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116: Van Morrison, ‘Tupelo Honey’

Posted by jeff on Jun 7, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

L to R: Janet, Van Morrison

There’s often a fine line between the inspired and the insipid, between the mystic and the messy, between the portentous and the pretentious, between the sublime and the silly.

Dissected, Van Morrison’s song ‘Tupelo Honey’ hasn’t a single defensible element. The melody is unexceptional. The chord changes are for a Week Two guitar student. The harmonies are all pop pap. The orchestration is tasteful but boilerplate – most of the movement provided by a rhythm piano with two guitars providing independent arpeggios, an organ supplying the sustained chords, a pretty darned good bass hidden back in the mix, and Connie (Modern Jazz Quartet) Kay making a living playing rock drums. Van the Man’s vocal is sincere, engaged, without fireworks. But the lyrics, if you look at them out of context, are just plain embarrassing:

L to R: Jane, Van Morrison

You can take all the tea in china
Put it in a big brown bag for me
Sail right around the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the deep blue sea
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
Just like honey from the bee

You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t keep us ’cause our eyes can see

L to R: Moondance, Janet, Van

Men with insight, men in granite
Knights in armor bent on chivalry
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as tupelo honey
Just like honey from the bee

After two verses you get a short standard wailing white soul sax solo. Then in the middle of the song, to crank things up, the band starts playing louder and Van gets into his Sam Cooke-inspired vocal embellishments (Van’s own attribution). Lots of forceful organ/piano/drums, right out of the songbook of The Band (his Woodstock neighbors).

Tupelo tree

That’s the song dissected. But you know what? It’s only a headuphisass critic who would try to pick apart ‘Tupelo Honey’. Because it’s so clearly an inspired organic whole that the best thing a guy could do would be to shut up and take his own personal honey by her hand, pull her close and give her a gentle, loving whirl on the dance floor to one of the most beautiful, romantic recordings ever made.

The whole gescheft isn’t much of a song, really. It’s had surprisingly few covers. The great Dusty Springfield did a respectable job. The very soulful Richie Havens does a pretty fine version. Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan takes a noble stab at it, but it’s more memorable as a gesture than as music. None of them really fly. So why is it that most people I know, just hearing the opening strains of the original, their eyes glaze over and they emit a rapturous “Ahhhhh…”?

Elvis’s humble birthplace, Tupelo, Mississippi

You want some SoTW backstory to this? The album “Tupelo Honey” is from 1971. It was preceded in 1968 by “Astral Weeks” (if you don’t know that, go to your room, put it on loop and don’t come out until you’ve massaged the very quick of your deepest passion). “Astral Weeks” is a unique, incomparable, sublime work of art. It was followed in 1970 by “Moondance”, which is merely a great, unforgettable blue-eyed soul trip. A lot of people got off the Van train at that point. Let me give you a little description of where it went after that. In 1971 he made “His Band and the Street Choir”, pleasant but unessential. Then our “Tupelo Honey”, which is a consistent collection of passionate, sincere, fine songs – the rocking, passionate ‘Wild Night’, prophet-poet Van at his best; the meditative love poem ‘You’re My Woman’, ‘Old Old Woodstock’, nine fine songs in all.  The album arouse out of domestic bliss, a paean to his wife Janet.

Tupelo Honey

Then Van made a string of albums which aren’t as well known as they deserve to be. I’ll admit that I’ve only been really delving into them in the last couple of years. “Saint Dominic’s Preview” (1972), “Hard Nose the Highway” (1973), the live “It’s Too Late to Stop Now…” (1974), and the exquisite “Veedon Fleece” (1974). These albums from 1968-1974 comprise a corpus of works that really is worth experiencing.

Van’s appeal is elusive. He’s visionary, an Irish poet in his heart and soul, transplanted to America. What makes ‘Tupelo Honey’ such a universally appealing expression of unadulterated love? What the heck is the song about?  Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. Tupelo honey is made from the sweet flowers of the tupelo tree, common in that neck of the woods. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying that “‘Tupelo Honey’ has always existed and that Morrison was merely the vessel and the earthly vehicle for it”. But don’t take Bob’s word for it, or mine. Take Van’s. Take all the tea in Chiny.

