1

291: James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

Posted by jeff on Feb 8, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

Happy Valentine’s Day?

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not here to sell you a designer box of little wrapped chocolates for $74.49 or a dozen long-stemmed roses for a sum that could feed an Indian village for a decade.

I grew up in a United States where stores were closed on Sundays and Valentine’s Day meant handing out handmade cards to The Ones You Liked in your fifth grade class (a crash course in heartbreak for 10-year olds), just before the country was insidiously and invidiously invaded by The Corporate Commercial Machine! Up against the wall, motherfuckers!!!

Valentine’s Day Massacre

If this Hallmark unholiday serves as a reminder to be especially appreciative of the one you love, I’m all for it. But y’all should know there’s a pretty harsh reality lurking beneath the pink wrapping paper, ready to bite us, as James Taylor so beautifully reminds us in this ostensibly modest little ‘pretty song’ from his 1988 album “Never Die Young”.

It’s James’ 12th studio album over 20 years, arguably the last of his great ones. In SoTW 56, ‘Secret o’ Life’, I soapboxed against the myriads of fans of James’ greatest hits. “To think that James Taylor is ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘Fire and Rain’ is like thinking that The Beatles are ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ or Dylan is ‘Blowing in the Wind’.” In SoTW 112 I explained why I think James Taylor’s version of “Yesterday” is immeasurably superior to that of McCartney.” In SoTW 139, James celebrates mature love ‘On the 4th of July’. And in SoTW 205 I explain why James’ first album is so profound to me. In SoTW 132, James and I mourned the passing of a sibling in ‘Enough to be on Your Way.And in SoTW 46 I explained why the title song of “Never Die Young” speaks so deeply to me about the arc of my life.

I’m a big fan.

‘Valentine’s Day’ is an unusual song for James—all piano (Don Grolnick), with some lovely help from bassist Jay Leonhart (plucked and bowed) and the great violinist Mark O’Connor. No guitar whatsoever. If you see somewhere on the infallible World Wide Web (“But it’s written!”) that the song was penned by Hollywood composer John Debney, it’s an untruth. He scored the movie “Valentine’s Day”, but this song is all James.

Valentine’s Day Massacre

For all of its ostensible pink sweetness, the song is bitterly ironic, an extended comparison of a couple’s relationship to the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which four members of Al Capone’s Italian gang (two disguised as policemen) machinegunned seven members of Bugs Malone’s Irish gang in a Chicago garage in a turf war over control of the bootleg market.

Police tried to question survivor Frank Gusenberg as to who shot him. Gusenberg, with fourteen bullets in him, replied “No one shot me.” He died three hours later.

The event was recreated in Howard Hawks’ 1932 movie “Scarface” starring Paul Muni, and subsequently in a dozen more screen treatments. Here’s a medley of those scenes (best not to show this to your Significant Other while presenting the chocolates and flowers). Of course we all recognize the same themes throughout the entire gangster (as opposed to Gangsta) genre (see “The Godfather”, “The Sopranos”, et al).

The first verse is piano and James’ voice. “Beneath the tide the fishes glide/Fin to fin and side to side/For fishy love has now begun/Fishy love, finny fun.” Jabberwocky? Denizens of the deep fishily swimming around some bodies ‘sleeping with the fishes’?

The second verse sets the scene. ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ is a 1933 song written by Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg and Billy Rose, so associated with the Great Depression that when Peter Bogdanovich asked his mentor Orson Welles if it was a suitable title for his movie, Welles responded “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” Here’s James singing it himself.

The third verse provides some less rosy coloring: Bootleg gin — I don’t really need to explain that, do I? The porkpie hat was all the rage during the depression, even though Muni was wearing a fedora in the film. ‘Dew Drop Inn’ was a corny name for a restaurant way back when—there was a film by that name from 1919 and a musical from 1923. “You dirty rat”? Depression-era gangster meme from James Cagney’s 1932 film “Taxi!”. Cupid’s dart? Check out this image from a speed dating ad. Ouch. What have we wrought?

