Davy Jones

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I just wrote about “Daydream Believer” a few posts ago.  This morning I turn on my computer and see that Davy Jones has died.  He might not have been as big a celebrity as Whitney Houston anymore, but I was always a fan.

The Monkees were a better band than critics ever gave them credit for, and with his background in musical theater, Davy Jones was a better performer than many people realized.  I never felt that his charm was forced, even if he did seem a little vaudevillian on occasion (okay, most of the time, but that was part of the charm).  He could sing and act well enough for pop stardom, which was all most people ever needed.

I’m a little stunned, the way I always am when one of my favorites dies.  Sure, he was getting old.  And his health was probably affected by previous problems with drugs/alcohol.  But it was hard to think of Davy as anything but cute and young, making googoo eyes at pretty girls and cracking wise in an episode of The Monkees.

One of my favorite Monkee moments was “Gonna Buy Me a Dog.”  Micky Dolenz and Davy trade one-liners and tired jokes around a not-very-good song.  It seems mostly improvised and everyone seems to be having the time of their lives.  That’s how I want to remember Davy Jones.  Giggling and laughing, and performing for no one but himself and his friends.

“Losing My Religion”

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A story on ABC’s World News Tonight about regional language inspired tonight’s song.

When “Losing My Religion” came out, it had to be explained that the phrase didn’t have anything to do with losing faith.  Although you never would have known it from the video R.E.M put out in support, what with all the angels and steelworkers and crucifixion iconography.  It’s something people say in the south (or at least the south Michael Stipe and company come from) when they’re talking about freaking out over something.  It’s appropriate in a way.  Religion is often something people wear like clothes.  It always looks nice and tidy until they’re confronted with some sort of crisis, and then the religious niceties get thrown off like a worn out overcoat.  Faith is different.  Faith is something you feel in your bones, and as far as I’m concerned, it has nothing to do with religion.

That is, in a roundabout way, kind of what the song (and the video) is about.  From the beginning, when Stipe sings “the lengths that I will go to, the distance in your eyes,” it is clear that this is some kind of crisis moment in the singer’s life.  A relationship is about to fracture, and the man in the song is trying to hold it together but he is just barely holding on to himself.  He almost seems to be having a mental breakdown, which probably explains the level of freaking out that’s causing him to lose his religion.  There is no emotional stability here, it’s a rollercoaster of tears and laughter and raging in corners.  He clearly wants to believe in the person he’s singing to, but is no longer sure if he can.  He has been outpaced, “trying to keep an eye on you” while worrying “what if all these fantasies, come flailing around?”

The video depicts a wounded angel fallen to Earth, with other angels watching from above.  Human workers find him, poke and prod at his wounds, and eventually build a pair of wings from steel.  Interspersed are clips of Stipe flailing about (much like those mysterious fantasies).  It is unclear if the wounded angel lives or dies, if the wings the workers built are for him or themselves, or if anything that happens will mean anything at all.  It’s up to the viewer to decide the morality of building wings out of a material too heavy to fly with.  Just like it’s up to the listener to decide if the singer is singing to anyone besides himself.  Maybe the only thing left to believe in is nothing at all.

Maybe that’s all there ever was to believe in anyway.

Or maybe not.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”

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I was channel flipping the other night and ran across an episode of American Masters on PBS about the late, great Marvin Gaye.  He had one of those voices. Clear, beautiful, rich, vibrant, and, yeah, sexy as hell.  He probably could’ve sung his way into Mother Theresa’s bed if he wanted to.  It didn’t hurt that he was drop dead gorgeous, either.  But I think what made Marvin Gaye so fascinating was the complexity of his soul.  He was powerfully torn between heaven and hell, between his spiritual impulses and the weakness of his humanity.  Hearing the people who knew and loved him talk about how this conflict destroyed him broke my heart.

The hardest part about being an artist seems to be finding a way to balance the various parts of life, body, and soul in such a way that you can survive the demands of fame.  I know that fame comes with a lot of perks, money being one of the most obvious, but there is a psychic toll that most people don’t really understand.  And it wasn’t fame that killed Marvin Gaye.  But fame gave him access to money and drugs, and given the emotional turmoil he already lived with, it was easy to predict that he would end up struggling with both.  Marvin Gaye was shot to death by his father in 1984, in his parents’ home in Los Angeles, after his comeback had come undone with more drugs.  Gaye’s relationship with his father had always been fraught (I don’t know enough to say this with authority, but is sounded pretty abusive to me).

