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179: Tom Waits, ‘Ruby’s Arms’

Posted by jeff on Sep 18, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Tom Waits, ‘Ruby’s Arms’

My wife keeps a running litany of my myriad foibles. You could call it “Jeff’s 22 Greatest Misses”. It’s a best-seller in our home. One of the out-takes from that list (I guess you could call it a bonus onus track) is my musical completism.

Photo by Anton Corbijn

I hate interviewing an artist unless I’m perfectly comfortable discussing the minutae of the differences in style between his eighth and ninth CDs. It literally causes me to lose sleep, and I’ve spent many a night plodding repetitiously and tediously through undistinguished (and indistinguishable) discographies.

Right now in my New CDs directory you can find Coldplay (8 studio albums, 3 live), Count Basie (about 30 albums, including numerous collections), Durutti Column (29 Albums), Eivør (that’s the very fine Faronese singer-songwriter Eivør Pálsdóttir, 7 studio, 3 live), and Tortoise (14, including EPs and remixes).

Because, you see, the only way to get to know an artist seriously is to walk through their discography chronologically, album by album, year after year. And it’s not like watching a season of The Sopranos over a long weekend. Music takes time to digest. You don’t hear an album once. You need to know it, you have to hear it at least half a dozen times. This is a very time-consuming activity. Or obsession, as some have called it. Well, someone’s got to do it.

There are patent benefits to growing up with an artist. A young whippersnapper wannabe once tried to convince me that Love’s “Da Capo” preceded the eponymous LP with ‘My Little Red Book’. “Son,” I said condescendingly, gently laying my hand on his shoulder, “I was there.” Harumph.

Learning an artist chronologically and methodically is the only way to fully grasp the ebb and flow of a career. That’s how I know the artists I grew up with and followed, release by release, the ones I feel most intimate with. So why do it otherwise? Two main reasons. When I discovered jazz, Miles and Monk and Mingus were long gone, and there’s a natural process of going from key albums to excellent albums to interesting albums (and on to uninteresting albums and then to obscure bootlegs). And that’s not chronological, dammit.

Secondly, on occasion, even a kill-everything-by-dissection analyst such as myself occasionally gets carried away. You fall in love. You can’t help yourself. You just need to hear the music. That’s what happened to me with Tom Waits.

Way back, someone gave me a cassette of a dozen of Tom Waits’ most beautiful, moving ballads, and they’ve been in my heart and soul and blood ever since. I played the cassette till it died. And then when God created digital discographies, I went through Mr Waits’ 50 some albums (23 studio albums since 1973, and lots of bootlegs, 624 cuts in all). I skipped all the voodoo, jungle garbage chanting stuff, culled the 116 ‘pretty’ cuts, and have been listening to them since. A lot. For ten years now.

I’m not a guy who goes for ‘pretty’, and even if I were, Tom Waits isn’t the obviously place to look. Most people say his voice sounds “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” That he makes Dylan look sound like Plácido Domingo (hey, there’s a duet waiting to happen!). Well, I want to tell you, for my nickel’s worth they’re wrong.

Tom Waits has made some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. He writes songs that are brilliant, passionate and finely crafted. His performances can be heart-rending. Not too long ago, I was just driving my car, minding my own business, listening to a compilation I’d burned of his ‘pretty’ songs (I called it “Tom Waits for No Man”), and this song came on. And it brought me to tears.

It’s not the first time Tom Waits has done that to me. Not at a time when I’m walking around with a broken heart, on the verge of tears anyway. He transports me into the world he creates. Consummate artistry. It’s a bit embarrassing, a grown man driving to Home Depot and crying. But that’s the whole point of exposing oneself to moving music, isn’t it?

I’d feel more comfortable SoTWing you through his discography. That’s why I’ve never written about him before, because I don’t own the oeuvre. But my good friend Z.S. (what kind of initial is ‘Z’, anyway?) said he doesn’t know Tom Waits at all, and that’s an untenable state of affairs, so I’m stepping outside that comfort zone. Here you go folks.

Close the door, get a box of tissues, put on the headphones. Slip out the door quietly into the 5 AM gloom. Wrench yourself away from what you love most. Take a scarf, stick it in the pocket of your leather jacket. And say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

I will leave behind all of my clothes,
I wore when I was with you.
All I need’s my railroad boots,
And my leather jacket.
As I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms,
Although my heart is breaking,
I will steal away out through your
Blinds, for soon you will be waking.

The morning light has washed your face,
And everything is turning blue now.
Hold on to your pillow case
There’s nothing I can do now.
As I say goodbye to Ruby’s arms,
You’ll find another soldier.
And I swear to God by Christmas time,
There’ll be someone else to hold you.

The only thing I’m taking is
The scarf off of your clothesline.
I’ll hurry past your chest of drawers,
And your broken wind chimes.
As I say goodbye
I’ll say goodbye,
Say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

I’ll feel my way down the darkened hall,
And out into the morning.
The hobos at the freightyards
Have kept their fires burning.
So Jesus Christ, this goddamn rain,
Will someone put me on a train,
I’ll never kiss your lips again,
Or break your heart –
As I say goodbye,
I’ll say goodbye,
Say goodbye to Ruby’s arms.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

078: Paul Simon, ‘The Late, Great Johnny Ace’
085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)
145: Peter, Paul & Mary, ‘Early Morning Rain’

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177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

Posted by jeff on Aug 16, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Forty-four years ago today, I was driving away from the Woodstock festival. Bill and I slogged our way through the traffic and the masses and the mud, were present at the first night of the show, and prudently (cowardly) took our leave for more sanitized pastures. Not that we weren’t transformed or transfixed. We were merely cutting out early from a mind-boggling festival. Had we known that our presence at The Mythical Event would be a major claim to fame for the rest of our lives, we might have stuck it out.

Joni Mitchell, 1969 (Photo Rod Pennington)

As far as the music went, I believed then as I still do today – the best of it can be better heard after a shower and a good meal, under headphones in a comfortable chair.

When I tell younguns about The Day, I focus on the social context. It was a Nixonian world. The WASP establishment ruled the airways, the record companies, the universities, and the Department of Defense. They were waging a war I then perceived as imperialist and trying to send me – ME!! – there to be killed. I was less than enthusiastic.

The counterculture, the hippies, the rock music fans, the anti-war demonstrators, were the seditious opposition. The establishment saw us as beyond the fringe. But through 1968 and 1969, just as the monthly body rose, so did the numbers of naysayers, marijuana smokers and record sales.

The Monterey Festival of summer, 1968, had 35,000 attendees. Woodstock had half a million. Our feeling in July 1969 was that we were illegitimate, disenfranchised pariahs. We saw an ad for the festival, we drove to upstate New York, and – mile after mile of car, rivulet joining rivulet into a stream and then a torrent and then a flood of long-haired freaks – we discovered that we were in fact a nation. It wasn’t just a music festival. It was the birth of a new option for living our lives.

I was walking along a country road on my way down to Yasgur’s farm

My most vivid image of the festival wasn’t the half-million on the hillside, the mud, or the music. It was approaching the site. The radio was reporting massive traffic snarls. We parked at the side of the road only a couple of miles from the turnoff (we got there early afternoon Friday). I remember the distance from the road to the site as an hour’s walk, but I wouldn’t bet the family farm on the veracity of that. It was that walk to Yasgur’s farm that’s indelibly engraved in my mind. All those hippies, all those hippies, all those hippies. Crawled out of the woodwork to form a new nation.

The story of the composition of the song ‘Woodstock’ is well-documented. Joni Mitchell’s consorts Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young reached the site by helicopter and a stolen truck hot-wired by Young. Dick Cavett wanted to feature Joni on a show about the festival, and her managers David Geffen and Elliot Roberts thought that an hour of national TV was more important than risking her getting stuck at the ‘muddy love-in’, and so kept her in New York.

But Crosby and Stills did make it back in time for the show, together with the Jefferson Airplane. Stills famously showed the cameras his mud-caked jeans.

The Macedonian Army — Bethel, NY, August 1969

Cavett: “Would you consider the festival a success?”
Crosby: “It was incredible. It was probably the strangest thing that’s ever happened in the world. (Audience applause.) Can I describe what it looked like flying in on the helicopter, man? It looked like an encampment of the Macedonian army on the Greek hills, crossed with the biggest band of Gypsies you ever saw.”

It was indeed a watershed event.

Stephan Stills’ Real Woodstock Mud

By the time they got to the Dick Cavett show, Joni had written what would become the theme song of the festival. “The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock,” said Joni. Crosby said that she had captured the feeling and importance of the Woodstock festival better than anyone who had been there.

