Generally speaking, each musician in a three-piece band has to be doing something noticeable to make their songs cook. There’s too much space to fill for a guitarist to simply strum lightly. The bass player can’t play basic root notes, and the drummer can’t merely keep a beat. There has to be more going on to properly support the song, and “Funk #49,” by The James Gang, is a perfect example of the three-legged-stool of the power trio.
The James Gang consisted of everyone’s goofy guitar-playing uncle, Joe Walsh, with Jim Fox on drums and Dale Peters on bass. Walsh would later join the Eagles, putting a jagged guitar edge onto their smooth country rock, but in “Funk #49,” as with all the James Gang songs I’ve heard, Walsh is the centerpiece. He manages to make both his voice and his guitar sound a third of the way through a case of Carling beer, and I mean that in a good way.
“Funk #49” opens with a sloppy guitar cadenza. This mess of notes in the left channel tumbles across to the right channel, where the proper riff takes up residence. At about 0:10, Fox and Peters enter, and they propel the entire song. Despite its title, it’s not really funky in a Parliament or Prince style, but there is a rawness and bounce to the rhythm that seems to make the title fit.
Walsh starts singing around 0:17, and his voice is unmistakeable. He sings about a girlfriend who appears to be untrue, but it’s hard to take him seriously. “Funk #49” sounds like it was a cool studio jam, but then Walsh realized he needed words. The verses are brief, and there is no real vocal chorus. At 0:28, Walsh and Peters play a descending riff that serves as the chorus, and Fox adds cool fills. The bridge, at 1:33, sounds like a dairy cow lost in a jungle, as cowbell and rainforest screeches accompany Fox’s drums. (Again, I mean that in a very good way!) Then at 2:12, Walsh plays a solo, of sorts. As with the opening cadenza, it’s a sound only he could make. Walsh is like Mike Campbell and Mark Knopfler. He’s a guitarist with an unmistakeable sound, and he lets it fly on “Funk #49.”
The band spends the last minute having a blast on their respective parts. It’s a cool, different song, but not really one-of-a-kind. Earlier, the band had recorded “Funk #48,” which is similar – although this time with a vocal chorus. (I guess “donk-da-donk-da-da-donk-da-donk” qualifies?) But “Funk #49” brings the melody and the sound. It’s a song I never turn off, and I always turn up.
“The Tears of a Clown,” from the 1967 Smokey Robinson and The Miracles album Make it Happen. Released as a single in 1970. Sad lyrics in a happy melody create a perfect pop song.
(4 minute read)
*Note – I’m not even going to try to rank songs. I just plan to periodically write a little bit about some songs that I like.
Clowns got a bum rap in American culture over the past 50 years. When I was a kid, in the 70s, they were happy icons of childhood mirth and wholesome good times. In addition to being the best part of any circus, they sold fast food, breakfast cereal, and household cleaners (!?), and had TV shows. A friendly clown even came to my elementary school to teach us kids about being safe around strangers. He told us if we were ever kidnapped we should make ourselves vomit by sticking a finger[ref]”The middle finger, the longest finger!” he enthusiastically told us.[/ref] down our throat so the kidnapper would toss us, barf-covered, out of the car[ref]What I realize as an adult is that he should’ve told the kids how to report the abuse in their own homes, as it’s always been far more rampant than kidnappings![/ref].
By the early 90s, clowns were viewed in a different light. Maybe it was Stephen King, maybe it was Bob Goldthwait, maybe it was The Simpsons. Maybe ICP? Or maybe it was the fact that folks finally spoke out to say they were pretty creepy all along. Suddenly, clowns were not so cheery. But despite its previous history as an icon of fun, the clown had never been positively portrayed in popular music. In songs, clowns were almost always contemptible or malevolent or pitiable.
Motown’s famed “Funk Brothers” played the backing music. They were a rotating cast of musicians who played on thousands of songs, so it’s unclear who played on this one. The upbeat melody starts with flutes and a brilliant counter-melody on bassoon. It gives way to the main bass line in a few seconds. The pumping, uplifting sound, with driving drums, is accompanied by a blurting trombone that keeps it sounding circusy. The music was written by Stevie Wonder and his producer, Hank Crosby. Wonder couldn’t think of lyrics, so he gave the song to Robinson. Smokey had the genius idea to write lyrics that go against the song’s happy sound, but retain a circus theme.
Smokey’s voice is smooth as ever, and The Miracles’ harmonies are brilliant. At 0:37, and throughout the song, when Robinson sings “I’m sad,” and The Miracles repeat it while drum fills ricochet around them, it’s about the best 15 seconds of sound ever put to record. Then a brief rising scale (“there’s some sad things known to man …”) resolves in the title line, which somehow sounds even better! When he softly sings “the tears of a clown/ when there’s no one around,” and that flute/bassoon riff enters, the juxtaposition of words and sounds always gets me right in the feels. I could listen to this song every day.
The lyrics are terrific, and the bridge cleverly refers to the tragic Italian opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”), about a clown who discovers his wife is having an affair[ref]Ok, ok, there’s lots more to it. But you can go read wikipedia if you’re interested.[/ref]. (“Just like Pagliacci did/ I try to keep my feelings hid.”) I’ve always been impressed that a pop song referenced an opera, or any stage production other than Romeo & Juliet. Then again, the first million-selling recording ever was Enrico Caruso’s 1903 recording of “Vest la Giubba,” from Pagliacci, so Robinson probably heard it a lot growing up.
As a fan of 70s/80s music, I must point out the great cover of the song by The English Beat, who nicely folded the song into their ska-based musical approach. But as good as that version is, nothing comes close to Smokey’s original. It’s got the sound, the lyrics, the style … it’s got everything.
Let It Be 1970, Apple Records. Producer: Phil Spector. Purchased CD, Approx. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL: Let It Be is a collection of fantastic songs, many of them unfamiliar to the casual listener. The songs and performances by the band are wonderful, but the producer overlaid them with orchestras and choirs that very often muffle the music and at times completely obscure the band’s efforts. But there are a number of Lennon-McCartney songs that find the pair harmonizing like the old days, and the entire band performs brilliantly.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~ ~ ~
I’ve written many times about growing up in my little town in Pennsylvania, being raised in a culture that was rather closed and homogenous, where there was an aversion to anything new and different. But there’s an aspect of my 70s rural PA childhood that I don’t think I’ve touched on yet[ref]Look, I’ve written about 120 of these posts, and if you think I’m going to go back and read all of them to see if I’ve done this angle before, well, you’re nuts.[/ref]. And that is the expectation, deeply held there among the people, that everyone should just “deal with it.” Whatever “it” may be. The solution is to “deal.”
Did you get the wrong order at a restaurant? “Deal with it.” Did the kid who cheated get a better grade than you? “Deal with it.” Did you get mercilessly teased and beaten because you’re gay or chubby or not white or a woman or bad at sports or too poor for cool clothes or part of a different religion? “Deal with it.”
Of course, one way to deal with a wrong order is to send it back; a good way to deal with cheaters is to let someone know; a way to deal with abusive systemic power structures is to work to change them. But this is NOT what the term “Deal with it” meant. What “Deal with it” meant is “keep your mouth shut and don’t upset anyone.”
(Somehow, though, to many of these steely, set-jaw, denizens of my region, if the “problem” was changing demographics and an influx of Spanish-speaking people, then “deal with it” apparently meant to yell insults and threats, and to urge for English-speaking standards, despite the fact that in generations past in this community nobody spoke English, and everyone spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. But I digress …)
This “deal with it” attitude was a hindrance to my development as a happy human being, and it’s something I continue to work on (with great success, I believe) so as to NOT pass it onto my children. But it can be difficult for me to advocate for myself.
