7

018 Sir Paul McCartney, ‘Distractions’

Posted by jeff on Jun 12, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beatles, 40 years in the grave, made a major media brouhaha on 09.09.09 (wow, how cosmic!–just like ‘Revolution #9, how, how—how—meaningless?), releasing lots of old tapes remastered, remixed, repackaged, and (most importantly) remarketed. I saw there’s also a really exciting (and expensive) new Beatles video game (which Paul admitted he hasn’t seen, so I’m not quite clear in what sense it’s a Beatles product).

From the little I read, I saw that George Martin’s son was responsible for some remixing, as he was for the ‘Love’ travesty (which I’m proud to say I haven’t heard more than 10 seconds in passing on the radio). Young Giles Martin said about ‘Love’, “What people will be hearing on the album is a new experience, a way of re-living the whole Beatles musical lifespan in a very condensed period.”Really, what is this world coming to? What ever happened to ‘an artist creates his thing, puts it out for the public, and THAT’S IT‘. He dies. The work stays. Either stays interesting or not. But as for the creative act, it’s over, folks. LET IT BE. The Beatles are dead. They made some 12 and a half albums. Go listen to them and shuddup.

You want to be part of a living audience responding to great popular music? Create your own idols. Leave ours alone!
You don’t have any that good? Tough. Enjoy what you have.
You want to listen to ours? Please, feel free. It’s a wonderful thing to go back in time and become acquainted with the masters. But don’t fiddle with them. Don’t try to recreate them. Respect what they did and leave their legacy as they left it.

And for God’s sake, don’t try to resurrect the pitiful, withered old farts that are still touring. Is there someone who really prefers this guy to this one?

I don’t enjoy bashing Paul McCartney. Or John Lennon, for that matter. But with Paul it’s more of an issue. Because every time he releases a new CD and the kids and DJs and writers start with their “great, stunning, landmark, comeback though he’s never been away” litany, I get that fingernails-on-the-blackboard feeling. But I control myself, usually. I don’t go running down the block shouting “The new CD is crap, Paul is Dead, all you teenie-jerks don’t know what you’re talking about, the end of the world is coming.” It’s not until the eager-faced wannabes shove the CD at me and say, “Oh, you have to hear this, it’s as good as the Beatles” that I start to lose it.

That’s why I got such a snotty, perverse pleasure when asked last summer if I was going to spend a small king’s ransom (a full ransom for a small king, that is) to actually really be in the live presence of the 66-year old Sir Paul and his betty-boop boys singing “Band on the Run” just like it sounds on the CD, I tersely responded, “No, I’ve already seen him. With his original band.” And their jaws would drop open, and they would ask in awe, “You mean you saw Wings??” And I would let my eyelids droop just a little, to show the anguish their ignorance was causing me, “No, with The Beatles. And the show was crap then, 20,000 teenie-boppers screaming and drowning out a primitive sound system half a mile away, somewhere between the pitcher’s mound and second base. And I sure ain’t going back now to see a pitiful self-mockery of it.”

I had my Beatles. It was a private issue. I wouldn’t go see the movie “Hard Day’s Night” for months, till the theater emptied of the little girls, and I could commune with The Guys in private, in the dark. “No, actually we’re just good friends.” I loved my Paul, not theirs.

Which is why I don’t enjoy bashing him. And it’s also why I avoid listening to Paul’s CDs (and John’s). Because the best of it is so painfully 3rd rate in comparison to the worst of the Beatles. Almost without exception, excluding the aberrations such as ‘Birthday’ and ‘I Dig a Pony’. The only John song I know worth remembering is ‘Instant Karma’; and, of Paul’s ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ and ‘Junk’. All three are, of course, essentially Beatles songs recorded after the split.

With one exception. Out of Paul’s 30something post-Beatle CDs, there’s one song and only one I know that deserves to be visited and revisited. So that’s just what SoTW is doing.

“Distractions”, from the utterly forgettable 1989 LP cassette CD “Flowers in the Dirt”. It was a tragic failure, that album. A number of the songs are collaborations between McCartney and Elvis Costello. I remember thinking back then that if anyone could retrieve Paul from his mawkish oh-so-cuteness, it was the cynical, strident, brilliant Elvis C. Remind you of another ex-partner of Sir Paul? But the album was a lot more dirt than flowers. Just the one rose, “Distractions”, and that’s all Paul.

