8

033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by jeff on Oct 11, 2018 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?
Right.

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With female singers, that can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A while back I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and restraint, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to [written before The Real Group’s magical treatment]; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the poignant to the maudlin, from the sublime to the grotesque. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’

 

 

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18

125: Bee Gees, ‘Holiday’

Posted by jeff on Oct 4, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I know, I say The Bee Gees and your eyes roll and you start to snicker, conjuring up sounds of bung-jaga-jaga- jaga and sights of a studly Italian undulating cockily down the street in flared white pants so tight you can see his gjamidanker.

I’m talking about the other Bee Gees. The ones who once upon a time were compared favorably with, ahem, The Beatles. Yes, Virginia, really.

You see, les frères Gibbs used to be sound like three white Australian brothers. Before they started sounding like three black American sis-tahs.

So unroll those eyeballs, cowboys and Indians, and listen to the tale of The Bee Gees, Incarnation #1.

Barry (b 1946) and twins Robin (b 1949) and Maurice (inexplicably also b 1949) were b’ed on the Isle of Man. In 1958 the parents moved to Australia (I think because they wanted a daughter), where the boys drank a lot of milk, underwent puberty, and sang together so well they had their own Brisbanean TV show. (Here’s an example, but I’m warning you, I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights after watching it, so use your own judgment.) But they had their eyes on the big-time, which in 1966 was good old England. So back they went.

The England to which they returned was producing a new brand of ‘pop’ music: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’, ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’/’Ruby Tuesday’, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’. America was in its original flush of psychedelia – ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Light My Fire’, ‘Somebody to Love’.

Brothers Gibb, 1968

The Bee Gees will ever be indelibly engraved in your minds and ears as those silly guys in the embarrassing clothes making the whole world bounce to dance rhythms, with their high harmonies and funk beat. But for those of us who remember the 1960s better than the late 1970s (don’t ask), The Bee Gees were something wholly other. You don’t believe me? Here’s a quote from Lillian Roxon’s prototypical “Rock Encyclopedia” (1971):

…Their first single, ‘New York Mining Disaster’ …was like having a wonderful new Beatles single out on the market. For those who were bewailing the loss of the comparatively uncomplicated pre-Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the Bee Gees were a godsend and their first album a delight. …They sounded more like the Beatles than the Beatles ever did and … they wrote songs considerably better than the Beatles had done that early in their career.

Huh? Are we talking about the same guys?

Brothers Gibb, 1977

Well, yes. See, when the Bee Gees hit the radio in mid-1967, they were decidedly Old School. ‘Words’ and ’To Love Somebody’ sounded more like ‘Norwegian Wood’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ than did ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Sure, we loved our head music. But there were also those daytime hours when your mind was lucid and you wanted to hear something pretty.

They had this string of hits in 1967-68 that took a back seat to none, not even that group they followed in the encyclopedia alphabetically (I don’t mean Jeff Beck). ‘New York Mining Disaster, 1941’, ‘To Love Somebody’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Words’, ‘I Started a Joke’, ‘Massachusetts’, ‘I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You’, ‘I Can’t See Nobody’, ‘World’. Each one a gem, carefully crafted, exquisitely orchestrated, flawlessly performed, with a strong, memorable melody, and lyrics ranging from the poetic to the enigmatic to the self-consciously cryptic.

It’s true, their lyrics were a lot more convincing after you’d smoked a few:

The Bee Gees Band (the Gibbs are the ones with the Colgate smiles)

Ooh you’re a holiday , such a holiday
Ooh you’re a holiday , such a holiday

It’s something I think’s worthwhile
If the puppet makes you smile
If not then you’re throwing stones
Throwing stones, throwing stones

Ooh it’s a funny game
Don’t believe that it’s all the same
Can’t think what I’ve just said
Put the soft pillow on my head

Millions of eyes can see
Yet why am I so blind
When the someone else is me
It’s unkind, it’s unkind 

But the Bee Gees provided beautiful songs, beautiful performances, beautiful productions, all within a ‘Yes, I am experienced’ context. And you can never get enough of beautiful songs, can you?

As impressive as their recordings were, they couldn’t duplicate the lush, extravagant productions live. By 1969 they’d split up, regrouped a year later, floundered for five years till The Plague of 1977, when young people on both sides of the ocean began to display inexplicable weekly episodes of convulsive twitching, what subsequently became known as The Saturday Night Fever. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

025: The Zombies, ‘Care of Cell 44′

043: The Left Banke, ‘Pretty Ballerina’

107: The Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’

 

 

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8

119: Tom Harrell, ‘Train Shuffle’

Posted by jeff on Sep 27, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

Loath as I am to resort to gimmickry in matters as serious as jazz biography, (in contrast to the NY Times profile of jazz pianist Fred Hersch’s recovery from the muscular amnesia he suffered as a result of a two-month HIV-related coma), it’s hard to ignore the back-story of trumpeter Tom Harrell’s mental illness.

