Ben E. King


One of the great voices of Rock/Soul/R&B is silent.  Ben E. King died today at 76.

King was most famous for his solo hit, “Stand By Me,” and deservedly so.  It’s a fantastic song.  King imbued such incredible emotion into that plea for love and loyalty.  It’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what’s going on, there’s so many emotions tumbling around each other.  There’s sadness and love and happiness, and who knows what else.  It is a song about triumph over fear, and it is one of the classics of popular music.

This video was made when “Stand By Me” became a hit for a second time with the 1986 movie of the same title.  Based on a Stephen King short story, the movie was a tender, funny, and sad coming of age story about four boys and their friendships.  I’d forgotten this video was made to support the film, but I’m sure I must have seen it.  (I have to admit that I’m a little partial to John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me,” but that’s mostly because I’m a little partial to John Lennon.)

My favorite Ben E. King performance was from when he was with the Drifters.  “Save the Last Dance for Me” is one of the sweetest and saddest love songs ever.  There’s such longing in King’s voice as he delivers the lines, “But don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be.  Save the last dance for me.”  I love that yearning ache he conveys so easily.

There seems to be an undercurrent of sadness to much of King’s oeuvre.  I’m not sure what kind of sadness he faced in his life, but I know there will be some tears shed for him today.  At least we still have these lovely performances to remember him by.

“Shadows of the Night”


My local morning news show used this song as a bumper leading into the commercials today.  It’s been stuck in my head since then.  But that’s okay, because I really like this song.

I was going to post the awesome original video, which features Pat and her band playing WWII soldiers on a secret mission to bring down a Nazi strategic post (Dirty Dozen, anyone?).  But the version available on YouTube had some dude singing over Pat Benatar’s soaring vocals (probably his way of avoiding copyright problems).  And the “best version” of a live clip had horrible sound.  So I went with the boring album cover clip, because that was the best version of the song.

It’s pretty standard Rock/Pop fare, but “Shadows of the Night” has always been one of my favorite Benatar songs.  She just belts it out for all she’s worth.  The early to mid 80s were her best period, creatively and commercially.  Nothing groundbreaking or avant-garde here, just good old-fashioned ear candy.  And sometimes, all you really want is something sweet.

“The Main Event”


I know I disappeared for a couple of days after my last post.  I think I felt the need to distance myself from a decidedly disturbing musical experience.  Which would also explain today’s song.  Because the only way you’re going to be disturbed by this inconsequential Barbra Streisand tune is if you have a phobia about cheesy Disco-Pop.  Although since it’s sung by Barbra Streisand, this song does have one thing going for it.

Never let it be said that my taste in music is elitist.

Besides featuring Streisand’s powerhouse voice, “The Main Event/Fight” is also pretty darned catchy.  Too bad the movie the song is the theme for was so freakin’ terrible.  After the success of the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc?, Streisand re-teamed with Ryan O’Neal for the bland, unfunny, clichéd The Main Event.  Successful businesswoman finds herself nearly destitute.  Investment in not-so-great boxer is one of her remaining assets, so she makes herself his manager to ensure his success.  You can figure out what happens from there because it is painfully predictable.  I don’t think I even liked it when I was a kid.

But I did like this song.  It’s pure fluff, but it sticks with you–which would make it more like marshmallow fluff.  (FYI, my aunt makes the best fudge in the world using marshmallow fluff.  I have to get the recipe.)  One of my favorite things is the tempo changes that keep the song bobbing and weaving like a boxer, which not only ties it into the plot/characters of the movie but makes it a great song to dance to.  The best Disco gives the dancers time to catch their breath and get closer to each other on the floor.  There’s even an eleven minute extended version.  I also think the way the song is arranged, from opening to fade out, was also designed to make it easier for DJs to incorporate it into their sets at discos.  (That’s my guess anyway; it’s not like I’m an expert on how DJs do their jobs.)  Whatever the reasons for how it was made, “The Main Event/Fight” works as a song.

“I Can’t Breathe”


I’m not entirely sure I should be starting the week out on such a dark note.  But this song demands attention.

I was going to make this a Freaky Friday post, but I decided to go with my Oscar picks instead.  (I went 0 for 2, but I’m not upset.  The music that won was good music.)  Really, I was just kind of avoiding exposing myself to this video again.

Pussy Riot’s first song in English is a good one.  They were in New York around the same time as the Eric Garner protests were happening, and they were inspired by that to write the song.  It is an oppressive song about oppression.  The electronic music and insistent drum beat give “I Can’t Breathe” a foreboding, ominous feeling–not surprising, given this band’s own experiences with oppression, censorship, and political imprisonment.  And I like the way fear and defiance balance each other out; they’re going to stand up for themselves even though they’re terrified about what might happen if they do.  That’s highlighted at the end by Richard Hell’s reading of Eric Garner’s final words.

