Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Light: Over At The Frankenstein Place

Rocky Horror Picture Show: Over At The Frankenstein Place
[purchase the DVD]

Back in the late 1970s, when I was in high school, going to the midnight show of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a theater in Nyack became the thing to do on Saturday night. I’m not sure how many times I went, but it was a pretty high number, and while I never dressed up as a character (I’ve never been much of a fan of costumes), I did start bringing props with me. Because there were really three reasons to see the movie, which is actually a bad movie (and the contemporary, pre-cult phenomenon reviews bear this out)—the music was pretty good, it was about some edgy sex stuff that in the pre-Internet, pre-million cable stations days was kind of titillating to teenagers, and, I think most of all, participating meant that you became part of an in-crowd, all of whom seemed to know exactly what to do or say in response to what was happening on the screen.

After I headed off to college, and saw it at least once on campus (where I found out that there were regional variations on the crowd responses because there was no Internet to create a Rocky Horror Wiki and establish a standard canon), I sort of grew out of it. A few years ago, my wife and I went to a Halloween season showing at the Tarrytown Music Hall, and I found myself mostly bored with the whole thing. I’d like to think that growing up hasn’t completely beat the fun out of me, but it isn’t surprising that some things you enjoyed when you were young aren’t enjoyable when you age. (Monty Python, however, is still brilliant.)

One interesting thing about Rocky Horror is how many people who appeared in it moved on to bigger and better things. Susan Sarandon, who played Janet, had previously had some film roles and was in soap operas before appearing in the movie. Right after, she was in a movie with Robert Redford, then was Brooke Shields’ mother in Pretty Baby before her breakout role-and first Academy Award nomination—in Atlantic City. She became a huge star, acting in major movies, on stage and on TV. She has won an Oscar, for her role in Dead Man Walking, and has been honored for her political activism.

Her movie fiancé, Brad, was played by Barry Bostwick, a theater actor who had a Tony nomination as the original Danny Zuko in Grease. Rocky Horror was his first film, and he has gone on to a long, busy career as a character actor on TV (maybe most famously as Mayor Randall Winston in Spin City), in films and on stage.

Tim Curry, who played Dr. Frank-N-Furter, was in the original London cast of Hair before being cast as the lead in the stage play The Rocky Horror Show. The film version was Curry’s first movie role. Afterwards, Curry had a successful career on stage, in both London and on Broadway, in movies and on TV, as well as releasing three albums as a musician.

Nell Campbell, who was Columbia, ended up as a well-known night club owner and restauranteur.

Meatloaf, who played the small part of Eddie, released an album that sold 43 million copies. Something about a bat.

This all is to contrast with the career of the guy who made the Rocky Horror phenomenon possible, Richard O’Brien, who created and wrote the play—music, book and lyrics—and collaborated on the screenplay with the movie’s director, Jim Sharman. (Interesting side notes—O’Brien, an unemployed actor, wrote the play, and showed a draft to Sharman, who had directed him in the original London production of Jesus Christ, Superstar. Sharman decided to direct a small production of the play, then called They Came from Denton High, in a 60-seat theater. The second night audience included Jonathan King, who had discovered Genesis and produced their first album. King produced the original cast recording in 48 hours and rushed it out.) O’Brien, despite writing a few more plays and acting in some mostly cult movies, never repeated the fluke success of Rocky Horror. His greatest fame came as an eccentric game show host in England in the 1990s (from which he was replaced by Edward Tudor-Pole, of the band Tenpole Tudor). O’Brien has been, however, memorialized with a statue of his Rocky Horror character, Riff-Raff, in New Zealand, where he spent much of his youth.

The song, the third in the movie, is performed by Sarandon, Bostwick and O’Brien, and it uses the light in the Frankenstein Place, as a symbol of hope for the stranded Brad and Janet. Little did they know what was in store.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

LIGHT: There's a light, a certain kind of light.......

Yes, you got it, "that always shines on me", fab 60s BeeGee perennial, that struck me as a better response to Andy's excellent Bruce piece below, which had automatically said Richard and Linda to me, before remembering that leads to darkness, and it is light we are celebrating. (Richard and Linda? Thompson? Must I talk you through everything? From "Shut out the light" it is one short step to"Shoot Out the Lights", oui?)

So we are talking about this, from, unbelievably, 1967, the 2nd single from their debut LP. Written by Barry and Robin Gibb, it peaked at 17 in the US and 41 in the UK. And it is undoubtedly a cracking song, but the arrangement? Well, let's say it was 48 years ago...........