Harrell (b. 1946) has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia since the 1960s. He hears voices, maintains (in his words) ‘a tenuous contact with reality’, is heavily medicated, and speaks like a zombie who’s just seen a ghost. Until he puts his horn to his lips, when he’s instantly and magically possessed by an utterly coherent aesthetic expressiveness.  If you want to see how that works on stage, check out this clip.

The bio on Harrell’s official site tastefully avoids mentioning his ‘deficiency’. But neither does he shy away from it in interviews. Well, it’s harder to hide than a hunchback. If you have a morbid fascination with the mental illness, watch him struggle to piece thoughts together, to elicit the words from out of the jumble of his mind in this interview:

Q: Has schizophrenia enabled you to paint a more serene picture musically? Your music is so different from that of all the other jazz trumpeters out there. It’s like your deficiency has been your strength.

A: That’s how I view it. The fact that I can’t always relate to people socially – I’ve spent a lot of time alone ever since the 60s, and that has enabled me to focus more on music, and also the feelings I’ve experienced have given me insights. The feelings that come out when I play, different social themes, it is a blessing… But schizophrenia can be a drag because of the tenuous reality contact thing. But as long as I take the medication I feel alright, because I’m able to do my work.

Riveting as Harrell’s background may be, it is of course the foreground that deserves the spotlight, his wonderful 40-year musical career. He’s worked in a very wide range of formats. As guest/session man/band member, he’s played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Dizzie Gillespie, Bill Evans, George Russell, Mel Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Sam Jones, Jim Hall, Charlie Haden, Phil Woods, Joe Lovano and Charles McPherson, and especially Phil Woods and Horace Silver. Wow!

He’s recorded close to 30 albums as a leader in a wide variety of formats, as big-band leader, orchestra leader, and especially combos from quartets to nonets. In recent years he’s developed a remarkably stable, tight quintet – with tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, pianist Danny Grissett, drummer Johnathan Blake, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo.

Critics and musicians admire him unanimously. I once asked Billy Hart, a legendary jazz session drummer in jazz for the past 50 years, what it was like to play with him. He became very quiet, and responded in a hushed, reverent voice that playing with Harrell had been one of the most moving experiences for him in his entire career.

Harrell is a most generous leader. As a player, he never hogs the limelight, frequently soloing less than the piano or saxophone. His real forte is as a composer, the polar opposite of a leader playing the guys a riff and saying “Let’s blow.” The music is always controlled, structured, sophisticated, composed (in both senses). His composer’s voice is unmistakably contemporary, a savvy, open-eyed, challenging and restless explorer, but never straying far from his very melodic premise. Here’s a pretty characteristic cut from the 2010 CD “Roman Nights”, ‘Let the Children Play’.  Here’s the very next cut, Harrell at his most serene and romantic, the title cut, ‘Roman Nights’.

But for our Song of The Week, we’re going for a tune that’s captured our hearts and ears for years now, ‘Train Shuffle’. Harrell is never mordant, but this piece is unusually ebullient. Here’s the version from the 1999 big-band album, “Time’s Mirror”.  And here it is from the 1993 sextet album “Upswing” (I guess a loony can be as witty as the next guy), featuring Phil Wood, Joe Lovano and Danilo Perez. It’s a favorite of mine. I revisit it regularly, and it never fails to get me grinning and my foot tapping. Fine, fun, intelligent post-bop jazz at its best. No gimmicks.

For further listening:

Upswing’,  title cut from the 1993 album

Sail Away’,  title cut from the 1989 album

Rapture’, from “Moon Alley” (1985, with Kenny Garrett and Kenny Barron)

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

104: Charles Mingus, ‘Myself When I Am Real’/’Adagio Ma Non Troppo’

094: Brad Mehldau, ‘Martha, My Dear’ (“Live in Marciac”)

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

 

 

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8

289: Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Old Friends/Bookends’

Posted by jeff on Sep 21, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I interviewed Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sometime in early 1967.

I knocked on the door of their dressing room. Paul opened the door, all 5’3” (1.6m) of him, turned and called into the room, “Hey, Art, this guy looks just like you.”

