“The Times They are A-Changin'”

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I’ve been thinking a lot today.  That’s usually not a good thing, since a tendency to get lost in the woods of my thoughts often produces anxiety for me.  And to be honest, there’s been a fair amount of anxiety in my thoughts today; to be fair to myself, there’s a lot of anxiety floating around in the air these days and most of it isn’t mine.  But I’m not feeling anxious.  Just. . . thinky.

I’ve been thinking about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and how that’s produced some Very Strong Opinions from a lot of people.  I’ve been thinking about how I can see both sides of that particular argument, and therefore refuse to take sides.  Been thinking about how the award comes largely from the Baby Boomers’ love of Dylan and his life-transforming music and lyrics.  Been thinking about how awarding a musician–a popular and already heavily lauded and awarded one, at that–an award for literature kind of shuts some very deserving author of the credit and exposure they so desperately need.  But Dylan’s writing is so influential, so undeniably great, that I can’t argue that he isn’t deserving of it as well.  I’ve also been thinking about how some of the backlash about Dylan’s award is probably rooted in a the false notion that Rock & Roll is not a high art form, that it is not Art at all.  That this music holds no complexity or answers, or even any questions, about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.  That it is something to be enjoyed when you are young but discarded as soon as you turn forty.  (And anyone who actually does believe Rock is that shallow and only for youth should first of all LISTEN to some goddamn Dylan, who is about as complex and chimeric as anything else in Rock.  Then they need to read some Greil Marcus to understand just what this music says about America, among a few other things.)

I’ve been thinking about my volunteering at the historical society, and some strife that’s going on there at the moment; it’ll pass soon enough, but it makes things a little tense right now.  I’ve been thinking about the assignment that’s due this week that I haven’t done yet; it’ll get done, but I’m having my usual minor stress about how and when it’ll get done.  I’ve been thinking about a job I’m in the running for, and the kind of minor blow it’ll be to my self-esteem if/when I don’t get it.  I’ve been thinking about who I am and who I want to be.  Things I think about a lot, but don’t generally mention to anyone.

I’ve been thinking about my cousin, whose mother died today.  (If you want to get technical, she’s my mom’s cousin, which makes her my first cousin once-removed.  And yes, I did look that up once.)  Her dad, my mom’s uncle, is also in failing health.  I want her to know I understand how weird her life is right now.  How sad and numb she’s feeling.  How confusing it is to lose a parent, to have such a huge momentous thing happen, to feel your world come to a complete and utter stop. and to wonder why the hell the rest of the world hasn’t stopped right along with yours.

I’ve been thinking about how in just a little less than a month, we’re going to elect the first woman president in this country.  And how that woman is going to be president in four years, when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.  And how simultaneously exhilarating and depressing it is that I will be here to witness that anniversary.  Exhilarating because I make sure I exercise my right to vote; I just got my ballot in the mail and I’m looking forward to filling it out.  Exhilarating because it gives me such joy to know that women before fought for this right and that I, as well as every other woman who votes, is the living embodiment of this victory.  Depressing because we should have had the vote from the moment this country was founded.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.  And right now, I’m thinking this song is more relevant now than ever.  You might notice that the version I chose is slightly different from the one most people are used to.  It’s from one of Dylan’s Bootleg series, a demo probably, with a piano standing in for an acoustic guitar.  I like the difference.  It suits the times.  Because they are indeed changing.  And you better start swimming, or you will sink like a stone.

 

Change to me has always represented disruption, and to me disruption is bad.  That’s not true.  Yes, these days, change seems to come mostly out of negatives: crime, bombings, anger.  There’s so much whirling around these days it’s kind of hard to get a grip on anything.  But not all change is bad, something I’ve been trying to learn for a long time now.  Change is inevitable, and the only good or bad is how you react to it.  That’s what this song is saying.  “The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast.  The slowest now will later be fast, as the present now will later be past.  The order is rapidly fading.  And first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changing.”

Let’s see where things are going.  Who knows?  It might be fun.

