Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Water/Wet: Dirty Water

The Inmates: Dirty Water

Over at my other blogging home, we periodically contribute to “Q&As,” where the editor poses a question, and the staff responds. One of the questions was, “What was a song that you didn’t know was a cover?” and I wrote about Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring of Fire.” Back in the pre-Internet days, it was not always easy to learn musical factoids like whether a song was a cover or not, especially if it was a relatively obscure song. Unless you heard the original, or heard a radio DJ mention it, you had to rely on word of mouth, or reading something in a magazine or book. Seems pretty damn quaint, doesn’t it?

As I have mentioned before, starting to work at WPRB in 1979 was not only a huge thing in my musical life, but has influenced my whole life. And having access to the massive, somewhat annotated, record library, and other musical obsessives to talk about music with definitely increased my musical knowledge, but there were, and still are, many gaps.

When I first heard the Inmates’ song, “Dirty Water” when it was released in 1979, I immediately liked its raw energy. It was clearly a retro-garage band sound, with a bit of early Stones, and it was, it seemed, about the dirty water of the Thames and London. I remember playing it pretty often, never once mentioning that it was, in fact, a cover of a song by the Standells, which was about the Charles River and Boston. Because I had no idea that it was a cover. Here’s the original.

Frankly, I have no idea when I learned that, probably when I heard it played on the radio somewhere, and it clicked in. And look, in my defense, it wasn’t like the original was a big hit. It was released in 1965, ran up the charts, peaking at #8 and pretty much faded away, except maybe in Boston, where I am not from, and have never lived, although it later became acknowledged as a seminal rock song.

The Standells were from Los Angeles, and the song is actually not particularly positive toward its subject city. (A few trivia asides—The leader of the Standells was Larry Tamblyn, the younger brother of actor Russ Tamblyn, who was, among other things, Riff in the movie version of West Side Story and Dr. Lawrence Jacoby in Twin Peaks. Lead singer Dick Dodd was a former Mouseketeer who was a dancer in the movie version of Bye Bye Birdie. For brief periods, Dewey Martin, later of Buffalo Springfield, and Lowell George, later of Little Feat, were in the band. And they appeared on The Munsters.)

According to the Internet, despite the negative references in the song about the bad water, frustrated women and crime, including a Strangler, in Boston, the Boston Bruins, a team I don’t root for in a sport that I barely follow, began playing the Standells’ version in 1991, 1997 or 2007, depending on what you read (and there are probably other cites, too, but I got bored looking). The Red Sox, a team that I sort of like, mostly because they are the sworn enemies of the Yankees, also started playing the song, as did the somewhat deflating New England Patriots and the Celtics, who I haven’t liked since the late 1960s.

This has led to a revival of interest in the song, and it has become often covered (and stolen—the Buffalo Sabres play a version substituting the Niagara River). Boston based Celtic punks Dropkick Murphys, big sports fans themselves, cover the song, as has former Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo, a fair rocker in his own right. Other bands often play it it when appearing in the city, including local boys Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, who, as you might be aware, is from New Jersey, Dave Matthews Band and Steely Dan.

Although the Inmates had a minor hit with their cover, and have continued to record and tour to this day, I've never heard from them again.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Wet/Water: P.J.Harvey

So then, how wet is the "Dry" hit maker? Well, quite a bit really, not least with this track on the aforesaid LP. OK, call it contrived, but there is quite a shower (sorry) of songs pertaining to this increasingly unclassifiable English singer-songwriter.

Always effortlessly quirky in both look and deed, Polly Jean was, just, a child of the 60s, a decade her parents seems to have partaken to the fill, introducing her to the joys of blues, Beefheart and Bob Dylan from an early age. Hailing from the english west country, with the accent to boot, she started her musical life as a member of local musical collective, Automatic Dlamini, with whom, astonishingly, she played saxophone. But it wasn't until she peeled off to form her own trio that she became better known, again, as is so often the tale, through the support of maverick radio DJ, John Peel, a frequently namecheck in these pieces. Indeed, it was he, by chance, as guest reviewer in  venerable inky, New Musical Express, who gave her debut single, 'Dress' the status of single of the week. As a response and reaction to that, she played a session for his radio show, which included a live version of the song featured above, 'Water'.

