Saturday, 5 October 2013


"You Really Got Me" by The Kinks

I don't know why this song still moves me and still makes me so happy -- it couldn't be more primitively adolescent. If I hear it while I'm driving, my ass dances. If I hear it while I'm sweeping up, or washing dishes, or vacuuming, or walking from one room to another at home wondering why I left the one for the other, I dance. Can't help it. The band's equally helpless, insistent repetition of so few words and amplified guitar chords proves the title: he who sings this and those who play it have truly been gotten. They get started, but get stuck really fast. They don't even want to be singing and playing. They only, always, want to be at her side, they can't sleep at night without her, and they're fine with that:  "See, don't ever set me free . . ." I get that. Bitter irony: once you get set free -- at least when you haven't wished it -- by the person whose side at which you always want to be, you've actually been sentenced to solitary confinement, and you're just a dead man talking (to himself).

No wonder they called themselves The Kinks. Just kids, sure, but I suspect they probably knew how imperfect they were, and the rest of us are. And if you don't love the sound of that snappy snare drum counting out all the heartbeats front and centre, you might want to consider a defribrillation implant. I hear they're routine.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Merry Any Day Of The Year

"Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones

Back when the Rolling Stones were my favourite band (a long time ago, back when I still had favourite things), this was my favourite Rolling Stones song. So I guess even when I knew nothing, I knew something. I've been reminded of it because, earlier this week, I heard a radio interview with the director of a documentary called Twenty Feet from Stardom, which is about back-up singers. Among those featured is Merry Clayton, who in this number sings back-up to Mick Jagger and who blows him out of the water despite his being in very fine and graceful fettle himself (it's hard to hear in the mix, but listen for his growl of appreciation and encouragement from behind her for how she's raised a third warning cry about rape and murder during her turn up front).

Yup. It's Ms. Clayton who blows not only Mr. Jagger out of the water, but all the players as well, and lifts the whole thing into an ocean sky of pure aural splendour. Without her, "Gimme Shelter" would be a pretty good punch-in-the-gut rock song; with her, not only does your gut get punched, your flesh gets goosed, you hair raised, your spine tingled, your blood heated, your heart gladdened, and your circuits repaired: you're hearing a true and magnificent Wow! song. I love great female voices singing greatly, as Merry Clayton's does on this song, and even though I can't sing for shit myself, I still do it a lot when I'm alone. But I gotta admit I don't even try to accompany Ms. Clayton here -- hell, I can't even keep up with Sir Mick on this number. Instead, I settle for playing clumsy but energetic air drums to Charlie Watts's primal ferocity, and tell myself I don't need no stinking aerobics and that sometimes it's good just to shut up -- easy to do, as long as I get to listen to "Gimme Shelter" once in a while.
Oh, yes: I have got to see that movie. (Gotta stop spending so much time alone, too, I guess . . . Well, no, maybe not -- if I did that, I'd have to cut down on my singing.)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Got Nothin' Here (Just A Pair)

"Tiger Woods" by Dan Bern*
You don't often hear in a few minutes of pop music as much as you hear in these few minutes.

It's not about Tiger Woods, it's about testicles (the human ones), and while sneering at their oversized reputation, this surreally funny, wonderful song alludes to five cultural icons -- three human (the title character, plus Muhammad Ali and Madonna) and two non-human (arches that are golden and a bridge over a golden strait). Because of its subject, the song may be of no interest to women, but I think anyone who digs comedic flights of fancy, and tall tales, and lacerating self-mockery, and urgent, growly rock n' roll would probably like it.

Other than, in the final refrain, swinging a golf club at the end of an outrageous and hilarious series of similes about balls (the human ones), Tiger Woods doesn't do anything. The comparisons threaded earlier through the song are also very funny, especially the one about the singer's own pair swelling -- at least "on [his] really good days" -- to the size of a small dog. Before he swings his big swing, Tiger Woods is just a static big-balled icon the big-balled singer admires. How do we know the singer has a big pair? Because he tells us he does. We infer that Tiger Woods has an even bigger pair since the singer repeats a few times that sometimes he wishes he was Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods (his usage, not mine). Big always wants to be bigger, I guess.