The tone gets more ominous in verse four – “Day to repay the one that you love”. Oh, isn’t that a cute little threat? I wonder what was going through the minds of those seven cronies of Bugs Malone as they were lined up against the wall. ‘Take off your hats’—how many movies have we seen in which the gangsters remove their hats at the funeral of a person they’ve just had laid to rest? Boxing was of course the sport of the Depression/gangster world. Going a few rounds without gloves—with what, then? Machine guns? Bare fists? Fingernails? Those awful words that we speak when we’re in a vicious, bloody argument with our own dear Valentine?

Fifth round. I mean, verse. “Land your punch, I stand my ground/We break for lunch and a second round.” Wow, what a couplet. Could there be a more precise, incisive description of how a couple argues to the death? You might have to go back to Ingmar Bergman to find one.

Or think of all the times when the bell’s finally rung on your gut-wrenching argument with your beloved and you walk away – finally – and you or she slams a door or drops a dictionary or a whatever, to get in the last word. Nothing like that last little jab after the bell has rung, right?

Oh, no similarity between love and boxing at all is there? The biggest difference being that in love all bouts go the full 15 rounds and always end in a bloody draw.

Last verse, last man standing. “We keep score”. Oh, sure. We tally the points, to be absolutely clear how badly both of us are losing. “Love as war.” All of us who have been in a serious relationship have experienced our own domestic siege of Leningrad.

So let’s all try to learn a lesson from James’ beautiful, witty, disarmingly simple but painfully accurate portrayal of how we so frequently most hurt the one we most love. Forget the chocolates and flowers. Let’s remember that no one wins in a war. And that Prohibition is long gone. Let’s use this day to remind ourselves to be decent, patient, loving partners.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Beneath the tide the fishes glide
Fin to fin and side to side
For fishy love has now begun
Fishy love, finny fun

Paper moon, paper heart
Pink balloon, work of art
Al Capone, Bugs Moran
Valentine’s Day

Bootleg gin, porkpie hat
Dew Drop Inn, dirty rat
Through the heart, cupid’s dart
Valentine’s da

Day to repay the one that you love
Gentlemen take off your hats as I speak thereof
Just a brief break from the push and the shove
We may go a few rounds without boxing gloves

Land your punch, I stand my ground
We break for lunch and a second round
We set them up, we knock them down
Valentine’s Day

Me and you, you and him
Him and her, us and them
We keep score, love as war
Valentine’s Day

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13

145: Peter, Paul & Mary, ‘Early Morning Rain’

Posted by jeff on Jan 23, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Peter, Paul & Mary — ‘Early Morning Rain’ (studio version)
Peter, Paul & Mary — ‘Early Morning Rain’ (live video) 

Darkened hall, packed auditorium, electric anticipation. The audience already begins to applaud as a silhouette, guitar in hand, jogs to the mike. Entering the pin spot at center stage, in dark suit and tie, with trademark hipster Van Dyke beard, he leans in and says in his firm, passionate tenor, “Hi, I’m Peter, but I’m no saint.”

The crowd roars and laughs and applauds as the second figure, also with guitar, moves through the dark into the spotlight– just like the first, only lanky and sweet, he twinkles in his resonant baritone, “Hi, I’m Paul, and I’m no saint.”

The laughter and applause swell as the third figure steps quickly through the dark, leans into the spotlight with her familiar, husky alto and the best hair of the entire decade, “Hi, I’m Mary , and I’m no virgin.”

And they launched into a powerful, upbeat, soul-stirring anthem of freedom and dignity and justice, based on a spiritual or a Woodie Guthrie ‘standard’ or a cosmic Dylan diatribe, the ink still wet, sung in the sweetest three-part harmony you’ve ever heard, supported only by the two nylon-string guitars and double bass in the background. Three voices, two guitars, a singular presence – Peter, Paul & Mary.

