Saturday, April 21, 2018

Jokes, Pranks & Fools: What A Fool ...

purchase [What a Fool ..]

Fools abound. Make your pick.

Your perception of the fool may range from the benign to the malevolent - no names mentioned.

Praise be, you have a wide selection to choose from. You can start at the low end of the chart with your least favorite SMM blogger or move all the way up to your least favorite Tweeter -  your choice. Especially in the Internet age -the fool  just types away - often without considering th repercussuions. Once done, your foolishness might as well be everywhere.

My choice of the Doobie Brothers. .. Doobie... a what?

I wonder if I would have chosen that as my band's name? Maybe so? Maybe not. Maybe they  wanted to make a statement 40+ years ago. Maybe they weren't such a bunch of fools,because they saw the future of the doobie.

Heck .. I don't know ... but doobie people are generally portryed as ... well ... fools who are wasting their lives.

But compared to you and me, Jeff Baxter, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and the rest wouldn't be portayed as wasting their lives away - doobies aside or not.

Song written by M McDonald and K Loggins.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


It is astonishing to believe the video above and the one below are the same singer, separated, as they are, by nearly three decades. And more so that the first one represented the band, the Bee Gees, then already in their first stride, a full decade before they became near ubiquitous for disco falsettos and windblown hair. In this, their first heyday, they were producing intelligent and sensitive ballads, often, as this, with quirky lyrics that actually are worthy of some thought. Perhaps also astonishing is the fact that the 2nd clip (below), is itself already two decades old, the band now well into their post Saturday night Fever zeitgeist, able to call on songs from all their careers. Now I am no fan of their 70s fame and fortune, only with the passage of enough time able and willing to admit I was a fan of theirs, as a boy, in the 60s. Indeed, I remember singing this very song, into a hairbrush, standing on my bed, for the benefit of my cohort of fellow school chums. (Yup, dormitory days in the UK private school system.......) Robin Gibb, for it is he, was always my top Bee Gee. He always seemed to have a little more grit than his brothers Barry and Maurice, escaping them for a brief moment in '69 through '70, with his solo hit, 'Saved by the Bell', another part of my youthful repertoire.

Joke was the 2nd single from the 1968 album 'Idea', and went top ten across most markets. Written by all three brothers, it was primarily a vocal showpiece for Robin, who described it as a "very spiritual song". Big brother Barry was a bit less serious, citing it as an example of how you could write almost anything in those psychedelic days and then someone would be able to find a meaning for it. It was possibly peak period for their early career as, although they continued to produce a stream of fairly successful records thereon, they were ultimately beginning to fade from view until 1975's Jive Talking'. Which was my cue to lose interest.

Over the years the song has popped up in a number of cover versions, often prompted by film soundtracks. Most well known, perhaps, have been the ones by Faith No More and by Low. My favourite, sneaking out on a single b-side, was by The Beautiful South, the quirky and melodic band fronted by Paul Heaton, who lightened up the UK charts in the 90s and noughties. 

Barry Gibb remains the only living brother Gibb, Robin having died in 2012, aged 62, 9 years after his twin brother Maurice. It seems only now that the majesty of their first decade seems to be rising to the top of their canon. 'Odessa', from 1969, is now seen as a masterpiece to go alongside the Beatles' 
'Sgt Pepper'. If that is the case, 'Idea', with the track here featured, must surely be a 'Revolver'.

Look for an 'Idea'.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jokes, Pranks & Fools: Fooled Around And Fell In Love

Elvin Bishop: Fooled Around And Fell In Love

I really wanted to write about a prank, but the only two musical pranks that I could think of were “Paul is Dead,” which would require essentially regurgitating the stuff that I linked to in this, and “Rickrolling,” which I really don’t find interesting. I also thought about going to the Monty Python well again, but decided against it. But this is a good song, by an artist that I’ve never written about, so here we go.

Elvin Bishop has had a long career as a blues guitarist, after he decided not to finish his degree in physics at the University of Chicago and join the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1963. He formed his own band in the 70s, and had a minor hit with the song “Travelin’ Shoes,” from an album on the Allman Brothers’ label, Capricorn Records, that featured contributions from Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels, and Sly Stone, among others. The follow up to that album was almost finished, but the producer said that they needed one more song. Bishop suggested “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” but they were all unhappy with the way Bishop’s vocals sounded. In all of the interviews that I’ve read about the song, Bishop is incredibly self-deprecating about his voice, which he considers to be average, at best—although he believes that this has forced him to write better songs.

Bishop suggested that his backup singer, Mickey Thomas, who he acknowledged had an incredible voice, give it a whirl, and rock and roll history was made. “Fooled Around” was a #3 hit on the Billboard charts, and has been a staple on FM radio, and on soundtracks, maybe most notably Guardians of the Galaxy. It is also regularly covered.

After that, Mickey Thomas left Bishop’s band, tried some solo work, and became the lead singer of Jefferson Starship, recording one pretty good album, and a series of less good albums, ultimately (after litigation) dropping the “Jefferson” and recording something that is regularly on lists of the worst song ever recorded. (My Cover Me piece here links to a couple of such lists). Interestingly, the drummer on “Fooled Around,” Donny Baldwin, later also joined Jefferson Starship, but in 1989, in Scranton, PA, he attacked Thomas, who needed reconstructive surgery. Attacking your lead singer is generally a bad idea, and Baldwin was fired, but as history has shown, the Airplane/Starship revolving door is always turning, and Baldwin rejoined a Mickey Thomas-less version of the band in 2008.

Bishop, on the other hand, returned to the relative obscurity of the blues world, continuing to record and tour both as a leader and sideman. When he performs the song these days, he either does it as an instrumental, or with his background singers stepping forward—and occasionally with Thomas. (who also performed the song with Starship). He’s had a couple of Grammy nominations, in the Best Traditional Blues Album category, losing out to B.B. King and The Rolling Stones (no shame there), and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And, one can assume, Bishop continues to cash royalty checks for “Fooled Around,” demonstrating that he is nobody’s fool.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018


And, indeed, those who bought this as a single, in it's first incarnation, in 1978, could indeed be deemed as potential fools if they then thought the tousle-haired soul-lite balladeer would still be at it a full 40 years later. Number 12 in the U.S. Billboard chart that year, with 3 weeks at the top of the (do they still call it that) Adult Contemporary Chart, bagging a grammy the following year. That was his peak stateside, but he has gone on to have a number of careers in different markets, different genres even, as the years have rolled by. Ironically, for what he states is still his only song not performed on the guitar, he was pitched headlong into the Elton John/Billy Joel marketplace, a place he has never quite fitted. When the next 2 or 3 albums flopped, he was dropped.