So here's a whizz-band hurtle through some other versions that may, or not, have passed you by.

 First off, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Not on either of the first couple of studio LPs produced by the initial Gram Parsons fronted version of this possiblystillgoing (somewhere) band, this appeared on a compilation to commemorate their first break-up and the first few line-ups. I bought this as an incredulous teenager in the early 70s, shocked by the sheer country-ness of it. Lured in by the Byrds, they had seemed the logical next step, but it took me a while to rationalise that against my standard rock fare of the day. It was this song, however, that sealed it, the aching plaintiveness of the vocal stripping the sinew from my unsullied heart, in preparation for the adult world of let down and regret. As well as underlining what a piece of songcraft was the original.

Next, it's Nina Simone, and I confess I was a whole lot older before I could handle her spiky charm. I guess this arrangement hasn't dated that well, but that isn't the point, as she imbues the song with her smoky jaunt, suggesting a devil may care acceptance that doesn't, even for a moment, convince. (I would love to hear this cover covered by Me'Shell Ndegeocello, but it sadly wasn't on her Nina tribute of a few years back, not that I will let such a situation prevent me from promoting it!)

Finally a reggae-lite version by one-time Bronski Beat-er and Communard, Jimmy Somerville. In truth it is a slight interpretation, shown really to display his unusual and exquisite vocal range. And I like the video. And, if I'm not mistaken, it is Sarah-Jane Morris singing alongside him, whose lower register perfectly complements, if somewhat counter-intuitively.

So no room, I am afraid, for the version by Michael Bolton or Micky Bubbles. (In my book there is never any room for Micky Bubbles.........) Hope you enjoyed. And, Me'shell, if you are reading(!), how about a volume 2?

Find 'em all:
Bee Gees
and Jimmy

(Oh, OK and Me'shell)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Light: Shut Out the Light

Bruce Springsteen, "Shut out the Light"

Originally a B-side to “Born in the USA” but only widely available once 1998’s Tracks was released, “Shut Out the Light” was kind of the Bigfoot of Springsteen songs: many had heard about it, few had actually heard it.

It’s a beautiful, sparse song, with a haunted protagonist and Springsteen does his best storytelling here: imagistic, but short on expository details. The ghosts of the Viet Nam War, drug addiction, and PTSD hang over this short, sad tale, though Springsteen never names any of those problems by name. He lets image, and sensory detail paint a picture of a man who just can’t find his way back home.

The story is perfect in the small details that paint a Hemingwayesque picture where what little is shown is enough to create a much greater picture: the welcome home banner hanging over the door, the newly polished chrome on the protagonists old car, his wife worrying about how she will look after all this time—“Shut Out the Lights” is a moving portrait of a lost soul and a terribly sad song. There is no hope, there is no triumphant, driving percussion or striding keyboards here as there is on the A-side. “Born in the USA” is an angry assertion of the will, a protest, but in the end, the protagonist of that song is never going to give in. The line that declares “I’m a cool rockin’ Daddy in the USA, now” sounds odd, corny in a way, but that always struck me as a way of saying, ‘I might be beat, but I’m not done.”  In fat the whole song is about getting up, no matter how many times you get kicked. “Shut Out the Light” ends with no such declaration.

The song ends with the protagonist in a forest, staring at a flowing cold, dark river and the lights of a city in the distance, dreaming of where he’s been. There is no expression of freedom or the will to overcome what he’s seen—he simply repeats the request to keep the lights on, and to be held. The obvious specter here is a drug problem, though it’s never dealt with directly. That is one of the aspects of the song that make it so touching: we don’t know what is really wrong, but neither does the poor lost soul whose story we are hearing.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Light: Harbor Lights

Frances Langford: Harbor Lights


Boz Scaggs: Harbor Lights


Bruce Hornsby: Harbor Lights


Think of the song Harbor Lights, and you may think of versions by The Platters, Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, or Guy Lombardo, to name a few. Whoever you think of, you will be thinking of one of the corniest and sappiest songs ever written, one I had no intention of posting. The song tells of a weeping lover lamenting a lost love who has sailed away to sea. In the original recording by Frances Langford, from 1937, the song is song by a woman, and it becomes clear that the departed lover is a sailor who has proved faithless. Versions sung by men make no sense to me, but the song is inescapable throughout pop music history. In putting this post together, I realized that one does not call a song Harbor Lights without dealing with the original cornball classic in some way.

Boz Scaggs responded with a new song called Harbor Lights. There is a sly reference to the original in a line about an old song on the juke box. Scaggs is offended by the earlier song on behalf of the male half of the human race. His song says we men are not horrible like that. His narrator is a sailor who is faithful, and looks forward eagerly to returning to his lover.

