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Posts Tagged ‘musicians’

Aretha Franklin

Posted by purplemary54 on August 16, 2018

Name a great female singer, any great female singer, and each and every one of them will pale in comparison to Aretha Franklin.  They all have their moments of greatness, to be sure.  They are all talented within their own rights, possessing style and personality that lets their individuality shine.  But none were ever as consistently great as ‘Retha.  The proper definition of the word awesome is inspiring awe, that feeling of vast wonderment in the universe and whatever spirit moves you.  Aretha Franklin was awesome.

I’m not going to try to explain why.  Yes, she had natural talent that was honed by training in gospel choirs and production studios.  Yes, she had charisma and grace and the intelligence to change her style with the times.  Yes, she was physically beautiful.  But there was something else there, something ineffable and intangible.  Something in her eyes that told you whatever she felt when she was singing was profound and deep and metaphysical.  Supernatural, if you will.  It’s the same thing that makes Eric Clapton such an unbelievable guitar player, despite being less technically skilled than many others.  There is something that she touches with her voice that almost no other singer of any gender will ever be able to get close to touching.

Many tributes to Aretha will choose “Respect” or “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),”  or even “Natural Woman.”  I’ll just leave with this, possibly my favorite of hers.  It was just as much about respect for yourself and your fellow human beings as “Respect,” but with a focus not just on the relationship between men and women, but that between blacks and whites.  I only wish it weren’t still relevant.  After all, Aretha isn’t here to knock some sense into our sorry asses anymore.

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Posted in Music, Obituaries, R&B/Soul | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“Henrietta, Indiana”

Posted by purplemary54 on June 6, 2018

Because I’ve been naughty and haven’t posted anything in a while.  And because it’s been even longer since I posted any Josh Ritter.

I could’ve chosen one of the nice acoustic performance clips of this song, but I really wanted y’all to hear the opening, which is nothing technically speaking but sets the emotional tone for this song.  Boom, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  You know from the first beat that nothing good is going to happen in this song.  1,600 people put out of work by the closing of the dairy plant.  A former worker develops a drinking problem.  One son loses his faith in god.  The other, simply at loose ends, is the narrator.  The crime at the heart of the song–besides the systematic disenfranchisement of the working class by corporate greed–is unclear.  Did the father and brother rob the liquor store out in Putney?  Were they simply innocent bystanders?  Who ended up dead?  Who were the police looking for?  What did they tell the other son who, when he opened the front door to them, “thought I was crying, it was something in my eye”?  Why wasn’t he crying?  Was he the one that committed the crime?

You know what I’m gonna say here.  That the answers to these questions aren’t important.  And they aren’t.  But I’d still kind of like to know exactly what went down.  It nags at me, “Like a thorn in the paw, disregard for the law, disappointment to the lord on high.”  It would help to be able to understand what happened in the chaos of the bridge.  It wouldn’t help to understand the current chaos of the world, but it might make me feel a little better to have this one thing make sense.

“Henrietta, Indiana” showcases Ritter’s storytelling abilities beautifully.  It’s one of the aspects of his songwriting I appreciate most, although I had to acquire a taste for this song, kind of like the father acquired “a taste for the hard stuff.”  It’s also reminiscent of the even less clear “Harrisburg” (you get a live clip for this one, complete with a “Wicked Game” interval that almost makes me want to listen to that damn song again; you’re welcome).  There is something fundamentally wrong in both these songs.  A restlessness, an anger, a dread.  In “Henrietta, Indiana” it literally thrums throughout–in this case in the steady drumbeat that carries the song from first note to last.  I had to learn to like “Henrietta” because it isn’t the sweet, soulful type of music that drew me to Ritter in the first place.  It’s the kind of song that doesn’t stir the heart, but instead asks questions of your soul.  Just how far are you willing to go to escape a life you never planned on having? What are you willing to sacrifice for happiness?  Is it really living if all you do is survive?  Ritter leaves that up to his characters, but you get the feeling they’re not too happy with the answers they’ve come up with.  Which give you the listener the chance to come with better ones for yourself.

