Friday, 18 December 2015

Nouns Sense

"Ain't Got No, I Got Life," as performed by Nina Simone
So many things not to have: a home, shoes, money, class, friends, schooling, words, a job, a place to live, a mother, a father, children, sisters, brothers, pay, a church, a god, love, wine, cigarettes, clothes, a country, a faith . . . Talk about poverty! Talk about having absolutely nothing!

Then, so many other things to have: hair, brains, eyes, ears, a nose, a mouth, a smile, a neck, boobies (she said it, not me), a soul, a back, one's self, fingers, toes, a liver, life (a life, really), headaches, toothaches, bad times, one's sex (her piano hits it there). Talk about wealth! Talk about having so many just-as-real things, too!

Nina Simone is all nouns in this live number, all substance: a singer, a woman (in this video, an extremely beautiful one), a piano player, an explainer, a sad soul and a happy one, a steady occupant of time and space -- just listen to how she leads her band for these four entrancing minutes. You wish she were still alive so that you could go somewhere to listen to her, and maybe, after the show, to seek her out and ask her for advice about something that might be bothering you.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Forever Young (Your Only Choice)

"Killing In The Name Of" by Rage Against the Machine
I live alone in a sixth-floor apartment contained inside an apartment building located above and beside a riverside city park that for the last four days has been "rocked." That's what the goings-on have been called for the last several civic years: "Rock the Park." You know: loud, semi-competent, young guitar players and drummers and singers doing their over-amplified thing in front of intoxicated young citizens, very few of whom (you gotta figure) have ever heard (or heard of, probably) Ella Fitzgerald or Ray Charles or Frank Sinatra, or any other singer who knows that singing is really just fancy talking, usually about something really happy or really sad, in a listenable register.

But I have loved every atonal, wincingly noisy minute of it. It does me good, I think, to be so close to the fuck-you-Death energy of young people, because sometimes it can result in my snooping my way through the streetscape of youth and remembering the great, politically and musically sophisticated song on the marquee. Here are its last eighteen lines (the first eight spoken, the rest of 'em sung and screamed: "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/ Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!/Motherfucker!/ Uh! Uh! Uh! . . .") 

I can scarcely remember what those lines feel like (never heard 'em when I was actually young), but I contend that they will lift every neck (even old ones) into a restorative, rhythmic bobbing and nodding that says, over and over again, Yes.

This band, when it made this song, was very young, very honest, very optimistic, very competent -- i.e., they fucking rocked. I hope they come to the park close to where I live next year.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Waste Not

"Blue Skies" as performed by Ella Fitzgerald

It's her real birthday today, but we are the gift-receivers. The word "scat," in one of its usages, means shit. Here it's its own opposite. She does uncontaminated magic with the words and melody, too.

You don't need me to talk about this great performance. Just listen to it (more than once if I were you).

Monday, 20 April 2015

Happy Birthday (For Me)!

"Mack the Knife" as performed by Ella Fitzgerald

I inadvertently discovered today that Ella Fitzgerald's birthday is a few days from now. She would've been ninety-eight. Normally, the birthday boy or girl gets presents and other extra demonstrations of love: cake, singing, smiles, forgiveness, attention. Death (especially long-ago death) obviously makes that a problem, but I guess the last of those gifts is possible, even with the recipient's absence from the festivities. In the case of Ella Fitzgerald, let my taking of her brilliance and beauty (my attention) be my giving. Happy Birthday, Ella Fitzgerald!

I've been listening to her all afternoon, and only because as a musical amateur I have no filter that might help me choose the greatest instances of her greatest singing (that's just too much sifting), I offer you (you get a present, too!) this tuneful, swinging, clever, immediately brilliant, brilliantly immediate performance. Digging into this great song, the forty-three-year-old Ella Fitzgerald starts by identifying herself as a girl (on April 25th, she's the birthday girl!) who's hoping to remember "all the words." By the second verse, you know she hasn't, which doesn't matter since what follows is so imperfectly perfect: scat singing that puts sensible English syntax to shame, playful vocal shifts, witty self-mockery, ecstatic players -- an aural encyclopedia of casual, musically dazzling craft and execution, all of it in just four-and-a-half minutes.

(Rappers, take note: Ella Fitzgerald, right on the spot, some fifty-five years ago in Berlin, Germany, rhymed "recognize it" with "surprise hit.")