Paul’s musicality is legendary, at times divine. “All My Loving”, “And I Love Her”, “Another Girl”. And that’s just the A’s up through 1965. But honesty, depth, soul-searching, have never been his fortes, to put it mildly. At his worst, the Prince of Plastic, the Sheikh of Shallow. At his best, a modern-day Mozart. Even the brilliant “Penny Lane”, a nostalgic trip back to childhood, leaves your heartstrings unplucked (compare it to the flip side of the single, “Strawberry Fields”). It’s just not what Paul does. Which is what makes “Distractions” so unique. It’s mature, it’s straightforward and honest, heartfelt. More than ‘All My Loving’ ever was. And, in addition, it’s beautiful. It’s what all of us adults feel so often in real life:

Distractions, like butterflies, are buzzing ’round my head.
When I’m alone, I think of you,
And the things we’d do if we could only be through
With these distractions.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’
128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

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6

008: ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Fairport Convention (Bob Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Jun 6, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Fairport Convention – ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’
Bob Dylan – ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’

Young Bob Dylan didn’t often write gentle songs. Those addressed to a girl were usually angry, critical, upbraiding, if not down-right mean. Hate songs more than love songs. The one that pops to mind is, of course, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, but you don’t have to think hard to come up with a whole string of them through his golden period of the mid-60s: ‘Don’t Think Twice’, the stunning ‘One Too Many Mornings’, ‘I Don’t Believe You’ (She acts like we never have met), ‘She Belongs to Me’ (She’s got everything she needs), to pick one from each of the masterpiece albums that preceded “Highway 61”.

But there are, hidden here and there, chinks in the armor, fleeting glimpses of vulnerability. They’re the soft underbelly of the list above – she did, after all, get to him. And there are a few songs in which the chip slips off his shoulder, his guard down, his sunglasses in his pocket, his heart open. The well-known ‘Girl from the North Country’; the gentle, vulnerable ‘One Too Many Mornings‘; the wrenching, under-appreciated ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘; and this week’s SoTW, ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’.

‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’ is notable for at least three reasons:

It’s a fine song, and a relatively obscure one. (That’s two reasons right there.) He never recorded it himself for an official album, just a piano bootleg that appeared years later on the (official) Dylan Bootlegs series. (Quick, name two other major non-love relationship songs from the same period that he didn’t record officially! That’s right – ‘Love is Just a Four-Letter Word‘ and ‘Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind‘, both taking a hilarious and cynical look at male/female relationships.)

‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’ is enigmatic and flawed. What the heck does the title mean? Why is he ‘loving you not for what you are but for what you’re not’? What isn’t she? What’s the subject of the song, anyway? Where the heck did the train engineer come from in the third verse?? But Dylan is Dylan, and somehow it all hangs together on a level I can’t and don’t care to try to ‘explain’. Fact is, 45 years later I’m still rolling it around my brain and over my palate. As Dylan himself said recently on his Theme Time Radio Hour show with so much disarming charm, “You can never tell why someone’s gonna stick something in a song. You just gotta remember that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. You can’t expect to understand everything in every song.”

Oh, right, there’s a third reason to take a listen to this song. It’s the only Dylan song I can think of from the 1960s that he misrecorded. Just flat out missed the point of the song. He bangs away at the piano and shouts the lyrics at way too fast a tempo. (Of course, ten years later he began several decades of rapid-fire shouting of what should have been whispered slowly). One of the several early cover versions our SoTW, though, came close to hitting it on the head, that of Fairport Convention.

They’re a leading voice of the English folk movement transmogrifying towards rock in the mid-60s, along with Pentangle and John Martyn. Their lead singer is Sandy Denny, a British Judy Collins, and I sure like Richard Thompson’s acoustic guitar leading a rock setting. Their treatment here really isn’t anything spectacular, just a tastefully wistful, properly laid-back rendition of a lovely and puzzling song.

I guess when all the sound and fury and high-falutin’ talk is over, what we’re left with is one darn pretty song.And if anyone out there understands it, please let me know.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
126: Bob Dylan, ‘Tears of Rage’ (The Basement Tapes)
164: Bob Dylan, ‘Tangled Up in Blue’

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4

171: Jackson Browne (with David Crosby), ‘Something Fine’

Posted by jeff on Apr 26, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Nicky & Sheina — My Grandkids

It’s 42 days after Valentine’s Day, the perfect time to talk about couplehood. Pas de deux. Aural symbiosis. Harmony.

I could talk about what’s wrong with being alone – like Nilsson’s One.
Or I could talk about the pleasure of being together – ‘Two of Us’ of course pops into mind.
Or I might try to distill ‘twoness’. Then I’d fo’ sure share Jack Bach showing off what he can do with two lines (Invention for Piano 13 in Am, , BWV 784). And if you’d like a demonstration of how that works in human terms, here are the ladies from The Real Group singing the same piece.

 

 

Margareta & Katarina — The Real Girls

Still not convinced?
Here’s one person tangoing.
And here are two.
Ok, I can’t resist. The bustiest Beach Bingo belle went to that mouseketeertrap in the sky the week before Valentine’s day, so here’s Annette Funicello overstating the obvious.