But what makes this song indelible, and to me absolutely horrifying, is the video that features Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina being buried alive.  One of my major phobias is the idea of being buried alive.  It wigs me out beyond belief, and I found this video almost impossible to watch.  I started looking away from the screen as soon as I could see their faces.  It is massively disturbing and just as massively effective.  If you want to make a statement about the way people are being treated by law enforcement, you can’t do much better than this.

I recommend this song.  I suggest watching the video only in a well-lit, well ventilated place.  Outdoors works.  Outdoors, but only if you’re surrounded by concrete and other stuff that can’t be dug up and piled on top of you.

Lesley Gore


Lesley Gore was one of the classic voices from Rock/Pop in the 1960s.  She sang songs from a teenage girl’s point of view, songs about love and heartbreak as only a teenage girl could see it.  But what made Gore’s music different was that it was rooted in realism.  It wasn’t just melodramatic sap or fantasy romance.  It was the kind of stuff that girls dealt with all the time.  Her characters fell for boys, lost them to other girls, got them back.  They knew the truth about their guys’ flaws, but loved them anyway.  These were realistic relationships–the kind I still saw being played out when I was a teenager in the 80s, and that probably still get played out in high school hallways today.  Listeners could identify with Lesley Gore’s songs because they lived them.

Her biggest hit was “It’s My Party,” and it’s a cracker.  Catchy and emotional.  Name me one teenage girl who didn’t feel like she wanted to die when she found out her boyfriend was with her frenemy.  I love that song.  But Gore made a lot of other great music, too.  One of my other favorites is the plaintive “Maybe I Know.”  You really feel for this girl who understands that her boyfriend is pretty much a cad, but she just doesn’t want to give up on him.  Heck, maybe you were that girl.

When I was reading about Lesley Gore’s death today at 68, I found out that her life was richer than the teenybopper love songs she sang in the 60s, and that her career didn’t end with the end of that decade.  She had a degree in English from Sarah Lawrence (which means she was one smart cookie), and a 33 year relationship with her partner Lois Sasson (which means she had a better love than the ones she sang about).  I also found out that she co-wrote one of my favorite songs from the soundtrack of 1980’s Fame with her brother Michael.  It’s another touching song about a girl who feels lost and afraid, but won’t back down from the troubles in the world or in her heart.  I think it kind of sums up the kind of person Lesley Gore was.

Repost: “Y.M.C.A.”


The Supreme Court is going to hear cases on Same-Sex marriage in April, possibly deciding once and for all the legality of full equal rights for gay and lesbian couples.  (Fingers crossed that they make the right decision.)  The Trans community has made recent headlines with the tragic suicide of Leelah Alcorn and the victory of visibility with Transparent‘s win at the Golden Globes.  What I’m saying is that I’m looking for legitimate reasons to be reposting this ditty today, instead of coming up with something new.  Because I don’t really have anything new to say–although the length of this note implies otherwise.  Please ignore the opening comment about working out at the Y.  I’ve reached a new level of laziness lately, and it no longer applies.

So I’ve begun going to our local Y.M.C.A. to workout a couple of days a week. I use the term “workout” rather loosely, since I don’t really have a plan yet. I like the treadmill (now that I’ve gotten used to walking on a sidewalk that moves), and I use the stationary bike to get my heart rate up for a little cardio. But I’m not quite to the point where I know exactly what I’m doing.

Of course, going to the Y made me think of everyone’s favorite party song (or least favorite; there’s not a lot of middle ground with this one).

Watching this video makes me wonder how any reasonably intelligent (read: breathing) adult could not notice that this was the gayest singing group ever. I mean, I was like 7 or 8 when this came out, so I know how I missed it. I didn’t have any frame of reference or experience. But I seriously remember people being surprised that there were other connotations to what they were singing about. “You can hang out with all the boys” didn’t mean playing board games and basketball in this song. (I was a tad surprised when I figured it out some years later, but only for a few minutes. Then I thought about, oh, everything about the Village People and realized that 2 and 2 actually added up to a very fabulous 4.) Between the costumes and the lyrics and the dancing, it really was apparent.

