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Archive for June, 2017

“Friend of the Devil”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 30, 2017

I’ve never hidden my dislike of jam bands and their extended, indulgent, often pointless meanderings.  I make an exception for the Grateful Dead, because they’re just so damn good.  But even so, I tend to prefer their studio recordings to the endless iterations of their live shows.  I commend the Dead’s commitment to their fans by having special recording sections at their concerts.  And I admire the fans for their relentless sharing and trading of those recordings.  I just don’t have the patience to listen to fifteen minute versions of songs that should have been done in three and a half.  Or to have nineteen versions of that same song.

What gives the Grateful Dead such an edge over most other jam bands is the quality of their songwriting.  Primarily written by band members and de facto Dead member Robert Hunter, their catalog runs the gamut of emotions–sad, tender, joyful, rebellious, melancholic, easygoing songs that ring true even if you’re not a California hippie.  “Friend of the Devil” is one of my favorites because it’s a little tougher to classify.  It can lift your spirits, quiet your soul, and soothe your wounds.  All at the same time.

It’s also a tight little package that doesn’t need too much extraneous window dressing.  While the Dead might be well-known for their drug-fueled jammy live shows, they were formed musically by the Rock & Roll singles of the 50s and 60s.  (Covers of songs like Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” were staples at their concerts.)  Their musical sensibility was three and a half minutes long.  Mind expanding drugs like LSD led to time expanding music, but the heart of almost all their jams were simple tunes that told a story or conveyed an emotion easily and compactly.  If those songs weren’t the roadmap of the Dead’s musical journeys into the light fantastic, they would’ve become lost in the ether.  Yeah, you can take a song like “Friend of the Devil” and create a sonic mural that goes on seemingly forever.  But the key that makes the Dead so good is that you don’t have to.

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Posted in Music, Rock, Singer-Songwriters | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Repost: “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 16, 2017

This one is from way, way back on the jukebox’s playlist.  At a recent First Friday event, one of the musicians rekindled my childhood-nostalgia fueled love affair with Jim Croce’s music by playing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” which naturally led back to this classic.  (Her name is Mary Bee, btw, and you can find her on Facebook.)  I left in all the stuff about satellite radio even though we don’t have Sirius in the car anymore.  

I don’t really know how well Jim Croce is remembered; my barometer for his level of fame is sort of broken.  Croce is one of those artists that has always been a favorite in my family, so I grew up knowing who he was and listening to his music.  The second single I ever owned was “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.”  Croce had a music hall sensibility.  His songs often told stories, sometimes sounding like something from the 1940s.  But then he could turn around and pen the template for the quintessential 70s love song (“Time In a Bottle”).  He wore a lot of musical hats for someone who died at 30.

“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” is one of his story songs, full of the same kind of unsavory characters that made “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” such a success about a year later.  The plot is that a “pool shootin’ son of a gun”  named Big Jim Walker has cheated an Alabama man named Willie McCoy, “Last week he took all my money, and it may sound funny, but I come to get my money back.”  Everyone warns him that Big Jim is not someone to tangle with.  “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.  You don’t pull the mask of that old Lone Ranger, and you don’t mess around with Jim.”  When Jim arrives, he is beaten, stabbed, and shot by Willie, who importantly goes by Slim.  Because at the end of the song, “you don’t mess around with Slim.”

These days, a tune with this subject matter and level of violence would be a rap song (and probably be more graphic and explicit).  It would probably raise the ire of some conservative parents group who would claim that children would be psychologically damaged if they heard this song.  The album would surely be labelled with a warning sticker.  It certainly wouldn’t get played on the radio.  In 1972, this made the Top Ten of the mainstream singles chart.  Times have indeed changed.

Looking back, there’s a lot of songs I knew all the words to when I was still in single digits that media watchdogs would be shocked about.  I mean, I remember sitting in the back of my aunt’s 1969 Duster (on top of the lowered back seat, no child safety restraints of any sort) singing “The Gambler” at the top of my lungs.  I had “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” memorized when I was four.  Of course, I had precious little comprehension of any of these lyrics.  “Afternoon Delight”?  That was just a fun song about fireworks as far as I was concerned.  I thought the razor kept in Leroy’s shoe was like the plastic kind my daddy shaved with.  I’m sure I asked the occasional uncomfortable question about the things I heard, but for the most part I was kind of oblivious.