Not that you could tell from the featured song, his first love was actually the blues, the real delta bottleneck variety, Charlie Patton through  Howlin' Wolf. Born in Middlesborough, in England's industrial north east, his first band was alongside later rock screecher David Coverdale. Rea only began to sing when the singer failed to show for a gig. In some debt to his record company, he then had a surprise hit in europe, I Can Hear Your Heart Beat, which displays his gradual transition into a (slightly) rockier style, albeit with a retained pop sensibility. Building on this momentum, he then toured constantly, gaining an especially big fanbase in Germany. His home country took a few years yet to catch his drift, with 1985's Shamrock Diaries, which broke him on the back of the success of the song  Stainsby Girls, a paean to the girls, his wife included, of his (Stainsby, north Derbyshire) youth. This is where I first caught sight of him, and remains my favourite of his songs. This album, and the next 2 each sold over a million and, buoyed by a run of further hit singles, finally allowed him to repay his initial advance to the record company of 10 years earlier.

It took his next album, New Light Through Old Windows, to break him back into the U.S. market. Then a relatively unusual step, now much more commonplace, this was the trick of re-reording and reprising his back-catalogue, principally the hits, thus gaining control of his own songbook. The 2nd version of Fool, above, is lifted from that and, whilst broadly similar, shows the more gravelly tones he is now more recognised by, with a little more oomph in the rhythm track. Singles found themselves back in the Adult Contemporary and, yay, finally the Rock Mainstream charts. (Who defines these genres?)

For several years he could do no wrong, albeit still a greater pull in Europe and the U.K., each record getting greater sales and accolade until the early to mid 90s. Whilst The Road to Hell gave him his biggest hit in 1989, an ill-conceived Part 2 a decade later, signed the end of this second wind. This was an unexpected foray into sax'n'electronica . The less said.

In 2001 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, an illness with a dire reputation that is generally well onto the killing of you before its discovery. He was lucky, caught early he had a Whipple's procedure, massive surgery to remove the pancreas and much of the gut, transforming you instantly into being dependent both on insulin and the need to take extra digestive enzymes to manage any sort of normal diet. Promising himself that, should he survive, he would espouse his more commercial persona and return to his blues roots, this is exactly what he has done. Setting up his own label and distribution, and often a sidesman and/or producer, allowing other musicians the limelight, he released a number of largely instrumental albums. building up to his major opus of 2005, Blue Guitars, an 11(!!) cd set featuring 137 tracks. Each disc covered a separate theme, to include Chicago blues, Texas blues, electric Memphis blues, country blues etc etc. (The featured selection is from electric Memphis blues. He also painted the cover.

Since then he has produced further and similarly ambitious pieces and tried to get back on the road, albeit dogged by poor health, suffering a stroke in 2016. At the time of writing his last tour remains unfinished, an onstage collapse in December 2017 possibly calling an end to any such further plans. But with all his luck, good and bad, you'd be a fool if you thought him over.......

Fill yer boots.......

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Steps and Stairs: "No Stairway. Denied!"

So, wait: we're doing a "steps and stairs" themed set here and no one's gonna talk about the most obvious choice there is? Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"?

Yeah, I get it--I wouldn't write about it, either. Given that the song is one of the biggest epics in the history of rock 'n roll, and growing up I think I heard it more than any other song, by many, many listens,  it's odd that "Stairway" has such an odious reputation.

Perhaps, as this great piece from GQ elucidates, we all hate "Stairway" because, like "Smoke on the Water", "Back in Black" or "Iron Man", it's the first song anyone learns to play and thus, not only did rock radio run the track on a near non-stop loop, every kid we've ever known who plays the guitar started by playing "Stairway" (well, the opening riff, at least). And made you listen as he fumbled and plucked his way through it. Over and over.

Or maybe, we just got tired of it, despite Led Zeppelin's best efforts to keep their music from being overexposed and overused. Zeppelin are famous for refusing licensing of their music, and from what I can recall, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and Jack Black's School Of Rock are but a tiny handful of films to feature a Zep tune. I suppose it's a question of integrity. Which is fine. Nothing wrong with trying to preserve the sacred in your artwork. This makes sense when you think about this: perhaps the band's greatest, or at least most monumental song is also their most maligned. I mean, we haven't reached "Mmmmbop" or "Boyfriend" levels of hatred, but if there is one joke about Led Zeppelin that persists, it's the "No Stairway" one. I know growing up, it was an absolute staple of the FM rock stations I listened to, and I easily heard it once a day, for many years in a row.  So, Led Zeppelin has tried to maintain some control where they can. The surviving  band members charge a lot of money to use their songs in movies (somewhere in the seven figures), if they relent at all, and have only recently been loosening up and allowing their music to be used. Hence, the famous little easter egg story of where I took the title of this post from: when Wayne goes to play "Stairway" in a scene from Wayne's World, the filmmakers were not allowed to use the actual song. They were allowed to use about three notes before they were in violation of the copyright, so what Wayne (Mike Myers) actually plays is in no way "Stairway." Yet, the scene illustrates the point: people love the song, but never really want to hear it again.

But, what I find funny is this: for as much ill will that  "Stairway" generates, it really is epic--I'd bet it's often the first "blow your mind" rock track young kids hear, and I'd bet on the odds that "Stairway" has been a stadium's worth of fans gateway song to a lifetime of rock music addiction. And it has the power and the majesty to continue to amaze those who are just coming to rock music. So, like anything we love and overuse, "Stairway to Heaven" will always be a song whose value and worth remain high, though the song itself will maintain a quiet presence. Dust it off every few years, but for the most part, let it rest.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - One Step Over the Line

purchase [One Step Over the Line]

<One Step Over the Line> is not to be confused with the better known <One Toke Over the Line> despite the fact that the syllabication and hence - to some extent the application to a musical format -is pretty similar.

The latter by Brewer and Shipley, the former by John Hiatt.

But the choice for the theme is John Hiatt (and Rosanne Cash) performing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

The Dirt Band first appeared mid 60's doing Mr Bojangles among other pieces. And then they sort of faded into the background until they came back with their <Will the Circle Be Unbroken> albums, the 2nd of which includes this piece.

I read somewhere that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the group that made country music appeal to rock music fans.
That's certainly true for me (although I do like Country music of a certain style with or without the Dirt Band).

This song seems to appear most often with a female backup vocal. Rightly so. John Hiatt has an inimitable style, but his crooning improves with a female side-kick on vocals.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Steppin’ Out

Joe Jackson: Steppin’ Out

When Joe Jackson released his debut album, Look Sharp! in 1979, he was usually lumped in with Elvis Costello and Graham Parker as “angry young men,” and that comparison was not terrible, at the time. And while Look Sharp! and it’s similar successor, I’m The Man were filled with intense, uptempo rockers that fit with the narrative of the emerging New Wave style, there were hints that there was more to Jackson, that his musical palette was broader.

