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201: Bob Dylan, ‘All Along the Watchtower’

Posted by jeff on Aug 29, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bob Dylan – ‘All Along the Watchtower’

994055_582774828409764_522455951_nI set aside several days last week to catch up on reading my fan mail, when I came across this one:

Dear Jeff, I’ve been following your blog faithfully for years and enjoy it most of the time (especially that one about Blind Willie Greenberg’s “I Ate Your Cat, Now You Bite My Dog”), although you certainly should be talking more about Texas swing. You wrote last week that you consider “John Wesley Harding” one of your “Top 10” albums (that is a pretty cheesy concept, don’t you think, Jeff?), but that you “almost never” listen to it. Well, Jeff, I hardly know what to say. How would you feel if I wrote a lyric “Oh, that SoTW blog is fine/But to read it I never seem to have the inclination nor the time”??

Can you imagine my unmitigated mortification? My utter chagrin? So we begin our third centenary of posts with a rectification: Rehabilitating John Wesley Harding.

John Wesley Hardin

John Wesley Hardin

For the innocents, ignorants and yung ‘uns amongst you—that’s a joke. I was employing irony, because Bob Dylan so patently needs nothing from me (or anyone), especially not JWH. It’s perhaps the most ‘serious’ album to come out of the entire rock oeuvre – ‘serious’ in the sense of intellectually profound, affectively incisive and craftsmanly masterful. Bob Dylan at his best. Which is to say the art of our time at its best. For time capsules, for satellites to distant universes, for future generations: this is what we had to offer.

From January 1964 to May 1966, Dylan released five generation-defining albums. Not defining in the sense of ‘explaining the nature of’, but in the sense of ‘determining the boundaries of’. We would wait at the record store on the day of the release of a new album of Dylan (and The Beatles). Standing in line we’d ponder, “I wonder where he’s taking us now? What will be our landscape be for the next year?” Little did we know that we’d still be pondering those same questions 50 years later.

Après le Deluge

Après le Deluge

In July, 1966, two months after the release of the seminal “Blonde on Blonde”, Dylan broke his neck in a motorcycle accident. Rumors were rife: he’s a paraplegic; he’s permanently out of commission. We knew nothing. In December, 1967, “John Wesley Harding” was released, to our utter bewilderment.

“BoB” had been a living nightmare – electric, haunted, amphetamine-fevered: Lights flicker from the opposite loft/In this room the heat pipes just cough/The country music station plays soft/But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off/Just Louise and her lover so entwined/And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind/…The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face/Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my place.

Joker

Joker

And then comes “John Wesley Harding”, 12 minimalist 3-verse songs, acoustic guitar/gentle bass/brushed drums, rife with biblical imagery and judiciously crafted clichés, a landscape of wide-open spaces and allusions to the antiquated, the world of a man still dazed from a personal tsunami, gingerly embracing the time-tried. If it’s been here for a long time, it has some dimensionless gravitas. Dylan presents us with the dialectics of The Desperado and The Destitute. The Landlord and the Homeless. The Immigrant and The Enfranchised. The Deceiver and The Deceived. Frankie Lee and Judas Priest. The Joker and The Thief. And the mortal, moral ground between them.

This is Bob Dylan the survivor, seriously addressing serious issues, taking stock après le deluge. Remember what Noah did after 40 days of being cooped up with everything from aardvarks to zebras? He sets foot on dry (well, muddy) land, and what does he see? Nothing. The aftermath of absolute holocaust. A cleansing. An existential reboot. So what does Noah do? What would anyone do? He thanks God.

Thief

Thief

In the words of a song from “The Basement Tapes”, which Dylan was recording at the same time as “JWH”: “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”

From the cover to the liner notes (do yourself a favor, revisit them; they’re Dylan at his very finest) through the 12 songs, Dylan reveals a unified, variegated vision. Each with its own corner of the universe, together adding up to a coherent, disturbing attempt at resolution of the disparate and irreconcilable.

The most disturbing, the most patently visionary song of the 12 is ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The lyric can be distilled thus:
Joker:             The world is intolerably harsh.
Thief:             Live with it.
Narrator:       Ominous things lie ahead.

Prophet

Prophet

Not very comforting, I admit. There are prophets of doom, and there are prophets of comfort. But Dylan is no prophet at all (Time and Newsweek notwithstanding). A prophet is claimed (by himself or others) to have been contacted by God and to serve as an intermediary with humanity. Dylan is a mere medium, all veils and masks and giving you a glimpse of what should have been and what yet might be. But has no obligation to tell Dylanists anything.

