Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Salty Dog, Procol Harum (1969)

One of the little mysteries of my life is why I have complete recall of every lyric of certain Procol Harum songs, particularly the very ornate ones. I'm not that good of a memorizer ordinarily.  But that doesn't get in the way of me being able to sing, verbatim, the words to A Salty Dog (and A Whiter Shade of Pale ... and Whaling Stories).

I have this ridiculous fantasy that someday I'll run into one half of the composing team for A Salty Dog, Gary Brooker, and sit on a stage singing it in unison with him, causing him to marvel that there should be anyone in the world other than himself or Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics, who could accomplish this feat.

Well, enough of that fleeting look into my fragile hold on sanity. Why I would know all these words, when I don't even listen to the song all that often, needs some examination.  What could the reason be? 

  1. I've always loved the sea, although sailing generally makes me quite seasick.  I suppose the idea that a rock group would develop an entire song around the seafaring motif could have been quite romantic to me at the age of 15, but still ... all those words. 
  2. And then there's the fact that the first boy I ever loved and I were mad for Procol Harum.  We saw them in concert whenever we could.  It was our thing. I see from my archives of memorabilia, which includes a concert flyer with the A Salty Dog artwork, that we saw them on Sunday, Nov. 14, 1971 at 8:30 at the Columbus, Ohio, Agora, tickets $4.00 advance, $4.50 at the door. 
  3. I was especially smitten with the lead guitarist Robin Trower, but his specific talents - which did not lean toward the classical - were not showcased on this particular song, so that can't be it. 
  4. The album cover, which was a knock-off of a Player's Navy Cut cigarette box, was pretty darn exotic, and in fact the boyfriend went scavenging on his own initiative to find an old box and mail it to me while I was away at a different college.  But that wouldn't explain it. 
  5. Could it have been that I was a sucker for a song that went to all the trouble of using seagull and wave sound effects, just to make the experience more authentic?  Not bloody likely.
  6. What about the fact that it's a magnificently well-crafted song with beautiful vocals and piano from Brooker that build and build and break my heart, supported by the otherworldly master drummer BJ Wilson, to an emotional pinnacle that reverberates throughout my body?   
Yeah.  That might be it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Load Out and Stay, Jackson Browne (1977)

When it comes to moving me, you know you guys are the champs.

Many years ago, I read the Studs Terkel 1972 anthology Working, a compilation of people's musings about how they felt about what they did to earn their living.  People reveal so much of themselves when they talk about their work - and why wouldn't they; for those of us fortunate enough to have a job someone pays us to do, it's how we spend the better part of our waking lives.  How could it not be an all-day psychodrama? 

In his introduction, Terkel wrote that work is a search " ... for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather an Monday through Friday sort of dying.  Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book."  

In The Load Out, Jackson Browne pays stunning homage to the roadies who make it possible for touring musicians to schlepp from place to place but takes it a step further - he illuminates the sentiments of the musician himself who endures crushing boredom and isolation in order to experience the bliss of sharing one's gifts with a live, appreciative audience for a few hours a night.  It's a musical version of something that could have gone into Working, and Terkel probably loved it, if he was aware of it.  

More than 9 minutes long when combined with a variation on Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' Stay, The Load Out is remarkably untedious.  Across the spectrum of his body of work, Browne's songwriting chops have been what distinguishes him - I've never been overly inspired by his voice.  But he excels at capturing sensibilities in an intimate way, of transporting us into feeling states that are very palpable and hard to resist.

He grew up in a musical home, and he had an amazingly fertile group of people around him who he counts as mentors:  Lowell George, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley and Glenn Frey (Browne co-wrote the excellent Take It Easy with Frey), David Crosby and Graham Nash, and his frequent sideman/collaborator the stringed instrument wizard David Lindley.  That's Lindley on slide guitar in the clip and doing the bizarre falsetto after Rosemary Butler in the Stay portion.  

In his remarks inducting Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen described Browne's "slow meticulous crafting of the songs, the thoughtfulness.  Jackson was one of the first songwriters I met who demonstrated the value of thinking hard about what you were saying." 

