Trade In These Wings On Some Wheels

I was driving to work this morning, listening to The Loft, my new favorite SiriusXM station. The DJ listed the songs he’d just played, including some before I tuned in. One was Thunder Road by Cowboy Junkies. Holy magic in the night! I didn’t know that existed!

I got to work and immediately looked it up on Spotify, and it was just as great as I’d imagined. Thunder Road is one of my all-time Top Five songs, and even though I don’t own any Cowboy Junkies music (why the heck is that, anyway?), I’ve always loved their sound. I really like their interpretation of this song. Singer Margo Timmins even shrugs past the one line in that song that’s always been problematical for me (“You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re all right”) with a certain savoir faire, and it’s perfect.

Here’s a link to the song on Spotify, if you’re interested:

Cowboy Junkies – Thunder Road

List: Top Five Story Songs—No. 5

“You see, I knew that song so long before we met,
that it means so much more than it might”
—Elvis Costello, King Horse

Elvis is onto something here, I think. There are certain songs that take on meanings that are far beyond whatever the songs are “about.”

Surely everybody has their own songs like this, songs that call up their own associations, their own stories, when you hear them. Here, with the usual caveats, are some of mine.

And I’m going to abandon the regular format for this list, since a couple of these are going to be long enough that it would be a nightmare to have them all in one post. So, for the next five days, it’ll be one Story Song a day on Shoulblog. Starting with Number…

5. For What It’s Worth-Buffalo Springfield.

Of the five songs you’ll see on this list, this is probably the only one that most people will recognize. For my part, I knew of the song for years before I ever heard the Buffalo Springfield version. In those days, as a little kid, my exposure to music was mainly from my older brothers, Phil and Jim. I had a little transistor radio, but I would have mostly listened to sports on it, more than music. My brothers were six and eight years older than me—a whole generation, at that age—and what little I knew about music, I learned by hearing from them.

One summer, while we were on our annual vacation at Gull Lake in Minnesota, we were hanging out on the porch of the cabin we stayed in — it was the three of us, plus our cousin Bruce. Jim had a guitar, as he usually did in those days. After a while, he started playing this song, which I’d never heard before. Phil and Bruce joined in vocals. I contributed by turning on a cassette tape recorder we had. There was a fly in the room; Phil or Bruce tried to slay it by clapping his hands at it, and the clap turned out to be right in time with the song, so he kept clapping.

And that, for me was the definitive version of the song. I held onto that cassette for a long time, and it was years before I heard the actual original. That tape is long gone now, of course, but still, today, when I hear Buffalo Springfield’s version on the radio, it takes me back to that decades-ago night at Gull Lake.

“Stop, hey, what’s that sound,
Everybody look what’s goin’ down…”

*****

A note for the ya-learn-something-new-every-day-from-Wikipedia file: I had always thought this song was written in reaction to the Kent State shootings. In fact, it was written about protests of a local curfew in Los Angeles in 1966—a full four years before the Kent State tragedy.

When Linda Was Country

I recently went retro and bought three CDs, small-disc versions of LPs that I owned decades ago but haven’t heard in many years, owing to the fact that I haven’t owned a working turntable since some time in the Clinton administration. Anyway, the three CDs are:

  • Randy Newman—Sail Away
  • Randy Newman—Trouble In Paradise
  • Linda Ronstadt—Heart Like A Wheel

We may or may not get to the Randy Newman discs in due course, but today I want to discuss Linda Ronstadt. (And yes, this is the third post in a row to at least mention her!)

I became a fan in 1976, when I saw her at the Mississippi River Festival in Edwardsville, Ill. It was my first concert. Over the next few years, I bought just about everything she recorded, but at some point my musical tastes changed and I moved on. I did, however, eventually buy Prisoner in Disguise and Hasten Down the Wind on CD—they were her two best albums, I felt, released in 1975 and 1976, respectively.

Over the last few months I found myself playing them quite a bit. Comfort music, y’know.

