6

165: Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’

Posted by jeff on Jul 17, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon – Jonah

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

My so-called friends often snicker behind my back about what a cushy job full-time listening to music is, that it’s hardly an occupation at all. Oh, cynics, little do ye know.

You think you can just walk in and get the job? There’s a whole pile of prerequisite qualifications you need to schlep with you just to get the interview: a father who fought in WWII, professionally diagnosed pronounced arrested development, an acute affection for anal archivism, no social life, and first and foremost a highly evolved obsession for completism. And they snicker??

I have great admiration for Paul Simon. I’ve watched his musical accomplishments go from very good (half of Simon and Garfunkel’s oeuvre) to very very good (the other half) to Yes!! (the first solo album) to Yes!! (his second and third solo albums–note the lesser squeal) to Magnum Opus (“Hearts and Bones”)  to Nope (“Graceland”) to Also Recorded (the last five, since 1990).

Woody Allen, Paul Simon, Diane Keaton

As all of you fellow compulsives have of course noted, I’ve skipped not only over the recycled live performances, but also that most puzzling of his albums, “One Trick Pony” (1980), five years after “Still Crazy”, three years before “Hearts and Bones”. Ostensibly, he’s at the height of his creative powers. But in 1975 he divorced his wife of 16 years, Peggy, the mother of his then three year-old son Harper. He also moved from Columbia Records to Warner Brothers, taking his catalog with him. In 1977, he played The Record Producer Who Gets The Girl in the movie “Annie Hall” written and directed by a brilliant, diminutive über New Yorker of Hebraic ancestry.

Bitten by the bit part, in 1980 he wrote and starred in his own movie, “One-Trick Pony”, this time portraying Jonah Levin, a short New York singer-songwriter who had a major hit with a protest song ten years before and is currently struggling with a floundering career. He’s separated from his wife and three year-old son. Someone will probably get a doctorate some day in English Literature laboriously demonstrating that there’s some autobiography in the movie.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

Paul Simon acts with the passion and nuance and dexterity of a cigar-store Indian. He acts about as well as Woody Allen plays clarinet, I’m guessing. I’ve never subjected myself to hearing Mr Konigsberg play, and I regret having watched the movie this week. But it was untenable that a Paul Simon devotee such as I, an ostensibly serious listener, would not know the film. So I did it. A man’s got to do what a boy’s got to do. I just hope I’m not compelled to watch it again, because I really admire the music from the movie, and the film only diminishes it.

The album “One-Trick Pony” isn’t defined as a soundtrack. It doesn’t include un-noteworthy and thankfully undocumented guest appearances by The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sam and Dave and Tiny Tim at a retro record convention where Jonah reluctantly performs his Top 40 Hit gentle anti-Vietnam diatribe, ‘Soft Parachutes’ (“Haven’t they heard the war was over a long time ago?”). ‘Soft Parachutes’ was included as a bonus track on the remastered re-release of the album. I’m including it here to dissuade you (and myself) from sitting through the movie to hear it.

There’s a radio coming from the room next door/
My mother laughed the way some ladies do.

I don’t really understand what the music critics wanted from “One-Trick Pony”. For my money, it’s as full of heart-rending sincerity and masterful musicality as all but the very finest of his work. Best known from the album are the upbeat band numbers, especially the hit ‘Late in the Evening’, a charming autobiographical tale of a boy from the Brooklyn ‘hood, with an indelible Latin-infused groove. And ‘There’s a radio coming from the room next door/My mother laughed the way some ladies do’—who else can capture a whole world of feminine sexuality in a glimpse of a phrase?

And the title track ‘One-Trick Pony’? Okay, maybe it’s not ‘Kodachrome’ or even ‘Baby Driver’. But there’s a lot to mull over there. He’s saying that Jonah/Paul is a songwright of limited range, but admirably dedicated to his craft, which he practices with a purity of purpose.  Paul can afford the irony; he is in fact a proven master of a great range of styles.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin, with Joan Hackett as Mrs Robinson in ‘One-Trick Pony’

But if he has a specialty, it’s the wistful, complex acoustic ballads honestly examining the experiential nooks and emotional crannies of his heart and bones. The album “One-Trick Pony” is chock-full of them.