If you like this post, you may also enjoy:

038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

048 Sam Cooke ‘Bring It On Home To Me’

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

 

 

 

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284: Owen Pallett, ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’

Posted by jeff on Jun 1, 2018 in Other, Rock, Song Of the week

Owen Pallett, ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’

Owen Pallett, ‘E is for Estranged’

Owen Pallett, ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’

Owen Pallett, ‘He Poos Clouds’

Owen Pallett, ‘The Great Elsewhere’

I know many of my subscribers decide whether to read a post or not based on the song/musician being discussed. Which is cool, because we all love our favorites. Me, too.

So I’m often tempted to write about well-known music in order to boost my stats. But back when I conceived of this blog some 10 years ago, I promised myself to follow the music rather than the numbers, and I try really hard to keep promises. So no Taylor Swift this week, darlings. I’m taking you with me instead to yet another road less travelled, one which has brought me great edification and no little puzzlement over the past few weeks.

And now we’re talking about Owen Pallett, born 1979 near Toronto, and he’s the most dazzling artist I’ve encountered in years. Think of Jacob Collier, Sufjan Stevens, Van Dyke Parks and perhaps even a pinch of Nilsson, if those names ring your bells. If not—take a little walk with me.

Jacob Collier because Owen is young, loves to loop, and is endowed with a rare, prodigious musicianship. Sufjan Stevens because he’s young, fun, weird, melodic, and is creating new sounds and ideas often within a pop framework. Nilsson for the beauty of his melodic lines and the virtuoso expressiveness of his voice. Van Dyke Parks (most famous for collaborating with Brian Wilson on “Smile”) because—well, that’s a whole ‘nother story, but here’s Owen’s cover (with symphony orchestra) of Van Dyke’s ‘Palm Desert’ from the legendary 1968 “Song Cycle”.

I hope Van Dyke feels a lot of validation from having so much influence over a brilliant young composer/performer half a century after “Song Cycle” aroused such a deafening silence. I promise a posting in the near future about VDP.

The best label I’ve found for Owen is ‘baroque indie’, but I have only the most tenuous sense of what that means. And that label – a sub-category of a nebulous style – seems to me to diminish Owen’s music, which is grand and fine. I’ll tell you what I am hearing—a brilliant young musician whose deepest roots are classical violin, but who is equally comfortable in composing a quartet for four digital somethings with a rippling drum line and hooks that make my heart skip a beat.

Dazzling. It’s Owen’s own word. I’ve been listening to it in a loop for weeks, and my strongest impression is that wherever you drop the needle (antiquated reference, you kids can ask your grandparents) on any of the four LPs, you’re hearing a rich, fascinating, beautiful mélange of new sounds.

Owen began violin at three, wrote his first modern classical piece at 13, and began solo violin performances at 15. He soon moved to composing for video games, and from there to operas, movie scores, and currently to being the go-to session violinist for lots of indie bands, especially Arcade Fire.

His first two albums, under the name Final Fantasy (“Not one of my top twenty favorite video games”–OP) are almost all violins and vocals. But if you’re thinking Frank Sinatra/Gordon Jenkins, you’re way off base. Eight of the ten songs are said to refer to the schools of magic in Dungeons & Dragons.

Clouds

Check out for example the title cut from the album “He Poos Clouds”, which won the Polaris (Canadian Grammy) for best album of 2006. Or ‘This Lamb Sells Condos’.

My favorite is the album “Heartland” (2010, also a Polaris winner), where the strings join in a symphonic circustry of sounds.

Check out for example ‘E is for Estranged’. Much of Owen’s music is based on looping the violin. Here’s a pretty amazing video of how he does that.  And here’s the studio version.