For example, let’s say I helped make an album with a band I was in, and none of us really liked the final product, and there were bad feelings around the recording experience and lots of tension among my bandmates and me, and so everyone just left the record sit on a shelf for months. And let’s say that after a few months some folks went, essentially, behind my back to hire a famous producer to make changes to the album, and that when it was released I thought it sounded horrible and stunk to high-heaven, especially the songs that I’d written, and that I was – frankly – embarrassed by the record, no matter how commercially successful it eventually became. Imagine me in that situation, and I’ll tell you I probably NEVER would have thought to remix the entire thing and re-release it. But that’s what Paul McCartney did with Let It Be.
In 2003, McCartney oversaw the remix and re-release of the 1970 Beatles album Let It Be, my 9th-favorite Beatles album. He called it Let It Be… Naked[ref]The remix cover art used negative images of the photos on the original album, except for Harrison. His wide grin on the original looked like a bunch of ugly, black teeth when seen as a negative, so they chose a different photo.[/ref], a reflection of the stripped-down content of the songs.
Of course it was Dr. Dave who first introduced me to the original Let It Be. Our band, JB and The So-Called Cells, played lots of Beatles songs, and Let It Be has a bunch of songs that are fun to play – several of which are rather obscure to the casual music fan. Most people know “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Hey Jude,” but how many people really know where you can syndicate any boat you row? I dove into the album, and I loved it, and I never really considered how much extra stuff, like choirs and orchestras, had been added.
Now that I’m older, I still think it’s a great album, one of my favorites. But I like Let It Be… Naked so much more. It sounds like it’s a direct expression of the band, whereas the original seems like an interpretation. If I want to listen to the songs on Let It Be, I’ll listen to Let It Be… Naked. I’m rating the original release, because I’m following my rules, and it lands at #9. However, Let It Be… Naked would be higher.
But as I said: Let It Be is great!! It starts out with one of the coolest Lennon-McCartney pieces I know, the acoustic ode to friendship, “Two of Us.”
I like to imagine it’s about Lennon and McCartney’s friendship, but in fact Paul wrote the song and lyrics about his new (at the time) girlfriend, Linda. Paul plays a nifty, simple riff to start each line, then he and John strum acoustic guitars, while Harrison picks out a bass line on an electric guitar. The instrumentation gives the song a folksy, campfire feel that enhances the chummy lyrics, as does the whistling, by John, to end the song. The … Naked version of the song isn’t much different, although it leaves out the funny spoken intro by John.
Next up is a song that is SO MUCH FUN TO PLAY on guitar and bass that it’s hard for me to give an assessment of the sound. All I think about is how much I love to play it! It’s the nonsensical, John Lennon-penned “Dig a Pony,” and it’s a staple of any JB and The So-Called Cells performance.
After an aborted intro (Ringo didn’t have his drumsticks ready and stops things after one note) the entire band plays the waltzing main riff, which is an astounding four bars long, ranges nearly two octaves and sounds unlike any other riff in rock. Lennon’s lyrics are bizarre, but Paul’s harmonies are terrific, and Harrison’s guitar playing is among his best. And let’s not forget – it’s a difficult song to drum, but Ringo, as always, is up to the challenge. The … Naked version removes the false start (one of the few changes on the album that I dislike) and cleans up a couple mistakes. It’s a cool, weird song, and most non-Beatle fans are unfamiliar with it.
“Across the Universe” is up next, and as much as I love John Lennon (he’s probably my favorite Beatle), this is a song that’s never done much for me. The lyrics have some nice stuff (“pools of sorrow/waves of joy”), but they’re mostly just self-affirmations. The orchestration is quite over the top, and the … Naked version strips all that away. The next song is full of too much orchestra, as well: Harrison’s “I Me Mine.”
Harrison’s guitar really makes this song, both the electric and the acoustic. I like dual lead guitar at the beginning, over Paul’s organ, and the little squawks he throws in. It’s another waltz, a beat Ringo excels at, until the “I Me Me Mine” chorus, where the band rocks out a bit, and Harrison gets to blaze away on electric. When the orchestra is removed on … Naked, you can really hear Ringo’s terrific drumming as the pre-chorus builds (1:12 – 1:20). The orchestra also obscures Harrison’s guitar work from 1:48 – 2:03. “I Me Mine” is a song I like on Let It Be, but that I LOVE on Let It Be… Naked.
The latter album also removes “Dig It,” one of 2 songs ever credited to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Starkey, the other being “Flying,” from Magical Mystery Tour. It’s a 50-second goofball song with nonsense lyrics, the kind of song I find interesting because I love the Beatles, but about which I expect most people scratch their heads. However, it does lead into one of the greats, “Let It Be.”
There’s not much to be written about a song as well-known and popular as this song. I like Billy Preston’s organ throughout, and I really like Harrison’s solo, about 1:58, and all his subsequent electric guitar riffs he plays. Also not to be overlooked are Paul’s bass guitar, starting at 1:06, and Ringo’s drums, which were augmented on the original release by Spector, but are clearer on … Naked. The lyrics are inspirational to many, and it’s one of the band’s most popular songs. I think it’s a great song, certainly better than “Maggie Mae,” 40 seconds of an old Liverpudlian street song the band recorded in jest, that was left off … Naked. And certainly not nearly as good as one of my favorite all-time songs, “I’ve Got a Feeling.”
As with “Two of Us,” I love this song partly because it supports my idealized version of the Lennon-McCartney partnership, in which they’re lifelong pals and companions, a songwriting sum that is greater than its parts, driving each other to produce the best possible songs. This version of the pair was probably finished by 1966, but “I’ve Got a Feeling” rejuvenates the idea. It’s actually two different song parts contributed by both and they fit together perfectly, not unlike “A Day in the Life.” So much is happening that it takes multiple listens to truly appreciate. Paul starts off with the main melody, supported by Harrison’s mighty guitar. After his “Oh no,” at 0:29, when the band kicks in, the feeling and sound are heavenly. I love Harrison’s ascending guitar run throughout (example at 0:33), and Lennon’s harmonies on the second verse. Paul and Ringo are locked in, and at 1:15, when Paul really lets lose, the intensity is bumped up a notch, ending with Harrison’s terrific 2-bar wail, at 1:27[ref]The movie Let It Be, which is, frankly, boring, has a great part where Paul tries to teach George how to play this brief part, and it’s a great insight into the pair’s personalities and how they dealt with one another. In short, George gets a bit testy – and probably rightfully so.[/ref], which lets the air out.
Next is Lennon’s half, and it’s the perfect complement to Paul’s. The song has a terrific ending. It’s a perfect Lennon/McCartney song, and even … Naked couldn’t improve it much. The band follows it up with another gem the pair wrote together, one of the first songs they’d ever written, but one that hadn’t been previously released. It’s the 50’s Rock and Roll of “One After 909.”
The band actually recorded it in 1963, but didn’t release it, and the Let It Be version is much better than the original. It’s a fun number with Lennon on lead vocals and McCartney on harmony singing about arriving at the wrong track to pick up a girlfriend. Billy Preston, the “fifth Beatle,” who George tried to bring into the band to ease tensions in 1969, plays a great electric piano, and Harrison does his amazing guitar work throughout. The song was, as heard on Let It Be, recorded live during the band’s famous “rooftop concert” in 1969 (as were “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Dig a Pony.”) The … Naked version is simply remixed from the original.
The songs recorded on the rooftop show what the band was capable as a live act, even after 3 years away from touring[ref]The Beatles famously stopped playing live shows after their August, 1966, performance at Candlestick Park, in San Francisco.[/ref]. “The Long and Winding Road” shows what too much orchestration and choral accompaniment can do to a decent song. The … Naked version shows it’s not a bad song, a little lyrically schmaltzy, perhaps, but breakups can elicit the schmaltz, so that’s okay. But nowadays I find the original Let It Be version almost unlistenable.