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“Time (The Revelator)”

Posted by purplemary54 on May 1, 2018

I was channel flipping the other morning, and I came across Gillian Welch on AXStv, a pretty good cable channel for music (and movie trailers); they play a lot of concert recordings, interviews, etc.  That morning it was an episode of Soundstage, I think, that featured Dar Williams and Gillian Welch.  I missed Dar but got Gillian.  And everything just kind of stopped.

There is something about this woman–her voice, her phrasing, her songs–that stops me in my tracks every single time.  I don’t know what it is; I don’t care.  I don’t want to name why she affects me so deeply.  That would take some of the wonder out of it.  And she is a wonder.  Along with her frequent collaborator David Rawlings, Welch weaves a web of sorrow, mystery, fear, and frustration that ensnares you with not just the sheer power of the ambiguous and mixed emotions, but in their utter inevitability.  There is no other way for the characters in her songs to see the world.  It is out of their control, and they are careening and caroming through their lives without a single clue as to what any of it means.

There is a distinct lack of context in her songs.  Like the stunning “Elvis Presley Blues,” (from the same album) this song drops you into a place where time simply doesn’t exist.  The story, as much as there is one, is of a woman who is profoundly disconnected from her lover, from herself, from the world.  There is no stated reason for the disconnect, no way to place her profound solitude in a world of action and reaction.  It simply is.  The only constant she sees is the fact that eventually time reveals everything.  There’s an irony there: that time is the one thing that moves and makes sense in this song that is in almost every other way essentially timeless.

The song ends on what I’d call an open note.  The last few seconds seem to be leading toward a concluding riff, but then it just stops.  There is no conclusion, not really.  And that’s about as good a metaphor for life and death as I think you’re ever going to get in art.

 

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“Wooden Heart”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 16, 2018

I watched the HBO documentary on Elvis Presley The Searcher last night (and I highly recommend it; here’s the trailer to whet your appetite).  I had read beforehand an article about Tom Petty’s contribution–a fine interview made all the more melancholy by Petty’s death last October, so I was even more intrigued than I would’ve been anyway.  Both parts covered Elvis’ career in a way that was both familiar and revelatory.  I already knew most of it, but it was such a joy to watch and listen to the interviews with his contemporaries and others analyzing the work itself instead of the garish personal details of his life.  Elvis the man wasn’t ignored, but his personal life was only covered in respect to how it affected him as an artist.  I came away with an even greater dislike of Tom Parker and the damage he did to Elvis’s career.  (Yeah, yeah.  Without Parker, Elvis might not have become an international superstar so quickly, but those godawful movies in the 60s and all the ways he stifled his recording & touring were just too fucking heinous for words.)  But I was also struck by, as I always am, by what an amazing performer and singer Elvis was.  Watching the old footage of him, even the 70s jumpsuit years, showed why he was so phenomenal.  It was kind of heartbreaking

Of course then the closing credits happened.  Tom Petty’s interview for the documentary came just a few months before his unexpected death last year, and as noted in the article I read, it was incredibly insightful and one of the final ones recorded.  As a fellow Southerner and artist, I think Petty got Elvis in a way others interviewed didn’t; he understood where Elvis came from far more intimately than a lot of scholars and critics ever could no matter how much research they might do.  But that was just kind of melancholy, like I said earlier.  What killed me, made me cry out loud, was the tacit dedication the filmmakers made to Petty over the closing credits.

“Wooden Heart” is from G.I. Blues, the first movie Elvis made after being discharged from the army in 1960.  The soundtrack was like that of most of the music from Elvis movies: mostly forgettable with a gem or two tucked in.  The version of “Wooden Heart” in the movie is pretty wooden, too, except for Presley’s irrepressible charisma.  But this gentle cover by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers is so lovely and quiet; you can genuinely believe the plea for love and compassion he makes.  And I thought I had never heard it before.  When I finished sobbing and pulled myself together, I hit iTunes to see if I could download it.  It was available on the doc’s soundtrack, along with a whole lot of great Elvis and some other fabulous blues & rock used to tell the tale (and considering how many tracks there are, it’s kind of a bargain at $39.99 is you’re looking for a starter Elvis collection).  But looking around the web for more information and something for this post, I found out I already owned Petty’s cover of “Wooden Heart” and had most likely listened to it at some point.