It begins with a piano-ized keyboard with electronic haze behind. Then there’s a dialog between a pianoish instrument and a violinish one. Is it a processed violin? A violinized synthetizer? Who knows? Who cares? Well, I care because the sound is so damned interesting. But by the accompaniment in the third verse, you all that wrist action, and you know its Owen multitracked on the old cat gut. I think.

And then it grows into a symphony, an organic symphonic instrumentation, the strings written not by George Martin but by The Boys themselves, if you know what I mean. And it’s a really cool song. You can dance to it (well, waltz—it’s in ¾). I’ll give it a 12.

There’s got to be a difference between an outside (older) producer/arranger adding strings to the song of a scruffy young artist who grew up on Chuck Berry on the one hand, and instrumentation including strings written by a scruffy young artist who grew up on Brahms, Gershwin and Phillip Glass.

I don’t want to call it baroque indie. I want to call it symphonic rock.

Check out ‘The Great Elsewhere’. Check out ‘Lewis Takes Action’. Check out ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’.  Check out our Song of The Week ‘Oh Heartland, Up Yours!’.

Owen Pallett’s music enthralls me. No ifsandsorbuts. But.

Owen is gay. “As far as whether the music I make is gay or queer, yeah, it comes from the fact that I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean I’m making music about it.” Well, just mildly disingenuous there, Owen. Most of the content of Owen’s music and the visuals of his videos revolve around homoeroticism. It’s not just his predilection, it’s his agenda.

I personally believe that sexual freedom and good taste can sometimes clash. I believe in people practicing whatever floats their boats–behind closed doors. Sex can be a slippery slope in art. It’s really hard to make it interesting. There just aren’t that many variables. Not desire—that’s a staple, bring it on! But the physical implications of said desire are often better left behind those closed doors.

His lyrics are no less striking than his compositions or his instrumentations or his performances.  It seems to me—and I would have liked a couple of weeks more work on this to solidify this impression–that his words work better as poetry than as lyrics.

This is something very unusual. Dylan is a lyricist, not a poet. Leonard Cohen straddled the fence in the beginning, but eventually cast his lot with songwriting.  Owen Pallett’s words are the intelligent, challenging, focused constructs of heightened language that distinguish (in my mind) lyrics from poetry. Let’s put it this way: I can’t think of a single other songwriter about whom I would say ‘his lyrics are really poems’. I’ll go further. I think they work better as poems than as lyrics.

I did my homework on the words below, references supplied for your reading edification. Don’t mean I understand the text now. But I recognize that they’re strong words, fashioned with intelligence and wit and craftsmanship. As I said, I wish he’d expand his concerns beyond his own private sexual issues, which also here seem to be at the center of things, albeit less blatantly than in other songs.

But the music? Gosh, what dazzlement. As he writes in ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ (I wouldn’t have minded if he left it on), “My senses are bedazzled by the parallax of the road”. ‘Parallax’ means the change in appearance of an object when viewed from different perspectives. It’s also commonly known (among millennial geeks) as the method of scrolling in which the background of a web page moves at a slower rate to the foreground, creating a 3D effect.

But as I freely admitted in last week’s SoTW, when it comes to understanding video gaming and 21st century sexualism, I’m Dylan’s Mr Jones. But the music? I sure do get that music.

The stars collected
Each world accounted for
Freed all the children
Seems there is nothing more

If I only had a rowboat I would row it up to heaven
And if heaven will not have me I would take the other option
I will seek out my own satisfaction

From the wight1 lying in the barrow
To the priest with his broken arrows
There’s a method to the madness
They will feign an expression of sadness
A concatenation2 of locusts
And the farmers are losing their focus
On the pitch of the Avenroe3 grasses
I will sing, sing, sing to the masses
Oh Heartland, up yours!