Now my regular readers know that not only do I not care, I celebrate the open embrace of LGBTQ culture in this song. Sure, they played into a lot of the stereotypes of the gay community (cowboy, construction worker, cop, leather daddy). But they were upbeat and positive, promoting a vision of the community as fun and free. And human. The Village People are one of the earliest mainstream, pop culture representations of gays as something not deviant. They helped put a face on the community. They were non-threatening, funny and charming, with ready smiles and catchy tunes. It wasn’t the whole story, not by any means, but it was one chapter.

This is a story that’s still being written, and I’m still hoping for the happy ending (the one that says “And all the LGBTQ people got all the same legal and civil rights everyone else already had, and they lived happily ever after. The End.”). Without the Village People–and Elton John and Ellen Degeneres and so many others–we might not have gotten this far. So everybody get up, put your hands in the air, and sing along.

“It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.!”

“Water Under Bridges”


So I was tooling around the iTunes store last night, looking for music to spend money on, and I decided to see what Gregory Porter had been up to.  This song came out in 2013, but it hit me like a sledgehammer to the heart.

I cried.  The grief and ache in Porter’s rich voice just hit me so hard that the short preview had me in tears.  There really isn’t anything I can add.  Listen if you haven’t already.  Then listen to more by this unbelievably talented man.  You’ll never, ever be sorry.  (And I want to thank Sandee once again for turning me on to this dude a couple years ago.)

“Love is a Battlefield”


Why?  Because I was a teenager in the 80s.  That’s why.

And if you don’t love this pretty good song and its cheestastic video in all its cheesy glory, then clearly you didn’t grow up in the 80s.

Pat Benatar is more than just some goofy dance moves and a pretty face, of course.  She trained as an opera singer before turning her formidable voice to Rock and Pop.  Her string of hits throughout the 80s solidified her place in the Rock pantheon, and her tough chick persona made her appealing to both girls and guys.  Although I think it was the pretty face that most guys were into; I don’t know that many dudes who name Benatar as one of their favorite singers.

But she could sing the hell out of pretty much anything.  While there are any number of Benatar songs I don’t particularly care for, she always turned in a great performance.  I think her classical training helped her imbue even the most inane and clichéd lyrics with real emotion.  She was further aided by her rocking backing band, which included her husband Neil Giraldo (probably making the chemistry between singer and band that much easier).  All in all, Pat Benatar is one of the best Rock singers to make it out of the 80s.

Joe Cocker


I was gonna post two holiday songs today, to make up for missing yesterday.  And then I saw the news.

Maybe because it’s the holidays and I just don’t want anything sad or bad to happen, but the death of Joe Cocker is hitting me really hard.  I wasn’t the biggest fan, but he sure did have a magnificent voice.  And a unique stage presence and style.  Joe Cocker was definitely a horse of a different color.  That’s what made him so great.

As far as I know, there was no physical condition that caused him to thrash around the way he did on stage.  I like to think it was something akin to speaking in tongues in religion.  He was so into what he was doing, so much a part of the songs he was singing, that he couldn’t really control what his body did.  It also might’ve been that he couldn’t dance very well, and those spasmodic movements were all he could manage.  Either way, the thrashing made him a mesmerizing performer.  And his voice was pure grit and gravel, a Blues/Rock marvel that could turn any song into a masterpiece.

One of my fondest musical moments from Cocker was also one of his most recent.  A number of years ago, a local radio station had played the Beatles’ “Come Together” so often that I began to hate it.  Cocker’s version for the movie Across the Universe saved it for me.  I will always be grateful for that.

Cocker was from Sheffield: a working class, blue-collar dude.  So I think I’ll raise a pint for him tonight.  I’m so glad we got to hear him sing.

Jimmy Ruffin


Another one of the great soul voices has been silenced.  Singer Jimmy Ruffin passed away on Monday in Las Vegas; he was 78.

Ruffin was the older brother of late Temptations’ singer David Ruffin, and collaborated with his brother on the 1970 album I Am My Brother’s Keeper (which must have been quite the vocal showcase).  His biggest hit, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” is one of those great songs that transcends style and genre.  I’ve known that song all my life, known how good it was, but never really thought much about the artist that made it.  I’m not even sure I knew it was Jimmy Ruffin’s song until the news of his death today.  I just knew that song.

I think that kind of universality is a sign of the artist’s talent.  Something that could’ve been pigeonholed or labeled became ubiquitous instead.  It became something that could be played on virtually any radio station, in the background of any movie, in the soundtrack of anyone’s life.  It wasn’t a cookie cutter song by any means; I can’t imagine any other voice singing this wonderful song.  But the emotion behind it could be anyone’s.  Ruffin took a song that obviously meant something to him, and made it meaningful to everyone else.  That’s the best kind of art there is.