046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

Posted by jeff on Jan 1, 2014 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

This is one of those cases where I didn’t find the song of the week – it found me.

By a certain confluence of happenstances, the four living subjects in the picture here have been in contact with each other this week, some of us for the first time in 40 years. Sweet Mitty, the Great Pyrenees, lives on in our hearts and in that Great Kennel in the Sky.

The photo was taken in the winter of 1969-70. Those weren’t ordinary times, by any criterion. Just after Woodstock and Mai Lai, just before the breakup of the Beatles and Kent State. Those glorious, heady days of the Woodstock Generation just before the floor fell out.

Four college buddies, waxing nostalgic, practicing ‘collective memory’ not in the Halbwachian sense of that which is “shared, passed on, and constructed by the group or modern society,” but in the sense of the four of us trying to piece together our fragmented recollection of the seminal events of our lives. “Hey, do you remember when Sandy took us to that hotel gig as pranksters, you rented an Indian chief’s costume…”; “Ah, it was Sandy who got us the gig? I always wondered how that happened, but it was you who was the Indian chief, I was an Indian with a dot. But do you remember what happened with you and the model who was getting her body painted?” “Oh, jeeeez…”

Some of us hadn’t spoken for 40 years, so there is some serious and uncomfortable catching up to do. How do you start talking to someone with whom you once shared so much, and now today–perhaps–so little? Or perhaps we’re still the same people we were back then, just playing out our lives along our disparate paths. One leads a celebrity-laden self-help foundation; one writes adventure novels; one took an expatriate refuge in religion; one is looking for a job. Roots and routes.

Those got-the-world-by-the-balls smiles not withstanding, not too long after that picture was taken, each of the four of us touched a very low place. To tell the truth, all five. I just learned that Mitty was traumatized by an intruding thief. Most of us reassembled the pieces, or reconstructed ourselves by inventing for ourselves replacement parts.

Which brings me to James Taylor, and our Song of The Week. James is half a year older than me, and at the time our bathtub picture was taken, he was in rehab for drug abuse and paralyzing angst. He recorded his first album for Apple, which brilliantly and harrowingly documented the deepest and darkest corners of his soul. And mine. But for our SoTW, we’re going to skip forward to 1988, 20 years on, for his look back at those days, and his own bathtub friends. The song is ‘Never Die Young’ from the 1988 album of the same name, but I find the arrangement there way too glitzy and glib. Here it is in the 2007 “One Man Band” version.

We were indeed ring-around-the-rosy as children, and circles around the sun in the summer of Woodstock. Have we given up? Have we slowed down? Well, I’m sure there’s a substantively different answer for each of the four of us.

There’s a statement by Hank Thoreau (if my memory serves me well–a tenuous postulate at best–the redhead with the beard in the black and white photo read him religiously), part of which is famous: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

Well, James and Hank, all four of us inside the tub are still kicking. “With the song still in us”? Well that’s ambiguous. Three of us have written books, so I guess you can’t say we haven’t achieved self-expression on some level. I won’t speak for the others, but I like to think of my life as one of ‘quiet inspiration’. For me, very much informed by the music from The Day. It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t from that generation just how integral a role the music played in our lives. How each Dylan and Beatles album charted new courses for our minds and spirits. ‘The song’, in that sense, remains in me, and I assume in my four rub-a-dub hoodlum friends.

“Never Die Young”, for me, is the multifocal prism through which I squint at that past. In this live version, James himself says he has no idea what the song means exactly. I think I do. It contains all the love and pain and hopes and disappointments and optimism and disillusionment that our lives have traversed. In that, I suppose, we’re like all golden boys grown old. But we were fortunate enough to be children of a very special time. As always, James puts it best:

But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

We were ring-around-the-rosy children
They were circles around the sun
Never give up, never slow down
Never grow old, never ever die young

Synchronized with the rising moon
Even with the evening star
They were true love written in stone
They were never alone, they were never that far apart

And we who couldn’t bear to believe they might make it
We got to close our eyes
Cut up our losses into doable doses
Ration our tears and sighs

You could see them on the street on a Saturday night
Everyone used to run them down
They’re a little too sweet, they’re a little too tight
Not enough tough for this town

We couldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole
No, it didn’t seem to rattle at all
They were glued together body and soul
That much more with their backs up against the wall

Oh, hold them up, hold them up
Never do let them fall
Prey to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all

I guess it had to happen someday soon
Wasn’t nothing to hold them down
They would rise from among us like a big baloon
Take the sky, forsake the ground

Oh, yes, other hearts were broken
Yeah, other dreams ran dry
But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’
050: The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (Kent State)
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’


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025: The Zombies, ‘Care of Cell 44′

Posted by jeff on Dec 27, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

The music of 1968 as un embarras des richesses, an embarrassment of riches, almost too much of a good thing. I just looked at a dozen lists of ‘The Best Albums of 1968’, and I’ll admit that the following one (mine) omits a lot of seminal works by a lot of stellar artists. But when I pared it down to the ones that have left an indelible mark on me, what I call ‘life-changing music’, it’s a really remarkably long list (alphabetical here) for one single year:

  • The Band – Music From Big Pink
  • Beatles – White Album
  • The Byrds – Notorious Byrd Brothers
  • Janis Joplin – Cheap Thrills
  • Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
  • Laura Nyro – Eli And The 13th Confession]
  • Rolling Stones – Beggar’s Banquet
  • Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends
  • James Taylor’s first (Apple)
  • Traffic’s second – Traffic

They range from mind-expanders to soular-implosions, from the revolutionary to the revelatory, each and every one a masterpiece. But after those eleven, just when you think the alphabet couldn’t hold any more, here comes another one:

  • The Zombies – Odessey & Oracle 

It’s an album marked inauspicious roots, a twisted path, and unanimous acclaim. And it’s always symbolized for me the late 60s in general. What an incredible wealth of great music. Here, an off-the-cuff psychedelic swan song by a group in the process of going belly-up.

The Zombies were a British invasion band noted for both their relative raunchiness at times, alongside their exceptional musicality at others. They had two careers – the second of which didn’t exist. Maybe I’d better explain that.

In the mid-60s, they had a string of very minor hits, along with two big (and great) ones, the haunting ‘She’s Not There‘ and the hauntinger ‘Tell Her No‘. Both were written by group leader Rod Argent and sung by the very fine and distinctive Colin Blunstone.

But alas, no commercial success after that for The Zombies, and in 1967 they decided to break up the band. One more cheapo session in 1968 to fulfill their recording contract with Decca, then back to day jobs. That album was entitled “Odessey and Oracle”, and it turned out in retrospect to have been both.

It’s a stunning, finely crafted album – the material, the lead vocals, the arrangements, the electric piano, the sound palette, everything. As fine as their two early hits were, this is in another league altogether. It has lots of humor (‘Friends of Mine‘, ‘I Want Her She Wants Me‘), ornate preciousness (the beautiful ‘For No One’-inspired ‘A Rose for Emily’, ‘Brief Candles’), lots of church-choir backing vocals, intelligent lyrics. A 12-inch embarrassment of riches in and of itself, it is.

Al Kooper (who in those days was referred to as “Al Kooper is God” heard it, pulled it across the Atlantic, and it became a hit in 1969, powered by the iconic hit single ‘Time of the Season’. (Did you ever notice that they stole the rhythm riff and drum part for that from The Beatles’ ‘Wait’?)

Every single song on “Odyssey and Oracle” is worth talking about, but I’ve always been partial to the lead-off cut: Side One, Song One – ‘Care of Cell 44‘. What they mean, I think, is a letter addressed ‘In care of Cell 44’. It’s the only love song I know of a guy eagerly awaiting his belle’s release from prison. Perhaps there should be more.

