Monday, 14 May 2018

Grinning It Out

"Give Me One Reason," by Tracy Chapman , with Eric Clapton (and the soulful pros playing along)

At first, you don't get it: Ms. Chapman is singing a sad song but she can't stop smiling. Then you realize that she realizes she's singing one of her sad songs (great song, too) with a band that has chops to spare, and with a guitarist who makes you think that maybe God is String Theory. (I think "Clapton is God" was a widespread graffito long ago and far away, in the 1960s, in London, England.) I don't know how to play the guitar (I don't know how to play anything), but Mr. Clapton does, and his guitar has got the blues nailed.

I recommend you watch the video for that entrancing and entranced smile that Ms. Chapman can't stop. But then you should listen to this four-plus minutes of blues brilliance while your eyes are closed. Your smile might not be as lovely as hers, but it'll definitely be as happy.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Why I Feel Good About The Future

"Make Me Feel," by Janelle Monae

Do yourself a favour: Listen to this song while you follow the lyrics* because if you listen to it while you watch the video, you'll get distracted from the musical brilliance. (Of course, you won't be able to read all the lyrics anyway if, like me, you're the type to close your eyes when you start moving helplessly to such an overpowering groove.) Because the video is also brilliant, watch it, if you want to, at your second listen (believe me, there'll be a second listen).

They say that Frank Sinatra was a master of phrasing, but there's no denying that Janelle Monae is his equal while she's singing this song.  Listen to her sing the word "questions," and the word "intentions," and the word "compression," and the word "confessions," and the word "stop," and the word "jean," and the word "shag," and the word "don't," and tell me she's not in touch with the fanciful possibilities of the English language and with the marvellous little surprises of musical syncopation.

You can hear James Brown and Michael Jackson in this song, I think. And Prince -- you can hear Prince, too (who is, I suppose, the source of that jangly rock guitar riff in the chorus that explodes at you out of nowhere). I imagine you can hear other performers as well, but I can speak only to what I know when I'm discussing music made by someone from a much younger artistic culture than mine. (Some members of the former aren't yet blind or deaf, the lucky bastards.)

But make no mistake -- this is all Janelle Monae's song. I suppose you could say it's just another irresistible funk number, and I imagine you could say its sexual charge is meter-breaking, and I wonder about how the accompaniment to the singer's stunning voice is produced (people? machines?), but what I really want to believe is that this number is about nothing more than being carried away by love . . . Wait -- "nothing more than"? Jesus, being carried away by love is everything. Janelle Monae, while she's feeling her everything here, makes us feel our everything, too, which is one of the great things that great singers do.

(* I'm not sure if they're exceptional, but I've provided them below to help out any fellow geezer who might fall on this song.) 
Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you
All of the feelings that I've got for you
Can't be explained, but I can try for you
Yeah, baby, don't make me spell it out for you
You keep on asking me the same questions (why?)
And second guessing all my intentions
Should know by the way I use my compression
That you've got the answers to my confessions
It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender
An emotional, sexual bender
Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better
There's nothin' better
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way you make me feel
So real, so good, so fuckin' real
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way you make me feel
You know I love it, so please don't stop it
You got me right here in your jean pocket (right now)
Laying your body on a shag carpet (oh)
You know I love it so please don't stop it
It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender
An emotional, sexual bender
Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better
There's nothin' better
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way you make me feel
So real, so good, so fuckin' real
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way that I feel now, baby
Good God! I can't help it! Agh!
That's just the way that I feel, yeah
Please! I can't help it
It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender
An emotional, sexual bender
Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better (oh!)
There's nothin' better (better!) Damn
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way you make me feel
So real, so good, so fuckin' real
That's just the way you make me feel
That's just the way you make me feel)

Monday, 2 April 2018

Sometimes You Just Know

"I'll Take You There," by the Staple Singers

Because I'm certain non-material phenomena don't exist, "soul" is a word I like to use carefully. Like millions of others, I was brought up to believe that it denoted an actual entity that existed somewhere inside me, but also separate from me; unlike me, however, it would live through a blissful eternity if I behaved myself before I had to leave the scene. The whole scheme eventually struck me as unjust and nonsensical and I abandoned my belief in it a long time ago.

Singing isn't my new religion, but I love it infinitely more than I do my old one (I find it infinitely more useful, too). And I think I get the use of "soul" when it comes to singing (and playing): it's artful and sincere, it makes you and the singer(s) and player(s) ecstatic or sorrowful (mostly the former, in my experience) . . . Heck, I'm just running my mouth . . . Listen to this song, its soulful lyrics, its soulful players, its soulful singers, the soulful woman singing lead . . . You'll know what I mean.