“For You Blue” is a bluesy love song from George that the band jams on, with Lennon on lap steel guitar and Paul on the piano. The band is clearly having fun, trading solos, including a cool, simple, descending scale on piano, by Paul. The … Nakedversion isn’t much different. The album ends on the cool-rockin’, slow-burning groove of “Get Back,” a song that’s been played a lot but that never sounds old.
The band once again sounds like they’re having fun, with McCartney and Lennon harmonizing on lyrics about traveling. The lead guitar throughout really carries things, and it’s actually played by Lennon this time, relegating Harrison to rhythm guitar. His solo at 1:00 is pure fun. Billy Preston plays an electric piano solo next, at 1:33, then around 2:20 Lennon repeats his solo. It’s a fun song, which includes band banter throughout. The … Naked version leaves off the banter.
One other item about Let It Be … Naked: it includes “Don’t Let Me Down,” a song that should have been on the original album. The Beatles played it on the rooftop, and I think it’s one of their best songs ever. It was released as the B-side to the “Get Back” single. McCartney’s bass is great, Harrison’s guitar is great, Starr’s drums are great, Lennon’s vocals are great … I guess what I’m saying is “The Beatles are great!!” Their music stands out, even when it’s partially obscured by extraneous orchestral and choral arrangements. But I’m glad Paul showed an example of how to “deal with” a situation: he made a change!
TRACK LISTING: “Two Of Us” “Dig a Pony” “Across the Universe” “I Me Mine” “Dig It” “Let It Be” “Maggie Mae” “I’ve Got a Feeling” “One After 909” “The Long and Winding Road” “For You Blue” “Get Back”
Paranoid. Black Sabbath.
1970, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Rodger Bain.
IN A NUTSHELL: The Heavy Metal pioneers are more melodic, more virtuosic and less Satanic than their name and reputation would lead you to believe! Tony Iommi has an unmistakable sound, and rhythm section Geezer Butler and Bill Ward pull the songs in wonderful directions, getting almost funky at times. Singer Ozzy Osbourne’s unaffected voice is perfect for the band’s songs of warning and lament. Together, they create a relentlessly inventive soundscape.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
I could have had it worse. Many kids did. I knew kids who were physically attacked by Them – heads held in toilets; red-bellies; sometimes, but usually not, beatings with fists. Some were shaken down for money by Them, preferring to go without lunch for a day and reorganize tomorrow’s school-day routine than to put up an argument and wind up with both toilet-water hair and no lunch. Having clothes ruined by Them in broad-daylight cafeteria food assaults was not unheard of.
I myself was only called names and intimidated by Them. I think because I was kind of big – tall and chubby – and most of Them (the boys, anyway) were small, I was a potentially more complicated target for assault than smaller kids. Also, by middle school I’d developed a quick wit and kept a quiver-full of self-deprecating jokes at the ready, barbs that always flew back to prick only myself, causing laughter – or at least distraction.
By my senior year in high school, I’d made friends with as many of Them as I could. Not friends in the way that we’d hang out together, but friends in the way that I could nod in the hallways and say, “‘sup Stew?” or “Hey, Hitzy” and they’d nod and offer a “Moore …” in return. I cultivated many of these relationships by initiating talks of earlier times, the elementary school years, when many of Them seemed angry or dirty[ref]Looking back later, with the experience of parenthood to cast a brighter light on childhood, I was astounded to realize how many of Them were clearly abused as kids – emotionally, physically, sexually. I could name names and provide the poor circumstantial evidence of vague memories, but there seems to be little point now.[/ref] but not particularly threatening. I’d offer reminiscences of class projects we’d shared, or youth sports and lousy teachers. Some of Their parents were friends with my parents, so I’d ask, “How’s your mom?” And I’d (frankly) try to seem as book-dumb as They were, since my membership in the “smart kid” classes, and its typically accompanying smugness, was a clear trigger for Them.
This was a chancy path, however. If They felt you were trying to ingratiate yourself with Them, They’d sense your fear and use it as a weapon against you. “Hey, I need a ride tonight. You have a car, right?” There was a clear threat in these two sentences, and it presented just the very tip of a string that would have only dubious consequences if pulled this one time. I had friends in high school who found themselves in precarious circumstances[ref]Most of these kids were friends who, unlike me, dallied in alcohol and illegal drugs and so had more frequent interactions with Them, since many of Them were the suppliers.[/ref], the type that I avoided by simply being friendly-but-not-too-friendly.
They were the Treads. They were a 70s/80s teenage Public School archetype, one that may still be extant, although I’m sure it’s evolved. They were most brilliantly portrayed as “The Freaks” of McKinley High School in the wonderful TV show Freaks and Geeks. Some schools called them “Druggies” or “Stoners,” some schools called them “Burnouts” or “Roaches.” The lore at my school was that “Tread” was adopted due to the big-treaded workboots (typically with red shoelaces, for some reason) They all seemed to wear.
Individually, most could be funny or charming, even kind, but in a group they were terrifying. When I was 12, my friends and I were waiting for our ride after Pop Warner football practice and found ourselves the last people in the twilit school yard, where pickup had been arranged. This was in the late 70s, a time when it was assumed by everyone that the coach had done his job properly when he asked us through a cloud of cigar smoke emanating from the rolled-down window of his idling car, “You kids got a ride?” then drove off after we nodded our replies. Cell phones didn’t exist, payphones weren’t installed at the school (and we didn’t have change in our practice unis, anyway), and so we just had to hope that a parent hadn’t forgotten us – or if they had, that one of the other parents in the carpool would remind them by calling to ask where the kids were. (And wouldn’t get a busy signal or no answer, as it was the pre-answering machine era, too.)
It got dark, so we moved under the dusk-to-dawn light near the school entrance to wait. It was then that a group of about five of Them came out of the darkness. We were much younger than these highschoolers, but They still stopped to call us fags and menacingly try on our football equipment while making crude jokes, then fling it around the parking lot. Then They recognized Richie in our group, whose older brother Steve was a Tread. They began to “jokingly” threaten him with sexual assault while the rest of my group just sat there trying to will a car to arrive. They were standing in a circle around the kneeling 11 year old, and he was firing F-bombs at Them while They chuckled and began unzipping Their flies.
A car pulled into the lot, and given the distance and dim light and quick-moving kids, nothing about the scene seemed out of the ordinary to the driver – just some older kids (who were probably known by the parent) hanging with us younger kids. We didn’t tell the driver, though we all agreed in low, muffled voices that those kids were jerks, and Richie stated for a fact that Steve was going to find out about this[ref]Steve was, in fact, another channel of protection from the Treads for me. As children we’d played neighborhood sports together almost daily, and were really close friends. By high school I’d known him to intercede on my behalf a few times, though he also reminded me a few times not to fuck with him.[/ref] and those kids would be sorry.
I’m sure it is not an actual fact, I’m sure that if photographs of the incident existed they would demonstrate that it is a total fabrication, but in my mind’s eye all of the Treads that night were wearing Black Sabbath t-shirts. This is because I associated the band and its merchandise not with any music – I don’t know if I’d heard a Black Sabbath song until my freshman year of high school – but only as the uniform choice of hateful, angry teenagers. All the Treads wore rock t-shirts from a variety of bands, but the hateful-est, angriest seemed to always wear Black Sabbath.
I knew the name Black Sabbath as a band because I’d seen it on shirts that were clearly concert-related. During Middle School, when I was still heavy into The Village People, and just finding out about Cheap Trick and Devo, I learned the names of rock bands mostly from Treads’ t-shirts. Led Zeppelin, featuring a picture of some eunuch angel screaming over his lost genitalia (perhaps?). Bad Company, with a picture of cute dogs (it seemed). Deep Purple, which I figured probably wasn’t about the Donny & Marie song.
