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“Joy to You Baby”

Posted by purplemary54 on July 11, 2018

I usually have my ipod set to shuffle–like the best radio station ever because it only plays what I like–or I listen to podcasts.  But for the last couple of months, I’ve been listening to a Josh Ritter playlist I made almost nonstop.  It’s about two hours long.  When it ends, I just start it over again.  I’m not sick of it yet.  So you could say I’m a tiny bit obsessed with Ritter’s music.

I did a post for this song way back when it first came out in 2012 but didn’t comment on it other than to say that it (along with most of the rest of Josh Ritter’s catalog) makes me really happy.  I feel like I want to say something about it now, but I’ll be honest.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this one.  We could end up someplace. . . interesting.

There’s something luminous about “Joy to You Baby.”  It is sad, melancholy even.  A meditation on a lost love, on broken hearts and missed chances.  “There’s no ghosts in the graveyard.  That’s not where they live.  They float in between us, what is and what if.”  An ode to what was and what might have been if only things had been a little different.  It’s a sad song, yes, but that sadness glows with a light that I can only describe as holy.

Special note:  I have no idea what Ritter’s religious beliefs are, or if he even has any.  All I know is that from the content of many of his lyrics, he’s clearly pretty familiar with belief and believers, whether he is one or has lived among them.  When I say that the light I hear in this song is holy, I mean that in the most general definition of the word.  It is holy in the sense that imparts some sense of a greater power than this mere mortal coil could ever possess.  Something closer to the sound of pine trees whispering in the wind or vast twinkling brilliance of a starlit night.

I love the way this song makes me feel.  Sad, yes, but happy, too.  Forgiving and generous.  Open and free.  Loving someone can be an amazing experience; losing love can be just as awful an experience (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).  But letting go of that love, even after it has died, is a whole different beast.  Letting go of the sadness and anger is like letting go of a boulder.  You become weightless, free, flying: “And joy to the many, and joy to the few.  And joy to you baby, and joy to me, too.”

I’m not much for love these days, largely because it’s never really gone my way.  But the tenderness, grace, and yes, sadness, of “Joy to You Baby” makes me feel like all that heartache in the past was worth it.  That the tears and the emptiness and the loneliness was nothing more than the equal and opposite reaction to the happiness and warmth and contentment that came those few times it did work.  Or the price I willingly paid for the pleasure of dreaming and aching for an unattainable person.  Yes, sometimes even the ache of unrequited love can be pleasurable.  To quote another Josh Ritter song, “I’d rather be the one who loves than to be loved and never even know.”

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“Henrietta, Indiana”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 6, 2018

Because I’ve been naughty and haven’t posted anything in a while.  And because it’s been even longer since I posted any Josh Ritter.

I could’ve chosen one of the nice acoustic performance clips of this song, but I really wanted y’all to hear the opening, which is nothing technically speaking but sets the emotional tone for this song.  Boom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  You know from the first beat that nothing good is going to happen in this song.  1,600 people put out of work by the closing of the dairy plant.  A former worker develops a drinking problem.  One son loses his faith in god.  The other, simply at loose ends, is the narrator.  The crime at the heart of the song–besides the systematic disenfranchisement of the working class by corporate greed–is unclear.  Did the father and brother rob the liquor store out in Putney?  Were they simply innocent bystanders?  Who ended up dead?  Who were the police looking for?  What did they tell the other son who, when he opened the front door to them, “thought I was crying, it was something in my eye”?  Why wasn’t he crying?  Was he the one that committed the crime?

You know what I’m gonna say here.  That the answers to these questions aren’t important.  And they aren’t.  But I’d still kind of like to know exactly what went down.  It nags at me, “Like a thorn in the paw, disregard for the law, disappointment to the lord on high.”  It would help to be able to understand what happened in the chaos of the bridge.  It wouldn’t help to understand the current chaos of the world, but it might make me feel a little better to have this one thing make sense.

“Henrietta, Indiana” showcases Ritter’s storytelling abilities beautifully.  It’s one of the aspects of his songwriting I appreciate most, although I had to acquire a taste for this song, kind of like the father acquired “a taste for the hard stuff.”  It’s also reminiscent of the even less clear “Harrisburg” (you get a live clip for this one, complete with a “Wicked Game” interval that almost makes me want to listen to that damn song again; you’re welcome).  There is something fundamentally wrong in both these songs.  A restlessness, an anger, a dread.  In “Henrietta, Indiana” it literally thrums throughout–in this case in the steady drumbeat that carries the song from first note to last.  I had to learn to like “Henrietta” because it isn’t the sweet, soulful type of music that drew me to Ritter in the first place.  It’s the kind of song that doesn’t stir the heart, but instead asks questions of your soul.  Just how far are you willing to go to escape a life you never planned on having? What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness?  Is it really living if all you do is survive?  Ritter leaves that up to his characters, but you get the feeling they’re not too happy with the answers they’ve come up with.  Which give you the listener the chance to come with better ones for yourself.

