049: Chrysalis (J. Spider Barbour), ‘Summer in Your Savage Eyes’

Posted by jeff on May 17, 2015 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Forewarning: This week’s SoTW is long, even by my shaggy dog standards. What can you do? It’s a long story, spanning 45 years. It was sparked by the recent death of an obscure rock artist with a significant cult following, but quickly moves back to the strange tale of a much more obscure artist, his music, J. Spider Barbour and his band Chrysalis. The story as I tell it is full of detours, tangents, and irrelevencies, so don’t expect a “well-made” dramatic storyline here. Only a bizarre chain of events in which real life and fantasy intertwine in their ironic and inextricable way.

SoTW: Chrysalis, Summer in Your Savage Eyes

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the sad and curious career of Alex Chilton and his band Big Star. At the age of 16 in 1966, Alex fronted The Boxtops’ “The Letter” (‘Gimme a ticket for an ai-ro-rplane’, at 1:50, the shortest #1 hit ever). He formed Big Star in the early 70s, modeled on the British invasion sound, a band whose talent was exceeded only by their absolute commercial failure. There are enough romantic ingredients in the story to spark the morbid imaginations of a critical mass of rock obsessives large enough form around Big Star a cult following which justified the issuing in 2009 a comprehensive 4-CD box was released containing every scrap of music they ever recorded. And then last month Chilton died. So there’s a lot of talk about them, naturally.

Well, I confess, I’d never heard of Big Star, and only marginally of Chilton. But there’s another band whose leader I’d like to talk about this week–a band much more obscure and I think much more talented than Big Star. Much more talented than just about anyone, actually. In fact, Chrysalis is the greatest band no one has ever heard of.

*          *          *

It all started in 1966. I was a very early devotee of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, in the days when that was a dubious distinction certain to evoke the concern of parents, the disgust of the respectable citizenry of Cincinnati, and the utter disdain of girls who bathed. Somewhere, probably in a microscopic footnote in a Mothers album liner notes, Zappa called Chrysalis “a group that has yet to destroy your mind”. That was enough to send yours truly scrounging through record bins in remote shopping centers till the LP was found.

Chrysalis was formed in 1967, led by J. Spider Barbour, made one marvelous album and broke up. It sold many dozens of copies throughout the Western hemisphere, mostly to the band member’s families and friends (the close ones, anyway), and to me.

1967, the year of Sgt Pepper, John Wesley Harding, and Jeff is listening to Chrysalis’s ‘Definition’, an album filled with wit and passion and clever arrangements and indelible memories and stunningly sharp performances and just about any superlative I can think of. If we had to categorize it, it would be witty, melodic acid rock. I guess the closest thing would be The Zombies ‘Odessey & Oracle’ or Traffic’s ‘Mr Fantasy’. But Chrysalis has their own unique and unforgettable sound and vision. And they sold many dozens of records.

The very obscurity of the band elevated them to some sort of a symbol for me, though of what I’m not really sure. The curve which approaches the line but never intersects with it. The unattained and the unattainable. The Grail. That which is always slip-sliding away. ‘I opened (the door) for my beloved, but my beloved had slipped away; his speaking had taken my breath away–I sought him, but could not find him, I called him but he didn’t answer.’ (Song of Songs, 5:6, my translation).

I somehow convinced David H. and his girlfriend (the goofy rich one from NY) to travel across state to some small college town to see them. He said they were really excellent, and that the Arab drummer, Daoud Shaar really was my carbon copy. I showed the album cover to my father, who really thought it was me.

I wrote music reviews for the university paper back then. I wrote an extensive, imaginary interview with Daoud, and published it. What was I thinking?

Then my life took me very far away from that scene, from all the great music, famous and obscure alike. At one point, I met a young man, OD, who at the time was I believe in the 9th grade. He was a tall, emaciated, brilliant musician )composer, pianist), obnoxious, non-communicative, anti-social. His talent was widely praised, his personality widely scorned. He was doing some sort of project on the Beatles and was sent to me as a reputed expert. And by the by, we discussed a little music. Over the next 10 years, I taught him everything I knew. Not almost, but everything. We went through the entire repertoire, Buddy Holly to Van Dyke Parks. From the Association to the Zombies, from Eli & the 13th to Astral Weeks, from the Sounds of Silence to — well, Chrysalis. And you know what? Chrysalis sparkled. It still sounded that good, in comparison to all the great music of that era, both to my ears and to his.