The Black Sabbath shirts were the grossest, most shocking shirts, with devil babies, scenes of demonic torture and clearly Satanic imagery. In those days I was a Christian, and those images inspired fear in me almost to the same degree the creepy bullies wearing the shirts did. And even as I grew to be a rock fan and learned to take such imagery with a grain of salt, I still assumed Black Sabbath was a band I’d never enjoy. I figured their music must be as bad as the people who’d worn their shirts.
Of course, leave it to Dr. Dave to set me straight, once again. Our band, JB & The So-Called Cells, was rehearsing and he kept playing this simple riff, five notes over and over. Then he’d break into a crunchy, longer melodic part and our drummer – a big Black Sabbath fan – would join in, clearly knowing the song in-depth. When I asked what it was, he was shocked to learn I had never listened to Black Sabbath or heard of “Fairies Wear Boots.”
It starts with that slow picking riff Dave played[ref]First time through it’s delayed in one speaker to give it a strange, disorienting sound.[/ref] then at 0:14 bass and drums join in. This introduction[ref]Which is titled “Jack the Stripper” on the U.S. release.[/ref] really has everything that I love about the band – Tony Iommi’s thick guitar sound, Geezer Butler’s jumping, stretching bass lines, and drummer Bill Ward’s powerful and tricky fills (from 0:40 to 0:50 and 1:03 to 1:15). And then at about 1:15, the hidden beauty of the band is unleashed: they’re really a swinging, funky band! (This song’s more swing than funk – but we’ll get back to funk.) Singer Ozzy Osbourne joins in, and he could really sing! His sneering, unaffected voice suits the band’s lyrics, which are often dark, although in this case they’re about seeing fairies (in boots) after using too many drugs. “Fairies Wear Boots” also has the Black Sabbath calling card of several themes in a single song, jumping between rhythms and melodies, and eschewing the typical verse/chorus/verse/bridge song structure. I particularly like when the band hits 2:40, and Iommi plays a riff that sounds out of tune, briefly, then oozes into place. They jam for almost a minute, then at 3:30 effortlessly transition to a different part; then at 4:10, they do it again! It’s in sections like these that you can hear what talented musicians these guys are – something I never would have thought of “Black Sabbath” as a high school freshman, meekly carrying some Tread’s lunch tray for him, hating those words on his concert jersey. When I happened upon the used CD in the mid-90s, I couldn’t resist buying it.
You may still be scratching your head over my reference to “funk” above, but the example I give you is in the drums on the stellar “Hand of Doom.”
The song starts with a Butler bass groove, and drummer Ward immediately plays a funky drummer beat. By 0:45, the funk has disappeared, but it returns. Ozzy sings lyrics that are vehemently anti-drug, telling a tale of a path to death[ref]I’m sure some of the young Treads in my school, hoping to escape the many difficulties their life obviously held, interpreted these lyrics differently at the time.[/ref]. The band rips into a different section at about 2:05, which again swings, thanks to Ward’s foot. Iommi plays a cool solo at 4:25, then the band returns to the funky section. The song really packs so much into 7 minutes, taking the listener on quite a journey.
Regarding their lyrics, given their name and their Satanic imagery, you may find it surprising that many of their songs are warnings against the evil in humans’ hearts and deeds. Bassist Butler was the main lyricist, and he’s fond of shining light on humanity’s darkness – not celebrating it. This album came out in 1970, and many songs make reference to the war in Vietnam[ref]If you haven’t seen the PBS documentary The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, it is phenomenal. Not perfect – but phenomenal.[/ref], and it’s hard not to think it was on their minds in the terrific “War Pigs.”
One of the first things I notice about this song (and the entire album) is how great it sounds. Each instrument is crisp and clear, from Butler’s menacing bass line to Iommi’s growling guitar. (Iommi played with strings that were extra heavy to give his guitar sound, well, extra heaviness.) The song builds wonderfully, through Ward’s high-hat and Iommi’s squiggles and Ozzy’s sneering, angled voice. I love the bass through the riff starting at 2:06, before the second verse. Once again, Ward plays with a funkiness uncommon in heavy metal. And again – if the band is satanic, they sure do ask God to smite the evil quite a lot. The band again shows off their serious chops during Iommi’s solo beginning at 3:30. The solo features a common Iommi trick – two different solos played at the same time, similar but slightly different, giving a crazy feeling to the sound. It’s an incredible song – lyrics, sound, instruments – one of my favorites ever[ref]There’s a great video of Spongebob singing it, too.[/ref]. And it has a great finale, too, beginning at 5:45 (a section called “Luke’s Wall” on the US release). Iommi’s double guitar solo delivers all the way to the crazy speed-up ending.
“Electric Funeral” is a companion song to one of the band’s most famous: “Iron Man.”
The story told in “Iron Man” may be the result of the annihilation described in “Electric Funeral.” And musically, both songs feature simple, repetitive riffs. This was the first Black Sabbath song I ever heard, thanks to a tuba player during my freshman year of high school marching band, who played the riff nearly nonstop[ref]This seems to be something that tuba players everywhere, of all abilities, love to do.[/ref]. It’s now one of their most famous songs, and – not meaning to damn it with faint praise – it’s probably every 7 year old’s favorite heavy metal song. And it is, frankly, scary sounding – particularly the beginning. The song features another Sabbath trick – guitar/bass/vocals all playing the same melody. This leaves drummer Ward to stand out – for (just one) example, the fills beginning about 1:18. The song also again highlights the band’s ability to switch rhythms and styles – which speaks to Ward’s ability. At 3:10, they go into a furious Iommi solo, then switch back to the main riff at 3:40. Then they change again for the ending part beginning at 4:40 (more double-tracked Iommi soloing). I’m amazed by it every time – it’s powerful and impressive.
The musicians are so good, you may ask yourself “Do they even need a singer?” Well, you can find the answer on the instrumental “Rat Salad,” a song that shows off the instrumentalists. It’s a great song, but it is missing something: Ozzy.
Singer Ozzy Osbourne became the most famous member of the band, eventually becoming a caricature of himself in one of the first celebrity “reality” shows, The Osbournes. It played up his seemingly burned-out mental state and unintelligible speaking. But in Black Sabbath, in the early 70s, he was just a front man with his own unique style. It’s on display on the title track, a pop hit around the world.
Butler has said the song was written in about 3 minutes, and it isn’t throwing shade[ref]As the kids say.[/ref] to say it sounds like it. It’s simple, with a revving engine guitar a driving beat and Ozzy’s syncopated, direct delivery. It’s got a great bass, and another great Iommi solo at about 1:23. The lyrics are actually quite sad, about the desperation of mental illness. But it’s a barn-burner of a song, nonetheless.
After all this Heavy Metal Rock, you may want to chill out a bit. I imagine even the Treads needed some time to decompress, meditate and think about all the havoc they’d wreak the next day on soft-spoken teens just trying to get through a day and get home to watch Mork & Mindy reruns. And for that, the band gives you “Planet Caravan.” I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ingested an illegal drug, but this song makes me think I should do it more often. Its “wow, man, far out” lyrics are sung through distorted effects, and Butler’s McCartney-esque bass line bounces along behind them. Iommi plays a jazzy, angular solo and subtle piano chords play in the distance. It’s a welcome break in an otherwise pounding album.
I have mixed feelings about The Treads. On the one hand, they caused me a significant amount of anxiety, creating the worst sense of fear a person can have: the fear of violence visited upon you simply for being yourself. On the other hand, they were clearly kids who were reflecting and diverting the shit they were receiving at home onto anyone and everyone to whom they could distribute it. There’s not much more to be said about them, except I hope they got the help they needed. And I hope they’re still listening to Black Sabbath. Maybe, like me, they learned a lesson from the band that’s applicable to many parts of life, even the Treads themselves, even dorky Village People fans, too: things that seem dark and scary can actually have a lot more facets than we first realize.