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Two Hands Clapping (Now, Not Zen)

"Tighten Up" by Archie Bell and the Drells

This song is so very simple and so very friendly. Archie Bell introduces himself and his Drells very politely, tells us where they're from and what they do: they sing, they dance, they play, they play tightly, they fall into each other, but they don't get too tight, they don't neglect the sound of two hands clapping. (Double-time hand-clapping is a neglected craft.)

I was a stupid teenager when this song first came out of my radio. It was effervescently chimey and dumb forty-seven years ago, and although I'm not happy to report that I'm just as dumb so many years into its future and mine, I still love its innocent, funky, elemental vibe, its proof that music is for everyone, whether you live in Houston, Texas or not. 

Anyway, good luck trying to sit still when you listen to it. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Puppy Love

"Walking The Dog" by Rufus Thomas

There are a lot of dogs in my neighbourhood, none of whom I would ever want to walk. They're all too small, too coddled by domestication, too distant and different from wolves. If I'm gonna walk a dog, I want its turd not to fit inside a mere sandwich bag.

No, if I were walking a dog, I would want one who at least reminds me of something wild and young, a dog that can't be contained by a bit of plastic. Which is why I don't like those small dogs -- they're fussy, and cautious, and weak, and too much like me. (I also use plastic a little at a time, but I still use a lot of it, so maybe there's still some wolf in me.*)

I've been listening to a lot of blues music lately, one song of which prompted the preceding paragraphs. I don't have a dog and have no plans to procure one, but "Walking the Dog" promises to teach me how to walk a dog, and it's such a frivolously cheerful flurry of saxophone and electric guitar and drums and a voice that means soulful business that it makes me think my owning a dog isn't as outlandish as I might immediately imagine. And, after all, how often do you get an offer to be taught something you don't know how to do? You usually have to learn on your own.

The song sounds like the result of everyone in one room, singing and playing and having fun together.

(* As a conscientious grandfather of a shiny new grandson who's going to live for a long time into a garbage-laden future world, I re-cycle all that plastic. Grrrrr . . .)

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Mortality Sin

"I Got You (I Feel Good)" by James Brown

At some point (points, the odds are) along the very short-lived journey between his two darknesses, a fellow is going to feel lonely and sad, but he must make use of it (them). Today started fine, but got sad pretty quickly: In a few minor, pathetically fallacious gestures, I opened the curtains and blinds to a gloomy damp day that I already knew was out there. The Internet and TV news had already informed me that almost one-hundred-and-fifty na├»ve customers of air travel had perished (had met their second darkness with almost no warning) when they had been slammed into a French mountain by a crazy airline pilot. They were on a plane that had been "pulverized," so you can imagine how they ended up. You never want your second darkness to be violently entered into, but, Jesus, does that happen to too many people or what? Every day, everywhere, violent phenomena crush the life out of so many people, so why should this most recent current event have bothered me so much? It reminded me (I think, I guess) that death is an insatiable and unacceptably careless motherfucker. Its cancer claws, its heart-attack jolts, its whooshing bloodlust for everything that isn't nailed to the floor (of which nothing is, it should go without saying) will not be denied, not nohow, not nowhere, not at no time. It's hard enough when someone you love disappears, but when the loss is as sudden and sad as a loved one being smashed to bits directly and immediately because of someone else's diseased brain -- well, you can't help but start thinking about a tall pile of unanswerable questions.

At times like this, you need a cheerful song, a song with sugar, with spice.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Something Instead Of Nothing

"Harvest" as performed by Rufus Wainwright and Chris Stills

A lot of the lyrics don't make a lot of sense, but you gotta give credit where it's due: Dream up, dream up/Let me fill your cup/With the promise of a man is some awfully nice recombinant concision. The song is what I imagine a serenade is, full of hope and sadness and delivered from a place you can't see. I have no idea who is being serenaded, but I do know that the two beautiful human voices on this version are your heart's enemy (they break it mercilessly for three solid minutes and then some), but your brain's pal (they help it understand why evolution might have come up with lungs and tongues and teeth and larynges and vibrating membranes inside the dark safety of our bodies).

(No disrespect to Chris Stills, who is perfect in this number, but whenever I hear Rufus Wainwright sing, I want to bring him home and take care of him until one of us dies.)

