Manuscript of Don McLean’s “American Pie” sells for over a million bucks. “The draft that was auctioned is 16 pages, 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text…including lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes.”
Some things in the original draft of “American Pie”:
1. In the first version, “The Day The Music Died” wasn’t in February. It was a random day in August when McLean misplaced his 45 rpm adapter and his records played all wobbly.
2. Fire, it turns out, was not “The Devil’s only friend.” The Devil was also friendly with Earth & Wind, but they snubbed him at a Hell Mixer.
3. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick”: really about fitness guru Jack LaLanne.
4. Missing verse about Dino, Desi & Billy and Gary Lewis & The Playboys: (“The sons of laughter on Hullaballoo/One Italian, one half-Jew.”)
5. Note: “What rhymes with ‘doorstep’? ‘Poor schlep?’ ‘Dinah Shore-step’?”
6. On page 4, McLean scribbled other ideas for “coded” rock figures. “The Peacock [Jimi Hendrix] flamed in Monterey/While Soulman [Otis Redding] thought about the Bay/And Animals [Eric Burdon &] came out to play/The day the music died.”
7. McLean meant to say his “Levi’s” were dry. Oops.
8. Some parts are in capital letters, underlined, with “Nailed it!!” written in the margins. McLean was particularly happy, it seems, with “My hands were clenched with fists of rage!” And who can blame him? “Fists of Rage: also screenplay idea for rock-kung fu movie.”
9. Handwritten note on the bottom of page 12: “Too obtuse, maybe? Will anyone figure out refs to Janis, Fillmore, ‘Nam, Stones, etc.? Oh, screw it. If they’re confused, they’re idiots.”
“This is a song for my man,” Joni Mitchell says, introducing ‘Willy” on The Dick Cavett Show on August 19, 1969. We take for granted that that’s what singer-songwriters do, poetically transpose the details of their relationships and give their emotions song structure. Critics called Joni Mitchell’s writing “confessional,” and she bristled at that (in later years, she bristles at almost everything, bless her contrarian heart), but that was because the whole singer-songwriter construct was relatively recent. People may have “known” when Frank Sinatra was musically torching over Ava Gardner based on the songs he chose and the way he sang them, and felt they could get a glimpse into Billie Holiday’s heart in her music, but you could also accept what they were doing as performing, interpreting the words of others.
There was a real “Peggy Sue,” and yet the song didn’t come packed with assumptions, that Buddy Holly really felt blue about someone specific. It was a pop song. Now when Taylor Swift writes a pop song, it’s like a bulletin about her dating life, and for some reason she gets shit about it, as though it wasn’t writers like Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon who drew up the plans for the Songwriters License and the connected rules (No. 3: “If we have dated more than four  times and engaged in romantic activity including, but not limited to, making out in public, attending a social event together and/or being photographed on a beach together by paparazzi catching us in an indiscreet moment, such events become the creative property of the party of the first part, to be used in any way he/she sees fit”).
Without the notion of the confessional singer-songwriter, no Blood On The Tracks, no Tunnel of Love. It may have begun with the early non-political songs of Bob Dylan (“It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Don’t Think Twice”), but at the time, the fact that that cluster of songs were “about” Sara Lownds wasn’t any kind of big deal. And Tim Hardin wrote a bunch of songs about Susan Moore, but I don’t remember anyone calling him “confessional.” It may well have been Joni Mitchell who got tagged with that first, and because Rolling Stone told us all about the guys in her life, it became easy to cross-reference songs and gossip and speculate, or proclaim with authority, who her “old man” was at a point in time, just like it is now with Ms. Swift. Does it matter? Oh, we might say, that song is about Graham Nash, but what difference does it make? Are all of Mitchell’s song lyrics going to be annotated with footnotes on websites like Genius, so history can contextualize whom she was sleeping with and the songs that came out of that particular relationship? Of course she was ticked off at the “confessional” label.
There’s a new Death Cab For Cutie album, the first since the band’s singer-writer’s marriage to singer-actress Zooey Deschanel cracked, and almost every article about it is reacting as though Gibbard is bringing us into the marital bedroom. He “opens up about ex Zooey Deschanel.” He “explores his breakup.” “Death Cab For Cutie finds austere beauty in a breakup.” There are lyrics like “Was I in your way when the cameras turned to face you?” And songs called “Ingenue,””The Ghosts of Beverly Drive” ( because L.A.: bad) and “You’ve Haunted Me All My Life.” The album is called Kintsugi, which the internet tells me has to do with a Japanese art using broken pottery. So maybe dishes were thrown in the Gibbard-Deschanel kitchen? Or metaphorical dishes? Maybe she should have struck first, but the last She & Him album was all covers, so critics couldn’t use it to interpret her marriage, and anyway, she’s moved on. In interviews, Gibbard says the inspiration for some of Kintsugi‘s material is “fairly obvious,” and then he backtracks a little: “The person I’m singing to is an amalgamation of people I came across living in Los Angeles. Being around people in entertainment who are fairly well-known, I noticed all these neuroses and psychoses.”