What I certainly didn’t know at the time was that Jackson had been, from his youth, a multi-instrumentalist, a lover of classical music, jazz and progressive rock, and had studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, on scholarship. (Also, his first name is really David). Or that he was in a band named, variously, Edward Bear, Edwin Bear, and Arms and Legs, before becoming the pianist and musical director at the Playboy Club in Portsmouth.

Beat Crazy, Jackson’s third album, began to meld more styles, including reggae, dub, and soul to the formula, and it was followed, seemingly out of nowhere, by the swing and jump blues cover set, Jumpin’ Jive. By this time, it was clear that Jackson could no longer be pigeonholed. But when he released the Cole Porter and Gershwin influenced Night and Day, filled with Latin and other decidedly not-New Wave rhythms and sounds, it was a bit of a sensation. The album went high on the charts, and the first single, “Steppin’ Out,” a sleek, synth and piano driven tune about, yes, going out, promoted by a modern-day Cinderella themed video, was also a hit.

Whenever we hear it, or even when it is discussed, my wife says, “I love that song.” Because, she does. The album was released as we were graduating from college in 1982, and not only was it on the radio and on MTV all of the time, it was a time when she, and most of us music lovers, still listened to whole albums, and this whole album was filled with good music. So, I’m guessing that my wife heard “Stepping Out” approximately a zillion times over the next year or so, and maybe a gazillion times since then. And that’s OK, because it is an excellent song.

Jackson has continued his eclecticism, releasing albums that would be generally considered to be rock, soul, jazz, classical, pop, New Wave(ish), and has written soundtracks, to mixed reviews since Night and Day (even releasing a sequel to that album). It is fair to say, though, that Night and Day and “Stepping Out” represented Jackson’s commercial peak. The song is, because of its appeal to both fans of rock, and fans of less manic music, likely to remain part of the “classic rock” pantheon as long as there is such a thing.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Springsteen/Into the Fire

purchase [The Rising]

I recently read a poignant piece about fire-fighters ( The Perfect Fire) in which stairs played a major role. Obviously, a lot of the work of firefighters involves stairs, multiple flights of stairs in dark, smokey and deathly conditions. Granted, they are trained for these conditions, but there are always surprises and the job isn't one most people would likely choose off hand.

The article covers the story a multistory fire in Worcester, MA back in '99.
In a large multistory building, it's pretty crucial that the firemen keep precise track of their location. They've got tools: GPS locators, "squawkers" that emit sounds and live wireless/walkie-talkies as well as a lot of primitive [Hagar the Horrible] tools.

But sometimes that whole collection isn't enough.
When a fireball comes at you, none of the above may suffice to save you on its own. And so, sadly, in the case of [The Perfect Fire] - a more or less abandoned warehouse.

Fire-fighters may be the epitome of the working "man" - a thankless job without which society would be more or less paralyzed - kind of like the McDonald's employee? And Springsteen has always been a man pretty much in tune with the working man. He has sung <Factory>, <Working on the Highway>, <Jack of All Trades> ...

<Into the Fire>, from Springsteen's 2002 album The Rising is an anthem about these heroes. The album has been widely ID'ed as Springsteen's "response" to 9/11, with songs titled <Empty Sky> and <City of Ruins>, the claim seems pretty obvious. But there is much more than "the people who put out fires" in his lyrics and equally in his voice:
It's a song about sacrifice.
If I am not reading too much into the song, there's also a cross-over between an actual fire and the emotional/physical fire some may feel from some kinds of love - Love can burn and empower at the same time. Although not explicitly stated in the lyrics, it seems pretty clear that the fire-fighter referenced is a woman.

He sings:
It was dark, too dark to see, you held me in the light you gave
You lay your hand on me
Then walked into the darkness of your smoky grave
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Gimme Three Steps

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Three Steps

A few years back, I wrote a piece for Cover Me that was timed to run on the anniversary of the plane crash that killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie Gaines, along with the pilot, co-pilot and the band’s assistant road manager. The rest of the band, manager and crew all suffered serious injuries. I melded the blog’s In Memoriam series with a Full Album treatment, focusing on the band’s debut, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd. One of the things that struck me as I was writing it was that a number of the songs were drawn from the remarkably colorful life of singer Ronnie Van Zant, including “I Ain’t The One,” meaning “the father,” "Tuesday's Gone," about the change in his life following a major label deal, and, most amusingly, “Gimme Three Steps.”

The song recounts a true incident when Van Zant used a fake ID to enter a bar in Jacksonville, Florida and made the mistake of dancing with another man’s wife or girlfriend. When the aggrieved gentleman appeared to be reaching for a gun, Van Zant told him: "If you're going to shoot me it's going to be in the ass or the elbows... just gimme a few steps and I'll be gone." He ran out of the bar and back to the truck where his bandmates Gary Rossington and Allen Collins were waiting. They reportedly wrote the song that day, possibly in the truck. It is unclear whether that bar was The West Tavern, later known as the Pastime, or another bar called The Little Brown Jug, whose name conveniently allowed them to rhyme it with “cutting the rug,” but it hardly matters. In addition to being a great tune, what makes the song a classic is Van Zant’s presence of mind to ask for a head start, then beating a hasty, panicked retreat when circumstances resulted in his getting that lead preventing him from getting shot. Because, if nothing else, if he had been killed in that bar, not only wouldn’t we have “Gimme Three Steps,” but the last song on Pronounced would never have been recorded, and concertgoers would have nothing stupid to yell out.

If you have read any of my stuff here, there, or there, you know that I’m a huge fan of the Drive-By Truckers, and the album that broke them to a wider audience, Southern Rock Opera, is filled with Skynyrd references and allusions. They’ve even been known to work a little “Gimme” into one of their songs, live. And here’s something I just found, a Village Voice article from 2002 about the Truckers, after the release of Southern Rock Opera, entitled "Gimme Three Stepsisters," which gets into some of the Skynyrd stuff. (Not a bad article, despite getting the drummer’s name wrong).

And, if you read my stuff here, there or there, you also know that I’m a big fan of Uncle Tupelo (and the bands that formed from its demise). Their last gig ever ended with a sloppy cover of “Gimme Three Steps” featuring Bottle Rockets singer (and former Uncle Tupelo roadie), Brian Henneman, on lead vocals.

Monday, March 26, 2018


Unlike esteemed colleague Darius, I have no such qualms about steps over stairs, enjoying the smorgasbord of songs available. Many refer to the concept of going forward only then to go back a greater distance. (Indeed, as I scribble I wonder as to whether any reference the opposite journey?) This is one of my favourites, which might conceivably also reference the career of it's author, the mercurial Chris Hillman.

Hillman has had a long and still unfinished career, starting off in bluegrass as a Scottsville Squirrel Barker, before being head-hunted to join the Hillmen, which featured later country star, Vern Gosdin. His instrument of choice was then mandolin, and early namechecks have him as Chris Hardin, a fiction to conceal his being to young to be in the sort of venues they made their living in. So far two steps forward, until, in 1965, a massive leap ahead into the Byrds. Now toting bass guitar, albeit probably not playing on their worldwide breakthrough smash, he was undoubtedly major league.

