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260: David Crosby/Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

Posted by jeff on Apr 14, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week
February 1969, California, USA --- Musicians David Crosby and Joni Mitchell travel to Big Bear Lake. --- Image by © Henry Diltz/Corbis

© Henry Diltz/Corbis

David Crosby, ‘Yvette in English’

Joni Mitchell, ‘Yvette in English’

David Crosby, ‘Arrows’

David Crosby/Phil Collins, ‘Hero’

CPR, ‘Breathless’

David Crosby is one elusive sonofagun.

At his best, he’s as magical as a perfect high (‘Guinnevere’, ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’).
At his worst, you want to find something high to jump off of (‘Mind Garden’).

To tell the truth, he’s not much of a songwriter. Almost all of his best music is written/performed/created in collaboration. He most frequently shines in the light reflected off a partner he’s enhancing, as happened so frequently in The Byrds (‘Eight Miles High’) and CSN. Sometimes, he’s the best harmony singer ever (CSN, SoTW 171, Jackson Browne’s ‘Something Fine’).

landscape-1483037434-david-crosby-1Left to his own devices, I’ve found him to be more often than not just annoying.

But when he’s on, he’s just so damned good that you keep going back for more. Then you get ‘Where’s the meat?’ frustrated, and you leave. Then you come back, looking for just a “little bit of instant bliss”.

I followed Crosby closely up through “Déjà Vu”, even that lovely contribution he made to Jefferson Starship’s first album, ‘Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?’ – co-written (no surprise) with Paul Kantner. But then I admit, I abandoned starship. I tried to keep an eye out for what he was doing, all the subsequent CSN and CSN&Y reunions, and most of the solo albums – 1971, 1989, 1993, 1995, 2014, 2016. I even read his autobiography, for which I should get extra credit point.

6a00e008dca1f0883401a510f5a5e2970c-400wiBut I just couldn’t generate the energy to really follow Crosby closely. There were always glimpses of magic, but in the morning I was left with a headache. The same with his buddy Stills, the same with CSN, not to mention &Y (for which I always had limited patience).

But then I recently had the urge to revisit some of Stills’ output over his latter decades, and discovered that Graham Nash had compiled box sets for each of C and S and N himself. The recent SoTW 258 on Stills was a result of checking out his 4-CD retrospective, “Carry On”. In short – if Stills were as sensible as he is talented, he would have been inside the pantheon instead of in the entry hall. Proof: SoTW 072, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ (from “Just Roll Tape”). There’s an awful lot of shouting and carrying on in those latter decades, very little memorable music.

1043Crosby’s 3-CD retrospective, “Voyage”, is more enlightening and more satisfying. The first CD includes 3 Byrds cuts, 5 CSN/&Y, 5 from his 1971 solo album “If I Could Only Remember My Name”, 7 from early Crosby & Nash. The earlier stuff is great, the latter fine. The third CD is unreleased demos which, for me, might better have been left unreleased.

But that second CD? It’s Crosby. Maybe not at his very best, but at his very good. It’s like staring at a beautiful woman, or (they tell me) a chemically-induced hallucinogenic experience: it doesn’t mean anything, and it leaves no imprint on the memory or the soul. But it sure is lovely while it’s happening.

joni-mitchell-david-crosbyThere are three songs from the 1977 album “CSN” (‘Shadow Captain’, ‘Delta’, ‘In My Dreams’) and one from the 1988 CSNY “American Dream” (‘Compass’), then one from his 1989 solo album, ‘Tracks in the Dust’ . They’re lovely, but so blatantly lacking in the inspiration that made the early material an indelible part of our brains and our hearts that we’re left a bit depressed by the contrast.

Arrows’, from the 1990 CSN flop “Live It Up” fares a little better. But then come two cuts from a much disparaged 1993 “A Thousand Roads”, a collections of slickly produced cuts written for him mostly by mercenaries: Jimmy Webb, Marc Cohen, John Hiatt.

