“Play in the Rain”

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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.

Take Two: “Ode to Billie Joe”

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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.

“Burn That Bridge”

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I discovered this song/video a couple weeks ago.  I know there are a number of young Country music artists who are more inclusive of LGBTQ people and issues, but this is the first time I’ve heard a performer talk about their music being explicitly about a same-sex couple.  (Here’s a link to the interview with Billboard.)  It reminds me just how important representation in media and popular culture really is.  If you never see people who look/feel/think/behave like you in the culture you consume, the subliminal message is that you are both inferior and invisible.  If you do see people who look/feel/think/behave like you, then you have role models and the subliminal message is that you are both seen and worthy of being seen.  That you are normal and not some kind of a freak.  I’m sure “Burn That Bridge” is going to matter in that way for some young gay dude in the middle of cowboy country who thinks he’s the only guy who ever felt this way.  Representation matters.

But issues of representation aside, here’s what I really like about Donovan Woods’ song and video: 1) It’s a pretty damn good song–nice emotion, good slow build; 2) Those young men are fantastic dancers.  Yeah, representation in media and popular culture matters, but it helps if that representation is attached to culture that refuses to stereotype the people it portrays and is quality entertainment.  This one scores on all counts.

“Oops!. . . I Did It Again”

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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.

“King Tut”

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Note: The obligatory obituary post for AC/DC’s Malcolm Young will be coming soon.  But I’ve got to get this little rant off my chest first.  Plus, I think Malcolm would’ve really enjoyed hearing this tune again.

 

One of my dear friends on Facebook recently posted this article about some students offended by Steve Martin’s 70s novelty hit “King Tut.”  Something about the performance being “blackface” and akin to using the n-word.  Assuming they meant that literally, that means they’re assuming Tutankhamun was a black man.  That may or may not be the case; depictions of Tut pretty much run the gamut colorwise.  But seeing that he was born in a land of much sun, he probably had a bit more melanin in his skin than, say, your average Scandinavian.  (Skin color is directly related to how much sun your ancestors were exposed to when evolving.  Period.)  But the song wasn’t meant as a commentary on race.  It was meant as a commentary on the blatant commercialization surrounding the Treasures of Tutankhamun tour.  It came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978, and my family went.  (My original post of this song focused on that, written while Daddy the amateur Egyptologist was still around.)  It was glorious.  And it was also crass and expensive.  We alone purchased I don’t know how many silly souvenirs from it.  The entire country was gripped with Tut fever at the time.  Why shouldn’t Steve Martin have a little fun with it?

Of course, if the instructor of the class had played this version from Saturday Night Live, then they would’ve seen Martin’s introduction and contextualization of the song.  If they paid attention.  And if they didn’t decide to reflexively get their hackles up over the obvious stereotypes and pure silliness of the song.  He wasn’t making fun of Tutankhamun; he was making fun of all the idiots who acted like they knew something about him or ancient Egypt just because of one really spectacular art & artifact tour.

I don’t fault these kids for being aware of the bias against African-Americans in our society.  I don’t fault them for trying to fight for equality.  I certainly don’t fault them for fighting back against the brutality and violence many black people are faced with every day simply because of the color of their skin.  They’re right, dammit.  But I do fault them for not understanding the joke in this case.  They missed the point.  And the instructor probably missed it, too.  I imagine this was presented not in the cultural light it was meant to be seen, but as a case of racial stereotyping.

Really, these kids would be offended by pretty much anything from SNL back in the 70s.  You know, back when it was kind of offensive.  And really, really, really funny.  And truly insightful and satirical.  They only know about the tame buffooning that they see today.  They didn’t watch the good old days when the Not Ready For Prime Time Players and the show’s writers were both vicious and fearless.  If they’re offended by “King Tut,”  then they really better not ever see the Job Interview skit.  They’ll really lose their shit over that one.

“We Built This City”

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I was channel flipping the other day, and stopped for a moment to indulge both my love of music videos and love of really bad music.  The 80s were a great time for both.

This song really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, which is sort of its appeal.  I think.  It is catchy.  I’m also pretty sure Grace Slick was probably high on something at the time.  It seems to want to be a protest against the ever-increasing corporatization of rock music, but comes out as incomprehensible pop glop. There’s a very tiny trace of the rebellion that once made the band that Slick sang for one of the symbols of rebellion and counterculturalism in the 60s.

Of course by the time “We Built This City” was released in 1985 that band had long since mutated into pop glop and had virtually disappeared.  The Jefferson Airplane was one of the leading bands of psychedelic rock–the aforementioned symbol of rebellion and counterculturalism.  They were also one of the few commercially successful psychedelic bands, so I guess pop glop was always in their veins.  In the 70s, they made their first major transition into the Jefferson Starship and became even more poppy and gloppy.  Marty Balin and Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen escaped, but Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas (Balin’s replacement on vocals) hung around. “Jefferson” was dropped, and the band just became Starship in the 1980s.  And the rest is pop glop history.

Really, most of Starship’s output is gloriously awful.  (Have you ever heard the song they did for the 80s “classic” Mannequin?  Well, you’re in for a pop treat that so sugary and gloppy, it might as well be the filling inside a pecan pie.  Not even the utterly adorable Andrew McCarthy at the height of his adorableness could save that movie.)  None of their music has aged especially well.  Which is too bad, I guess.  It really is quite catchy.

“The Best of Everything”

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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.”