The hollow voice of the 14th century
Too much assumption to be taken seriously

Oh, you wrote me like a Disney kid, in cut-offs and a beater4
With a feathered fringe it doesn’t suit a simoniac5 breeder
Doesn’t work, doesn’t fly, doesn’t handle

From the wight lying in the barrow…

My homeland
I will not sing your praises here

1A fellow

2A series of connected events

3A fictional place name

4A tight tank top worn by men showing off their body, à la Stanley Kowalski, apparently from ‘wife-beater’

5Buying privilege or pardon from the church

 

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283: The Kinks/Lake Street Dive (Rachael Price), ‘Lola’

Posted by jeff on May 25, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Kinks, ‘Lola’

Lake Street Dive (Rachael Price), ‘Lola’

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is…

 

Ray Davies

Josef K woke up as a cockroach.
Jeff M woke up as Mr Jones.

Remember him? – the butt (sic) of so many jibes in Dylan’s ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, one of his hallucinatory masterpieces from “Highway 61 Revisited”. The song is a diatribe against a bespectacled, white boxer-shorted Republican with a pen protector caught at a gay bash. Perhaps he’s there on his own accord, perhaps drawn by a latent sense of titillation.

 

That’s how I feel. Well, kind of. Mama told me not to come.

Rachael Price

I’m going to be talking here about sexual identity, particularly gender-bending, in a song written in 1970 by Ray Davies for The Kinks about an innocent lad falling for a transvestite, and covered in 2018 by Rachael Price and Lake Street Dive.

 

Full disclosure: I grew up in a world where there were ostensibly two genders. I have always fully identified with the blue, outdoor-plumbing camp, and have been exclusively attracted to members of the pink, indoor-plumbing proclivity.

I get that the world has changed, that the rules and the terminology (and maybe even the taxonomy) have changed from when I first learned about birds and be’s. But hardwiring and cultural conditioning—I still find some things difficult to process.

Lola

I watch a lot of Danish television. I’ve learned a new word there: “O-ka-ay”, pronounced with a lilt at the end. Example:
A: “My mother married her pet llama last week.”
B: “O-ka-ay”.
Everything goes. Enlightened, those Danes.

 

Not me. I’m still operating off an Ozzie and Harriet template, albeit struggling hard to avoid being judgmental. Bottom line: I don’t care what anyone does in private. There are lots of things that make me uncomfortable in public. Such as flaunting sexuality of any flavor. And I sincerely do apologize in advance if any cave-man prejudices slip out here. I really am trying.

Lola v.1 (1970)

When Ray Davies spun his tale of a bumpkin falling for Lola, who mysteriously ‘walked like a woman but talked like a man’ back in 1970, I got the humor. It was risqué, it was hilarious, and it somehow slipped past the Arbiters of Morality.

It’s a fine song, #422 on “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. I used to sing it with my acoustic guitar. Well, that’s just Dandy.

Who would you rather gape at?

The stuff everyone knows: The Kinks were one of the best bands to follow in the wake of The Beatles. The power-riff of their very first hit, ‘You Really Got Me’, had an inestimable impact on heavy metal and punk rock. Leader Ray Davies wrote a string of indelible, intelligent, touching songs: ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, ‘Tired of Waiting for You’, and my personal favorite ‘See My Friends’.

The stuff no one knows about ‘Lola’: In the original version, Ray sings “Coca Cola” in the first line. In the middle of a US tour, he was flown back to the studio in London for one day (6000 miles) to change that to “cherry cola” in order to avoid the BBC ban on ‘product placement’. Band members offer at least three versions of the ‘authentic’ back story to the events described. The opening riff is a Martin guitar heavily compressed together with a vintage Dobro resonating guitar. The character of Lola reappears in the Kinks’ song ‘Destroyer’.

Several loyal readers of SoTW have upbraided me for never having written about The Kinks. And here’s why. I can spend my time watching Ray Davies. Or I can spend my time watching Rachael Price.

Lola v.2 (2018)

There’s a true story about Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Albert Einstein, Herman Kahn and a few others being invited to a Great Minds of the 20th Century colloquium to discuss “The Meaning of Meaning”. They’re standing around, postulating and prevaricating and presumptuating away, when La Barmaid comes in with a tray of drinks (see illustration). And you know what happened? Dead silence. Décolletage trumps dialectics.