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“Time (The Revelator)”

Posted by purplemary54 on May 1, 2018

I was channel flipping the other morning, and I came across Gillian Welch on AXStv, a pretty good cable channel for music (and movie trailers); they play a lot of concert recordings, interviews, etc.  That morning it was an episode of Soundstage, I think, that featured Dar Williams and Gillian Welch.  I missed Dar but got Gillian.  And everything just kind of stopped.

There is something about this woman–her voice, her phrasing, her songs–that stops me in my tracks every single time.  I don’t know what it is; I don’t care.  I don’t want to name why she affects me so deeply.  That would take some of the wonder out of it.  And she is a wonder.  Along with her frequent collaborator David Rawlings, Welch weaves a web of sorrow, mystery, fear, and frustration that ensnares you with not just the sheer power of the ambiguous and mixed emotions, but in their utter inevitability.  There is no other way for the characters in her songs to see the world.  It is out of their control, and they are careening and caroming through their lives without a single clue as to what any of it means.

There is a distinct lack of context in her songs.  Like the stunning “Elvis Presley Blues,” (from the same album) this song drops you into a place where time simply doesn’t exist.  The story, as much as there is one, is of a woman who is profoundly disconnected from her lover, from herself, from the world.  There is no stated reason for the disconnect, no way to place her profound solitude in a world of action and reaction.  It simply is.  The only constant she sees is the fact that eventually time reveals everything.  There’s an irony there: that time is the one thing that moves and makes sense in this song that is in almost every other way essentially timeless.

The song ends on what I’d call an open note.  The last few seconds seem to be leading toward a concluding riff, but then it just stops.  There is no conclusion, not really.  And that’s about as good a metaphor for life and death as I think you’re ever going to get in art.

 

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“Echo”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 23, 2018

I’ve got Tom Petty on the brain.  I’ve got my dad on the brain, too; it’ll be five years since he died in a couple weeks.  I’ve been having weird anxiety dreams lately.  I’m writing poems again, although not as much as I’d like to be.  I’m a little worried about one of the cat’s health.  I’ve had a little wine tonight.  A little too much, maybe.  Or not enough.

Needless to say, I’m feeling a little melancholy.

So this is kind of the perfect song for me right now.  It’s all echoes, jumbled feelings of sadness and grief and happiness and peace and anger bouncing around in my head, back and forth, over and over.  “It’s the same sad echo comin’ down.  It’s the same sad echo all around in my ears.  It’s the same as the same sad echo around here.”  I don’t feel bad or depressed, really.  Just kind of unsettled.  Kind of lost, even though I’m not.  Just one of those funks.

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“Wooden Heart”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 16, 2018

I watched the HBO documentary on Elvis Presley The Searcher last night (and I highly recommend it; here’s the trailer to whet your appetite).  I had read beforehand an article about Tom Petty’s contribution–a fine interview made all the more melancholy by Petty’s death last October, so I was even more intrigued than I would’ve been anyway.  Both parts covered Elvis’ career in a way that was both familiar and revelatory.  I already knew most of it, but it was such a joy to watch and listen to the interviews with his contemporaries and others analyzing the work itself instead of the garish personal details of his life.  Elvis the man wasn’t ignored, but his personal life was only covered in respect to how it affected him as an artist.  I came away with an even greater dislike of Tom Parker and the damage he did to Elvis’s career.  (Yeah, yeah.  Without Parker, Elvis might not have become an international superstar so quickly, but those godawful movies in the 60s and all the ways he stifled his recording & touring were just too fucking heinous for words.)  But I was also struck by, as I always am, by what an amazing performer and singer Elvis was.  Watching the old footage of him, even the 70s jumpsuit years, showed why he was so phenomenal.  It was kind of heartbreaking

Of course then the closing credits happened.  Tom Petty’s interview for the documentary came just a few months before his unexpected death last year, and as noted in the article I read, it was incredibly insightful and one of the final ones recorded.  As a fellow Southerner and artist, I think Petty got Elvis in a way others interviewed didn’t; he understood where Elvis came from far more intimately than a lot of scholars and critics ever could no matter how much research they might do.  But that was just kind of melancholy, like I said earlier.  What killed me, made me cry out loud, was the tacit dedication the filmmakers made to Petty over the closing credits.