Just Because

"Man and Dog" by Loudon Wainwright III
This old pro is still so funny and tuneful and still so bluntly clever, and this song and video prove it. Just enjoy the two of them teaming up to make you feel better. Your blues don't stand a chance.

Monday, 16 March 2015


"I'll Change My Style" as performed by George Thorogood and the Destroyers

There are some really nice versions of this little gem, but this one is my first heard and favourite. It's all soulful twang and gravelly yearning and bluesy hope. I love it when a good player so precisely punctuates a good singer, and it's especially fun when singer and player are the same person. I first heard Mr. Thorogood and his Destructive pals nail this song back in the mid-1970s, when I was a lot younger, and the fact that I still love it lessens my unease about at least some of what's happened between then and now.

Also back then, I heard this song performed in a bar by the great Canadian blues band Downchild. I couldn't find their version online, but I remember that their saxophonist, who also occasionally sang back-up, took the lead vocal and that their lead guitar guy killed his part. It's a great slow dancing number, but I also remember that instead of dancing, a lovely girl I had known for a while and I started trading goofy smiles and longing looks with each other at the table while everyone else was dancing (I was too shy to ask her on to the floor). Later on, we shared some soulful kisses. Eventually our styles clashed. I mean, c'mon -- how do people really change their heartbeats, or their walks, or their talks? That stuff only happens in songs, which I guess is why we listen to them.

I don't miss that girl, but I sure do miss how she made me feel forty years ago.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Maybe Some People Don't Die

"Pride and Joy" by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble

Of course, like anyone who hears this, I love the lunch-bucket blues of the drummer and the bassist and the lyrics and the singer, the last of whom also plays the guitar, which is the real star of the song, the real pride and joy, the real ass-and-limb mover: it's so warm and fleshy (those pulsing chords sound like they're strumming themselves) and twitchy (the picking follows the code but throws in its own delightful tics). Since I can't hear any other instruments, I'm assuming the players comprise only a trio, but because of that guitar, they sound like a much bigger outfit.

Stevie Ray (some people don't need a surname) probably wrote this song to and for and about a woman, but if you get hypnotized by all those electrified, magical strings, you could be forgiven for fancying the idea that he wrote it to and for and about them. (I used to be in love with a typewriter, so I vote for the ode-to-a-guitar reading.)

Stevie Ray Vaughan has been dead for almost twenty-five years, but this number makes you think that historical fact can't be right. (He's dead? What am I talking about? I just heard him. I just heard "Pride and Joy.")

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

I Love

"I'm Your Man" by Leonard Cohen

How do you injure yourself when you're asleep? Towards my most recent dawn, when, in the interests of urinary continence, I awoke from a fairly disturbing dream (there was self-defending violence, and a guy I know -- a friend, actually -- and, in disguise, other people I know, and other typically REM-ish nonsense), I realized that I had managed to do just that. As I stumbled to the can, I really did stumble to it: why did my right knee hurt so much? It hadn't done so at all when I went to bed. Dreams can hurt you, but recovery time is usually pretty short (a minute or an hour or two, sometimes a week or so, nothing ever really serious), but that's just your spirit they're beating up on, and your spirit is a fucking wimp. How the fuck do you hurt your fucking knee (a real thing) while you're in bed (in bed alone)? I guess it's just one more mystery of the many I'm discovering as I get older. I'm no longer hobbled, but my right knee still doesn't feel right some eighteen hours later.

Pretty funny, huh? Even before I'd finished in the bathroom, I was laughing and remembering Leonard Cohen's great line about aching in the places where he used to play. I couldn't remember which of his many brilliant songs contained it, but later on in the day, after I had spent some time with my shiny new grandson (fed him, burped him, was spat up on by him, loved him even more than I had in our previous encounters -- the future looks good), I discovered it in "Tower of Song," which is a great song, but a sad and rueful one, and I needed a more hopeful Leonard Cohen song, what with my mysteriously sore knee and the optimism running through my blood because of my shiny new grandson's shiny new life. 

Therefore, because it's so full of hope, and because it's so simple, and so complicated, and because it's such beautifully compressed poetry, and because the band's performance understands all that, and because I don't understand women or babies, both of whom have the power and the ability to knee me in the gut, I give you Leonard Cohen, a really spectacular love poet, singing "I'm Your Man."  

