Friday, 20 October 2017

Up, Frontman

"At The Hundredth Meridian," by the Tragically Hip

On stage, he mesmerized us all (and himself, too, I'd guess). He couldn't really dance, but he could really beautifully move that utterly honest, entranced body of his when it contained only the music he was hearing. He "danced" like Van Morrison sings: you can't exactly predict what's about to happen, but when it does, you know it was the right thing to do. I saw The Tragically Hip in a small venue (can't remember what it was called) in Toronto in the early 1990s. My friends and I were a lot older than most of our fellow fans, and I myself was also probably the most uncomfortable near-geezer in that little hall. (Where were all the chairs?) But it was all tremendous vibrating fun, and we all got to see a top-notch rock combo right in front of us in a place that wasn't big enough to muddify the music. 

No song I heard at that concert stands out above the others, so I can't choose a number from the night that makes me feel both great and grateful to this band and its kinetically amazing front man, who died far too early a couple of days ago. I like to believe he was as good a father to his four children, who were with him when he died, as he was a rock star and an activist and worker for a wider benevolence.

But this song, this number, this three-and-a-half minutes of swampy, joyous energy -- well, it makes me believe in magic, an essential element of all great songs. And if you don't think Gord Downie was a magician, just listen to him sing this song, especially when, near the end, for the seventh and final time, he sings the phrase "where the Great Plains begin," stretching it and holding on to it until you're worried he might not make it out of the song alive. He did, of course, which is at least partially why it gets me down that he isn't alive now.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Guest Who?

"Chelsea Hotel No. 2," as performed by Rufus Wainwright

Oh, the poetry in this song. There's lewd and cynical: ". . . Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street . . . "; there's  rueful and grieving poetry: ". . . Ah, but you got away, didn't you babe/You just turned your back on the crowd/You got away, I never once heard you say/I need you, I don't need you/I need you, I don't need you/And all of that jiving around . . ."; there's exaltative poetry: ". . . I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were famous, your heart was a legend . . . "  There's funny poetry: ". . . You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception . . ." There's cruel poetry, too: ". . . I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That's all, I don't even think of you that often." 

The star of the song, according to legend, is a dead female rock 'n' roll singer, but it's composing Leonard Cohen and singing Rufus Wainwright (my favourite reader of the former's songs), together again, melting everything inside you until it comes out your eyes.  

I recommend listening to it more than once. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Not Here, Not There, But Everywhere

"I've Been Everywhere," as sung by Johnny Cash and played by players whose names I don't know but who perform this number so flawlessly and beautifully that I couldn't help feeling better when I finally decided to listen to it. (And who doesn't need cheering up once in a while?)

I've heard parts of "I've Been Everywhere" countless times, but had never closely listened to the whole thing until yesterday. Shame on me. It's the human heartbeat sped up and amplified and the human brain humorized and satisfied and improved, and whatever functioning human limbs and digits and joints and muscles you've still got, energized. You don't have to move while it's in your ears, but I dare you not to. Some of the rhymes are even deft enough to have come out of a rapper's brain.* The song was born in Australia about sixty years ago and has been, if not everywhere, a lot of places where folks speak English, each locale supplying its own subset of "everywhere." Since Johnny Cash lived in North America and I live in North America, I've chosen his version. Well, that and the wittily twangy virtuosic combo playing the hell out of backing him up. Once Mr. Cash finishes his unerring vocal, they play us down the road, the crackerjack guitarist and pianist leading the way. What geographers, all of them!

(* I'm waiting for a hip-hop version of this gem. That's the kind of cultural appropriation I could get behind.)

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Basie Ball

"Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" by Count Basie and his Orchestra, with vocals by Taps Miller and Ensemble

I love baseball, especially daytime baseball: everything feels clearer (at least it did when I played). The baseball team I'm helplessly in love with is having an off year, but I still love it as I would a wayward child, and today* that team played a wonderful game with a hootingly dramatic conclusion (yes, I hoot when I watch baseball) -- a walk-off, extra-innings grand slam homerun. I've only now come down from the high, but you know how euphoria is -- it can always use some music.