What’s the point? David Crosby, of course. Or more precisely, “Ooh-ooh-ooh, what a little harmony can do-oo-oo.”

Jackson Browne & David Crosby — in harmony

I’m not talking holistic harmony. Take for example ‘Claudette’, written for his wife and originally sung solo by Roy Orbison, then made a hit by the sultans of symphony, Don and Phil Everly. It’s great, but it’s obvious.
I’m talking about nuance. How you can have a perfectly lovely song, just a singer and his guitar and his song and his singing, ostensibly an autonomous whole. And then along comes David Crosby (the greatest of harmony singers in rock, alongside James Taylor), adding just a pinch of a hint of an oblique juxtaposition, and– voilà–magic.

David Crosby & some other cat

The easiest harmony is for the second voice to ride on top of and parallel to the melody line, either a third or a fourth or a fifth above it. Graham Nash does that very well. David Crosby slips underneath the melody line with a disembodied voice that seems to have no presence of its own. It’s just in the air, enhancing the soloist and entrancing the listener.

He did it for The Byrds.

He did it for Crosby, Stills & Nash.

And he did it for Jackson Browne in a little gem, ‘Something Fine’.

Here’s Jackson doing the song solo (from Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2).
And here’s the original version from his eponymous album, 1972. With a little help from his friend.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like (in order of appearance here):

155: Nilsson, ‘One’
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)
059: The Real Group, ‘Joy Spring’
115: Astor Piazzolla, ‘Tango: Zero Hour’
111: David Crosby (The Byrds), ‘Everybody’s Been Burned’
076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’
162: Everly Brothers, ‘Crying in the Rain’
136: Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel, ‘Wonderful World’
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape” demo)

 

Something Fine

The papers lie there helplessly in a pile outside the door.
I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t remember what they’re for.
The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve–
Oh, that’s much too old a story to believe .

And you know that it’s taken its share of me
Even though you take such good care of me.
Now you say “Morocco” and that makes me smile–
I haven’t seen morocco in a long, long while.
The dreams are rolling down across the places in my mind
And I’ve just had a taste of something fine.

The future hides and the past just slides, England lies between
Floating in a silver mist so cold and so clean.
California’s shaking like an angry child will
Who has asked for love and is unanswered still.

And you know that I’m looking back carefully
‘Cause I know that there’s still something there for me.
But you said “Morocco” and you made me smile
And it hasn’t been that easy for a long, long while
And looking back into your eyes I saw them really shine
Giving me a taste of something fine – something fine.

Now if you see Morocco I know you’ll go in style
I may not see Morocco for a little while
But while you’re there I was hoping you might keep it in your mind
To save me just a taste of something fine.

 
2

165: Paul Simon, ‘Jonah’

Posted by jeff on Feb 22, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon – Jonah

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

You think you can just walk in and get the job? There’s a whole pile of prerequisite qualifications you need to schlep with you just to get the interview: a father who fought in WWII, professionally diagnosed pronounced arrested development, an acute affection for anal archivism, no social life, and first and foremost a highly evolved obsession for completism. And they snicker??

I have great admiration for Paul Simon. I’ve watched his musical accomplishments go from very good (half of Simon and Garfunkel’s oeuvre) to very very good (the other half) to Yes!! (the first solo album) to Yes!! (his second and third solo albums–note the lesser squeal) to Magnum Opus (“Hearts and Bones”)  to Nope (“Graceland”) to Also Recorded (the last five, since 1990).

Woody Allen, Paul Simon, Diane Keaton

As all of you fellow compulsives have of course noted, I’ve skipped not only over the recycled live performances, but also that most puzzling of his albums, “One Trick Pony” (1980), five years after “Still Crazy”, three years before “Hearts and Bones”. Ostensibly, he’s at the height of his creative powers. But in 1975 he divorced his wife of 16 years, Peggy, the mother of his then three year-old son Harper. He also moved from Columbia Records to Warner Brothers, taking his catalog with him. In 1977, he played The Record Producer Who Gets The Girl in the movie “Annie Hall” written and directed by a brilliant, diminutive über New Yorker of Hebraic ancestry.

Bitten by the bit part, in 1980 he wrote and starred in his own movie, “One-Trick Pony”, this time portraying Jonah Levin, a short New York singer-songwriter who had a major hit with a protest song ten years before and is currently struggling with a floundering career. He’s separated from his wife and three year-old son. Someone will probably get a doctorate some day in English Literature laboriously demonstrating that there’s some autobiography in the movie.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

Paul Simon acts with the passion and nuance and dexterity of a cigar-store Indian. He acts about as well as Woody Allen plays clarinet, I’m guessing. I’ve never subjected myself to hearing Mr Konigsberg play, and I regret having watched the movie this week. But it was untenable that a Paul Simon devotee such as I, an ostensibly serious listener, would not know the film. So I did it. A man’s got to do what a boy’s got to do. I just hope I’m not compelled to watch it again, because I really admire the music from the movie, and the film only diminishes it.