Friday, 13 February 2015

No Educated Flea Am I (I'm A Lucky Guy)

"Bad Luck" by B.B. King
"Let's Do It (Let's Fall In Love)", as sung by Ella Fitzgerald

I don't know why, but I like the fact that the first of this year's three Friday the Thirteenths (an unusual amount for just one year, I'm assuming) is followed by Valentine's Day: two consecutive days of believing in untrue things (which I fully endorse). Believing in -- no, recognizing -- true things can get a little tiring, so it's especially nice to have a forty-eight-hour break once in a while. Imagine: bad luck and flaw-free romantic love having their way with each other with nothing -- nothing else at all, if you have the ability, and the desire, and the opportunity to arrange your life exactly as you would like it to be -- intruding for two whole days. You can gather a lot of strength for the larger struggle during a getaway like that.

It could make a nice little movie, especially with B.B. King's slashing blues (those lyrics, that guitar!) and the gentle swing of Ella Fitzgerald's vocal genius singing those incredibly witty words as soundtrack. I don't think any movie needs more than two great songs by two great musicians anyway.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Fab Four

"Take Me To The River", written by Al Green and Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, and performed by Al Green (and a crowd of wonderful musicians);; and also performed by Talking Heads;
There certainly are a lot of covers of this great song, which isn't surprising. I mean, c'mon -- it's a great song, and one which I fell back across for the first time in a long time a couple of days ago. You see how hard it is for great songs? They get forgotten for long spells, even, I daresay, by people with brains and ears younger than mine because even great songs are joyously multitudinous and just too hard to keep track of. (Singing is universal, and one of my favourite things about our species.)

Cute story: In the course of my finding a song that captured the elation of having a fresh baby in the family, "Stay Up Late," by Talking Heads seduced me, which led to my hearing "Take Me To The River," which is a heavenly (i.e., beautifully earthy) combination of intense musical talent, blunt adolescent impulse, and the pleas (that word isn't part of "pleasure" for nothing) of a lonely soul who, if he isn't looking for God, is at least looking for a girl to be saved by, which led to my discovery that Al Green had written it (I guess I should've known this), which led me to the splendid experience of his original version. Once the dust had settled, I realized I'd listened to four variations on a miracle.

In chronological order, then: 1) a live version by Talking Heads; 2) the Al Green studio version; 3) one of his live versions; and 4) the studio version of those Heads that Talk (and Sing, and Play) -- each rendition at least twice, of course. I'll listen to more versions when I have time, but that'll just be me icing my cake more than it actually needs. All four of my citations are guaranteed to fill your body and your brain and a nice chunk of your day with a sharp musical pleasure. Number Two is my Number One because you get to hear Al Green and because all the players are magnificent (bonus: it even has strings that, near the end, nestle themselves into a cosy place right beside the groove of the horns!). Number One and Number Three are my Number Two (they're both endlessly soulful, funky, and drenched in sweaty ecstasy, so, hell, it's a tie). Number Four is my Number Three (it has a slower tempo, and gets a little sludgy -- barely enough to notice, really, because all the playing still manages to rivet you right to your heartbeat, and David Byrne's singing will tingle any spine or elevate any pulse within hearing distance.)

Confused enough yet? Relax: A great song will fuck you up every time.

Friday, 23 January 2015

The Future

"Stay Up Late" by Talking Heads
It's a curious thing, being a grandfather for the first time. I stare at photos of the little guy several times a day and all I can think, while I'm envying him his starting point with its approximately twenty-nine thousand-and-two-hundred days of future (I'm working with eighty as the average life span for a North American male here, but I'm hoping that the medico-technological future will provide him with a longer one), is that he's a flawlessly formed tiny human male who will one day die. Strangely enough, I've never been more cheerful. Many friends and family members (both those who have seen him in the flesh or via photo), have described him as "perfect," and he is, but that's only part of the story (only part of his story, whatever it becomes). 

He's perfect because he's new, of course. I'm well aware that this implies that imperfect equals old, and I can live with that, residing as I do on both sides of the equation. My first grandchild is named Rowen, and his parents (his mother is my still perfect daughter) are now the very happy protectors of his newness and his fresh perfection.

