Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Knocked Out

"Knock On Wood" by Eddie Floyd

If you're like me when you're making dinner for one, you do more than a little scrolling through your playlist to find a tune that will help you through the tedium of mincing garlic, or chopping or cutting or slicing some other dead thing, vegetal or carnal, or waiting for heat to do its physics. If you're even more like me, you will always stop at this great song because you can't not stop at it -- sorry, the rhythm guitar's slinky stroking of the groove makes that impossible. Add to that wonderfulness the lyrics' explication of the standard swoon of extremely experienced romantic love -- Mr. Floyd really doesn't want to lose what's good (thunder, lightning, the frightening way he's loved), he really knows he's a very lucky guy -- and you also, inevitably, start knocking on wood yourself. You don't even have to leave your post at the cutting board. If you're really like me, you remind yourself of how lucky you are just to get to listen to this song, even when you're making dinner for one.

Wood? Consider yourself knocked on. Person like me? Consider yourself knocked out.

Friday, 11 November 2016

He Was Our Man

"Tower of Song" by Leonard Cohen

This song contains one of my favorite couplets of all time -- Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play -- but there are so many brilliant, funny, arresting, heartbreaking lines from so many of his songs that I'm going to indulge myself:

From "I'm Your Man": If you want a lover/I'll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love/I'll wear a mask for you  . . . From "Chelsea Hotel": You told me again you preferred handsome men/but for me you would make an exception . . . From "Dance Me To The End Of Love": Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on/Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long . . . From "Famous Blue Raincoat": Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good so I never tried . . . From "Hallelujah": Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you . . . From "The Faith": The sea so deep and blind/The sun, the deep regret/The club, the wheel, the mind/O love, aren't you tired yet? . . .

I could go on, but I have to go out into the crisp clarity and brightness of the November autumn day outside my four walls -- to the bank, to the grocery store, to whatever other sacred trivial stuff I get to do while I'm still alive. The newspapers tell us that he died peacefully in the company of his family. Good for him.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Not When, Not Where, Not What, Not Even Who

"Why," by Annie Lennox

This might be the saddest goddamned love song I've ever heard. It's got everything love has: passion, boredom, pity, self-pity, weakness, strength, honesty, dishonesty, despair and hope and inside-out wretchedness. It's also about two people who are finished with each other, which is why it's so goddamned sad. And, just as love so often does when it spreads through you, it never lets you know who's talking or what's being heard or felt by the partner in the whole enterprise. Nobody gets -- i.e., understands -- love, so that's no big surprise, but it takes a master actor-singer to get us hoping that someone might.

From what I can tell, Annie Lennox is one of those masters. She uses the studio and her backing singers to ecstatic effect, but they know who's boss in this tune; you don't even have to listen closely to realize her voice is always in charge. But then, almost four minutes in, when you've already been bushwhacked by all the aural beauty, you get the singer singing and reciting the blunt, hair-raising poetry of the song's last words: This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is the path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead/This is the joy that's seldom spread/These are the tears/The tears we shed/This is the fear/This is the dread/These are the contents of my head/And these are the years that we have spent/And this is what they represent/And this is how I feel/Do you know how I feel?/'Cause I don't think you know how I feel/I don't think you know what I feel/I don't think you know what I feel/You don't know what I feel. . . . 

. The song is done, and so are you.

(I like singing along to the music I listen to as much as any fellow, and, thankfully, those lines are great even with lesser voices like mine trying them out, but they're even greater when you stop singing and just pay attention to them. Just stop and listen. Maybe tomorrow, if you're feeling up to it, try joining in.)

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Something Else

"Tell It Like It is," as performed by Nina Simone

Strong, proud, helpless, vulnerable, cool, ecstatic Nina Simone pretty well says all there is to say about romantic love in this song, and it takes her only about four minutes. She's got some help, of course: her elemental and soulful band, and her piano, which forces you to sway yourself into a good mood; but most especially her voice's masterful knowledge of all our connective tissues. (In another life, she would have made a great doctor.) She hums and semi-sings in little waves of pure human sound before she sings the lyric, and hums afterwards (remember -- she's in love), and takes us up there with her as she does.

I'm sort of embarrassed that I took so long (sixty-plus years, more or less) to start listening to this great musician, this great artist of song and feeling. She died quite some time ago, and I barely knew who she was back then. I've since learned she suffered greatly (mental illness, racism, thieves, trouble with men, and more), but my hunch is that when she was happy, she was really happy. She was, and this song is, something else.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Can We Be Franklin?

"I Say A Little Prayer," as performed by Aretha Franklin

"I don’t care what they say about Aretha,” Billy Preston, who died in 2006, once said. “She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

That's the final paragraph of David Remnick's wonderful profile of Aretha Franklin in the April 4, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. 

To realize that what Billy Preston said was utterly true, all you have to do is listen to this song and hear Aretha Franklin's body and soul all over it. What a treat to the blood and the brain it is to hear (twice!) that silky, sexy voice caress ". . . There is no one but you . . ." like it's got the whole Eros thing in us completely figured out. "The Sweet Inspirations" are the pleasingly identified girls behind her (more bodies and souls all over the song), and are just as wonderful: all that gorgeous mutuality makes you wonder how we ever manage to feel unhappy sometimes. 