“Being around people in entertainment who are fairly well-known” is a sentence fragment worthy of a Clinton, a small tap-dance of evasion. It’s not as though we’re going to be scrolling through our mental list of intimate Gibbard contacts to figure out which “people in entertainment” he might be referring to. “You’re So Vain” or “You Oughta Know” this is not, although it is a sort of an early ’70s throwback to when everyone in Laurel Canyon was sleeping with one another and then you had to listen to a dozen albums on Elektra and Asylum to figure out the details of what was going on (the statute of limitations on “You’re So Vain” has to be up, doesn’t it? It was a comedian named David. Google away). Breakup albums can be brilliant, but I think it’s a bit unchivalrous to throw around words like “fairly obvious” and “fairly well-known.” How about, “I’m not going to comment on that. Listen to the album”? Or, “I’ll let the songs speak for themselves”?
One thing about Joni is that you didn’t have to be plugged into the database of her boyfriends for the songs to resonate. How many millions of young women had no idea whom she was dating in 1971-1972 when she released Blue and For The Roses? Or discovered the albums years, decades later when there was no internet and all those old Random Notes columns in Rolling Stone were long forgotten? I know Joni doesn’t want Taylor Swift playing her in a movie, and she’s entitled, but in so many ways, the gossip-as-criticism wave that follows Swift was Mitchell’s first. And I think Swift knows, as Mitchell does, that songs outlast boyfriends. They’re not “confessional singer-songwriters.” They’re writers.
When each of my parents passed away, one obligation packed a wicked emotional punch: going through their collections of LP’s. That was the music of my pre-rock ‘n’ roll youth: Ella’s Verve songbooks and duets with Louis, Nat “King” Cole, Broadway original cast albums, Belafonte, Steve & Eydie, a little jazz (Shelly Manne playing tunes from My Fair Lady, that sort of thing). So much Sinatra. Dozens of Sinatra albums, in the worst shape of all, the spines frayed or taped, the vinyl etched with scratches. They were the most-played, by far, and there isn’t a note on any of them – A Swingin’ Affair!, In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning, Swing Easy! — that isn’t embedded under my skin, every smack of the Nelson Riddle brass section, the weepy Gordon Jenkins army of strings, Sinatra’s snapped-off phrasing (“Stars fractured ‘Bama,” love that). This was the pre-Reprise Sinatra, from the second half of the 1950’s, and I suppose if I’d been a bit older I’d have ignored them and been listening to what Alan Freed was playing on the radio, but all I knew were the albums in the living room cabinet, and the Sinatra-centric music being beamed from WNEW-AM.
It’s the year of the Sinatra Centennial, and the celebrations are beginning with an HBO doc, an exhibit of memorabilia, reissues, live tributes galore. I’m ready for a retrospective look at his career, so long as I never have to hear Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, and TCM skips over Dirty Dingus Magee. There were periods of terrible mistakes cinematically and musically. Some very poor records at the tail end of his tenure at Columbia Records under Mitch Miller, some incredibly lazy movies (Sergeants 3 comes to mind). But from the Dorsey years through She Shot Me Down (I prefer believing that his discography ends with that and not L.A. Is My Lady and Duets), there is so much music that deserves a re-listen. Watertown is a pop departure that has moments of real poignancy; the first sessions with Jobim resulted in one of the best albums in either gentleman’s career; and there are some great live ones: Sinatra ’57 In Concert, Live in Australia 1959, Sinatra at The Sands.
Sinatra’s Capitol run from 1954 to 1960 (there were a few albums after that, but he was watching the clock, itching to get off the label and do his own thing) was the era when my parents, and all their friends, from what I could gather when we’d trek out to the suburbs to visit expatriates from The Bronx, bought everything Francis Albert put out. Except for A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra: my folks didn’t dig the holiday repertoire, I guess. All those albums with exclamation points: Swing Easy!, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, A Swingin’ Affair!, Come Dance With Me! (has any singer been more emphatic in an upbeat mood?). All those albums of self-pitying gloom: Where Are You?, Only The Lonely, No One Cares (has any singer worn his romantic scars so nakedly?). Right after that Christmas album with Jenkins, Sinatra went into the studio for the first time with arranger Billy May to cut a session of travelin’ music, and it’s strange to think of a #1 album (for five weeks) so iconic as underrated, but I think it is. It was on the Billboard album chart for almost a year and a half, its title song became a Sinatra anthem more sophisticated than “My Way” or “(Theme From) New York, New York,” and still, you don’t hear about it much. It’s sort of slipped away as the Capitol Years became more identified with either Riddle or Jenkins.
But listen to it: Come Fly With Me (why no exclamation point?) is a jet set album, a collection that predicts the Kennedy years, a romantic, devil-may-care travelogue: let’s split! let’s wing it, baby! let’s get away from it all! It has moments that swing, and some of Sinatra’s finest ballads (“Autumn In New York,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “April In Paris”). At the very first Grammy Awards, it lost to Henry Mancini’s The Music From Peter Gunn for Album of the Year, but that was just the first indication that the Grammys were almost never going to get things right (in fairness, among Come Fly With Me‘s competition was Only The Lonely, so the Frank vote was split, and NARAS made it up to him the next time for Come Dance With Me!, the second Sinatra-May LP).
