Thursday, 25 December 2014

Mother's Day

"You Can Leave Your Hat On" as sung by Joe Cocker
Joe Cocker died three days ago, which is the day my mother was born, ninety-eight years ago. He lasted seventy years, my mother about ninety-five-and-a-half. He was a much better singer, but I think it's pretty well impossible that he was a better person.
Anyway, for some reason, this is my favourite Joe Cocker song. I like how he and the band repeat themselves so often (not necessarily a bad thing). I also like -- no, I love -- the kick-the-shit-out-of-everything soulfulness of the vocal. It's just there, like the sky. And because of the day it was when I was loving all this, I started thinking about the soulfulness my mother brought to her life. She wasn't a singer (see above), but, oh my, did she have soul.
It makes not a shred of sense to believe that he and she are now residing in the same neighbourhood, but there should be some flights of fancy you get to allow yourself. Death may be real, but it's still unacceptable, and the only thing you get to fight back with is love. Joe Cocker wasn't talking about my mother (heaven forbid! -- this song is about erotic love), but you can't waste coincidences. Heaven seldom gets wedged open even a crack, so I'm taking what I'm getting while the taking and getting are good.

Monday, 8 December 2014


"It Had To Be You" as sung by Ray Charles
Why aren't there any schools or holidays or places of worship dedicated to Ray Charles? Why no Ray Charles Institute, no Ray Charles Day, no Church of Ray the Redeemer? There would be, I'm sure, if a lot more people listened to him singing this old chestnut, accompanied here by a big horn band's velvety, slowly swinging textures, which almost steal the show. (The singer's piano ain't shabby, either.) But this is Ray Charles we're talking about here, and even if he didn't mean it to, his voice, and how it shapes this silly little pretty song into a gemmy, two-minute brilliance, won't be pushed aside (his concluding, perfect falsetto stretches -- rises, even! -- right to the very end). I'd go to church every day if all the songs were sung by Ray Charles. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Rattling Walls

"It Makes No Difference" by The Band
This song makes me want to put on a cowboy hat and sing along, with my eyes closed (I always sing with my eyes closed anyway), and a glass of beer close at hand with enough room left in it to catch the tears. Take a sip, add a few units of salty, liquid DNA, sing along. Repeat, for about six minutes. Yeah, it's a long song, but the subject of loss can get complicated, at least (or especially) when you have a quintet comprised of guys like Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Robbie Robertson taking it on. When it comes to showing us what we are, those guys knew what they were talking (singing, playing) about. It sounds like they're all in though, both numerically and emotionally. I hope Mr. Danko, the lead singer, didn't have to do too many takes because just my single rendition here at home under some pretty inclusive headphones knocked me for a righteous loop, and although I realize he was a professional singer and I'm not (I don't profess anything), singing this song too many times can't be healthy for anyone. In other words, Rick Danko sings the shit out of this thing. He sounds like every creature that has ever been injured. My favorite part of the vocal: Since you've gone/it's a losing battle/Stampeding cattle/they rattle the walls. Goddamn, those are some exquisitely lonely words. I love that battle, those cattle, those rattling walls, and how Mr. Danko stretches the last word of that sentence into more syllables than you're used to. It's just a lonely cowboy song, true, but it's more because you also get a wondrously wondering soprano saxophone (I think that's what it is) caressing the emptiness, especially after the singing has stopped. It fools around with the twitchily melodic, banjo-ish, respectful, lovely electric guitar during the lingering richness of the coda, at the end of which they melt into each other. But that soprano saxophone (I think) -- oh, my: it doesn't just sound like a cowboy under a big dark sky, it sounds like love and loss finally getting along with each other, it sounds like whatever beautiful thing you will want close by when you're dying.  

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Bully Pulpit

"Word Crimes" by Al Yankovic

I imagine that most English teachers, descriptivists and prescriptivists alike, would love this song and video. (They must make sure not to neglect watching the latter, though, lest they miss too much of the cleverness.) I used to be an English teacher myself, and then I retired and realized I no longer had to pretend that I understood English or teaching, a minor revelation compared to the one that told me how easy it was to admit to my longstanding cluelessness. Pensions are wonderful financial products. Every old person deserves a good one.

