238: Marvin Gaye, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’

Posted by jeff on May 20, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week


Hah! I fooled you!!
I dangled this Grammy Hall of Fame song in front of you and you bit. Sucker!

This week we’re not going to occupy half your day jabbering on about what color socks the tambourine player was wearing. This time we’re going to foist upon you our very own cockamamie theory about how baby-boomers cum yuppies get manipulated by media suits to falsely believe that they still have friends.

But, okay, you paid your admission, so here goes: the shortest treatment of a SoTW ever.

marvin-gayeHistory: ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ was written by Barrett ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ Strong and Norman Whitfield, first hit for the team (‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’, ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’) that fathered Motown’s psychedelic soul; recorded (in order) by:

and released (in order) by:

  • Ms Pips (September 1967, #2)
  • Mr Gaye (October, 1968, #1)
  • Messrs Miracles only in 1998.


Appraisal: It’s a pretty fine song, with appropriate Motownic infectious melodic hooks, a memorable verbal cue, a great vocal, and one frigging incredible Motown production, with strings supplied by the Detroit Symphony. The metaphor of spreading rumors by word of mouth as a human grapevine is attributed to the mode of communication employed by black slaves in America. In the song, the narrator discovers through the grapevine that he’s being cheated upon.

Legacy: The longest running Motown #1 (7 weeks), it’s been covered innumerable times, including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Roger Troutman (R&B #1), and Tina Turner (highly recommended, just have a bucket of ice water ready); and in two famous commercials, Levi’s 501 Laundrette commercial with Nick Kamen (1985) and California Raisins (1988).



But what we really want to talk about today is Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant extradiegetic (I also had to look it up) use of Marvin’s ‘Grapevine’ for the opening sequence of “The Big Chill” (1983), showing each of the main characters learning (through the ‘grapevine’) about the death of their college friend and reunioning at his funeral – sans dialog. Put me on hold for four minutes. It’s a fine piece of cinematic exposition.

What was so resonant about “The Big Chill”? It portrays a group of baby-boomer college buddies, 15-20 years after graduation, mired in their various adultish lives – wishing they had a partner, wishing they didn’t, or just bored flaccid. We all left our hearts in college, didn’t we? When every day was an adventure, when we were all handsome and hot and sexy and adventurous and witty and optimistic. And now in our 40s, we’re just plain numbed and on a fast track to old age. Who doesn’t identify?

imagesWilliam Hurt (b. 1950), angrily: “It was easy back then, no one had a cushier birth than we did, it’s not surprising our friendship could survive that.”

Glenn Close (b. 1947), tearfully: “I feel like I was at my best when I was with you people.”

Jeff Goldblum (b. 1950): “It’s about everything, suicide, despair, where did our hope go?— ‘Lost Hope’, that’s it, ‘Lost Hope’.”

In 1983, writer-director Lawrence Kasden (b. 1949) killed (and then cutting-room floored) poor Kevin Costner in order to bring the old college gang together to seek some solace in each other’s company, a wake of a homecoming weekend. In reality, we were mired in our jobs and diapers and car insurance. But at night, we could potato up on the couch and in our minds bop to ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ in the kitchen with our ex-besties.
For at least one weekend, we’re back in college.

dbf0e17e60d747a36bfb35288120997aIn 1984, Madison Avenue sensed the appeal of a row of very handsome young adults (sometimes peppered with cute kids) all standing in a row looking cool and relaxed, a rainbow of individuals, shades in a collective spectrum. The buddyhood meme has arrived.
Want to belong? Want lots of cool friends? Just buy our product.

In 1987, the very talented and sincere team of Marshall Herskovitz (b. 1952) and Edward Zwick (b. 1952) refined the formula. What if the gang got togeThirtysomething_at_25__where_are_the_cast_now_ther not for one weekend, not to sell sweaters, but for a 4-season run? So they created ‘thirtysomething‘, a gang of seven, replete with jobs and kids and singledom and endless naval-contemplating yuppie angst cohered not by mortem ex machina, but by personal individual commitment to the septangle itself.
What if we could live our real lives, but with friends?

SEINFELD -- Season 6 -- Pictured: (l-r) Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Seinfeld (Photo by George Lange/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

In 1989, Jerry Seinfeld (b. 1954) and Larry David (b. 1947) figured out that Real Life was an obstacle to humor, so they jauntily dispensed of it. Re-enter post-adolescent group nihilism.  We don’t have jobs, we don’t even have exams, but we sure do have friends.
Buddy-hood sans reality. So much easier that way.

FRIENDS -- Season 4 -- Pictured: (back l-r) Matt LeBlanc as Joey Tribbiani, David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, Matthew Perry as Chandler Bing, (front l-r) Jennifer Aniston as Rachel Green, Courteney Cox as Monica Geller, Lisa Kudrow as Phoebe Buffay -- Photo by: Gerald Weinman/NBCU Photo Bank

Then in 1994, three young suits (b. 1953, 1954, 1957) married 30something-ish Life Lite with Seinfeld vacuity in a 22-minute sitcom package, complete with laugh track. Six Peter Pans subsisting on coffee and sex. Jump back into the fountain of youth (arrested development) with us, right after this word from our sponsor.
Getting older without growing up – what more could an aging baby-boomer ask for?

Just to get the record straight—IMHO (in my haughty opinion):

  • “The Big Chill” is a pretty good Hollywood movie that struck a very timely chord.
  • “thirtysomething” is one of the finest and rarest of TV dramas ever (flanked by its teensomething ‘My So-Called Life’ and fortysomething ‘Once & Again’). Why rare? It made me both think and feel.
  • “Seinfeld” is an exercise in vacuity foreign to me. I was at Woodstock. I lived through Kent State. Can’t watch it.
  • “Friends” was to “thirtysomething” as “The Monkees” was to The Beatles.
  • I don’t buy brand clothing. Haven’t since the 9th grade.  

Not that I’m so grown-up. I’m willing to pitch my immaturity against anyone’s. Just ask my wife. I find regular attendance at the house of worship of my choice a venue preferable to Central Perk or even Michael and Hope’s living room for nurturing buddy-ship. I really do meet real friends there, in real life, on a weekly basis (same time, same station).

I’m a social animal, compulsively gregarious, a snob who watches as much TV as I did when I was chronologically still a Jung ‘un. I won’t grow up! I don’t have to!! Know how I know? I heard it through the grapevine.


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072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)

Posted by jeff on Mar 15, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

The people and things closest to you eventually become invisible to you. That which you see every day for decades becomes so imbedded in your processor that the nerve endings are dulled to them. Strangers are in clearer focus than your parent, your child, your spouse. Familiarity breeds transparency.

So it is with music. Take The Beatles, for example. I listened to every cut of theirs several bejillion times, from the day they were released. They’ve been inaudible to me for decades. I used to try tricks like listening to only one channel with the bass cranked up while hanging upside down. It worked a little, but I got dizzy. The newly remastered set? The same. If I really, really focus, while lying on a bed of nails, with two prison guards dashing me with a bucket of freezing water after each cut, I can summon enough concentration to probe the music just a bit. But usually, if I want to experience a Beatles song, I just close my ears and play it in my brain. Ye olde portable neuro-jukebox.

Judy Collins & Stephen Stills (Photo: Graham Nash)

So you can imagine my pleasure when by some fluke of nature or warp in history I’m able to hear a piece of near and dear, great music from 1968-9. Remember Act III of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, when (now-deceased) Emily ignores the Stage Manager’s advice and returns to ‘regular life’ for just one day? Well, I did.

One of my most epiphanous moments in music, I remember it clearly, was reading the then-new and revolutionary rock music tabloid Rolling Stone, sometime in the late summer or fall of 1968. There was a small, modest item in the lower left corner of the front page: ‘Graham Nash (of The Hollies), Dave Crosby (recently fired from The Byrds) and Stephen Stills (of the recently disbanded Buffalo Springfield) have been hanging out together. There are rumors that they might form a new group together.’

I sensed then and there that that trio would create a new aesthetic in popular music– elegant, intelligent, and beautiful music with a level of vocal harmonies unknown since the Ink Spots. I had more than an inkling of the impact Crosby, Stills & Nash would make on popular music, way before I heard them. If only they had been selling stock, I’d be a rich man today.

In 1968, The Byrds were the premier American rock group. Their albums “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” were among the best of the era. Jim/Roger McGuinn was the leader, bassist Chris Hillman was a serious contributor, but madman David Crosby contributed the magic, especially in vocals (‘Eight Miles High‘, ‘Renaissance Fair’, ‘Tribal Gathering’. The Hollies were a pretty darn fine British invasion group, their best songs based on tight harmony (‘Bus Stop’, ‘Pay You Back with Interest‘).

Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield was an LA-based rock group led by army brat/southerner Stills, Winnepegian Neil Young, and NYer Richie Furay. All three evolved through the folk music scene into rock. They were immensely talented, sharing the songwriting and guitaring and lead singing, and unfortunately spent most of their energies fighting rather than creating music. When they did shut up and sing, it was occasionally divine.

I’m not going to go off on my anti-Neil Young Big Chief Wah-Wah tirade here. Let it suffice to say that I view him as a talent far inferior to Stills, pretty much an obstacle and an annoyance.

As a live band, Springfield debuted on April 11, 1966 and gave their last concert May 5, 1968. They made three albums. The first, containing Stills’ immortal ‘For What It’s Worth’, has very little else that’s listenable. (Here’s Buffalo Springfield singing it live on the Smothers Brothers TV show, including Tommy in a cowboy outfit, Stephen doing a Chuck Berry duckwalk, and the guitars painfully untuned.) The second has some of the best music to come out of early rock, especially ‘Bluebird’, the immortal ‘Rock and Roll Woman’ (here’s a live version!) [See also SoTW 198]. The third album had some stunning Stills songs (‘Questions’, ‘Pretty Girl Why‘), but no coherence, as the band was already in its death throes.

Last month, Buffalo Springfield announced a reunion gig, which was supposed to have taken place last week, in support of the special-needs school backed by Neil Young, where his two sons learn. Well, I hope it makes them happy, and that they make a lot of money for this worthy cause. But in the twoscore years since CS&N and CSN&Y’s breakups, they’ve periodically risen from the grave to haunt gullible, desperate fans with bloated and pathetic echoes of their former demideific selves. I’m not even going to give you any links to that non-music. It’s just painful. Let’s just stick with the Good Old Days.

Judy Collins & Stephen Stills (Photo: Robert Altman)

As far as I can unravel the chronology, around the time of Buffalo Springfield’s breakup, in the spring of 1968, Stills (b. 1945) was hanging out with the very popular and very modestly talented Judy Collins (b. 1939). On April 26th, he accompanied her to a recording session in NY for what was to become her hit album “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. He was there as boyfriend and studio musician. Stills was a very fine multi-instrumentalist, and has provided the musical backing on acoustic guitar and bass for albums as fine as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue“.

Collins’ album includes Ian Tyson’s song, ‘Someday Soon’, which would become a signature song for her. In this clip, Graham Nash interviews her about the origins of ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (written by Stills for her); then Stills joins them on stage to perform ‘Someday Soon’.

At the end of the session, he bribed the engineer to stay and allow him to record some songs he’d been working on. Judy went home, admonishing him “not to stay here all night.” Stills relates: “I peeled off a couple of hundreds and told the engineer, ‘I’ve got to record these demos or I’ll forget everything.'”

He took a cassette of the songs with him (which he soon lost) and forgot about the session. In 1978, the studio was about to close, and the owner told one musician named Joe Colasurdo to ‘take whatever tapes you want, they’ll just end up in the trash bin’. He took home a box of reel-to-reel tapes, intending to record over them. But one had the name Stephen Stills on it. He heard it, realized that it was a lost treasure. For years he tried to contact Stills to give him the tapes. (If you’re a mortal who has ever tried contacting a celebrity, even for wholly legitimate reasons, you know how utterly frustrating that can be). Eventually he met a friend of a friend of Graham Nash, and got the tape to him. At a recording session with Stills, without saying a word, Nash put on the tape. Stills, and everyone else, was floored. Nash told him he should release it untouched.

And, thank goodness, he did. Because it’s so vivid, so vibrant, that it’s enabled me to hear this music afresh. In an NPR interview, Stills calls the music here innocent, much higher than he can sing it today. He said that rediscovering this tape is “like being on a dive and finding a gold sovereign.”

Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968” (that’s what he said to the engineer at the start of the recording) contains 13 songs, none of which he’d recorded previously. This wasn’t a nostalgia trip; it was an initial take on material which would serve him for years to come (he would later record nine of them on subsequent albums). The best known include a cover of Lennon’s ‘In My Life’, and Stills’ ‘Change Partners’, ‘Wooden Ships’, ‘Helplessly Hoping‘, and our Song of The Week, the iconic ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes‘.

I find it particularly remarkable that these recordings are so well-cooked. There’s no fumbling, inventing words for unwritten verses, or trailing off when he doesn’t know exactly how to finish the song. He’s a consummate, serious artist, this Stephen Stills.

His guitar playing is stunning–intense, commanding. He uses mostly open tunings; in ‘Suite’, it’s a tuning attributed to Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer, EEEEBE (see the Wikipedia article). His vocals are jaw-dropping technically, and affectively wrenching. This is really fine music, folks.

Crosby, Stills, Nash

Stills is a pretty strange character. There’s one video of him at a very laid-back concert “Celebration at Big Sur”, everyone very mellow and stoned and acoustic, until he gets into a fistfight with a fan that rubs him the wrong way. This three-part interview (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) from 1972 shows a variety of his facets–on the one hand, mispronouncing the word ‘eclectic’ and inventing stories about dodging machine-gun fire as a boy during a junta, on the other hand (in the first part), showing us his open tuning and playing Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ for us solo, and then in part 3 playing ‘For What It’s Worth’ on the piano.

Just Roll Tape” carries more than a modicum of historical interest. After all, Stephen Stills of April, 1968 wasn’t just ex-Buffalo Springfield, he was of course also pre-Crosby, Stills and Nash. Three months after our SoTW recording, at a party at Mamma Cass Elliot’s house, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to repeat a new Stills song they had sung, “You Don’t Have To Cry.” He improvised a second harmony part; they immediately realized that something unique had occurred. They soon went into the studio, and in 1969 released their eponymous first album, making them an instant supergroup.

Together with ‘John Wesley Harding‘, ‘Music from Big Pink’, and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, ‘CS&N’ was a harbinger – and catalyst – of the new direction the music and the mind of the generation would take. Prior to this music, the world was electric, frenetic and violent –Jumping Jack Flash, speed and Vietnam. On the horizon was the fallout from Dylan’s motorcycle accident, a distinct turn inwards to the organic, the acoustic, the earth-bound. A wholly new reality.

‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ was a theme song of this change. It was also a hit, ranked 426 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and a symbol of the generation. CS&N would perform it at Woodstock, the signature moment of the festival. “This is the second time we have played in front of people, man. We are scared shitless.” Here’s a lovely montage of the three of them talking, arguing, and singing, including Stills singing ‘4+20’ in the famous appearance on the Dick Cavett show the day after Woodstock, still wearing their mud-caked clothes.

The ‘Just Roll Tape’ version of the song is virtually identical to the record version, with two verses inverted and without the ‘Doo-doo’ ending. “That was an afterthought in the studio.” (I got a particularly perverse pleasure from Stills’ story in the NPR interview about how the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, who were “heroes of ours”, sang this section for him. Why is it that when I sing the praises of this group (see SoTW 030), people look at me strangely, whereas when Stephen Stills does it, the girls all swoon?

He also says there that he prefers ‘the middle part’ (‘Friday evening’) of “Just Roll”‘s ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ to the recorded version. For my money, it’s all very fine. I love how he tunes, and without taking a breath, flies into the song, as if he’s afraid he’ll be tossed out of the studio at any moment and wants to get it all down before that happens. He’s on. Or ‘It’s my heart…’ where he goes into a high, high falsetto, and his aim is oh-so-true. Stevie Winwood would be impressed.

In the interview, the song is referred to as a breakup song. For all the myriad times I’ve listened to the song, I suppose I couldn’t rattle off the lyrics. I just read through them (printed below, with a transcription and translation of the Spanish at the end). The lyric is far more coherent, unified, and communicative than I’d thought. This isn’t a random assembly of musical parts. It is indeed a suite in the fullest sense, a telling story of the end of a relationship.

At the end of the NPR interview, Stills thanks Joe Colasurdo for giving him the tapes. “The guy is my friend for life.” Well, let me join you in that, Stephen. Thanks for the very precious gift, Joe. And thanks, Stephen.

It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore,
I am sorry.
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud
I am lonely.
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are
And you make it hard.

Remember what we’ve said and done and felt about each other,
Oh babe, have mercy.
Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now,
I am not dreaming.
I am yours…

Tearing yourself away from me now
You are free and I am crying
This does not mean I don’t love you
I do, that’s forever,
Yes and for always.
I am yours…

Something inside is telling me that I’ve got your secret.
Are you still listening?
Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart,
And I love you.
I am yours…

Friday evening, Sunday in the afternoon
What have you got to lose?
Tuesday morning, please be gone I’m tired of you.
What have you got to lose?
Can I tell it like it is? (Help me I’m suffering)
Listen to me baby.
It’s my heart that’s a-suffering (Help me I’m dying)
It’s a-dying, that’s what I have to lose.
I’ve got an answer:
I’m going to fly away.
What have I got to lose?
Will you come see me Thursdays and Saturdays?
What have you got to lose?

Chestnut brown canary, ruby-throated sparrow
Sing the song, don’t be long, thrill me to the marrow.

Voices of the angels, ring around the moonlight,
Asking me, said ‘she’s so free, how can you catch the sparrow?’

Lacy, lilting, lyric, losing love, lamenting
Change my life, make it right, be my lady.

Que linda me la traiga Cuba,
La reina de la Mar Caribe.
Cielo sol no tiene sangre allí,
y que triste que no puedo vaya,
Oh va, oh va, va.

(Oh, what beauty Cuba brings me,
The queen of the Caribbean Sea,
Sunny sky has no blood over there,
And how sad that I cannot go,
Oh go, oh go, go.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

061: The Doobie Brothers, “What a Fool Believes”

038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
We enjoy your comments and will try to respond to all of them.
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as eMusic or Amazon

Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
We enjoy your comments and will try to respond to all of them.
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as eMusic or Amazon.

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233: Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’

Posted by jeff on Mar 6, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (furious – June 20, 1970)

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (jolly – March 13, 1976)

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (resigned – July 12, 1978 Early)

Laura Nyro, ‘And When I Die’ (minor – December 25, 1993)

Laura+Nyro++with+Gil+BianchiniThis week we’re going to talk about the meaning of life.
But don’t worry, there’s some great music in there, too.

Two events have been spinning my mind these past few weeks: my friend A. became a father (of twins) at 57; and a big pile of previous unknown Laura Nyro live recordings surfaced.

My relationship with A. is rather formal. We know each other through work, and though we have a lot of respect for each other and not a little affection, he’s (unlike me) not a gushy guy.

12744565_1333673769992046_2378058619088773401_nWhen we first got to know each other, a couple of years ago, he said to me, “I’ve never been married, don’t expect to be. I’ve come to terms with the fact that some people aren’t cut out to be part of a family. I’m an individual, and I’m cool with that. I do have this friend who’s 42 and is saying she might decide to have a kid, so maybe I’ll help her out with that. We’ll see.”

Fast forward two years: twins, cohabitation (in the meantime) and shared responsibility. And lots and lots of smiles. And behind closed doors, some tears.

A. confided in me that after almost a month (there were lots of really complex logistics surrounding the birth and the new group’s arrival home) he suddenly found himself alone, at home, surrounded by quiet for the first time in weeks. And he broke down crying, out of happiness, out of a release of tension I guess, out of recognition of the momentousness of everything he’s been going through.

mqdefault“It’s great,” he says. “If I’d known how wonderful fatherhood was, I would have done it at 55.”

Well, joke away, A. But I’m guessing that you’re struggling to grasp that your whole being has been rocked by the quantum change in your status in this here universe.

What does having children mean, on an existential level? Well, procreation. Fulfilling that biological imperative. Just think of how much energy God and Darwin and all those guys instilled in us to make sure it happens. Think of Romeo and Juliet. Think of the intensity with which you stared at Arlene Kaplan’s pink cashmere sweater in the ninth grade. Think of the Helen, the Trojan War, Marlowe’s “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”.  Think of Phil Spector’s production of Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.

fuller-geoghegan-newborn_51431I’m 21st century enough to realize that a lot more people are choosing not to procreate, both by choice and due to circumstance, and yet lead happy and productive and full lives. For example I was recently moved by Oliver Sacks’ deathbed essays, collected in “Gratitude”. A fuller and more meaningful life than his is hard to fathom.

But when I think on the people I’ve known who do not have children, there’s a pinch in my heart. A discord. An arrhythmia. A missing link. Sorry, I’m a child of OzzieandHarrietLand. If we don’t contribute a link to the chain of life, what was it all for? What is it all about?

maxresdefaultYou’ve written a poem or built a building or just gotten through your fourscore years relatively unscathed and without wreaking too much havoc on others—standing before the pearly gate, it’s hard for me to conceive of someone holding more dear any mark he’s made on the world than the progeny he’s left behind.

A wise old lady in a play I once saw tells a 16-year old girl, “Why do you think a person has children? Because he knows that in his life, he did some things right, and some things wrong. And he wants just one more chance to correct all the mistakes he made the first time. Because now he knows better. But he can’t live again– so he makes a child. And he wants that child to do well– more than anything else in the world. He wants it so badly– that it drives him crazy. And then he drives the child crazy. Out of love. Out of wanting the child to do well. You see? Because of the love of parents for children, we have a crazy world.”

1927893_10205897796545051_7828271431273868310_nDoes life have inherent significance or not? I personally have no idea what the answer to that conundrum is. If any of you out there do, please to drop me an email!

In the meantime, I’ve been mulling over the answer provided by an extravagant, eccentric 16-year old, one Laura Nyro (1949-97). It’s as convincing a statement about procreation as any I’ve encountered.

I’m not scared of dying and I don’t really care.
If it’s peace you find in dying, well, then let the time be near.
Just bundle up my coffin, ‘cause it’s cold way down there.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on.

How is is possible, you ask, for a teenager to write that? Laura once said, “I think that song has a certain folk wisdom that teenagers have.” Most of the teenagers I’ve known have displayed a whole lot more hormone-choked stupidity than folk wisdom, but who am I to question Laura Nyro, one of the great and most underappreciated artists of our time?

For 50 years now I’ve been shouting Laura’s praise to whomever I can get to listen. She is a great artist. If you don’t know her, you’re denying yourself. Joni is craft; Laura, inspiration.

lnfharjew9489fslka999Peter, Paul and Mary gave Laura her break (at 17) by recording her song ‘And When I Die’, as the lead track on their very fine album “Album”, August 1966. And a very respectable treatment it is.

My troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well.
I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell.
Swear there ain’t no heaven and pray there ain’t no hell,
But I’ll never know by living, only my dying will tell.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on.

PP&M’s version does more justice to the song than Laura’s own recording on her first album (February, 1967), which contained great songs (‘Wedding Bell Blues’, ‘Stoney End’, ‘Flim Flam Man’) but suffered from an infamously insensitive production. I won’t even link here the criminally vulgar hit version of ‘And When I Die’ by David Clayton-Thomas and Blood, Sweat and Tears (December, 1968).

lauranyro3But fortunately we have about a dozen performances of the song by Laura among the various live recordings that have cropped up over the years (official and bootleg) – including 6 in this new batch, among the over 80 newly-emerged Laura Nyro tracks from six performances from four dates in 1970, 1976 and 1978.

Laura gets it. You fight off the devil with music. As I maintained when missiles were falling on my fair town daily, Laura’s music can fend off ground-to-ground missiles. So the devil’s no big challenge, right?

Give me my freedom for as long as I be,
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.
And all I ask of dying is to go naturally.
And when I die and when I’m gone,
There’ll be one child born and a world to carry on.

At one of the lowest points in my life, when I was on the very cusp of being beaten by the devil – I mean it was really hanging in the balance – I calmly resorted to the only weapon I really understand. I put on “Eli & the 13th Confession”. Know what happened? I lived to tell the tale.

Why thefantasy-jesus-vs-satan-arm-wrestling-wallpapern is the biological imperative incumbent upon us millenials? Haven’t we evolved past poopy diapers?

Laura has a whole arsenal of answers to confound Satan.

She can laugh in his face, as in this jolly version (March 13, 1976). You can work your devious works all you like, Mr Lucifer – I’m gonna die, but I made a kid. So there!!

Or she can just step outside the arena of nose-to-nose confrontation, as in this mellow, resigned version (July 12, 1978). You can’t touch me, she shrugs. We might want to remember that Laura’s real child, Gil, would not be born for over a year.

eba9a074ec2ef11f5d10ed27b1d2bde4The same text serves her in 1993 (her son now a teenager, two years before she is diagnosed with the cancer that would end her life at 49) – in a minor scale, bitter in victory. Yeah, I won the game, but I’m still going down into that cold, cold grave. “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound/My echoing song.” Interestingly, this is the interpretation that Billy Childs and Alison Krauss chose to follow in the recent tribute/revisiting album “Map to the Treasure”. Even more significantly, every time Laura performs the song in minor she omits the line “And all I ask of dying is to go naturally” from the last stanza. It would be too speculative of me to suggest a reason, but I sure am thinking about it a lot.

But if I get my druthers, I’m going to go for Laura’s fuck-you answer (June 20, 1970, when she’s a mere 21 years old). Here Laura digs in, takes on the devil face-to-face, unflinching. She grapples, she wrestles him to the ground, and she cows him with her utter fury, vanquishes him.

Photo by Elaine Mayes

Photo by Elaine Mayes

You. Will. Not. Defeat. Me.
I. Am. Stronger. Than. You.
I have defeated death. My blood, my genes, my hair color, my predilection for dried apples—they shall live on in my child.
Fuck you, Mr Devil.

Laura 1, Lucifer 0.

So A., Laura and I both get why you’re a bit overwhelmed by the moment of what you’ve just done. You’ve just stood up to join the human collective – your ancestors, those around you, and now your descendants.

What does it mean? Believe me, I have no idea. It’s just a sort of existential game. But I do know that you made a courageous, joyous comeback deep in the second half.

A. 2, Mortality 0.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

202: Laura Nyro, ‘The Confession’

182: The Shirelles, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’

170: Laura Nyro, ‘Luckie’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

154: Laura Nyro, ‘Save the Country’

036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

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069: Catherine Russell, ‘New Speedway Boogie’

Posted by jeff on Feb 20, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

This week’s SoTW shouldn’t have even made it to our turntable. The song is a toss-off by The Grateful Dead, a band more successful in leading acid-drenched mobs on long, aimless trips than in providing fodder for covers. The singer is a first-timer backup singer steeped in string jazz-blues from the 1920-30s, not exactly a favorite of mine. The band features a banjo and trombone. Need I continue?

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Catherine (Cat) Russell. She’s a musically pedigreed NYer whose father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time musical director, and whose mother holds degrees from both Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Cat has sung backing vocals for the likes of David Bowie, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Levon Helm, Madonna, Diana Ross, and Paul Simon.

Her debut album, “Cat” (2006), like its successors “Sentimental Streak” (2008) and “Inside This Heart of Mine” (2010), is steeped in Fats Waller-era tunes, where the line between blues and jazz wasn’t yet drawn. My friend JE likes that stuff. My friend EM likes that stuff. Guess what? JM doesn’t, not ordinarily. But this Cat Russell is just full of surprises. There’s not a bad note, not a bad decision, not a single boring passage. She’s refreshing, charming, sexy, wry and tasteful.

Cat with Satchmo

She charms all her material, nary a dud song in the bunch. She even takes Darn that Dream, a song I’ve encountered only about 300 cloying versions of, and makes it swing.