We hung out some together, OD and I. Our conversations were something along the line of: “I listened to JWHarding and early Stones yesterday.” “Wow, weird day.” He internalized the entire repertoire. He would sit down and play the slow songs from Pet Sounds on the piano with the real harmonies. Off the cuff. And he started playing with a friend, ET, a guitarist. By this time OD was playing as much guitar as piano. And ET also osmosed all the music I grew up on, all the icons and legends as well. On occasion, he would come over and fondle the record sleeves of The Band or the JT Apple album or Randy Newman’s first. And they would play this music, the two of them, sometimes with friends. Including pretty much the entire Chrysalis album. They were very, very good.

After three years in the army, they went to NYC to try to make their fortune. Then they went to some town in Saskatchewan where grizzlies roamed the streets at night, to play in a bar. Then they split. OD came home, ET continued travelling around America on his own, guitar slung over his shoulder.

We’ll turn the microphone over to ET now to continue the narrative, via a letter he wrote to me in 1996 (my translation from Hebrew):

Dear Mesh,

…A few days ago I went to Woodstock. A few days earlier I got the idea of going to see Big Pink, after I read the book Across the Great Divide. The address was written there, so the lightbulb went on over my head. So I went there, and even though it’s gotten pretty establishment and yuppyized, the area is as beautiful as always, especially in the fall.

So, early in the morning I started to walk out to 2188 Stoll Rd. Map, walkman and harmonica in hand, I walked along a dirt road till I finally got there, deep in the Catskills forest (even saw a deer on the way). Excitedly, I knocked on the door of that legendary basement. But no one was home. So I played my harp for a while and took a long walk, and when I came back a bearded guy, about 50, answered. I told him my story, and that I was from Israel. He was very nice, to my great pleasure, but he had to go out. So I caught a ride with him to town (Saugerties) and he told me to come back the next day and ‘I’ll give you the regular tour’. I asked him how many people made the pilgrimage to this Mecca, if there were a lot of fans pestering him. He said, not too bad, one every 2-3 months… I went back anxiously the next morning, and I felt bad disturbing him in the middle of work (he’s a record collector), but he didn’t seem to mind. His company worked out of the basement, and he showed me where the recording equipment had been when The Band made the Basement Tapes with Dylan. Then we went upstairs, where he lived, and showed me the kitchen, the living room, the bedrooms. On a visit to the house, Rick Danko had told him [details about who slept where, girls, parties].

When the visit was over, and he was showing me out, I suddenly remembered the key question which was usually the first thing I asked any record collector–if he’s heard of Chrysalis. I had done so several times before in Canada and the US, and they had all heard the name only because the album had some market value, but none of them had taken the trouble to pay attention to its content. But Leslie said he had not only heard it, but loved it, and was even opening a small record company which was making a record of dog songs with– Spider Barbour. He told me that Spider lived not too far away. Needless to say, I took the address and flew there, walking, a couple of rides, till I saw the house he had described.

There were a lot of old boxes and cartons outside. The porch was old and neglected. The whole house looked like it was going to fall apart. I stopped by the door for a few moments and just stood there, still.

LtR: ET, Spider

When I knocked on the door my hands started shaking. You have to understand that ever since I got to know the record through OD, who had known it for a long time through you, 8 years now, I had developed an overwhelming curiosity, maybe even an obsession about this mysterious band. Ever since, I’ve always dreamt about getting another piece of information about them, just a little something more, somehow to put together the pieces of the puzzle and to get the whole picture. The very little I knew was from you.

A while back, before Zappa died, OD and I thought about contacting him through the internet and asking him if he knew anything. But we never did, and when he died it was too late.  After that, when we got to NY, one of the first things I did was to go to MGM, Chrysalis’ company, and ask them. They said that they deal only with films, and their archives were in LA. I so I reconciled myself to never knowing more about the Chrysalis mystery. Till yesterday.