Good morning to you I hope you’re feeling better baby
Thinking of me while you are far away
Counting the days until they set you free again
Writing this letter hoping you’re okay

Saved you the room you used to stay in every Sunday
The one that is warmed by sunshine every day
And we’ll get to know each other for a second time
And then you can tell me ’bout your prison stay…

It’s gonna to be good to have you back again with me
Watching the laughter play around your eyes
Come up and fetch you, saved up for the train fare money
Kiss and make up and it will be so nice…

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

074: Donovan, ‘House of Jansch’
082: Dion DiMucci, ‘Sit Down Old Friend’
093: Leon Russell, ‘A Song for You’


183: Love, ‘Alone Again Or’ (Bryan MacLean)

Posted by jeff on Nov 8, 2013 in Rock, Song Of the week

Love, ‘Alone Again Or’

Bryan MacLean, ‘Alone Again Or’

Bryan MacLeanIt’s our pleasure this week to shine a little light into an obscure but legendary corner of the rock pantheon.

That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? A legend can’t be obscure – it has to be out and about to become a legend, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not.

Bryan MacLean grew up a Beverly Hills brat. Liza Minelli was his first girlfriend, he learned to swim in Liz Taylor’s pool, doodled on Frederick Loewe’s piano, began playing music with buddies Kenny Edwards (Stone Poneys), Ry Cooder, and David.

Often brilliant, always annoying Arthur Lee was an irascible, autocratic black organist playing white versions of black music, a la Beatles/Stones. We’re talking 1966, and Lee’s group Love was one of the very first LA-based garage bands. The prototypical Byrds had just left LA for their first 8 Mile High tour of the UK. Arthur wanted his band to fill the void, so he hired Bryan, their pretty-boy ex-road manager as singer/guitarist, figuring the girls would follow.

They became close friends. Any delusion Bryan had of an equal partnership with Arthur was dispelled when the latter beat the crap out of him over some minor dispute, establishing forever the nature of their relationship.

Bryan’s contributions to Love’s rich, raunchy eponymous first album (1966) were the minor ‘Softly to Me’ and his cover of the Byrd’s version of the Bacharach/David ‘Little Red Book’. Their second, brilliantly flawed album, “Da Capo” (1967), was an Arthur Lee trip, like all Love albums. “We got derailed. We put that huge long song [‘Revalation’] on the second side, which was a shame, because there was a lot of other stuff we could have done that would have been a lot better.” The highlight of the trailblazing first side is Bryan’s lovely ‘Orange Skies’, written when he was 17. Here’s his original.

Then came “Forever Changes” (1967), by all accounts one of rock’s great achievements, #40 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the top albums of all time, #11 on the Virgin list, #6 on the New Music Express list. It still sells well 50 years later, universally considered a masterpiece of that memorable era.

“Forever Changes” is a consistently inspired amalgam of acoustic rock with stunning string and mariachi brass arrangements by David Angel and brilliant acidic Lee lyrics. Lee wrote and sang nine of the album’s eleven songs. But the two standout cuts are the haunting ‘Old Man’ and the album’s opener, ‘Alone Again Or’, both written and sung by the abused, cowed Bryan MacLean.

Bryan MacLean and Mother

Bryan MacLean and Mother

Then MacLean left the band, frustrated with Arthur’s high-handed domination of the band and its members. Love made several more boring, Lee-trip albums before disbanding. Bryan found Jesus. Lee spent 5 years in jail for shooting at a neighbor who’d protested at the noise from his stereo. MacLean died in 1998, Lee in 2006.

During the Love years, Bryan was writing prolifically. Years later, his mother was cleaning the family garage and discovered her little boy’s demo tapes. Like a good mother, she organized them, catalogued them, and actually got them released on two CDs, ‘ifyoubelievein’ and ‘Candy’s Waltz’.  They’ve probably sold a good 50 copies each.

Bryan MacLean obscured by the ever-tasteful Arthur Lee

From the liner notes of the former: “The way you’re hearing it now is the way Arthur originally heard everything. And he would always say ‘That’s great!’ But it would never end up on the record. There was never room.”

As a boy, Bryan would hold his mother’s castanets at her flamenco lessons, and dress up and sing Broadway songs. “Arthur would take my ideas and kind of do his own versions.”

Let’s listen to a few of Bryan’s non-Love songs, which I’m guessing it’s safe to say you’ve never heard before. They’re really quite beautiful, in the soft, elusive David Crosby mode (a comparison MacLean himself makes; check out ‘Special Joy’). Here are a few more cuts to show you just what a fine talent Bryan was: ‘Farmer John‘, ‘Kathleen‘, ‘Fresh Hope‘, and ‘People‘. His small voice is fragile, vulnerable. Together with that pretty face of his, I’m guessing if I were a girl I’d have wanted to go right up to him and hug him.