So, of course, I had to google-meld baseball and songs (and singers and singing and playing and seeing and listening), and many of the results were -- forgive me -- hit or miss. But not this one, not "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" Everyone and everything is having absolutely brilliant swinging fun during this song: the voices, the horns, the reeds, the percussing personnel, the emerging zeitgeist. I was yet to be conceived when it was made, and although I may have seen Jackie Robinson on television in my infancy and toddlerdom (my father loved baseball, too), I have no memory of doing so. Which doesn't matter, of course, because I love history as much as I do baseball and music, and Jackie Robinson, for my money, and until I can be convinced otherwise, is still one of history's heroes.

(And how cool it would've been to have a name like Count Basie!)

* "Today" is now last week, which is when I wrote the three paragraphs above. Between then and now, the same hitter who walked the team off into that victory with his wonderful hit did an even more wondrous thing a few days later! What made it better and even more delightful? This time it was a "Super Grand Slam" [my italics], which the Baseball Almanac tells us is one consisting of (and I'm paraphrasing here) the guy at home having to bring three of his friends home and then coming home himself by hitting into the distance where it's now someone else's the ball they were all playing with. It was all very giddy and joyous and warm and strange and delicious, and it lacked Jackie Robinson's historical punch, but I'll never forget how stupidly happy I felt at least twice last week.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Send More Chuck Berry

"Wonderful Woman," by Chuck Berry
Right now I'm reading Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil Degrasse Tyson. As a retired person, I'm not generally in a hurry about anything. (As an older person, I might be in a hurry to get more things figured out while school's still in.) But with a title like that, the book had to be an attempt to explain complicated things even to slower-moving dopes like me. So I bought it.

So far so good. Mr. Tyson's voice gets a bit cutesy at times, but it's also very funny and very lucid, and I'm understanding stuff I sort of knew and sort of learning new stuff that I definitely didn't know. But what's a dope gonna do?

Here's my favourite part so far: "Pioneer [a space probe engineered to escape the solar system] wore a golden etched plaque that showed, in scientific pictograms, the layout of our solar system, our location in the Milky Way galaxy, and the structure of the hydrogen atom. Voyager [another space probe engineered to escape the solar system] went further and also included a gold record album containing diverse sounds from mother Earth, including the human heartbeat, whale 'songs,' and musical selections from around the world, including the works of Beethoven and Chuck Berry. While this humanized the message, it's not clear whether alien ears would have a clue what they were listening to -- assuming they have ears in the first place. My favorite parody of this gesture was a skit on NBC's Saturday Night Live, shortly after the Voyager launch, in which they showed a written reply from the aliens who recovered the spacecraft. The note simply requested, 'Send more Chuck Berry.'"

Chuck Berry isn't here anymore, but his music is still moving through our part of the universe. "Wonderful Woman" is the single off an upcoming collection called Chuck, his first album in many, many years. You listen to it and you feel all the eruptive elements of deep gratitude: for, the existence or non-existence of aurally able aliens notwithstanding, the fact that at least you have ears; for the part of your brain that understands poetry; for the hair on your body that gets raised by the acute electricity of amplified guitars (Mr. Berry has a partner, and that partner fits his partner); for the ability of your feet and hands to respond to clanging, slapping, splatting percussive actions by other human bodies; for the permanence of genius.