PP&M’s stature can’t be overstressed. After Dylan and The Beatles, they were one of the most important voices of the 1960s – artistically, commercially and historically. Somehow, they seemed to have slipped somewhat from the public eye and ear. So let’s give them a most-deserved nod this week. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when A Song was A Song, when beautiful was beautiful, when the passion for justice put artists on the Top 40 charts – as Dylan put it so evocatively, “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.”

L to R: Yarrow, Travers, Stookey (©Michael Ochs)

In the late 1940s, ‘folk music’ had a brief flowering through voices such as The Weavers with Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie, and others. But they were radical leftists, and it was an Eisenhower world. The Weavers were blacklisted, and Guthrie fell fatally ill. Folk music went underground throughout the 1950s; Greenwich Village was almost the only vibrant enclave, the only faint commercial flicker came from voices such as Harry Belafonte. In the late 1950s, a spontaneous renaissance began. The radio started playing music by groups such as the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, and the Highwaymen. Tiny clubs in the Village hosted aspiring young less commercial singers such as Eric Von Schmidt, Dave Van Ronk, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (and standup artists such as Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce). Twenty-year old Bob Zimmerman made a pilgrimage from Minnesota to Woody Guthrie’s

L to R: Travers, Zimmerman

deathbed in January, 1961 and settled into the Village scene. David Hajdu’s fine book “Positively 4th Street” chronicles the early days of Dylan, the Baez sisters and the legendary writer/singer Richard Fariña. Joan Baez became the darling of the scene in 1961. Folk music became the soundtrack of the Kennedy era and the Civil Rights movement. Network TV offered a weekly show, “Hootenany”, that ran for a year and a half.  Christopher Guest’s mockumentary film “A Mighty Wind” portrays a fictional reunion tribute to the ‘grand old man’ of the folk music movement; it’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

L to R: Yarrow, Dylan, John Hammond, 1965 (© Daniel Kramer)

But at the center of it all was Peter, Paul & Mary. In 1961, agent/opportunist supreme Albert Grossman identified the niche, and suggested to three denizens of the disheveled scene in the Village to try their hand at trio singing. Peter Yarrow (b. 1938), Mary Travers (1936-2009) and Noel Stookey (b. 1937) had nothing better to do with their days, and readily agreed. But these weren’t The Monkees. They spent seven months diligently rehearsing in Mary’s apartment.

Their first album (March 1962) was in the Billboard Top Ten for 10 months, including seven weeks at #1, and garnered them two Grammies. It contained ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ (both written by Seeger), which on the one hand perfectly embodied the optimistic, idealistic middle-class zeitgeist of the Kennedy era (the Civil Rights movement), but were not yet perceived as provocatively anti-establishment (the Vietnam war still lay around the corner). Their second album contained ‘Puff (the Magic Dragon)’ (written by Yarrow) and Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’.  It stayed on the charts for 99 weeks!

L to R: Dylan, Baez, Stooky, warming up for The Great March (© Dan Budnik)

They sang pretty. Kids were listening to pop pap, the folks to Sinatra. But everyone loved Peter, Paul & Mary.

Their musicality is impressive today – the vocals, the accompaniment, the uniformly excellent repertoire. They were handsome and beautiful and intelligent and nice people, and funny and politically committed with just the right politics. But they also had dignity (they wore ties, they spoke with intelligent earnestness) and gravitas (all three were committed activists on-stage and off- throughout their careers and lives). You didn’t just listen to their music, you paid attention. And you sang along, with gusto and sincerity.