Let’s take a boat to Bermuda/Let’s take a plane to St. Paul/Let’s grab a kayak/To Quincy or Nyack
The centerpiece of the LP is “Let’s Get Away From It All” by Matt Dennis and Tom Adair, an invitation so hip and adult. It’s like a musical representation of the cover (or vice versa), an illustration straight out of Mad Men. Frank’s date is out of frame, but he’s got her hand (there’s no ring on it), and his thumb is pointing over his shoulder to the waiting aircraft. In the song, he’s selling the trip: “Let’s go again to Niagara, this time we’ll dig the Fall.” Smooth talker. It could have been the album’s lead-off track, but it isn’t: Come Fly With Me is bracketed by Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Heusen songs, the title track and the finale, “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling,” where Frank takes us home. The liftoff of “Come Fly With Me” is a thrilling thing, and Cahn’s lyrics have a sexy snap: “Weather-wise it’s such a lovely day/Just say the words and we’ll beat the birds down to Acapulco Bay.” Props to Sammy for “weather-wise.”
And for the whole “It’s Nice To Go Trav’ling” lyric, because, come on, “It’s very nice to just wander the camel route to Iraq” is rhythmic and clever, and when it’s clicking, Cahn’s internal rhyming machine is inspired:
The mam’selles and frauleins and the senoritas are sweet
But they can’t compete ’cause they just don’t have
What the models have on Madison Ave
Come Fly With Me was musical escapism, a fantasy of freedom to roam, to grab a dame, a toothbrush and comb and go off on an adventure. Flying was still a glamorous thing in 1958 when this LP came out and was in every living room of every couple with small children running around. My parents weren’t dashing around the globe, weren’t “wingin’ ‘cross the foam” (a Sammyism for flying over the ocean). They were in The Bronx, but Frank was taking them on a trip.
The only thing that surprises me about Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” is that it took so long for someone to write a song called “Girl Crush.” It’s something you hear all the time, a cute turn of phrase that pops up in conversation. Mention Mila Kunis to a female friend and she might say, “I have such a girl crush on her,” and it doesn’t need any explanation. There’s a chapter called “Girl Crush” in Lena Dunham’s book. When a term like that enters the language, the next step is becoming a pop or country song, so I can imagine the writing session in Nashville when three heavy-hitter songscribes — Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey — start to kick around ideas and one of them says, “How about ‘Girl Crush’?” Perfect. And because this is Nashville, remember, they find a way to spin it that gives it a narrative overlayer: the female singer’s crush is also her romantic nemesis. So the envy and attraction are about what the other girl has, the person the singer wants. It’s a terrific song, all pop longing and slow-dance wistfulness, cleverly orchestrated. Of course Little Big Town snapped it up, and Karen Fairchild wrings all the complicated emotion out of it. And of course it became a lightning rod for wacky misinterpretation, because — and I’m sorry to have to say this — many people who listen to Country radio are awfully literal-minded.
Imagine a mom in Idaho, making breakfast for her kid, radio tuned to the Country station, and in the midst of all the guy-centric music being pumped out, comes this waltz-ballad sung by a woman: “I’ve got a girl crush, hate to admit it.” Does she need to hear anything more? No, she does not. In the name of all that is holy, and to not have to explain to her child what it means for a girl to have a crush on another girl, even in a non-sexual way, she calls up the radio station to complain.
Or another woman shows up in person at another station playing “Girl Crush” to register her outrage. A few stories like this (it’s supporting the Gay Agenda!), and “Girl Crush” is in the culture war crossfire: Miranda, Blake and Reba tweet their support for the song and for LBT, the track goes to #1 on the iTunes and Amazon Country charts (only one other woman, Miranda Lambert, is in the iTunes Top 10), commentators weigh in on the disparity between the song’s obvious popularity and the airplay that is slow to catch up. Some stations keep it in lower rotation.