Not bad for any five-minute chunk of cosmic time.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Gun-Free Dance Club

"Shotgun," by Junior Walker and the All-Stars
The word "shotgun" can denote a higher-status position in a vehicle carrying more than two people (you're in the front, beside the person in possession of the steering wheel, accelerator, brakes, and, at least temporarily, your life); it can also denote a dramatic method both for smoking marijuana and drinking beer. Its most common correlative in the physical world, of course, is as a fearsome weapon of death. Like most people, I've ridden shotgun many times, and like many people, I've consumed (very rarely and long ago) marijuana shotgunally; a beer shotgun isn't anything I've accomplished (I'm not even sure how it's done), but I doubt I'll include that fact on the lengthy list of my final regrets. Nor have I ever wielded a shotgun; hell, I've never even touched or been close to one because they scare the shit out of me, and I like to think I'm smart enough by now never to be near things that scare the shit out of me unless I absolutely have to. My dreaming brain will occasionally scare the shit out of me, but I don't have much choice about associating with that fascist bastard.

But I think it's fair to say that in this song "shotgun" refers to a dance. True, there's the sound of gunfire to kick things off, and talk of shooting someone before he runs, but there are also a red dress, high heels, downtown, breaking it down, The Jerk (a stupid fun dance I often danced back in the nineteen-sixties, when I was still a kid and when this song was on the radio), playing the blues, digging potatoes (whatever that means), picking tomatoes (huh?), and twine time (no idea). All that to just one guitar chord, a scrumptious saxophone, a couple of soulful male voices, and, every once in a while, a staccato snare drum punctuating the groove.

Shotguns, I believe, can't be fired staccato. . . . Yeah, this song is definitely about dancing.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Gods Die, Too

"I Got To Find My Baby," as performed by Chuck Berry 
He really is one of the greats. Between my daily non-musical spells and moments, I've been listening to him, and reading about him, all day. He was all twangy, hilarious, insightful, lyrically nimble brio. He pretty well invented rock 'n' roll, which is definitely one of the happier complications of simplicity we've got. 

What a guitar player! What a songwriter! What a singer and showman and master of elemental rhythms! And what a poet! (You heard me.) I began the day convinced that "Too Much Monkey Business" was my favourite of his tunes (it is utterly brilliant fun), but by noon I was no longer sure because by then there were just too many others vying for top spot. A lot of the Euro-descended boys who copied him became much richer and more famous than he ever was, but that's white supremacy for you. 

In the end, I decided on a straight blues number he covered in 1960, when he was thirty-four and still in his prime. I was still just a kid then, and knew more about Elvis Presley than about him (there's that white supremacy again). 

His rock 'n' roll songs were great because he understood the blues, as "I Got To Find My Baby" so deftly demonstrates.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Still Alive At Ninety-Five

"Do It Again," as sung by Shirley Horn

George Gershwin (music) and Buddy DeSylva (lyrics) came up with this beautiful thing in New York City back in 1922, and about forty years later, also in New York City, Shirley Horn (music and lyrics) sang it. That's some pretty good integration. As a rule, I hate big cities, but I gotta admit they're good melting pots that hold things like human ingenuity, human dexterity (musicians!), and human female voices like Shirley Horn's doing this number till you think you might just melt into some kind of longing goo. She's the one in charge and she's the one not in charge, she's the seducer and she's the seduced. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the way Eros is supposed to dance its way through human populations?  

There are many other lovely versions of this song by many other great singers and ensembles, but this one is easily my favourite, not just because of Ms. Horn's superb performance, but also because of the band's gently swinging support. There's a horn -- I think it's a trumpet -- that provides some particularly impish, naughty punctuation here and there throughout the glorious three-minute spell that you're under while you listen to this New York City miracle.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Pretty Fly For A White Guy

"Come Fly With Me," as sung by Frank Sinatra

Any song that uses the word "rarefied" correctly and naturally is a song you've gotta listen to at least once. And because it's Sinatra still at the height of his wizardry, my bet (and suggestion) is that you might repeat the experience a few times. A great orchestra in juicy, fleshy, swinging form (those horns! those strings!) lifts the voice and the words to "where the air is rarefied" -- i.e., way up there above the rest of us who aren't in love with anyone. The song is a sunny, romantic fantasy that touches down in faraway places like Bombay, Peru and Acapulco (Ac-apulco, as the singer sharply phrases it), but what's wrong with that for a few minutes once in a while?