In so many jobs, people feel quite powerless even as they try to make their mark on some corner of the world. Browne's one of the lucky ones. As he said in his Rock Hall acceptance speech, "They say that music is a very empowering thing.  I'm happy to have had a lifetime doing it." 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Gentle on My Mind, John Hartford (1967)

When we faithful viewers of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first met smiling John Hartford, he was singing Gentle on My Mind at what seemed like breakneck speed while playing the banjo.  That was intentional on his part:  in The Craft of Lyric Writing, by Sheila Davis, Hartford says, "I was very much intrigued with the fact that most songs did not run at the normal gait that speech runs at ... I tend to want to say, 'Come on, come on, say it, say it, I ain't got all day.'  That's what governed the speed of 'Gentle;' I wanted a lyric that went past your ear at a faster speed that was closer to speech." 

My friend Wade, who is a banjo fan, calls it "the prettiest hobo song ever written," and that it may be. However, what I especially love about Gentle on My Mind is that the woman is depicted not as a ball and chain but as someone our subject treasures. Granted, the two are hardly ever together, but when they are, the sensibility is that it is life affirming, not soul crushing and judgmental.  I like that - it feels rare.

Gentle on My Mind went on to become the theme song for the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which started its life out simply as Tommy and Dickie's summer replacement series before being picked up in its own right.  Campbell, of course, also recorded the song and made it a huge hit.  Most people probably know his version better, although the two often sang it together and both were recognized with Grammy Awards in 1968.

Wade also observes that the song "seems to have no clear progenitors and to have left no recognizable offspring," and I tend to agree.  It's sort of an American original, just like its composer. Its unique qualities captured the imagination of musicians of every stripe, making it one of the most-recorded country songs in history. What I did not realize is that the song's durability gave Hartford the financial independence to do whatever he wanted to most of his life.  This included earning a license to pilot a steamboat, writing books, clogging, and pursuing his own interest in nontraditionally expanding the boundaries of traditional bluegrass music - some called it newgrass and him a founder of that movement.  I know next to nothing about most of what he recorded after Gentle on My Mind, but I'm about to find out, and there's a lot of it.  

Discovering the talents of Earl Scruggs through the Grand Ole Opry was Hartford's life-changing early experience, and he learned how to play the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar by the age of 13.  When he died too young of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Scruggs was there to perform "Home Sweet Home" at his funeral, and was one of the many musicians devoted to him who visited him in his last days.

Highlights from Hartford's career are the subject of an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. John Hartford: Ever Smiling, Ever Gentle on My Mind, runs through January 2010.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Mr. Bojangles, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1971)

I recently saw the enthralling Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers flick Swing Time.  In it Astaire dances alone in a performance called Bojangles of Harlem.  (Yes, he's in blackface but they did stuff like that back then.)  Not surprisingly, it reminded me of the beautiful and oh-so-poignant Nitty Gritty Dirt Band song, Mr. Bojangles.

Like a lot of people, I assumed the song was about the famous tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.  Except that it wasn't.  Written and recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker (check that link out, it's a great performance!), it refers to a man in New Orleans who got rounded up with other street performers during the investigation of a murder, while Walker himself was in the slammer for public drunkenness.  It was common to nickname the inmates during their time in the jail, and one of them continued to dance even after being locked up, so was dubbed Mr. Bojangles. The song was the result of Walker's close encounter with him, according to his memoir, Gypsy Songman.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which in its earliest incarnation in 1965 included Jackson Browne, was known for incorporating jug band instruments into its songs, certainly not common in pop at the time. John Sebastian used to do it in the Lovin' Spoonful but that's about it. The instrumentation of Mr. Bojangles, which included mandolin, calliope and accordian, made the hard luck sadness of the song's narrative easier to bear, I suppose - something about the man's faithful companion dog up and dying and 20 years of subsequent grieving was particularly heart rending.

The song has become a true folk song, performed and interpreted by everyone from Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nina Simone to Chet Atkins and Bob Dylan. And scores of others.