Aware of her name, it wasn't really until her 3rd LP that I really pricked up my ears. Or maybe eyes, as this stunning footage from Glastonbury demonstrates, as she more fully embraces an evanescent theatrical sexuality into her persona. And a much wider sonic landscape:

Ostensibly leaving her band behind her, she then both explored her career as lead name and in collaborations, musically and romantically, notably a liaison, of both hues, with Nick Cave, whose 'The Boatman's Call' is said to be based on their time, which adds yet another watery element to the mix. Her next record was 2000's 'Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea', which is as wet as I can reference here, but is a gorgeous song, featuring the additional vocal of Radiohead-er, Thom Yorke:

Well into her stride, despite or because the accolades accruing, it seemed time to alter the template, which she did with a vengeance, 2007's 'White Chalk' being near entirely piano based, if anything bleaker and starker than her scrubbed and sparse guitar. And whilst I can't find any moisture within the songtitles, let me indulge myself otherwise by offering the fact that one Flood is a co-producer. And play the standout track, end-piece, "The Mountain":

To come nearly as far up to date as her recorded output allows, here's a short film, made by Seamus Murphy, to accompany 'The Last Living Rose', a modern folk song, or I think it is, from 2011's 'Let England Shake', a truthfully groundshaking record, made during the height of the Afghan conflict, within a nation divided as to the legality and provenance of said warfare. For many the album of her career, and certainly, in many publications, the album of that year. (Yes, and it is her playing the saxophone.)

Never an easy listen, oft compared to a harpy or to a banshee, Harvey continues to challenge, continues to apply her music with an astringent tongue, lashing all into hearing her voice. With all of us mainly water, she seems saltier and more bitter than most. Go seek and rummage here, for what flotsam and jetsam she has left in her wake........

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Wedding: Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro: Wedding Bell Blues
[purchase Wedding Bell Blues]

When we first posited the Wedding theme, it seemed a natural that this song be included. It has the theme word in the title (score one for me). It was the first song that came to mind when I considered "Wedding" as a theme.

The Interweb notes that the song is somewhat autobiographical - one generation removed: apparently Nyro's (aka Laura Bianchini) aunt had a relationship with a "William", and there is a story about waiting for him to propose that pumped the lyrical content. Hard to believe she wrote the song at age 18.

Music critics more expert than myself note her vocal range in addition to her song writing skill. As I listen to the song again, I am struck by the great back vocal work on the song. Nyro had great vocal range - her backup vocals team bring it out.

That said, the song - to me - transcends 1966 - the year she penned the song. That's the year we had such hits as "Wild Thing" and "I am a Rock".

Nyro never realized the same status as others who covered her songs, probably most famously, The 5th Dimension. However, she did get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame back in 2012. She's not only the author of "Wedding Bell Blues," but also of "Stoned Soul Picnic," again, a 5th Dimension major hit. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wedding: Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day Album


I’ve written about the Drive-By Truckers many times, maybe more than any other band, in part because they are one of my favorites, and, I think, in part because their songs tend to be about unusual topics, lending themselves to discussion on a theme-based blog such as this.

That the Decoration Day album was my gateway drug to the Truckers was discussed in a prior post, but in thinking about the Wedding theme, it struck me that many of the songs on the album, in some way, related to weddings, or at least, to marriage or getting married, which is close enough. And I’m not even going to get into the fact that at least three of the songs on the album were written by Patterson Hood in reaction to the breakdown of his marriage.

Decoration Day starts off with “The Deeper In,” which is about Patty and Allen Muth, who were, at the time, the only couple in the United States who were imprisoned for consensual sibling incest. Which sounds pretty bad, but there are many extenuating circumstances, not the least of which was that because their own parents were pretty awful people who lost their own parental rights, the couple at issue never met until Patty was 18 years old. They held themselves out as married, although they weren’t, and had four children, who were taken from them. You can read an article about them that was in Esquire magazine here (Hood changed the location from Wisconsin to Michigan in the song to make the last line rhyme better). Following the United States Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas striking down homosexual sodomy laws, Allen Muth appealed his conviction, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed his suit based on a narrow, and criticized, interpretation of Lawrence as being limited only to homosexual sodomy cases. Coincidentally, Allen Muth was, for most of his working life, a long haul trucker. Here’s a live version of the song recorded in Louisville: in 2010.