Their niceness can’t be stressed too much. I had the opportunity to interview them twice in the latter 1960s. They were genuinely warm, refined, articulate humans, all three. I also had the opportunity to work with them at a political rally for Ohio senatorial candidate John Gilligan, where they came to lend their support together with Paul Newman and Eugene McCarthy. (Gilligan lost the election, but the day turned out pretty well for all of us: He eventually became governor, as did his daughter Kathleen Sebelius; Peter eventually married Gene’s daughter, and Paul would write ‘The Wedding Song (There is Love)’ for their wedding; I still brag to people about having met Paul Newman, about how short he was and how blue his eyes were.)

But the best was yet to come. In August, 1963, 250,000 people stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, at the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’, one of the largest and most important political rallies in American history. Rev. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech (the whole speech, the famous part). Peter, Paul and Mary sang ‘If I Had a Hammer’ and a brand-new song by an unknown songwriter named Bob Dylan, ‘Blowing in the Wind’.

Their 3rd album, “In the Wind” (October, 1963, one month before the Kennedy assassination, four months before The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show), included Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)’ and ‘Blowing in the Wind’. The single sold three hundred thousand copies in the first week of release. It also boasted an interesting poem/liner notes by Dylan, describing those early days in the Village. which end:
The rooster never crowed on MacDougal Street-/There was no dew on the grass an the sun never came shinin/over the mountain-/There was nothin t tell yuh it was morning cept the/pins and needles feelin in yer arms an legs from stayin/up all nite-/But all ‘f us find our way a knowing when it’s mornin-/An once yuh know the feelin it don’t change-/It can only grow-/For Peter’s grown/An Paul’s grown/An Mary’s grown/An the times’ve grown.

You young ‘uns may not know this, but these two recordings introduced Dylan to the world. It took years for him to get traction as a singer — no one (except weirdos like me) wanted to listen to him. “Yeah, he writes good songs, but I can’t take that voice.” Columbia Records resorted to the marketing slogan “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.” It didn’t help. Commercially, he was a back-bencher for years. What people wanted to hear was PP&M singing Dylan.

Ed Sullivan, The Fab Four, The Thrilling Three

But then in the middle of the decade, the British invaded the US and the US invaded Vietnam, and the tone and temperament of the times were a-changing. The folk music movement ground to a halt. PP&M were the only survivors. They continued to record and perform, embraced both by the anti-war activists and their parents. The 1964 double LP “In Concert” (including ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ and the hilarious Stookey standup ‘Paultalk’) was a major success. They toured at a frantic pace to full houses around the world.

(On the right here you can see a photo by my friend Rod Pennington; you can see 45 of his great pictures of PP&M from a couple of their visits to our neck of the woods here)

Photo by Rod Pennington

Then from 1965–1967 came a series of four consensus albums (“A Song Will Rise”, “See What Tomorrow Brings”, “Album” and “Album 1700”), successfully balancing traditional materials, political ‘protest’ songs, and a remarkable series of discoveries of unknown or little-known singer-songwriters: Laura Nyro (‘And When I Die’, an inspiring reflection on life written when Laura was but 16!), Gordon Lightfoot (‘For Loving Me’ and our SoTW, ‘Early Morning Rain’), Ewan MacColl (‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’), Tom Paxton (‘The Last Thing on My Mind’), Fred Neil (‘Another Side to This Life’), Richard Farina (‘Pack Up Your Sorrows’), and John Denver (the mega-hit ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’). That is a quite a list of songs they coined as standards. In addition, they began penning some memorable songs themselves (‘The Good Times We Had’, ‘The House Song’, ‘The Great Mandala’, ‘I Dig Rock and Roll Music’, ‘If I Had Wings’, ‘The Song is Love’, my much-beloved ‘Whatshername’).
By the late 1960s they had run out of steam. They continued to tour and perform and work for causes and appear at rallies and demonstrations, but their recordings lost their sparkle. In 1970, by mutual consent, they went on ‘sabbatical’.  They never argued; they were just bushed. Over the ensuing years, they reunited for an annual Christmas concert and various causes and received all the awards you can think of. They remained on good terms throughout. Mary Travers died in 2009 of leukemia.