I interviewed Paul and Art in 1967, when the album “Sounds of Silence” was riding high on the charts, as the cliché goes. Paul was engaging, cheerful and outgoing. He was not yet a major star. In later years, at least publicly, he adopted an ultra-cool persona, void of smiles or openness or warmth. The absence of facial expression recalls Montgomery Clift, the disaffected veneer James Dean. This is in contrast to his music, which was rivaled only by few other artists for its emotional forthrightness. A mask, perhaps, protective padding.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

I begrudge Paul no masks. In his songs, he is as open and vulnerable and honest as a boy can be. How often have I felt a very specific emotion, usually one involving both love and pain, the corner of a facet of a shade of a feeling – and there’s this phrase of his that nails it so precisely?

  • That’s Why God Made the Movies’ (“Say you’ll nourish me with your tenderness/The way the ladies sometimes do”)
  • Oh, Marion’ (“Oh, Marion,I think I’m in trouble here/I should have believed you when I heard you saying /The only time that love is an easy game/Is when two other people are playing”)
  • Long, Long Day’ (“I sure could use a friend/Don’t know what else to say/I hate to abuse an old cliché/But it’s been a long, long day”)
  • Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

    Even the lesser songs in these musical veins and emotional arteries are respectable: ‘Nobody’, ‘God Bless the Absentee’, ‘How The Heart Approaches What it Yearns’.

But the gem for me has always been the eponymous ‘Jonah’, the protagonist of the movie, the alter-ego of Paul Simon, whose own career has been immeasurably more successful than Jonah’s, but his confidence seemingly just as frail, his pain just as real.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

The song is a wonder of craft and passion. Who would have thought that feelings, the notoriously amorphous and slippery quick of our inner lives, could be so precisely dissected, reconstructed, and formulated in a mere song? Well, Jonah Levin does it. That other Jonah, he was cast overboard for his doubts, swallowed by a whale, and emerged intact. Paul Simon has gone through his own ordeal and emerged with a song for us, one by which I have often been thankful to be swallowed.

Half an hour you change your strings and tune up
Sizing the room up, checking the bar.
Local girls, unspoken conversations,
Misinformation plays guitar.

They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.

No one gives their dreams away too lightly–
They hold them tightly, warm against cold.
One more year of traveling ’round this circuit,
Then you can work it into gold.

They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.

Here’s to all the boys who came along
Carrying soft guitars with cardboard cases all night long.
Do you wonder where those boys have gone? 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
090: The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

 

 

166: John Martyn, ‘Bless the Weather’

Posted by jeff on Jul 11, 2019 in New Acoustic, Other, Song Of the week

John Martyn – Bless The Weather

John Martyn – Solid Air

John Martyn – May You Never

Young John Martyn

At the age of 22, I found my life but lost my music. For the love of a woman, the love of a country, and the yoke of a mortgage, I embraced self-imposed exile to a musical Siberia. If the Beatles hadn’t recently broken up and Dylan hadn’t released “Self-Portrait”, I don’t know if I could have done it.

I spent the twenty years from 1970 till the advent of the internet in musical exile, where the local provincial AM radio’s idea of a hip foreign playlist was Johnny Hallyday followed by ‘Greenfields’ followed by Rex Allen’s ‘Son, Don’t Go Near the Indians’. Somehow, on Friday afternoons, when the Kommisars of Kitsch were taking their pre-weekend nap, an hour-long program snuck on the air called ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. It still may be running, for all I know. I stopped listening to other peoples’ playlists the moment the airwaves were liberated.

The theme song of the program was a Jose Feliciano instrumental ‘Pegao‘, a harbinger of good things to come. They played new, interesting, refined music, stuff that was unavailable in the local stores. I was playing a lot of mediocre guitar in those days, and was thirsty for new sounds and materials and directions. I’d sit by the radio with the microphone of my little cassette recorder pointed at the speaker. When a promising intro started up, I’d flick on the tape. And it was thus, boys and girls, that I compiled twenty or thirty compilation cassettes that I loved dearly, tapes now closeted in the back of some drawer but dusted regularly in the nether corners of my musical memory.