Young Friends

Paul and Art were both 26, riding the tide of three straight hit singles: ‘Sounds of Silence’ (#1), ‘Homeward Bound’ (#5), and ‘I Am a Rock’ (#3). They were widely credited with inventing folk-rock, marrying the fun of rock and roll to the gravitas of folk music. No one foresaw that they were to become cultural icons.

I was 18, a music nerd away from home for the first time, at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, “tryin’ to do like the Gentiles do”. No one foresaw how badly that would turn out.

Young Jeff

Art and I, it turns out, were both early sporters of jewfros, a coiffure in style amongst some young members of our notoriously nerdy tribe. We thought that if we grew long kinky hair, maybe we’d be able to jump as high as Dr J or sing as raunchy as Wilson Pickett. Spoiler alert: we couldn’t.

I recently turned 70. So I’ve been thinking (in addition to finishing my tax return and watching the new season of Ozark) about stuff like The Meaning of Life.

I am now officially old. This is a new state for me. Most of my life, I haven’t been old. It only crept up on me recently. How do I know that I’m old? Because of a 1968 Simon and Garfunkel song.

Old friends, old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends.
A newspaper blown through the grass falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends.

Old friends, winter companions, the old men lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun;
The sounds of the city sifting through trees settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends.

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy…

Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears.

A time it was, and what a time it was, it was a time of innocence, a time of confidences.

Long ago it must be, I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories – they’re all that’s left you.

You see, in 1968, “there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air”. It was us against them—the hippies vs the pigs, John Lennon vs Richard Nixon, “the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse” vs The Establishment.

Weinberg sans Jewfro

Jack Weinberg (sic), a harbinger of the revolution at Berkley in 1964, coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Our parents were over 30. Richard Nixon was over 30. We figured it must be true.

But as kids of 18 or 26, we were of course immortal. We could drink and drive, indiscriminately consume whatever drug was available, practice free and unprotected love whenever we could, stay up all night listening to The Stones and sleep through Logic class in the morning, with no repercussions. We were immortal.

Again, spoiler alert: It didn’t quite work out that way.

The Ohio National Guard shot four of us. We graduated (by the skin of our teeth, and only some of us) and had to Get A Job. We fell in love and tied the knot. We had babies. We signed mortgages. We turned 30.

And then 40.

And then 50.

And then 60.

And now 70.

Funny, she doesn’t look Jewish

As I said, this is new for me. Memories used to be ten years old. Then twenty. Now I have memories that are a lifetime older than I was when Paul said, “Hey, Art, this guy looks like you.”

I don’t know why I blame Garfunkel for that line. Simon wrote it, and deserves all the credit and all the blame. But it is who Art sings that B-part: Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy…

Well, Art (Paul), I got news for you. You got it wrong.

I don’t sit on park benches. I don’t wear high shoes with round toes. My ‘overcoat’ is a spiffy leather jacket, and I ain’t lost in it. And for damn sure, no dust is settling on my shoulders. So screw you.

I got me a new soul brother, William Butler Yeats. At 63, he wrote:

Old Art

What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
                      Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible—

Three months ago I started writing a novel. I’ve finished about a quarter of it, and I’m pretty pleased with the results. I’m determined to see it through to the end. It will be my first big work of fiction, after one stillborn attempt at a novel, one short experimental novel, one attempt that ended when I painted myself into a corner. No tragedy. As I learned very clearly from my playwrighting days (twenty plays in my forties, two a year for ten years), you learn immeasurably more from failures than from successes.

Old Jeff

See, that’s something I didn’t know at 18. I’ve actually learned something over this threescore and ten—a failure isn’t the end of the world. I wish I had known that at 18. And at 26. And at 40. It would have given me solace and confidence to grapple with the challenges of those daunting years.

Yes, I’ve learned a thing or two. But I also realize that there’s much more out there that I haven’t learned than what I have. But that’s cool.

So, yes, Art, I am officially old. But you know what? I have more of my jewfro left than you do. If you want to feel old, you go ahead. I have too much to do. That other guy from back then sporting a jewfro, Bob Zimmerman, transcended the clichés of the time. He was 24 when he wrote ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’.

So, yeah, on paper I’m old. But I’ve still got my creative juices, such as they are, flowing like an agitated mountain stream in spring, choked and rushing furiously with melted snow; and I’m going to be spending the next month thanking the Almighty for blessing me with the health and energy to channel these energies into a project that keeps me off the streets and out of my wife’s hair.

Soon enough, I suppose, I’ll be sitting on a park bench with dust gathering on my shoulders. But I have a sneaking suspicion that in my earphones I’ll be listening to The Who’s Roger Daltrey singing “Hope I d-d-d-die before I get old”.

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