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222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by jeff on Dec 13, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo by Joel Bernstein

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Joni Mitchell – River

Howdy, SoTW readers. Merry Christmas to all my Christian fellowmen out there. How y’all doing? I do hope all’s well by you and yours.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog so much is that (according to the charter I wrote myself) I can write and say whatever I want, without being concerned about pleasing the audience. But I admit that I do peek at my stats on occasion, and am pleased the higher they go.

I’ve figured out over the years (I’m slow, this should have been obvious before I started) that people like to read about what they know. I’d do the same. Normal people prefer familiar music. So a post about ‘Twist and Shout’ is going to garner more hits than the one about the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir.

f3e1e3d32ff93437dd15cc304ba6859fAnd guess who has been the most popular subject on Song of The Week over the years? Joni, not surprisingly. If you’ve been following closely, I’ve been walking through her albums, picking one song or two to  pontificate on:

In the posting about ‘Blue’ I described how daunting it is to take on a masterpiece. It took me a long time to work up the courage to approach “The Band”, and I’m still working myself up to “Pet Sounds”. But having broken the ice with ‘Blue’, we’re going to treat ourselves to address at least one more of the ten glorious tracks. So we might as well go for the very best (without diminishing a whit the wonders ensconced in ‘All I Want’, ‘Carey, or any of the others) – ‘River’, a song about ‘skating away’. Careful, Jeff; careful, Joni; the ice is broken, you don’t want to fall in.

adc535077eb429d2fc81b8880db90931A few live performances by James Taylor (the aforementioned heartbreaker) and by Joni:
James Taylor at the Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert, 2001
James Taylor (unattributed)
Joni Mitchell – Live, with lovely photos and videos of Joni in the snow
Herbie Hancock (piano), Joni Mitchell (vocal)

And here’s my favorite cover of River, by the Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line, a stunning arrangement by the wonderful Line Groth.

Joni’s ‘River’ is a moving piece of music. I don’t know many people who would disagree. It juxtaposes Los Angeles vs Saskatchewan, green vs white, noise vs silence, public festiveness vs private grief, desire for the other vs preservation of self. It’s a song about heartbreak and homesickness.

What do we have? “Jingle Bells” played in minor, the simplest joys couched in pain, the irony in the very first chords setting the stage for this vignette of defeat and resignation.

ChristmasCardRiver1“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.”
“They’re putting up trees” would have scanned just as well. But Joni’s December is a killing season, a termination of vitality. Nobody’s sad during Christmas season. Except for those with a broken heart. Within that painful contrast resides her sadness.

“They’re putting up reindeer”. Plastic ones, Made in LaLaLand. In Saskatchewan we have, if not reindeer, then deer, elk, moose and caribou. Real ones. “Singing songs of joy and peace.” They are. Not me. I’m singing Jingle Bells in minor.

What are you doing there, Joni? What keeps you in LA? “I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” But this year it’s going to be California, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”

“I wish I had a river I could skate away on.“ What an evocative image. A frozen river, its source somewhere in northern Saskatchewan, flowing those 2000 miles down to the city of fallen angels. But there is no such river. The Saskatchewan River itself flows eastwards for a mere 340 miles, emptying into Lake Winnipeg.

10864825_1533269443599960_2073203298_nWho among us – even the non-skaters – has not longed for that selfsame river? To escape ‘this crazy scene’, to flee back to the innocence of childhood, security, unconditional love. Did Hamlet not long to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, to escape “the whips and scorns of time”? Did Keats’ Nightingale not seek flight?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades.

But we all know it’s a fiction. There is no river that will take us ‘back to where we once belonged’. If we were fortunate enough, we found a love “so naughty made me weak in the knees”. But Joni has “lost the best baby that I ever had”. Lost him why? “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.” She knows the score. “I made my baby say goodbye.” No recriminations of him or herself – that’s not the point. Nothing but loss and sadness.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the resonance of “Blue”, its “excruciating candor”, the profound effect it had on women in 1971, on songwriters, on everyone. “If you looked at me [during the recording sessions], I would weep; we had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in.”