(Indulge me for the contrivance of a reprise of this song, used merely for the caption which calls it Mr Spaceman Quickstep. And, ha, by the Birds!)
After six albums with them, gradually introducing the country influences he had ingrained in him, magnified by the short sojourn of Gram Parsons, there came his, arguably first step back, although aficionados like me might cite the opposite. In the hiatus around a projected tour of South Africa, first Parsons and then, swiftly, Hillman peeled off into The Flying Burrito Brothers, a full blown headfirst immersion in the country music tropes the Byrds were now starting to more fully embrace. As main co-writer with Parsons, the Burritos had a golden period of doing no wrong, if earning little money or acclaim at the time.

(My somewhat contrived link here is in the lyric, as, assuming the lift is broken, how else are you going to get to the 31st floor?) Hillman was now also firmly ensconced as a reliable two-part harmony vocalist. Unfortunately the lifestyle of Parsons was getting a tad chaotic, and he had to go, Hillman now effectively band leader. The band carried on for a couple of more albums, Hillman de facto leader and main vocalist, recruiting first Rick Roberts and then, more or less, the whole of bluegrass band, Country Gazette. Then, following terrific live album, Last Of the Red Hot Burrito's, Hillman jumped ship. (And, as is always the way, it wasn't the last of them,  and a version of the band limps on, probably to this day....)

I am similarly uncertain if Hillman's next guise was a step forward or back. Recruited as right hand man to Stephen Stills in the latter's Manassas band, I am sure he welcomed the regular pay checks. 

(I guess my use of the above track, Down the Road, gives away my opinion.......) In 1973 he again moved on and, via a brief reprise of the original Byrds line-up, took a definite step back. As was compulsory, the name of his new grouping was the imaginatively titled Souther Hillman Furay band. Despite the auspices and expectations, the band never really took off and were almost clunky in their attempts to out-Eagle that nascent band.

 (On the Line can suggest he was now back where he started?) A couple of solo records and the lure of the old band again became strong, with a trio of he, (Roger) McGuinn and (Gene) Clark, ex-Byrds all, and then just he and McGuinn touring and putting out a record as the membership further tumbled. Overall still heading backward, I feel.

After further solo records, which introduced the now longstanding musical kinship with ex-Dillard Herb Pederson, before 1987 saw the definite several steps forward Desert Rose Band. Definitely now country more than country rock, let alone rock, with seven albums and a slew of singles all hitting country pay dirt. The band lasted until 1994, but has stood a reunion in 2008. Most of the intervening and subsequent years have seen Hillman take a largely quieter background role, popping up infrequently as a solo artist, in tandem with Pederson, or guesting on the albums of others. However there was still an acronym ready and waiting in the wings, the fully bluegrass Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pederson, who had some brief success.

(Again, this song title enables you to draw your own conclusions as to where on the road he now was. Actually I feel this has weathered perhaps better than the earlier DRB, on account of the clunky rhythm section production, so 80s/90s, on the latter.)

Nearly up to date, to all intents and purposes it seemed Hillman had retired. He has said as such himself. But it seemed, and I apologise, he was only Biding (his) Time, as a surprise invitation came from Tom Petty to do a record for him, duly released last year and pretty damn good it was too, a definite step forward from wherever he had been lurking. Sadly the death of Petty may have put future work out of range, but we shall see.

You can read more about Hillman's glory days in the Burrito's, if such, in this excellent book, co-written by Hillman, with John Einarson. In many ways Hillman might fill the description, apropos George Harrison's role in the Beatles, as the "quiet" Byrd. Never as much a self-publicist as others in the band he has quietly got on with letting his writing, his singing and his musicianship talk for him. Long may he step.

Way more than twelve steps here

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Steps & Stairs: Room at the Top of the Stairs

Ralph Stanley: Room at the Top of the Stairs


I have to admit that the announcement of our new theme did not bring any songs immediately to mind. I was being stubborn, I suppose, wanting to focus on the “stairs” part. The word “steps” has many metaphorical meanings that have nothing to do with stairs, and therefore gives us an out for this theme. But I had to do things the hard way. So, stairs it is.

I might have known that the notion of a room at the top of the stairs would appeal to country song writers. It suggests a gloomy attic, and begs the question of why anyone would be found there. Both Eddie Rabbit and Cal Smith, in separate songs with this title, find this hidden room to be the perfect location for an affair. But Ralph Stanley has this third song with the same title, and he sees the room as a refuge from a world that has treated his heroine unkindly. I like the fact that this song depicts a pair of lovers who are at least middle aged. The young love that is the subject of so many pop and country songs is the back story here, and it did not go well. But Stanley’s narrator wants more than anything to make up for that. Being a mature love song, we do not learn if he succeeds. Stanley’s narrator wants to win this lady’s heart, but his maturity means he has the wisdom to not try to force the issue.

It does not hurt that this is a fine example of bluegrass at its best. That is just what we would expect from Ralph Stanley. This one features some fine guitar work in particular. I can’t resist closing with another version of the song. This one is from a television appearance in 1990. Stanley would have been 63 that year, and 44 years into his legendary career. Many of his bandmates in this version might not have even been born in 1946, when Stanley made his first professional appearance. So this clip was probably chosen to close the show because it shows the passing of the musical torch from one generation to the next. It is probably true that none of Stanley’s band mates seen here are as well known as he was, but they are certainly worthy heirs.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Women: Fleetwood Mac's Women

purchase [ Future Games ]

Fleetwood Mac goes back to the mid 60s in one incarnation or another.
At first, without any women. Except for one: Black Magic Woman (yes, that one) was written by Peter Green - at that time an integral part of the band.

In 1970, Christine Perfect married bassist John McVie, and Fleetwood Mac had a female band member. Among their albums was Future Games, which included a track called Woman of a 1000 Years:

In 1974 Stevie Nicks joined the band to make up one of the most successful bands ever, including a hit named Gold Dust Woman.

Women: Hard Luck Woman

Purchase Kiss, "Hard Luck Woman"

KISS is many things: the personas and the makeup and the costumes are just a small part of the idea. The constant touring, the myriad promotions--from lunch boxes to coffins--the legends of debauchery and all sorts of stuff about the devil, the individual shtick for each member, their extremely devoted legion of fans...So, to be honest, one thing KISS has never really struck me as was anything at all about the music. At least not past the 1970s, when their bottom heavy, thundering riff rock songs mattered. What have they been since? Other than a constant money-making machine?

One thing that always did strike me about KISS was their strange ability to buck genre and deliver a song so far out of their supposed range that it was almost...good.