The album “One-Trick Pony” isn’t defined as a soundtrack. It doesn’t include un-noteworthy and thankfully undocumented guest appearances by The Lovin’ Spoonful, Sam and Dave and Tiny Tim at a retro record convention where Jonah reluctantly performs his Top 40 Hit gentle anti-Vietnam diatribe, ‘Soft Parachutes’ (“Haven’t they heard the war was over a long time ago?”). ‘Soft Parachutes’ was included as a bonus track on the remastered re-release of the album. I’m including it here to dissuade you (and myself) from sitting through the movie to hear it.

There’s a radio coming from the room next door/
My mother laughed the way some ladies do.

I don’t really understand what the music critics wanted from “One-Trick Pony”. For my money, it’s as full of heart-rending sincerity and masterful musicality as all but the very finest of his work. Best known from the album are the upbeat band numbers, especially the hit ‘Late in the Evening’, a charming autobiographical tale of a boy from the Brooklyn ‘hood, with an indelible Latin-infused groove. And ‘There’s a radio coming from the room next door/My mother laughed the way some ladies do’—who else can capture a whole world of feminine sexuality in a glimpse of a phrase?

And the title track ‘One-Trick Pony’? Okay, maybe it’s not ‘Kodachrome’ or even ‘Baby Driver’. But there’s a lot to mull over there. He’s saying that Jonah/Paul is a songwright of limited range, but admirably dedicated to his craft, which he practices with a purity of purpose.  Paul can afford the irony; he is in fact a proven master of a great range of styles.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin, with Joan Hackett as Mrs Robinson in ‘One-Trick Pony’

But if he has a specialty, it’s the wistful, complex acoustic ballads honestly examining the experiential nooks and emotional crannies of his heart and bones. The album “One-Trick Pony” is chock-full of them.

I interviewed Paul and Art in 1967, when the album “Sounds of Silence” was riding high on the charts, as the cliché goes. Paul was engaging, cheerful and outgoing. He was not yet a major star. In later years, at least publicly, he adopted an ultra-cool persona, void of smiles or openness or warmth. The absence of facial expression recalls Montgomery Clift, the disaffected veneer James Dean. This is in contrast to his music, which was rivaled only by few other artists for its emotional forthrightness. A mask, perhaps, protective padding.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

I begrudge Paul no masks. In his songs, he is as open and vulnerable and honest as a boy can be. How often have I felt a very specific emotion, usually one involving both love and pain, the corner of a facet of a shade of a feeling – and there’s this phrase of his that nails it so precisely?

  • That’s Why God Made the Movies’ (“Say you’ll nourish me with your tenderness/The way the ladies sometimes do”)
  • Oh, Marion’ (“Oh, Marion,I think I’m in trouble here/I should have believed you when I heard you saying /The only time that love is an easy game/Is when two other people are playing”)
  • Long, Long Day’ (“I sure could use a friend/Don’t know what else to say/I hate to abuse an old cliché/But it’s been a long, long day”)
  • Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

    Even the lesser songs in these musical veins and emotional arteries are respectable: ‘Nobody’, ‘God Bless the Absentee’, ‘How The Heart Approaches What it Yearns’.

But the gem for me has always been the eponymous ‘Jonah’, the protagonist of the movie, the alter-ego of Paul Simon, whose own career has been immeasurably more successful than Jonah’s, but his confidence seemingly just as frail, his pain just as real.

Paul Simon as Jonah Levin in ‘One-Trick Pony’

The song is a wonder of craft and passion. Who would have thought that feelings, the notoriously amorphous and slippery quick of our inner lives, could be so precisely dissected, reconstructed, and formulated in a mere song? Well, Jonah Levin does it. That other Jonah, he was cast overboard for his doubts, swallowed by a whale, and emerged intact. Paul Simon has gone through his own ordeal and emerged with a song for us, one by which I have often been thankful to be swallowed.

Half an hour you change your strings and tune up
Sizing the room up, checking the bar.
Local girls, unspoken conversations,
Misinformation plays guitar.

They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.

No one gives their dreams away too lightly–
They hold them tightly, warm against cold.
One more year of traveling ’round this circuit,
Then you can work it into gold.

They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale
But I say there’s no truth to that tale.
I know Jonah was swallowed by a song.

Here’s to all the boys who came along
Carrying soft guitars with cardboard cases all night long.
Do you wonder where those boys have gone? 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
090: The Cyrkle, ‘Red Rubber Ball’
078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’

 

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