I’ve written an inordinate amount about Rachael Price, lead singer for Lake Street Dive, both in the context of the band (SoTW 206: Lake Street Dive, ‘I Want You Back’) and in one of her numerous independent gigs (SoTW 272: Vilray, ‘Do Friends Fall in Love?’).

The band has a new album, “Free Yourself Up”.  They’re fine, serious musicians. Their minimalist setting (voice, trumpet, bass, tambourine) makes me think of the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker pianoless quartet, coolly but intensely interweaving two or three monophonic lines to create an ephemeral sense of a harmonic weave. They write hookless songs. Well, I guess there are hooks, they just don’t repeat themselves. Which is kind of the definition of a hook, isn’t it?

Not to diminish the band. I like ‘em just fine. But to tell the truth, I bought my ticket to hear Rachael. She is one prodigious talent. And to see her. She is, as Charlie Young says to Josh Lyman (regarding Mary-Louise Parker), “That’s one fine-looking woman”.

Here’s a straightforward live performance of the song ‘I Can Change’ from the new album. And here’s the official video. Mr Jones is sitting on my shoulder. I don’t understand the message of that clip. It’s a striptease about a striptease where the lady’s wearing a skin-colored body suit. Cognitive disconnect. Short-circuit. Bzzzzz and wafts of smoke coming out of both of my ears.

Recently LSD has been covering ‘Lola’. Rachael Price takes on the persona of the clueless lad rising to the come-on from sultry, seductive Lola, s/he with the prominent adam’s apple. She sings, “I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am, I’m glad I’m a man!”

Rachel Price, the most non-man on God’s planet. Talk about gender fluidity! Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is—do you, Mister Meshel?

I mean, this is a woman who speaks a language I understand. Like when she puts her hand on that cocked hip. Or says ‘Oh-oh-oh’. [Editor’s tip: Watch that link a few times.] But that’s just the packaging. That voice? Such pipes, such strength, such emotional and technical control. I’m thinking Sarah Vaughan, if that’s not being disrespectful.

Oy, Aretha…

Or check out Rachael covering Aretha’s ‘Give Him Something He Can Feel’. Bring me a glass of water, will you? I didn’t blink for eight minutes. Heck, I’m not sure I breathed. Pardon the blasphemy, but I don’t remember enjoying a “blue-eyed soul” singer so much since Janis Joplin. But we come to praise Rachael, not to bury her in superlatives.

 

While we’re here, I can’t help but share Aretha singing the song live. Sure am glad she didn’t wear that outfit in her more corpulent years!

Introducing this live version of ‘Lola’, Rachael says “You can love whoever you want to love, and that’s what this song is about.” Oh, well. I’m reminded of that aforesaid barmaid.

I could sit back and say that LSD’s take on ‘Lola’ lacks conceptual coherence.
But with all due respect for contemporary mores regarding gender fluidity, I choose to let my DNA take the lead and just watch that clip again. To gaze at Ms Price, and feel my heart go thumpity-thump-thump.

 

I met her in a club down in old Soho
Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola, C-O-L-A cola.
She walked up to me and she asked me to dance.
I asked her her name and in a dark brown voice, she said Lola, L-O-L-A, Lola.


I’m not the world’s most physical guy, but when she squeezed me tight she nearly broke my spine,
Oh my Lola.
I’m not dumb but I can’t understand why she walked like a woman but talked like a man,
Oh my Lola.


We drank champagne and danced all night under electric candlelight.
She picked me up and sat me on her knee and said, “Dear boy, won’t you come home with me?”

I’m not the world’s most passionate guy
But when I looked in her eyes I almost fell for my Lola
L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola
Lola, L-L-Lola, L-L-Lola
I pushed her away, I walked to the door
But I fell to the floor, I got down on my knees
Then I looked at her and she at me–


That’s the way that I want it to stay, and I always want it to be that way
For my Lola.
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, it’s a mixed up muddled up, shook up world
Except for Lola.