Bruce Hornsby‘s reaction is more radical. He rejects the entire setup, and says, “No, this is not at all what harbor lights evoke for me.” There is no question of faithfulness in his song. Instead there is the rush of a new romance, with its powerful sense of infinite possibility. Hornsby‘s song is both a literal and figurative statement. It was the title track to the first album Hornsby recorded as a solo artist, after three with the Range. More importantly, it was Hornsby‘s first album after spending time as a member of the Grateful Dead. The Range albums are fine, but here Hornsby cuts loose for the first time. The songs add a jazz flavor, and they lengthen to allow the musicians to stretch out with solos. The guitar solos here are by guest Pat Metheny, and Jerry Garcia appears elsewhere on the album. Hornsby is celebrating his newfound freedom from traditional pop song forms, and he is invoking and rebutting one of the hoariest examples of traditional pop to do so.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Light: I Am The Light of The World

Rev. Gary Davis: I Am The Light of the World

Many people just listen to music as background noise, or something to sing or dance to, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But those of us who consider music a hobby, or an obsession, aren’t satisfied with that. We investigate. We try to learn more about the songs and the artists we love, and in that effort are often rewarded with deeper knowledge. Or, at least, more knowledge. Much of what I know about the blues comes from investigating covers by musicians that I already knew, and that is consistent with the blues tradition of artists learning traditional songs, or original songs (or original songs thought to be traditional) from recordings or performances by others.

I first became aware of Rev. Gary Davis through listening to Jorma Kaukonen’s performances of his music, solo and with Hot Tuna. And I learned about Davis’ influential finger-picking style that had an impact on Jorma, and others, including Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, David Bromberg, and many, many more. I learned that he was born in South Carolina in 1896, was blind since infancy, and was an actual Baptist minister. That he played and recorded music into the 1940s to niche success. But that the folk and blues revival of the 1950s and 1960s catapulted him to greater fame, performances at the Newport and other folk festivals, and led to covers of the songs he wrote or popularized by popular artists. I learned that Davis generously taught many of these younger musicians how to play in his style, and his songs, and that he died on the way to a gig in New Jersey in 1972. And I discovered that while many of Davis’ songs were religious, he also wrote secular songs.

“I Am The Light of The World” is a religious song, based on the Gospels, and steeped in his faith. I’m not a religious person, in the sense of believing in a god or anything like that, but I do believe that humans have an obligation to try to do right by each other and, in the best of situations, help each other to do right. And while I suspect that Reverend Davis would disagree with me in the particulars, I think that he would, ultimately, focus more on the deeds than the beliefs.

Now, I am far from perfect. I’ve committed all seven of the deadly sins, and more of the less lethal ones, over my lifetime. Not to mention, I’m a lawyer. But one thing that I am comfortable in putting on the good side of my personal ledger is my 20 years as a volunteer with AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization, which I have written about before. We are a soccer organization, but one that tries to focus more on enriching children’s lives than a team’s won-loss record. For a number of years, I have been involved in training volunteers in management—not only the nuts and bolts of running a program, but in the AYSO way of doing things.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to help instruct at Regional Commissioner training. RCs, as we call them, are the leaders of local programs. I was one back at the turn of the century, and it was one of the most important things that I have ever done. RCs work incredibly hard, spend countless hours making sure everything is done right, and are all volunteers, as are all of the board members who help the RC, and all of the coaches and most of the referees. People say that it is a “thankless task,” but I found that many people thanked me, and in turn I tried to thank all of the RCs who followed me, and all of the other volunteers, not only explicitly, but by continuing to assist the organization locally and nationally.

A few years ago, pressed by some very smart and committed staff and volunteers, AYSO decided to put together a weekend of training for RCs from around the country, usually at its office in California. The weekends are instructional, but they are more. They create relationships, act as therapy sessions (there are tears!), and help the RCs, some who are brand new, and even others with experience, recognize the support that they have both from the staff and the volunteers around the country. And the constant message is that it is the RCs’ mission to provide a good environment for the kids, and a positive experience for the volunteers. It is an inspirational weekend, not only for the students, but for the instructors as well. I got to see a group of nearly 40 strangers, from all over the country, with different racial, educational and financial backgrounds, varying political beliefs and very diverse lives, bond, learn, interact, socialize, act crazy, marvel at magic tricks, and, at the end, have an enormous group hug as a new AYSO family.