My personal legacy from Peter, Paul & Mary is great. I didn’t just own all their albums. I knew every note of Paul’s bass harmonies by heart. I could intuit his part on songs they had never sung. He was a teacher for me, not just for bass harmonies, but also as a paragon of gentleness and religious sincerity (he’s a practicing Christian). I admit that I don’t listen to their music too often; most of it I have committed to memory.

But one song has always been especially near and dear for me, their treatment of Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’. It’s one of those very few songs that without fail touch me in the deepest place. I can be pitching for the NY Yankees in the 7th game of the World Series–PP&M’s ‘Early Morning Rain’ goes through my mind, and I’m transported to a very distant, specific, place: 4 AM, soaked and cold, aching from a lack of sleep and a broken heart, looking up at a jet plane flying overhead.

Gordon Lightfoot (b. 1938) was a Canadian paleface singer-songwriter without a recording contract when PP&M recorded his two most famous songs (here are his originals of ‘For Loving Me’ and ‘Early Morning Rain’). They weren’t the only ones to record Gordon in those days, or even the first, but they made the iconic versions. ‘Early Morning Rain’ is a gift PP&M have been sharing with me for 45 years now, and I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share it onwards.

In the early morning rain, with a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart and my pockets full of sand
I’m a long way from home, and I miss my loved one so
In the early morning rain with no place to go

Out on runway number nine, big 707 set to go
But I’m stuck here on the ground where the cold winds blow
Well the liquor tasted good and the women were all fast
There she goes my friend, o she’s rolling now at last

Here the mighty engines roar, see the silver bird on high
She’s away and westward bound, high above the clouds she’ll fly
Where the early rain don’t fall and the sun always shines
She’ll be flying o’er my home in about three hours time

This old airport’s got me down, it’s no earthly use to me
Cause I’m stuck here on the ground, cold and drunk as I might be
You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train
So I’d best be on my way in the early morning rain

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

SoTW 13: Tim Hardin, ‘Black Sheep Boy’
SoTW 16: Bob Dylan, ‘Percy’s Song’
SoTW 141: Joni Mitchell, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’

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12

290: Becca Kristovsky, ‘Bye Bye Baby Blues’

Posted by jeff on Jan 16, 2019 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Becca Kristovsky — ‘Bye Bye Baby Blues’

My good old friend Becca Kristovsky died this week. She was 54, a luminous person, and we made a lot of music together.

Today, the day after her rainy day funeral, I heard her singing this song to me in her most sultry voice, “Ooh, I’m missing you, I got those bye-bye baby blues.” It’s Becca, right here and now, singing my feelings.

I met Becca in about 1984. I was living in Beersheva, Israel, a desert frontier town. I’d heard that among the 8 students in the very first foreign students program at the fledgling Ben Gurion University there was an American girl who played guitar. I knocked on her dorm door and introduced myself. We got to know each other pretty well musically.

When she went back to the US at the end of the year, I wrote her ‘Becca’s Song‘.

But then she came back! To Beersheva! And, boy, was I happy to see her. We spent the next five years or so singing and playing together. She wanted to call us The Beauty and The Beast, but I don’t remember anyone ever asking what we were called. They just called us Becca and that guy, I think. We played here and there, more or less wherever they would have us, but we thought we were making some pretty darned good music. And we were sure having a lot of fun.

And then she got married, and broke up the band. Damned Gil, taking her away to Haifa. I remember when she first started dating him, and was proud to sign their wedding contract as a witness. She called me Jeff the Jew.

‘Bye Bye Baby Blues’ is from some recordings we made in about 1989. There’s a heartbreaking ‘End of the World‘, and a hilarious ‘Squeeze Box‘. There’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?‘ and ‘Different Drum’, and ‘All Shook Up‘, and a whole lot of Everly Brothers: ‘(All I Have to Do is) Dream‘, ‘Wake Up Little Suzie‘, ‘Let It Be Me‘, and ‘Devoted to You‘.