Back in the 90s, Petty & the Heartbreakers released a damn good box set called Playback.  It’s six discs worth of some of the best music from one of the best acts ever in Rock & Roll.  The first three discs are all great tracks from the various albums up to that point; the second three are b-sides, rarities, and demos.  “Wooden Heart” was nestled in near the end of Disc 6 titled “Nobody’s Children” for the fact that these were tracks that were essentially orphaned–recorded but left off of any other albums for whatever reason.  I remember listening to the entire box set when I got it, although I’ve mostly neglected it since.  I don’t why I ignored or dismissed “Wooden Heart”; I guess I just wasn’t in the right head space for back then.  But now, after Petty’s death and watching the sad end of Elvis’ life and career, this song really hits home.  It’s nice to discover (or rediscover) treasure like this.

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“Play in the Rain”

Posted by purplemary54 on April 8, 2018

Lindsey Buckingham has always been my favorite of Fleetwood Mac’s long line of weird and brilliant frontmen.  And as a musician/songwriter/producer, he’s always been the oddest of the oddballs.  He never met a sound effect, vocal distortion, or production trick he didn’t like and frequently employed them on both group and solo albums.  In 1984, he released his oddball masterpiece, the aptly titled Go Insane.  It is arguably the strangest mainstream recording outside of a deliberate novelty album ever.

It also sounds like Buckingham was going a little bit insane when he made it.  Since Go Insane came out almost ten years after the big Mac’s seminal Rumors, I’m not sure any of the obvious turmoil here can be blamed on the emotional upheaval that made Rumors so phenomenally good (and popular).  It also employs to fuller effect some of the musical trickery that he’d begun employing with Tusk.  One of the best tracks on the album is the repetitive (but never boring) “Play in the Rain.”  There’s a rage and a passion to this collection of riffs and noise that is only hinted at in many of his other songs.  Smashing glass, pouring water, instrumental swirls and cacophonies dance around each other while Buckingham croons the limited lyrics over and over.  It’s a little ominous, frankly.  I’m not so sure I’d have said yes to his repeated “Can we play in the rain?”

Now my very first copy of this album was on cassette–vinyl being the other main choice since CDs weren’t yet the preferred format (let’s not even discuss how this might have played out had Go Insane been released digitally in its first incarnations; I’ll just say I’m not so sure it would’ve been better that way).  As you oldsters out there know, cassettes and vinyl have limited space on each playable side, so there was only so much music you could put on each side.  Presumably as a way to tie the opposite album sides together, Buckingham opted to split “Play in the Rain” into two parts.

The last track on the first side fades out with a sitar riff, you get up and flip over your LP/cassette, and pick up right where you left off.

It’s really kind of awesome.  Sure it’s an otherwise unnecessary interruption in the beautiful droning weirdness of the song, but it had the effect of showing the listener that this was not just some random collection of songs; this was a narrative, a story, a chain.  What was the story being told?  It seems to me to be the story of someone obsessed with another person, or another persona.  A story of someone teetering on the edge of madness, a nightmare of love and lust.  It’s fantastic.  This song is the centerpiece of the madness.  These days, you can get the song as one piece, but I don’t think it adds anything to it to be a whole song instead of two parts.  Part of what makes it compelling to me is the way it connects the two halves of the original album.  In these days of easy downloads, it’s harder to get a sense of the wholeness of a work.  I could get into a whole “get off my lawn” type rant about this, but I won’t; it’s just something I miss about the way we used to consume music.  The days when you would just put on an album and listen to it as a thing in and of itself, one track after the next.  Even CDs, which made things like the break between the two parts of “Play in the Rain” kind of useless, gave you a clear sense of an album as a complete work, something conceived as a piece of art and deliberately arranged in a certain way.  “Play in the Rain” (parts I and II) remind you that there was once a time when the structure of an album mattered just as much as the content.

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Take Two: “Ode to Billie Joe”

Posted by purplemary54 on March 7, 2018

I first posted about this song way back in 2013 (click here for that post).  And while what I wrote nearly five years ago still holds true, there’s more.  There’s always more with “Ode to Billie Joe.”

For example: the body of Emmett Till was found in the Tallahatchie river in Mississippi in 1955.  Till was the fourteen-year-old black child murdered by white men because he essentially sassed a white woman.  (I just finished reading the terrific but horribly depressing The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson.  Be forwarned: It is a beautifully written and researched book, but you will want to scream at how little things have changed.)  Now I haven’t been able to find any direct connection between the composition and the murder, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emmett Till was one of the ghosts haunting Gentry’s song.