One song that struck and stuck with me was a charming, disarming, more-than-ditty called ‘May You Never’ by a John Martin. I enjoyed it for years, and when All Music Guide and YouTube and iTunes finally made their way here, I checked him out.

Bar Room Fight

May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

It turns out his name is John Martyn, a Scottish dissolute who died of booze and pneumonia and diabetes and excessive indulgence with one leg and many scars in 2009 at the age of 60. He began at 17 as a young adherent of the burgeoning British folk scene which included Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and others. They started with traditional British/Celtic folk materials, amplified their acoustic guitars, and melded into them American blues and American jazz. Richard Thompson took Fairport Convention towards a new brand of rock. Paul Simon took the tweed jackets and turtleneck sweaters (and Graham’s ‘Angie’ via Jansch’s rendition) back to America. Jansch and Renbourne recorded alone, as a duo, and then together in The Pentangle, creating a riveting but regrettably short-lived acoustic folk-jazz amalgam.

John Martyn at the beginning

John Martyn took his guitar to the pub. After four albums where he honed his craft and many drinks in which he learned to slur his voice, he broke through the constraints of the folk tradition into a remarkable outburst of brilliant, genre-defying folk-jazz in his next two albums, “Bless the Weather” (1971) and “Solid Air” (1973).

Martyn’s music of this period is spare in format – a sliding drunken mush of a voice, more an instrument than a singing voice as such; an expressive, fingerpicked electrically amplified acoustic guitar with a lot of percussive backslapping; backed by double-bassist Danny Thompson (formerly of The Pentangle); and the occasional bongo or ornamental piano. But it’s all Martyn and his guitar and voice backed by Thompson. The subject matter is slippery and elusive, ranging from the whimsical to the passionate to the cosmic. But it’s all a distinctive, unique voice. And hence difficult to describe, lacking all reference. He’s like no one, no one is like him.

John Martyn at the end

The only thing that comes to mind is that other unique Celtic jazz-rock masterpiece, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (1968). Way back in SoTW 38 I wrote:

What is unique about “Astral Weeks” is how unique it is. It comes from no tradition and left no legacy. Stylistically, it stands absolutely alone. Spiritual blue-eyed Celtic soul acid acoustic jazz-rock. It’s gorgeous and sumptuous and moving and transcendent. No one else even tried to go there. It is literally inimitable. Probably the closest album to it in its musical frame of reference is The Pentangle, their first, an album I quite admire. Listen to this, and you’ll hear how many light years beyond its contemporary surroundings “Astral Weeks” was. Its impact, if not its influence, has been indelible.

I wrote that a few years ago, and I’ve learned since then that John Martyn did some fine work in that very vein. Van Morrison drafted jazz masters Richard Davis (bass) and Connie Kaye (drums) for “Astral Weeks”. Thompson was a significant partner for Martyn. Folk-jazz, the genre that almost never was.

John Martyn

Van never repeated the experiment back then (and I refuse to listen to the 2009 revisit), but he went on to a long, restless and energetic career. John Martyn spent the rest of his life degenerating personally and musically. John Martyn was a singular talent, tragically wasted. Many friends collaborated with him over the years, attempting unsuccessfully to resuscitate his career: Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, and Levon Helm. Back when I was discovering him, I dutifully plowed through his dozens of albums and innumerable live performances. Trust me, he flamed brilliantly for a short time, and you’ll do better avoiding the stench of his decline.

I made myself a Favorites compilation of 33 Martyn songs, all of them 1970-1980. Not a single song from the subsequent 30 years of sloppy, self-indulgent recordings. And to tell you the truth, 30 of the songs are really fine, admirable, enjoyable. But there are three that outshine the others. Heck, they outshine just about everything. There’s the aforementioned ‘May You Never’, a charmer, witty and wise and loving. Listen to Clapton mistreat it. Gives you some respect for Mr Martyn, doesn’t it? Here’s Martyn singing it live in 1973, when he was still holding himself together.

Solid Air

And then there are these two transcendent, breathtaking cuts. One is a paean to pain, soul bared, nerves exposed to the ‘Solid Air’. Martyn wrote it as a tribute to his buddy Nick Drake, who had the tragic good taste to end his misery in one fell swoop rather than dragging it out.