So I knock on the door of this weird, haunted house. After a few moments the door opens. I hadn’t looked at the album cover for a long time, but I immediately recognized Spider. I was in total shock. I couldn’t start talking. Then when my voice returned, I told him everything and he invited me in. There was a very strong odor, suffocating would be putting it mildly. I realized that this house hadn’t seen any visitors, or light, for a very long time. Spooky, not to say creepy. And Spider himself was wearing a filthy training outfit that looked like it had been stolen off a homeless person. He looked like another aging hippie done in by drugs. I got very sad, and full of pity, seeing this. But then it became clear, that it’s not drugs or anything else, this guy is just like that naturally. Like he was at 24, when the album was released. He’s simply one of the weirdest, most disconnected people I’ve ever met. If you talk to him about anything other than insects or music, he just doesn’t tune in. So the first few minutes were very strange and hesitant, until his wife Anita came out of the shower and showed herself to be a charming, sociable, pleasant and generous hostess. This entire situation was no less strange and surprising for them than me—how many people come from Israel to the home of the Spider and introduced themselves as avid Chrysalis fans [30 years after the release of a flop album]? Even people from the area or even NY who said they were fans over the years were very few.  His wife was so happy I’d come, and began asking me all kinds of questions, showing a lot of curiosity and interest. We sat there, in this mess and darkness, their two big black dogs lying there, and I began to ask all the questions I had ever had, and got more answers than I ever dreamed:

Spider (the J. is for James) was born in Ohio and got his nickname at a very early age. He was always crazy about insects and nature. He met the band members at college in Ithaca, NY. They were quickly signed by MGM and moved to Brooklyn. They appeared in the Northeast (farthest they ever got was Detroit),  but mostly Woodstock and NYC. Spider also mentioned a few bands they warmed up for—the Who, Procol Harum, MC5 and others. It was then they met Zappa and the Mothers and became friends (Spider guests on Lumpy Gravy, and is mentioned on We’re Only In It). He lived for a while in Jimmy Carl Black’s house. Very quickly there were problems with the managers and the band broke up. In 1969 he married Anita, and they’ve been together, in Woodstock, ever since.

What happened to the others? Nancy Nairn is a Marine Biologist, living in Florida. Still beautiful, according to Anita. Ralph Kokov, the keyboardist, is a doctor of Art Therapy and still plays for fun. Dahud Shaar, the drummer, is the only one who ‘made it’ in Show Biz. As you know, he played with Van Morrison and then was the regular drummer on Saturday Night Live. He still makes his living from session drumming. He changed his name to David Shaw, because a lot of Americans had a hard time with the Lebanese name. The tragedies of the band – bassist Paul Album and guitarist Jon Sabin died. I was very sad to hear this. Paul was very young, about 27, when one night coming back from his new group, a drunk truck driver hit him. Jon died from cancer recently. He had been a teacher in Brooklyn. The other four are still in contact here and there. They’ll probably be really shocked when Spider and Anita tell them about their young fan from the Holy Land…

And what about Spider himself? The usual sad story of a very talented artist lacking the tools to succeed in doing what he wants in music. For years he and Anita have lived in poverty, living off pickup jobs. He still forms the occasional local band. But this story has a better continuation. Spider was always an expert on insects and nature, and Anita was an excellent photographer. They now have a column in the local paper and even published a book together. I saw it, and was amazed by her photographs. Spider lectures about insects at all sorts of institutions, including West Point. So even though the house looks like a dump, they’re doing better…

When Chrysalis finished recording their album, they had an argument with the manager, who was a real hothead. He took a pair of scissors and cut the master tape. That’s why Summer in Your Savage Eyes ends so abruptly.

Spider picked up his acoustic guitar and played What Will Become of the Morning the way he originally intended it. It was very different, of course, from the version we know, much slower. The Mediterranean rhythms were the idea of Shaar and Kotkov. Dr. Root is a real person, one of Spider’s high school teachers in Canton, Ohio.

But the best was when I asked Spider if I could play him something on his acoustic. I surprised him with the opening riff of April Grove. He joined in, and while he was lighting the oven we sang it together. Anita sat there, almost in tears from emotion. I had the feeling I was bringing them a little light after a long time…

Then I heard some newer songs Spider wrote. They’re as good as those of Chrysalis. He’s a great songwriter. Same beautiful, magic harmonies, same unique, weird lyrics. It was easy to see the disappointment and bitterness in Anita’s eyes when she told me about all the demos he had made and the attempts to sell them to the companies. They often seemed more like mother and child than husband and wife. They played some of the songs to Garth Hudson, but he didn’t like them. Anita seemed more hurt than Spider. He just sinks into his magical, child’s world of insects and music.