Muhammad Ali gets fleshed out slightly more when we're reminded that back when he was Cassius Clay he asserted that bragging wasn't bragging if that which was being bragged about was true, which is no big surprise -- neither the assertion nor that Cassius Clay would've made it. Sadly, that was a long time ago, before Mr. Ali (I'll always call that big-balled son of a bitch "Mister) "fought too many fights/and left his brain inside the ring." This song may admire the size of Mr. Ali's balls, but it isn't blind to the high price that sometimes gets paid for having things like that. (Hmm . . . you get to have big balls, but you lose your brain . . .)

Which brings us to Madonna, who, according to the singer, was gone down upon by, at the time, a thirty-four-year-old friend of his who had dedicated his life to accomplishing that very empty goal. It turns out that despite having balls large enough to have been granted permission to go down on Madonna one night in a hotel in Rome, he was too young and it was too soon -- the singer tells us his friend's life has been nothing but depression and shit ever since. (Hmm . . . you get to have big balls, but you lose your mind. . .)

Which brings us to the singer, whose main concern seems to be distinguishing between women who ignore him because they "like" him and women who ignore him because they ignore him. I guess it's not the most important question, but it's not without interest. In any case, he guesses that all you need to do is ask them, and that all you need to do that is "one good pair of big balls", and, as he's already told us, he owns such a pair.

You know what? I think he's confused about big balls. Shouldn't his ambition be, well, bigger? Big balls are for more than boys or men just trying to get laid -- they're also for boys or men trying to be brave when it's hard to be brave. Most of us -- Tiger Woods, the singer or his thirty-four-year-old friend, you other guys or me -- almost never have to be brave. Which is why this song is so cheerfully, ironically, and sneakily subversive. You might even call it the perfect amorality tale.

Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali had to be brave. They weren't bragging, because it was true. Yes, sir.

By the way, when you listen to this great song again (if you do), while you're admiring the sneery, growly voice telling its funny cynical stories so concisely, and while you're revelling in the hilarity of all the differently large balls and the mockery of all men (I told you ladies there's something in this song for you), remember also to enjoy getting your hair raised by all the jangly guitar and other controlled noises behind the beautifully delivered lyrics. Those are some words, and that is some music.

* This song was written way back in 1998, when Tiger Woods was just a sports wunderkind and had yet to reveal himself as a major-league asshole.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Babies Know More Than We Think They Do

"My Baby Just Cares For Me" as performed by Nina Simone
This song was recorded long ago, during my childhood, but I don't remember ever hearing it back then (it was written in 1930, minus this 1958 version's lyrical variations). Liz Taylor, Lana Turner, Liberace, the latter two smiling, all put in glamourous appearances (that's a lot of glamour); from my more recent years, so do shows and clothes and cars and races and high-tone places (I have only second-hand reports on the last of those). And then the song gives you the most charming, lyrical line of self-mockery you'll ever hear inside or outside a popular song: listen to Ms. Simone's voice soar on the word "wrong" as she finally begins to wonder about her man (me? he only cares for me?), and to how her grateful, laughing heart abandons the possessive before "baby". That's love, baby (my baby, your baby, anyone's baby), and it's perfect because it comes near the conclusion of some of the niftiest, tuneful jazz trio playing you're ever likely to hear. The soft insistent caress of brushes on snare drum (more love!) and the gently tweaked bass (ditto!) sustain the pulse while the piano becomes whatever Ms. Simone wants it to: big, small, brash, shy, all grown-up and child-like. But in the end, the hero in this performance is the wondrous instrument of her voice, which makes this beautiful song a thing you will want to experience again and again and again. And again -- it's impossible to get sick of.
(That video is absolutely delightful, too, isn't it?) 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Any Song With "Fiction" In Its Title Is A Friend Of Mine

"Stranger Than Fiction" by Joe Jackson

There isn't anything not to love about this. Besides getting described as stranger than fiction, romantic love (the star of the song) is compared to a growing flower and a growing tumor. We're also told that it disappears and sometimes comes back with a vengeance. Not content with being poetically precise, the song waxes philosophical when it also tells us that life is disastrous and bizarre and contradictory and filled with friction, and, most truly, ever immune to prediction. 

