Bonus Song: “God Bless the Child”


I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to do a version of this song as good as Billie Holiday’s, but then I heard this by Gregory Porter.

Special thanks to Sandee for introducing me to this incredibly talented jazz singer.  “God Bless the Child” is the closing track from his 2012 album Be Good.  What a way to close and/or begin the new year.


Repost: “Your Life is Now”


Note: I know I’m doing a lot of reposts lately, but this one seemed appropriate for today.  I didn’t use any video or audio clips early on in the jukebox, relying only on my skills as a writer and trained reader of texts to analyze the songs.  I’m glad I added the audio/visual component.  Happy New Year to everyone, and remember, your life is now.  Go out and live it.


When I think about music I find inspiring, I don’t generally think about John Mellencamp.  But “Your Life is Now” has always struck a chord with me.  It’s from the eponymous disc he released in 1998, sort of mid-career, I guess.  He’s feeling his age a little bit on this one, but still not taking it any easier.  This particular song is pretty average for him, with nice country rock playing (including a fine fiddle) and the same kind of “it’s my world and y’all are just livin’ in it” attitude that Mellencamp excels at.  Although for him, this is positively mellow.  The general message is like John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning”: This is the only life you’ve got.  Live it.

Zen Buddhism (how’s that for a segue?) holds the principle that time is an illusion.  There is no past, no future, only now.  Part of the point of this idea is to drag people away from meaningless suffering over a past they can’t change and future they have no control over.  Live in the now, because that is all that exists.  It is liberating to look at the universe this way.  That’s the feeling I get from this song.  “Your life is now.  In this undiscovered moment, lift your head up above the crowd.”  It is freeing in a way to “shake this world” and essentially re-create it.  Although that’s not quite it either.  Just shaking the world off implies leaving it and dumping everything for something new.  That’s not what he’s saying.

There are many people, some of whom I love dearly, who believe that life is just a series of compromises.  Compromised dreams, compromised principles, compromised relationships (okay, I’ll give them that one; you can’t have a healthy relationship without some give and take).  And to an extent, these people are correct.  But I think compromise might be the wrong word, because it implies a negative connotation.  “Do you believe you’re the victim of a great compromise?” Mellencamp asks, as if a compromise is something you make when you have no other choices, when you’ve been backed into a corner.  But that’s not the right way to look at it.  In the very next line, he sings “‘Cause I believe you change your mind and change our lives.”

It’s all in the attitude.  To look at you life as the disappointing results of previous actions is to be perpetually disappointed.  Even if you love how your life turned out, you’ll still always have that shadow of a doubt, that niggling feeling that somehow you didn’t live up to your potential.  But if you look at it as the opportunity to live a new life every single day, then there is no limit.

This is not always possible.  I have struggled with dreams and goals and a distinct lack of achievement all my life.  But I am finding that if I try to change my perspective just a little bit every day, then maybe I can change my life.  Maybe I can even change the world.

“This is your time here to do what you will do.”

Repost (with some additions): “Dear Abby”


Short & sweet today.

There’s really not much to say about this one, anyway.  It’s John Prine, so it’s either funny or heartbreaking.  Or both.  It’s literate and filled with eccentric characters.  John Prine is one of the great Criminally Underrated singer-songwriters.  I’ve always known who he was because he was popular with my family; we tend to gravitate sarcastic humor and down-to-earth attitudes, and Prine has both in spades.  From the midwest, Prine served in the military for several years and was a mail carrier before he began recording albums.  He’s just a guy who tells a good story.  This good story happens to be about advice columns, which are one of my great not-so-guilty pleasures.

The main reason I love this song can be summed up in the chorus, which is the not-so-hidden message and a fine philosophy to live by.  Prine’s fictional Abby responds to each imaginary letter writer the same way (only the nicknames change): “Unhappy, Unhappy, you have no complaint.  You are what you are, and you ain’t what you ain’t.  So listen up, buster, and listen up good.  Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood.”

What else needs to be said?

“A Long December”


Nobody does sad quite the same way as Counting Crows, and there aren’t many songs by them sadder than this one.  Even though it got hideously overplayed back in 1996, I’ve never grown so tired of it that I turn it off.  There is something compelling about the forlorn despair in Adam Duritz’ voice.  He’s what makes the Crows’ music so interesting.  They’re fine musicians, but Duritz’ songwriting and singing bring a depth to what would otherwise be pretty middle-of-the-road pop-rock.  Now I don’t wish pain on anyone, but Adam Duritz is one of those artists who is much better when he’s depressed.  (For the record, Duritz is pretty open about his struggles with Depression and other emotional/mental issues.  He’s had himself under more control in the last few years, which makes me happy for him but sad for the music.)

“A Long December” might be a mediocre break-up song in lesser hands.  The lyrics are solid, but not spectacular–at least on the surface.  “The smell of hospitals in winter, and the feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters and no pearls.  All at once you look across a crowded room to see the way that light attaches to a girl.”  I always have the distinct feeling I’m missing something with Duritz’ songs, that part of the story is being left out.  It’s one of the most intriguing things about his songwriting style: it’s all so intensely personal.  You just know there are inside jokes that casual listeners will never even notice, but the people who lived through those times with Duritz hear them instantly.  But in spite of the emotional specificity (or maybe because of it), there is room for the audience.  Everyone can identify with the resignation and despair here.  The winter is long, and it’s just beginning in December, the cold nights looming large, the shadows growing by the second.  “I guess the winter makes you laugh a little slower, makes you talk a little lower about the things you could not show her.”