Bob Dylan has no God. At least not in December, 1967. A dozen years later he would have a whole series of them. But at this point, the whole vision is on him, take it or leave it. We all took it. And the world changed direction. From rocketing forward faster and louder and higher to – wait a minute. Ssh. Ssh. Just breathe. Relax a moment. And think about what’s going on. Live with it.

So what’s going on in this song? We have an intercourse between two 2-dimensional, Kafkaesque figures. (Let that roll around your mind a bit, just how much Bob sounds here like Franz sans guitar.) The third verse is eschatological (relating to The End), a portent of doom. But is it really apocalyptic (i.e., alluding to the secrets revealed to the prophet about the structure of the heavens, the future, the end of days, angels)? Does the narrator know things? I don’t think so.

Singer

Singer

I think the narrator, and hence the narration, is at most a barometer, a weather vane, a harbinger. Not a bearer of answers. And as he’s long known—you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Now he’s providing a service, a wake-up call. But it’s us who need to get ourselves up and moving.

The imagery could hardly be more profoundly frightening, Dylan at his finest. Even if he snitches a bit from Isaiah 21:6–9:

כי כה אמר אלי ה’ לך העמד המצפה אשר יראה יגיד
For thus the Lord said to me: ‘Go, set a watchman; what he sees, let him declare.’

וראה רכב צמד פרשים רכב חמור רכב גמל והקשיב קשב רב-קשב
And when he sees a troop, horsemen by pairs, a troop of asses, a troop of camels, let him heed it most attentively.

ויקרא אריה על-מצפה ה’ אנכי עמד תמיד יומם ועל-משמרתי אנכי נצב כל-הלילות
And he shall cry like a lion: ‘Upon the watchtower, O Lord, I always stand all day on my watch, I am at my post all night.’

והנה-זה בא רכב איש צמד פרשים ויען ויאמר נפלה נפלה בבל וכל-פסילי אלהיה שבר לארץ
And, behold, here it comes, a troop of men, horsemen by pairs.
And he spoke and said: ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the graven images of her gods are broken unto the ground.’

an-alternate-shot-from-john-wesley-harding

Rock Band

Two Riders

Two Riders

‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon.’ Well, that’s conclusive. And comforting! But we’re living 2500 years later, and the answers – some of them, anyway – that worked then no longer hold. The world is complex, the slope is slippery, and even time isn’t what it used to be. Sorry, Joker, there is no way out of here. Yeah, it sucks. Live with it. The hour is getting late.

Look, for example, at God. He had a similar dilemma. Noah stepped off the ark, saw that only he and his family and passengers remained After the Flood, and made a burnt offering. “And God smelled the savory smell; and God said in His heart, “No more will I curse the ground for Man, because the impulse of Man’s heart is evil from youth, and I will no more punish all living things as I just did.”

I made Man, and I made the world for him. He has an evil impulse, and I’m not pleased with that. But I guess I’ll just have to reconcile myself to the world as it turned out.

And what about those two riders? What tidings are they bearing? It don’t sound good!

Well, don’t ask me. I have no idea. But they are fast approaching, so maybe we’ll have an answer soon. Tune in next week.

All Along the Watchtower

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

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2

200: Bert Jansch, “Avocet”

Posted by jeff on Aug 22, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Bert Jansch — ‘Avocet’

bert-jansch-05

Scottish Warbler

Believe it or not, there are gullibles around the globe who think I possess some modicum of wisdom about music. Little do they know how little do I know. But I’ve been getting all these letters and calls beseeching, “Impart of your musical wisdom, O Jeff!” Well, who am I to deny these wisdom-starved throngs? Fasten your seatbelts, here comes:

There are different kinds of music.

Woo. Take a moment to digest that, I’ll wait. Ready? And to support this revolutionary hypothesis, I’m going to introduce you to one of the differentest pieces of music I know: “Avocet” (\ˈa-və-ˌset\) by Bert Jansch, 1979.

Avocet

Avocet

Everyone sings the praises of great music. I’d like to pay tribute here to background music. But great, great background music.