There are a lot of ghosts in “Ode to Billie Joe.”

There are so many ghosts in this song, it’s impossible to name them all.  The myth of Southern gentility and propriety.  The way the people we are closest to are sometimes the ones that know the least about us.  The willful lack of empathy for anyone considered “other.”  Sex, race, class.  And, most obviously, the ghost of Billie Joe McAllister.

When the movie based on the song was made in the mid-70s, the answer to the question of why Billy Joe jumped was that he’d had a (possibly coerced) homosexual encounter with his older boss.  (Note that the spelling is different.  Apparently the character’s name was always supposed to be spelled that way, but there were a lot of mistakes made when the single and album were rushed into production in 1967; see Tara Murtha’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series Ode to Billie Joe for more information.)  Gay sex was still taboo back then, and during the 50s when the movie is set, so of course he’d want to commit suicide.  If the movie were made today using the same plot device, hopefully Billy Joe would embrace his queerness and move to San Francisco instead.

I don’t really think the movie provided the correct answer.  As Gentry herself has stated in the past, the motives behind Billie Joe’s suicide (or just precisely what the hell he and the protagonist of the song were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge) aren’t really the point of the song.  The point is that this huge thing happens, has a huge effect on one of the people sitting around that kitchen table, and no one notices.  They treat the death of a human being they all knew and presumably liked (some of them more than others, granted) as if it’s no more important than the 40 acres left to plow or a preacher coming round to court the girl singing the song.  The question we should ask is why is everyone so unconcerned?  Why are these people so disconnected from a tragedy like this?  What the fuck is going on here?

The sad truth is there isn’t any answer to any of the real questions the song is asking.  Just like we will never know what was thrown off the bridge or why a young man threw himself off it shortly after, we will never know why “Today Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge” is met with no more emotion than “Looks like it might rain today.”

There’s another element to the song that makes it interesting, and that’s the singer/songwriter herself: Bobbie Gentry.  While “Ode to Billie Joe” is Gentry’s biggest hit, she had a lengthy and successful career including a series of hit shows on the Las Vegas strip.  And Gentry is still alive, somewhere in her 70s now.  But she hasn’t made a public appearance or spoken to the media since 1983.  She just dropped out of sight.  Close friends and even some members of her family have completely lost touch with her.  Wikipedia states that as of 2016 she lives near the Tallahatchie river, but of course she isn’t confirming anything.    In a weird way, she has disappeared as effectively as whatever was thrown into that infernal river.  She has become another one of the ghosts haunting her song.

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

“Oops!. . . I Did It Again”

Posted by purplemary54 on January 25, 2018

Some weeks ago, I went and saw Richard Thompson at my local indie record store, Fingerprints, and the highlight of the all-too-brief show was his cover of this Britney Spears hit.

Thompson originally recorded this song for his 1000 Years of Popular Music, where he examined a bunch of songs that were the tops of the pops in their day.  Thompson proves that his talent is wide-ranging and prodigious by making what is an atrocity Britney Spears’ hands (or at least in the hands of her production team at the time) a truly entertaining tune.

Have I mentioned that I really dig Richard Thompson?  I might be just a wee bit biased.

But actually, he does demonstrate that this overproduced, pretentious piece of fluff is actually a fairly well-written and structurally sound pop tune.  The sight of cute little Brit in her red catsuit is there to distract us from the fact that her vocals are autotuned to the point of nonexistence and the music seems to be all played by computer.  The fact that there seems to be almost zero human input into the making of this song is disturbing, but we shouldn’t blame the song itself.  To be fair, it’s not a great pop song; it’s average at best.  But to see what appears to be a perfectly serviceable if rather sexist song turned into what amounts to a pre-programmed tune on an 80s-era Casio keyboard is kind of sad.  (It is a pretty sexist song: She basically admits that she’s nothing but a nasty whore, and he really should’ve known better.)

This kind of pop music continues to be produced with ever-greater frequency.  Solution?  Just send everything to Richard Thompson to cover.  He’ll reveal at least the competence of the songs, if not their true greatness.