Hero’ is co-written with Phil Collins. It’s not a great song, perhaps more Phil than Dave. But at least it’s a song. It coheres, and I enjoy it every time I hear it. (And every time I hear it, it sounds like it came from Brian Wilson’s darned good new album “No Pier Pressure”.)

But then there’s one cut that made all this rather depressing work worthwhile, our SoTW, ‘Yvette in English’, co-written with one Joni Mitchell.

Not Yvette

Not Yvette

It’s a lovely, enigmatic bossa nova vignette. Like so many of Joni’s finest songs, it rings patently autobiographical – full of precise, evocative details, seeming to allude to real people, real events. I don’t know the back-story here. Joni recorded it a year after David, and the other persona in the song is a male. So my imagination draws Joni watching a French girl with short hair in a short skirt and black tights (I keep thinking Brigitte Auber from “To Catch a Thief”, but upon checking, that’s wrong; I guess Grace Kelly addled my visual memory there) sidling up to him and offering him some heavily-accented mind-altering substance.

When Joni’s songs work best, then entice you into connecting the details. That’s pleasure enough for me, but if someone out there knows The Facts, I’d be glad to hear them as well. From past experience, the real versions do not diminish the imagined ones.

rs_1024x759-150627081143-1024.mitchell-crosby.cm.62715How many other songs has Joni co-written? I can think of none.
But she certainly owes Crosby. In late 1967 she was just starting to attract attention as a solo artist. Even though her success today seems inevitable, Crosby was instrumental in jump-starting her career.

He ‘discovered’ her in Florida in 1967. They hooked up, he took her back to LA, got her a manager Elliot (Rabinowitz) Roberts and a record deal (including artistic control, a rarity for a rookie), produced her first album, and brought in his buddy to play bass, the recently unemployed (Buffalo Springfield) Steve Stills. The rest is history. Well, the rest for the 3-4 few years, anyway. After that we have 50 years of non-history.

So in 1993, with Crosby floundering in drugs and jail and sundry shit, Joni did him a solid, wrote him a song/poured a bucket of cold water on him to get him to co-write a song for his covers album. She recorded ‘Yvette in English’ a year later, on “Turbulent Indigo” – not one of her standouts, produced by Larry Klein shortly after their divorce. Still, it’s got soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

600003790Then Crosby got a new liver and a new son-bandmate. James Raymond, a young musician Crosby had fathered but didn’t know (as Joni wrote about her abandoned daughter, “my child’s a stranger/I bore her/But, I could not raise her”). They formed a band, CPR, which did little to resuscitate his career (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I’m sure gave him a lot of paternal pride. “Voyage” contains 5 songs by CPR—they’re mostly lovely, all forgettable.

Crosby’s had somewhat of a comeback recently. In 2015, Michael League, leader of Snarky Puppy, just about the hippest act in music these days, invited him to perform a song with them, ‘Somebody Home’. It may not be ‘Triad’, but it’s pretty darned affective. League then gave Crosby a butt-kick, inviting him to record together “Lighthouse”, a quickie album (Crosby was used to belaboring recordings to death), including 5 co-written songs.

“Lighthouse” won’t get Crosby inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as he was twice (as a Byrd and as C. But like so much of his corpus, it’s limpidly perfect one moment, annoying as stepping in dog-do the next.

Well, he’s still alive, happy, making music. That’s a pretty remarkable feat in and of itself. And if we look hard enough, we can still find some gems like ‘Yvette in English’ to remind us of just how pure a talent he was and, in his own unique 75-year old way, still is.