You’ve been taking your time
And you’ve been living on solid air
You’ve been walking the line
And you’ve been living on solid air
Don’t know what’s going wrong inside
And I can tell you that it’s hard to hide when you’re living on
Solid air.

Here’s the studio version from 1973. And here’s a live version from 1978, in which his dissolution is palpable. It’s not just his string that’s broken.

And then there’s our Song of The Week, ‘Bless the Weather’. It’s a love song by definition, but how often does a popular artist invoke the elements as the impediment to love’s fulfillment? Oh, those Scots. It’s just John, his voice and his guitar and his bassist. And the elements, and his love, and the pain of her absence.

The Weather

Time after time, I held it
Just to watch it die
Line after line, I loved it
Just to watch it cry.

Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you home.

Wave after wave, I watched it
Just to watch it turn
Day after day, I cooled it
Just to watch it burn.

Pain after pain I stood in
Just to see how it would feel
Rain after rain I stood in
Just to make it real.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)
110: Mongolian Throat Singing (The Occidental Tourist)
 

 

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075: João Gilberto, ‘Chega De Saudade’ (Jobim)

Posted by jeff on Jul 6, 2019 in Brazilian, Song Of the week

I occasionally take advantage of this forum to wax rapturous about the lilting beauties of Brazil, Brazilians (both male and especially female), and Brazilian music, especially in SoTW 22, where I went completely overboard about Roberta Sá and Chico Buarke’s, ‘Mambembe’.

A friend recently stumbled over the Portuguese word ‘saudade’. So as we helped her up, we took a look at the word, which is a term, which is a concept, which is a whole emotional world. Wikipedia describes it thus:

…a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return. …a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist…a deep longing or yearning for something which does not exist or is unattainable. Saudade was once described as “the love that remains” or “the love that stays” after someone is gone. Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone

(e.g., one’s children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends) or something (e.g., places, pets, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. In Portuguese, ‘tenho saudades tuas’, translated as ‘I have saudades of you’ means ‘I miss you’, but carries a much stronger tone. In fact, you can have ‘saudades’ of someone you are with but have some feeling of loss towards the past or the future.
In Brazil, the day of saudade is officially celebrated on January 30.

A national holiday of heartache. Oh, how I want to be there for that celebration.

If ‘saudade’ has a whole world of associations for Brazilians, for this Levantine transplant it conjures the song ‘Chega De Saudade’, and for good reason – it was the first Bossa Nova song. Let me try to make some sense out of this, for both you and myself.

Samba is a Brazilian musical and dance genre originating in Africa, typically arising from rural areas and slums, and frequently associated with football and the Carnival. Not surprisingly, I guess, it also has a national day (December 2). It includes a whole wealth of dances and musical styles. During the 1950s, a new style of music evolved from it, Bossa Nova, influenced by jazz and performed by students and artistes, more sophisticated and lyric-oriented, more personal and idiosyncratic musically, less percussive. Music to be listened to quietly, rather than danced to raucously.

Stan Getz (left corner); João Gilberto (back); Antônio Carlos Jobim (standing, center)

‘Chega De Saudade’ is credited as being the first bossa nova song. It was written in 1958 by composer Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes, and became a hit for singer/guitarist João Gilberto. We’ll return to the song in a moment, but let’s follow for a moment the bossa nova waves.

In 1959, French director Marcel Camus made a Brazilian film called “Black Orpheus” (“Orfeu Negro“), an allegorical treatment of the Orpheus myth set during Carnival in a shanty town. The film featured music that ranged from samba to bossa nova, written mostly by Moraes (who also wrote the screenplay) and Jobim, and included a couple of songs by Luiz Bonfá, including the famous ‘Manhã de Carnaval’.

The movie was a big hit in Brazil, and even made some impact in North America. I bought (and devoured) the soundtrack in about 1964, when I was a mere lad of 16. Sometimes I impress myself in retrospect.