From a 1979 interview: “The ‘Blue’ album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

ca0e11adc57f38b8ccca0a0e8221d773Joni often skates on that thin ice, risking the ridiculous to achieve the sublime.  Think about this phrase.  She does indeed transcend, take wing, defying gravity.

She has created for herself and for us a river so long that our own feet can fly us away from this troubled world.

Oh, Joni.

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

But it don’t snow here, it stays pretty green.
I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me, you know, he put me at ease.
He loved me so naughty made me weak in the knees.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

 

 

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136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

Posted by jeff on Dec 6, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – Wonderful World

What happens when three of the finest and most successful singers of our times get together to record a pop paean to pimply passion? Well, when it’s James Taylor hooking up with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to sing “Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all”, it’s pretty darn memorable.

Paul, Art, James

Paul and James had been friends since their teenage backpacking days circa 1966 as the two leading Americans in the nascent London folk scene. Fame snuck up on Paul while he was in London, when (unbeknownst to him) the acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ he had recorded with Art was overdubbed with electric guitars and drums, thereby inventing folk-rock. Meanwhile, James was hanging out with Peter Asher and becoming the first non-British artist signed by The Beatles’ Apple label.

If you don’t know what happened to James and Paul and Art in the late 1960s/early 1970s, you should probably be out mowing the lawn or watching Championship Bowling.

In late 1977, James got a call from his neighbor Paul, who was in a period of reconciliation with Art, who had provided backing vocals on James’ “In The Pocket” album the year before (the very fine ‘Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream’ and the sublime ‘A Junkie’s Lament’) the year before. Art had recorded an album of Jimmy Webb songs, “Watermark”, which was his best solo effort artistically but another commercial flop. It seems Paul was feeling sorry for his ex-, seeing how his own solo career was flourishing. So he called James, and the three of them convened in Paul’s apartment to record a song for belated addition to the already-released album.

In 1978, refashioning up-tempo rock songs into gentle ballads was nothing new—way back in the nascent years of rock and roll, Buddy Holly covered Little Richard’s raucous 1956 ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ twice, in a slow electric version and in an unreleased acoustic version.  (The Band and John Lennon also tried their respective hands at the song, albeit in the spirit of the original.)

Wonderful World

I’m assuming it was James who chose to record the Sam Cooke hit, ‘(What a) Wonderful World’. He had been reworking bouncy rock and roll standards in just the same acoustic, introspective, gentle mode to great success (his mega-hit ‘Handy Man’, a hit for Jimmy Jones in 1959; and his Carole King-penned ‘Up On The Roof’, a hit for The Drifters in 1962). In SoTW 112, we took a look at what James could do to Beatles songs such as ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, not to mention the already-ballad ‘Yesterday’.

But whoever picked the song, it’s James’ vocals that invest it with such magic. One of the most common planks in the SoTW soapbox is just how fine an artist James Taylor is, and no matter how much of an icon he has become today, his artistry is loved more than understood or seriously appreciated. One of his many insufficiently appreciated talents is as a harmony singer. In my not-so-humble opinion, James and David Crosby stand head and shoulders above the field as harmonizers supreme.

All the others, Art Garfunkel and Graham Nash and the Everlies included, go for the easy choices—adding a second voice a third or a fourth above the lead. James and Crosby have a penchant for adding subtle harmonies below the lead, where they unobtrusively add a depth and a resonance unique in the world of rock.

Take for example TS&G’s ‘Wonderful World’. In the second verse (‘Don’t know much about Geography’), S sings the lead with G singing a fourth above him. Just like in Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not a bad formula—they sold about three bazillion records that way. Contrast it with the introduction (TS&G) or the first verse (G singing lead, T harmonizing a minor third underneath him, then S adding a falsetto counterpart). Then listen to what happens in the second verse when JT joins in on ‘But I do know one and one is two’. Nothing more than the quantum shift from 2D to 3D.

The choice of the song is no little win in and of itself. It was originally a hit (#12 in the US) for Sam Cooke in 1960, and  placed 373rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was written by Lou Adler (producer of Cooke, The Mamas & the Papas, Barry McGuire, and Carole King, including her Tapestry album; former husband of Shelley Fabares; and Lakers’ courtside crony of Jack Nicholson), Herb Alpert (Mr. Tijuana Brass, producer of The Carpenters and  Sérgio Mendes, and the Broadway “Angels In America”, mogul and sculptor), with finishing touches by Sam Cooke himself. Lou Rawls sings backup on the original.

