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.

Lyrics In Exile

One of my favorite lines from a music review comes from way back in 1977, after Linda Ronstadt released the Simple Dreams album. About her version of the Rolling Stones’ song Tumbling Dice, the reviewer wrote something to the effect that “the lyrics meant so much more when when we couldn’t understand them.”

I’ve thought about that line a bit lately, as Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ album where Tumbling Dice appeared, has been in pretty much constant play in my car for the last few weeks. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it has been at least three decades since I last gave Simple Dreams a spin.)

The lyrics throughout Exile on Main Street are for the most part unintelligible, even more so than on most Rolling Stones albums. But for me, they gain more and more meaning every time I listen to the disc. It is by far the most deeply felt album they put out, but that comes through more in the music than in the words, such as they are. It is impossible to listen to Let It Loose, for example, and be unchanged by the experience. But I’ll bet I couldn’t tell you half the lyrics to that song … let alone what it’s “about.”

I’m more or less a word guy. I spend a lot of my life either writing, reading or editing. But oddly enough, song lyrics generally aren’t that important to me. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure them out, and even if they are printed in the album notes or somewhere, it’s rare that I’ll actually go and read them. If there’s a song I like, it’s almost always because of the music, not the words.

So in general, I’d have to agree with that reviewer from three-plus decades ago; sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough alone.

*****

A very personal postscript: in December of 1977, I came home for winter break after my first semester of college. My brother Jim came home as well, from wherever he was living at that time. We had a cheap old stereo, but little music to speak of. Our other brother, Phil, who was by then living in an apartment, let Jim pick out a few albums for us to listen to during the break. Exile on Main Street was one of them, but they also included such other classics as Who’s Next, Songs in the Key of Life, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, and a few others. I was vaguely familiar with some of them, but most of what I had been listening to in those days was stuff like Boston, REO Speedwagon, the aforementioned Linda Rondstadt, etc. That handful of music courtesy of my two older brothers brought about a lifetime change in my listening habits. Each of those albums would be included on any list I would make of the greatest records of all time.  I latched onto Who’s Next, of course, and it instantly became my favorite album … and still is. I’m certain I didn’t care for Exile on Main Street that much at the time; it’s not a record that allows itself to be discovered easily. But over time, the music becomes more and more  a part of you, no matter what the words may say.

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!