Her phrasing is reminiscent of Billie Holiday, but where Lady Day pulled phrases way beyond the beat out of pain or world-weariness or a drug cloud, Cat does so with a twinkle in her eye, for the calculated effect of dramatic irony. But if the material is often 1920s, and the frame of reference 1950s, the particular song here quintessential 1960s, the sound here is sparkling fresh.

Lots of Cat’s music is available on YouTube. But what I find so surprising is how much my listening pleasure is enhanced by the terrific sound of her recordings. I’m surprised to hear myself saying that. In my anal, obsessive pursuit of musical minutiae, I often avail myself of “The Penguin Guide” to jazz, to classical music. They like writing things like, “The Strinenphfuffen AC-327 microphone is unfortunately placed several millimeters above the 1926 Gringenhofger instrument’s D-string, flaunting the more respectful tradition of a restrained approach. The playing, however, is faultless and the music as perspicacious as is usually found in Count Wxyzerhofsky’s middle period.” But here on “Cat”, what can I tell you? I actually revel in the sound itself. The videos made in the studio are fun to watch, but I greatly prefer the glow of the higher-quality recordings.

This stands in marked contrast to The Grateful Dead’s studio incompetence. I guess if they were sober enough to find the studio, they were too straight to play. “Workingman’s Dead” is one of only two or three exceptions, an album I’ve known and loved since its release in 1970. Its success is in its tight, acoustic, close-harmony sound, much influenced by Crosby, Stills and Young, in great songs such as ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘High Time’. To tell you the truth, I’d skip over ‘New Speedway Boogie‘ as often as I’d listen to it. I always had the impression that Jerry Garcia didn’t choose to write the song in a modal mode; he was just too stoned to change chords. I always dismissed the lyrics as typical Robert Hunter psychedelic babble. Till Cat Russell kicked the song in the butt and made me listen.

The song describes the infamous Altamont Free Concert, which took place in December 1969, a few months after Woodstock, at the Altamont Raceway. The Dead organized the gig, which was supposed to be Woodstock West. But while the Rolling Stones were singing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, an innocent listener was beaten to death by Hell’s Angels, who were inexplicably and bizarrely hired to ‘keep order’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. The beating took place right under Jagger’s nose, was captured on film, and together with the Kent State shootings put an end to the Age of Aquarius. Here’s a nice video of The Dead singing ‘New Speedway Boogie’ live, a pretty typically spacey performance.

Hunter’s lyrics, as usual, defy simple explication, but now that I look at them, they make a whole lot of sense. And they certainly do reflect The Dead’s disillusionment –and ours – with what went down at that racetrack. They organized the festival, and never got to play.

So here’s Cat Russell’s take on the song. The band is comprised of a mandolin, a stand-up knock-down bass, and a tambourine. Oh, and one fine, fine singer.

Recommended Listening:

Cat Russell on record (can you still say that?):

Just Because You Can

We The People

My Man’s an Undertaker

Inside This Heart of Mine

Long, Strong and Consecutive

Close Your Eyes

New Speedway Boogie (live)

‘New Speedway Boogie’ — Music Jerry Garcia, Lyrics Robert Hunter

Please don’t dominate the rap, jack, if you’ve got nothing new to say.
If you please, don’t back up the track; this train’s got to run today.
I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
I heard someone say “Better run away”, others say “better stand still”.

Now I don’t know, but I been told it’s hard to run with the weight of gold.
Other hand I have heard it said, it’s just as hard with the weight of lead.

Who can deny, who can deny, it’s not just a change in style?
One step done and another begun and I wonder how many miles.
I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.
Now, I don’t know but I was told in the heat of the sun a man died of cold.
Keep on coming or stand and wait, with the sun so dark and the hour so late.
You can’t overlook the lack, jack, of any other highway to ride.
It’s got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.

I spent a little time on the mountain, I spent a little time on the hill.
I saw things getting out of hand, I guess they always will.
Now I don’t know but I been told
If the horse don’t pull you got to carry the load.
I don’t know whose back’s that strong, maybe find out before too long.

One way or another, one way or another,
One way or another, this darkness got to give.

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