What does this have to do with our theme, and this song? Each of the RCs who were trained at this session will go back home, to Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, all over the hand that is Michigan, Nevada, California, Tennessee and Hawaii, and be the light of their soccer worlds, and bring the light into the lives of thousands of children. And when those kids’ smiles light up their faces, into the lives of their parents.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I never knew why this guy wasn't huge. At this point I should point out I had no inkling of any earlier career, nor had even heard of the Youngbloods in 1974, which was when I first heard this song and it's parent LP of the same name. And it was a revelation. Bear in mind this was the time and the year of Van Morrison's seminal live album, "It's Too Late to Stop Now" and this seemed to come from a similar place, at least in instrumentation and timbre. Sure, the vocal couldn't be more different, but it fitted the jazzy tinge of reed-led swing redolent throughout the first side of the record. Sadly, at least for me, he never again found that peak again, with even side 2 being somewhat lack-lustre by comparison. But, o my goodness, for those 20 minutes or so, if that, this was one light that lit up my life. And still does.

Possessor of one of the moustaches in modern music, Young was born the somewhat more prosaic Perry Miller in New York, where he was a school contemporary of Art Garfunkel. Before the Youngbloods, he had already produced his first couple of solo discs, before their brief window, peaking with a top 5 hit, "Get Together" in 1969, with a subsequent return to a solo career, give or take the odd re-union. I mention them for two reasons, one because the song in this piece actually had an earlier incarnation on their 1971 release, "Good 'n' Dusty", barely a shadow of its later self. The second is merely to mention the name of fellow group member, one Lowell "Banana" Levinger, which is, um, certainly a memorable one. I can't seem to find any reference as to why, which may be a relief.

No messing with downloads, this time buy the whole thing, even if you only listen to the first "side".

Monday, April 13, 2015

Light: Dancing in the Moonlight

Buy Toploader: Dancing in the Moonlight
Buy Harvest King: Dancing in the Moonlight

Light it is, this theme around.

If you're going to classify your lights, moonlight is possibly the most romantic of all lights, closely followed by firelight, candlelight - and some folks  would include firefly light. And if you are going to classify your hits, you might take a moment to consider why King Harvest is not remembered for the original version, but TopLoader is for theirs.

I won't lay claim to being a great fan of these guys: TopLoader, but that won't stop me from promoting this song for our theme, either. In fact, (probably like you) all I know about them is that they have this one hit song. But I will give them kudos for coming out with this. Note: not coming up with, but *coming out* with it: although they are the band best remembered for the song, it isn't their composition: it belongs to King Harvest (who?!?) However, like them or not, (their version of) the song is catchy - and that's probably why it became more popular than the King Harvest original. For that matter, it strikes me that it isn’t all that unlike some other songs that took someone to the big time (Please, Please Me &c) in relation to the lack of depth of its lyrics.

Harvest King

Of course, there are many ways to rank your musical preferences other than "best" or "original" - and even then, you are walking a thin line in calling *your* definition of best/original the same as other people's! I recall a t-shirt I bought in the 60s that said "Cool is as cool does" - and I guess that applies here. Harvest King wrote a decent song, TopLoader made it "cool".

To the extent that SMM aims to enlighten its audience, let me add a hidden gem in the way of a version that you would be unlikely to run across unless you followed my "trail". To me, this clip is so, so typical of what it means to be on the stage as an amateur musician: acceptably competent, but everyone just walks and talks right past them. Make your own comparisons: "tightness" of the band, showmanship, backup vocals …what else is it that makes a song/a band a hit?

For that matter, The Rolling Stones' Moonlight Mile (a totally different genre/emotion) is equally a best as a "moonlight" song, n'est ce pas?

Light: The Inner Light

    The first George Harrison song to appear on a Beatles single is also the last Beatles era George Harrison song inspired by his interest in Indian music. 

   A B-side to "Lady Madonna", "The Inner Light" was recorded in first in  India and then at Abbey Road. The Mumbai musicians were among the same ones involved with Harrison's Wonderwall soundtrack.

    Back in England, on February 6, 1968, with Lennon and McCartney offering encouragement,  a nervous George sang the lyrics in a dimly lit studio decked out in incense and lit candles. They were inspired by Poem 47 of the Tao Te Ching by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
 Without looking out your window,
 you can see the essence of the Tao.

 The more you know,
 the less you understand.

 The Master arrives without leaving,
 sees the light without looking,
achieves without doing a thing.

 Two days later, Lennon and McCartney overdubbed some background vocals ( heard at 2:18) and completed the mono mix. Ringo doesn't appear on the song On February 6. He was performing on Cilla Black's live BBC show Cilla.