Take for instance "Hard Luck Woman", off of 1976's Rock and Roll Over . It was, as far as I know, KISS's one venture into country, and it sounds more like a Garth Brook's song than Garth Brooks. In fact, Brooks himself covered it for KISS tribute album, Kiss My Ass. It is hard to tell the difference. "Hard Luck Woman" is a great tune, plain and simple, one of my few favorites by the band. I'd say it's great because it's just a good song, a sweet 12 string guitar melody and their best vocal harmonies, multi-layered and liquid smooth, led by Peter Kriss. But, really, when it comes to KISS, what makes the track great is  how it defies KISS's own self-made genre. Just like people loved "Beth" for the very same reason, "Hard Luck Woman" is great because it was a surprise. And after the bolt of "What, that's Kiss?" wears off ,"Hard Luck Woman" easily stands on its own. That it wasn't a bigger it has always surprised me, but then, KISS was famous for spitting blood and fire and hiding their identities, so I guess a great song really doesn't stand up to the spectacle of hype that always accompanies our pop music.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Women: The Ideal Woman

Adrian Belew: The Ideal Woman

To some extent, this is a tricky theme for a blog that currently appears to have only male writers. In light of years of feminists correctly clamoring to end objectification of women, and in the immediate post #MeToo era, stuff that we used to take for granted is, properly, subject to stricter scrutiny. These days, what one says, or does, to or with or about a woman could be damaging, and for the most part, I have to say, the additional care and thought is a good thing. Of course, if you can pay for a nondisclosure agreement, you can get away with misbehavior.


So, after nearly two weeks of scanning my library for a theme-appropriate song, why did I finally land on Adrian Belew’s “The Ideal Woman,” a song that is clearly an objectification of women? Part of it, of course, is that the song is from 1983, which doesn’t sound like it was so long ago, but both of my kids are now older than I was in that year, so maybe it was a long time ago. And because times have changed significantly since then, although there’s still all sorts of misogyny and objectification in the music world. Part of it, too, is that I really like Adrian Belew, having written about his solo work, his time with King Crimson and his work with Talking Heads. (Although I’ve sort of lost track of his career in recent years.) In addition to his music, I think he also has a sense of humor, and it seems like this song is more than a little tongue in cheek.

I have to believe that all of us have some idea of what an ideal partner would be. It was not too long ago that I would have written that sentence using the phrase “opposite sex,” but you can’t have Smithies in your family, or spend as much time at the Athena Film Festival as I have, without learning that the phrase is really useless. Maybe you’re not as specific in your specifications as Belew is in the song, and even he gives himself some leeway, at least with height—he waffles between 5’6,” 5’8” and 5’9”—and there are some contradictions—he wants a woman both independent and controllable, whatever that means. But definitely blonde. As someone whose ideal woman is many of these things (including beautiful, independent and blonde, but not all of them--she's 5'10"), maybe that’s what drew me to the song.

Thursday, March 22, 2018


I always think Squeeze songs sound better in black and white, invariably invoking the british film industry of the early 60s, wherein kitchen sink drama was all the rage, grimy settings of headscarves, rain and tears. So many of the Difford/Tillbrook milieu pan out in such settings, and this is no different, an upbeat paean to the lot of the neglected wife. Like long running UK soap opera Eastenders, there seem to be but two sort of women, the survivor and the victim. (Men, of course, are always the perpetrators, as even the actions of the hardest-hearted villainess are attributable to the actions of the male abuser in her past.) Chris Difford know this, and, arguably and loosely, has lived this world: his autobiography sounds like he inhabited the songs he later wrote.

So here is a simple 3 part guide to the Squeeze version of, possibly,  neo-paganism: the Maid, the Mother and the Crone.

The Maid:

The Mother:

The Crone:

Bleak or what? The combination of these tragic stories and the keening plaintiveness of singer (and tunesmith) Glenn Tillbrook, with the always solid musicianship of the often changing band, this has always had me hooked, from the late 70s to even now. I have seen and followed this band consistently, seeing them perhaps a dozen times between 1980 and 2016. So maybe I am really up the junction?
Cheer yourself up!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Women: Woman/Lennon

purchase [Woman]

I come from a generation where Lennon/McCartney was impossible to beat: I'm pretty sure the first "Rock 'n Roll" I heard was the Beatles. Must have been '65.

So it was with some dismay that I learned of the Beatles' rancor and breakup around the time of <The White Album>.  But that was combined with an awakening to the fact that the world and relationships include change - as in trips to India that expanded your mind. As in girl friends that are no longer.

By the time of their breakup and Lennon's many year silence - well beyond the <White Album>, I had been enured to the mystique: people do things beyond your control/expectations.
So it was with a fair amount of joy that I went out and bought Double Plastic on cassette tape for my SONY Walkman back in the early 80s. Yes, a legal copy when I could have easily made a copy of the tape.

As for Double Plastic (which I do love), there's an entirely valid argument about whether Yoko Ono deserves credit as a musician (I won't argue "artist", because art is what you define it as)
The album was conceived as a back-and-forth between Lennon and Ono (one song his, one hers), but it is the Lennon songs that stay with me (and none of the Ono)

Sunday, March 18, 2018


It's funny, my usual approach is to tap the theme into my iTunes search and see what comes up. No shortage with this one, both woman and women liberating dozens of possibilities. However, at just gone International Women's Day, neither honky tonk nor rainy day women seemed to be appropriate, as neither those toting black magic or those, when younger, with sturdy posteriors. In fact, finding a worthy song was harder than I thought, especially when I discovered Alice Cooper was a man. (Apologies if any of my colleagues were about to post said song, but, in hindsight, however many good versions I have of it, mainly by female artists, it is, isn't it, just a tad patronising?)

So, I did what anyone should do, and enquired of my soul. That is, my soul music collection. And Aretha had the answer. She usually does, even if the advice is written by a man.

And quite a man at that. Dan Penn. To be fair, it was a co-write, with Chips Moman, but it is Penn everyone recalls, a man better known for his writing and production skills than for his singing. Strangely, as he is no slouch in that department himself either. Here's a pretty good interview with him, and longtime jousting companion, Spooner Oldham, which gives a synopsis or his, and their, place in the world. And below the pair of them together, just playing the song.

I know I am missing a point here, what with it being a post supposedly celebrating women and to note the recent International Women's Day, and here am I putting up a paean to a man from Alabama. What can I say? I'm just a bloke. But when so many song lyrics in this genre are so straightforwardly sexist, including many sung by women, isn't it a change to have one which, despite a title that sounds like an instruction, is, on greater listening, not so bad a suggestion after all.

