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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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Posted by purplemary54 on October 5, 2017

The one bad part about an artist as successful as Tom Petty, with or without the Heartbreakers, is that a lot of really great music gets overlooked or forgotten.  Such is the fate of the album Echo, which is to my mind one of TP & the Heartbreakers’ best.  It’s his divorce album, written and recorded after the end of his first marriage.  But unlike many great break-up albums, Petty gave himself a little time to absorb the loss before he committed his feelings to his music.  (He also gave himself enough time to almost drink himself into a deep, deep hole, which might have been a contributing factor to his divorce.)  It’s not as angry and bitter as these magnum opuses of lost love can be, nor is it morose and depressing.  It’s more elegiac and mournful, almost gentle.  More circumspect.  There isn’t any recrimination or blame, just damn good music.

“Swingin'” has always been one of the best tracks.  The defiance and swagger here are trademark Petty, but more muted.  He knows this isn’t a happy story and adjusts his typical attitude accordingly.  But it is a proud tale of a woman who wasn’t going to give in to whatever is beating her down.  She fights back even though she knows she’s probably going to lose.  Because in losing this way, she really wins.  And she might just take down her adversary, too.  I’ve always felt like it was about Jane; I don’t know what happened to their marriage, but I’ll bet that once she’d decided she wasn’t going to put up with Tom’s bullshit anymore, she made sure he knew it.  You can feel the blows landing in this song, but it’s okay because it was probably at least a fair fight.


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“Learning to Fly”

Posted by purplemary54 on October 4, 2017

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

“The thing about the Heartbreakers is, it’s still holy to me . . . There’s a holiness there.  If that were to go away, I don’t think I would be interested in it, and I don’t think they would.  We’re a real rock ‘n’ roll band–always have been.  And to us, in the era we came up in, it was a religion in a way.  It was about more than commerce, it wasn’t about that.  It was about something much greater.  It was about moving people and changing the world, and I really believed in rock ‘n’ roll–I still do.”



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“No Second Thoughts”

Posted by purplemary54 on October 3, 2017

Yesterday I did my laundry, folded it, and put it away.  I read a couple of the articles for this week’s unit in my class.  I ate leftover spaghetti for dinner and finished off a nice bottle of Spanish wine.  I watched the news.  And when Rita Wilde on 100.3 announced that Tom Petty had finally passed on a little before nine pm last night, I cried for ten minutes.

While I consciously cried over losing the voice and physical energy of one of my favorite musicians ever, I also cried all the tears I’d been holding in over what happened the night before in Las Vegas.  People doing nothing more than enjoying music were targeted and gunned down for no discernible reason.  And I’m still sitting on all the grief and anger I feel over that.  (I’m not doing that rant again; it’s just too damn much right now.)  I still want to cry.  I still might.  I slept with a teddy bear last night, which I probably won’t do again.  At least not tonight.

I went to yoga class this morning.  It’s a “gentle” class, so most of what we do is on the floor.  I felt unbalanced and uncentered the whole time, like I was leaning just a little bit to one side or the other.  I couldn’t get any equilibrium.  I still feel that way.  I still feel just a little bit like a hole has been torn into me.  It’s going to take a long time for the space Tom left behind will be refilled.

It will, though.  I will regain my psychic footing, put together more coherent thoughts, make it through one of his songs without bursting into tears.  that’s how the Universe works.  Nothing is ever really lost.  His energy is still there.  And I can still reach out and hold it in my heart.

I dug out the iPod so I could listen to Tom while I was watching the football game last night.  For whatever reason, I gravitated to the softer songs.  I cried then, too, but it felt like a balm on the wound.  This is one of my all-time favorites, from the second Hearbreakers’ album, You’re Gonna Get It.  A gentle song about moving on.  Time to start doing that.


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Posted by purplemary54 on October 2, 2017

When I was thirteen, I walked up to the counter at Big Ben’s music store and asked “Who is this?”  The bored clerk pointed to the red and black album displayed on the counter and said “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”  I was stone cold in love from that moment on.

No, he wasn’t especially good-looking.  But there was a gleam in his eye and a sly grin on his face that told you all you needed to know.  He was funny and sexy and he never took anything, especially himself, all that seriously.  Except the music.  He always took the music seriously.

I remember an interview with Petty back in the 90s.  He told his parents he was leaving school to become a musician.  His father said he might want to get an education anyway, just in case he needed something to fall back on.  But Petty replied, “I won’t fall back.”  There were a lot of rough times at the beginning, but he was right.  Tom Petty never fell back, he never backed down, and we have all his wonderful music because of it.

The song that was playing in the store when I was thirteen was “You Got Lucky.”  I was lucky my parents wanted to rent a movie that night so I could hear that song on the store’s PA system.  It’s still my favorite.


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Grant Hart

Posted by purplemary54 on September 14, 2017

I’ve always been a Bob Mould kind of girl, and he’ll always be my favorite from Husker Du.  But hearing of Grant Hart’s passing today was heartbreaking.  He was Mould’s perfect foil and partner in art.  He was also the kind of drummer I like best: clean and economical, even within the ramshackle chaos that marked much of Husker Du’s oeuvre.  I really should say more, but I don’t know how (Rob Sheffield sure as hell does, though).  This loss makes me so damn sad.  Like the song says, it’s not funny anymore.


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