What I don't get is why Al Yankovic is "weird." True, he has very long, very curly hair, but so do many (well, some) other men. But he also has a wonderful talent for satire, oafish comedy, verbal ingenuity, and music, four things I happen to love. And although he also understands how stupid some sectors of the zeitgeist are, he is never cruel or demeaning. My very intelligent youngest daughter doesn't care for him, but that's only because she's young (she'll come around). In other words, Mr. Yankovic is a complete, not weird adult -- not nohow, not no way. And in this song, his smarts and his singing talent are on full, giddy, unweird display. If there's a song video richer in jokes (both visual and verbal, and wonderfully nonstop), can someone please direct me to it? I enjoyed this beautiful thing several times before I remembered it was a parody, after which I had to find out which song it was parodying. I had no idea what that song might be (because I'm no longer young and my brain has a thicker filter between itself and its surroundings). After some routine Internet research, I was not surprised, then, that I had never heard of (or heard) that song -- something called "Blurred Lines" by someone named Robin Thicke, whom I had heard of, but only in the way you hear of famous people getting married or divorced or arrested for drunk driving or murder or sexual assault. My online self then discovered that "Blurred Lines" had been the subject of some controversy about its being "rapey," which it definitely was (if my understanding of the adjective is accurate). What a waste, because it was also so musically clever and addictively danceable.
But holy shit (man, thy name is misogyny), Robin Thicke and all your dopey pals: that video is really rapey. But now, thanks to unweird Al Yankovic, I never have to hear or watch it again because I get to hear its deep, lovely grooves and riffs serving an ingenious hilarity about English grammar and usage instead of some ugly sexual vibe. When I was a teacher of English grammar and usage, I could've used it -- it might have helped me decide to retire from my counterfeit career earlier. (I was a fraud, true enough, but long ago, before I knew it, I had children to support, and I didn't know how to do anything else.)

For its just-under-four-minutes, the song is unrelentingly funny and ass-bouncing, which is usually good enough for me, but when you consider that unweird Al Yankovic is making fun of one kind of stupidity (hating women) by ignoring it and then making fun of another kind of stupidity (linguistic elitism), you get to laugh at two kinds of bullies, two kinds of dopes, two kinds of assholes.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Fucking Joni Mitchell

"Coyote" by Joni Mitchell
A few weekends back, I found myself up late (an unusual circumstance), clicking the TV remote weakly and aimlessly (a too usual circumstance), and fell across The Last Waltz, a movie I remembered loving when I first saw it long ago. I fell back into it pretty well right away and pretty well started loving it all over again, too, but I also found myself, this time around, distracted and annoyed by the between-song interviews, which were giving so much face time to Robbie Robertson. I know he was the chief songwriter, but he was coming across (admittedly, to my drooping old self) as a preening, narcissistic dick. I couldn't figure out why the director of the thing, Martin Scorsese, had decided to talk to him so much when I'd always assumed that the other guys couldn’t not also be interesting (I can still be slightly fanboyish once in a while, despite my about-to-be-a-grandfather status), especially because Mr. Robertson was, as I’ve suggested, acting like a 1970s-style hipster egomaniac.

But because there was so much good music coming at me, I didn’t pick at that little nit of irritation, especially since a big part of so many of the wonderful songs I was hearing was Mr. Robertson’s beautiful electric guitar. Jesus, he could really play. (He almost kept up with Eric Clapton on the blues number the latter sang and played during his turn on stage.) And all those great male voices! Levon Helm's was my favourite (always had been), but I could die easily enough listening to Rick Danko or Richard Manuel sing me out.

I guess I'm saying the TV signal was a happy one, but a high-testosterone one, too. And then, out of nowhere, a packet of digital info had a stunning, spotlit Joni Mitchell coming out and singing a number called "Coyote." (Before she started she not only kissed Mr. Robertson, she stroked his face, so I take back anything less than complimentary I might have been thinking about him.) Female beauty doesn't come much better than how Ms. Mitchell looked that night, and female voices don't sound much better than hers did that night, and I realized I was just watching what I was watching and just hearing what I was hearing almost forty years after it happened, several thousand kilometers from where it happened, through a smeared lens (you know, fucking movies) and lousy speakers, and that I was in a highly suggestible condition (it was late, and I was tired, and I'm older than I used to be), but now I really did feel younger and happier and more cheerful than I had in some time -- and it was the middle of the night! (Women! Music!)

What would we do without love songs? Joni Mitchell's "Coyote" is one of those two-ships-passing-in-the-night love songs, and the way it was sung that night in 1976 was flawlessly primal and pure, and so sophisticated, self-mocking, self-knowing, other-knowing, ethos-knowing, earthy, happy, wistful, and (best of all) ecstatic. No matter when you were born, no matter if you're a man or a woman, whenever you get the chance to see an acutely intelligent, acutely ecstatic woman tame a big male stage and a big, intoxicated audience like the one she was singing to, you should take that chance. (Women! Music!) And because the song is also an ingeniously loose, swinging poem, listen to every word. Because the voice is perfect, listen to every note it sounds. Because "The Band" becomes a nice, steady, sort-of-jazz combo backing a very bright star, listen to them, too, if you want to. But make a special effort to listen for the bliss in the surging love added by that voice's new words to the last iteration of the song's only repeating couplet. She was fucking Joni Mitchell, man. She had it all.

Listen to it again. Watch it again. You know you want to. (Put some headphones on this time.)