Take me to heart And I'll always love you And nobody can make me do wrong Take me for granted Leaving love unshown Makes will power weak And temptation strong A woman's only human You should understand She's not just a plaything She's flesh and blood Just like her man If you want a do right All days woman You've gotta be a do right All night man Yeah, yeah They say that it's a man's world But you can't prove that by me And as long as we're together baby Show some respect for me

Get it here and here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Women: Woman in Chains

Tears for Fears, featuring Oleta Adams: Woman in Chains


Oleta Adams has a great voice that too few people have heard. In fact, it took a fairly remarkable break for her to finally get her chance at stardom at age 37, and even then, her career never went as far as her talent possibly deserved. Adams learned to sing in church, and added jazz to her repertoire as she went along. In the late 1970s, she recorded a demo that she shopped to major labels, but they wanted disco divas if they signed a black woman at the time, so Adams got no offers. By the early 80s, Adams decided to make a brave move and released two albums on her own label. Remember that there was no internet at the time to allow a self-releasing artist to promote herself. There were independent labels at the time, even small ones, that were having some success with punk, new wave, and early rap, but Adams did not fit any of those categories. By 1985, she had moved to Kansas City, where she was doing a gig at a local hotel. That was where her moment happened. Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal, aka Tears for Fears, came through town during their tour for their smash album Songs From the Big Chair, and they happened to stay at her hotel. It took two years for that to turn into an offer to join their band to record and tour for the follow-up album The Seeds of Love, and the album wasn’t released until 1989. But Adams played piano and sang backup on the first single and title track.

The second single was her moment. Woman in Chains is a duet, and the overlapping vocals by Roland Orzabal and Oleta Adams blend magically. Hearing this, it is hard to guess why they didn’t do more work together. In the event, Tears for Fears signed Adams as a solo artist to their vanity label within their major label, and her first two major label releases were hits, especially in the UK. Over the years, Adams has had the occasional chance to record some jazz, including one song with Antonio Carlos Jobim. But her albums, to my ear, have played it safe with smooth R&B. She does it well, but I can’t help wondering what might have happened if she had taken some chances artistically.

Woman in Chains is a long song, but the lyrics fit comfortably on a napkin. They leave a lot of space for the listener to fill in. It is almost as if the song was conceived alongside its video. Together, they paint a picture of an abusive relationship between a pole dancer and a boxer. The version I have chosen is not the album version, and this is not the official video. Instead, I found a live version that has a more muscular arrangement, and shows off Adams’ voice to even better advantage than the original. The video seen here uses enough of the original footage to tell the full story, but the performance portion of the original has been replaced with new concert footage.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Mar*: March of the Pigs

Purchase: March of the Pigs, from Nine Inch Nail's The Downward Spiral

Maybe it's coincidence, maybe it's the magic of serendipity. Life doesn't always imitate art as much as it does take direction from what we see, hear, read and listen to. Or look at. Take for instance this: I'm teaching Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird right now, and focused heavily on one of the novel's most moving scenes, where Scout, through innocent determination unwittingly faces an angry mob back and causes at least a few of them to reflect, then turn back on their own murderous behavior after witnessing and being subject to the non-accusatory innocence of a child who doesn't know much more than right and wrong. One of my students brilliantly pointed out to me that this scene, so famous now, so ingrained in our memories of both the book and the film, was just like what is happening in Parkland, Florida: teenager victims and witnesses of the horrific mass murder at Stoneman High School are refusing to back down to the intimidations and insults NRA and inaction of their own state legislators to affect perhaps the most significant change to gun control policy in our country. Ever.

"Kids can change the world, sir." That is what this student told me, free of self-consciousness or irony. I was amazed, not only for the fact that she was right, but that once again, the art form I've dedicated my life to working with--literature--really and truly is the reflective authority on how to understand the world.

Now, off to less noble analogies: I've been reading the Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 bestseller, Helter Skelter. Helter Skelter is a true crime account of the 1969 Manson Murders, an event ingrained in our American folklore and artistic, sociological and artistic identity for numerous reasons, many I am trying to fathom as I read the book. I have read that the Mason murders marked a true end to the optimism of the 1960's flower power movement and the feel-good vibes of the hippies--the positive spin on the generational gap that blew wide open in the 1960s and the blossoming of the alternative culture and the wider acceptance of freer, less rigid values and a consenting to a wider, more interpretative moral code. Which was the nice part of the 60s, the pretty, techni-color expansiveness. Not the darker, grittier reality of drugs, a war that killed an untold number or people, an ushering in of a mistrust of our government and a righteous anger at the moral spiritual failings of our leaders. While not a new concept in history, it seems at least for America, that finally, the dishonesty, greed, self-preservation, perfidy and self-centered nature of our politicians had been brought into the open and I don't think we've forgiven any of it yet. Why would we? The corruption of the 1960s has given way, in a flood rather than a trickle, to an ever unprincipled, unethical and dishonorable parade of corrupted leaders and the havoc that they, and we, have unleashed on the world... But, I digress: history is a nightmare panoply of war and suffering--our current situation is nothing new, we just get to watch it unfold in an unending techno-digital stream..."all day, all night, MTV..."

The book itself is frightening in its clinical precision--the first chapter brings the Tate and Labianca murders into sharp, frightening focus, even if we only get to see the aftermath. I'm not too deep into the book yet, and I'm not sure why I'm reading it--after all, I know what happened, and truthfully, I could ask: do I really need anymore 'horror' in my life? Not that my life is filled with anything awful, but we seem to be at a premium of bad goings on, trouble times, waters on the rise and all the portents of evil rising in the darkening sky. We live in a Grimm's Fairy Tale landscape, and there's no real brightness to light us to a better way. Why I'd invite more of that darkness into my life, I'm not sure.

And while life in 2018 is more often a Ingmar Bergman film than it is a Will Ferrell one, there is something to be said in reveling in the depictions of out darker tendencies. You can't laugh at everything, and sometimes being inured to the gruesome and the ugly comes only from seeing enough to develop the think kind of skin that resists the lash. Hence, our thrill at being spooked by a horror film or, as is the case with me, fascinated with the real-life stories that inspire the horror genre. I'm not talking werewolves and vampires and the shambling dead come to life, but the real boogey men who populate the shadows of our waking world, playing the worst trick possible: denying us the enduring belief in the goodness of our fellow human. So, tales of serial killers and true crime documentaries, about fraud and kidnapping and crimes of passion, tales of mental disturbance that drive a seemingly normal human to give up their humanity in awful ways and at the expense of others, are an ever booming industry. Though it's a stretch to use the Manson murders to prove how life and art commingle in a strange, back and forth origin myth simply because there's so many similar stories in the world that all life and all art have blurred into one big mess, I can't deny the fascination of delving into those real stories, the stories who breathe a strange whisper into your ear, or run up the back of your neck for how close they are to the life you live, how easily they could become your story, if only, if just, thank god I've never been...