I always get befuddled when making my list of 10 Greatest Albums. ‘Great’ in what sense? Artistic achievement? The list could be comprised of ten early Dylan albums and nothing else. Ok, so we limit it to one album by each artist. My list usually includes “John Wesley Harding” and Randy Newman’s first album, both of which I admire inestimably and listen to—well, almost never. When’s the last time you sat through one of the great, whiney, headachy Dylan masterpieces from 1964-1970?

There are others on my list of Greatests that I listen to all the time. “Eli & the 13th Confession”—two or three times a year I go on a Laura binge. “Pet Sounds”? Monthly. “Astral Weeks“, James Taylor’s first, “The Band” – less often, but on occasion, yes.

Lapwing

Lapwing

I’ve probably listened more to Bill Evans’ unplumbable “Live at the Village Vanguard” over the last 20 years than any other album. Whichever Bach solo keyboard album I put on the list, often the Toccatas, is probably in second place. And sneaking into this illustrious company of great music oft-heard is an obscure album by a less-than-household name, an album no one would call anything but background music, is “Avocet”.

Glaswegian Jansch (1943-2011) was an charter member of the British folk scene in the mid-1960s, which included Davey Graham, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson (of Fairport Convention), Donovan (here in a tribute to our Artist of The Week) and Paul Simon (yes, the very same) and Bert’s BBF John Renbourne. They played a lot of annoying Celtic ballads, dabbled in confessional singer-songwriter material (‘Needle of Death’), blues (‘Dissatisfied Blues’), jazz (Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Porkpie Hat’), art music, and most notably ‘folk baroque’ (‘Stepping Stones’)—a new fingerpicked acoustic-guitar folk-jazz amalgam of all the above that still resonates today.  This style/genre found its most prominent commercial expression in Pentangle, when Jansch and Renbourne added an acoustic bass, brushed drums and a chick singer with a plaintive voice, an exotic name, long blonde hair, and filled basketball stadia with pot-addled American college students.

Bittern

Bittern

There’s a wealth of this material. Jansch himself released an album or two a year for decades, starting in 1965. A good starting point for the whole scene is the 1968 “Jansch and Renbourne”. Which is sometimes called “Bert & John”. And sometimes “Bert Jansch and John Renbourne”. Slovenly Brits. Best of breed may be “The Pentangle”.

The most famous cut from this pool is unquestionably, Paul Simon’s ‘Anji’, which he learned from Jansch’s ‘Angie’, which he learned from the original ‘Anji’ by Davey Graham.

I’ve struggled long and hard to master this period. I even read a book about it, one of the most poorly-written musical biographies I’ve ever encountered (way too much of my reading material is this kind of stuff). But it eludes me, perhaps because I have so little patience for the warbly, whiny, wimp Olde Folke material that dominates it.

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

But when I go after an artist, he’d better watch out. On my way to not really grasping Bert Jansch, I chewed my way earnestly through 20-25 of his solo albums and collaborations. Which is how I came to trip over “Avocet”, smack plump in the middle of his career, enthusiastically ignored by the British music press and by even Bert’s fans. But it’s become a best buddy of mine, a mainstay on my music player, a go-to album for a myriad of situations.

This is point where I’m supposed to describe the music itself. C’mon, Jeff, you’ve done it 199 times already. Well, this one’s hard. “Avocet” is different. The instrumentation will give you a hint: guitar, piano, mandocello (WTF?), violin (well, fiddle), flute, acoustic bass. It’s gently hippie-trippie. It’s translucent and nebular. It’s airborne. It’s avian.

Osprey

Osprey

In fact, each of the six pieces is titled after a water bird.

The music is as hard to pin down as—well, as an ‘Avocet’ (the 18-minute title cut), which is an aquatic bird recently returned to Britain on reclaimed land which was returned to salt marsh to make difficulties for any landing German invaders.  As elusive as a ‘Lapwing’, a wading crested plover. As shy as a ‘Bittern’.  As vividly vibrant as a ‘Kingfisher’. As dignified as an ‘Osprey’. As loveable as a ‘Kittiwake‘.

This music cheers me up a little when I’m sad. It saddens me a little when I’m too happy. It provides a warm glow in the room when my focus is elsewhere. I’m aware of the ambience, but it never intrudes. It’s music I can fall asleep to – intelligent, tasteful, satisfying background music.

Kittiwake

Kittiwake

Outstanding background music (how’s that for an oxymoron?). Ridiculously good background music. Sublime background music. If I were a meditator, this is the music I’d use.