But there’s more to this song than heavy piano chords, a melancholy accordion, and a desperate voice.  There’s hope and redemption.  “A long December, and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”  Maybe he’ll figure it out.  Maybe she’ll forgive him and come back.  Maybe he’ll get to the ocean next year.  The winter nights might be dark and long, but the new year is about to begin, and there’s always a chance things will improve.

Happy New Year to everyone in the blogosphere.  Maybe this one will be better than the last.

Freaky Friday: The Residents


The Residents are a performance art/music group from Northern California.  They are freaky.  To say the least.  I have no other words for them.

The Residents are officially anonymous, although there are some names attached to the current lineup (see here for more info on their history and rumored members).  They retain their anonymity by wearing huge eyeball masks.

Who was that masked man?

Because of a dearth of music videos, and because The Residents have always used film/video as part of their creative modus operandi, they were an early MTV staple.  I know that’s where I saw them first.  As a teenager, I was flummoxed by them.  I still am.  While clearly interesting and creative, The Residents are also deeply unsettling.  They seem to take delight in making audiences uncomfortable.

Good art often is uncomfortable, though.  The point of art is not to mirror society, but to question it.  From the Renaissance to Pop Art, artists have made it a point to challenge convention, morality, and social norms.  My favorite artists are the ones who say something about the world they live in, for better or worse.  I don’t mean topical or political art, necessarily; that kind of work is important, to be sure, but can also seem too rooted to a particular time and place.  (One of my all-time favorite comic strips, Bloom County, is a perfect example of this.  It is still very funny, but reading it now is like looking at a time capsule of the 1980s.)  I’m always interested in art–paintings, music, television, whatever–that looks at the world and asks “Why?”  Elvis, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan are so endlessly fascinating because they changed the rules of how music was made, because they did something new that essentially upended conventional wisdom about popular music.  Picasso and Andy Warhol both challenged viewers to look at the world from a different perspective, literally.  James Joyce and Virginia Woolf both refused to be confined by traditional narrative styles and helped forge new literary frontiers.  These are just a few examples of how art and artists of all sorts influence the world.  And then there’s The Residents.


The Residents follow in the footsteps of most great creative and talented minds by questioning the world we live in, by asking why we hold the values we hold, and what kind of damage are these values doing to us.  Why is money and material wealth so important?  What is success?  Just what is it that we’re running from?

This video is long, and, frankly, disturbing.  But I think it’s worth watching.  I love how it takes an old children’s song and brings out a deeper, darker meaning.  You can have all the stuff in the world, money and power and security.  You can build empires and fortresses, but it won’t make a difference if what’s in your soul is corrupt and empty.  “Run, run as fast as you can.  You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”


Fontella Bass


R&B/Soul singer Fontella Bass passed away today at 72.  She’s best remembered for her hit song “Rescue Me,” which I must confess I used to think was by Martha Reeves.  I also always thought this was just another classic Motown tune, but Bass actually recorded for Chess Records.  According to the Wikipedia page about Bass, she agitated for greater creative control over and credit for her music.  I am always amazed to learn these things about otherwise (mostly) forgotten artists.  I admire her courage.  The mid-60s were a time of great change in Civil Rights, but it still couldn’t have been easy for her to take the stand she took.  She had to contend with being a black woman artist fighting for rights that record companies–and their mostly white male executives–would just as soon deny her.  She eventually retired from music, aside from occasional guest shots and background vocals.  That’s a shame, because the world was denied more music from a truly terrific voice.

As I was listening to samples on itunes from her 1972 album Free, I came across this fun, soulful song that made me do a little chair dancing.  I wish I’d known about her other work sooner, because she was worth the search.


Repost: “Take It Easy”


Note: I’m still recovering from Christmas, so here’s a repost of the first song I selected for the jukebox.  

If you’ve listened to a classic rock station for at least an hour sometime in the last twenty years, you’ve probably heard “Take It Easy.”  The version by the Eagles is almost ubiquitous.  It’s the theme song of the 1970s: A paean to hedonism that is so relentlessly sunny and carefree, you almost get sunburned listening to it.

That’s not the version of this song I care about.

“Take It Easy” was famously co-written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne.  Browne recorded it for his second album, 1973’s For Everyman.  Sonically, structurally, and instrumentally, it is almost exactly like the Eagles’ version.  Almost.

Lest anyone forget, Jackson Browne is a master of angst, and in his hands, “Take It Easy” becomes not a rallying cry to get high and have sex, but a desperate search for meaning in a meaningless world.  You get the feeling that the singer is sleeping with seven different women not because he can, but because he needs to find that one woman who will provide the comfort and safety he so clearly craves (the one who says she’s his friend appears promising, but he’s taking nothing for granted).  He’s “running down the road” and “standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” partly because he doesn’t seem to have anywhere else to go.  The fade out (which is the only significant difference between the recordings) is wistful guitars slowly tapering off.  There is no peace in this song.  The repeated title line becomes not a statement of cool relaxation, but a plea for sanity.

The part that really brings this out for me is the second verse.  The singer, who is probably hitchhiking, meets a woman driving a “flat-bed Ford” and convinces her to pick him up.  It’s the desperation in Browne’s voice that gets me every time.  When he sings “C’mon baby, don’t say maybe, I’ve got to know if your sweet love can save me,” he means it.  He may just as well have sung “Oh please give me a ride, because I’m hot and thirsty and dying of loneliness out here in the middle of nowhere.”  This girl is his last chance, and if he doesn’t take it, he’s going to die.  That level of sturm und drang is something Browne does better than any of the rest of the SoCal soft rockers.  He is scared and unsure and lost, and it shows in his voice.  There is a need for connection and the fear that it will all amount to nothing in the end, so why even bother.  In Jackson Browne’s California, there is a price to pay for everything.  And he just got stuck with the check.