Trent Reznor's Nine Ince Nails has always struck me more as a project than a group, and his erratic, eclectic output over the past few years has done nothing but deepen the enigma that is NIN, while at the same time, further cement Rezonr's role as the composer of the soundtrack to our dark, tumultuous days. 1989's Pretty Hate Machine was a brutally loud and pulsing sonic message from the future--and it detailed a dark place. Flash forward, and Reznor gives us 1994's The Downward Spiral, which while leaping forward a few sonic decades, was also a step back into the past. The rhythms and the noise that make up this blood and wire and glass and tangle of wire and electricity collections of songs was wholly new and a throwback at the same time. The Downward Spiral is pure industrial--grinding machines at work to create pounding rhythms, giving way to static, broken reception, and sometimes soft, gentle piano and vocal brush strokes, butterfly wings, flitting dangerous about the chaotic, grinding of the gears. The music is big--it's close and claustrophobic and roaring, as well as open and expansive, sometimes as quiet as it once was raging. The Downward Spiral was a critical and commercial success: "March of the Pigs" and "Closer" charted; "Hurt" was an MTV staple that still haunts me today, even if it is soon to rival Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" for an auditory cue to get ready to cry now because the movie or TV show you are watching is now giving you a deep, serious, contemplative montage which to cry over.

"March of the Pigs", the third track on the album, is a furious mix of punishing guitar and overdrive, factory belt drums, but like much of the album, in deals in great dichotomy: the bashing, angry beats gives way multiple times to a strange little coda of a piano ditty, that sounds like a tag line from a commercial for cleaning products. Reznor quiets the storm of music to ask you, all innocence implied, "Doesn't it make you feel better?" I can't decide if it's theater or kind of like one of those NBC "The More You Know" PSA's from the 90s...The song and its little break is trippy and strange, and utterly misplaced, but somehow very natural to the lifeblood that gushes through the song and the album as a whole.

And, now, lest you think I forgot, to the thematic connection: The Downward Spiral got a lot of press not for the brilliance of the music, but the morbid nature of its creation, particularly the place it was recorded. Reznor rented the property at 10050 Ceilo Drive in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. This is better known as the site of the first of the infamous Manson murders. Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski was among the four victims who were brutally slain during the late night hours. So much surrounds the case, so much myth and strange symbol making, and Reznor invoked some of the more well known crime scene imagery of the scene, in particular the killers invective "Pigs", which the scrawled in blood on the front door of the home. I haven't gotten too far into the book, so I'm not going to analyze the use and meaning of the word as part of the killers' signature, but I do know that the album traffics in the sounds and the word in multiple places. Aside from song titles, there are pig squeals peppered throughout the music. This wouldn't stand out normally--it might just be a bit more of the edgy racket, meant to put the listener further on edge. Or, maybe not. Perhaps Reznor was just indulging his morbid streak. He was living in the place of and making full emblematic use of a horrific murder. But then again, the album was meant to be abrasive, destructive to the listener and comment upon said destruction, and our dwindling sense of humanity. It is a downward spiral, after all. One wonders what the album might sound like, and say, if was recorded now, or perhaps closer to the events of September 11, 2001. I have to say, the 90s look right quaint and soft when compared to the shit-storm world we have inherited.

So, a roundabout way to get back to...history? No, life imitating art? Perhaps. I've lost the thread, to be honest. I think what I meant to say is that, good or bad, dark or light, devastating or uplifting, art, especially music, is a great lens with which to inform and be informed. Music for me is an ever-evolving soundtrack and sound accompanies me in every physical and spiritual endeavor. Our feelings toward what surrounds us and effects us might change, going from sad to happy, the entire panoply of emotions, but I feel better knowing I have music to accompany me. With that kind of artistic grace, one can take the worst life has to offer hopefully make it make sense. Books teach you; painting and sculpture remind and show you; music guides you and softens the blows.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Mar* Songs: Mar Jayeen

purchase [Mar Jayeen]

Bollywood is probably not at the top of your list for music files. Then again, with ~ 1 billion listeners, maybe you shouldn't discount the genre. More than once I have pushed music from Turkey  - far from main-stream but perfectly/musically viable - if only we were more in tune or open to alternatives. Bollywood is only a few borders away.

The 3 letters <mar>  may not signify what you think they do. It depends on your language, doesn't it? It's "sea" in Spanish (but you probably know that). My concerted efforts to translate this (what I think is Hindi)  to English produce the result that "mar" resolves to "die", so Latif Aslam singing "Mar Jayeen" - is liberally translated as ?! Die In.

Sting made pretty good use of a similar style with his Morocco explorations/Desert Rose back about the turn of the century, and while there's a lot to be said for expanding your horizons,  you'll likely sense that that expansion is also shrinking as "popular" music becomes more universal. (Star Wars' Cantina Band that sound like Earth music?)

Atif Aslam, Pakistan born, has played all over parts of the world.The Wiki page for him is full of praise - as I think you might be after listening. It appears that he had an international education: Kimberly Hall School & St. Paul's Cambridge School (both in Pakistan - but that's not as unusual as you may imagine, I  know from personal experience). But beyond his upbringing, he's made a name for himself in the music world (Beyond the Western World's limited perspective)

But ... musically, it doesn't so much matter what his Hindi lyrics  translate to - more better that you listen and read the "lyrics" without needing to focus on the meaning;
Har lamha dekhne ko
Tujhe intezaar karna
Tujhe yaad karke aksar
Raaton main roz jagna
Badla hua hai kuch toh
Dil in dino yeh apna
Kaash woh pal paida hi naa ho
Jis pal mein nazar tu naa aaye
Kaash woh pal paida hi naa ho
Jis pal main nazar tu naa aaye
Gar kahin aisa pal ho
Toh iss pal mein mar jaayen

Friday, March 9, 2018

MAR* SONGS: Águas de Março

Or Waters of March, the english translation of what has been called the all-time best Brazilian song, in a 2001 poll. Written by arguably the best and certainly the best-known of Brazilian composers, the king of Bossa Nova, Antonio Carlos ('Tom') Jobim, in 1972, it has sustained myriad versions over the years since. Unusually, both the portuguese  of the original and it's translation were both written by Jobim. Bossa Nova seemed, in my youth, inescapably naff and forever attached to cheesy black and white travelogues. More recently it has seemed to attain a revisioned renaissance and  sits well alongside other latin dance and music forms, thanks in part to the dance music attuned stylings of bands such as Bossacucanova, the translation of which even I can work out.

It was Jobim's stepfather who encouraged his playing, after the he and his mother moved to Ipanema, yes that one, starting his nascent career playing in clubs and bars. Although now deemed to side most closely with jazz, in fact early influences and passions were derived from the classical field. Already big in Brazil, courtesy his writing partnership with Vinicius de Moraes, a celebrated poet, his wider breakthrough came with, in 1963, his collaborations with Stan Getz and the husband and wife team of Joao and Astrid Gilberto, including that song from Ipanema. Writing most of the music over the two volumes of Getz/Gilberto ensured worldwide recognition and many awards. The bossanova craze was in full swaying swing.