Band of Gypsys. Jimi Hendrix
1970, Capitol. Producer: Heaven Research (Jimi Hendrix)
IN A NUTSHELL – Masterful guitar work over soulful grooves creates a listening experience that is divinely spiritual. At least for me. Deep and meditative.
WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It’s so groovy to float around. Even a jellyfish will agree to that.
I’ve always been a bookworm. A word-nerd. I developed a love of reading at a very young age, fostered[ref]Or hammered into me?[/ref] by two older sisters who took our childhood games of “School” – in which I was invariably the pupil – quite seriously. My choices were learn to read or be expelled. I learned to read.
[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/liz-me.jpg” captiontext=”Always the eager student, the youthful author (right) is taught a lesson by his sister, Liz.”]
A love of writing quickly developed from this love of reading. I liked the stories I read and decided it would be fun to come up with my own. The first piece of writing I remember feeling really proud about was a fifth grade assignment in which Mr. Keesey[ref]Still one of the greatest teachers ever – he played guitar for us and had a class-assembled wooden tower in his room, atop which we could play games. He also tried to get us all to call him “Jim,” but nobody could hurdle the discomfort this caused after years of strict Rules of Respect, so we all just called him “Mr. Keesey.”[/ref] had us pull titles for stories out of a bag, and we were free to write anything about it. I pulled the title How I Won the War[ref]I told you he was cool!![/ref] and wrote a story about sailing a hot air balloon over the Confederate troops in the Civil War and dropping bombs on them. It was so good that Mr. Keesey read it aloud to the class. I still remember how embarrassing it was when he read my sentence, “Back at the hospital, the nurses were helping me (fixing me up).” I should have done better. But more than that, I remember the other kids laughing at the funny parts and Mr. Keesey saying I had a future in writing.
From there it continued. Just as I imagine athletes must remember games going all the way back to their childhood[ref]Tangent: I briefly met former Phillies outfielder Milt Thompson, and mentioned I saw him hit one of the longest home runs I’d ever seen at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. He immediately said, “Off of Dave Burba. One-one count. Fastball inside.” The home run in question occurred 13 years earlier.[/ref], I can remember stories I wrote going back to that Mr. Keesey story all the way up until yesterday. In eighth grade I wrote a funny story in which I was a CIA agent assigned to find President Reagan’s jellybeans. In twelfth grade I wrote a suspenseful story in which I foretold my own death in a dream. After college, I wrote a weird story in which Satan himself tricks me into becoming a fan of the then-perpetually-awful New Orleans Saints.[ref]I sent it to Sports Illustrated, and a nice editor wrote me a nice letter saying it was really good, but not appropriate for their readers. Even though I was a reader, and I’D have liked to read something like that. Anyway. I’m not bitter.[/ref]
Throughout my life I’ve kept writing – whether anyone has read anything I’ve written or not[ref]They haven’t. (Except for you, my excellent reader!! I love you, mom.)[/ref]. I think I’m pretty good at writing, and if nothing else I’m SURE that when it comes to communicating, I do it much better through writing than through speaking. Even when I did stand-up comedy – typically thought of as a speaking-heavy form of communication – my act was very dependent on scripted jokes, honed through performance, with very little in the way of ad-libbing. I feel very confident about my writing ability. I might not write better than a lot of other people, but I write better than I do a lot of other things.
But all the confidence in the world won’t help you if you can’t figure out what to write about! Entire books have been written about “Writer’s Block” – a well-known condition that has prevented writers both famous and obscure from starting or finishing their works. The authors of these books on Writer’s Block no doubt cured their own cases by using the subject as their topic – certainly an effective palliative for the malady’s typical cause: “I Don’t Know What to Write About!”
But I’ve been having a different problem, a problem I’ll still file under Writer’s Block, but caused by something else. Clearly I know what to write about: I spent more than a year listening to all my albums specifically so that I WOULD have a topic to write about. My problem – which has caused this blog to go un-updated for a bit longer than usual[ref]Although, summer has always made it difficult to keep up with my usual two-week turnaround. There’s just too much else to do besides hunching over a computer clackity-clacking.[/ref] – is that I don’t know how to translate my feelings about Band of Gypsys into words. I have a lot to say about the record – but I don’t know how to say it on the page.
There is a famous quote, attributed (possibly incorrectly) to Mr. Barth Gimble himself, comedian Martin Mull, that goes “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” And it truly can be as ridiculous as that quote makes it sound. There is much about the topic that can’t be put into words.
Music has invisible tendrils that insinuate themselves into one’s heart and soul, and press buttons there causing lights within to brighten and dim. Music feels important and necessary in ways that might sound goofy and strange to those whose buttons and lights operate differently. Your favorite songs might not have the power to stop everyone else in their tracks, but they mean something special to you. Nobody else may get why “Call Me Maybe” brings a tear to your eye, or how it is that “Raining Blood” makes your heart swell until it feels like it may burst through your chest and actually rain blood upon the room. And you could write 1,000 words about both songs and the reader still wouldn’t necessarily “get it.”
Still, I’ve pursued writing about these records because … I don’t know, really, but I like them, and I figure I’ll just say what it is I like about them. Okay, true, most of the time it’s “guitar sounds cool, the drummer’s really great and I love the melody.” Over and over. A fewrecords have broken out of that mold, but for the most part my attraction to these records has been pretty consistent. And in all cases, I’ve been able to go through songs and state, “hear that riff there? That sounds cool. And those lyrics – I like them, as well.” This is because my love for these albums is almost entirely about my ears: what I hear goes through my ears and in my brain and makes me happy. True – some of the songs also reach my heart or soul[ref]I mean “soul” in as clichéd and non-religious a manner as possible. I don’t think I have a soul, per se, but I do feel like there’s some connection I share to certain people and art and personal endeavors, and whatever that connection is, that’s what I mean.[/ref], but usually this touch is something I can translate into words, even if they’re as vague as “it really moves me.” I feel like I can generally convey what I like about the songs, even though I realize I’m not ever going to truly put the reader into my ears and brain and heart and “soul.”
But some music seems to bypass the ear and brain altogether (I said “seems to”), and shoot directly into the regions of one’s self that are difficult to describe, or even fully locate, but that are typically referred to as “heart and soul.” These nameless, indescribable regions inside are the destination of Band of Gypsys, an album attributed to Jimi Hendrix, but actually recorded as a live performance by the band that Jimi called A Band of Gypsys[ref]“The Fillmore is proud to welcome back some old friends with a brand new name: A Band of Gypsys,” famed concert promoter Bill Graham announces as the album begins.[/ref].
Much like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, I feel like I’ve known Jimi Hendrix for my entire life. Before I knew what songs he sang or whether he was alive or dead, I could identify him as that African-American man in fringed clothes and a huge afro cinched by a dangly bandanna who did crazy stuff with his guitar. “Jimi Hendrix” was an identifiable form or shape, like a flower or a fireman. It was the costume my friend Andy wore to a Halloween party in 7th grade.
As I got older, I began to know more about him. In high school, my good friend Josh[ref]Who has appeared in these posts previously.[/ref] claimed that the only music he owned, and the only music he listened to other than the radio, was by Jimi Hendrix. (That is, until 1983, when Stevie Ray Vaughan appeared and released Texas Flood, which he immediately bought.) I listened to his songs on the radio (I’d say “Fire,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze” were most often played on AOR back in the 70s and 80s) and I liked him okay, but I never bought any of his records.
Then I went to college, and – as with so many musical aspects of my life – Dr. Dave helped guide the way. My recollection is that he fairly insisted that I listen to more Hendrix than I had by that point. I eventually bought the three studio albums by his band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. They are excellent albums. I played them a lot.