In a way, I’m happy for LBT, because all the whipped-up noise might make more people pay attention to one of the best groups making any kind of music these days (move on to “Day Drinking,” also from the newest album, or the ridiculously catchy #1 “Pontoon” from the last one). And because anything that inflames the righteous indignation of the moral guardians is ok with me. It’s also another example of how, in the midst of a whirlwind of retro-macho Country, the women down in Nashville are keeping it interesting, from Maddie & Tae’s genre-baiting “Girl In A Country Song,” to the women who co-wrote “Girl Crush,” to Miranda Lambert and her pack (the other Pistol Annies, writer Natalie Hemby, etc.), to Sarah Zimmerman (the female half of Striking Matches), Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves,
Kacey’s been girl-crushed a bit by the response to her song “Follow Your Arrow” from her last album, where she sings, matter-of-factly, “Kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into.” Well, good for her. The song won all kinds of awards without ever becoming a real Country Hit, pointing out the divide that’s driving the LBT situation: How do you deny your audience the best music being made in your genre? Do you let the crackpots sway your decisions? One woman (seems most of the complainers are female; not sure why) insisted she would never listen to the station playing “Girl Crush” again unless they dropped it from their playlist. I hope they told her it’s a free country and she can not listen to anything she wants, but I’d guess it’s the only Country game in town and she has nowhere else to go. I also hope they play the new Kacey Musgraves song “Biscuits,” because she is not backing down. She has zero tolerance for judgmental busy-bodies:
Nobody’s perfect, we’ve all lost and we’ve all lied
Most of us have cheated, the rest of us have tried
Some stations might have issues with “Smoke your own smoke” as song-advice, and “Pissing in my yard ain’t gonna make yours any greener” just won’t fly in some parts, I’m sure. They can hit the bleep button. What Kacey and the whole “Girl Crush” crew (and it’s not as though “Girl Crush” is that provocative, except to the terminally dense) and all the Annies — I think Miranda Lambert was the only artist who had lyrics censored on the Grammys (“I play guitar and I go on the road and I do all the shit you wanna do”) — are up to may not seem that important, but it’s good that they’re bugging people who need to be bugged. Country has a long way to go: after her performance of “Hold My Hand” on the Grammys, Brandy Clark should have blown sky high on Country radio. It’s a song Tammy Wynette would have killed in the ’70s and made a Country classic, and the fact that it never got traction is a shame. “Girl Crush” should, and still might, be the kind of crossover ballad that Lady A’s “Need You Now” was, and if it’s helped by the faint-of-heart hankie-clutchers in Idaho, all the better.
There was a moment in the summer/fall of 1966 when The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” and The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad” were both in the Top 20. Also spinning around in the musical air were “Eleanor Rigby,” “Cherish,” The Four Seasons’ “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Then came The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Rain On The Roof,” The Cyrkle’s “Turn Down Day” and The Mama’s and The Papa’s “Look Through My Window,” and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was weaving its melancholy beauty. It was a particular type of ornate ’60s pop with undertones of sadness, wistful melodies and lyrics about things that were just out of reach. “Wouldn’t it be nice?,” the songs asked. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I could hold you. I feel my tears, they fall like rain. All the lonely people. All that rain: The Spoonful’s, and The Mama’s and Papa’s’ (“And the rain beats on my roof”). What was going on here, all this minor-key meditation? It was as though the freedom to run wild musically, throw in elements that were new to pop, tapped a well of emotion. McCartney, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, John Phillips (and you can throw in Paul Simon, whose songs on that autumn’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme included “Cloudy,” “The Dangling Conversation” and “Homeward Bound”), they were all in their 20s, these contemplative young men.
Michael Brown was even younger, in his teens, when he co-wrote “Walk Away Renee” for his group The Left Banke, and unless you were tuned into the radio at the time, you don’t know what a shock it was. Not simply the strings, so abrupt and prominent, although that’s what led people to tag the record “Baroque-Rock” (which meant nothing, really), but the whole momentum of the record, how the chorus just erupted. How could a song be so abstract and cut so deeply? If you begin a song with the word “and,” you’d better have something special up your sleeve, because you’re dropping the listener into mid-conversation (The Zombies did it on “Tell Her No”: “And if she should tell you, ‘Come closer’,” like you’ve wandered past two guys talking in a bar, and you think, uh oh, I’d better steer clear of this…, and “Look Through My Window” starts mid-thought also). The first line we hear Steve Martin, The Left Banke’s singer, utter is, “And when I see the sign that points one way.” That’s an entrance like no other song I know, and the fact that it’s been set up by that gorgeous four-note string intro makes it even more intriguing. It has all the signs of a break-up song, but the verses are so short — only two lines each — that we have to fill in the narrative. “You’re not to blame,” he says, but for what? The rain is beating down, the sidewalks are empty, all this anguish is evoked with so little actual information.
That melody is so damned pretty, and the hook is so dramatic, that the song has had an amazing afterlife. It was a hit for The Four Tops, and Levi sings the hell of it, but he throws off the rhythm of the chorus when he hits the “me” hard on “You won’t see me follow you back home,” where Steve Martin makes “won’t see me” one seamless phrase. In the ’60s there were a number of covers (The Cowsills, The Tremeloes, The Blades of Grass, Orpheus), and through the decades it’s been picked up by a whole array of artists: Rickie Lee Jones, Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy, Marshall Crenshaw, Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy, Tori Amos, Southside Johnny. Billy Bragg took the tune, played on guitar, as a thematic backdrop for a monologue about young love and disillusionment.
It’s the most famous song that Michael Brown, who passed away this week, leaves behind, but among Left Banke fans it’s not the universal favorite. Some, like me, like “Pretty Ballerina” even more, with this ingenious lyric:
I had a date with a pretty ballerina
Her hair so brilliant that it hurt my eyes
I asked her for this dance and then she obliged me
Was I surprised? Yeah
Was I surprised? No not at all
Some think “Desiree,” a thrilling, dynamic tour de force, is his masterpiece, his “Good Vibrations,” and I wouldn’t argue with that. A keyboard player I know is inordinately taken with “Barterers and Their Wives,” and another friend posted “She May Call You Up Tonight” on her Facebook wall. And there are wise folks who swear by Brown’s first album with Stories, or his lesser-known work with Montage and The Beckies.