Because we live in this world. Not the world of high drama, but the world of the mundane, with all its multifarious moments of boredom and preoccupation and work and running errands. Life is short, but the days are long. And we need a soundtrack for real life, too. Not great music; just sincerely good music. Like what we wish for most of our days.

So here you go. Thanks, Bert.

 

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3

199: Janis Ian, ‘At Seventeen’

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Janis Ian, ‘At Seventeen’

avatar_bigI was recently struggling to grease a conversation with my 11-year old grandson (he’s better at math than at words, proof that he takes after the other side of his gene pool). He was telling me (again, and at length) about the recess soccer league at his school, which team beat which, who scored how many goals, how each goal was scored… And a question popped into my mind and out of my mouth, unplanned and unprocessed and uncensored: “What number are you chosen?”

“Six or seven”, he responded, without missing a beat, with an ambivalence of pain (at the half dozen who precede him) and pride (at the twenty he precedes).

It’s been a long time since I participated in a 6th grade recess baseball game (for which I went much further down in the draft), but I had intuited correctly—some things never change.

Bullying-Attorney-DoylestownI guess six or seven is okay. My mind tells me that I wish he were oblivious to it all. But of course, in my heart I fervently wish he were one of the two captains doing the choosing – the vestige of that prepubescent angst we all felt so acutely.

If I won the cosmic lottery and were granted one wish for the benefit of humankind (no fair going for the clichés like World Peace, Zero Carbon Footprint, or the low-calorie Big Mac), mine would be to obliterate Popularity from junior high school.

Teen bullyingTeenagers and popularity. Social status. Where you stand in the eyes of your peers and in your own mind. Letting others determine your sense of worth. That warped, cruel, numbered list of My Rank on The Ladder. The mosquito is more beneficial to the planet.

In the eighth grade I crash-landed in The City, an alien from a hick town dropped brutally in the middle of a viciously competitive bar mitzvah/debutant scene, clueless and bewildered. I would have been more at home on Mars. For several years I was at best ignored, at worst sneered at. By my senior year I had met enough fellow budding bohemian misfits in choir, drama club, the newspaper, to breathe. I continued trying to figure out the rules of the game while falling further and further behind in the score, till at 19 or 20 – borne on the wings of the emerging counterculture – I suddenly transmogrified from Weird to Special. Even the sorority girls who had only recently sneered in gaggles of threes began to rise to my attention, one at a time.

jiI’m guessing we all share that biography. Just switch the details like the cut-out clothes on a paper doll.

My semi-friend AB was the coolest Jewish kid in high school. We got along quite well, and he was very nice to me when no one was watching. He made email contact with me a few years ago, and took the trouble to apologize for perhaps not being as loyal a friend as he should have been. We both knew what he was talking about. Maybe he liked me more, but when the real cool kids walked by, he dropped me like a leper.

AB, I said, don’t worry. It bothered me a bit back then, but that’s just the way teenagers are. I was aware of my nonexistence in the social hierarchy. I took it as a fact of life—like height, like weight, like acne. It left no scars—really, really, really.

IAN-JANIS-PIC2Well, maybe.

You may get past it, you may repress it, you may forget it, but you can’t deny it – this was perhaps the most acute pain you ever felt in your life. Your peers – those the most like you in the world – standing right there next to you, at the very budding of your selfness, looking you in the eye, and saying “I’m better than you. I know it and you know it, and everyone that we know knows it.”

In 1964, the 13-year old (!!!) Janis Fink changed her surname to Ian (who ever heard of a successful songwriter with a Jewish name?) and recorded ‘Society’s Child’ describing her crush on a black boy and the outrage it created at home and at school. The song was so controversial that Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler (no small radical himself) broke her contract and refused to release it. A radio station in Atlanta that played it was burned down. But in 1967 the song reached #14 on the Hot 100. America was changing.

jaiShe recorded three more albums which made little impression, retired from the music business, married at 20, divorced shortly after, and returned in 1974 with the hit ‘Jesse’ (both her version and Roberta Flack’s), followed in 1975 by “Between the Lines”, her masterpiece. It topped the Billboard charts and won her a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female, beating out the likes of Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel”.

It’s a pretty darned fine album by all accounts, musical and intelligent and confessional charmingly intimate. It includes one of my favorite cuts from that decade, ‘The Other Side of the Sun’. But it was driven by our Song of The Week, that iconic anthem of teenage angst, ‘At Seventeen’.

