Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Take It Away, Ms. F and Mr. A

"They Can't Take That Away from Me" as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Some things you don't need words for. Listen to Louis Armstrong stop speaking in the last line of this beautiful song. Who needs a syllable or two when you can make a soft loving growl do the same thing? When, with your singing partner, you've already created a world free of imperfection? What's equally perfect is that the great Ella finishes up her way. What's above perfect is the sound they make. All this after he's just asked her, "Would you repeat that again, dearie, please?" Who knows? Maybe the redundancy caused him to distrust language momentarily. I would've shut up for a moment or two myself, but I'm not a musical genius, so I'm sure it was something else. (Hint: it was musical genius.) 

The song is another great conversation between two great musical talkers. This time they're talking about loss, and they both get it: all the smiles and the mannerisms and the life-changing ways of the lost ones are cherished, but they're cherished calmly. (Of course, they both believe they may "never meet  [the lost one] again" -- in other words, they don't yet believe they've been deleted or erased, which is just no fun at all). If it weren't for the lovely, airy, heart-true (slightly sad) optimism of the trumpet (especially in the solo), I'd probably cry when I listen to this song. (Don't tell anyone, okay?)

"The way you haunt my dreams . . ." Being a great musical artist must make that phrase easier to sing than for some of us.

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Very Short Domestic Comedy

"Have You Ever Seen The Rain?" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
It was one of those hangovers inside of which you hate everything: yourself of course, but also your wife and your kids (at the scariest level, especially your kids) and all the non-darkness all around you; one during which you make many vows (of chastity, of silence, of poverty, of love) that you will never keep. It was one of those hangovers for which none of your previous hangovers can prepare you, and one under which you also carry the useless weight of all those previous hangovers that haven't prepared you for even one fucking vomity second of this hangover. Put otherwise, it was the best hangover, because it taught you that you were a piece of shit. Being a piece of shit is easy; knowing that you're a piece of shit is quite a bit harder. It isn't "acknowledging" your "lack of self-esteem" (fucking kid stuff). It's using your bloodshot mind's eye to stare at what you know you'll look like as a corpse and seeing something so much more flattering than what even the most accurate camera operated by the most optimistic photographer might render of you now. That's what you call shit-angst, and there are uncounted trillions more pleasant sensations.

My head was lusting for a guillotine, my bladder was a reservoir of liquid despair, my body a lost soul -- at 6:25 a.m. Extreme sinner that I acknowledged myself to be, this just wasn't fair. Never mind how I was going to feed and dress and amuse and protect from danger for the next several hours the three young female primates who within the next few minutes would be demanding service from their food- and apparel-providing protector from danger. How was I not going to kill myself?

Funnily enough, my old friendship with suicide is what got me through. When Emily (who is three, and aggressive, and impossibly lovable, and confused by the fact that everyone else is bigger than her) smacked my forehead (suicide-command headquarters) at 6:47, she shoved my brain from ideation into what turned out to be a pretty entertaining mixture of plans (blood? rope? gaseous intervention? pills?). I don't know what the textbooks say, but most of us who want to die get stalled at the planning stage because it's so interesting. Just as interesting is the tone of our suicide letters (I had four to compose), which is what I was working on inside my head when, at 6:58, Joanie (five years in my life and endlessly curious and impossible to ignore or not be just as curious about) actually yelled at me to get up. When seven-year-old Dessie (my first miracle) pulled her sisters off me at 7:11, I was already going over the attendee list for the funeral. (Emily, Joanie, and Dessie would all be somewhere else, of course. We'd need a babysitter.)

But you can't ignore a trio of miniature, life-laden, female apes. You can fool them (kids are naive about the future, therefore still sweetly stupid), but you can't ignore them. And you can't ignore them because they don't give a shit about you and are thus your worst enemies when you have a hangover like the hangover I had in the early morning of the first day of my second life. I seemed to be remembering that at some very late point during the previous evening, my wife had made it clear to me that she no longer loved me.

How couldn't this be a suicide story?


"What do you mean you don't love me anymore?"

"Just what I said."

"That isn't an answer. Stop being a teenager."

"That. That's why I don't love you anymore. One of the reasons."

"One of the reasons? How many do you have?"

"A lot. Believe me."

"Okay, I'll believe you. How many?"

"I haven't counted."

"Haven't counted because there are too many? Why won't you look at me? Or haven't counted because you're just making this up as you go along?"

"Fuck you. I have plenty of reasons. If you get the fuck out of this room right now, I'll type up a list."

"Your printer's broken."

"How do you like this look?"

So I got the fuck out of the room right then. I wanted to know.


She never did type up that list before she left, and I never did kill myself (and never found out why).

So a happy ending for all.


Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Why Chromosome

"Why Get Up?" by The Fabulous Thunderbirds
The lead guitar is so funny in this song.  Precise and clever, of course, but hilarious. With those lyrics, what choice does it have? Kim Wilson is the singer, but he's every guy (or any girl who cares to listen) who's ever found himself  (or herself) living in hell. The comedy is sinister and self-mocking -- my favourite kind. Kim Wilson's phone is being rung off its hook by bill collectors; he goes to his doctor, who tells him to lose some weight, and that if he doesn't do it soon, he'll have to operate (some kind of bypass, one would think); his lawyer tells him his case is closed; he remembers a gun and calling somebody's bluff. He sees his only possible move: Hide. Which makes perfect sense when you've been scorched: remove yourself from the source of heat, because if you don't, you really will go up in flames. Kim Wilson is hiding, but Jimmie Vaughan, the guitar player (yup, you've heard of his brother), is laughing at him like any old friend would. Of course, old friends are old but rarely helpful, neither of which is their fault. 

Dig Those Crazy Skies, Dig All These Things

"Don't Be That Way" as sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
I defy anyone who has ever been in love to tell me this isn't the perfect union of two human beings. It's two voices wrapped around each other, the caressing perfect and joyful. She sings, then he sings. Then they talk to each other. Then they talk a little longer, but only he has words while her voice slides wordlessly around them. When his words stop, she takes over, but his voice keeps going. They're together at the end for the sweet fade of the last sweet note. If that ain't transcendent sex, I don't know what is. Pick your organ. It's love in every way. The quietly swinging combo behind the beautiful singing is perfect, too.


"Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers Band

I recently discovered that this song was released in the year of the birth of the only woman who has ever broken my heart. An ugly coincidence, but not ugly enough to stop me from loving the song (loved it before the heartbreak) or her (still, and even more). Gregg Allman was just a kid when he sang it, but he sure sounds old, like someone with a lot of something killing him and his craw. How did he do it? How did he sing this song the way he sings it when he still didn't know anything (he was a twenty-one-year-old boy, for God's sake)? If his despair isn't real, then I'm a fucking astronaut, or a crocodile hunter, or an effectively functioning, happily married man. He drowns himself in sorrow, that old-souled kid, Gregg Allman, as he looks at what she's done, but nothing seems to change, the bad times stay the same, and he can't run. He can't run, of course, because he's still enslaved by her; he may still be stubbornly alive (he's singing, isn't he?), but she's still in charge. He tells us (moans to us, screams at us) nine times that he's tied, not to any whipping post, but to the whipping post, and each tortured iteration just hammers that post deeper into the ground and the rope gets nastier and bloodier and more unyielding around young (old) Mr. Allman's wrists. He sometimes feels like he's dying? I'd say it's non-stop.

It's a song I wish I could even come close to singing, especially since I no longer have to worry about being eavesdropped upon and mocked when I try. Every time I listen to it (which I shouldn't do at all if I knew what was good for me), I feel like I've been dying, too, just like that kid singer did back in 1969. Ditto on the non-stop.


"Red House" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience

Don't let the attribution fool you: This is all Jimi.

Hell, I don't much like "Jimi Hendrix" because a lot of it is, well, just too noisy. But oh my goodness, on this number he's Mozart. He punctuates every line he sings with riffs so clever and so wincingly emotional you're half-convinced, as you are with Herr M., that there might be a beneficent capital-g God after all. I've never heard such a simple song so filled. I have no idea (is it a studio trick?) how he makes his guitar do what it does in the solo, but I don't need an answer as long as I get to hear this ravishing song whenever I want to, forever.

"Ninety-nine and one-half days." That's how long Jimi Hendrix hasn't been home to see his baby. He's being a total ham about it, of course (love that aches does that), but it's been over three months -- and anyway, he's just talking to himself (she's gone), which is why he says it's all right, what with his still having his guitar and all. Then he warns us to "Look out, now," before he scorches everything with that solo, which is when he's talking to her. I wish I could talk to a woman like that.

But if you can play a guitar like Jimi Hendrix, you get to talk to women like that all the time because being able to play a guitar like that means you have hope in your soul, and because he does have hope in his soul, and because he can take a hint, he's off to check out his missing baby's sister who lives way back yonder across the hill (yeah, that's what he better do). Whatever he plays for her, he can't miss. I wish I could talk to women like that.

Loss, misery, comedy -- this number is a miracle. Who knew a voice and an electric guitar could do that?


"Let's Stay Together" by Al Green
Good lord, but this is a beautiful love song.

The soft steady trill of the guitar and the serene flow of the organ and the empathy from the voices in the background all help you love the astonishing vocal. Not one syllable of this hymn to married love would make a difference to a woman who didn't want to stay together, but it's useful to imagine impossible things once in a while. The other players are great, too.

If I'd been Al Green's wife at the time, just because of this song, I would've fucked him once in a while, even after I left him, forever.


"I've Got You Under My Skin" as sung by Frank Sinatra

How do you croon, or drawl, or whatever Frank Sinatra does to it, a consonant? But that's what he does here to an 'n', as in "skin," as in having his woman under his. Every man who's ever been crazy about a womannnnnnnn should get it.

