5

222: Joni Mitchell, ‘River’

Posted by jeff on Dec 13, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week
Photo by Joel Bernstein

Photo by Joel Bernstein

Joni Mitchell – River

Howdy, SoTW readers. Merry Christmas to all my Christian fellowmen out there. How y’all doing? I do hope all’s well by you and yours.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing this blog so much is that (according to the charter I wrote myself) I can write and say whatever I want, without being concerned about pleasing the audience. But I admit that I do peek at my stats on occasion, and am pleased the higher they go.

I’ve figured out over the years (I’m slow, this should have been obvious before I started) that people like to read about what they know. I’d do the same. Normal people prefer familiar music. So a post about ‘Twist and Shout’ is going to garner more hits than the one about the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir.

f3e1e3d32ff93437dd15cc304ba6859fAnd guess who has been the most popular subject on Song of The Week over the years? Joni, not surprisingly. If you’ve been following closely, I’ve been walking through her albums, picking one song or two to  pontificate on:

In the posting about ‘Blue’ I described how daunting it is to take on a masterpiece. It took me a long time to work up the courage to approach “The Band”, and I’m still working myself up to “Pet Sounds”. But having broken the ice with ‘Blue’, we’re going to treat ourselves to address at least one more of the ten glorious tracks. So we might as well go for the very best (without diminishing a whit the wonders ensconced in ‘All I Want’, ‘Carey, or any of the others) – ‘River’, a song about ‘skating away’. Careful, Jeff; careful, Joni; the ice is broken, you don’t want to fall in.

adc535077eb429d2fc81b8880db90931A few live performances by James Taylor (the aforementioned heartbreaker) and by Joni:
James Taylor at the Joni Mitchell Tribute Concert, 2001
James Taylor (unattributed)
Joni Mitchell – Live, with lovely photos and videos of Joni in the snow
Herbie Hancock (piano), Joni Mitchell (vocal)

And here’s my favorite cover of River, by the Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line, a stunning arrangement by the wonderful Line Groth.

Joni’s ‘River’ is a moving piece of music. I don’t know many people who would disagree. It juxtaposes Los Angeles vs Saskatchewan, green vs white, noise vs silence, public festiveness vs private grief, desire for the other vs preservation of self. It’s a song about heartbreak and homesickness.

What do we have? “Jingle Bells” played in minor, the simplest joys couched in pain, the irony in the very first chords setting the stage for this vignette of defeat and resignation.

ChristmasCardRiver1“It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees.”
“They’re putting up trees” would have scanned just as well. But Joni’s December is a killing season, a termination of vitality. Nobody’s sad during Christmas season. Except for those with a broken heart. Within that painful contrast resides her sadness.

“They’re putting up reindeer”. Plastic ones, Made in LaLaLand. In Saskatchewan we have, if not reindeer, then deer, elk, moose and caribou. Real ones. “Singing songs of joy and peace.” They are. Not me. I’m singing Jingle Bells in minor.

What are you doing there, Joni? What keeps you in LA? “I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” But this year it’s going to be California, “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.”

“I wish I had a river I could skate away on.“ What an evocative image. A frozen river, its source somewhere in northern Saskatchewan, flowing those 2000 miles down to the city of fallen angels. But there is no such river. The Saskatchewan River itself flows eastwards for a mere 340 miles, emptying into Lake Winnipeg.

10864825_1533269443599960_2073203298_nWho among us – even the non-skaters – has not longed for that selfsame river? To escape ‘this crazy scene’, to flee back to the innocence of childhood, security, unconditional love. Did Hamlet not long to “shuffle off this mortal coil”, to escape “the whips and scorns of time”? Did Keats’ Nightingale not seek flight?

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades.

But we all know it’s a fiction. There is no river that will take us ‘back to where we once belonged’. If we were fortunate enough, we found a love “so naughty made me weak in the knees”. But Joni has “lost the best baby that I ever had”. Lost him why? “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.” She knows the score. “I made my baby say goodbye.” No recriminations of him or herself – that’s not the point. Nothing but loss and sadness.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the resonance of “Blue”, its “excruciating candor”, the profound effect it had on women in 1971, on songwriters, on everyone. “If you looked at me [during the recording sessions], I would weep; we had to lock the doors to make that album. Nobody was allowed in.”

From a 1979 interview: “The ‘Blue’ album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

ca0e11adc57f38b8ccca0a0e8221d773Joni often skates on that thin ice, risking the ridiculous to achieve the sublime.  Think about this phrase.  She does indeed transcend, take wing, defying gravity.

She has created for herself and for us a river so long that our own feet can fly us away from this troubled world.

Oh, Joni.