But whenever you do feel miserable, or just mildly sad, or just a little off, I suggest this singer and these singers singing this song. They're all over it.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Ali Out

"What A Man," by Salt-N-Pepa

He took big punches (and so many!) from everything and everyone: from himself, from the American government, from gigantic white America, from swindlers of his wealth, from disease, from old age, from other boxers -- Joe Frazier, according to the man himself, almost killed him; Joe Frazier, rightfully, hated him because Ali tried to rob him of his humanity. They fought three times, Frazier officially lost twice, but both of them lost all three times. They were both infinitely braver than I ever will be, but they didn't really win anything.   

He made his living from fighting. That used to be something I liked to watch, but because I've learned how frail the brain can be, I don't care for it anymore. I still respect it, I just can't watch it.

I could never stop watching Muhammad Ali, however, even when I wanted to: He was just too tough, too strong, too smart, too brave, too old, too frail, too beautiful, his face too bright and pretty, his eyes too alive. It's been the strangest thing: Ever since I found out, in the middle of a few nights ago, that he was gone, whenever I've subsequently seen him and heard his voice in the papers and on TV, my normally reliable resistance to tears just checks out for a second or two. The tears evaporate quickly, but leak out from somewhere they do.

The linked song is all about romantic love and has nothing to do with Muhammad Ali, but the refrain is all him, and you will want to sing it (and dance) when you think about him.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Cold, Broken, Happy

"Hallelujah" as performed by Rufus Wainwright

What is it about the singing of words like these: ". . . her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you . . ."? Or these: ". . . remember when I moved in you / the holy dark was moving, too / and every breath we drew was Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah . . ."? And these: ". . . Maybe there's a God above / and all I've ever learned from love / was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you . . ."? What is it about words like all those, and like all the others in this magnificent song, being sung by a voice that will put you on the floor every time you hear it?

I have no idea -- I just accept it as one of life's gifts.

The words belong to the great Leonard Cohen, the voice to the great Rufus Wainwright. The song has been covered -- beautifully so -- by many, but only this one makes me cry, only this one makes me feel so mystifyingly happy for four short minutes. I've been allocated millions of those things, but not many of them have been, or will be, better than these four.

I think it might be the best song in the world, and this its best version. Praise its harsh beauty. Join in on the "Hallelujahs," of which there are twenty-nine. I counted, and I sang along. (Good thing I live alone.)

Monday, 28 March 2016


"Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A.

I've tried really hard to learn how to listen to rap music because African-Americans have always made transformative and transcendent music, but I confess to both a cognitive and existential deficit when I listen to this genre: it all comes too fast and too nimbly for my auditory processing neurons (they're slow and not clever), and even when I can make a very basic sense out of all the words, the worlds they describe are really difficult for me to understand, what with my being a middle-aged, Euro-descended, twice-divorced, middle-class Canadian who has most of what he can deal with trying to figure out the world he's living in.

But those beats are gonna get to you, regardless of your origins and attitudes and age. Luckily (even though it wasn't hiding), I found this number, a brilliant rock (it's a fucking genuine fucking diamond) in all the roll of contemporary life. I was already a self-embroiled grown-up when it came out, and I remember hearing about it, but I didn't ever listen to it (I was busier back then). Now that I have more time, I realize what I was missing, and how narrow and stupid I was about music I wasn't used to; I still am, but less so, I hope.

It's a miracle, this more-than-a-song song. It takes you from your world (if you're a middle-aged, Euro-descended, twice-divorced, blah, blah, blah Canadian) into its world. It's like reading Shakespeare, except you get to dance.

Saturday, 26 March 2016


"I Got Everything I Need (Almost)" by Downchild Blues Band*

I had forgotten how good these guys were. I also forget what led me to stream this song on to my playlist. (I have a "playlist" that I can listen to however and wherever I want to -- without wires! Some technology is too wonderful for my poor words.) I was in my twenties when I often saw this brilliant band in bars in cities where I was living, and falling in love, and learning about the blues -- of goddamned course, they're on my playlist.

This singer (he was big and hairy and completely unpretentious, as I remember) -- oh man, back so many years ago, he told us all about how he had it all: a car, a wish on a star, lots of friends (who liked him!), lots of dough, fame, no trouble getting high. But he had wisely discovered what he'd been missing, and now he was just telling us about how he'd come to his senses. Perfect horns, drums, guitars, and a dazzling harmonica that forced us to move our bodies backed up his epiphany. (There's usually music for those, right?)

* I believe they eventually shortened their name to "Downchild", but I prefer the extended nomenclature.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Sir Jagger Meister

"Hang On To Tonight" by Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger has so much glamour and money and fame on his hands it's easy to forget he's always been a really soulful country singer as easily injured as the rest of us. He was good even when he was a kid, and has just improved with age. I think he was in his fifties when he sang this song, and like all great singers he makes you believe that he's lost in the person who's feeling the feelings and singing the words that are making you stop what you're doing. It's all great studio sweetness (it's got Sir Mick's longing harmonica, too), and it's exactly how you'd plead your case to an unsure lover if you had a case to be pled.