Knowing the difficulties of Marvin Gaye’s life makes what he could do with his voice even more miraculous.  He sang with such joy and conviction, especially in his duets with Tammi Terrell (who also died tragically, of a brain tumor at age 24).  My personal favorite has always been “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  They weren’t lovers, but you’d never know it listening to them sing to each other.  It’s both sad and uplifting to hear them vow to always be there for each other even after they’re separated.  When Marvin sings “I made a vow, I’ll be there when you want me, someway, somehow” you believe him.  You believe Tammi when she exclaims “my love is alive.”  Their voices mesh perfectly, smooth technique and raw emotion mingling effortlessly.  After Tammi collapsed on stage into Marvin’s arms, it seems to me his voice was never as joyous again; there was always a hint of melancholy after she died.  It’s part of what made him so great.

Marvin Gaye was consumed by his demons.  It might’ve been that way even if he hadn’t been a famous singer.  In the end, he couldn’t save himself.  That’s what makes me so sad.  But we all have that moment, recorded forever, when he could cross any mountain, and we can all sing along.

 

“Against All Odds”

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Just got home from the big Oscar party; I did dismally this year.  I’ve also been trying to help my father set up his new cell phone.  So this one is really short.

There’s not too much to say about “Against All Odds,” anyway.  Phil Collins made it for the movie of the same name at the height of his popularity in the mid-80s. It is a terribly earnest, very sappy and melodramatic love song.  I’ve always enjoyed it, but I have a soft spot in my heart for earnest, sappy, melodramatic love songs.  I know they’re generally kind of awful, artistically speaking, but they’re so much fun.  Phil Collins is really good at them.  He can infuse real emotion into lines like “You coming back to me is against all odds, it’s the chance I’ve got to take.”  And he is a legitimately talented drummer (or used to be before health problems forced him to stop).  The drums as a foreground instrument is kind of what made some of his stuff more interesting than other 80s pop fare.  He turned Genesis from a fair to middling prog rock band to a pop hit machine. Some might argue that was a bad thing, but I don’t know.  It’s all a matter of taste.  And personally, I hate prog rock.

Why am I even contemplating “Against All Odds” in the first place?  Because it lost the Oscar for Best Original Song to “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder.  And the Academy didn’t even let Collins perform it at the show (this was when they still performed all the song nominees).  “Against All Odds” might not be a great song, but the winner was hideous.  I like and respect Stevie Wonder as much as the next music fan, but that song was pure dreck.

Of course, at least it was a better choice than anything from this year.  They only managed to find two original-to-the-movie songs that were listenable enough to nominate.  And even that was scraping the bottom of the barrel.  I’m hoping next year is better for music in movies.

 

“Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)”

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Much of my mental energy right now is being devoted to trying to predict the Oscar’s for my family’s annual Oscar party.  I’ve won for the last two years; I don’t think I’m going to win this year.

So when Parliament popped up on the itunes tonight, I gave in to the urge and did a little chair dancing (dancing while sitting down; it requires absolutely no talent).  Of course, if you’re not bopping your head or tapping your toes or shaking something when this song is playing, you’re probably dead.  George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, and company make some of the most danceable music ever in the history of music.  It’s what makes Parliament-Funkadelic great.  “Give Up the Funk” could be a club hit today.  From the opening chant to “Tear the roof off the mother, sucker,” you get pulled in (unless you are momentarily confused and think he’s actually saying something a lot nastier).  I’m actually finding it a little difficult to stop moving long enough to type.

That’s the point of music: to evoke an emotional or physical reaction.  From catharsis to sex, music runs the gamut of the human experience.  It doesn’t matter what form it takes, whether it’s made by men or women, or what color anyone is.  If the music is done right (with talent and care), someone will hear it and respond.  Music only comes to life when it matters in some way.  Now, I don’t mean that it has to be deep or meaningful in some kind of philosophical or socially redeeming sense.  Despite an undercurrent of racial politics and anger, “Give Up the Funk” is not exactly thought-provoking.  When I say music must matter, I mean it must matter to the listener.  There must be some reason to keep listening, some feeling created.  The world gets changed in small ways every time a song (or a painting or a book or any kind of art, for that matter) brings a small part of its listener to life.  There’s a lot of really bad music that I love with all my heart because I associate it with happy childhood memories.

