List: Top Five Story Songs — No. 1

This week, it’s been all about Story Songs, those songs that adopt their own meanings, sometimes far from what the original artists meant. Previous editions are here and here and here and here. And finally, we come to:

1. Stay Free, by The Clash.

Way back then, in the early early 1980s, we wrote letters. Lots of letters. On actual paper, which went into real envelopes, which that spent several days in transit before they were delivered.

My friend Geoff was back in New York, and I was in St. Louis, and for a couple of years there, it was extremely rare that there wasn’t a piece of paper in my typewriter, representing a letter-in-progress. Mostly to Geoff, and later to Jean, but also to other friends.

Geoff, in particular, soon got bored with sending letters in plain white envelopes, so my mailbox got a lot more colorful, with envelopes made out of pages torn out of rock magazines and folded around the letters inside, with my address scrawled on the outside under a stamp.

Basically, the outsides of our mailings became as much an outlet for creativity as the insides. Geoff, of course, was always much more creative than I was.

So yes, letters also went to other people, one of whom was my brother Jim. In the spring and early summer of 1980, we hung out a lot together, but by July of that year he found the weather and the attitudes of St. Louis to be too stifling, and picked up and moved to Provincetown, Mass., where he had some friends and where, I think, he had lived for a time previously.  That summer, I was sorry to see him go, but I always knew it was important for him, and I knew that once he got back to Provincetown, he was happier and, frankly, where he belonged.

He was from St. Louis, but he was at home in P-town.

Sometime in the late winter/early spring of 1981, I sent him a long letter. And on the outside of the envelope, I wrote the following song lyrics:

‘Cause time has passed and things have changed,
I move any way I want to go.
And I’ll never forget the feeling I got
when I heard that you’d got home.

And I’ll never forget the smile on my face
‘Cause I knew where you would be,
And if you’re in the Crown tonight,
Have a drink on me.

But go easy,
Step lightly,
Stay free.

They’re the closing lines from the song Stay Free, from The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope album. I thought they pretty well summed up how I felt about Jim at that point. (The “Crown” reference was a bonus; the previous year when we were in town and working at our Dad’s company, we would often have lunch together at Crown Candy Kitchen, a landmark in north St. Louis.)

Anyway, I sent the letter off and didn’t think much more about it, until that summer, when I took the train to the East Coast to visit both Jim, in Provincetown, and Geoff, in New York.

It was my first visit to P-town, and I was able to spend the better part of a week there. Jim had some friends who were Clash fans, and he was actually starting to listen to Sandinista! a little bit; it was beyond his usual range, but his musical tastes were always eclectic.

These friends had taken him to see the Clash movie Rude Boy, and he told me—I can still visualize him telling me this—that when they played that song in the movie, for the first time he recognized the lyric from my envelope. He had thought that I had just written it, so when he saw the lyrics sung out before him in the movie theater, it was a revelation. I think I would have written “—Strummer Jones” at the bottom of the lyric on the envelope, but at the time he received it he probably wouldn’t have known who Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were.

I wish I could remember our conversation more clearly, but for the most part it’s lost to time. I know, however, that he appreciated the sentiment, and the fact that he remembered the lyric over the several months between my letter and his seeing Rude Boy was fantastic.

So anyway, the song has always, for me, sort of encapsulated everything I felt about Jim and Provincetown. And my favorite part is that he got it; he was right there with me on it.

*****

My Clash-fan friends won’t believe this—and will probably berate and shun me when they read it—but I’ve never seen Rude Boy. But as I was preparing this post, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I have finally seen the Stay Free scene. It’s a little raw, compared to the album version, but hey, it’s the Clash. And it’s great. Here:

List: Top 5ive Albums Of The 1980s

Everyone loves lists, right? Well then, here comes a list: the best albums of the 1980s.

Any such “Top” list having to do with music is going to be controversial, of course. But this one may be less so than others, at least for me. These five albums simply stand out from all the rest. These were some of the strongest efforts by their creators, and helped shape both my life and the music business in general during that decade and for years thereafter. There are going to be other lists in Shoulblog in the future, some music-related, but I wanted to start with this one because it is, in fact, the most cut-and-dried.

Even though this exercise seems pretty …Keep reading

Refreshing My Music

At the beginning of this week, I trashed my entire iTunes music library on my computer at work. It consisted of 4,077 songs, which, if played consecutively, would go on for 13 days, three minutes and 20 seconds, according to the application’s statistics.

Over the last couple of years I’ve imported a number of CDs into the library. I don’t think I’ve actually bought more than two or three songs from iTunes in my life; if I want music, I’ll generally just get the CD. I guess that makes me remarkably old-fashioned, but let’s remember that CDs didn’t exist before about 25 years ago. Even though they now appear to be going the way of the 8-track tape — judging by the shrinking bins at music stores (remember music stores?) — I have managed to compile a pretty good number of them over the years.