Up at the top, I mentioned The Critters’ “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” a song that shared a moment on the charts with “Walk Away Renee.” The group’s bass player, Kenny Gorka, also passed away within the last few days. For years after his stint in The Critters, he ran The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, and presided over the club’s activities with warmth and grace to all, especially the talent and the industry freeloaders who congregated by the bar. I’d always wanted to ask Kenny if that’s his bass line on “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” or if notorious producer Artie Ripp brought in a session ringer, but no matter. It’s the pulse of the thing, the record’s center, so I’m going to go on thinking it’s Kenny’s part. He was the last link to the golden years of Bleecker Street, and will be missed.
When I tell people that Richard Barone and I are working on an album celebrating New York City songwriters from the 1960s, they usually think that I mean the pop and R&B writing teams hammering out the hits in midtown: Goffin & King, Mann & Weil, Sedaka & Greenfield, Pomus & Shuman, Barry & Greenwich, Bacharach & David. Which is a fair assumption, but I explain that what I mean is: if you’re starting at 1650 Broadway or the Brill Building, you can walk a few blocks to the F or D train, and go downtown to end up at West 4th Street (the “Positively” in the famous Dylan song), where most of the songwriters were working out their songs — sans ampersanded partners — in the clubs where as John Phillips wrote, “after every number they’d pass the hat.”
Ben Yagoda touches on that scene in his new book The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and The Rebirth of the Great American Songbook: “Most of these young men [he fails to mention that some women were hanging around as well] slung their acoustic guitars on their backs, a la Woody Guthrie, and congregated around Greenwich Village coffee-houses and clubs…The man who drew everyone’s attention was Bob Dylan, but among the others crafting impressive and decreasingly generic new songs in the early sixties were Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Jim McGuinn, Richard Farina, and John Sebastian, playing ‘jug band music or rhythm and blues’ or the other genres his band, The Lovin’ Spoonful would later memorialize in ‘Do You Believe In Magic?'” Yagoda also mentions Paul Simon, and notes that he had his foot in the midtown door as well, scoring a ’50s hit with “Hey, Schoolgirl” as the Jerry in Tom & Jerry.
Of all the writers Richard and I are honoring on Sorrows and Promises, the ones that raise a few eyebrows are Buddy Holly, Dion, Lou Reed and, to an extent, Paul Simon. With Holly, it’s true, the inclusion is somewhat symbolic and could fall into the category of music-fan-fiction: what if he hadn’t gone on the Winter Dance Party tour, braved the brutal cold and wound up on an ill-fated flight in February 1959? He was living a few steps from Washington Square Park at that point, writing and demoing songs in his Village apartment, going to the folk clubs. He’d have been there when Dylan came to town and — you can be pretty certain — Dylan, a huge fan, would have sought him out. Or imagine this: the Winter Dance Party wraps up with no tragic incident. Holly and Dion meet on that tour, become friendly, as they did, and when they get back to NYC they find that they’re both being drawn to folk and blues, that they both love Hank Williams and Bo Diddley. Dion, in the early ’60s, signed a big-for-its-time contract with Columbia Records and started to become torn between the swaggering pop that made him a star and the cry of the blues.
On Sorrows and Promises, Richard covers a Dion song that was tucked away at the time on the B side of a 1964 45: “The Road I’m On (Gloria).” The A side was a version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” which will give you some idea of what Dion was up to in that Beatlemania Spring. He was going in a different direction. “The Road I’m On (Gloria)” (written by Dion for and about 16 Magazine’s Gloria Stavers) starts off with a mournful harmonica, and then Dion enters with a voice that’s weary and reflective. It has the texture of pre-electric Dylan songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Girl From The North Country.” and I’ve always wondered what might have happened if Columbia had encouraged this musical mood and released a whole album of Dylan’s folk and blues, produced by Tom Wilson. He cut so much buried material during this period, so much bruised, soulful music that only later — after “Abraham, Martin and John” — got some label attention: listen to his original songs “Knowing I Won’t Go Back There,” “Now” and “Wake Up Baby” alongside the Dylan, Tom Paxton and Willie Dixon songs on Wonder Where I’m Bound.
One of the goals of this project is to expose songs like “The Road I’m On (Gloria).” So many people, even Dion fans, are probably unaware of it, and don’t realize how truly connected to the New York City folk scene he was in the ’60s. Oddly, there is one cover version of the song I’m aware of, by a British artist who released it in 1964 as a single under the pseudonym Toby Tyler. Later, Tyler recorded under his own name, Marc Bolan.
So, I haven’t previously used this space to self-promote anything I’m up to. But we’re doing the whole crowd-funding thing on this album, about which you can read more here, and pre-order if you’re so inclined.
Jazz Fest was where I first saw Roy Orbison, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley and Bobby “Blue” Bland. And sets by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Richard Thompson where I decided that I could just watch them sing any song that popped into their heads and I’d be happy. I caught The Dixie Chicks there, before Natalie joined the band and they took over the world, and watched a teenaged Harry Connick Jr. play James Booker-inspired piano (and not sing a note) in the Jazz Tent. I spent hours in the Gospel Tent, and when I wasn’t at the actual fairgrounds, I’d catch Los Lobos in the late-night hours at Tipitina’s, Aaron Neville singing doo-wop at Snug Harbor, or Al Green at the Saenger Theater. I’d meet friends for drinks at Coop’s Place on Decatur Street, book dinners at Brigtsen’s or stand on line at K-Paul’s or Mother’s. It was the first and only place I’ve eaten alligator. One night in a downpour, Kate and I took a tour of voodoo houses. I fell in love a few times, drank a lot, learned to like grits, and fish that was blackened. And every year, there was at least one set by The Neville Brothers that was as purely joyful as any music I could imagine being in the room with. They were the house band of of my New Orleans experience.
No doubt you’ve heard that the surviving members of the Grateful Dead are doing a 50th anniversary celebration/goodbye gig this summer in Chicago. Before that, in May, The Neville Brothers — all four of them still with us, praise the Lord — will be playing their final date at the Saenger in New Orleans, joined by artists such as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty and Terence Blanchard. I wish I were going. The Neville Brothers are doing their final bow close to the intersection of Basin Street and Canal Street, which is poetically perfect. They’re staying at home, playing for the people in their city along with the fans wrapping up a Jazz Fest weekend. Not that they had the option, from a box office standpoint, of playing three Chicago stadium dates like the “Dead.” But the idea of them doing one last New Orleans show, with contemporaries like Toussaint and Thomas on board, like a mini-Jazz Fest, has a sentimental punch that, sorry, the Dead shows just can’t match.
Back in ’99, I worked on one album with Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril, spending some sweltering days in the studio, visiting Aaron’s swanky new digs and being guided by Art to a po-boy emporium uptown near where the brothers grew up. We also went to one of Emeril Lagasse’s joints, and Art pronounced the shrimp as “cold-blooded.” That meant he dug it. They were already the old men of New Orleans funk then, having been at it in different incarnations since the ’50s. Art cut some solo sides for Speciality, and was a member of the four-piece machine called The Meters, along with Leo Nocentelli, George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste. (The fact that The Meters are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is worse than an oversight; it’s a scandal.) And Aaron, way before his middle-period emergence as Linda Ronstadt’s singing partner and successful solo artist, recorded classic songs — “Over You,” “Tell It Like It Is,” “Hercules” “Where Is My Baby” — for a series of labels.
What I learned from my brief stint as their A&R guy was that each brother comes in the door with a different musical, philosophical and temperamental agenda: Aaron wanted to do “If I Had A Hammer” (that was fine with me), Charles contributed the jazzy vibe of “Valence Street” (the title track), Art co-wrote “Real Funk” and “The Dealer,” Cyril lobbied for “Over Africa” by Gretchen Peters. It was a creative and diplomatic challenge to make a cohesive album at that point in their career, with Aaron so much more prominent, and while I’d never say it’s one of their best — those would be Fiyo On The Bayou, Yellow Moon and a couple of live ones (Nevillization, Authorized Bootleg) — It’s a solid piece of their discography, and got them a Grammy nomination.
And because I was a member of their extended family for that period, I got to be backstage for their climactic set at that year’s Jazz Fest, and look out at the crowd that, year after year, I’d been a part of. That was my last visit, almost sixteen years go. I stopped going to Jazz Fest when the headliners became more along the lines of Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, and now it resembles a local edition of Bonnaroo, or Coachella with Crawfish Monica. I’ve wanted to head down since after Katrina, but haven’t found the right time. Still, there were all those shows, all those versions of “Hey Pocky Way” and “Mojo Hannah” and “Brother John” and medleys that felt like once the groove was hit, almost anything could sneak in, “Bony Maronie,” or “What’s Going On.” The Neville Brothers are retiring and, to me, that’s big musical news.
Reply: Highway 61 Revisited. It was a simple back-and-forth, but it couldn’t stay simple, because behind the question, obviously, is a desert-island-disc premise: what if you were somewhere that for some reason could only accommodate your bringing one Dylan album in your carry-on, and you had to leave all the other Dylan albums you love back home? There is no such place. In the actual world, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks all share real or virtual shelf space and no one has to choose among them. Sometimes Love & Theft is my favorite Dylan album, but that doesn’t mean it’s the Best, and it doesn’t knock other Dylan albums down in order. It’s just a game we play, and no one takes it seriously except Kanye West, who thinks that giving trophies to Taylor Swift and Beck are a kind of negation of Beyonce’s artistry.