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Three-and-a-half Minutes (times x) Is Enough For Me

"Outta Sight" by James Brown and the Famous Flames

I saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and since then, I've watched it every day, on some days more than once, on some days more than more than once. You get -- you are the recipient of -- everything in this performance: the utmost control, precision, complexity, simplicity, passion (gusto, brio), artifice, kinetic grace (what a dancer he was!) . . . I know that's not everything, but it's enough for me. 
After my fifth or sixth viewing, I told myself that I'd watch the others on stage at least a little bit. But I couldn't. You can't take your eyes off James Brown here because you are afraid that if you do, you'll miss something: every note, every chord, every fraction of every beat surges through his body, which both controls and is controlled. Plus, he sings and screams, with flawless power, like a supreme being. 
He was just a man, of course, and by some accounts, not a very good one. As a musician, though, he's about as immortal as they come. It's the greatest performance of a great love song I've ever seen, and a joyous thing.

Monday, 18 August 2014


"634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)" by Wilson Pickett

Solitude and I seem made for each other, so what was I recently doing, making a phone call late one beery night to Soulsville, U.S.A? Isn't fooling around on the phone kid stuff? But since I had the number and all I had to do was look up Memphis's area code – why not? All I got for my trouble, though, was a recorded message about somebody not having set up his voice mailbox, which I surmised meant that the number itself was still active. Too bad, because I really wanted to talk to someone, and although I wasn't nearly drunk enough to believe that the person who had yet to set up his voice mailbox was Wilson Pickett himself (he was just sixty-five when he died too soon eight years ago), I was drunk enough to want to talk to him, and to imagine what I might say had I been speaking into his activated voice mailbox: “Mr. Pickett? Big fan. Just listened to ‘634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A)’ for the first time in years, and I gotta tell you, I think it’s gonna stay in my private rotation for a while. Since I've had a few beers I can’t at the moment remember how the Internet let me stumble on it (the Internet loves you, by the way) -- but Jesus, did you understand romantic love, or what? Lord have mercy, who knew all I had to do was pik-upp the tel-e-phone’? . . . Mr. Pickett, I think the kids today (not enough of them listen to you, but that's a whole other thing and I haven't got much time) -- the kids today might refer to what you’re proposing as a “booty call,” but maybe, in their zingy, callow cynicism, they’re missing your promise of ‘no more lonely nights.' I may be a touch or more beyond jaded myself, but I did pick up on the plural noun in that phrase. You’re making a promise, and, from what I understand, booty calls are not only not promises, they’re anti-promises. That’s how I know you understood romantic love – you got that it was nothing but promises. . . . Anyway, just wanted to let you know I love the song, still and forever. And kudos to the composers and all the players and other singers who helped you so sublimely sing this lovely, simple, cheerful number into the eternal airs of Planet Earth. Take care, and don’t let being dead get you down too much. I know it’s small consolation, but some of us can still hear you, and you still sound absolutely fucking great.” 
Then I listened to the song again (more than once). 
Before I went to bed, I thought about activating my own voice mailbox after all these lonely nights (gotta be closing in on a couple of thousand), but since I rarely receive any calls these days, booty or otherwise, there wouldn't have been much point.

Friday, 7 February 2014


"I Don't Want To Spoil The Party" by The Beatles
While wasting time online a couple of days ago, I discovered that Roseanne Cash once covered this song, which, because it's a country song (just ask George's guitar), makes beautiful sense. I liked her version a lot ( (I hadn't stopped wasting time): nice vocals, great (better-than-the-Beatles) players -- nifty violin and a very witty steel guitar . . . at least I think that was a steel guitar. But I still had several other things to avoid, so you know the story -- I had to listen to the original. And then (because you know the rest of the story) I had to listen to it again . . . Okay, once more (had to) . . . Eventually, the lesser world outside my headphones pushed inside, so I eventually took them off, but here's what I remember:
Those voices, together. Those together voices. John sings lead in the verses, and, whether it was a stroke of some kind of silly genius or not, somehow it was decided that Paul would take over for the twice-sung chorus -- or bridge, or middle-eight, or whatever that mid-song melodic shift is called (I'm not a musician) -- with George crucially crooning under each of his pals. I also remember feeling inexcusably happy for about two-and-a-half minutes.
There are a million songs that mix melancholy with cheerful guitars and drums going at a lively tempo, but few do it like this. I think the operative adjective here is "plaintive." Those voices and those lyrics tell you that, despite the instrumental brio, you're listening to a sad song and to singers whose souls are being ripped to shreds. Tonight they've been made sad, but they still love her, and will be glad if they find her (they won't), and yet they still love her. Two notes, three voices, four words ("I still love her"), sadness and hope -- that's some nice arithmetic. (Makes you think of Bach.)
I also maintain that, even if you resist singing along beyond the second or third line of the first verse, it's utterly impossible not to join voices with those three naive boys as they tell us that they still love her during the chorus  -- or bridge, or middle-eight, or whatever that mid-song melodic movement is called (I'm not a musician). You will surrender because you will want to hear yourself being plaintive and young.
If you won't sing, or hum, or dance along to whatever it is that you listen to, what's the point? The Beatles, in this song, tell you not to spoil the party because you have, after all, chosen to go. Listen to them.