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

But it don’t snow here, it stays pretty green.
I’m going to make a lot of money, then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby cry

He tried hard to help me, you know, he put me at ease.
He loved me so naughty made me weak in the knees.
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad.
Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on

Oh, I wish I had a river so long I would teach my feet to fly.
I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
I made my baby say goodbye

It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down trees,
They’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace .
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on…

 

 

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5

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

Posted by jeff on Dec 6, 2018 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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2

131: Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Posted by jeff on Nov 22, 2018 in New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Children should be seen, not heard. By children, I mean anyone significantly younger by myself, which is most people. To be more specific, you can’t trust anyone under thirty. Could you just give me a hand for a moment, help me climb up on this soapbox?

You know how there’s a minimum legal age for all the important stuff? Consensual sex, driving, marriage, enlistment, voting, drinking (that list is in order—in itself, food for thought). I believe there should also be a minimum legal age for creating really excellent music. In classical performing, it should be 40. In classical composition, 72. Jazz musicians shouldn’t be allowed to excel till they’re in their thirties. Rock stars are allowed to be 28, or even 27 in some exceptional cases. Rock artists have to be seven years older than me, as John Lennon and Bob Dylan were.  James Taylor is three months younger than me, but he was crazy and an addict, which gain him lots of age points. I don’t care how old Justin Beiber is, as long as he’s in some other hemisphere.

L to R: Watkins, Watkins, Thile

That’s the way the good old world used to (and is supposed to) operate. And then these kids come along and mess it up. I’m talking about brats like Chris Thile (mandolin,b. 1981) and siblings Sean (guitar, b. 1977) and Sara (fiddle, b. 1981) Watkins, aka Nickel Creek. They all grew up in suburban San Diego, where their mothers had spiked their nursing bottles with a brew of blue grass. They played their first gig at a pizza parlor in 1989. Do the math—Sean was 12, Chris and Sara 8. Combined, that’s still under thirty! They were backed by Chris’s dad on bass. The three kids together couldn’t even lift the bass, let alone play it. Read more…

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6

204: Bob Dylan, ‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions)

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

Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions, Take 2)
Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (NY Sessions, Take 1)
Bob Dylan–‘Idiot Wind’ (Minnesota Sessions)

0851_155826_Dylan12cBarryFeinsteinFor all my Dylanite regular readers out there, the ones who believe that Bob was immaculately conceived, walks on water and conjures up loaves of bread with a sleight of his hand – close this quickly and go watch Big Brother. I’m going to talk today about both Bob’s imperfections and his perfections. These are my opinions. I’m not even saying they’re empirically correct. But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to express them. Go shout at someone else. 

Back in SoTW 164, I talked about one of Dylan’s finest songs (‘Tangled Up in Blue’) from one of his finest albums (“Blood on the Tracks”). I tell about him learning multi-perspective dramatization under painter-mentor Norman Raeben, about the dissolution of his marriage, about the jaw-droppingly casual New York sessions of the songs and about their criminally tasteless re-recording several months later in Minnesota.

I remember my first impressions of the official release of the album. Five of the songs I recognized immediately as among his very finest, masterpieces from the git-go: ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, ‘Simple Twist of Fate’, ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘You’re Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go’, ‘Buckets of Rain’. Three were appealing but flawed: ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ (although over the years I’ve learned to appreciate it deeply), ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’. One was a toss-off blues, ‘Meet Me in the Morning’. And one was an aberration–

‘Idiot Wind’. Snarling, abrasive, foul. A ‘let-me-out-of-this-room’ song, Dylan at his worst. It reminded me of the debasement (pun intended) of “Before the Flood”, to which I listened once in 1974 and vowed never to expose myself to again, a resolution I’ve resolutely kept. It had all the venom of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but with a hack organist instead of Al “God” Kooper, and a vocal devoid of charm, just an artless, tasteless bawling, which I’d regularly skip.

Some years later I became aware of the original New York recordings of “Blood on the Tracks,” uniformly superior to the Minnesota cuts from the released version. Except for ‘Idiot Wind’–

DylanHairRollingThunderwhich was a wholly different song. The garish garage band jettisoned, replaced by a two acoustic guitars, Dylan’s with open tuning in D and Eric Weissberg; a reserved, tasteful bass (Tony Brown, consciously emulating Charlie McCoy from “John Wesley Harding”); a pinch of organ for the occasional garnish, Dylan’s harmonica at the end. The tempo braked to fully elicit the passion and pain within. The strident 7th notes raised one game-changing half-step to anguished, remorseful Major 7ths. God is indeed in the details. And crucially, the vocal, no longer sneering from behind the white-faced, basketball arena mask. Here is that rarest of Bob Dylans – exposed, vulnerable, introspective, self-critical. Honest, straightforward, open. Human.