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Malcolm Young

Posted by purplemary54 on November 19, 2017

You always saw Angus.  With his schoolboy uniform and flashy solos, it was kind of impossible to miss him.  Or you saw the singer–first Bon, then Brian–all raspy voices, tight jeans, and leering smiles.  It didn’t matter which one it was; they were eerily interchangeable.  If you were a certain type of fan, you’d watch the drummer at the back.  But you almost never saw Malcolm on stage.  He was always there, usually just to the singer’s left, bobbing away to the beat and strumming his guitar.  Your attention would always be on the flashy exterior, never really realizing that the heart of AC/DC was pounding away unnoticed.

Malcolm Young might not have been responsible for the image AC/DC projected to its fans, but he was largely responsible for their sound.  He co-wrote most of the songs you sing along with as they blare from your radio.  When it was announced in 2014 that he was permanently retiring from the band because of dementia, family and fans knew it was just a matter of time.  That time came a couple days ago when Malcolm left this plane at just 64.  He left behind some truly kick ass music.  It won’t change the fact that he was too young to go, but at least it gives everyone something to hold on to.

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Fats Domino

Posted by purplemary54 on October 25, 2017

Antoine “Fats” Domino has left this world at the age of 89.  We were lucky we had him so long.  We almost lost him in New Orleans in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but he survived and kept making music.  We got twelve more years of that wonderful voice and unbelievable smile.  (I need to add him to that mental list I have of musicians who love their work so much they can’t contain themselves.)  Domino was always smiling at the piano, and even when he wasn’t, you could still see the echo of that smile in his eyes.  He was irrepressible.

Domino was also one of the original architects of Rock & Roll.  Without his trademark piano style, drawn from the jazz and blues that filled the air in his native New Orleans, the music I and so many others love so much would not have sounded the same.  The old guard is dwindling now–just a few of the originals are still out there.  But the music is still as vital and alive as it was decades ago.

If you’ve got some time to kill and want to be truly entertained, watch the episode of American Masters devoted to Domino.  You will not be sorry to have spent an hour in the presence of this lovely, talented human.

 

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

“The Best of Everything”

Posted by purplemary54 on October 8, 2017

I had to take a couple of days off before I could write this one.  It’s just a little too hard emotionally.  I mean, the song is a killer.  A guy reflects on a long-lost love and hopes her life is good and happy.  And while it’s a tad overproduced, the sadness of the lyrics and the melancholy with which Tom delivers them just makes my heart ache.

Of course, this song is a little bit of a double whammy for me.  The overproduction on “The Best of Everything” comes courtesy of Robbie Robertson.  During the lengthy recording of Southern Accents (they had to leave the studio for roughly a year after Tom broke his hand and basically had to relearn playing guitar; many songs from the original sessions ended up being scrapped or totally revamped), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were at the studio the same time as Robertson.  Tom asked him to produce one of the songs, which became the basic track for “The Best of Everything.”  Robertson took it away for post-production overdubs, and was very secretive about precisely what he was doing to the song.  Tom would regularly ask him how it was going, and Robbie would  tell him everything was fine and that it would be done soon.  When the track was finally finished, there was a beautiful horn section and a backing vocal from Richard Manuel.  (BTW, if you don’t know who Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel are 1) Google them, and 2) go away; I don’t think we can be friends anymore.)  That backing vocal ended up being one of the last things Richard Manuel ever recorded before his suicide in 1986.

So it’s safe to say I get a little weepy over this song on good days.

Last Monday, October 2nd, was not a good day.  Tom was gone.  Yes, his physical body was still lingering in this plane, but his energy, his spirit, had already moved on.  I could feel that little bit of emptiness left behind in the Universe.  And I sat on my couch with my iPod on.  As I scrolled and saw this title, I hesitated before I hit play.  I knew it would shatter the last pieces of my heart that were still being held together with spit and baling wire.  I knew it would physically hurt to listen to that song.  But I had to, because this was my good-bye to that voice.

Tom Petty gave me, all of us, so much joy, and there really is no way to adequately thank him for it.  Funny how he wrote the only thank you I could think to give over thirty years ago.

“So listen honey, wherever you are tonight, I wish you the best of everything in the world.  And honey, I hope you found whatever you were looking for.”

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