The fourth song on Decoration Day is “Marry Me,” one of the band’s best rockers. Written by Mike Cooley, it is filled with the clever wordplay that makes his songs so much fun. It’s hard to pick a favorite. There are the opening lines:

Well, my daddy didn’t pull out, but he never apologized
Rock and Roll means well, but it can’t help tellin’ young boys lies. 

Or the end of the second verse:

There’s a fool on every corner, on every street, in every one
and I’d rather be your fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one's 

 Or the last line before the final chorus:

Just cause I don’t run my mouth don’t mean I got nothing to say.

According to Cooley, the song was inspired by a friend who, during sex, yelled out the name of a former girlfriend, Mary, and, thinking quickly, changed it to “Marry me.”

Here’s a version of the song recorded in the band’s hometown, Athens, Georgia in 2013, at the actual wedding of Jenn Bryant, long-time member of the extended DBT family.

Finally, “My Sweet Annette,” tells the tale of Hood’s great uncle (not the same one he wrote about in “The Sands of Iwo Jima”) who ditched his betrothed, Annette, at a pre-wedding party and eloped with the maid of honor, Marilee. In the song, Hood provides some moral ambiguity—his uncle and Marilee never intended to hurt Annette, but, as the song notes, Lord have mercy when two people get alone, and you can sense the guilt he had in leaving Sweet Annette . . . standing at the altar.

This version of the song, recorded in 2012 in Gainesville, includes fiddle from Scott Danborn, of Centro-Matic, who played on the album track.

O.K. One more—Jason Isbell, who joined the Truckers in time to contribute two possibly perfect songs to Decoration Day, released his first solo album in 2007, after leaving the band. That album, Sirens of the Ditch included a song, “Shotgun Wedding,” that begs to be included here. It is, reportedly, about a creepy acquaintance of Isbell’s who liked pregnant women.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Wedding: When A Man Loves A Woman

Percy Sledge: When A Man Loves A Woman

Last week, I went to a cocktail party celebrating the wedding of my wife’s cousin. It was unusual, in part because the bride and groom were in their mid-40s and getting married for the first time. Also, they aren’t going to be living together, at least not right away. Having been married for less than a month, the bride remarked to me that she found married life easy, and didn’t understand why people complained about it. I’ll assume that she was making a joke, because she’s a very smart woman. My only advice to her, speaking as someone who has been happily married for more than a quarter century, was that she should make sure that her husband was her best friend.

Which made me think about the fact that my wife, who is my best friend, and I have had incredible role models. Both of our parents have been happily married to their best friends for decades, and it is a rare thing these days for kids like mine to have parents and two sets of grandparents who are still married. The conventional wisdom is that 50% of marriages end with divorces, but that statistic is actually outdated and inflated. A recent article in the New York Times reported that the divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since. The article noted:

About 70 percent of marriages that began in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary (excluding those in which a spouse died), up from about 65 percent of those that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Those who married in the 2000s are so far divorcing at even lower rates. If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.

So, maybe my potential grandchildren will not see a similar spate of divorces, which I think is a good thing, because of the reasons why couples are staying together (for the most part, not for religious reasons or fear of disapproval).

There are many things that I remember about my wedding, which, I remember to have been a fun party. First, how beautiful my soon-to-be wife was. Second, it was hot. Very hot, but she didn’t seem to sweat. Third, how I had not a single moment of “cold feet” (and not because, as I may have mentioned, it was hot). And I remember the first dance (to the extent I actually “danced”) with my wife to this great love song by Percy Sledge, who sadly passed away recently. (By the way, the original version of the song was re-recorded because the horns were out of tune. But the revised version was, through an error, not released, so the hit song is apparently flawed. I can’t tell, but I’m a drummer).