“Wooden Heart” is from G.I. Blues, the first movie Elvis made after being discharged from the army in 1960.  The soundtrack was like that of most of the music from Elvis movies: mostly forgettable with a gem or two tucked in.  The version of “Wooden Heart” in the movie is pretty wooden, too, except for Presley’s irrepressible charisma.  But this gentle cover by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is so lovely and quiet; you can genuinely believe the plea for love and compassion he makes.  And I thought I had never heard it before.  When I finished sobbing and pulled myself together, I hit iTunes to see if I could download it.  It was available on the doc’s soundtrack, along with a whole lot of great Elvis and some other fabulous blues & rock used to tell the tale (and considering how many tracks there are, it’s kind of a bargain at $39.99 is you’re looking for a starter Elvis collection).  But looking around the web for more information and something for this post, I found out I already owned Petty’s cover of “Wooden Heart” and had most likely listened to it at some point.

Back in the 90s, Petty & the Heartbreakers released a damn good box set called Playback.  It’s six discs worth of some of the best music from one of the best acts ever in Rock & Roll.  The first three discs are all great tracks from the various albums up to that point; the second three are b-sides, rarities, and demos.  “Wooden Heart” was nestled in near the end of Disc 6 titled “Nobody’s Children” for the fact that these were tracks that were essentially orphaned–recorded but left off of any other albums for whatever reason.  I remember listening to the entire box set when I got it, although I’ve mostly neglected it since.  I don’t why I ignored or dismissed “Wooden Heart”; I guess I just wasn’t in the right head space for back then.  But now, after Petty’s death and watching the sad end of Elvis’ life and career, this song really hits home.  It’s nice to discover (or rediscover) treasure like this.

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“Play in the Rain”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 8, 2018

Lindsey Buckingham has always been my favorite of Fleetwood Mac’s long line of weird and brilliant frontmen.  And as a musician/songwriter/producer, he’s always been the oddest of the oddballs.  He never met a sound effect, vocal distortion, or production trick he didn’t like and frequently employed them on both group and solo albums.  In 1984, he released his oddball masterpiece, the aptly titled Go Insane.  It is arguably the strangest mainstream recording outside of a deliberate novelty album ever.

It also sounds like Buckingham was going a little bit insane when he made it.  Since Go Insane came out almost ten years after the big Mac’s seminal Rumors, I’m not sure any of the obvious turmoil here can be blamed on the emotional upheaval that made Rumors so phenomenally good (and popular).  It also employs to fuller effect some of the musical trickery that he’d begun employing with Tusk.  One of the best tracks on the album is the repetitive (but never boring) “Play in the Rain.”  There’s a rage and a passion to this collection of riffs and noise that is only hinted at in many of his other songs.  Smashing glass, pouring water, instrumental swirls and cacophonies dance around each other while Buckingham croons the limited lyrics over and over.  It’s a little ominous, frankly.  I’m not so sure I’d have said yes to his repeated “Can we play in the rain?”

Now my very first copy of this album was on cassette–vinyl being the other main choice since CDs weren’t yet the preferred format (let’s not even discuss how this might have played out had Go Insane been released digitally in its first incarnations; I’ll just say I’m not so sure it would’ve been better that way).  As you oldsters out there know, cassettes and vinyl have limited space on each playable side, so there was only so much music you could put on each side.  Presumably as a way to tie the opposite album sides together, Buckingham opted to split “Play in the Rain” into two parts.

The last track on the first side fades out with a sitar riff, you get up and flip over your LP/cassette, and pick up right where you left off.

It’s really kind of awesome.  Sure it’s an otherwise unnecessary interruption in the beautiful droning weirdness of the song, but it had the effect of showing the listener that this was not just some random collection of songs; this was a narrative, a story, a chain.  What was the story being told?  It seems to me to be the story of someone obsessed with another person, or another persona.  A story of someone teetering on the edge of madness, a nightmare of love and lust.  It’s fantastic.  This song is the centerpiece of the madness.  These days, you can get the song as one piece, but I don’t think it adds anything to it to be a whole song instead of two parts.  Part of what makes it compelling to me is the way it connects the two halves of the original album.  In these days of easy downloads, it’s harder to get a sense of the wholeness of a work.  I could get into a whole “get off my lawn” type rant about this, but I won’t; it’s just something I miss about the way we used to consume music.  The days when you would just put on an album and listen to it as a thing in and of itself, one track after the next.  Even CDs, which made things like the break between the two parts of “Play in the Rain” kind of useless, gave you a clear sense of an album as a complete work, something conceived as a piece of art and deliberately arranged in a certain way.  “Play in the Rain” (parts I and II) remind you that there was once a time when the structure of an album mattered just as much as the content.