Wikipedia: “Promoting the song was challenging, as it was longer than most radio hits [4’43”] and packed with lyrics. Along with the promotions team at her record company, Ian decided that their best chance to market the song was to promote it to women, which was no easy task when so many radio stations were controlled by men. Ian did a grueling series of daytime talk shows for six months before she was granted an appearance on The Tonight Show where she performed the song and it took off.”

janis_ianShe also performed it on the debut show of Saturday Night Live. Here’s a nice live performance from 1976. The song was a million-seller, and that year on Valentine’s Day, Ian received 461 Valentine cards.

Ian’s subsequent career has included more and less successful recordings, hit songs for other artists, a marriage and divorce from an abusive husband, a long-lasting marriage to a woman, publishing science fiction and a well-received autobiography. She’s been vocal about LGBTism, incest, continuing education for seniors, and criticism of the recording industry. A woman of Issues, that Janis Ian. But ‘the first line of her obituary’ will include a reference to ‘At Seventeen’, because no other song has ever addressed that particular profound pain as well.

So, Grandson, take heart. There are many bumps in the road ahead, both within and without. Your future happiness is not hinged on your skill in soccer. Not even on how those two guys picking the teams perceive you. I promise.

I learned the truth at seventeen
That love was meant for beauty queens
And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles
Who married young and then retired

The valentines I never knew
The Friday night charades of youth
Were spent on one more beautiful
At seventeen I learned the truth

And those of us with ravaged faces
Lacking in the social graces
Desperately remained at home
Inventing lovers on the phone

Who called to say, “Come dance with me”
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn’t all it seems at seventeen

A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs
Whose name I never could pronounce
Said, “Pity, please, the ones who serve
‘Cause they only get what they deserve”

And the rich relationed hometown queen
Marries into what she needs
With a guarantee of company
And haven for the elderly

So remember those who win the game
Lose the love they sought to gain
In debentures of quality and dubious integrity
Their small town eyes will gape at you
In dull surprise when payment due
Exceeds accounts received at seventeen

To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball

It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me

We all play the game and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown

 

They call and say, “Come dance with me”
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me at seventeen