I think most kids are kind of oblivious to things like that.  If they don’t understand it, they ask questions or they automatically translate it into something they understand.  Which makes me even more annoyed at the level of censorship I hear on broadcast radio these days.  A few years ago, around the time of the famous Wardrobe Malfunction, everyone became deathly afraid of the FCC and groups like Focus on the Family.  Radio especially began self-censoring to avoid even the slightest hint of something that might be offensive.  Suddenly, songs began getting cuss words stripped out.  Other songs, such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” which used to be relegated to the early morning hours got banned altogether.  (Funny story: Long before any of this, I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” on K-Earth 101, and to keep their wholesome image intact, they edited out the verse about Candy.  Never mind the transvestite, the overdosing junkie, or the male prostitute.  Just get rid of the girl performing oral sex.)  It’s one of the reasons I’m really starting to like satellite radio.  I can hear Roger Daltry ask “Who the fuck are you?”  I can hear about all the degeneracy of Lou Reed’s New York nightlife.  And I can hear about how Big Jim Walker got murdered by some guy named Slim.  And I don’t have to worry about anyone imposing their morality on me.

And once again, a song has taken me somewhere I didn’t expect to go.  And that’s just another reason why I love music so much.

 

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“Walk of Life”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 14, 2017

We got good news from Mom’s doctor today, which sort of overshadows all the crap going on in the world for me right now.  Her tumor is gone!  As we Ubered home, the driver had a classic rock station playing.  The first song I heard was Billy Joel’s “Still Rock & Roll to Me,” which I will probably always associate with good things from now on.  But the next song was even more appropriate.

There’s a sunniness to this song that’s kind of hard to deny.  Yeah, it’s about a hardworking busker, probably in the London Underground since Dire Straits are an English band, “down in the tunnels trying to make it pay” and probably not succeeding all that well.  Let’s face it, if Johnny were a real dude, he’d probably be one step from homeless and living on Top Ramen, even if “he got the action, he got the motion, yeah, the boy can play.”  But there he is, day after day, playing awesome oldies for bored commuters and students.  Getting run off by the cops every so often because there’s probably no way this guy could pay for any kind of permits to play on the streets.  (I have no idea if that’s even a necessity; I know virtually nothing about being a street musician.)  He plays because he loves the music, because he wants music to be his life no matter what.  He might not be winning yet, but you know someday he’s gonna get his shot.

The video has always been kind of perfect, too.  Now, I’m almost positive that no one in Dire Straits actually gives a flip about American sports.  The choice to intersperse clips of athletes failing pretty spectacularly at their jobs in between clips of the band playing was probably made by some nameless exec in some anonymous record company office.  But it works.  It’s a song about trying to succeed and I for one enjoy watching a good blooper reel.  Especially at the end when they show the good plays, the home runs and touchdowns and dunks.  It might be a rough life, but eventually you’re gonna get it right.

That’s why this song made me smile today.  It’s been a hard few months; Mom’s treatment was pretty brutal.  And we’re not entirely out of the woods yet; we still have more scans and a lot more waiting for the final verdict.  But I think maybe there’s a light at the end of this particular tunnel, and that makes me feel good.  (I’ll bet it makes Mom feel a million times better.)  And even if things get bad again, this song is a good reminder that maybe, just maybe things will get better again.  “And after all the violence and double talk, there’s just a song in all the trouble and the strife.  You do the walk, yeah, you do the walk of life.”

Posted in Music, Rock | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Adam West

Posted by purplemary54 on June 10, 2017

When I saw the news that TV’s favorite Batman Adam West had passed today, I was sadder than I thought I would be.  The 1960s television version of Batman is often ridiculed for its cartoonish action, ham-handed moralizing, and general silliness.  People of my generation grew up on this version, but we were indoctrinated into the Dark Knight school of Batman characterization in the 80s and 90s; our then-teenaged psyches found more to love in the troubled, vengeful version that is so ubiquitous today than we did in the brightly-colored uprightness of our childhoods.  But Adam West’s portrayal of Batman as a decent man who fought crime because it was the right thing to do became a pop culture touchstone, and made West an icon.