It is so irresistible that it’s been recycled more times than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill:

  • The 1965 #4 hit for Herman’s Hermits, recorded as a tribute to Sam Cooke after his horrific death
  • An obscure version by Blind Willie (“Magicfingers”) Feigenbaum, the main claim to fame of which is the fact that the soft, acoustic treatment preceded that of TS&G by several years.
  • The 1978 cult classic film “Animal House
  • The 1983 Richard Gere demeaning remake of Godard’s “Breathless
  • The 1985 Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis film “Witness
  • The 1985 Levi’s 501 commercial (which I don’t understand, but was voted the 19th greatest song ever to feature in a commercial)
  • The 2005 Will Smith film “Hitch

And here are the wonderful lyrics to this whimsical, witty paean to mindless teenage love. I taught high school for 25 years. Believe me, every word of it is true:

Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took.
But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

Don’t know much geography, don’t know much trigonometry.
Don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two, and if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Now I don’t claim to be an “A” student, but I’m trying to be.
I think that maybe by being an “A” student baby, I could win your love for me

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages, look at the pictures and I turn the pages.
Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all.
‘Cause it’s you that I’ve been thinking of, and if I could only win your love,
What a wonderful world this would be.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Sam Cooke Songs of The Week

James Taylor Songs of The Week

Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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131: Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Posted by jeff on Nov 22, 2018 in New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Children should be seen, not heard. By children, I mean anyone significantly younger by myself, which is most people. To be more specific, you can’t trust anyone under thirty. Could you just give me a hand for a moment, help me climb up on this soapbox?

You know how there’s a minimum legal age for all the important stuff? Consensual sex, driving, marriage, enlistment, voting, drinking (that list is in order—in itself, food for thought). I believe there should also be a minimum legal age for creating really excellent music. In classical performing, it should be 40. In classical composition, 72. Jazz musicians shouldn’t be allowed to excel till they’re in their thirties. Rock stars are allowed to be 28, or even 27 in some exceptional cases. Rock artists have to be seven years older than me, as John Lennon and Bob Dylan were.  James Taylor is three months younger than me, but he was crazy and an addict, which gain him lots of age points. I don’t care how old Justin Beiber is, as long as he’s in some other hemisphere.

L to R: Watkins, Watkins, Thile

That’s the way the good old world used to (and is supposed to) operate. And then these kids come along and mess it up. I’m talking about brats like Chris Thile (mandolin,b. 1981) and siblings Sean (guitar, b. 1977) and Sara (fiddle, b. 1981) Watkins, aka Nickel Creek. They all grew up in suburban San Diego, where their mothers had spiked their nursing bottles with a brew of blue grass. They played their first gig at a pizza parlor in 1989. Do the math—Sean was 12, Chris and Sara 8. Combined, that’s still under thirty! They were backed by Chris’s dad on bass. The three kids together couldn’t even lift the bass, let alone play it. Read more…

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130: Thelonious Monk, ‘Let’s Call This’ (Monk’s Advice to Lacy)

Posted by jeff on Nov 15, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

©David Redfern

Thelonious Monk, ‘Let’s Call This’

Once upon a time, the word ‘cool’ meant ‘of moderately low temperature’. This week ‘cool’ has been reduced to meaning ‘good’, as in “I’ll meet you at the peanut butter factory at 5.” “Cool.” But in between, especially in the 1950s, it referred to a restrained demeanor, especially pertaining to black males.

In his fine book “Birth of the Cool”, poet Lewis MacAdams quotes emotionologist  Peter Stearns saying that cool symbolizes “our culture’s increased striving for restraint” to better blend into the social fabric, an attitude that “has become an emotional mantle, sheltering the whole personality from embarrassing excess.” Emotionologist, huh? Maybe that’s what I’ll be when I grow up.