It became a hit in CSN&Y’s raucous version (#11 in the US, the only song on “Déjà vu” in which they all played simultaneously), then commercialized even further by Matthews Southern Comfort (#1 in the UK). But of course we’re going to talk about Joni’s enigmatic original, predictably overshadowed by the more palatable treatments.

Billion Year Old Carbon, Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

Perhaps some of my regular readers have noticed that I’ve been walking through Joni’s discography chronologically. We’ve discussed ‘Cactus Tree’ (the first album), ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ (the second album) and ‘For Free’ from “Ladies of the Canyon”, which is by all accounts a mixed bag, a collection of vivid songs, less cohesive than her first two albums, yet far more mature artistically, containing songs a league beyond almost all her previous work. Half of the songs could have fit comfortably into either of the first two albums, mostly ‘relationship songs’ (‘Morgan Morningtown’, ‘Conversation’, ‘Willy’, ‘The Arrangement’, ‘Rainy Night House’, ‘The Priest’, ‘Blue Boy’), albeit with a much more adventuresome sound palette. She plays piano on five of the album’s cuts, as opposed to on only one cut from the first two albums. She employs strings, woodwinds and stylized backing vocals (her own), admirably expanding her aural canvas.

We Are Stardust — Murray-Dodge Hall, Princeton University

For my money, every one of the other songs is superior to those seven. ‘Other’ songs, each one individual, all of them exploring new subject matters outside the realm of the strictly personal: ‘For Free’, ‘Ladies of the Canyon’, ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, ‘Woodstock’, ‘Circle Game’. Each one an autonomous gem. It seems Joni had to go outside herself to hone her craft. It is this command of her lyrics, music and sound production that she employs so successfully a year later in her masterpiece “Blue” to explore her inner landscape with such acute, painful precision.

But we get ahead of ourselves. ‘Woodstock’ is ostensibly a celebratory anthem, a paean to the birth of a nation. Why does she couch it in a minor key? Why is the basic sound plaintive, pained, even anguished (the lead vocal, the tremolo Wurlitzer electric piano, the backing chorus of Macbeth’s witches)? Why? To tell you the truth, I have no satisfactory answer.

It is clear to me that Joni was strongly influenced by the Appollo 11 moonwalk three weeks earlier. And I can tell you that the metaphor of planes metamorphosing reoccurs as the central image in her song ‘Amelia’. And I fell in love with ying-yanged granite stump made of billion year-old carbon in front of the staid Murray-Dodge Hall at Princeton University.

Joni’s treatment of ‘Woodstock’ is intriguing enough to have inspired some 251 documented covers of the song (according to the official Joni Mitchell site). I admit it remains an enigma for me. A riveting, beautiful, inspiring enigma, proving that the true Woodstock is in our minds.

I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock ‘n’ roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
I’m going to try an’ get my soul free

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But you know life is for learning

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

The Dick Cavett ‘Woodstock’ Show
Songs of The Week about Joni Mitchell
072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)

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006: Elvis Costello, ‘Accidents Will Happen’ (live)

Posted by jeff on Jul 21, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

I often find that when I get my hands on a new CD by an artist I’m familiar with, I put it on hold and listen to his/her previous work. Preparing myself aurally for the new one, as it were.

Well, mazal tov to Elvis Costello on his new release, “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”. The liner notes compare it to his 1986 opus magnum, “King of America”, also produced by T-Bone Burnett. I’ve listened to the new CD twice now, and was a bit underwhelmed. The sound is similar, but it doesn’t hang together. At least so far. But I’ll probably be giving it one more chance.

Because I think Elvis Costello is as talented as John Lennon.

I realize that’s a pretty outrageous statement. But no one who knows me musically would accuse me of anything less than the utmost reverence for John’s work. I didn’t say that Elvis is in John’s league (because that’s a league of one), I said that he has the talent. What he lacks is the focus. He started as one of the founders of punk, a genre for which I have little appreciation, and I think still suffers from that tendency to play the provocateur rather than focus on the music itself. He’s worked in many, many different contexts, from Nashville to string quartets, Paul McCartney, opera, jazz, neo-punk, Burt Bacharach, and TV emceeing (‘Spectacle’, hosting the likes of James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright and the saxophonist/president Bill Clinton).

Nothing wrong with that. Unless it comes at the expense of digging down, which might be true with Elvis C.

To my mind his is a career chock full of disappointment, because of his immense talent and very small really first-rate output, stuff which can stand unflinchingly next to anything of its time – the LP “King of America”, four or five songs from “Spike”, the songs “Shipbuilding” and “Alison”, and this week’s song of the week, a live version of his punk hit “Accidents Will Happen.”

The original ‘Accidents Will Happen‘ I found to be just ordinary kid’s stuff. And this naked version? A riveting combination of wryness and craftsmanship, poetry and passion.

And not only that. He’s married to Diane Krall.

Accidents will happen, you only hit and run.
You used to be a victim, now you’re not the only one.
Accidents will happen, you only hit and run.
I don’t want to hear it, ’cause I know what I’ve done.

Oh I just don’t know where to begin–
Though he says he’ll wait forever, its now or never.
But they keep him hanging on – the silly champion.
She says she can’t go home without a chaperone

There’s so many fish in the sea that only rise up in the sweat and smoke like mercury,
And they keep you hanging on, they say you’re so young
Your mind is made up but your mouth is undone

And its the damage that we do and never know.
It’s the words that we don’t say that scare me so

There’s so many people to see,
So many people you can check up on and add to your collection
But they keep you hanging on until you’re well hung.
Your mouth is made up but your mind is undone.

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:

042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)
054: Mickey & Sylvia, ‘Love is Strange’
064: Janis Joplin & Tom Jones, ‘Raise Your Hand’

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175: Traffic, ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’

Posted by jeff on Jun 21, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (album version)

Traffic – John Barleycorn Must Die (excellent live performance)

Winwood, Capaldi

July, 1970, two full years after Traffic’s eponymous psychedelic jazz-rock opus magnum, the band disbanded, and world-weary 22-year old Stevie Winwood in the studio alone trying to record solo to fulfill contractual obligations. But he got stuck and needed a little help from his friends. In came drummer/singer/songwriting collaborator Jim Capaldi. In came reed and woodwindist Chris Wood. Out came “John Barleycorn Must Die”, Traffic’s third LP. 

Dissipant

The American version had only six cuts, and to be frank – despite my opinion that Stevie Winwood was the finest vocalist and multi-instrumentalist of the time, and frequently one heck of a songwriter, it was an underwhelming effort, at least in comparison to “Dear Mr Fantasy” and “Traffic”. But we come not to disparage the album, but to pay tribute to the title track.

There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try.

And these three men made a solemn vow: John Barleycorn must die.
They’ve ploughed, they’ve sown, they’ve harrowed him in, threw clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow: John Barleycorn was dead.

 

Winwood, Capaldi

Oh, those three men. I know them, portending something momentous, they are, be it epiphanous or foreboding. Here they’re riding a vehicle dating back to the 16th century, a Goode Aulde British Ballade. A Scottish poem with a similar theme, “Quhy Sowld Nocht Allane Honorit Be”, is included in the Bannatyne Manuscript of 1568, and English broadside versions from the 17th century are common. (In case you were wondering, a ‘broadside’ was a single sheet of disposable paper printed on one side with an advertisement, news or a ballad. They were one of the most common forms of printed communication back in those old days.) 

They’ve let him lie for a very long time, ’til the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all
They’ve let him stand ’til Midsummer’s Day ’til he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John’s grown a long long beard and so become a man

So what do we have here? An allegory (a rather disreputable literary genre in which characters or events directly represent ideas and concepts; think “Animal Farm”) in which The Three Men are teetotalers (promoting abstinence from alcoholic beverages), ‘respectable society’; and John Barleycorn, the personified grain, represents demon alcohol.

Broadside

They’ve hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee.
They’ve rolled him and tied him by the waist serving him most barbarously.
They’ve hired men with their sharp pitchforks who’ve pricked him to the heart,
And the loader he has served him worse than that for he’s bound him to the cart.

 Except that the respectable ones are portrayed as barbarous, vicious, delighting in outdoing one another in the pain they wreak upon poor John. There are even those who have found in John an emblem of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, apparent death, and wond’rous rebirth.

They’ve wheeled him around and around a field ’til they came unto a barn,
And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn.
They’ve hired men with their crabtree sticks to cut him skin from bone,
And the miller he has served him worse than that for he’s ground him between two stones 

John Barleycorn

Poor little John, the archetypal Innocent. You want to watch out for those innocents. We all know who gets the last word, and just how un-innocent that word so frequently is.

 And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last.
The huntsman he can’t hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

133: Spencer Davis Group (Stevie Winwood), ‘I’m A Man’
038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’
026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

 

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