But the big impact occurred with two bossa-inspired American jazz LPs. The first was “Jazz Samba” (1962) by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Its most famous tracks are ‘Desafinado’ (‘Slightly Out of Tune’) and ‘Samba de Uma Nota Só‘ (‘One Note Samba’). Then the LP that really took the world by storm, and still maintains a central role as progenitor of a legitimate, fruitful style half a century later, “Getz/Gilberto”. The music was Getz on sax, João Gilberto on guitar and vocals, and Tom Jobim (piano and composition of almost all the songs), helped out on vocals on a couple of songs (‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘Corcovado’) by Gilberto’s wife Astrud, who wasn’t really a singer but was the only one of the Brazilians present who knew enough English to get through the songs. Her recording sold several trillion records, and inspired her to divorce João and have an affair with Stan. Boy, what goes on behind that laid-back music!

Meanwhile, back at da fazenda. Success has many fathers, and we’ve tried to make some order in the beginnings of this very successful musical style. But it really has only one acknowledged father, Antonio Carlos Jobim. He is the one who is called the George Gershwin of Brazilian music. It is with him that singers such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald collaborated extensively. And it is after him that the Rio de Janeiro international airport is named. I’m sure we’ll pay him a dedicated visit in a future SoTW, so for right now we’ll just say ‘Muito obrigado, Tom’.

The song, ‘Chega De Saudade’ has had more treatments than a Beverly Hills facelift clinic. Here are a few native Brazilian versions worth getting to know better:

The Gilbertos, with Stan Getz in the middle

  • The legendary Caetano Velaso, including a peek at the song’s origin

Jon Hendricks wrote the well-known English lyrics for it, ‘No More Blues’. But they can’t hold a vela to the original. Trust me for two minutes—read the speak lyrics while you listen to the song. I speak no Portuguese, but the beauty of the lyrics speaks gently and clearly, right to my heart. It gives me great saudade for the Brazil that I hold in my imagination and in my heart. Apertado assim. Colado assim. Calado assim.

Chega De Saudade

Vai minha tristeza e diz a ela que sem ela não pode ser
(Go, my sadness, and tell her that without her it can’t be)
Diz-lhe numa prece
(Tell her in a prayer)
Que ela regresse, porque eu não posso mais sofrer
(To come back, because I can’t suffer anymore)
Chega de saudade
(Enough missing her)

João Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim

A realidade é que sem ela não há paz, não há beleza
(The reality is that without her there’s no peace, there’s no beauty)
É só tristeza e a melancolia
(It’s only sadness and melancholy)
Que não sai de mim, não sai de mim, não sai…
(That won’t leave me, won’t leave me, won’t leave…)
Mas se ela voltar, se ela voltar,
(But if she comes back, if she comes back)
Que coisa linda, que coisa louca
(What a beautiful thing, what a crazy thing)
Pois há menos peixinhos a nadar no mar
(For there are fewer fish swimming in the sea)
Do que os beijinhos que eu darei na sua boca
(Than the kisses I’ll give you in your mouth)
Dentro dos meus braços os abraços hão de ser milhões de abraços
(Inside my arms, the hugs shall be millions of hugs)
Apertado assim, colado assim, calado assim
(Tight like this, united like this, silent like this)
Abraços e beijinhos e carinhos sem ter fim
(Infinite hugs and kisses and caressess)
Que é pra acabar com este negócio de você viver sem mim
(To end this “living-without-me” business)
Não quero mais esse negócio de você tão longe assim.
(Don’t want this “far-away” business)
Vamos deixar esse negócio de viver londe de mim.
(Let’s end this “living-away-from-me” business.)

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158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Posted by jeff on Jul 4, 2019 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.

I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.

It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.

Beach Boys 1962

California pubescents: (clockwise from top right) Mike (Don’t Fuck with the Formula) Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, genius Brian Wilson

Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.

Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music.  Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?

I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.

Brian Wilson Songs

Brian Wilson Songs

No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”.  Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of  ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.

Woodie, including back seat

Woodie, including back seat

The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.

When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone.  All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.

In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:

Surf’s Up – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Can’t Wait Too Long – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

‘Til I Die – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Cabinessence – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

I Went to Sleep – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.

Angst on the Beach, Surfer Girl, Beach Boys

Angst on the Beach

Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.

Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here singing backup to George himselfhere solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But none are really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.

Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.

He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?

Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

 I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?

 We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.

So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)
Brian Wilson Songs of The Week
Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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