What I find most noteworthy is his emphatic, percussive acoustic guitar playing – it’s sophisticated, substantial, original and memorable. I think it displays a hard-edged but expressive, personal acoustic-rock style that Paul Simon, Van Morrison, John Martyn, Stephen Stills and others later developed into one of the most expressive modes of second generation singer-songwriter rock.

His best songs, or at least so they seem in retrospect, did thankfully make the Arthur cut.

‘Old Man’, here in the Love version, here in Bryan’s demo, is a memorable, evocative, wistful gem. “There was no old man. But I think I wanted there to be one. I wanted a mentor or a guide. Maybe it’s because my father left; I had the dad-that-left syndrome, the kind of dad who picked me up on weekends. Maybe I was thinking of that type of person. But really, what the old man is saying in the song is, until you actually love someone, you don’t understand many of the things in life. And in the song, I have the old man giving the guy a book. I’m sure I was thinking of the Bible, even back then.” To tell you the truth, Bryan? I think I’ll stick with the song.

Bryan MacLean (center), Arthur Lee (right)

And our SoTW, that indelible opening cut from that landmark album, “Forever Change”’s ‘Alone Again Or’. MacLean admitted that not all the lyrics make much sense. “’I think people are the greatest fun’. Friends of mine would give me a lot of ribbing about that. No, they are not stop-the-world lyrics.” Here’s his very beautiful demo, a gift that justifies all the mothers of the world cleaning out their garages and discovering their little boys’ lost treasures.

Well, that may be true, Bryan, but people are still singing those words (cover versions by Calexico, The Damned, and UFO, all painfully inferior to the original).

“I made reference to [string arranger David Angel about] Rimsky-Korsakov and Capriccio Espagnol. He was one of the great orchestrators. And I said that if you could get the baroque-like strings of Franz Josef Hayden going on under that trumpet… I didn’t give David the actual notes. Those trumpet notes were his. But that was my contribution, blending those two concepts. And that was the happiest I ever was with anything we ever did a s a band – the orchestral arrangement of that song.”

The Spanish guitar, the mariachi trumpets, the inscrutable lyric, the unforgettable lift of the strings, all contribute to this time-tried, gravity-defying wonder. #436 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest songs, this obscure legend.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)
166: John Martyn, ‘Bless the Weather’
038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

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

Posted by jeff on Oct 18, 2013 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

The Shirelles – ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (original)

The Shirelles – ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ (live)

Carole King – ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’

Of course I know who Amy Winehouse is. I’ve even listened to a couple of her songs. Would you like to hear a story about her?

Once upon a time, Virginia, about 30 years ago, people thought sex was bad. At least they said they thought sex was bad. You couldn’t talk about it openly on TV or in movies or in songs. But people still had it on their minds, no matter what the Brain Police said, especially hormone-choked teenagers; and since they were the ones buying 45s – What? That’s an ancient euphemism for popular records. Anyway, it was teenagers buying these records – What? Oh. A round black thing made out of plastic that has a song on it. You know what a song is, right? You still have those?

Goffin, King, and the morning after

Well, after WWII, a lot of people started having babies (though it was never quite clear back then just how), and when these babies grew up (in a certain sense, anyway) some of them wanted to make their own songs. And there were some grown-ups who let them. Two of these kids, Carole and Gerry started making music together. Their songs weren’t too successful, but their other music was, and at 17 she found herself in the family way. What? Knocked up, okay? So they got married. Gerry worked as a chemist and Carole as a secretary, and in the evenings they kept writing songs for a guy named Don Kirshner.


They heard a hit song on the radio called ‘Tonight’s The Night’. It was sung by a black girl group called The Shirelles. The girls sounded quite innocent, and the music was a pleasing new amalgam of black timbre, strings, and an American Bandstand slick-white you-can-dance-to-it beat. Now, Gerry and Carole – having gone down that road – understood the meaning of “You said you’re gonna kiss me/Tonight’s the night/Well, I don’t know”, even if the persona herself didn’t. So they wrote a song based on their own personal experience, which they called ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’.

