“Creeque Alley”

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One of my favorite Mamas and Papas songs, “Creeque Alley” is also a wonderful little historical artifact.  As Cass Elliot explains in the intro, the song is about how they became the Mamas and Papas.

It’s the Reader’s Digest version, of course.  It leaves out all the romances and affairs, drug use, and other gossip tidbits.  To sum up, John and Michelle were married, Cass was in love with Denny, but Denny and Michelle carried on an extramarital affair.  Everyone was high at one point or another, but John was the hardcore user.  He was also a megalomaniac control freak who wrote a song about a guy involved in an illicit affair just for Denny to sing (“I Saw Her Again Last Night”).  They spent some time in the Virgin Islands, living off of credit cards, writing and rehearsing much of the material that would make them famous.

“Creeque Alley” is also cool because it references some of their contemporaries and friends, including John Sebastian and Roger McGuinn.  Sebastian formed the Lovin’ Spoonful with Zal Yanovsky, who was at one point in a group called the Mugwumps with Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty.  Roger McGuinn was around as a sideman and Brill Building songwriter before forming the Byrds.  What becomes apparent listening to this song is how small and tight the music world really was back then, almost incestuous.  Musicians would move from band to band, studio to studio, playing on each other’s albums and appearing live together.  This is something that carries through the history of Pop and Rock music: London and Southern California in the 60s & 70s are other musical communities that come to mind.

It’s a feeling that seems lost to music today.  Performers these days collaborate not because they all live in the same place, but because they know it will sell them another million downloads.  They know each other from TV appearances and VIP parties, but they don’t seem to be actual friends.  “Creeque Alley” is a snapshot of a lost time.  It might or might not have been a better time, artistically speaking, but it was definitely warmer and closer.  There are many good things about the times we live in now, but even as distances are virtually disappearing thanks to technology, real relationships seem to be growing further and further apart.

“Hunger Strike”

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A significant number of inmates in California prisons have recently begun hunger strikes to protest being kept in solitary confinement.  From what I understand, this is not just a few guys who’ve proven that they are Hannibal Lecter-level psychopaths locked up for the safety of staff and other inmates.  Solitary confinement is being used by many prisons as a way to “control” gang violence among the inmates.  I will admit to being a little ambivalent about this issue.  I’m of the opinion that if you do something really bad, you deserve your punishment (I’ve got very strong, but somewhat complicated views on punishment and incarceration, but it would take too long to fully explain).  And I think a judicious use of solitary confinement as a way to curb immediate threats is acceptable; it’s not ideal, but short periods of isolation might be the lesser of evils here.  But if there are hundreds of men claiming that they’re being indefinitely confined to solitary units without just cause, then I think there might be a bit of a problem.

Being in prison doesn’t mean you aren’t a person.  Yeah, maybe you did something stupid or bad, or even evil.  But you still have the right to humane treatment.  The inmates and the activists supporting them believe that this situation amounts to torture, and I’m not so sure they’re wrong.  I’m not so sure they’re right, either.  I still need to learn more about what’s happening.  It’s an emotional issue that plays into a lot of irrational fears and prejudices.  I’d like a clear point of view.

This song isn’t about a prisoner’s hunger strike.  It’s about the grief Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell and the other members of Mother Love Bone felt when their lead singer and friend Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose.  They got together, along with a then-unknown Eddie Vedder, and recorded an album as Temple of the Dog.  It was a tribute that became something more, as the band evolved into Pearl Jam.  “Hunger Strike” is a visceral experience, a gaping, open wound of a song.  Cornell’s primal scream, “I’m going hungry,” says more about his pain than anything else.  It’s impossible to hear this and not be moved.

And that’s where I’ll leave it.  There’s no easy way to connect the issue with the song, no simple declaration of right or wrong.  I know I’ve already sided with the prisoners.  I can’t stand cruelty.  There might be some valid reasons for solitary confinement.  And some of these guys probably deserve to be isolated.  But I think our system of so-called rehabilitation in this country is profoundly flawed.  It’s time to make some changes.

 

“A Boy Named Sue”

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I’ve decided there needs to be a moratorium on giving potentially dangerous storms cute names.  Currently, there’s a tropical storm headed for Hawaii that’s named Flossie.  Seriously.  It sounds like the Hawaiian Islands are about to be inundated with adorable animated cows wearing skirts and hair bows.  Naming a storm Flossie is on par with naming it Buttons or Mr. Whiskers–it’s just wrong.  This storm could be dangerous for people and property.  How are people supposed to take the threat seriously when it just sounds so darn sweet?

Which leads me to the best song ever about being, well, misnamed.