Adam West did a lot of other acting besides Batman, but that character is what he will be most remembered for.  One of the things I loved is how he embraced it and how he in turn used it as a base for much of his recent work.  West did voice acting for a number of cartoons, and he used the same cadences and phrasings he did as Batman.  It made him easily recognizable and, I think, brought a lot of warm feelings to those who remembered that voice from Saturdays in front of the TV.

So I bid a fond farewell to West with the Batman theme, a tune almost as iconic as his portrayal of the Caped Crusader.  Composed by jazzman Neal Hefti, the catchy “na na na na na na na na” riff runs throughout and is really what makes it such an effective ear worm.  (Seriously.  Try to get it out of your head.  I dare you.)  Because this version of Batman relied so heavily on the comic book version of the character that was popular at the time, this is exactly the kind of music you’d expect to hear if a comic book could play music when you opened it.  With its jazzy and surf undertones, it was perfect.

So long, Mr. West.  Thank you for bringing so much happiness to so many people.

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“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 1, 2017

A recent post describes my relatively reasonable fear of death (“reasonable” being the key word here; I have lots of other far less reasonable fears).  What I didn’t really get into was my obsession with it.  For the last year and half, from the second I saw news of David Bowie’s death to hearing of Gregg Allman’s passing just a few days ago, I have been compulsively worried that musicians I like are going to suddenly drop dead.  (I really should’ve known 2016 was going to suck in terms of pop culture passings when New Year’s Day that year brought the news that Natalie Cole had died the night before.  That’s never a good way to start off a year.)  I check the news multiple times a day, just in case.  I imagine how I might feel if [insert name of iconic musician here] passed.  I wonder idly about which songs I should use for my obituary post, and how many posts commemorating that person there ought to be; depending on their fame, influence, and place in my heart it could be a lot.  Right now, I’m just a tiny bit worried that my even musing about this topic will bring some kind of karmic retribution down on whichever poor bastard happens to be next on the Universe’s hit list.

I am aware that this is not entirely healthy.

I wish I could be as sanguine about death as this song.  I wish I could be accepting of it as the Buddha says.  It’s natural and inevitable; we are transitory beings, blah, blah, blah.  “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun, or the rain.  We can be like they are.”  Blah, blah, blah.  It might be a natural transition, but it’s still a pretty fucking scary one.  The final great unknown.  I hate not knowing things.  I also hate not having control over things, and death is one of the many, many things entirely outside my control.

Of course, I have a lot of recent personal experience with death.  It’s been four years since Daddy shuffled off the mortal coil.  Mom’s illness has once again raised the specter in my house.  My cousin the roadie recently got just a little bit too close to death when the Manchester Arena was bombed right after the Ariana Grande concert (he was on the crew, who were all safe).  Other family members have passed recently.  Cats have passed recently.  I know I’m getting older and so is everyone I love; I just wish I wasn’t so anxious about it all.  My worried little hamster wheel of a brain has been working overtime on this one.

One death that hit me unexpectedly hard was the recent passing of Robert M. Pirsig.  Who the hell was that, you ask?  Just the man who wrote the Book That Changed My Life, aka Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Sure, I hadn’t known he was even still alive, which is one of the things that made his death so unexpected.  But as I read the obituary in the paper, I felt gutted.  For a few minutes, I felt like I did when my dad passed.  It was that painful.  I celebrated his life by rereading Zen again, which made me feel a little better.

I think maybe I’d feel even a little bit better if I knew that there was some sort of personification of death who came to collect you when it was time.  Not Robert Redford in that episode of The Twilight Zone (“Nothing in the Dark”; you can find it on YouTube).  I’d much prefer the Death from Terry Pratchett’s books.  He’s very matter of fact, but still quite compassionate.  Plus, he has a sense of humor and rides a horse named Binky.  What’s not to love?

There’s really nothing I can do but live with it, no pun intended.  When Pirsig passed, I told myself I had to sit with that grief for a few minutes and I did. I know when the next person or pet I love moves on, I’ll cry and sit with that grief, too.  I have to.  As John Donne said, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Nobody said the bell couldn’t be a cowbell.

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