Ian McLagan

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Boy, this has been kind of a shitty week for famous sidemen.  The latest is Ian McLagan, who died yesterday from complications of a stroke earlier this week.

To be fair, Ian McLagan was a full-fledged member of the Faces (or the Small Faces, depending on the lineup).  But after the Faces disbanded, McLagan become one of the more popular guests with other acts.  I got to see him onstage once, when he came out to join the Georgia Satellites for a couple of songs during a concert (it might’ve been a different concert, but that’s how I remember it).  It was pretty damn cool.

Like the other members of the Faces (Ron Wood and Rod Steward most notably), McLagan projected a feeling of easy, loose camaraderie.  He seemed like one of the guys you could go down to the pub with and have a few pints.  It seemed like he smiled all the time, like everything was just one big crazy party.  But that image belied his musicianship.  This guy probably could’ve played any song with anybody.  He was one of the greats, and I know he will be missed.

 

My Brain Has Already Fritzed Out

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My copy of Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes Complete arrived today.  I’m currently ripping disc 4 onto my computer.  I’m also in the middle of listening to track 5 on disc 1, “Belshazzar.”  I am almost apoplectic with glee right now.  (Yeah, that might be physically impossible, but I’m working on accomplishing it.)

Just switched to “I Forgot to Remember to Forget.”  A lot of the tracks are covers of old Folk and Country classics, which might be why Robbie Robertson weeded them out on the truncated 1975 release.  He probably wanted to showcase as much of the original stuff as possible, not to mention showcase the Band’s contributions as much as Dylan’s.  I get that.  But his curating led to all this amazing music being kept out of circulation.  Well, legal circulation, anyway.  The bootlegs of these recordings have been bouncing around almost since they were recorded.  But this is the first official release of everything, with all the commensurate bells and whistles.

Among those bells and whistles are some amazing pictures and essays packaged in hardcover.  They did their best to make this set worth the price tag.  (Amazon ended up charging me about $30 less than the original list price, but it’s still more than a hundred bucks for everything.)  Frankly, I’m so happy right now I could just spit.  It might be enough to keep my mind off of politics tonight.

I’m not including a clip.  I searched YouTube, but every title that matched one of these terrific tracks was “not available in your country.”  I’m sure it’s available for streaming somewhere, so if you can’t pony up the bucks, you should probably be able to listen to it.  I’d look it up, but I just want to get back to the music.

“Nights of Mystery/Every Picture Tells a Story”

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I don’t really have that much to say about this song.  Well, two songs, really.  At the end of their debut album, the Georgia Satellites took their driving, muddy river current of a song “Nights of Mystery” and linked it seamlessly to a rip-roaring cover of Rod Stewart’s classic “Every Picture Tells a Story.”  The crashing drums and guitar fading gently to a single acoustic is as natural as the sunrise.  And then everything comes crashing down again.

I like the Satellites’ cover of “Every Picture Tells a Story” better than the original.  It’s not just the music that fits with “Nights of Mystery”;  The two songs are thematically similar:  Somewhat clueless guy meets awesome girl, true love ensues.  Just like the songs, the guy & girl are like puzzle pieces slotting together.  But they have to be together.  One downside to the iPod is that it just cuts songs at the moment where the track changes.  (There is a menu item on itunes that allows you to link tracks, but you must have the CD to do it.)  But separating these songs diminishes them.  Their power not comes from the fact that they’re good songs individually (although they are).  They are transformed into something else once they are linked, something greater than the sum of their parts.  What?  I don’t know.  It depends on the moment.  Love song, life philosophy, anthem.  All I know is I feel better whenever I hear these songs.

I hope y’all feel better, too.

 

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.

Happy Birthday, Willie!!!!

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One of my favorite people in the Universe turns 80 today.  I know it’s impractical, but I kind of think we should all just stop whatever we’re doing and pay tribute to the natural wonder, the force of nature that is Willie Nelson.