Well, I left home just a week before
And I’d never ever kissed a woman before
But Lola smiled and took me by the hand
And said, “Dear boy, I’m gonna make you a man.”

I’m not the world’s most masculine man, but I know what I am, I’m glad I’m a man!
And so is Lola.

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112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

Posted by jeff on May 17, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I originally published this post 7 years ago. I have no recollection of the specific failures referred to in the first paragraphs here. But I’ve been going through a major rough patch lately, walking out of the big musical enterprise I created and which has consumed me in recent years. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I believe we each carry  with us a propensity for optimism/pessimism, to a great extent regardless of circumstances. 

***

James Taylor – ‘Yesterday’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘If I Needed Someone’ (1970, live)

I’ve been having a pretty lousy week. It’s included two rejections in creative enterprises where I thought I was in a position to succeed. The first one was a shock and an insult, connected to a project for which I’m overqualified and underappreciated, but which was very convenient and fun for me; the second was the culmination of a long process of positioning myself to succeed at the highest level in a field I care about deeply. The rejection there hits deep and long-range, although the door wasn’t closed for the future.

I’m called a creative guy. I’m always getting involved in Projects, usually of an artistic nature. Joining an existing group, often impacting it strongly, sometimes inventing my own gig, either solo or joint venture. I do this regularly and energetically. The people close to me say, “Oh, you’ll pick yourself up and invent something new.” Well, judging me by my record I probably will.

But this week is a low point, one of those times when you walk around muttering

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Or drinking a little too much scotch. Or reading Ecclesiastes. Or being short-tempered with those near and dear to you. Or listening to early James Taylor.

Which is where I was this week, back in James’ first album. James is half a year older than me. At twenty, I was a confused and rebellious budding hippie from a good Jewish home, studying (well, kind of) in college. He was a disturbed junkie from a patrician home.

James’ father was dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, an alcoholic. At 18, James was sleeping 20 hours a day. At 19 he was institutionalized for 9 months. At 20 he had formed a band in NYC and was addicted to heroin. At 21 he was dropping acid in London; became the first artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple label; and recorded his first album, which went unnoticed commercially. At 22, in California, he recorded the seminal “Sweet Baby James”, which included the title song and ‘Fire and Rain’, and single-handedly created a genre still thriving half a century later.

James Taylor – ‘Sweet Baby James’ (1970, live)

But it’s the neglected, overlooked first album that has been such an intimate friend to me all these years, the one I still go back to on days like I’ve been having this week. It’s there that young James first engages the world, and expresses all the bewilderment, the profound disappointment, the discouragement, about this world we live in. I’m no longer 20. But it’s weeks like this where 40 years of experience, inurement, calluses, cynicism, just don’t help. Weeks where the pain cuts right to the bone. James’ first album is the eloquent soundtrack for that pain. So you put on the headphones, and you put on the album. “Something’s wrong, that restless feeling keeps preying on your mind. Roadmaps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.” Or “It does you no good to pretend, you’ve made a hole much too big to mend. And it looks like you’ll lose again, my friend, so call on your rainy day man.” And you feel, if you’ll pardon the expression, that you’ve got a friend.

James Taylor – ‘Rainy Day Man’ (1970, live)

James Taylor, Peter Asher

The Apple album was highly (many say over-) produced by Peter Asher, formerly of Peter & Gordon (‘World Without Love’, ‘Woman’, both written by McCartney), brother of McCartney paramour Jane, just a couple of years later the producer of the iconic West Coast albums of James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and others. Paul McCartney played bass on ‘Carolina In My Mind’ (as far as I remember, the first time a Beatle had guested on another artist’s album; it was akin to a god descending from Olympus). ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, one of the most affective love songs I know, clearly inspired George Harrison’s ‘Something’.