Jesus. So far, how is it wrong in any way? I know next to nothing about Joe Jackson other than he's British (which means something, I guess, what with Shakespeare's record on life and love*), and very talented, and that when you hear him confess that he thinks he's strained a muscle he didn't know he had after a day in bed with his lover, you know he's not bullshitting you. He's half nuts with lust and grief and confusion -- he's been asking people on the street where questions in the middle of the pouring night, and when questions of telephone operators (he doesn't even know what day it is) -- so feel free to think that strained muscle is his heart. He knows he has one, but clearly, he doesn't know it's so, well, strainable. Doesn't change the fact that he's telling us the truth.    

And then there are all those amplified musical instruments carrying forward the happiness (love may kill you, but it makes you happy and electric) -- the happiness that Joe Jackson won't quite admit to. The laughing drums (and some other kind of joyously bonked bongo/conga things) and the electric guitar and bass . . . and a wince-making organ, which, immediately after the bridge, holds one aching note and a couple of little flourishes for more beats than you're used to, and which puts the whole thing to bed: the flower and the tumor and God's sense of humour, proof of which is -- what else? -- love. The song continues for a bit, but you've been completely sucked in (that's what fiction does, too) because you're now singing along (you are singing along, aren't you?). If he wasn't the organist himself, Joe Jackson should've paid his colleague more than the other players, at least for this song. All it takes is one organ to convince you that you know nothing about love. It's a valuable lesson.

(*Okay, some other British poets, too.)

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Nile River Groove

"Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" by James Brown

A friend of mine who was not many years ago on a large boat pleasure-cruising the Nile told me he was sneaking a smoke on an upper deck while idly watching some other men sweeping the boat. It was a beautiful day, he told me. There was an outdoor sound system. Without warning (you should always warn people that James Brown is coming), "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" spilled into the placid air, expanding it and the efforts of the men with brooms, whose movements quickly and collectively gained the patterns of happiness. Those men at work hadn't stopped working -- they'd simply added dance to their day. Magically, they had become the joyous, kinetic rhythm system that James Brown would have wanted them to be. (James Brown wanted everyone to dance.) If my friend, despite the African sun and the electrified African-American music, didn't join in the dance, it was only because (I'm assuming) he was probably feeling out of his element. He was, after all, a Canadian guy sneaking a smoke under an awful lot of dazzling warm tropical light, whose sneaky power is enough in itself to keep a northerner's ass planted, and his feet static, and his limbs in place just because he's looking so much and doesn't want to miss anything. (Me? Well, I'm a ham, and so I would've found a broom and joined in.)

But my friend's report proved to me that James Brown's art is universal -- i.e., Papa's bag is always brand new. Give Shakespeare or Mozart or Van Gogh each his due, but the heartbeat is all. Even as everything in this number -- the horns, guitars, drums, the bass, the voice -- contributes to the deep groove, each becomes a slave to that groove's intoxicating and overwhelming steadiness. Those sweeping men on a boat in the Nile River in Egypt were no more able to resist Papa's groove than you or I when we're at home and dancing solo, which is how I know how miraculous "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" is. If I had a heaven to create, its musical loop would have this endlessly satisfying song in frequent rotation.

(I figure my friend didn't join in because of something else, too: seeing nature unmasked would stop anyone in his tracks.)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Pot Bad Luck

"She Came In Through The Bathroom Window" by The Beatles
The lyrics of the opening verse are impossibly 1960s-stupid, and you pretty well need marijuana to get your hair raised by this song. The second and third and fourth verses are just as stupid, but if the marijuana has kicked in, you've started hearing all the nice playing, especially Paul's always inventive bass, and the crisp, patient twang of George's guitar. It's a Paul song all the way: idiotic words and a highly intelligent melody carried out by chimey slick rock-music production, which sounds great when you're high, which is why the Beatles aren't nearly as good as we all want them to be, which is why you should probably stop smoking marijuana.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Heavy Treasure

"Over The Rainbow" as performed by Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole 
I gotta get out more. Apparently, this version has graced (if you believed in heaven, that's where it would be from) all kinds of movies, TV shows, and TV commercials (the Internet, too, thankfully), but I had never heard it till this morning; nor had I heard of the singer, a Hawaiian icon who died in 1997 at the age of thirty-eight because he weighed several hundred pounds. If you're squeamish about looking at titanic obesity (I'm not, but I get that some might be), you should just close your eyes and listen. (I always close my eyes when I sing anyway.) I promise you that you'll be transported, which is what this innocent song of escape is supposed to do to you. It's innocent because escape is never really possible, and Mr. Kamakawiwoʻole gets the words "wrong" (here, however, subtraction becomes addition), but without his singing the ones he does, the song is just another pretty thrum in the breeze.