Aguas de Marco, as a song, has had a fascinating history, starting life as the 70s brazilian equivalent of a cover disc: a free and probably flimsy vinyl distributed with O Pasquim, a magazine of the day. Thereafter it was picked up by Elis Regina, later to work closely and to collaborate with Jobim, appearing on her 1972 debut. Jobim himself didn't officially release his own version until a year later, with the additional english lyric now attached to the verses in portuguese. This was then reprised, by both of them, another year later, on the seminal 1974 album Elis and Tom. (See top clip above.) Since then there have been a flood of versions from artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Art Garfunkel and David Byrne. Unarguably now a standard, it was also purloined by advertisers, no doubt for a fat fee, but never, for me, the real thing.

So what are the waters of march? March is the rainiest month in Rio, and the words, more a tone poem of images than any narrative, are said to represent the torrents of water flowing down the steep hillsides of the city, flooding the gutters with all manner of debris. I encourage you to sift through the floodwater of what can so often be so much supper club and hotel lobby flotsam and jetsam, looking for the class of what this much maligned music style has to offer. Tom Jobim will always rise to the top.

                                                  Antonio Carlos Jobim 1927 - 1994

Still thirsty?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mar* songs: Mary , Mary

purchase [Mary Mary]

Kind of like J David said - from the start I planned to veer off into the Mar* option rather than the full <March>. He's already said that we've been there once before (without a lot of success). I hadn't specifically thought we were flogging a dead horse, but it is starting to appear that way.

This past weekend - once again, I was faculty-on-duty for a "Retro Night" student dance- along with several other faculty members. You probably went through more than one High School dance of this kind at some time in your past, but maybe not as a chaperone. This  Retro Night was ostensibly 80s focused -a  time these kids only know about as <history>. That's the time when I had turned adult (defined by: earn your own living. A concept apparently somewhat strange/difficult to some in the newer generations. Thank or criticize others than me for that.) we are in Retro Night (80s) and the songs don't include Olivia Newton-John. Nor Blondie. Nor Paul McCartney... and on and on. It's their perspective of what defines Retro, not mine.
That said ... the theme's  <Mar*> so  I offer my perspective of Mar*, which goes to double or triple Retro because retro means going back.

Because I grew up overseas from the US  = overseas from everywhere!, grabbing the sounds (literally had to stand by the radio dial and keep adjusting the short-wave frequency to keep the channel in tune), my perspective is skewed. But ... I didn't miss the Monkeys. Much like my friends in the US, I didn't miss Archie comics (the Archies) or Sad Sack(!!), we[a group of US expat teens] somehow managed to more or less assimilate to our US peers - by catching the crazes on a time -lag loop. And so I bopped to:

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Mar* Songs: Forward March

Pat Metheny Group: Forward March

It took me a while to adjust to studying in college, because it was different from what I did in high school. The material was significantly more complex, there was much more of it, and my fellow students were almost uniformly incredibly smart. But one thing that was basically the same was that studying was a solitary act.

Law school, though, was another thing altogether. Heading into it, though, I had no idea that I needed a new approach, and fully expected that I’d continue in my accustomed manner. However, early in my first year, I was approached by a friend, who somehow knew that creating a study group was critical to success. And I’m so glad that I did. In some ways, the first year law experience, at least at Fordham Law School in 1983, was remarkably more like an elementary school or middle school experience than college. We were divided up into sections, alphabetically, and were given a set schedule, with no electives. All of my classes were with some combination of other sections, all of which were filled with classmates whose last name was from the first half of the alphabet, except for one class that was just for my section. Therefore, I didn’t really get to know anyone in the second half of the alphabet until second year, and was closest to the people in my section.

This sort of rigid scheduling was ideal for study groups, because we were all taking the same classes. And I quickly found that studying with Dave, A.J. and Bob was not only helpful in digesting and understanding the enormous mass of material that they throw at you first year, but they became my closest friends. We would meet periodically, order some sort of takeout (because we were in New York, and the choices were myriad), discuss our work, and, of course, other stuff. Sometime during second semester, Bob fell off the radar, distracted by his ultimate lack of interest in becoming a lawyer and the ready availability of college hoops at Madison Square Garden, but the rest of us continued to work together. As we approached our finals, we prepared outlines, quizzed each other, and pushed each other hard, while also becoming life-long friends.

I have a strong memory of showing up at a study group session at Dave’s apartment with a new copy of the Pat Metheny Group’s First Circle album—and by album, I mean a large slab of black vinyl.  I’m pretty sure that I picked it up, discounted, at the Warner Entertainment company store. After graduating from college, I worked at Atlantic Records for the summer of 1982, which granted me access to the discounted records, books and other items that were in the employee-only store in the basement of 75 Rockefeller Plaza. By continuing to visit the store periodically even after my employment ended, I remained a familiar face to the security guards who still let me pass into the inner sanctum for a few years.

Metheny had been a favorite of mine since I was introduced to him at WPRB, and I’ve written about him a few times here. I know that Dave, who played the guitar, was a fan (I don’t remember whether the others were, too). So, it was natural that when I showed up with the new album, in February, 1984, I would put it on Dave’s turntable, and that we were excited to hear it.

And on came “Forward March.” It was, and remains, a bit of a headscratcher. A dissonant, ragged march-like song, which eventually turns somewhat less weird, but never really sounding “perfect.” Sort of like the Portsmouth Sinfonia, or even the first rehearsal of an average high school marching band. Allmusic suggests that it might be a parody “directed at a few silly skirmishes of the day (Grenada? the Falklands?).” Another blogger considered the fact that the band opened concerts on its tour with the oddity as showing that:

While the Pat Metheny Group are all serious musicians, this was no hardcore jazz purists’ band. They want to entertain you. They want you to smile (I’ve never seen a musician look as happy as Metheny does). For all its novelty, “Forward March” made its audience smile right from the word go.

But it seems that may well just be overthinking it. Metheny himself, in response to a fan question about the inspiration for “Forward March,” stated that the song is:

really just sound - there was a thing i was messing with with [sic] a new instrument for me at the time, the synclavier, where it was possible to scale the range of the guitar by large amounts - meaning that what would normally be read as an octave could be read as several octaves and the 12 notes in between that same octave were scaled along with the octaves into 12, but now across several octaves, thereby making an "octave ratio" larger than 1:1. this was fascinating to me at the time, and that piece was one of several that came from it. the only one that was recorded. 

I’m really not sure how that really explains “Forward March,” but hey, Pat has never lied to me.

Anyway, the next song on the album is “Yolanda, You Learn,” a much more typical Metheny song. I’m sure that we listened for a while, then got down to studying whatever subject was on the docket, and maybe more importantly, eating whatever food was on the menu.

After first year, we were allowed to take electives, so the three of us weren’t always in the same classes—but when we were, we reconvened the group, and still remain good friends more than three decades later.