Myself, I wouldn't get into an airplane for anything in the world (not money, not love, not nothing) unless everything on the ground was on fire, but when I put on "Come Fly With Me" by Frank Sinatra and his musical co-pilots, I'm ready to get on board, put my seat into an upright position, and fasten my seatbelt.    

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Shoo-Bop, My Baby? Yup. Shoo-Bop, My Baby It Is

"Hello Stranger," by Barbara Lewis

Over the last two days, I've watched the miraculous movie Moonlight twice, the first time on my daughter's recommendation (she called it "stunning," and she was absolutely right), the second time on the recommendation of my compulsion to repeat ecstatic experiences. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen and it's still bouncing around in my head like a little ball made of light and truth and brimming life. "Hello Stranger" comes near the end, in a diner, out of a jukebox and straight into the bloodstream. The song is simplicity itself, but if it doesn't make you swoon (or sway, or maybe even get swept off your feet), you might want to check your pulse to see if you still have one. The singers, lead and background both, are all velvety longing and love, the organ flows through it all like a serene, necessary river, and even the drums (busily simple, if that's possible) are all tasteful charm. I vaguely remember it from my teenage years, but I was too tone-deaf to pay it close enough attention back then.

"Hello Stranger" isn't profound, but it's lovely and sweet and honest, and it helps buttress the profundity of a great piece of cinematic art. It also helps me remember why I've always loved jukeboxes.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017


"Play That Funky Music," by Wild Cherry

How much fun is this song? Barrels of monkeys everywhere have no choice but to bow in its direction -- that's how much fun it is. It tells a story, it mocks itself, it growls, it comments socially, it scorches you with its guitars (the very brief solo is acutely, burningly precise), and moves your limbs and pulse with its horns and percussive, bassy joy, and its singers convince you that they mean every word they sing. It happened in 1976, which is about an average half-life span ago. I was listening to a lot of blues and rootsy rock 'n' roll back then, but I always turned up the car radio when this barrel of monkeys came on. Who wouldn't? And who wouldn't turn it up at any time in the intervening forty years no matter where he was or whom he was with, or no matter how old he and his fellow listeners were? None of 'em would have a choice but to stop whatever they were doing for this untamed burst of soulful fun. The band should've called itself "Wild Cheery."

Monday, 16 January 2017

Sympathetic Nervous Systemic Ecstasy

"Cold Sweat" (Parts 1 and 2), by James Brown and whatever his band was called in 1967

This body blow of a masterpiece, apparently put together and recorded in one take during one  afternoon in Cincinnati, Ohio, hit the world (dazed the world? KO'ed the world?) in 1967. If I recall correctly, 1967 was a heyday year for all the young rock gods living outside of Cincinnati, Ohio taking three days to get a guitar break down, which might have been be part of a song that might have taken several weeks, on albums that might have taken several months to finally . . . what, "get right?"

One afternoon. C'mon, rock gods of 1967. James Brown and his company of consummate musical pros and artists made this -- "Cold Sweat," goddammit -- in less time than it took you guys to survive a minor siege of LSD madness. I've read some technical analyses of its great simplicity, and I sort of understand them, but what I do understand is that even if I one day end up in a hospital where no one knows me, in a bed constructed to keep me in it, and none of my children have yet reached me, and I'm worried about unfinished business, and I'm feeling pretty clammily anxious, I will search this song out, demand it from whomever is there. I am willing to pay extra taxes for it, beginning now.

Listen to it many times -- for the singing (and the screaming, oh, the screaming), for the horns, for the sax solo, for the bass line, for the drummer (who "gets some"). It's all so simple, and yet nobody thought it up until James Brown and his band thought it up and then played it, together, like early gods of the earth.

It's a hammer to the heart and the brain, and the rest of whatever body you've been blessed or cursed with, which will not only be compelled to move when you hear it, but to understand more than a little bit about itself (as opposed to the amorphous silliness of whatever "spirituality" is supposed to teach you).