Hasten Down the Wind has a very polished, refined sound. If you care to crank up Spotify (it’s free), check out Lose Again. Or try Try Me Again. The only song on the album you might begin to think of as “country” is Crazy, by Willie Nelson. There’s a little bit of slide guitar in it, but that’s the only nod to country in what is a beautiful ballad. The album has a couple of rockers, even a reggae song or two, but for the most part, it’s full of the gorgeous, highly produced torch songs that Ronstadt specialized in.

Stepping backward, now, to 1975, Prisoner in Disguise shows a little more of Ronstadt’s country genes, but not to excess. There are a couple of twangy songs, but they fit in nicely with the rest of the album. Even the Dolly Parton-penned I Will Always Love You doesn’t scream “country” like you might think it would. About the closest you come to needing a cowboy hat is The Sweetest Gift, a duet with Emmylou Harris. Oh yeah, and the Neil Young song Love Is A Rose has a bit of the ol’ pickin’ and grinnin’ as well. Still, it’s not really country. A couple of other great songs from that album: Many Rivers To Cross and Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox.

As I mentioned, I’ve listened to those two records a little more than usual recently; just putting “Linda Ronstadt” on shuffle play on iTunes on my computer. But those two records didn’t prepare me for my first listen in years to Heart Like A Wheel.

Sure, there were the rockers I’d remembered: You’re No Good might be the best song she ever recorded, and When Will I Be Loved was also a huge hit for her. I was also anxious to hear her You Can Close Your Eyes, a James Taylor song that I’ve seen him perform several times since I last heard her version. An absolute gem that I’d almost forgotten about is Willin’, a classic Little Feat song that she made her own. With that song, you begin to hear the country roots that Ronstadt grew out of. All well and good; Willin’ is a truck-driving song, and you’d expect it to come across as pretty country, although her version is much less so than Little Feat’s. But check out the opening notes to I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love With You. Heck, not just the opening notes, but the whole song; this is country in the vein of Hank Williams. And I’m talking senior, not junior. Or Keep Me From Blowing Away. Or It Doesn’t Matter Any More.

I guess I didn’t notice this as much when I listened to this record way back when, because I was sorta country back then myself: several of the earliest records I owned were by the Eagles, who were a lot more country themselves back then.

Anyway, this post is already longer than I’d planned, and the whole thing is sort of apropos of nothing. Any Linda Ronstadt fans out there with anything to add?

List: Top Five Musical Crimes Against Humanity

Perhaps I’m still a little cranky about the state of music these days. (That always seems to happen after one of those Super Bowl halftime shows.) But as great as rock music can be, the extraordinary heights it can deliver us to, there are also plenty of “what were they thinking” moments. Here are my top five … or perhaps “bottom five” might be a better title.

(Oh, and, starting today, I have a set of standard disclaimers regarding these Shoulblog lists. You can read it here.)

5) Thorn Tree In The Garden. The band was Derek and the Dominoes. The album was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The star was Eric Clapton, but the band also included Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock and other rock giants. The double album was loaded with blues-rock classics: I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues, Key to the Highway, Little Wing and of course, the title track, Layla, which is one of the all-time classic songs. If I ever had the gall to make one of these “top five” lists for best songs ever, Layla would probably come in at No. 2. Go see Eric Clapton in concert, and Layla is the last song he will play. It’s the perfect “last song,” the ultimate ultimate. But on this album of classic, someone had the idea of making Layla the penultimate song, following it with a soporific acoustic song called Thorn Tree In The Garden. Mind you, it’s no “Her Majesty”-like ditty thrown in for a laugh at the end.; it’s ostensibly a full-fledged song, at nearly three minutes. You spend that entire three minutes thinking, wow, what a letdown.

4) Sweet Home Alabama, with lyrics. It would have made a great instrumental, wouldn’t it?