In the late 90s, I heard an interview on “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” with a popular author of crime novels named George Pelacanos. He was discussing his latest book, King Suckerman, and it sounded really good. I went out and bought it. Early in the story, one of the characters in the book, Marcus Clay, who owns a Washington, D.C., record store in 1976, discusses Jimi Hendrix with record store employee, Rasheed X.
Rasheed mentions that he thinks Hendrix’s music – which throughout his career had resided within the mostly Caucasian Rock Music genre – was headed toward soul and funk music when he died, and as proof offers up the album Band of Gypsys. This brief bit of dialogue – which really had nothing to do with the plot, but was simply a humorous vignette to provide background on two characters (astutely demonstrating the characters’ relationship, their in-depth musical knowledge, their perception of identity and their respective positions on the intersection of politics and business in 1976 Washington D.C., all in less than a page) – was enough to make me think I’d better go out and buy Band of Gypsys.
Band of Gypsys is a live album, documenting 4 shows in two nights by the band at The Fillmore East, in New York City. The recordings took place on December 31, 1969, and January 1, 1970 – as unconditional a transition between the 60s and 70s as there could possibly be. Hendrix was performing with a drummer and bassist perhaps unfamiliar to fans of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, respectively[ref]Although they are the rhythm section that supported Hendrix at Woodstock, so they weren’t unknown.[/ref]. While my research shows they did play a few songs familiar to Hendrix’s fans, it was six new songs that made it onto the record: four Hendrix compositions, and two by drummer Miles.
The songs are lengthy, with simple structures that lend themselves well to extensive jamming and soloing by the band. Most of the songs are built on a single riff that serves as a sort of departure point and landing spot for Hendrix’s virtuosic flights.
These flights are what connect so deeply with me. I have a hard time putting into words what it is about Jimi’s playing that sets him apart from so many guitarists, that causes his sound to vibrate within me. I asked Dr. Dave himself – one of several guitar-playing friends, but the one I’ve known the longest – if he could explain it (“on the record”) from a guitarist’s perspective, and he put it this way:
At first blush the answer seems very easy but as I put pen to paper it becomes impossible to word it. Let’s face it, who’s to say Tommy Scholz isn’t a great guitarist – but is he great like Hendrix? Of course not. This situation is pretty abstract and I guess it is why it’s difficult. (Heck, you yourself touted the guy from Sonic Youth. How do feel about what you wrote last week and this question?)[ref]I knew Dr. Dave would hate that Sonic Youth made this list.[/ref]
… Hendrix for me makes me realize I could never be (not just play) like him. Everything about his style of singing, voicing, guitar playing, choice of words, diction, mood is what touches something inside me.
I might hear a tune in the car and immediately get into this funky feeling that makes me keep beat and make a grooving face. Visceral. Yes, visceral. Nothing by Hendrix is forced. It’s more intuitive, devoid of an intellect (if you will) despite his genius.
Yea, that’s it. I’ll go with that. (Oh, and he is fucking awesome!)
So even a guitar player has a similar reaction to mine upon hearing him. Dr. Dave didn’t say “the way he plays a suspended 9th chord …” or “his deft plectrum work …” or “the glissando he plays beneath the arpeggiated blah blah blah …” No, he used the word “visceral.” This is the exact word I had in mind about Band of Gypsys when I asked Dr. Dave his opinion.
There is a response generated within me to the music, a response that I haven’t been able to adequately state on the page. I’ve spent some time trying, and I’ve been unhappy with the results. The writing never captures what it is about the music that makes me so happy.
I think of how a religious Christian person must feel about the Bible. Sure, I could write a hundred thousand words about what Jesus says, and what the stories mean, and the effect it has on me, but the book itself is going to be so much more important and meaningful to me than anything I could write for you. The best I could really do to try to make you understand is to ask you to read the book for yourself.
So I think all I can do is place links to the songs here, and let you hear for yourself. I’ll mention a few things about each song, but I can’t really say anything about them that Jimi doesn’t say twenty-three times better with his guitar.
So as famed director Marty DiBergi said, “… enough of my yakkin’. Let’s boogie!”
The first song on the album is “Who Knows.”
It’s a riff-rocker, featuring drummer Buddy Miles as co-lead vocalist. Jimi’s solos – at about 2:50 and especially the one at 6:39 – are two of the many indispensible Jesus parables of this Bible of a record. Also – for a “WTF?” segment that always amuses, but somehow gets less weird with each listen – check out Miles’s scat-solo from 4:47.
Next up is the classic song “Machine Gun.”
Jimi dedicates it to “the soldiers fighting in Chicago …” presumably the Chicago 8, who were on trial at the time of the recording, and “oh yes, all the soldiers fighting in Viet Nam …” It’s a clear anti-war song by a US Army veteran. The solo that runs from around 4 minutes to 7:45 – offering a sonic description of a battlefield that by 5 minutes becomes the most beautiful or horrible guitar solo I’ve ever heard – well, I just sat here for 7 minutes trying to think of what to write about it. I should just refer to these passages like people do with Bible verses: “John 3:16.” For example, “In the Book of Band of Gypsys, I think Machine Gun 4:00 – 7:45 says it all.”
The third song is a fun one written by drummer Miles, “Changes.”
Changes, 2:02 – 3:06.
Next up, “Power to Love,” which was renamed “Power of Soul” on the reissue.
This song has riff that almost sounds like a mistake, and excellent singing and playing together. Hendrix has always been an underrated singer, I believe. His guitar prowess can overshadow an excellent vocal style. How he remembers lyrics like “reap the waves of reality,” and words about jellyfish floating, while at the same time playing the things he plays … it seems super-human, like walking on water. Power To Love 3:00 – 3:49. Way cool key change from 5:19-5:25.
Up next, Message of Love, which was renamed Message to Love in reissue.
Holy cow. Holy Jimi. Message of Love 1:13 – 2:42.
The closing song is “We Gotta Live Together.”
Amen and amen.
I suppose one would think that the more an album’s invisible tendrils push one’s impalpable buttons, the better it will be. However, just as an album full of catchy, fun pop songs might be too much of a good thing, the same can be said of those tendrils and buttons. Sometimes you might not want to feel music, you might just want to hear it. This is why the album isn’t ranked higher on my list. My appreciation of Band of Gypsys is definitely linked to my mood. There are times in my life when this album would be Top Ten, hands down, and times where it might not scratch my favorite 10-dozen. Like many people from all faiths, sometimes my religion is imperative and sometimes I almost forget.
I don’t expect you to fully understand – it’s a record that’s meaningful to me for reasons I can’t adequately explain – but whether it moves you or not, I think we can agree that Hendrix’s guitar work is astonishing. Dr. Dave once visited a new guitar teacher who, when told that his prospective student was interested in playing like Hendrix, responded, “Really? He was mostly just a showman.” Dr. Dave restrained himself from responding with violence, but this is the kind of statement that makes me want to go Jihad on someone. But then I think of Band of Gypsys, Chapter Machine Gun, Verses 4:00 – 7:45 and I know that violence isn’t the answer.
Power to Love
Message of Love
We Gotta Live Together
Moondance. Van Morrison.
1970 Warner Bros. Producer: Van Morrison
Purchased ca. 1992
IN A NUTSHELL – Excellent songs with exceptional singing. Morrison is a true master of his instrument – his voice. The songs range from poppy and bouncy to mellow and romantic, and Van performs them all phenomenally. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – It was more rockin’, but it’s not that style of music.