I love how Talking Heads sound like robots who are fully human, especially in this song about babies and new parents.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A River On The Radio

"Going Down To The River" by Doug Seegers

I heard this guy for the first time on CBC this morning while I was driving around town on a list of errands that was taking me nowhere near my river. It was a wise decision by the producers to play at least part of this song at the top of the segment, before Mr. Seegers was interviewed, because even the small sample hooked me: Yes, I wanted to hear him talk about his life and music, but I could hardly wait to get home and hear the whole song. The interview revealed a disarmingly humble singer/songwriter whose kin crafts seem to have been instruments of survival in a life beset by homelessness, drugs, booze, and fractured love, much of that dark stuff happening in Nashville, Tennessee. There must be a lot of fucked-up down-and-outers in that city with voices that make you thankful you have ears, and a brain, and a heart because you'd think a voice like this would have been singled out long ago. In any case, Mr. Seegers appears to have a few bucks in his pocket now. Good for him -- and great for us. Or for me, at least, because once I got home and was able to listen to the whole song, my day got a whole lot better. Even the lyrics delight with a couple of striking images that I've never encountered before: a pair of baptized feet and a soul that's getting re-washed; I realize all souls break promises to themselves, and that they pick up a thick layer of grime and dust on their journeys (my own, I know, could certainly use a long, warm bath), but I've never heard of feet getting baptized or souls getting washed again.

It's a perfect country song, and a perfect blues song, too (don't forget to listen to the players, especially to the one on electric guitar). I plan to listen to "Going Down To The River" many times in the future. How am I supposed to resist a voice that can do what it does here, a voice that so flawlessly holds so much pain and regret and self-knowledge and hope in it?

For an extra and equal treat, here's Mr. Seeger performing the same song in a recording studio with a couple of Swedish country singers (I didn't know there were any country singers in Sweden, let alone ones as good as these two, but why not?):

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

I Like It!

"Venice, U.S.A", by Van Morrison
The players are all absolutely crackerjack, and the backup singers sound like a flock of something soaring in tight formation way up there (you know: close to heaven), and the groove is funky and intoxicating. Van Morrison, however, goes a little nuts here. Then again, Van Morrison goes a little nuts once he tucks into a lot of songs, doesn't he? That's part of the fun of listening to this one: he's crazy in love* with a woman in a restaurant in Venice, U.S.A., and then he's in the wet streets of Venice, U.S.A. (which is in southern California, so imagine that) -- sometimes walkin', sometimes strollin' -- as he's leaving the place. (I guess the love hasn't worked out: he and his woman -- she and her man -- are breaking up, so, of course, he's taking his time gettin' out of town.) On the way, three times, he is compelled to sing a really dumb song, which, as he tells us, "goes like this": Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/ Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah/Dum diddly dum dum diddy diddy dah dah -- I LIKE it!

Wow! That "I LIKE it!" after the first of the three set-of-eight iterations of all the alliterative goofiness is the exploding heart of the number for me, even though it comes just two minutes into the six minutes-plus of this crazy, stupid, beautiful song: three little happy English words, three small-caliber happy bullets that you'll take over a lot of other ways to die. It's probably about two minutes too long, and I understand why some of you might not want to see it through to its completion, but I'm a sucker for the simple stuff. I don't think Van Morrison is as good a singer as, say, Frank Sinatra (who was always perfectly and emotionally disciplined), but he sure knows how to inflect and bend the groove of a song. In this song (as in many others), he pushes his words into the last empty inch of a beat, or crams them in up front, and you think he's gonna fall on his face in front of the next one, but he always hits his mark. And he repeats himself so unpredictably (when you think twice would be good, he thinks thrice, or vice-versa, and he's always right) that you can't let yourself breathe easily until the fade. His voice sometimes goes out of control, but, Jesus, does it go, and who cares about an occasional vocal spasm of madness? I don't, because the singing is about love, the thing that makes everyone lose control at least once in a while, and because, as I've already suggested, all the other singers and players are in control all the way, especially all those background almost-angels as they sing and sing and sing that diddly-dumb refrain right to the end of this so happy, so sad, so stupid, so funky, so entrancing song.
I like it!
(* An earlier Van Morrison song is called "Crazy Love", and although it's a sweet, gentle little thing, it comes nowhere near the Vanarchical beauty of "Venice, U.S.A." See -- no, hear -- for yourself: