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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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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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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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122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’

Posted by jeff on Oct 25, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Acoustic George

We had such a good time last week with George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (the acoustic demo), why should we leave well enough alone? This week’s double-sided SoTW is going to visit a pair of songs that have always been indivisibly associated in my mind – both short (under two minutes), slight demos by artists whose oeuvre I’d assumed I knew completely, only to discover these gems decades after I thought the book had been closed. And as if that’s not enough, the later artist was profoundly influenced by the earlier one.

Acoustic Buddy

And if that’s still not enough, the songs sound so much alike it’s spooky, a single acoustic guitar strummed at an insistent rock tempo, with just a little percussive  ornamentation by his buddies in the studio.

We’re talking about the discarded Beatles George-song from 1964, ‘You Know What to Do’, and the even more obscure undubbed version of a Buddy Holly demo from 1958, ‘You’re The One’. Buddy Holly (1936-1959) is one of the greatest talents to arise from the world of rock music. He recorded professionally for 18 months before he died in a plane crash (“the day the music died”). I listen to his very small output regularly, as do Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen and everyone who understands anything about fine rock music. He wrote much of his own material, thus inventing the singer-songwriter format and serving as an acknowledged role-model for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The first recording of the Quarrymen was a cover of ‘That’ll Be the Day’, one of Holly’s biggest hits.

Electric Buddy

Much of his music improves from year to year, none more so than The Apartment Tapes, half a dozen recordings he made in his home in January, 1959, which I reverently described in SoTW 002. Could be I invented Song of The Week just to have a platform to sing Buddy Holly’s praises. I thought I knew all his recordings, even the bootlegs of him and The Crickets as high-schoolers playing on Saturday afternoons in the Lubbock, Texas Ford dealer’s parking lot. But here’s one that hid under my radar for many years.

Electric George

Buddy came home to Lubbock for Christmas 1958, a month and a half before he died. Two days after the holiday he went to the local radio station KLLL to visit his DJ buddies Waylon Jennings and Slim Corbin.  Waylon challenged Buddy to write a song on the spot, which he did (in minutes), and proceeded to record it right then and there, Buddy playing acoustic guitar, Waylon and Slim clapping their hands together and on their knees (a la ‘Everyday’). Buddy had just turned 22, but in five weeks he would be dead.

Even the better-known version of the song is obscure, the horror Norman Petty created by overdubbing a band, just as he ruined the better-known versions of the Apartment Tapes. But naked, it’s as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus.

On June 3, 1964, The Beatles were in the Abbey Road studios preparing some demos for what would be “Beatles for Sale”, including ‘It’s For You’ (Paul-penned for Cilla Black) and John’s ‘No Reply’. George brought ‘You Know What to Do’, his first composition

She’s the one. She knows what to do.

since ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from the year before. The song was dismissed as being too lightweight, and was subsequently misfiled, to be rediscovered only in 1993. George said that he had forgotten about it. But he was also so discouraged by the experience that he didn’t write another song for a year (‘I Need You’). It’s George on acoustic guitar, John on tambourine, and Paul on bass. George had just turned 22, and would have an illustrious career spanning the next 37 years.

Rolling Stone magazine: Buddy Holly turned a generation of future heroes – George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – onto the guitar, with an elemental style: an antsy mix of country and blues that merged rhythm and lead… Playing his Stratocaster and fronting a double-guitar-bass-and-drum quartet, Holly essentially invented the rock band. “Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums,” says John Mellencamp. “Take their voices off and it’s Buddy Holly.”

The Beatles recorded Holly’s ‘Words of Love’ for that “Beatles for Sale” album. But they didn’t give it their unique Beatles’ stamp as they did to all the covers they did before or after (check out for example The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in contrast to the version they were adapting from

Waylon Jennings (l), Buddy Holly (r)

the Isley Brothers.  But for ‘Words of Love’ they reverently recreated the original, virtually note-for-note – John and Paul emulating Buddy’s double-tracked vocal (one of the first such recordings by a major artist!), and George copying the lead guitar part on the same Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Here’s Buddy Holly’s version of ‘Words of Love’.

And here’s The Beatles’ copy.

More similar than different? And how about these two unknown gems? Are the similarities not greater than the differences?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

121: George Harrison, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (Acoustic Demo)

 

 

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