(Of course, the joke's on me because I think they're all talking about heaven, and I don't believe in heaven.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

A Different Dementian

"I Can't Forget," by Leonard Cohen

Earlier today, I had a fascinating experience. I had purchased a book of fairly sadistic-looking crossword puzzles, and soon after settling in with the first puzzle, I started thinking I'd already tackled it. I went to my pile of old (mostly solved) volumes and, sure enough, I came across one with the same damned cover as the one I'd just bought.

No big deal, really -- I'd just plow through the thing again because the fun with crosswords is the doing, not their doneness. Don't get me wrong -- I like to solve them, but if I come up short, I come up short. But here's the fascinating part of the experience: After almost completing the first one, I decided to see if my first stab at the thing had been more successful or less than my present effort . . . And it was exactly the same! Disappointment and relief at the same time: I hadn't become any smarter, but at least I hadn't gotten any dumber. But, Jesus in heaven, my memory -- it shouldn't be that faulty. 

What to do, then, but to listen to the great Leonard Cohen sing this song from thirty years ago? Like pretty well all his songs, this one has so much more in it than its uncomplicated aural beauty (that steel guitar -- oh, man, what a sweet buttery treat): It's got a regretful older guy, a warm city, and a truck, and the changing seasons, and an ever remembering, ever forgetting human brain. All in under five minutes.

I still get sad when I remember Leonard Cohen isn't here anymore. 

Thursday, 22 February 2018


"Lawyers, Guns, and Money," by Warren Zevon

I like it when songs abandon love, their most common subject, for stories. Love is wondrous, of course, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing.

This song tells a hilarious, cynical, very short story (it clocks in at under four minutes), with one of the most reliable unreliable narrators -- he ain't nothing if not obvious -- you'll ever come across. I think an aesthete might call it using broad, mordant brushstrokes. The broadness includes the raucous players, who sound like they're having the time of their lives. They're all pounding at their instruments with great wit and panache, and Mr. Zevon (goddam, I miss that unlucky bastard), does what he so often did so wonderfully while he was still here -- talk really clearly to us while also grunting and yelling and exclaiming with near-monosyllabic verve:  Hyeah! . . . Alright! . . . Huh! . . . Yes! . . . Unh! . . . Oow! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh!
. . . Unh! . . . Alright!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


"St. James Infirmary," as performed by Louis Armstrong et alia

I recently stayed overnight in a local hospital because a part of my body that had been proceeded upon normally and safely in a local clinic by highly qualified and competent medical professionals joined the club of statistically anomalous phenomena that force all those poking and probing pros to make you sign a paper that accepts the reality of inner organic variety. My particular anomaly involved a significant loss of blood, but I was taken care of with great respect and kindness and ability, and when I arrived home with my clean bill of health, I started wondering about songs involving hospitals. This song topped the Google list. I'd listened to it before, and maybe because I'm probably just generally sadder now than I was then, it struck me as a very sad song.

But the celestial trumpet and clarinet and voice also cheered me up because, well, sad songs, if they're beautifully played and sung, can't not make you feel happy (especially just after you've been loved by strangers). Ironic, huh?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Up, Frontman

"At The Hundredth Meridian," by the Tragically Hip

On stage, he mesmerized us all (and himself, too, I'd guess). He couldn't really dance, but he could really beautifully move that utterly honest, entranced body of his when it contained only the music he was hearing. He "danced" like Van Morrison sings: you can't exactly predict what's about to happen, but when it does, you know it was the right thing to do. I saw The Tragically Hip in a small venue (can't remember what it was called) in Toronto in the early 1990s. My friends and I were a lot older than most of our fellow fans, and I myself was also probably the most uncomfortable pre-geezer in that little hall. (Where were all the chairs?) But it was all tremendous vibrating fun, and we all got to see a top-notch rock combo right in front of us in a place that wasn't big enough to muddify the music. 

No song I heard at that concert stands out above the others, so I can't use its memory to choose a number from the night that makes me feel both great and grateful to this band and its kinetically amazing front man, who died far too early a couple of days ago. I like to believe was as good a father to his four children, who were with him when he died, as he was a rock star and an activist and worker for a wider benevolence.

But this song, this number, this three-and-a-half minutes of swampy, joyous energy -- well, it makes me believe in magic, an essential element of all great songs. And if you don't think Gord Downie was a magician, just listen to him sing this song, especially when, near the end, for the seventh and final time, he sings the phrase "where the great plains begin," stretching it and holding on to it until you're worried he might not make it out of the song alive. He did, of course, which is at least partially why it gets me down that he isn't anymore.