For some reason, over the years, my wife has commented to me about how she would have done things differently at our wedding if she was doing it today. And I get it, because our tastes and situations and attitudes have changed, but it always seemed to me to be a waste of time to think about it. What’s done is done, and we enjoyed it then. Interestingly, though, I don’t think that she said she regretted picking this song. Because it really is about a man loving a woman, and not vice versa. Not to mention, most of the lyrics are about the love-besotted singer overlooking the woman’s bad behavior. And if you know my wife, you know that she is a true feminist, so it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had reconsidered that choice.

But it is a soulful love song, and I agree with its first lines:

When a man loves a woman 
Can't keep his mind on nothing else 
He'll trade the world 
For the good thing he's found 

Another memorable thing about our wedding was the toast given by the maid of honor, the very same cousin whose cocktail party we attended last week. As I have previously discussed, , my wife and her cousin traveled up to Connecticut for the wedding a few days before I did. It was during one of the hottest stretches ever recorded to that point in the Northeast, and the two of them sang together in the car. I believe (and I didn’t mention this the last time) that they had car trouble, making the fact that one of the songs they sang, R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” very appropriate. Her cousin worked the song into the toast, and last week, my wife returned the favor in her toast. So, here, as a bonus, is the other song that reminds me of my wedding. And it is a video, uploaded to YouTube by the record label, not a link, because the last time, I got in trouble.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


"there lived a lady in Scotland
o my love, o my love
there lived a lady in Scotland
o my love so early
there lived a lady in Scotland
she's fallen in love with an Englishman
bonnie Susie Clelland's to be married in Dundee"

And there you were, thinking that fireworks were clearly as part of the marriage nuptials as they are now.

Sadly I can not reveal that the above story ended well. In this week after a United (!) Kingdom general election, wherein 56 of 59 available seats in Scotland went to the would-be separatist Scottish National Party, perhaps it is no surprise that an Anglo-Scottish liason could or should end in tears. Based on a traditional folk song, this was a highpoint of 1990s "Freedom and Rain", a groundbreaking album bringing together progressive folk-rockers, Oysterband, with the doyenne of a more austere and frosty folk tradition, June Tabor. I have mentioned the former before, but Ms Tabor might need some introduction. Lauded by Elvis Costello: "If you can't appreciate June Tabor, you should just stop listening to music," she has proven herself to be a potent and original force within the traditional folk movement of the UK. Stirred into action by hearing the work of Anne Briggs (herself worthy of greater recognition and a piece on this site) in 1965, she has been an active and acclaimed singer now for 40 years, with 12 solo recordings, and many a collaboration, gradually introducing a chamber jazz sensibility into her interpretations. Her style has seemed sometimes a little severe, with a stark beauty, so it was a refreshing surprise to see her letting down her hair with the Oysterband, to produce, for each of them, their best-selling record, a trick later repeated again, 21 years later, with "Ragged Kingdom," folk album of the year in 2011, as judged by UK World Music magazine FROOTS (originally Folk Roots).

I love this song, the combination between the churning beat, evoking horseback, and the clinical vocal, underpinned by cello and violin, easily surpassing an earlier version by the band alone, on 1985's "Liberty Hall," when they were a very different proposition, yet to introduce the sin of drums, shock, horror, echoes of Dylan in 66, to their traditional canon. (Unfortunately I can't find this on YouTube.) But, as the story progresses, so too does the chorus, as it becomes clear that maybe the arrangements may yet be subject a hotter outcome than originally anticipated.....

"there lived a lady in Scotland
o my love, o my love
there lived a lady in Scotland
o my love so early
there lived a lady in Scotland
she's fallen in love with an Englishman
bonnie Susie Clelland's to be buried in Dundee"

Lest all this tragedy has spoilt your day, let me cheer you up with a perhaps more typical wedding, this time successful, at least on the day. Again this is Oysterband, and it reminds me of both of mine:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Darkness: Only After Dark


   OK: Here's a tune you'll want to play for anyone who comes near your computer today.

   After leaving David Bowie's band, the great glam rocking guitarist Mick Ronson released his first solo album, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, in February of 1974. The album features a cover of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" and the instrumental title track with Aladdin Sane pianist Mike Garson on the ivories, and one stunning song that outdoes anything Bowie put out in 1974: "Only After Dark".

The album reached Top 10 in the UK.