This week Losers Lounge, a musical aggregation under the direction of Joe McGinty, staged a song-off between Blondie and The Pretenders. It was done, as all the LL’s are, with spirit and affection, as a parade of singers joined the band to do either a Blondie or a Pretenders song — damn, those bands have a lot of ace material — and at the end of the night, audience applause determined the victor. The Pretenders won on Wednesday. Blondie won the following night, the show I saw, and it seemed a clear decision to me for that night, that show, that group of songs. It’s easy to underrate Blondie, even though (maybe even because) they sold so many records, had so many hits. Maybe blondes are always suspect, in a way, for those who value “authenticity.” Whatever that means in a pop context. Is Debbie Harry more of a calculated figure than Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith or Joan Jett? is Blondie less true to a central idea (pop in a cultural blender) than the Pretenders are? Both bands speak to me, and the fun of the Losers Lounge match was that we got to hear how much they share rather than what divides them.
I chose Blondie on the cheer meter, maybe because it had been a long time since I’d heard so many Blondie songs crammed into a two-hour set. I take the Pretenders for granted; “Kid,” “The Talk of The Town,” “Back On The Chain Gang”…their album The Singles is one to grab for that Island of Limited Choices (in a way I’m glad it doesn’t go up to “I’ll Stand By You” because that could be anyone’s anthem, and you don’t want to skip tracks when you’re on musical rations). But when I think about it, there aren’t many pop albums that start as strong as the first four tracks on Parallel Lines: “Hanging On The Telephone,” “One Way Or Another,” “Picture This,” “Fade Away and Radiate.” And then on the other side, “Will Anything Happen?,” “Sunday Girl,” “Heart of Glass” and a Buddy Holly cover. A bunch of those songs were covered the other night, plus “Call Me,” “Dreaming,” “Rapture,” “The Tide Is High,” “X Offender”: you can see why it wasn’t just homefield advantage that scored Blondie their “win” at Joe’s Pub. Factor in some missing songs — “In The Flesh,” “Look Good In Blue,” “Little Girl Lies,” “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear,” “In The Sun” (I’m sure I’m forgetting other key tunes) — and the Blondie resume becomes even more impressive.
Debating the undebatable (Mantle or Mays? Waylon or Willie? The West Wing or Hill Street Blues? Tom Stoppard or David Mamet?) isn’t really about deciding, or convincing someone about the rightness of your position; it’s an aesthetic variation of fuck-marry-kill. It’s a way to work out for yourself what you value: consistency or flashes of brilliance, sensitivity or cold-mindedness, spotty originality or clever thievery. The answer is usually some form of all of it, because people with rigid ideas about what makes something great might as well be living on that desert island.
Gone, it’s all over and you’re gone
But the memory lives on
Although our dreams lie buried in the snow
It’s a whole musical subsection: sad weather songs. “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather.” Or “Here’s that rainy day they told me about.” This has been an especially cruel winter, everyone knows. Friends have been clobbered by colds and far worse. Hearts have been battered. And there are only so many rain songs you can listen to. When you think about it, rain has gotten a bad rap for the most part, being blamed (literally, like Diane Warren’s “Blame It On The Rain”) for all sorts of romantic crimes, and snow has gotten a pass. Isn’t snow delightful?, songs ask us. “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” It’s a blanket of cheer, an enabler of intimacy, an excuse to be playful and childlike. I don’t know: I just went out for coffee and a muffin — just across the street, no major trudge — and did not feel like romping. I felt like napping. Like until April.
Randy Newman’s “Snow” is the antidote to all that snow sugar-coating. It’s not one of his best-known songs, certainly not even one of his best-known weather songs (let’s see, there’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” and “Louisiana 1927,” and “I Love L.A.” is mostly about how swell the climate is). One of his earliest covers was The Fleetwoods’ “They Tell Me It’s Summer,” a morose summer song like Goffin & King’s “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” So he has one of the great rain songs, a significant flood song, and a song that puts a depressing spin on summer. And he has “Snow.” I can’t find a version of him singing it anywhere. Not among demos, or live performances, or outtakes, which is strange. You’d think he’d have pulled it out at one recorded show, and there has to be a demo of it in someone’s possession.
The definitive take on “Snow” is on the expanded edition of Nilsson Sings Newman, which in a way counts as a Newman version, since he plays piano for Nilsson. As on the rest of the album, it’s just the two of them, and Nilsson’s vocal is so naked: this is a memory song as well as a sad weather song (a lot of songs are both). He and his girl used to go to this park, now she’s gone — sometimes he thinks he hears her voice in the wind — and the ground is covered, burying the ground and the past:
Snow, everywhere I go
As the cold winter sun sinks low
I walk alone through the snow
Harpers Bizarre cut “Snow” on their album Anything Goes, a collection that came floating out of Burbank at the end of 1967 and was defiantly whimsical, not in a psychedelic-pop way, although there are touches of that, but in a what-are-they-up-to way. It’s an album where Cole Porter and Randy Newman share cotton candy, and “Snow” — that poem about how bleak the whiteness is — sits between Cahn and Van Heusen’s insanely giddy “Pocketful of Miracles” and Gordon and Warren’s antique “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” In the post-Pepper world of late ’67, sure, anything went; the whole idea of pop music was tossed into the air like multi-colored confetti (Anything Goes shared shelf space with Their Satanic Majesties Request). HB’s “Snow” is stuck there in mid-album all forlorn, and the arrangement (Van Dyke Parks’s, I’m guessing, although it could be Nick DeCaro’s) has that late-’60s Warner Brothers shimmer. You can hear, courtesy of YouTube, what it sounds like without the group’s vocals, and it still tugs at the heart.