1972dylanSomething very terrible happened to a close friend last week. We’re both guys, so we didn’t really talk about it, just sort of grunted at each other over a couple of beers talking about 50-year old music. I think he feels profoundly wronged, but also accepts that he’s not blameless. “We’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder that we still know how to breathe,” said I.  “And don’t think that refrain does not pass through my mind on a regular basis,” said he.

Dylan circa 1974-75 revised lyrics more frequently than he had changed underwear a decade earlier. In some cases, the changes were significant (see ‘Tangled Up in Blue’), but (astoundingly) equally brilliant. Here the changes are almost all detrimental, some as radically so as the re-recording. Check out the difference between New York’s You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove./You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love./You won’t get it from money. versus Minnesota’s You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above/And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love/And it makes me feel so sorry.

tumblr_lkqaf4bbbh1qbqwc2o1_1280It indeed makes me feel so sorry.  Much ink has been spilled on the confessional aspect of “Blood on the Tracks” as the log of the breakup of Dylan’s marriage. In his now-famous words, “A lot of people tell me they enjoy that album. It’s hard for me to relate to that. I mean, it, you know, people enjoying that type of pain, you know?”

If we need to feed our morbid voyeurism, Dylan said in an interview that the experience with Raeben wrought havoc at home. “Needless to say, it changed me. I went home after that and my wife never did understand me ever since that day. That’s when our marriage started breaking up. She never knew what I was talking about, what I was thinking about, and I couldn’t possibly explain it.”  And here, he sings, ‘Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it’s at. I couldn’t believe after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady.’

Tellingly, the authors of “A Simple Twist of Fate (Bob Dylan and the Making of Blood on the Tracks” (Da Capo Press, 2004) relate in their analysis (pp. 153-158) to the Minnesota version of the song (“The listener is plunged once again into the maelstrom of paranoia, blame and reproach that characterized earlier songs such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Positively 4th Street’”). That’s true, guys.

But the original acoustic version is something much rarer in the Dylan canon – Bob unmasked, naked and vulnerable.

NYC Minnesota
Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.

Whoever it is, I wish they’d cut it out, but when they will I can only guess.

They say I shot a man named Gray, and took his wife to Italy.

She inherited a million bucks, and when she died it came to me.

I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

People see me all the time, and they just can’t remember how to act.

Their minds are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.

And even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at.

I can’t believe after all these years that you didn’t know me any better than that, sweet lady.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the back roads heading south.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot, babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe!

I threw the I Ching yesterday; it said there might be some thunder at the well.

Peace and Quiet’s been avoiding me for so long it feels like living hell.

There’s a lone soldier on the hill, watching falling raindrops pour.

You’d never know it to look at him, but in the final shot he won the war,

After losing every battle.

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike

I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like

There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin’ out of a boxcar door

You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars

After losin’ every battle

I woke up on the roadside, daydreaming about the way things sometimes are.

Hoof beats pounding in my head, at break-neck speeds and making me see stars!

You hurt the ones that I love best, and covered up the truth with lies.

One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzing around your eyes; blood on your saddle.

 

 

Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin’ me see stars

 

Idiot wind; blowing through the flowers on your tomb.

Blowing through the curtains in your room.

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth.

You’re an idiot babe, it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

It was gravity which pulled us in, and destiny which broke us apart.

You tamed the lion in my cage, but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart.

Now everything’s a little upside-down. As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.

What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good. You’ll find out when you reach the top;

You’re on the bottom.

I noticed at the ceremony that you left all your bags behind.

The driver came in after you left; he gave them all to me, and then he resigned.

The priest wore black on the seventh day, and waltzed around while the building burned.

You didn’t trust me for a minute, babe. I’ve never known the spring to turn so quickly into autumn.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind

I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes

don’t look into mine

The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building burned

I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime turned

Slowly into Autumn

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your jaw

From the Grand Cooley Dam to the Mardi Gras

Idiot wind; blowing every time you move your teeth

You’re an idiot babe. It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull

From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol

 

We pushed each other a little too far, and one day it just jumped into a raging storm

The hound dog bayed behind your trees, while I was packing up my uniform.

I figured I’d lost you anyway; why go on? What’s the use?

In order to get in a word with you I’d have had to come up with some kind of excuse.

And it just struck me kind of funny.

I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read

Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead

Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy

I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory

And all your ragin’ glory

I’ve been double-crossed too much. At times I think I’ve lost my mind.

Lady killers load dice on me behind my back while imitators steal me blind

You close your eyes and pout your lips and slip your fingers from your glove.

You can have the best there is, but it’s gonna cost you all your love.

You won’t get it from money.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free

I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me

You’ll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above

And I’ll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love

And it makes me feel so sorry

Idiot wind; blowing through the buttons of our coats.

Blowing through the letters that we wrote.

Idiot wind; Blowing through the dust up on our shelves.

We’re idiots, babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

 

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