns appeared on Michael Feldman's Whad'ya Know? stop in San Antonio, for me to realize that the band has its roots in Texas.

But I was supposed to think that. The band's producer Huey Meaux consciously dressed up lead singer Doug Sahm, organist Meyers and the other members in the vein of a bunch of Liverpudlians to capitalize on the musical mania gripping the nation's youth. The story goes, according to the Vinyl Tourist website, that Meaux, determined not to be swept aside by the new arrivals, dissected every Beatles record to figure out why they were so popular and concluded that the beat had many similarities to a Cajun two-step. His counsel to Sahm and the newly-named band - write a song that fit the mold and get moptop haircuts.

Well, you coulda fooled me. The resulting She's About A Mover was very much of that time period, with a high-pitched Vox Continental organ riff that went right through you and vocals by Sahm that did not sound anything like American music at that time. According to Da Capo Best Music Writing 2003, edited by one Matt Groening, Simpsons creator, that style of organ was the only one in Texas. Meyers described She's About A Mover as a "polka with a rock and roll beat and a Vox organ. I played what a bajo sexto (a 12-string bass guitar) player in a Conjunto band would do." This from the guy Dylan has described as the "master of syncopation and timing."

SDQ was revered by Dylan and a precursor of groups like Question Mark & the Mysterians and Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs. Doug Sahm was a musical child prodigy who played pedal steel guitar among other instruments as a boy and performed onstage at the age of 11 with Hank Williams (the elder). The Austin Chronicle had 10 separate eloquent tributes to Sahm after he died prematurely in 1999. His career output in many different bands - synthesizing white, black and Hispanic cultures - was beloved by many. I had no idea.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Beatles (1968)

I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps

Songs that are too big to contain only the material world are indeed something to be thankful for when one's heart is as battered and sore as mine is this week. Songs like that help promote a healthy catharsis because they annihilate our perverse preoccupation with ego and somehow put our suffering in its larger and proper context. That's how I feel about While My Guitar Gently Weeps, ostensibly a Beatles song that I don't think anyone for a minute believes is a true Beatles song.

No reason why they should. It's pretty well known that the other Beatles were initially less than enthused about George Harrison's contribution to what became known as the White Album (apparently originally conceived as an acoustic number), and it took pressing the reluctant Eric Clapton into service as lead guitarist to make it the transcendent song it became and remains today. (The above link is to the version the grieving Clapton unleashed during the 2002 memorial Concert for George, with Harrison's son Dhani - and many others - accompanying him in one of the most moving performances I've ever seen of any song. However, this Todd Rundgren/Joe Jackson/Ethel version from 2005 also blows me away.)

Why Harrison had to fight to get his stuff due consideration remains a mystery, but I guess it all worked out in the end - of the four Beatles, he was by far the most influential as a solo artist. Prior to this, Harrison's output was relatively meager and marginalized. I had always regarded the Quiet Beatle as a strong lead guitarist but that was about it.

'Guitar' was a game changer and his masterpiece. And it stood out like a sore thumb against most of the other 29 songs on the album; I maintain only a slender handful of the cuts can be defined as remotely exceeding mediocrity. I loved it from the start, but in being such an anomaly, it sounded a bit of a death knell for the Beatles as recording artists, which was a scary prospect at the time. The White Album was a messy concoction that seemed to belong to just one Beatle at a time rather than a synthesis of their talents as a group. Certainly 'Guitar,' as a harbinger of what was to come when the group dissolved and went their separate ways, was a revelation in this regard.

Forty years later, it's still a powerful spiritual balm. Despite this week's weeping, "I look at the world and I notice it's turning." And I'm learning.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Lookin' for a Leader, Neil Young (2006)

Walkin' among our people
There's someone who's straight and strong
To lead us from desolation
And a broken world gone wrong

I'm making an exception today in my song selection criteria because today is Election Day in the United States of America - a day in which we have a very real, albeit on some level surreal, opportunity as a nation to stop going down the tragic path we've been on for too many years and elect a president worthy of the title.

Neil Young's Lookin' for a Leader with its 100-voice choir crying out in hope, was about as prescient as a rock song can be, tapping Barack Obama as that leader at a time when nothing in the zeitgeist suggested anything of the sort could ever occur. In a few short hours we will learn the results of two years of hard-fought and masterful campaigning to secure what is right for the United States and the rest of the world.

The classic outsider and stranger in a strange land, Sen. Obama is most likely the one person who has what it takes to transcend the noxious and entrenched self-interest that has passed for governing these past 8 years. If he pulls it off, and all indications are that he will, the euphoria that will set in may last for weeks. I - and so many, many others - want to be proud to be American again.

When I'm finished writing this I will be headed out for my late-afternoon shift at the polls, where I'll be handing out sample Democratic party ballots and ensuring that voters are treated properly. Incredibly, it is sunny and in the 70s here in the battleground State of Ohio where, God willing, we will be one of a number of states that will put Barack Obama over the top and into the White House.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

All the Young Dudes, Mott the Hoople (1972)

All the young dudes (hey dudes)
Carry the news (where are ya)

Boogaloo dudes (stand up come on)
Carry the news

Songs that have anthemic qualities are usually great songs even if they're not your own particular anthems. Whenever I hear - or heard - the defiant, exuberant All the Young Dudes, I am/was drawn to it immediately, despite it having no particular relevance to my life then or now.

Written and produced for Mott the Hoople by David Bowie (who shared a manager with them) at a time when Bowie's career was really starting to ignite as he toured on a large scale for the first time (as Ziggy Stardust) , All the Young Dudes was named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. It wasn't necessary to be an English working class adolescent to prick up your ears when it burst out of the airwaves.

Though they seemed like overnight sensations to many, Mott the Hoople had had three prior unremarkable LPs, and were in debt and on the verge of breaking up when bassist Pete "Overend" Watts approached Bowie seeking a spot in his band. Instead Bowie offered to produce them on his dime and throw in one of his own songs for them to record. Suffragette City was the first song proposed - Mott turned it down for whatever reason but agreed to record All the Young Dudes. (Bowie recorded it himself in a later cover.)

In many ways a bookend on the original squeakier-clean British Invasion, the song took the disaffected youth concept into a new realm, Ian Hunter and the band raising their voices in glorious unison to rail in solidarity not only against the Establishment but also the older young people and bands who themselves were seen as passé and conventional. Glam rock was on the rise.