Mrs. Meyer taught me US History in tenth grade, and she was the inspiring type of teacher that kids remember 32 years after leaving her class and include in their little-read blogs about albums they like. She was a heavy-set woman with short reddish hair and she wore those owlish 80s eyeglasses with lenses large enough that folks used to personalize them with tiny monogram stickers. (Placing monograms on items was a big fad in the 80s, believe it or not – very preppy). She loved Teddy Roosevelt and the idea – frustrating as it was – that if people would just learn a little bit more about history, the depth of peace and love and understanding in the world would grow exponentially. She wasn’t a Dates and Names type of history teacher, she was a Big Picture type. And as she wiped tears from her face while teaching difficult lessons revealing the perpetual continuum of human brutality toward other humans, she would frequently ask us to remember her personal axiom that “there is always at least one good thing about every person.”
Considering the multitude of evil deeds and horrible carnage that a history teacher must learn, master, describe and contextualize for students, this statement is quite astounding. It probably says more about Mrs. Meyer – that she held out hope for humanity to build on small goods even in the face of huge evils; that she was a warm, optimistic teacher – than it says about history. This woman could teach about The Inquisition, European Colonialism and Western slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, the Holocaust … and yet find it within herself to pronounce, for example, “But remember! Everyone had at least one good thing about them … even Hitler helped establish the Volkswagen.”
Many people may be appalled by this statement, finding it reprehensible to throw a dumb car brand into the equation of the deeds of a man responsible for so much death and misery. But Mrs. Meyer wasn’t trying to balance historical scales or diminish horrific acts. She was just using a historical fact to provide some perspective to history and some insight into the complexity of human beings. And – I think – it made the lessons more bearable for her to teach. It also – whether intended or not – provided some of her students with insight into dealing with difficult facts in their own lives: find something good.
The Buddha, in his wisdom, stated that life is suffering, and while the meaning of this statement has been misinterpreted over time to make it sound like words from a depressed misanthrope, the truth remains that much of life is difficult – there can be no doubt. And it can be helpful to navigate the difficulty by looking for positives among the many negatives. This is especially true from adolescence to young-adulthood, when negatives seem to abound. And while it may be difficult, in the moment, to seek the One Good Thing about, for example, being a high school sophomore and getting an attack of diarrhea on the high school basketball team bus filled with juniors and seniors, while traveling to a game 21 miles away (by the way, let’s call that a hypothetical example) … 32 years later one may be able to mitigate the (again, hypothetical) humiliation and embarrassment of such a situation by asserting that at least it provided evidence of certain teammates’ thoughtfulness – people who unexpectedly could be trusted with secret information, like where soiled underwear might be hidden among teenage boys in a visiting (i.e. girls’) locker room. (If this were a true story, perhaps that place would be the small feminine hygiene product disposal trash can under the sinks.)
Looking back on one’s life, there can be a temptation to ask – over and over again – “why did I do that?” Or “why did that happen to me?” The shoulda-coulda-wouldas grab hold and invariably present one’s imagination with only the greatest of all possible outcomes from regretful moments in life. For example: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda gotten that record deal and then woulda had a bunch of hit songs and been millionaires!” Rarely does the imagination present the situation as: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda kept playing dive bars for another 8 years and I woulda been an alcoholic 33 year old still living with my parents.” Even less likely: “I shoulda stayed in my old band, and we coulda driven into a lake in the middle of the night and woulda all died.” All three scenarios are equally as likely in the deep, dark forest of Whatmighthavebeen. But our minds like to torture us, so we only imagine the best.
A better way of reviewing such regrets (for we all have regrets, even Mrs. Meyer, I’m sure; like those big owl glasses, for example) may be to consider The Past as simply The Past, and tease out The Good from all that really did happen. For example: I played bass in a band in which I made friends for life, played songs I helped write to appreciative people, and now have fun memories and stories to tell.
Many people tend to beat themselves up particularly over past romantic relationships. “I shoulda stayed with X, I coulda gotten married, I woulda been happy,” or “I shoulda left X years earlier, I coulda spent the time more productively, I woulda gotten that MBA.” My own romantic regrets are not so grand, but are more along the lines of “I shoulda put a different song on that mix tape,” or “I coulda caught something from her,” or “I woulda broken up if I thought I coulda gotten another girlfriend.”
I myself have reconsidered my regrets over the few girlfriends I have had, and replaced the Shouldacouldawouldas with One Good Thing.[ref]In reality there are several regrets and Several (well, maybe A Few) Good Things, but I’m trying to keep this as brief as possible (and stick to things folks might actually be interested in) so I’ve scaled it back significantly. You’re welcome.[/ref] Here are a few examples …
V. – first girlfriend. High school. I was a senior, V. was a sophomore. Both of us Marching Band members, our relationship consisted mostly of sitting together at football games, walking in the halls together and speaking on the phone. Regret I’ve Left Behind – I should’ve told her sooner that I was getting bored with sitting together, walking the halls and talking on the phone. Instead I just sort of blurted out one day that I was breaking up with her – and didn’t give a reason. Based on this, I can see why she may have thought that I broke up with her because “things weren’t physical enough” (which – much to her credit – she called me to ask me about directly a couple weeks afterwards). But honestly – I was actually terrified of things getting more “physical;” the goodnight kisses we shared were scary enough to a dork like me!! One Good Thing – V.’s house was the first place I ever tried microwave popcorn, and it was awesome.
M. – described somewhat in a previous post. Longest relationship ever (~18 months) apart from the 21+ year relationship with current [ref]This is a joke! I think she’ll laugh at it. If not, the next wife will.[/ref] wife. Regret I’ve Left Behind – That’s tough to whittle down. I guess that I should’ve been thinking more rationally during those ~18 months?
However, she was really very attractive (very attractive) and that made it hard for a dork like me to think rationally. One Good Thing – Introduced me to Woody Allen movie Manhattan and the music of Todd Rundgren. (For 18 months’ worth of distress [ref]Distress I’m sure I provided in equal measure back to her – neither of us were saints[/ref] all I could come up with was a movie I’ve seen twice and a guy whose songs I don’t turn off when they come on the radio.)
A. – So, I had known A. for many years. She had been my buddy Rick’s girlfriend (and as such caused me to miss most of Cheap Trick opening for REO Speedwagon at Hershey Stadium because she was late, and then I had to sit through REO’s entire set because somehow a foreign exchange student was with us and she was interested in them, thus ruining my first concert experience ever because I MISSED Cheap Trick and WATCHED REO Speedwagon) and she was very good friends with my buddy Josh. (Rick and Josh being two of the three previously-described “coolest members of the CCHS graduating class of 1985.”) At some point in my early twenties, while my confidence was at a high point, I thought, “I haven’t seen A. in a while. I always liked her. I wonder if she’d go out with me?” So I called her up, and sure enough we made a date to go see Batman Returns.
For the next three months or so we were kind of dating, but not really. It was very strange. We’d spend lots of time together, and stay at each other’s apartment sometimes, but then we wouldn’t speak for several days. At a certain point, I wished to better define our relationship (i.e. be a couple) and she wished to keep it as-is (i.e. not be a couple). So, that was the end of that. Regret I’ve Left Behind – I should’ve said “No,” when, months after we “broke up,” and having not spoken together in weeks, A. sweet-talked dorky me into driving her to the Philadelphia airport (1.5 hours away) to pick up her “friend,” who turned out to be pretty obviously her soon-to-be-new-boyfriend. One Good Thing – Moondance, by Van Morrison.
A. may have been the biggest music fan I ever dated (if that’s what you call what we did), and even though she was a bit too enamored of The Grateful Dead for my tastes, and I was too much into Nirvana and Pearl Jam for her, we did have a great deal of musical interests that overlapped. We played records for each other, which was lots of fun – except for the time I played her John Lennon’s album Plastic Ono Band, which closes with the song “My Mummy’s Dead,” Lennon’s childlike lament for his dead mother, only to find out that A.’s freaky reaction to the song and quick departure from my apartment afterwards was due to the fact that she’d tragically lost her own mother as a teen …
But anyway … A. was a BIG big fan of Van Morrison. She used to play many of his records, but the one that really stuck with me, the one that – even after that memorable 3 hours in the car spent a) hearing about how interesting her “friend” was (“Environmental Law! Portland, Oregon! Box of Rain!!”); and b) listening to this interesting fellow ignore me while flirting and giggling with A. in the back seat (“We haven’t seen each other in so long, do you mind if I sit back here with him??” “Uh … no! Of course not!”) – even after this, the album that I went out and bought so I could listen by myself, was Moondance.