One song that I was dying to sing with Becca was John Sebastian’s “You’re a Big Boy Now”. Becca and I both played acoustic guitar, and that song really needs a bass. I was too lazy to learn it myself, so I pestered her and pestered her until she went out and bought herself an acoustic bass guitar, first one I ever saw. Then I pestered her to start learning it. ‘Big Boy’ is, I believe, her very first effort on the instrument which became her trademark.

We kept in touch over all the years from opposite ends of our little country, mostly running into each other at various musical events. She used to read Song of The Week, and sometimes we’d chat about that. Or one of us would call the other to say to we heard one of ‘our songs’ on the radio, and together we’d think back on those old, fading glory days.

After her kids Noga and Itamar grew up a bit, she started playing more and more, with her band Triad and then professionally with Mark Rashkow and Danny Dworsky. I saw her perform once with the former. She was poised, glowing, raunchy and charismatic. Becca, the rock star.

She used to brag to me about Noga’s dancing and about Itamar’s taste in music. I loved it.

Then, in the spring, just about eight months ago, she got sick. The last time I saw her was when Gil died in the summer. I went up for a shiva call. Becca loved to read, and she was from Houston. There’s a Houston author I used to read a lot, Larry McMurtry. She had more time than energy, so I sent her his long, rambling tale of a cattle drive, “Lonesome Dove”. I know she was enjoying it. I don’t think she got to finish it.

On June 1, I retired from my main job and started writing a novel, “Creston Pale”, full-time, full gas. It’s been half a year now, and I’m about two-thirds of the way through. Regular readers of this blog have noticed that I’ve been laggard, recycling old postings. That’s why. All my writing energies have been going into the book. It’s light and fast-paced and entertaining, I think. I’ve been enjoying the process, and I admit to being quite pleased with the results. It’s a story about – well, you’re just going to have to wait to find out.

Some writers need to be left alone. Some, like me, are desperate for an editor. It’s incredibly hard to find someone perceptive and receptive, both critical and nurturing who can accompany you, answer urgent, bizarre questions at odd hours, serve as a sounding board, listen to you ramble incoherently until some sense begins to coalesce. Becca did all that for me with patience, acumen and insight over the last half year. She was the first person to read what I wrote. She’d pick over the previous chapter word by word, and get excited with me about the way the plot was developing, and help me think through my next step.

I understand she would sit in the hospital with my manuscript and her red pen. She gave me comments I still need to implement. It’s that fresh. Towards the end, I asked her repeatedly if I should continue sending her updates. I felt pretty petty, sending her my scribbles while she was fighting for her life. But she insisted I continue, said it kept her mind sharp, gave her something fun to focus on.

I was sending her drafts right up to the day she went into the hospital for the bone marrow transplant. Gosh, I miss her help.

For Noga and Itamar, I have no words of consolation. It sucks, period. Does it help any to know that so many people loved her and cared about her? Does it help to know that even casual acquaintances would describe her as a dazzling rock star?  She’s gone, way too young, and I have no thoughts or words to palliate that.

But just like you say in the song, Becca, “Ain’t much to do, just sing those bye-bye baby blues.” I just have to accept it and let go, because you are gone.

Except you’re singing the song with a glint in your eye. Because we both know you’re not gone. You’re right here, right now, singing those bye bye baby blues.

Ooh, I’m missin’ you
I’ve got those bye-bye, bye-bye baby blues
Ooh ain’t much to do
Just sing those bye-bye, bye-bye baby blues

Havin’ the blues, hatin’ to lose
Guess I got a lot to learn
All of my friends have lost now and then
I guess it’s just my turn

Ooh, I’m missin’ you
I’ve got those bye-bye, bye-bye baby blues
Ooh ain’t much to do
Just sing those bye-bye, bye-bye baby blues

Tell me the first, hurt you the worst
And time is your best friend
But when you’re this sad and hurtin’ this bad
How do you love again?

