Jerry Nelson

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I’ve already established here that I grew up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and that I adore the music created for both shows (check out posts here and here for further proof).  In general, I find a lot to value in children’s music, in spite of the fact that a lot of it makes me kind of sentimental and weepy.  Any song that says you are valuable for who you are is a good song, and this is the most important lesson we can teach children.

Jerry Nelson was the voice of many muppets, including The Count, Herry Monster, and Robin the Frog.  He passed away yesterday at 78.  Although he’d retired as a muppeteer, his passing is a huge loss for the world of entertainment.  I’ll be honest, I’m having a little trouble writing this without crying.  Because the muppets were such an important part of my childhood, because I learned so much more than numbers and letters from them.  I learned about sharing and kindness and self-esteem.  I learned how to be silly and how to sing.  I learned that kids voices matter, too, maybe more than anyone else.

This is a nice tribute I found on YouTube (thanks to wileyk209zback for creating and posting it).  The song is “Halfway Down the Stairs” written by A.A. Milne (a powerhouse in children’s literature).  Thanks, Jerry.  I’ll miss you more than you know.  Say hi to Jim and Mr. Hooper for me.

“Since You’re Gone”

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The Cars were one of those bands I just didn’t understand until I was a little older.  I didn’t get the appeal of these skinny, funny looking guys.  Didn’t understand the depth carefully hidden beneath the cool 80s synths and self-deprecating delivery.  I didn’t see that they were a lot more than image.

To be fair, image makes up a pretty significant portion of what made The Cars good.  It’s why they made the transition to music videos so well, in spite of not being Duran Duran pretty.  They understood that one of the things that made a band really good was how it presented itself.  (Not a new idea, of course.  The Beatles were successful in the beginning partly because of the clear identity they had as a band and individuals.  Thanks for that, Brian Epstein.)  The Cars had the skinny ties and the checkered shoes and all the other cutting-edge 80s fashions.  For the record, I think most 80s style was hideous, but I’m willing to ignore it with The Cars because they pull it off so freakin’ well.

“Since You’re Gone” is one of the rare really good songs that had a really interesting video to go with it.  The video, in fact, adds dimension and substance to the song.  It’s a typical break-up tune, with the guy feeling really sad and lonely since his girl packed up and left.  He’s confused, his world suddenly thrown into disarray, feeling “since you’re gone, the nights are getting strange.”  The video shows the girl packing up her make-up and flimsy undergarments, with movers taking care of the furniture while Ric Ocasek (minus his trademark shades) does a good job of looking like he has no idea what the hell is going on.  It’s also a surreal take on the aftermath of a break-up: the empty shower, the guitar in the bed, and the shoes that walk off on their own (nice bit of stop-motion there).  Near the end, Ocasek wanders the empty house like a ghost.  There’s a haunted, empty feeling to the song that the video does a great job of emphasizing.

Nothing is ever the same when a relationship ends, at least for a little while.  Things don’t look or work the same anymore.  Food tastes different; songs sound funny.  Your whole life feels like someone just set off a bomb, or took everything you had and disappeared.  Or as the song puts it, “Since you’re gone, moonlight ain’t so great.”

Update for anyone who cares. . .

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Cysts!  Granted, there’s several of them, and my doctor wants me to go to Long Beach Memorial’s Breast Center to have them looked at one more time and possibly drained.  But it’s just cysts.

So, now I get to feel a little stupid for freaking out, and I can relax a little. . .

Kool & the Gang gave us this awesome party anthem that never, ever gets old.  I’m not really a fan otherwise, preferring Earth, Wind, & Fire or The Temptations most of the time, but I love this song.  And I’m happy that even though I still have to go in one more time, it’s pretty much a clean bill.  I’m gonna do a little chair dancing while I listen to this one more time.  Check out the awesome white shoes.

“Dance Across the Centuries”

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So not in the mood tonight.  Doc wants to see me for a follow-up appointment, and I’m freaking even though I have zero concrete evidence I should be freaking.  Keep your fingers crossed that after tomorrow, I’ll feel stupid for freaking.