But I digress. Even though I have a comfortable collection of CDs, I hardly ever listen to CDs anymore. Generally I just fire up the iTunes on random play and let it run. That keeps the collection alive, because you never know what song, or even what style of music, will come next. Just yesterday, for example, iTunes gave me “Four Horsemen” by the Clash, followed closely — surprisingly closely, in fact, because by default iTunes uses a two-second crossfade between songs — by James Taylor’s “Sunny Skies.” Strangely enough, the transition worked.

If it ever doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to hit the “skip” button — the Macintosh keyboard even provides a key for this — to go on to the next song. It’s really a great way to listen to music, since I’m stuck at the computer anyway.

My problem was that, in addition to all those CDs I imported, I also got into the habit of downloading whatever free music was being offered up by various vendors. Amazon, in particular, sends out scads of free music each week through its MP3 store. I think you have to sign up for their newsletter or something, but each Tuesday they send out an e-mail with links to a bunch of giveaway songs and samplers, which, when downloaded, conveniently drop right into the iTunes library.

Some of them are great. Most aren’t. And usually I didn’t take the time to weed them out when I downloaded them, so over time my iTunes library got more and more polluted with songs that I had no interest in.

So, with the new year, I’m starting over. I dumped the library, and have been re-importing my music from my CDs. And what’s cool is that I started from the beginning — the first batch was artists from the 1960s and 1970s. (OK, it’s the beginning for me, anyway.) I’m mostly through those discs now, and working a little up into the 1980s. And frankly, it’s been great to hear the older stuff — and only the older stuff — come through the computer speakers. Eventually I’ll get back to the point where a Derek and the Dominoes song will be followed by a John Mayer song or something, and that won’t be bad, but for the next few days it’ll go from Derek and the Dominoes to Little Feat or the Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel or someone like that. Next week U2 will make its way into the collection. After that, it’ll be Dave Matthews and his ’90s brethren. After that, Amos Lee and the rest of the new generation (much smaller in number than these earlier artists) will join the party.

And yes, sure I could have just deleted the offending songs and gone on with my just my own music, and saved the trouble of having to reimport all my CDs. But I’m also a geek for statistics, and iTunes kindly compiles information about how often songs are played, when they were last played, etc. For example, in that old iTunes library, the song I ended up playing the most was “Night Train” by Amos Lee. Not my favorite of his songs, but random-play doesn’t play favorites. In fact a good number of the top songs were Amos Lee songs, because for a while there I was in a big-time Amos mood, just selecting his three CDs and letting them run. (As of January 25, by the way, he’ll have a fourth album out, which I’m definitely looking forward to.) Other times, I’d play the Who for a day. Or the Beatles, or, like last fall, the Rolling Stones. Still other times, I’d turn on my instrumental playlist, which contained all of the instrumental songs from various artists; sometimes it’s just easier to write or edit when there are no words in the background music. “The Rock,” Quadrophenia” and “Underture” were way up on that play count, benefiting from being both instrumentals and also Who songs.

But anyway, with the new year, everything’s reset to zero.

London Calling

It was 30 years ago this spring that music–both my own and the world’s at large–got an incredible jolt. The Clash album London Calling was released in England in December of 1979, and in the U.S. in January 1980. Normally I’m not an “early adopter” of new music, but thanks to my good friend Geoff, I had purchased it by early spring. The album grabbed hold of me immediately, and has never loosened its grip.

In early 1980, I was taking a semester off between two years at Mizzou and an expected transfer to a smaller school; Geoff was back in his New York home, having already transferred from Mizzou to CW Post. We stayed in touch through the U.S. Mail, occasionally sending each other cassettes of music we were listening to. One he sent me … Keep reading

Covers

As a music lover (aren’t we all?), I’m sometimes surprised when I find out that a song I’ve listened to dozens or hundreds of times turns out to be a cover of someone else’s song. Surprised and embarrassed, because as a fan, I always feel I should have known better.

My most spectacular faceplant in this area came after I saw Bob Dylan in concert in 1979. After the concert (a great show, by the way) I commented to the person I was with, “that Jimi Hendrix song he did was great.” The song, of course, was All Along The Watchtower, which Dylan himself wrote and recorded  before Hendrix recorded what I believe is the definitive version. Definitive, but a cover nonetheless.

A more recent example of this is Elvis Costello’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” from his Get Happy! album. The song is full of the lyrical twists we’ve come to expect and enjoy from him, but it wasn’t until I got the reissue of the album a year or so ago that the song was actually recorded by Sam & Dave back in the 1960s and written, I see on Wikipedia, by Homer Banks and Allen Jones.

Another is the song Wrong ‘Em Boyo by the Clash on London Calling. I guess I’d never noticed that the song was written by Clive Alphonso, not Strummer/Jones like most of the songs on that amazing, amazing album.

A few months ago I was editing the “old boat column” for our magazine, and the author mentioned the steamboat Stacker Lee. It got me to thinking about Stagger Lee from that song, of course, so I got to looking through the legend of Stagger Lee and soon found that the song is a cover of a song by the Rulers. You can find an mp3 version of it on Amazon. Check it out — very cool.  Start all over again!