He recorded an EP with a band called Imago (a type of insect). Four songs, 1980. They gave me a copy as a present.  They invited me for lunch, and Anita gave me a painting of hers of two apples.

We talked a lot about music, and it turns out that you (Mesh), he and I have very much the same tastes. He was amazed that a kid like me had that kind of knowledge. He and his wife are friends of Sebastian and his wife. The whole time I was there I kept mentioning you, and your connection to this whole thing. If you want, you can write to him (mention the connection with me):

Barbour J. Spider and Anita
3000 Fishcreek Rd
Saugerties NY 12477

*          *          *

I, of course, never wrote Spider. I would have no idea what to say to him. But I sure do like ET’s tale. And I suppose I can handle the safer, saner ground of a little stroll down my very personal, private Musical Memory Lane.

Like almost all 1967 LPs, ‘Definition’ contained 12 songs, a bizarre and charming hodgepodge of insects, love, and the weird old man next door:

Show me one song that expresses the aesthetic of the late 1960s better than this one:

04. April Grove

Their signature pieces, first songs on Side A and Side B, baroque piano line, jagged joyous rhythms.

01. What Will Become of the Morning

07. Baby, Let Me Show You Where I Live

Dad and his day, the weird neighbor, the myths of living in the past.

05. Father’s Getting Old

06. 30 Poplar

08. Fitzpatrick Swanson

10. Piece of Sun

12. Dr Root’s Garden

Love and life.

02. Lacewing

03. Cynthia Gerome – What a beautiful, aching melody. Cynthia Gerome, it works just for a while, dragging people home by the leash of your sweet smile. Ay.

09. Lake Hope

Lake Hope was calling me, October witnesses were there

So I took her with me, I knew just what would occur there.

That’s why I had to take her there.

So I called on our Michael, it was so far, and he was willing to drive us.

Gathered up her paintbrushes ran to the car. But for the squirrels it was quiet.

Lake Hope reality, seems so ethereal floating.

And the finality of her embrace left me groping–satisfied yes, but still groping…

For the secret of metaphysical joy there in her body’s caresses.

Love is but to play with a girl like a toy, yes but nobody confesses.

Lake Hope was calling me, I knew just what would occur there.

So I took her with me, only could do it with her there.

That’s why I couldn’t take you there.

11. Summer in Your Savage Eyes

Our Song of The Week, and what a pleasure it is to share it with you. Anything I could say would just detract from its unique charm and beauty. If you’ve stuck with me all the way to here, please do me one small favor when you listen to it, tip your hat to Spider, wherever he may be.

Windy afternoon stirs dust around us with a rusty spoon

Chasing after leaves and playing catch with raindrops.

Glancing about me your eyes begin to speak of what should be.

Telling me I’m here and suddenly the pain stops.

Seems like every time I ran away from home my new life makes me feel like being born

And then the way you follow me around tells me that I’ve found the rainbow.

Love embraced diverse, uncultivated children of the earth

And sunlight seems to dance across the skies, like summer in your savage eyes.

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053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

Posted by jeff on May 5, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beatles, ‘In My Life’ (Official video)

I have a lot of trouble listening to The Beatles. I can’t begin to guess how many times I’ve heard each recording. Five hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? But I do know that my ears are inured to the music, rendered deaf by familiarity. There was a period when I’d try to listen obliquely—with headphones, volume cranked way up to hear every crinkle in the voice, one channel of the stereo version. But for decades now, I listen to The Beatles infrequently.

Even the new remastered boxed set. I have listened to some, and yes, it really is remarkable, the cleanliness and clarity. But the intimate familiarity with the music is so much stronger than the new light being shed that again, it’s not new enough for me to really hear it. Every note is hardwired into my brain. On occasion I’ll play a song in my brain, sort of like a portable jukebox. “Hey, how about ‘Not a Second Time’?” Press B13 in the temporal lobe, there it is. A 2:12 aural clip inside my head, just like on the record.

So all we can do most days is to take a step back. ‘In My Life’ is one of my favorite songs on one of my favorite albums (“Rubber Soul”, the American version). I’m not unique in this. Rolling Stone ranked it 23rd in its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. In a 2000 Mojo magazine poll it was voted the best song of all time by a panel of songwriters which included Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Lamont Dozier, and Carole King.