Music always makes me feel a little better.  And Johnny Clegg and Savuka always cheer me up immensely.  They had a couple of minor hits in the 80s, but got more attention for being South African.  Oh, did I mention they were multi-racial.  And quite a bit of their music was political, in feeling if not intent.  Heck, simply by being an integrated South African band, Johnny Clegg and Savuka made a political statement.  This was the age of Apartheid, after all.  Biko was dead.  Mandela was still in prison.  And Johnny Clegg wanted us to dance.

Sounds good to me.

Sad Songs

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Phyllis Diller’s death today at age 95 got me thinking a little bit about sad songs (please don’t ask exactly how I got from point A to point B; I’m not sure myself).  Diller was an outstanding comedian and pioneer (I always loved the jokes about her husband, Fang), and while her death made me a little sad, it wasn’t like my gramma had died or something.

I love sad songs myself.  My own theory is that I get to experience the emotion without going through the bad thing that caused it (I like to live vicariously, like Andy Warhol).  It’s not just the catharsis found in sad songs, though.  There’s something incredibly intimate about getting inside a songwriter’s head like that, because even if the song isn’t literally true, the emotion usually is.  If it’s not true, then the song is mawkish and sappy and not sad in the least.  There’s a very thin line between sad and sop, and it can be difficult for artists to navigate it.

There are a lot of truly great sad songs.  The more I think about it, the longer the list becomes: “Good Day,” “Monopoly,” Pancho and Lefty,” “Morning Song for Sally,” “Raining in Baltimore,”  and “Storms” are just the first few that come to mind (I’m gonna be mean and make you look up the artists).  Some artists, like Counting Crows and the Cure and the brilliant Townes Van Zandt, have built careers on sad songs.  The Cure recorded what I once regarded as the number one, all-time, so-sad-you-might-want-to-throw-yourself-in-front-of-a-bus song with “Pictures of You.” I could not get past that song on my old cassette of Disintegration.  I think it started side two; I would listen to it, and have to stop the tape and go do something happy (seriously, it was like reading Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which you must think very carefully about before reading, and possibly get a note from a psychiatrist first).

But some of the best sad songs are inexplicably sad.  On the surface, they seem innocuous enough, happy even.  The Faces “Ooh La La” is like that, but it’s kind of a nostalgic sadness, something you almost see coming from the beginning.  The most inexplicably sad song I’ve ever heard is also quite possibly the saddest song I’ve ever heard, period.  It’s by the Beach Boys, of all people.

“Sloop John B” is actually based on an old folk tune, reworked a little bit by Brian Wilson for Pet Sounds.  I’d known the title for many years, knew it was a cover, but I’d never heard it or thought much about it.  It is legendary among rock historians, though as one of the greatest Beach Boys songs ever.  So when I finally got myself a copy of Pet Sounds, I was very much looking forward to this track.  I have to go a little into the background of Pet Sounds for a minute here, because it sets the context a little better.  Pet Sounds is the Beach Boys equivalent to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Released in 1966, it shows the level of studio and songwriting mastery that Brian Wilson had reached.  It is his masterpiece, and the last truly great work of art Brian ever completed.  Two of the tracks, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice? and “God Only Knows,” could easily stand by themselves as great; but listened to within the album, they become even more poignant.  Because the other thing Pet Sounds does is chronicle the way Brian Wilson was beginning to lose his mind.  (In the couple of years after completing the album, Brian went on to have a complete mental breakdown.  He was non-functional for a very long time.)  You can hear it on every single track.  Brian is desperately trying to hold on to his sanity, but with every passing hour sees it slipping away.  This is tremendous stuff, which makes for amazing art but breaks my heart every time I hear it.  That’s the album “Sloop John B” was born into.  Warning: I recommend just listening to this first.  Close your eyes if you have to.  The silliness of the film offsets the sadness of the song to a degree.

I cried the first time I heard this, and I still have no idea why.  It comes more than midway through the album, so maybe it’s the cumulative effect of the whole album.  I know that not everyone is going to have the same experience listening to this I did.  And this kind of thing is so subjective anyway.  Of course, now I feel like I have to ask the inevitable question:

What’s the saddest song you’ve ever heard?  