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0

Posted by jeff on Aug 1, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Janis Ian, ‘At Seventeen’ At Seventeen avatar_big I was recently struggling to grease a conversation with my 11-year old grandson (he’s better at math than at words, proof that he takes after the other side of his gene pool). He was telling me (again, and at length) about the recess soccer league at his school, which team beat which, who scored how many goals, how each goal was scored… And a question popped into my mind and out of my mouth, unplanned and unprocessed and uncensored: “What number are you chosen?” “Six or seven”, he responded, without missing a beat, with an ambivalence of pain (at the half dozen who precede him) and pride (at the twenty he precedes). It’s been a long time since I participated in a 6th grade recess baseball game (for which I went much further down in the draft), but I had intuited correctly—some things never change. I guess six or seven is okay. My mind tells me that I wish he were oblivious to it all. But of course, in my heart I fervently wish he were one of the two captains doing the choosing – the vestige of that prepubescent angst we all felt so acutely. Bullying-Attorney-DoylestownIf I won the cosmic lottery and were granted one wish for the benefit of humankind (no fair going for the clichés like World Peace, Zero Carbon Footprint, or the low-calorie Big Mac), mine would be to obliterate Popularity from junior high school. Teenagers and popularity. Social status. Where you stand in the eyes of your peers and in your own mind. Letting others determine your sense of worth. That warped, cruel, numbered list of My Rank on The Ladder. The mosquito is more beneficial to the planet. Teen bullyingIn the eighth grade I crash-landed in The City, an alien from a hick town dropped brutally in the middle of a viciously competitive bar mitzvah/debutant scene, clueless and bewildered. I would have been more at home on Mars. For several years I was at best ignored, at worst sneered at. By my senior year I had met enough fellow budding bohemian misfits in choir, drama club, the newspaper, to breathe. I continued trying to figure out the rules of the game while falling further and further behind in the score, till at 19 or 20 – borne on the wings of the emerging counterculture – I suddenly transmogrified from Weird to Special. Even the sorority girls who had only recently sneered in gaggles of threes began to rise to my attention, one at a time. jaiI’m guessing we all share that biography. Just switch the details like the cut-out clothes on a paper doll. My semi-friend AB was the coolest Jewish kid in high school. We got along quite well, and he was very nice to me when no one was watching. He made email contact with me a few years ago, and took the trouble to apologize for perhaps not being as loyal a friend as he should have been. We both knew what he was talking about. Maybe he liked me more, but when the real cool kids walked by, he dropped me like a leper. AB, I said, don’t worry. It bothered me a bit back then, but that’s just the way teenagers are. I was aware of my nonexistence in the social hierarchy. I took it as a fact of life—like height, like weight, like acne. It left no scars—really, really, really. Well, maybe. You may get past it, you may repress it, you may forget it, but you can’t deny it – this was perhaps the most acute pain you ever felt in your life. Your peers – those the most like you in the world – standing right there next to you, at the very budding of your selfness, looking you in the eye, and saying “I’m better than you. I know it and you know it, and everyone that we know knows it.” jiIn 1964, the 13-year old (!!!) Janis Fink changed her surname to Ian (who ever heard of a successful songwriter with a Jewish name?) and recorded ‘Society’s Child’ describing her crush on a black boy and the outrage it created at home and at school. The song was so controversial that Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler (no small radical himself) broke her contract and refused to release it. A radio station in Atlanta that played it was burned down. But in 1967 the song reached #14 on the Hot 100. America was changing. She recorded three more albums which made little impression, retired from the music business, married at 20, divorced shortly after, and returned in 1974 with the hit ‘Jesse’ (both her version and Roberta Flack’s), followed in 1975 by “Between the Lines”, her masterpiece. It topped the Billboard charts and won her a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Female, beating out the likes of Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel”. IAN-JANIS-PIC2It’s a pretty darned fine album by all accounts, musical and intelligent and confessional charmingly intimate. It includes one of my favorite cuts from that decade, ‘The Other Side of the Sun’. But it was driven by our Song of The Week, that iconic anthem of teenage angst, ‘At Seventeen’. Wikipedia: “Promoting the song was challenging, as it was longer than most radio hits [4’43”] and packed with lyrics. Along with the promotions team at her record company, Ian decided that their best chance to market the song was to promote it to women, which was no easy task when so many radio stations were controlled by men. Ian did a grueling series of daytime talk shows for six months before she was granted an appearance on The Tonight Show where she performed the song and it took off.” janis_ianShe also performed it on the debut show of Saturday Night Live. Here’s a nice live performance from 1976. The song was a million-seller, and that year on Valentine’s Day, Ian received 461 Valentine cards. Ian’s subsequent career has included more and less successful recordings, hit songs for other artists, a marriage and divorce from an abusive husband, a long-lasting marriage to a woman, publishing science fiction and a well-received autobiography. She’s been vocal about LGBTism, incest, continuing education for seniors, and criticism of the recording industry. A woman of Issues, that Janis Ian. But ‘the first line of her obituary’ will include a reference to ‘At Seventeen’, because no other song has ever addressed that particular profound pain as well. So, Grandson, take heart. There are many bumps in the road ahead, both within and without. Your future happiness is not hinged on your skill in soccer. Not even on how those two guys picking the teams perceive you. I promise. I learned the truth at seventeen That love was meant for beauty queens And high school girls with clear-skinned smiles Who married young and then retired The valentines I never knew The Friday night charades of youth Were spent on one more beautiful At seventeen I learned the truth And those of us with ravaged faces Lacking in the social graces Desperately remained at home Inventing lovers on the phone Who called to say, “Come dance with me” And murmured vague obscenities It isn’t all it seems at seventeen A brown-eyed girl in hand-me-downs Whose name I never could pronounce Said, “Pity, please, the ones who serve ‘Cause they only get what they deserve” And the rich relationed hometown queen Marries into what she needs With a guarantee of company And haven for the elderly So remember those who win the game Lose the love they sought to gain In debentures of quality and dubious integrity Their small town eyes will gape at you In dull surprise when payment due Exceeds accounts received at seventeen To those of us who knew the pain Of valentines that never came And those whose names were never called When choosing sides for basketball It was long ago and far away The world was younger than today When dreams were all they gave for free To ugly duckling girls like me We all play the game and when we dare To cheat ourselves at solitaire Inventing lovers on the phone Repenting other lives unknown They call and say, “Come dance with me” And murmur vague obscenities At ugly girls like me at seventeen

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