Too bad Sir Mick Jagger too often chooses to holler at thousands in stadiums instead of doing what he does in this song. If you offered me a free ticket to a Rolling Stones concert in such a place, I'd run for the nearest small night club and pay whatever outrageous cover charge demanded by management if someone like the Mick Jagger in this gem were inside, getting ready to sing, getting ready to show us his scars. If you're in the upper deck of a place where baseball or football or soccer or hockey or basketball is played, looking at a giant video screen and listening to aural mud, you can't hope to witness anything as musically or emotionally interesting as that.

Their Majesties

"Baby I Love You" as performed by Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King

Because I love when men and women really talk to each other, I love male-female duets, especially this one, where lucky you and I actually get a male-female quartet: her guitar (all its buttery desire) and his guitar (all precise urgency, equally desirous), plus her voice and his, each of them as euphonious as you could want. Because all four of them know what's what, that's a lot of talking going on, but overkill it ain't: four interactions of atoms are telling each other that they love each other, and there aren't sounds enough in the universe to nail that one down. It takes a lot of playing and singing, a lot of consultation. Ironically enough, here it's a queen and a king showing us how to talk to each other.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Super And Natural

"Witchcraft" as sung by Frank Sinatra

I've said it before: Frank Sinatra was an asshole with women*, but man, did he know how to tell them he loved them! In this song, he does it really nakedly, admitting his helplessness right out of the gate: Those fingers in my hair/That sly come-hither stare/That strips my conscience bare/It's witchcraft/And I've got no defense for it/The heat is too intense for it/What good would common sense for it do?

Although it would be perfectly fine if this song were just about sex, I don't think it is; hell, sex isn't about sex -- it's about surrendering. If even a smooth operator like Mr. Sinatra has "no defense" for whatever "it" is, what chance do the rest of us schmucks have?

The band is cool but ecstatic as it backs up all the tightly clever lyrics and the exquisitely phrased singing ("such an ancient pitch," indeed). The drummer swings, the horns do, too . . . Why, it's witchcraft! And all in less than three minutes!

(* With men, too. He was rich, white, powerful, glamourous as hell, very deeply talented, and he really alpha-dogged his way all over the place. If I'd known him, I would've hated him, but if he'd broken into song every time we were in the same room, I'd have stayed in that room till he was finished.)

Monday, 1 February 2016

Loudon Clear

"Haven't Got the Blues Yet" by Loudon Wainwright III

You don't have to be male, or middle-aged, or clinically depressed to love this song. If you're just privileged and lucky (that's me!) and if you value self-mockery and are prone to introspection (that's me, too!), I don't see how you can't love it.

Mr. Wainwright has been making funny, tuneful, honest, and moving music since the 1970s (has also sired a few very musically adept children, the best known of whom is probably Rufus Wainwright; see He can do country, folk, jazz, and, as he does here, the blues. He's most often with other musicians on his albums, but when he performs live, it's usually just his guitar and his reedily engaging tenor voice. Back in those long-ago '70s, I saw him at the old El Mocambo in Toronto (is that place still around?), and pretty well immediately after he took the stage, he owned the whole audience. It was a great, hammy, hilarious performance (just like the one he gives in the linked video); I remember that my face actually hurt for a while after he finished because I'd severely strained every last one of its smile- and laugh-muscles. 

He's a gem, and so is this song, with all its gemmy, funny lyrics. My favourite lines: My life isn’t tragic/But it’s still a doggone shame/That I’m not the man I used to be/Though we’re genetically the same. (Okay, I'll admit that an appreciation of this song might, after all, get a bit of boost if you're male and middle-aged.)

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Companion(s) Pieces

"Late to the Party" by Kacey Musgraves
"Let's Get Lost" as performed by Chet Baker

This first of these two dreamy songs (you can't listen to them and not lose your bearings in the wakeful world) is all female finesse and charm -- good lord, how some girls can sing! When this one hits it a touch higher on you and groove in a sweet country quatrain -- I'm sorry I'm not sorry that I'm/late to the party with you/Oh, who needs confetti/we're already falling into the groove -- you're gonna swoon, I guarantee it, despite the imperfect rhyme. The players are all expert, the lyrics mischievously vivid and true, the voice filled with desirous love for its world of two. If you live to be a hundred, you probably won't hear a sweeter love song.

Chet Baker, I think, is celebrating an anniversary of ecstasy ("this night we found each other"). How else to explain his taking to his horn even before he starts singing? If you can sing without your voice, and if the occasion demands, you've gotta do it. If your voice also knows what it's doing, you get to make a smooth little pearl of a song in which you very politely tell the world to stop bothering you because you've got better things to do, one of which is to attend to the person you're in love with. You get to sing for her (twice!) and play for her (also twice!). You also get to pull off a perfect double rhyme: Let's get lost in a romantic mist/Let's get crossed off everybody's list. You're being brilliant like this, of course, because you're living in a rare dream cast in a romantic mist, population Two.

In the future, when dictionaries catch up, they'll contain unorthodox entries like "anti-nightmare" and will simply provide hyperlinks to these two songs.