Simple is better a lot of the time. Slide a mellifluous voice around a gorgeous, simple melody, add the most simply strummed of ukuleles, and you get, well, heaven. I started loving this slightly goofy song very long ago when I was just a slight little goof myself, and I've heard a lot of singers sing it almost as beautifully as Mr. Kamakawiwoʻole does -- Judy Garland, who broke it in, and others like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles (mmmmmmm . . . Ray Charles). But this imperfect version is, for me, the version Plato would've approved of. (Plato probably liked music, right?)  

The treasure ain't at the end of the rainbow -- it's right here, sung by a very large guy who lived (and used his very large talent) all his very short life in paradisal weather. Who needs God when you've lucked out geographically? As I've already mentioned, I just this morning heard it for the first time, but I'm already into double figures. Hawaii (maybe, some day, if I get out more), here I come.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

How(l) To Be Happy (When Your Brain Is A Werewolf) (And An Asshole)

"Werewolves of London" by Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon was born before I was, but I'm older than he was when he died, and when he wrote and sang and played this hilariously disturbing song, which is why I keep listening to it. It helps me remember the jumble of lighter times, when more things were possible. 

So when I listen to this song, before I love anything else about it, I love the chunky piano. The beat-stretched joyful mania of all the mock-howled "Ah-hoooos" comes next -- it's just so much fun to sing and howl (you gotta do the howling) those two open-voiced syllables. Stop reading this, listen to the song a few times until you remember when to grunt Huh! the first time (the Huh's are my third favourite thing about this song), and then tell me that isn't the most fun you've had in weeks. I'll let you off the hook if you miss the next two repetitions: by then you're probably off your game, because, just one quick verse ago, you heard Warren Zevon sing in beautifully alliterated syncopation the unthinkable image of a little old lady getting mutilated late the night before. You hear that line and once you get over its jumpy sonic beauty, you start thinking that maybe the ways you enjoy things might not be all that healthy. Which is when you have to force yourself to remember that your ears and your brain are just tissue machines that can't really stop themselves from searching for pleasure and beauty, mutilated little old ladies notwithstanding. Notwithstanding that, don't get into the habit of self-forgiveness every time you listen. The song doesn't really mean anything (late at night), but it's one I can't stop loving. In my defense, little old ladies get mutilated all the time. Forget werewolves -- the bloodthirsty cruelties of old age are the usual culprits (my dead mother sure as hell knew that). For that matter, children get mutilated all the time, too, with old age nowhere near any of those crime scenes. Teenagers and young adults and middle-aged saps like me get mutilated late at night, too -- not to mention all the bloodshed before dawn, through the morning and afternoon, before dusk, at dusk, after dusk, or later in the evening when some of us are searching for the guts to go to bed. Those guts, of course, when we eventually do fall asleep, get absolutely shredded and pierced and sliced up by our mutilating dreams, which aren't really nightmares -- they're night mirrors, and just one more proof that your brain doesn't give a shit about you. Ergo, your brain is a werewolf, a creature that can slash right through your shit for just pretending to be as damaged and as bleeding as a true victim of a true crime. So maybe your brain is just an asshole. Either way, you're shit that he can ignore or boss around as he pleases.
So forget the above. Just listen to this happy, evil song, and feel guilty or don't feel guilty. My list of desert-island songs is in constant revision, but this one never gets demoted.    
Huh! Draw blood while you're meeting the tailor of a werewolf who's been eating Chinese food, and mutilating little old ladies, and planning to rip your lungs out (whether your name is Jim or not), and howling around your kitchen door, and drinking pina coladas at Trader Vic's. Honour the dance, dedicated to the hairy-handed gent, performed by Lon Chaney Junior and the Queen. Stop sitting down, if you can, but don't stop listening, no matter how old you are. If you can, dance. Your hair will be perfect, but you won't feel good about it. Ah-hooooooooooooooooooo. Warren Zevon, that unlucky singing, howling fool, when he was just fifty-six, got mutilated by "peritoneal mesothelioma, a virulent and inoperable form of lung cancer." He had fun beforehand, though, at least for a few minutes.