I have to stop now and do some more chair dancing.

“Daydream Believer”

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“Daydream Believer” is one of those songs I’ve never heard a bad version of.  I’ve got it on my ipod three times by three different artists.  Admittedly, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems sweet.  Most people are familiar with The Monkees’ version, and it holds up surprisingly well 40 plus years down the line.  But have you ever heard Shonen Knife’s cover?  It’s Japanese pop princesses on speed (seriously, listen to it and come up with a better description).  I love it for the incongruity, and for the fact that it rocks.  I’d kind of like to hear Shonen Knife cover the entire Monkee’s catalog.  I think they’d really do it justice.

The version that surprised me the most was a little more obscure.  And a little more embarrassing to mention.  See, I used to watch Dawson’s Creek occasionally (only for a little while during the big Pacey-Joey arc, I swear).  During the Pacey-Joey romance, they played a soft piano-based “Daydream Believer” by Mary Beth Maziarz.  She takes a cute pop tune and turns it into an achingly tender love song (it is a love song, I guess, but that kind of gets lost in the silly lyrics).  I was so pleased to find this version on one of the show’s soundtracks (and yes, I own it; it was the days before I had itunes and DSL).

I’ve never heard of Maziarz outside of the show; she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.  So I googled her, and found out that she had a whole mess of songs on Dawson’s Creek–enough that she actually released a disc of all the songs she did for them (check it out at her official website if you want; that’s where I got the info).  She’s a bland, inoffensive singer-songwriter, the kind of artist you’d hear on an easy listening station.  I sampled a couple other songs at the website, but nothing caught my attention.  Maybe she just needed some quality material.

It’s weird to think of “Daydream Believer” as quality material, but it is.  I never get tired of this song.  The nicest thing about it is that it seems to be malleable.  Anyone can twist and turn it until it becomes something new.

“Six O’Clock News”

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Kathleen Edwards is a Canadian singer-songwriter who started out as part of the alt-country movement a few years ago.  I discovered her when one of the local Top Forty stations (98.7, I believe) briefly tried to expand their playlist by airing a weekly program that showcased “Americana” acts (by “briefly” I mean that I think it aired for all of two weeks).  One of the songs they played was from Edwards’ debut album, Failer.

“Six O’Clock News” is just a little slice of life–if your life happens to be an episode of Cops, that is.  Any song that begins “Copper on the corner and he loaded two rounds” isn’t going anyplace pleasant.  The characters in this song are what most of middle-class America would consider white trash.  But Edwards gives voice to the kind of person that is usually voiceless in this society.  Peter and his girlfriend are probably poor, uneducated, and unemployed.  There might even be abuse involved; Peter’s mother says “her baby is a failer, and she don’t want you callin'”; that does not sound healthy.  Peter has obviously lived up to his mother’s assessment and committed some sort of crime, but it’s never specified.  His girlfriend seems clueless, asking “Peter, sweet baby, where’d you get that gun?”  All she knows is that she loves him, and she can’t help him: “I can’t even get inside.”  She’s also pregnant, adding to the tragedy.  All she wants is for Peter “to do a little time and save my broken heart.”  But everyone knows from the beginning how this is going to turn out, with Peter lying dead on the avenue.

This song is heartbreaking.  Edwards’ voice is a plaintive wail.  In this particular song, she seems to echo the police sirens.  She is accompanied by fairly simple instrumentation.  There is nothing flashy on this song.  The emphasis is on Edwards and the story she’s telling.  When I bought the album, I found that the rest of the songs were pretty much the same; some were spare, acoustic numbers, while the rest featured a good, solid group playing.  Edwards was in her early 20s when she made this album, and I remember thinking that no one that young should ever be that sad.  Because “Six O’Clock News” is just the tip of the iceberg: nothing good happens to anybody here.  When the characters aren’t crying in despair, they’re spitting nails angry.  It really is a remarkable disc, albeit a slightly depressing one.

And even though I find it a bit depressing, I love this album.  It is cathartic and wonderfully written and beautifully played.  Edwards remains one of my favorite singer-songwriters today.  I don’t know how I feel about her newest album, produced by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, who is critically acclaimed, but I’m ambivalent about).  It seems saddled with a dreamy, almost psychedelic production which dilutes the lyrical punch of the songs.  Edwards seems to be at her best when she carries the songs herself.  And with that voice, there isn’t much she can’t carry.