The song was recorded on October 18, 1965. Lennon sings it, double-tracked. They left the middle part empty, and John asked George Martin to play a piano solo, suggesting “something Baroque-sounding”. Martin wrote a quasi-Bach line that he found he could not play at the song’s tempo. On 22 October, the solo was recorded at half-tempo (one octave lower) and tape speed was doubled for the final recording, solving the performance challenge and giving the piano solo a unique, harpsichord-like timbre.

According to John’s old pal and biographer Pete Shotton, the lines “Some are dead and some are living/In my life I’ve loved them all” referred to Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe (who died in 1962) and to Shotton himself. [In the picture here, you can see an unknown girl, Cynthia, Nigel Wally, Aunt Mimi, John and Pete Shotton (right)]. But for us, it has become the anthem of nostalgia, the emblem of wistful reminiscence. Ironically, though, John rejects a maudlin clinging to the past. What in fact matters is his new love, the lover addressed in the song, she who is real, alive and present. That may not be profound, but it sure is heartfelt and moving.

According to McCartney, it’s one of only two songs whose authorship he and John disagreed about. John says he wrote it all (except for the piano solo), McCartney says he wrote most of the music. The other disputed song is ‘Eleanor Rigby’, which John said he had a hand in writing.

But of course it’s John’s song, through and through. I’m not a big fan of any of Lennon’s solo music, and I don’t understand why people would play ‘Imagine’ or ‘Workingclass Hero’ on his yahrzeit. John’s music died when The Beatles broke up. (If you think that’s cruel or harsh, it was John who said, “Elvis died in the army”). ‘In My Life’ is quintessential John. It’s what he’s all about– melodic and passionate and naked.

Lest I wax soppy, let me add that I’ve always thought that The Beatles misinterpreted this song. One of two cases (the other being ‘Help’) where an introspective song was revved up (and cheapened) to be better suited for AM radio. ‘In My Life’ is way too fast, too noisy, too choppy (Ringo at his worst with his boomachukka drums and intrusive cymbals).

Strange as it seems, I’ve always felt that this song was really nailed by a singer I don’t have too much admiration or respect for, Judy Collins. In 1966 she made an album called “In My Life”, which was quite groundbreaking at the time for the megahit version of gravelly newcomer Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’, and for its terrific covers of Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Loving Loser’, Dylan’s ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Donovan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, and especially the then-unknown Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’. Hard to realize today, but giving ‘pretty’ renditions to Dylan, to Cohen and to The Beatles wasn’t at all common. Her versions are very respectable, and hers was one of my first encounters with Randy Newman (way before his first album). But she was really on the mark with ‘In My Life’ (attached here). She captures perfectly the gentleness of Lennon’s composition, which the Beatles quite miss. Here’s her very lovely version.

But despite that, our SoTW is of course The Beatles. They’re the masters, the ones who created the soundtrack of our youth. And even when they’re a little off the mark, they are the monoliths.

None of ‘us’ can listen to the song, look at a picture of John Lennon, and not shed a tear inside. In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall”, a ‘young child’ named Margaret is weeping at the sight of falling leaves, too young to understand the source of “sorrow’s springs”. Hopkins tells us, “It is Margaret you mourn for.” So when we weep at this song, we’re weeping for our losses, our irretrievable past. But if we really take the song seriously, we should focus on the ones we’re with, the ones we love.

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain.
All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends

I still can recall.
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I’ve loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers
there is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new.
Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life I love you more.

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215: Joni Mitchell, ‘Blue’

Posted by jeff on Apr 3, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue’


Joni Mitchell, 1969 Photo: Rod Pennington

Joni’s hospitalized, and what better way to cheer her up than to talk about one of her finest songs?

I assume that all my regular readers picked up on the fact that I’ve been walking through the Joni discography album by album, chronologically (as is my wont): SoTW 106, ‘Cactus Tree’ (from her first album); 141, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ (“Clouds”); 163, ‘For Free’ and 177, ‘Woodstock’ (“Ladies of the Canyon”). Y’all know what the fourth album is. Hence the hesitation.

The album “Blue” (1971) is daunting. The New York Times chose it as one of the 25 turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music. In 1999 it was granted a Grammy Hall of Fame award. It’s everyone’s “Greatest Relationship Album”. What do I have to add? But it’s next on the list, and just as Dr. Johnson didn’t miss touching a single fencepost, so will Jeff not flinch from a challenge.