James Taylor – ‘Carolina in My Mind’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ (1970, live)

Listening to the Apple album today, as I have been for 40 years now, I find that the sound really has gotten a bit brittle. The strings aren’t bad, but don’t approach the profundity that the solo singer-songwriter-strummer displays. James’ resilient, warm, resonant baritone that two generations have been so drawn to, is not flattered in the Apple recording. It’s a bit thin, a bit reedy.

That being said, the songs are masterpieces of introspection. ‘Something’s Wrong’, ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’, ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Carolina in My Mind’ – you can put me on a desert island with those five songs. I might hang myself from the one palm tree. But I’d do it with a smile on my face.

James Taylor – ‘Sunshine, Sunshine‘ (1970, live)

Like any well-balanced adult, I try to steer clear of the state of mind where you’re looking deep into the abyss of the meaninglessness of existence. But this week it caught up with me. So while I was wallowing in self-pity, I put on not the Apple album, but an old bootleg cassette I had of a live performance in Syracuse, NY, from February 1970. James had just finished recording the album; I’m not sure if it had even been released. When he introduces the song ‘Sweet Baby James’, no one claps. He was still reveling in relative obscurity. But it wouldn’t last long.

The Syracuse recording is quite remarkable. The sound is problematic, but who cares? Everything else is perfect. It includes some fine humor (a Ray Charles Coke commercial and his ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’, a snuff commercial), some old folk standards, most of the songs from the Apple album in definitive unadorned versions, a couple from the second. It also has a moving treatment of The Impressions’ ‘People Get Ready’, and his reading of George Harrison’s ‘If I Needed Someone’. If it doesn’t move you, someone ought to put a mirror underneath your nostrils.

James Taylor – Ray Charles Coke commercial (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – Snuff commercial (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘People Get Ready’ (1970, live)

And there’s another song you’ve heard several million times called ‘Yesterday’. It was written by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. He woke up one morning with the tune fully formed in his head, and assumed that he had heard it somewhere. He went to John, George, George Martin – none of them recognized it, but they all thought it was great. Paul wrote tentative lyrics for it just to give it some form. ‘Scrambled Eggs’ was what he called it (“Scrambled Eggs/Oh, my baby how I love your legs”).

Way back in SoTW 018, I wrote about a little-known Paul song that I dearly love, ‘Distractions’. I maintained that it was an exceptional song in his oeuvre.

Paul’s musicality is legendary, at times divine. “All My Loving”, “And I Love Her”, “Another Girl”. And that’s just the A’s up through 1965. But honesty, depth, soul-searching, have never been his fortes, to put it mildly. At his worst, the Prince of Plastic, the Sheikh of Shallow. At his best, a modern-day Mozart. Even the brilliant “Penny Lane”, a nostalgic trip back to childhood, leaves your heartstrings unplucked (compare it to the flip side of the single, “Strawberry Fields”). It’s just not what Paul does.

I caught a lot of flack back then. But when you listen to our Song of The Week, James Taylor’s version of that song, you might just see what I mean. It’s been performed an estimated 7 million times, was voted the best song of the 20th century in a 1999 BBC Radio 2 poll of music experts and listeners, and chosen as the #1 pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine.

Yawn. You listen to James’ treatment of the song. You tell me which version touches you more deeply. You tell me if you don’t feel like you’re hearing the song for the first time since 1965.

The one good thing that happened to me this week was that I sent James’ version of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’ to a few choice friends of refined musical taste. They generated reactions such as “humbled and touched, that was beautiful” and “I have to admit, it’s a lovely touching rendition.” And “I seem to have been missing something in James Taylor”. That’s one of my missions in life, to spread the gospel of great music. I was frustrated in a couple of my endeavors this week, big-time. But I’ve still got James, and I still have some friends on whom I can foist him, so things can’t be all that bad. Can they?

For further listening edification:
The BBC broadcast a fine live James Taylor performance in 1970, including another Beatles song with a dark, drug reading, With a Little Help from My Friends.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also enjoy:

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

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