Frank Sinatra has his woman under his skin. The rest of us (the ones crazy about our women) might have them in our hearts, our souls, our dicks, our guts, our ears, our eyes, our heads . . . Yeah, that's where they are, that's where they live, that's the place they eternally occupy -- our brains. That's where mine is. Well, actually, that's where the woman who used to be my woman lives. Now she's mine in obsessive stupidity only (in "name only" doesn't work because I'm trying to forget hers). She lives elsewhere, too, of course. So I can be forgiven for trying to evict her the fuck out of my weak, obsessive, stupid brain.

But I am a goddamned weak landlord. 

Brains, huh? You never know what kind of stuff can get into those things. I shouldn't be surprised, therefore, that the woman I used to have is taking up pretty well every cubic centimeter of mine -- and being a real bully into the bargain: she's pushing around everything and everyone else in there, none of which or whom stands a chance against her. So, if I knew what was good for me, I would never listen to "I've Got You Under My Skin" as sung by Frank Sinatra. But I quite regularly do, because it's so goddamned medically precise. Most of the hundreds, if not thousands, of obsession songs out there are about getting past, or through, or over the lost and loved one; "under" seems a rare preposition.

Under your skin. Imagine that. It's a tight spot, but a pretty fascinating one when you think about it. The brain can get pretty crowded, but things never get that tight in there. And under-the-skin has got to be even more frightening than inside-the-head. Yet Frank Sinatra manages to make great, cheerful, ecstatic art out of what must be a terrible affliction. The band helps out, of course: never have horns sounded happier than during the instrumental break of "I've Got You Under My Skin." Once they're done, the singing starts again, and its joy stabs you in the heart. This guy really is happy to be possessed. He loves it. Then again, he still has his woman (an assumption I'm basing on the fact that he's still talking to her).

No, clearly, Frank Sinatra still has his woman. When you still have her, you can take it. (You can take anything.) But if the woman living inside you -- in your brain, or under your skin, or wherever she's set up camp -- is no longer around, then you are in for some very unpleasant days and nights.

I'm talking about a live version of the song. It's beautiful, beautiful stuff.


"Hit the Road, Jack" as sung by Ray Charles and the Raelettes

This is one of the funniest songs I've ever heard, and Ray Charles and those girl singers are great comic actors. But the best thing about this song (well, besides the drummer's fat, insistent rim hits) is how short it is -- two minutes, give or take a few seconds. Talk about a great form-and-content match. You've got a world and boom! it's gone, and no matter how the living arrangements re-align themselves, there's a road out there and you're hitting it, and you're hitting it now. This song is how that story should be told, and Ray/Jack and the Raelettes/Jack's fed-up woman do it like ace surgeons snipping out a gnarly tumor.

Before I had to hit my road, I would always laugh when I heard this song.  But it's a break-up and break-ups are always the heat of hell scalding you and melting every inch of you. Once you've been peeled, though, all you can manage is a smile when you hear this song (you know -- less functioning tissue and all that).

I continue to listen to it because even when Ray Charles is making fun of himself, his voice has everything else in it, too. And if you don't think this song is a masterpiece of self-mockery, just listen to how he ever more weakly pleads his case to those Raelettes as their last, two-minute, syncopated spat fades into silence. What grim fun it is! 


"Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones

The height of lone-wolf foolishness: playing broom-guitar/air-drums to this song. No, I don't go get a broom whenever I listen to it, I go get the song whenever I have to use a broom. It takes me longer to sweep, but without it, I might never sweep at all. It's got the jolt of youth in it and those snapping thick acoustic chords are irresistible. They sound like a thousand guitars. The drums -- well, the drums: how does a snare sound like thunder? And how does a guy with a broom in one hand hitting an invisible hi-hat, and a chef's knife or a wooden spoon or a banana in the other hitting an invisible snare manage to keep time? Answer: he doesn't. But like the moderately intelligent ape that he is, he puts down the utensils and fruit and goes back to some power broom-strumming, but by that time the song is almost over, and the new physical realities have left his brain behind anyway. So he just finishes with the debris.  

The young Mick Jagger betrays his ironic cool when he tells us to Get down! just after the tiny instrumental break. He knew how to do that when he was still a kid, which is how you know he's a great singer.


"Sex Machine" by James Brown
The weird thing about this number is how it turns the music-as-metaphor-for-sex thing on its head. It's so perfectly sung and played it makes you think sex is probably a metaphor for music. Who knows? How primal do you wanna go? James Brown, that crazy, goofy, cringingly honest, mad fucking genius of rhythm, likes it very primal. If you don't believe me, listen to how he says what he says in this song. He couldn't have been singing to have sex. No, he must have been having sex to sing like this. Bruce Springsteen, the Boss? Please.  

If you get sucked into following only the relentless, heart-fluttery bass line, you might go mad, but you won't care. So be careful. (You don't want to feel too human.)