After 16 albums on this list, I think its clear that a pattern is emerging in my favorite albums. They’re mostly bands, mostly guitar oriented, mostly rocking. I’ve also shown a proclivity for disregarding vocal ability, as many acts with acquired-taste singers, like Rush, The Hold Steady, and Sleater-Kinney, dot the list. Moondance completely obliterates this pattern.
It’s a solo record, with some guitar, but very understated and mostly acoustic, containing songs that have some bounce and pop, but that never really rock. And as for singing … Van Morrison is among the best singers I’ve heard. The sound of his voice is striking. Have you ever been to a wedding reception or other large party, and in the midst of enjoying yourself had a friend come by and introduce you to someone? And has that person ever been an incredibly beautiful woman or incredibly handsome man? I don’t mean just pretty or cute, I mean the type that – regardless if you are male or female, gay or straight – makes you fumble a bit for words as you ask, “How do you know Mary and John?” The type that after he or she walks away, you and your date look at each other and – again, regardless if you are male or female, gay or straight – say to each other, “Holy shit!” It’s happened once or twice to me. This is what Van’s voice is like. Just a few words at the beginning of any song, and I find myself thinking, “Whoa. Now this is singing.”
It’s not the technicality of the singing, or the perfection of the notes, and it’s not as if he’s performing vocal feats like covering multiple octaves or flying through difficult cadenzas. It’s that I feel what he’s singing, and it conveys to me what he’s feeling. It sounds weird to say it, but there’s a truth to it, an openness that allows the listener into Van’s world. But it’s never embarrassingly emotional, or burdensome to the listener – he somehow pulls off the emotion with a touch of restraint that leaves me wanting to hear more, not less. There are few artists whose voice I want to hear more of – I often think of the vocals as just a means to carry melody while I focus on guitar, bass and drums. But I feel like I could listen to simply the vocal tracks of Morrison’s and be perfectly happy with it. That being said, the backing band on Moondance is phenomenal.
The album opens with “And It Stoned Me,” a childhood slice-of-life subtly delivering a message on the wonderful joys of everyday life, and how the simple things can be divine.
The horns are pleasant, and the band sounds good, but I can tell I’m a fan of the singer because during the acoustic guitar and piano solos, which are very nice and light, (2:14 to 2:54) I find myself thinking, “okay, let’s get back to the vocals!” which is something I almost never think during an instrumental section! The structure of the song is basic, but I love how at the end of the pre-chorus (“Oh, the water … Oh, the water”) during the “hope it don’t rain all day” part, the song slows a bit, creating a tension that echoes the lyrics. The lyrics of the pre-chorus are different each time through, recalling the part of the story that has just been sung, and each time through Van’s evocative delivery, coupled with the slight change of pace, enhance the feeling of the lyrics and place you right in the boy’s mind. You can feel the story unfolding as if Billy was your friend, and you spent that day with him, fishing in the rain, swimming, drinking the water … and you can understand why such mundane activities were all so special. Through Morrison’s singing, magic is created out of something simple – and when you think about it, that’s the whole point of “And It Stoned Me.”
Another magical track, in which everything comes together to create something bigger than the sum of the parts, is the song “Into the Mystic.”
The lyrics conjure a romance as lasting as the sea, and as in “And It Stoned Me,” the music references and reflects the imagery perfectly. Supporting the magic this time is John Klingberg’s gentle-waves-lapping-the-shore bass line, rolling as insistently as the waves. Van’s voice starts softly and builds throughout first verses. Then the musical stakes are raised by the minor chord struck as Van sings of the fog horn blowing, and the payoff comes stunningly as he pounces on the “rock your Gypsy soul” line. This rarely fails to bring me chills. “Into the Mystic” is a song whose meaning I can’t express well in words, but that I understand when I listen to it. It’s about love, but it’s more than that. I suppose this inexpressible quality is what makes it sound magical to me.
But somehow, held together by Van’s singing, a vision of hope and friendship and a happy future emerges in the song. It sounds downright jolly. It’s a song I find running through my head frequently even though I don’t think of it as a favorite on the record. It’s got too much flute, for one thing, and I’ve never been much for the flute as rock instrument. (Maybe okay for jazz, in certain settings.) But it’s catchy, and the words of the chorus are certainly easy to remember! (The title track, maybe the most famous of all of Morrison’s tunes, also uses the flute effectively. It’s also not a particular favorite of mine.)
My favorite song on the record is definitely “Caravan.”
The acoustic guitar behind the chorus, through the “turn up the radio/switch on the electric light” section, is my favorite guitar on the record. I love parts of songs that are easy to miss, that you might only catch on the third or fourth trip through the song. As always, Van’s singing is masterly, evocative. It brings so much clarity to a song whose lyrics’ meanings are obtuse, as usual, even wringing meaning out of the tune’s many “La la las”. And when the horns punctuate the bridge, and Van calls out “Turn it up! Turn it up!” my heart feels just what he’s saying – it knows exactly why we gotta turn up the radio, why this caravan is so special, and why I want that electric light on when I’m with Emma Rose – even if my head’s not really sure. I could listen to this song on a loop all day.
Although it’s a vocal record, the band behind Van is excellent. I’m not sure who all played what on every song, but two songs that feature the band nicely are the bouncy, bluesy “These Dreams of You” and “Come Running.”
It seems natural that someone who uses dreamlike imagery in most of his songs would write a song like “Dreams of You,” whose lyrics describe odd dreams of Canada and Ray Charles and a lover who’s let him down. There’s a nice sax solo, and the band sounds like it’s having fun playing the song. “Come Running” is almost a companion piece, it’s lyrics describing the hope for a lost love returning – in fact, running back. Again, the band sounds like it’s enjoying the poppy bounce.
Of course, Van Morrison’s voice lends itself beautifully to love songs and romance. That voice is always deeply suggestive of any subject matter, and easily bears the full weight of words’ meanings. This makes a love song like “Crazy Love” extra special.
If you listen closely, you can hear Van breathing and bumping the mike as he sings. It’s an intimate song, and he sings it that way. Morrison has a definite Motown sound that’s very evident on popular numbers of his like “Jackie Wilson Said” and “Domino.” And like these songs, “Crazy Love” – in the Quiet Storm vein of R&B – is a song one could imagine Smoky Robinson singing. The song and its performance make a guy like me think, “man, I’ll bet Van Morrison never had to worry about being a dork around girls. They were probably crawling all over him.” (Which isn’t to say he hasn’t had any relationshipregrets of his own.)
The album closes with one of the best album closers ever, “Glad Tidings.”
Another bouncy tune, a fun and uplifting song that seems to be about staying positive, and having an optimistic outlook. There’s nice electric guitar work beneath the vocals, and the horn section and rhythm section sound great. But like the entire album, this song is all about Van’s incredible vocal ability. Once again, lyrics that are indirect are given clarity through his voice.
“But meet them halfway with love, peace and persuasion
And expect them to rise for the occasion
Don’t it gratify when you see it materialize
Right in front of your eyes
He asks the listener to look on the bright side, to not just find the good in others, but to expect it, and you’ll be surprised by the payoff when you do. It sounds like a sentiment Mrs. Meyer herself would have loved to hear.
“And It Stoned Me”
“Into the Mystic”
“These Dreams of You”
“Brand New Day”