Ooh, I’m missin’ you
I’ve got those bye-bye, bye-bye baby blues
Ooh ain’t much to do
Just sing those bye-bye, bye-bye baby blues

 

 

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2

140: Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

Posted by jeff on Jan 10, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

All right, sports fans and music lovers! Here’s the SoTW you’ve all been waiting for! I know tensions have been running high (my inbox has been completely clogged with queries for weeks now), waiting to see the results of our First Annual Strangest Setting in a Song from Randy Newman’s First Three Albums (FASSSRNFTA, or SSSRN for short). So without further adieu, Ladies and Gentleman, the–

Just before we start, why Randy’s first three albums? Primarily, because I make the SSSRN rules, and I see the first three studio albums as the core of his career, the songs that you have to look at twice before you get them. Or more.

  1. “More Than a New Discovery” – one of the unappreciated gems of the rock idiom. Brilliant, hilarious, utterly serious satire, stunning songs, composition, orchestral arrangements. He actually has a lot to say about life (Utah politicians, retirement in Florida and Deus Absconditis). A modern masterpiece.
  2. “12 Songs” – kick-ass band, sterling production, dealing more directly in the marginal (a guy who gets off doing it to the fires he sets, a gent calling a girl whose number he found on the wall of a telephone booth, the universality of humankind, even including chinks).
  3. “Sail Away” – a mixed bag of great individual songs, with topics ranging from A Boy and His Bear to the Wright Brothers to Eminent Domain.

The fourth album “Good Old Boys” revolves around Redneck-bashing, which may be fun, but it’s not exactly revelatory material. The fifth album, “Little Criminals” has some gems (‘Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in American’) but is already dumbing down the acerbicity (‘Short People’) because Rand was apparently feeling lonely at the top.

The 2012 Strangest Setting in a Song from Randy Newman awards:

This photo was an insert in “12 Songs”. I’ve loved it dearly all these many years; it was quite innovative for the day. I’m assuming it’s Randy and his family. Unfortunately I had to crop it a little. The grain is in the original. Click to see it full-size.

3rd Place – ‘Lucinda’ (“12 Songs”). I don’t have words for it. Randy has the words for it:

We met one summer evening
As the sun was going down.
She was lying on the beach
In her graduation gown.
She was wrapped up in a blanket
(I could tell she knew her way around),
And as I lay down beside her
You know she never made a sound.
On down the beach came the beach-cleaning man,
Scoopin’ up the papers and flattening down the sand.
“Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – we’ve got to run away
That big white truck is closin’ in, and we’ll get wounded if we stay”

 2nd Place – ‘Davy the Fat Boy’, in which our narrator inherits freakishly fat Davy from his trusting parents, and promptly turns him into a carnival freak-show exhibit (“What do he weigh, folks? Win a teddy bear for the girlfriend!”)

1st Place – Oh, the tension. The envelope, please. And the winner is: ‘Sail Away’, title tune of the third. In which the head honcho on a slave ship gives his wards a motivational chat about the New World awaiting them:

In America you’ll get food to eat.
You won’t have to run through the jungle scuffing up your feet.
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day –
It’s great to be an American. 

Admittedly, you don’t find a plethora of pop songs on this theme. It sure ain’t ‘I saw you kissing Judy in the back seat of your Chevy’ grist.

Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake,
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be–
Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me. 

Ah, those mamba snakes. No wonder they’re happy to be setting out on this all-expenses-paid vacation.

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay 

And indeed, Randy proved quite the prophet, foreseeing by centuries the domestic tranquility engendered by this humanitarian exodus:

In America every man is free to take care of his home and his family.
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree–
You’re all gonna be an American. 

So congrats, Randy, on winning the prize. Of course, you win the prize every year, because it’s the SSSRN competition. But still. You’re our man.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
044: Paul Robeson, ‘Go Down, Moses’

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