Even if you don’t think much of his music, you’ve got to respect the man.  Willie refuses to be contained.  He still tours the country in buses that run on biodiesel fuel.  He still plays at the annual Farm Aid benefit for family farmers.  He still challenges himself musically and artistically, even though he could just coast on his musical laurels.  And he still gets pulled over and charged with possession.  I don’t use anything stronger than a glass of wine once in a while, but I respect a guy who sticks to his guns about marijuana the way Willie has.  (Paul McCartney already wussed out and admitted he doesn’t toke up anymore, so Willie and Tom Petty are among the few mainstream rebels I can think of that still stand by pot.  And I’m not so sure about TP these days.  Politically, I’m all for legalizing pot; there are proven and suspected medicinal benefits, and the tax revenue would be really helpful.)  There has never been anyone like Willie Nelson, and there are very few musicians with such broad appeal.  When he was forced to auction off his property and memorabilia to pay the IRS, his fans came to the auction to buy his stuff, just so they could give it back to him.  Just about everyone likes something about the man and his work.

My own personal favorite is his collaboration with Wynton Marsalis from a few years ago.  They got on stage at Lincoln Center with a full jazz orchestra, and played a concert of standards.  It is one of those amazing, essential albums.  I heard it, and knew that my life would not be complete unless I owned it.  Not my music collection.  My life.  This is music that feeds the soul.  I love it.  And I’d like to thank trumpet00617 for posting this concert to YouTube.  I hope y’all enjoy it as much as I do.

Pay special attention to the battered guitar that Willie plays.  He said in an interview once that he would retire when it finally became unplayable.  So light a candle, burn some incense, and pray to whatever gods you think might be listening that that old guitar holds it together forever.

“California”

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Rolling Stone once described Joni Mitchell’s voice as a “cold-water soprano,” and I’ve always thought that was a pretty apt description.  Listening to her is as refreshing and beautiful as swimming in cool, clear lake on a hot August afternoon.  Her voice pours over you like water.  But as liquid and pure as her voice can be, she can seem as brittle and crackling as ice.  But those moments–when her voice strains and breaks for the highest notes, when she lowers her voice to the barest whisper–those are the moments when the emotion is strongest.  She is momentarily overwhelmed by the feelings her songs evoke.  She is one of the finest singers in music history, something that is only magnified by the beautiful songs she crafts.  Mitchell is a painter as well as a musician and songwriter; all her art is vivid and colorful, no matter the medium she chooses.

“California” is a love song to this weird and wonderful place where anything can happen.  Even though her character is traveling through Europe in this song, you can feel the hot dry Santa Ana winds blowing out from East.  You can feel the sun beating down on your hair, the sand of the beach between your toes.  You can hear the traffic and the slap of flip-flops on the concrete, smell the exhaust from the buses.  There’s taco meat cooking somewhere, everywhere.  Everyone is beautiful, but no one wants to get caught looking.  It’s the oldest dance in civilization–commerce and sex–on the newest, most plastic arena possible.  “California” is about missing the state of mind that California instills in her residents, an unfathomable mix of reality and dreams.

“Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?  California I’m comin’ home.”

Happy Birthday Elvis!

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Elvis Presley would’ve been 78 today (or he is 78, if you believe some of the crazy theories out there).  In spite of the way he was used and exploited by Colonel Tom Parker, the music and movie industries, and countless other “suits” out there, he managed to remain a charismatic and powerful performer.  Even in the white jumpsuit years, his talents obviously in decline, he could command the stage like no other.

The comeback special from 1968 showcased his talent and charm, reminding us all why we fell in love with him in the first place.  It wasn’t just his physical beauty, or his ability to sing.  There was some indefinable magic to Elvis.  Watch this whole thing if you have the time.  You’ll see a still young man who’d been imprisoned by his image and fame for over a decade reclaiming a little piece of himself.  You’ll also see one of the iconic performers of Rock & Roll give one of his most iconic performances.  (Special thanks to motzendorfer for posting this to YouTube.)

Happy Birthday, Elvis, wherever you are.

Note: Today is also the incomparable David Bowie’s 66th birthday, so best wishes to him.  Dangerous Minds posted today that Bowie is releasing his first new album in a decade.  Here’s hoping it’s as fascinating as the rest of his music.

Repost: “Take It Easy”

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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.