‘Cool’ expressed itself in all sorts of unexpected arts in the 1950s–poetry, stand-up comedy, Broadway–but none more prominently than in jazz. ‘Cool jazz’ was actually born from the meeting of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Miles (b. 1926) was the product of a bourgeois black family; a refined European musical sensibility; and the hot, drug-laden band of the father of modern jazz, Charlie Parker. Gil (b. 1912) was his hip, white mentor, deeply grounded in avant garde theory. Together they made the landmark “Birth of the Cool” recordings in 1948, which we talked about way back in SoTW 35.

But of course it wasn’t so simple. Cool was in the air before, and one of the most remarkable creative artists to inform that spirit was the singular pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). ‘Individualist’ doesn’t even begin to describe Monk. He had pretty much formed his own style in the early 1940s. At the beginning it was only ‘quirky’, but it quickly evolved into ‘weird’. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tried to bring him into the bebop orbit, but Monk didn’t adhere to the pull of anyone else’s gravity. He played very few notes, and those unpredictable. Metronomes were witnessed imploding in his presence. He pounded the keyboard with extended, flat fingers. He got up in the middle of a song to dance. He wore funny hats. Sometimes he just refused to talk.

Steve Lacy

You talk about a different drummer? This cat inhabited a not-so-parallel universe.

Monk had lots of ups and downs in his career, including years spent in seclusion, forgotten and ignored, as well as periods of incredible productivity. Along the way he left a library of distinctive, inimitable music. He inspired no schools, because no one could figure out his footsteps. But musicians continue to play his hilarious, wacky, totally human music.

He composed and performed some of the best-known standards in the modern jazz songbook: bop classics ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ (here from the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”), the riveting, elusive ‘Around Midnight’, the heartrending ‘Ruby, My Dear’ (here with Coltrane), and a whole giant oeuvre of fun, funny-whee and funny-huh? gems, such as our SoTW, ‘Let’s Call This’.

First of all, you gotta love the guy’s song titles: Crepuscle with Nellie, Epistrophy, Humph, Pannonica, Trinkle Tinkle.

Secondly, and foremostly, you gotta love the music. It swings, it grins. It completely lacks coherent melody, and you walk around all day humming it. It makes no sense to such an extent that it makes the most perfect of sense.

Thirdly, you gotta dig his aesthetic. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Waldron, Lacy, Monk (in picture)

Steve Lacy (b. Steven Norman Lackritz, 1934-2004) was obscure enough for nary a non-jazz aficionado to have heard of him, but a fine enough musician to have won a MacArthur genius grant. He was The Man of the soprano saxophone and a committed Monk devotee. He recorded the first album of all-Monk compositions, “Reflections”, in 1958. Then in 1960 he played in Monk’s band for four months. He continued to explore Monk’s music for the next forty years, often in quartet and duo settings with the dynamite pianist Mal Waldron, a collaboration I discussed even wayer back in SoTW 21.

Let’s take a look at the joyous Monk song ‘Well, You Needn’t’ in his own hands (from “Live at the Blackhawk”, San Francisco, 1960).

And then Lacy’s straightforward 1958 treatment from “Reflections” (with a tame Waldron on piano):

And then the song wrenched and wrangled and strangled and dissected and whopped and whoopeed by Lacy and Mal Waldron from that 4-CD I love so much “Live at Dreher, Paris 1981″:

That just shows you what Monk can do to people when they listen to him too much.

Meanwhile, back at the Thelonious. There’s this remarkable document we’d like to share with you. It is purportedly in Monk’s hand, addressed to Lacy, but that is disputed. Perhaps Monk dictated it to Lacy. It may even have been Lacy’s recollection of the Monktalk. Who knows? In any case, the document speaks for itself. You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig? It’s the essence of cool. It’s the most serious of spoofs and/or the most spoofish of sérieux. Feel free to write in and tell us which one is your favorite. I’ll tell you right now which one is my favorite: all of them.

“A genius is the one most like himself,” Monk says. Clearly, Monk was exactly like Monk.

Monk’s Advice (1960)

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.

Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!

Make the drummer sound good.

Discrimination is important.

You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

ALL REET!

Always know….(MONK)

It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.

Let’s lift the band stand!!

I want to avoid the hecklers.

Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.

A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.

Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.

When you’re swinging, swing some more.

(What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!)

Always leave them wanting more.

Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play and get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.

You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo)

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

010: Charles Mingus, ‘Remember Rockefeller at Attica’

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

 

 

 

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