 

He met her in a French café, she slipped in sideways like a cat
Sidelong glances, what a wary little stray, she sticks in his mind like that
Saying, “Avez-vous une allumette?” with her lips wrapped around a cigarette
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 He’s fumbling with her foreign tongue, reaching for words and drawing blanks
A loudmouth is stricken deaf and dumb in a bistro on the left bank
“If I were a painter, “Picasso said, “I’d paint this girl from toe to head”
Yvette in English saying “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 Burgundy nocturne tips and spills, they trot along nicely in the spreading stain
New chills, new thrills for the old uphill battle. How did he wind up here again?
Walking and talking, touched and scared, uninsulated wires left bare
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 What blew her like a leaf his way? Up in the air and down to Earth
First she flusters, then she frays, so quick to question her own worth
Her cigarette burns her fingertips, as it falls like fireworks she curses it
Then sweetly in English she says, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

 He sees her turn and walk away skittering like a cat on stone,
Her high heels clicking, what a wary little stray.
She leaves him by the Seine alone with the black water and the amber lights.
And the bony bridge between left and right.
Yvette in English saying, “Please have this little bit of instant bliss”

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

Posted by jeff on May 25, 2012 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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111: The Byrds (David Crosby), ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’

Posted by jeff on Sep 16, 2011 in Rock, Song Of the week

(L to R) Crosby, Hillman, Clarke, McGuinn

I interviewed The Byrds – well, kind of – early in 1968, at half-time of a show in Cincinnati. I’m able to reconstruct the date because Gram Parsons had just joined the group a couple of days earlier. I remember him sitting on stage with them, plunking a few notes, but clearly not plugged in. To tell you the truth, McGuinn and Hillman were pretty lost themselves, apparently in a chemical maze. This is how their discussion of what to play in the second set went:

H: waddaywannaplay?

M: idunno. waddidwealreadyplay?

H: idonrmmbr. donyourmmbr? Read more…

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106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

Posted by jeff on Aug 5, 2011 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell, Nashville, 1969 (Photo: Rod Pennington)

I often judge the quality of my state of mind in inverse proportion to the size of my New CDs folder–the larger it’s grown, the higher my stress level. Right now there’s a debilitating 16 Mb in there. Ok, some of it I’ll never get to (the 10-CD set of the Kronos Quartet, some Brazilian pre-bossa nova pop compilations); some I really should (36 CDs by artists I’ll be seeing in two weeks at the Red Sea Jazz Festival); some I will just out of compulsiveness and contrariness (Meredith Monk’s ‘extended vocals’ – she’s won two Guggenheim Fellowships, a MacArthur “Genius” Award, and she makes Yoko Ono sound like Diana Krall; Uri Caine’s inexplicable but engaging reworking of Gustav Mahler’s Jewish themes in a free jazz setting replete with hazanut and Three Blind Mice); and some I actually enjoy (my new infatuation, a 40-year old alto sax player/composer named David Binney, with his cohort pianist Edward Simon).

But when those 16 Mb become just too overwhelming (the pressure! the pressure!) I sometimes take refuge in an old, familiar friend. Which is what I’ve been doing for the past few days, Joni Mitchell’s first album, “Song to a Seagull” (1968), especially the last song, ‘Cactus Tree’.

Don’t ask me why that song. Just because it’s beautiful music.

Rebellious young Joni Anderson left Saskatoon, Saskatchewan at 21 for Toronto, to become a folk singer. She became pregnant, gave the baby away for adoption, married a folk singer named Chuck Mitchell, and began playing around Detroitand the East Coast. A prolific songwriter even then, a number of her songs were picked up in 1967 by well-known folkies – Tom Rush (‘Urge for Going’), Judy Collins (‘Both Sides Now’, ‘Michael from Mountains’, ‘Chelsea Morning’), Buffy Saint-Marie (‘The Circle Game’), Fairport Convention (‘Eastern Rain’). In early 1967 her marriage dissolved, and she moved by herself toNew York City. David Crosby, recently expelled from The Byrds for overall weirdness, heard her singing in a club inCoconut Grove,Florida, and convinced lean and hungry Reprise Records to let him produce her in an acoustic album.

Joni Mitchell, ‘Urge for Going’, CBC, 1966

Joni Mitchell, ‘Eastern Rain’, England, 1967 Read more…

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