3) I Want You To Want Me Live At Budokan. It’s a truly awful song in the first place. It’s the soundtrack for the word “insipid.” But then Cheap Trick performed it live in front of what sounds like a million screaming kids, and the wretchedness is magnified. It gets my vote for the worst song ever.

2) Spanish Moon, transferred to CD. The Little Feat double-live album Waiting For Columbus is one of the best live albums ever, with absolutely brilliant performances of all of their best songs. The song Spanish Moon  never really thrilled me in the studio version, but the live version really, well, came to life.

Musically, it’s like a bell curve: it starts small, with just the percussionist; then the drummer joins in. A few bars later, the bass player is added to the mix, then an organ and a guitar, the Tower of Power horn section, and finally the vocals. Soon the full band is grooving through the song, following the same driving rhythm established at the very beginning by the percussionist. It peaks … and then one by one, the instruments drop back out, until its just the guitar, bass and drums. The guitarist takes an extended solo, and then exits with a flourish. Same for the bass player. When he is done, it’s just the drummer—and the crowd, which is clapping along ecstatically. The drummer finishes the last few beats, and the crowd keeps clapping, in time, until it finally erupts in an enormous ovation. I can’t think of any recording that better captures the potential exuberance of a rock concert . I must have listened to it a million times on vinyl, and when CDs came about I eagerly bought a copy and put it on to play.

Except when the CD was created, I guess they had to make some compromises to go from a double album on vinyl to a single compact disc. They cut out a song or two, OK fine. But as I listened to Spanish Moon for the first time—it was the end of Side 2 on vinyl, and it’s track 9 on the CD—they faded out the ending! Of all the songs that made it onto the disc, they had to pick that one to truncate. Unbelievable. Of all of the musical crimes against humanity, that would be the most egregious, except for…

1) Let It Be, the wimpy organ version. Let it Be is indisputably one of the greatest songs in rock, a brilliant moment of clarity amid the disastrous breakup of the Beatles. Even today, hearing those first piano chords can instantly change your day and compel you to stop what you’re doing and listen. But when I hear it on the radio, my attention is always on alert, waiting for the veritable fork in the road. It’s that point when the radio station will reveal itself as either a voice of responsible programing, or just a money-grubbing embarrassment. It’s at exactly 1:58 into the song, after the second chorus has ended, and the music breaks into a solo.

But which solo?

The album version has George Harrison taking control with a brilliant, soulful guitar solo, one of the greatest guitar solos in music history. At that exact moment, the experience is transformed from a hymn sung up by the congregation, to an anthem bestowed down upon us from the heavens. “Hark, the Angels Come,” indeed.

But on the single version, the one that was anthologized on the “Blue” (1967-1970) album, the guitar solo is mixed out and replaced by an organ solo. True, it’s a Billy Preston organ solo, and on any other song it would probably be cool. But once you’ve heard the album version, hearing the organ version can be nothing but abject disappointment. What is probably a top-five song from the album becomes a song that struggles to make it into the top 101.

So there you have it. Agree? Disagree? Did I miss any? Make use of that comment box below!

Music For The Winter Solstice

I do NOT recommend that you watch this video:

Seriously, don’t watch it. It will ruin your day. I only include it to demonstrate what I think is the absolute worst example of an awful genre, the pop Christmas song. Every year, more and more artists get the idea that they can make a quick buck or two by dressing up some old Christmas songs with the newest synthesizers and putting out a “holiday disc.” In this case, McCartney didn’t need to draw from the canon of existing carols; he wrote it himself. More’s the shame. This truly sounds like it’s ideal for a preschool.

I’m given to understand, however, that my opinion is not universal. According to Wikipedia, McCartney makes $400,000 a year from royalties on this song alone. It also says that “McCartney has since gone on to state that he is now embarrassed about this record,” which can give us all a little hope in this season of despair. The guy who wrote Let It Be and Yesterday should be embarrassed about this.

Unfortunately, many, many other artists are apparently reaching for …Keep reading

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