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.)