“A Boy Named Sue” was penned by Shel Silverstein and made famous by Johnny Cash.  The song’s premise is kind of ridiculous when you think about it: An angry guy named Sue spends his life fighting everyone who makes fun of his name, and eventually hunts down his dirtbag father to get revenge for “that awful name,”  only to have a tearful reunion with the old man at the end.  I mean, why didn’t he just introduce himself to everyone as Joe or Steve, or “Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue”?  Even if you’re too poor or uneducated to know you can go to court to change your name, once you’re an adult, you can call yourself anything you want.

But then again, if logic applied to naming things, then I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have storms named Flossie.

“Neptune’s Jewels”

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One of the best things about Welcome to Night Vale, the creepy and creepily funny podcast I touted here a couple of weeks ago, is that the weather segment of each episode is actually a song, generally by artists I’ve never heard of before.  That’s how I discovered Mystic.

While I’m not a huge Rap/Hip-Hop fan, I am always interested in finding out about quality artists.  Mystic is fierce and smart, with a soulful, genre-hopping style.  I don’t know if she’s still active as a recording artist; her one album, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, apparently came out in 2001–even though the music sounds brand new.  (Of course, it might seem brand new to me because I’ve never heard it before.  I am not up on current trends in Hip-Hop.)  I bought this one on itunes, and I hope that some of you jukebox listeners will be intrigued enough to shell out a few cents for her (or bucks; the whole album is pretty darn good).  I think a voice this good needs all the support she can get.

J.J. Cale

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I freely admit that I”m most familiar with J.J. Cale through other artists’ covers of his songs.  But his funky, bluesy, laid back style makes him one of the best songwriters to cover.  It’s easy to perform a J.J. Cale song.  That’s not to say the songs are simplistic fodder, or radio-ready pabulum.  There’s a rich, earthy darkness running through Cale’s work.  “Cocaine” is a perfect example of that–an addict’s love song that reveals both the seductiveness of the drug and its dangers:  “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine.”

Of course, being best known as someone who’s biggest hits were for other people means you’re often underrated, and even forgotten.  Cale didn’t seem to mind his less than superstar status, which is just one more thing that made him great.  He didn’t play for glory, or probably even money (although I’m sure those royalty checks didn’t hurt).  He played because he loved the music.  J.J. Cale was one of the great, Criminally Underrated musicians of all time.  The world will be a little bit quieter without him.

I’ve posted this long clip (posted on YouTube by austinpickers) because I think he deserves to be seen for the fine performer he was.  And besides, it doesn’t get much cooler than J.J. Cale and Leon Russell together (not to mention the awesome backers playing with them).

Freaky Friday: “Lovelines”

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This song isn’t freaky so much for its musical structure or fascinating artistic experimentalism.  No, “Lovelines” freakiness comes from its lyrical inspiration.  One day, while recording the album Hootenanny, the Replacements (who were probably drunk) decided it would be funny to put the personals column in a local paper to music.  Turns out, they were right.

While Paul Westerberg’s laughter might be somewhat mocking, there’s a genuine warmth to this goofy little goof, a studio throwaway that showed a lighter side to the Mats.  They were always better known for both their ramshackle, drunken live performance and their razor-sharp angst; Westerberg’s usual themes of heartbreak, loneliness, and alienation really didn’t leave much room for fun.  (FYI, Hootenanny also contains arguably their most painfully heartbreaking song ever, the masterful “Within Your Reach”.)  So “Lovelines” gives them a rare chance to be young and silly on record.  I’m not quite sure how the song made it onto the final track list, but I’m really glad it did.

As Paul Westerberg became a more proficient songwriter, his sense of humor showed through in more subtle wordplay that was both clever and emotional. But this little silly slice also shows that he could draw inspiration from virtually anywhere.  To me, that’s a hallmark of true talent and creativity.

“Our House”

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I’m baaack . . .

And in a freshly painted and re-floored house.  It feels brand new, and I’m very happy with how everything looks.  I’ve hung some of my Rock & Roll “art” in my bedroom, so it feels like my room again.  (I probably shouldn’t put art in scare quotes like that, since among my framed pictures is a lithograph of a John Lennon sketch my mom bought me years ago.  I also have a picture of Captain Jack & Ianto kissing signed by the actors, but that’s not really Rock & Roll, is it?  Hot, though.)  I’m glad I spent the money doing this (I’ll be paying off the floor for quite some time, but I’m still glad).  There’s still a lot of work to be done, but this is enough for right now.

This song seems like a fitting celebration, right down to the two cats (although mine a strictly indoor).  It’s such a lovely song, gently content.  Graham Nash has a real knack for writing sweet love songs like this.  It’s just me and the cats right now, but soon Mom will be here, too.  I suppose Dad will always be here, too.  I’ll probably dig out his knickknacks and tchotchkes later, and hang some of his Egyptian themed pictures.  It’ll warm the place up a little bit more (although with red walls in a couple of rooms, it’s probably warm enough).