The song ‘Blue’ reminds me of Suzie C., the stunning blonde from my high school class, who was actually a very sweet girl but was left dateless for the senior prom because everyone was afraid to ask her out. The unapproachable. No one wants to deal with it head-on. It’s so much easier to chart and plot the (albeit transparent) biographical details, to talk about her breakup with James Taylor and his habit, than to deal with the song as a work of art mano a mano.

54cc08c4fde9250a6c41710c_imageMade the mistake with Suzie, ain’t gonna do it again. Besides, I’m not really worried that Joni will say ‘no’. So let us roll up our sleeves, gird our loins, and join a combat of love with the title song of one of the cultural icons of my generation.

I’ve read a couple of biographies of Joni recently. (I tend to read mostly musical biographies these days.) One had a beautiful cover and a vacuum within that made me cry for the tree that sacrificed its life in the book’s manufacture. The other had a pretty hideous cover but lots of very convincing facts about who walked in on whom sleeping with whom and as a result wrote a song that topped the Hit Parade.

I can’t retain all those details, and I readily admit that there are armies of kids brighter and fresher and boreder than me who know the details of Joni’s life better than I remember my own. So I’m going to hark back to a trick I learned in college.

James Taylor & Joni Mitchell, 1971 Photo: Joel Bernstein

James Taylor & Joni Mitchell, 1971
Photo: Joel Bernstein

I had to pick a major. None of the subjects I was interested in (sleep, Beatles, girls, marijuana, Hitchcock, girls, beer, Dylan, in approximately that order) was offered. So I chose English Lit. I figured it would be easier to read than to actually study. I quickly learned that Ulysses (either one) and Tristram Shandy were more like driving a forklift than watching Dobie Gillis. So I specialized in poetry. Do you know how much less time it takes to read a sonnet than an epic? Freeing up the rest of the night for [enter item from list above].

But some of that poetry was really hard. Beowulf and Paradise Lost and all that? Forget it. So I sub-sub-specialized in Modern American and British poetry. That’s where I met Yeats and Auden and Frost and Eliot and Pound. They were okay, if class didn’t start before 11:00 and the professor talked really slowly. It was there that by some remarkable osmosis, I learned this magnificent trick that has held me in good stead these many years: Close Reading. It’s an approach developed by the New Critics from around the 1930s which has greatly impacted all forms of literary investigation till today: Forget the history surrounding the poem, forget the biography of the poet, forget his other works; just concentrate on the work before you and see if it stands on its own terms.

Crown and Anchor

Crown and Anchor

Or in my interpretation: No homework! Let’s go get a beer!

Well, I’ve mellowed and matured immeasurably since then, but Close Reading still vibrates for me as the legitimate approach to reading a poem. Or examining the lyrics of an iconic Joni Mitchell song.

Joni has said that this song is about her relationship with James Taylor and his relationship with heroin. James has said it. Everyone has said it. If I were a strict adherent of The New Criticism, I’d talk about The Narrator and The Addressee. But I’m not a strict anything, so for the sake of sanity and lucidity, let’s just call them Joni and James.

Crown & Anchor Tattoo

Crown & Anchor Tattoo

What do we have here?

  • The narrator, Joni
  • The addressee, James, but a case could be made to see Blue as blueness, the world of downhood
  • The dialog between them
  • A shifting collection of sea-related metaphors
  • A context for the dialog (stanza 3)
  • The narrator’s stated attitude towards and intentions regarding the context (stanza 4).
  • A real song (‘Blue’ itself).

Let’s start with stanzas 3, 4 and 5, because they seem to me more straightforward. Stanza 3 is saying many of our/your social group are indulging in profligate behavior (stick in a couple of words like that and you already got yerself a passing grade) which is clearly threatening and likened to waves.

Joni explicitly disapproves of this licentiousness (we’re up to a C with that one), not just the ‘I don’t think so’, but also the ironic, diminishing repetition of ‘lots of laughs’.  It’s not funny, she’s saying. Yet despite the inherent dangers, she remains—because she loves him. Will she partake? Or just indulge in voyeurism? ‘I’m gonna take a look around it’ is rather tossed off. The issue of the degree of her involvement or commitment in ‘the scene’ is marginal. The significant point is the art, the foggy lullaby she writes for him.

Ink on a pin underneath the skin

Joni, after all, is a consummate (C+) artist. Let’s go have a painful experience, maybe we can get a good song out of it. I think that approach is explicitly expressed here. ‘There is your song from me.’ That’s the ultimate point.