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Take Two: “Ode to Billie Joe”

Posted by purplemary54 on March 7, 2018

I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post).  And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more.  There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”

For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955.  Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman.  (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.  Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.)  Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.

There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all.  The myth of Southern gentility and propriety.  The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us.  The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.”  Sex, race, class.  And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.

When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss.  (Note that the spelling is different.  Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.)  Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide.  If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.

I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer.  As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song.  The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices.  They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song.  The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned?  Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this?  What the fuck is going on here?

The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking.  Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”

There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry.  While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip.  And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now.  But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983.  She just dropped out of sight.  Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her.  Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything.    In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river.  She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.

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“Burn That Bridge”

Posted by purplemary54 on February 24, 2018

I discovered this song/video a couple weeks ago.  I know there are a number of young Country music artists who are more inclusive of LGBTQ people and issues, but this is the first time I’ve heard a performer talk about their music being explicitly about a same-sex couple.  (Here’s a link to the interview with Billboard.)  It reminds me just how important representation in media and popular culture really is.  If you never see people who look/feel/think/behave like you in the culture you consume, the subliminal message is that you are both inferior and invisible.  If you do see people who look/feel/think/behave like you, then you have role models and the subliminal message is that you are both seen and worthy of being seen.  That you are normal and not some kind of a freak.  I’m sure “Burn That Bridge” is going to matter in that way for some young gay dude in the middle of cowboy country who thinks he’s the only guy who ever felt this way.  Representation matters.

But issues of representation aside, here’s what I really like about Donovan Woods’ song and video: 1) It’s a pretty damn good song–nice emotion, good slow build; 2) Those young men are fantastic dancers.  Yeah, representation in media and popular culture matters, but it helps if that representation is attached to culture that refuses to stereotype the people it portrays and is quality entertainment.  This one scores on all counts.

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“Birthday Gal”

Posted by purplemary54 on January 28, 2018

Yep.  It’s that time of year.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to listen to some good tunes.  I already watched part of The Last Waltz on TV this morning.  Now it’s time for a little bit of the ‘Mats.  It’s a jaunty tune with melancholy lyrics, something Paul Westerberg and the boys specialized in.  I’ve been given flowers and cards, with a side of drama (not my story so I ain’t telling).  Mom just went out somewhere “looking for something.”  I have no idea what that means.  She already paid for a Disneyland annual pass for me, so I think that takes care of birthday presents for the next couple of years.  And there’s still the promise of a nice meal at Hof’s Hut waiting for me (I’m in their birthday club, so I get a freebie during my birthday month).

I like birthdays.  I admit the number of birthdays I’ve had is starting to become a little daunting, but having that number increase is better than the alternative.  And really, things are good right now.  I suppose that means I should start looking around for shoes dropping from high places, but I think I’ll just try to roll with it for once.

So Happy Birthday to me.  Today I’m gonna do my best to be zen and not listen to the little voices in my head.  There’s time enough for that tomorrow.

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“Oops!. . . I Did It Again”

Posted by purplemary54 on January 25, 2018

Some weeks ago, I went and saw Richard Thompson at my local indie record store, Fingerprints, and the highlight of the all-too-brief show was his cover of this Britney Spears hit.

Thompson originally recorded this song for his 1000 Years of Popular Music, where he examined a bunch of songs that were the tops of the pops in their day.  Thompson proves that his talent is wide-ranging and prodigious by making what is an atrocity Britney Spears’ hands (or at least in the hands of her production team at the time) a truly entertaining tune.

Have I mentioned that I really dig Richard Thompson?  I might be just a wee bit biased.

But actually, he does demonstrate that this overproduced, pretentious piece of fluff is actually a fairly well-written and structurally sound pop tune.  The sight of cute little Brit in her red catsuit is there to distract us from the fact that her vocals are autotuned to the point of nonexistence and the music seems to be all played by computer.  The fact that there seems to be almost zero human input into the making of this song is disturbing, but we shouldn’t blame the song itself.  To be fair, it’s not a great pop song; it’s average at best.  But to see what appears to be a perfectly serviceable if rather sexist song turned into what amounts to a pre-programmed tune on an 80s-era Casio keyboard is kind of sad.  (It is a pretty sexist song: She basically admits that she’s nothing but a nasty whore, and he really should’ve known better.)

This kind of pop music continues to be produced with ever-greater frequency.  Solution?  Just send everything to Richard Thompson to cover.  He’ll reveal at least the competence of the songs, if not their true greatness.

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