“Gold Dust Woman”

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I spent a little time with Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors in an earlier post about break-up albums, but I neglected this weird little gem from Stevie Nicks.  “Gold Dust Woman” closes out the album, and leaves you unsettled and haunted.  Listening to the studio version, with the tribal drums and spooky howling at the end, it’s kind of easy to see how people could accuse Nicks of being a witch.  This song, and her performance of it, is spellbinding.

Like the most of the rest of the album, “Gold Dust Woman” is emotionally turbulent–angry and defiant with just a hint of sadness.  But exactly who the anger is directed at is a little unclear.  The first lines, “Rock on gold dust woman, take your silver spoon and dig your grave” is clearly a reference to the dangers of the drugs they were probably all using (Nicks had a notable problem with cocaine that lasted well into the 1980s).  But she also seems to be referencing Lindsey Buckingham and their fractured relationship: “Well is it over now, do you know how to pick up your pieces and go home?”  She also seems to be calling out his possessive and controlling attitude with “Rulers make bad lovers, you better put your kingdom up for sale.”  Nicks seems to jabbing at both Buckingham and herself simultaneously.  It can also be read as a critique of fame and life on the road; the line “Wake up in the morning.  See your sunrise loves to go down” didn’t come out of nowhere, I’m sure.  (Rock stars get all the fame, money,  world travel, drugs, and groupies; they also get to live these weird lives where they have no privacy, sleep all day, work all night, never see anyone they love and never stay in one place more than a few weeks. It’s a trade-off.)  This song simply refuses to be pinned down, a wonderfully mysterious musical experience.

I love this clip from their reunion concert.  Time and experience add weight to Nicks’ performance here, giving the song a little more substance and meaning.  It’s also really fascinating to watch her interact with Buckingham.  They’ve been orbiting around each other for over 40 years now, constantly and consistently drawn to back together, like Pluto and Charon (our former 9th planet and its satellite, which are so locked into their orbits that they don’t rotate, the same sides always facing each other).  The little dance of glances they cast back and forth tells almost as much of a story as the song.  (At another point in the concert, when they play “Landslide” together, just the two of them, it’s almost magical.  Their relationship might not have always been a healthy one but it’s always been special.)

Uncle Shelby

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I became interested in poetry, both writing and reading, because of Shel Silverstein.  I worked in the school library in 8th grade (and 11th and 12th, for that matter), and there wasn’t always a class visiting.  So when there wasn’t anything else to do, the librarian would pretty much let me run amok through the books, reading whatever I felt like.  My wanderings brought me to A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends.  Now we’d always had Shel Silverstein books in our house when I was a kid.  The Giving Tree was an absolute staple.  And one of my uncles gave my brother a copy of Uncle Shelby’s A-B-Z Book for his birthday one year, but I think I read it more than he did.  (I highly, highly, highly recommend that anyone with children in their lives gives them a copy of this book at some point.  It isn’t really a children’s book, but it is one of the most subversive things I’ve ever read.  I grew up on Uncle Shelby, Looney Tunes, Sesame Street, and H.R. Pufnstuf.  Really ought to explain everything there is to know about me.)  But I’d never seen his enchanting poetry books before.  Alternately heartwarming and surreal, Silverstein’s poetry was not just about things that would interest children but took children seriously as readers and people.

Which is interesting, since it seems like much of Silverstein’s career as a musician was about not taking things too seriously.  He wrote some very good serious songs, but he became famous for his satirical humor with songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone.”  And he was responsible for this classic stoner tune that is notoriously difficult to find copies of.

“The Great Smoke-Off” was one of those cult classics that you had to be both nerdy and cool to know anything about.  It was always on Dr. Demento’s year-end  countdown of silly songs.  It was also a great big middle finger in the face of “decent” society.  There really aren’t that many songs this explicitly about drugs that doesn’t demonize them. (Official Disclaimer: I do not use, nor do I advocate the use of any illegal drugs–or most legal ones, for that matter.  I do believe drugs should be legalized, but also extremely regulated.)  I always felt like I was breaking some kind of law just listening to this song.

I don’t know how much of his music is still in print, frankly.  I know you can get CDs of him reading many of his poems, often with special editions of the books themselves (worth the extra money, IMO).  I also know that the world is a better place for having had Shel Silverstein in it.  He treated children like they were worth listening to and treated adults like they were children.  It would be nice if more people got those priorities straight.