What is foggy? The songwriter? The song? The addressee? Well, we know what the song is—it’s this one, ‘Blue’. It’s a shell—organic, found, rather than a work of active creation. A sigh. If I had to try to tie that all together, I’d say her ties to ‘him’ are as natural, inevitable, as the movement of the waves and the sound emanating from the shell. A resigned embrace. She’s unhappy with her love for him, but it’s undeniable. He is her drug. So she cradles him, sings to him, in acceptance of his ultimate absence, his loyalty to that other thing he’s addicted to. We’re left with an image of the Madonna cradling the bleeding Jesus.

Okay, now let’s tackle the first two stanzas, which for me are the outstanding ones of the song, some of the most stunning lyrics she’s written.

1253_user1_100222-112250Songs are like tattoos.

What tattoos? A crown and anchor tattoo, the traditional mark of seafarers, based on elements from the C&A dice game played in the British Navy.

But Joni is one humdinger of a wordsmith. Crown and anchor me—tattoo me, but also elevate me and secure me. Like lovers do.

What songs are like crown and anchor tattoos? Well, this one. Because it’s the mark of a seafarer, one who has ‘been to sea before’, one who has traversed the deep and stormy waters of drugs, drink, sex and violence. And it’s her lullaby to him, that which tells of her love, elevates and secures him.

Or let me sail away–either give me ‘love’, with its passion and its security, or let me move on to someone who will do so. But in the end, we see the threat, the complaint isn’t pursued. She capitulates to him quickly. She only gets him in a fog, with his ultimate allegiance to the needle. Still, she cradles him.

And here’s my favorite verse, the one that really bowls me over. Here is a song for you–

MADONNA_AND_JESUS-1289824712Ink on a pin. My ‘tattooing’ of you is by writing this song with a pin/pen. This is how I mark you, I brand you, I lay a permanent claim over you. But my songs—this song—is no mere ditty. It abides underneath the skin. A Cole Porter cliché? Oh, no, that’s just the starting point. Just as the tattooists pin insinuates ink underneath the skin, so my song will mark you permanently in that most intimate of places. You’re of a particular breed, James, you have an empty space beneath your skin, a hollowness, a void, a place of need. As a sailor needs adventure, as a junkie needs his fix, as a person in a relationship needs to lay claim to his partner (at least for the moment) and to be laid claim to—that’s the place my tattoo/song will occupy in you.

The metaphor is impressive by any standards, in its technical mastery, in its controlled passion, in the ideas it’s presenting.

Joni is a consummate artist. She works at her songs, she crafts them. A metaphor such as this doesn’t plop down out of the sky in a fit of ecstasy. A lot of pieces of crumpled paper were left in its wake. It’s fine, it’s refined, it’s artistry. It’s also passionate and painful. You know what? It really is a great song.

Feel well, Joni.



Blue, songs are like tattoos.
You know I’ve been to sea before.
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.

Hey Blue, here is a song for you–
Ink on a pin
Underneath the skin,
An empty space to fill in.

Well there’re so many sinking now
You’ve got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves.
Acid, booze, and ass,
Needles, guns, and grass,
Lots of laughs. Lots of laughs.

Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go.
Well I don’t think so,
But I’m gonna take a look around it, though.
Blue, I love you.

Blue, here is a shell for you.
Inside you’ll hear a sigh,
A foggy lullaby.
There is your song from me.

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214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’

Posted by jeff on Mar 13, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beatles — ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ (video from the movie “Help!”
If that link doesn’t work, try this one.  Or this one.
Apologies for the visual jamming. Some corporations don’t want you to enjoy this music.

13-03-2015 11-58-54In about two weeks I will have been on this planet for two-thirds of a century. One might think I’d have figured out something of significance during that time. One would be wrong. With each passing year, each passing decade, I get cluelesser and cluelesser.

The only thing I have picked up on is I am what I am. Now, there’s a piece of profound drivel for you. I mean that I have succeeded in detecting some patterns in my behaviors and predilections, and as an orthodox believer in reality, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d better get used to what I am, because it ain’t gonna change.

13-03-2015 12-02-03My clothes range from solid boring blur to solid boring brown. My best friends say I’m droll and humorless. I shout only when I accidentally cause myself physical pain.

