Friday, May 29, 2015

Water: Water Song/Hot Tuna

Hot Tuna: Water Song
[purchase Water Song from Burgers]

Water: at the same time powerful and soft. It flows gently around your toes and ankles at the beach. It roars, surges and tears apart the largest, strongest edifice that man can build.

The therapeutic value of music is more or less established: you know, "music soothes the savage beast".

In fact, early practitioners of the art of medicine made use of the sound of water to heal the ill: there is plentiful archaelogical evidence that doctors at the ancient Greek city of Pergamon (Bergama) made use of the sound of running water to heal their patients. The Pergamon ascelepium (various spellings) was a medical center designed so that ran water past the hospital rooms.

G.F. Handel gave it a try back in 1717. Handel's <Wassermusik> flows almost like water - but that is easier accomplished with classical music and acoustic instruments than with electro-rock (not to detract from Handel's composition skills: and it's not just Wassermusic that flows like water - listen to the Messiah, and it's like listening to water therapy.)

Incorporating the sound of water in rock music is no mean feat. Yes, rock/music can soothe the soul, but the pump and beat of rock almost defies the relaxation that the sound of water signifies: imagine waves quietly lapping the shore of your summer retreat. Now imagine the sound of the Jefferson Airplane. Doesn't quite match up.

However, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassady of the Jefferson Airplane came pretty close to conveying the sound and emotion on Water Song from their 3rd Hot Tuna album, 1972's Burgers.

There's a ripple to the notes. There's the rolling repetition of Kaukonen's finger picking style that makes the music come close to the sound of water. I loved it back then and am even more impressed to see this version, when the gentlemen are in their 70s and still going strong.

Let it flow.

Wet/Water: Cool Water

Joni Mitchell (with Willie Nelson): Cool Water
Sometimes a set of lyrics can change meanings depending on who sings them. On the surface, "Cool Water" is a simple enough song, about a thirsty man who sees a mirage in the dessert. (Old Dan, by the way, is his mule). But as I listened to the original version of the song by the Sons of the Pioneers, I was struck by a religious subtext, in which the song becomes a battle for the man‘s soul between the devil and God. In this interpretation, the poisoned water represents sin, while the clear water is the promise of Heaven. Joni Mitchell made minor changes to the lyrics for her recording in 1988, mostly to make the rhythm work for the way she wanted to sing the song. But this is Joni Mitchell, so the song, for me at least, still has a spiritual dimension, but now it is about environmentalism. Joni Mitchell rarely covered other people‘s songs, and this is the only time the meaning of the song changed. "Centerpiece," when bracketed by "Harry‘s House," became more bittersweet, but still expressed a yearning for perfect love. "Twisted" remained joyfully intact. "You‘re So Square" may not have been Mitchell’s finest interpretation, but the meaning of the song did not change. And "Unchained Melody" should be regarded as more of a reference than a cover, since Mitchell only used the chorus.

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........