Claudine Longet murmured “Snow” on A&M, and in later years it’s been covered by artists such as Saint Etienne and Tracey Thorn from Everything But The Girl. I’m looking south from my window, and there’s only white where downtown should be. Scarves and gloves are still waiting by the door for the necessary clomp to a showcase four blocks away that might as well be miles. I walk alone, through the snow.
On June 18, Jerry Garcia will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with his lyricist partner Robert Hunter. I have the feeling that would be a surprise to a lot of people who are resistant to the appeal of the Grateful Dead, but it’s an acknowledgment that whatever responsibility the Dead has to shoulder for launching hundreds of song-averse jam bands, and whatever their reputation for futzing around in search of the platonic ideal of the mystical musical force, they could always go back to actual songs. Like the eight compositions Hunter wrote words for on Workingman’s Dead (mostly with Garcia; Phil Lesh helped out on “Cumberland Blues,” and Hunter came up with “Easy Wind” on his own). That was the album that introduced “Uncle John’s Band” and “Casey Jones” (the opening and closing cuts), and showed that the Dead were more than a rambling sort-of-psychedelic-blues-band. Pigpen’s grumbling take on the blues was deftly moved over to the corner, and second-guitarist, second-vocalist Bob Weir hadn’t yet emerged as a songwriter (a category in which he also would perenially finish second despite such live favorites as “Sugar Magnolia” — lyrics by Hunter — and “One More Saturday Night”). At their peak, which for me means Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, they were Garcia and Hunter’s band. American Beauty has a lovely Hunter-Phil Lesh song (“Box of Rain”), Pigpen stops in for his self-penned “Operator,” and Weir steps up on “Sugar Magnolia” and “Truckin’,” but there was no mistaking where the heartbeat of the band was.
A few weeks after Garcia and Hunter are honored for their craft, the surviving musical members of the Grateful Dead are going to play a few shows at a stadium in Chicago. The role of Jerry Garcia will be played guitarwise by Trey Anastasio of the band Phish, and I assume it will be played vocally by Weir and keyboardist Bruce Hornsby. For some reason, the prospect of this is tremendously exciting to a great number of people. Saturday at 11:00 a.m. ET, the internet was stormed by a reportedly half-million computers attempting to buy tickets to see this final go-round for what is being called the Grateful Dead. They can call it whatever they like. The Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia is like Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant and Jimmy Page: Garcia wrote and sang most of their essential songs, and played lead guitar on all of them, and if the Dead wanted to do something to honor his contribution on this 50th anniversary of the band’s inception, they’d call this a Garcia tribute concert and invite singers and guitarists to Chicago to sing and play Garcia-Hunter songs along with the four members of the band. But then they probably wouldn’t have broken the internet on Saturday morning. People have to pretend that this is the last opportunity they have to see the Grateful Dead.
I know I was lucky. My college years coincided with the Workingman’s Dead-American Beauty years. I saw the Grateful Dead everywhere from the Cafe Au Go-Go to Winterland. They were at the Fillmore East and The Capitol Theater all the time. My friends and I bought tickets ($5) to most of the Fillmore East late shows, took drugs to, we thought, enhance the Deadly glow, and took the subway all the way downtown from The Bronx. Being a fan of the Dead didn’t take much effort then, but it did take patience and forgiveness. Their shows could be stumbling, misshapen things. Bob Weir, for all his abilities, was not a convincing interpreter of countryish songs. He mangled “Mama Tried” and “El Paso” more often than not, and insisted on singing the key line of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” as “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do.” The band almost always kicked into gear on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” but other covers — “Good Lovin’,” “Dancing In The Street” — revealed their fatal lack of soul.
Sometimes, there were very long drum solos.
But even after we were disappointed, we always went back. Because on those nights when it all mysteriously jelled, they took the audience on rippling ride. I was at the Fillmore East when Duane Allman and Peter Green joined the band on stage, early in the morning, surfing on shimmering waves of guitar. But it wasn’t only, or even mostly, about the jamming, and that’s what all the acolytes forget. Garcia and Hunter wrote songs — just listen to the ones on Europe ’72: “He’s Gone,” “Brown-Eyed Woman,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “”Tennessee Jed” — that I’d put up against the repertoire of The Band, Creedence, or any other American Band from that period. Which brings me back to these upcoming shows in Chicago. I wouldn’t go see something called The Band without Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Richard Manuel, or a Creedence Clearwater Revival without John Fogerty. It seems disrespectful to the spirit of what the bands were, and what they meant. All those people who scrambled for tickets this weekend were chasing something they’re never going to catch.