And in music as well, I like the stripped down. In classical music, always chamber, never symphonic. I like to hear exactly what I’m hearing. In rock, acoustic. I hate double-tracked vocals and rattling, obfuscating cymbals. Look me in the eye and give me what you got.

Here, let me show you what I mean. These are my two favorite musical videos–Rick Danko of The Band singing the divine ‘Unfaithful Servant’ and Luciana Souza singing Naftali Neruda’s ‘Sonnet 49’. Unadorned, restrained, straightforward. Glitzless. Pristine and perfect. And here’s another one – The Beatles singing ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ from “Help!”.

13-03-2015 12-02-55I recently rewatched The Beatles’ movie “Help!” I probably saw it twice when it was released in the summer of 1965. It was of course a tremendous letdown after “Hard Day’s Night”–unfocused, humorless, self-indulgent, flat. Still, I waited a couple of months after it was released to go see it. I wasn’t going to put myself in a movie theater with all those screaming girls. But I hadn’t seen it since.

I’ve been practicing my snobbism for a long time. I didn’t even apply for tickets when The Beatles came to town (you sent in a check for $24 for two tickets and crossed your fingers). My friend Andy called me that morning of August 21, 1966 to tell me his little sister was sick, would I like her ticket? Well, if it’s already being shoved in my face… (By the way, it was hot, sticky and full of screaming adolescent girls, annoying more than epiphanous. I probably went home and listened to “Yesterday and Today” on my headphones.)

13-03-2015 12-04-54In the summer of 1965, The Beatles were on the cusp of creating a new sound in popular music. Bob Dylan had introduced them to cannabis. Their dentist had introduced them to LSD. They held the world by the huevos, and began to flex their creative muscles. They were still recording old-school covers (‘Kansas City’, October 1964; ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy’, May 1965), new-school rockers (‘Eight Days a Week’, October 1964; ‘I’m Down’, June 1965), but also nascent, acoustic-based Rock (as opposed to Rock and Roll) – ‘I’ll Follow the Sun’ (October 1964), ‘I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party’ (September 1964), ‘Yes, It Is’ (April 1965).

The “Help!” sessions included both upbeat electric cuts (Paul’s ‘The Night Before’, ‘Another Girl’; John’s ‘Ticket to Ride’). John’s ‘Help!’ was unfortunately upbeated and electrified – he later expressed regret at that – a rare Beatles misinterpretation of their own material (the other notable example being ‘In My Life’). But one must remember that popular music of the day rarely strayed from boy-meets-girl, and ‘Help!’ was perceived at the time as Revolution #1, a harbinger of The World, It Is A-Changin’, a (whisper the word furtively) protest!You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ was widely recognized as the first unabashedly Dylanesque Lennon song.

13-03-2015 12-00-20What else was on the album? Several more experiments in directions that later became genres. ‘I Need You’ was an early prototype for George’s Eastern journeys. ‘Act Naturally’, too easily dismissed as a trifle, was in fact a groundbreaking homage to Nashville; a step later came ‘What Goes On’, “Nashville Skyline” just a couple of steps beyond that. The monolithic ‘Yesterday’. Whatever The Beatles of early 1965 touched turned not just to gold. Each cut became a template for music as it is still being made half a century later.

But me, of course, I gotta get weird about it all. Rather than all those myths-as-they’re-being-recorded, I will by default choose to listen to ‘It’s Only Love’ and ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’, the two cuts that were saved in American for “Rubber Soul”, which for my two cents is a more natural environment, the place they really belong.13-03-2015 12-03-41For me, the song that most represents “Help!”, the natural apex of the first incarnation of the Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’. I think it almost slips unnoticed among all those flashier jewels. It’s the culmination of everything that went before it – from ‘Please, Please Me’ to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ to ‘I Feel Fine’.

There’s nothing unique about ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ (except that Ringo plays bongos and the intro is an ear-gnashing eighth tone lower than the body of the song). It’s merely the perfect early Beatles song. Stretching a point, it’s the perfect place for rock and roll to end and Rock to begin.

So when I recently rewatched this clip of ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’ from “Help!”, I realized I hadn’t really learned anything over those 50 years. I understand now exactly what I understood as a silly, snobbish 17-year old, exactly the same thing that a bejillion screaming 12-year old girls understood – that The Beatles were the coolest humans ever born, making the finest music of our times.

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