Tonight you’re mine completely/You give your love so sweetly/Tonight the light of love is in your eyes/But will you love me tomorrow?

Plus ça change

That idea expresses a formula that governed the war between the sexes from the beginning of time till a few years ago: men give love for sex, women give sex for love. We’re much more enlightened now. Let’s see how long that lasts. I’m betting it ain’t gonna make it 8000 years.

What does this have to do with Amy Winehouse? Well, keep your pants on. In a manner of speaking.

So Don loved the Goffins’ song, and thought it had more potential for more than a one-hit group from Scepter records, so he offered it to Columbia taste arbiter Mitch Miller for Johnny Mathis, but was politely refused, which Kirshner later said was “The best thing he ever did for me.”

Will you still love me tomorrow?

The Shirelles recorded ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, and it became the first #1 hit by a girl group since the McGuire Sisters, the first ever for a black girl group.

It should be noted here that in 1960, Motown was just getting started – we’re talking about two years before The Marvelettes (‘Please, Mr Postman’, ‘Beechwood 4-5789’), four years before The Supremes. White kids weren’t yet buying records made by black artists. Girls weren’t yet singing about being amenable to sex. But indeed ‘there was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air’.

Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ was the first #1 hit for Gerry Goffin and Carole King. We’ll get back to them in a minute, but let’s hop over to picturesque Passaic, New Jersey, circa 1957, where Shirley Owens, Doris Coley, “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee met at their high school talent show in Passaic, New Jersey, calling themselves The Poquellos. Classmate Mary Jane Greenberg (no comment Jeff, it’s not politically correct) convinced them to sign with her mother’s small record label, which was quickly sold to Decca, where the girls had a flop with their own song ‘I Met Him on a Sunday’ (later remade beautifully by Laura Nyro as the opening cut of her 1971 album “Gonna Take a Miracle”).

Will he still love her tomorrow?

Young Ms Greenberg started her own Scepter label, where they flopped with ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’, a cover of a 1957 R&B song by The “5” Royales, a comic/risqué band from North Carolina. So Ms Greenberg drafted Luther Dixon, who had previously worked with Perry Como, Nat King Cole, and Pat Boone and co-written the 1959 hit ‘16 Candles‘, to work with her Shirelles. The result was ‘Tonight’s The Night’, which Dixon wrote and produced. It hit #39.

Then came ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ (#1, with Carole King playing timpani), followed by a re-issue of ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ which now hit #3 (later #2 by The Mamas and the Papas, Mama Michelle’s first lead), then ‘Mama Said’ (written by Dixon, #4), followed by ‘Baby It’s You’ (written by Dixon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, #8, covered by The Beatles on their first LP, later #5 by Smith in 1969), and ‘Soldier Boy (#1, written by Dixon).

Will she still love him tomorrow?

By the way, the ‘B’ side (sorry Virginia, there’s a limit to how much I can explain) of ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ was ‘Boys’ (written by Dixon), also covered by The Beatles on their first album. McCartney: “Any one of us could hold the audience. Ringo would do ‘Boys‘, which was a fan favorite with the crowd. And it was great — though if you think about it, here’s us doing a song and it was really a girls’ song. ‘I talk about boys now!’ Or it was a gay song. But we never even listened. It’s just a great song. I think that’s one of the things about youth — you just don’t give a shit. I love the innocence of those days.”

Both Beatles covers were recorded for “Please Please Me” on February 11, 1963, when they did a total of 10 tracks in one day! I remember distinctly pondering The Beatles choice of ‘oldies’ – all of two years after the originals.

Can I believe the magic of your sighs?

Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ was rejuvenated a decade later by singer-songwriter Carole King herself on “Tapestry”. Producer Lou Adler: “The only thing we reached back for, which was calculated in a way, which of the old Goffin and King songs that was hit should we put on this album? And, that’s how we came up with ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow‘. I thought that song fit what the other songs were saying in Tapestry. A very personal lyric.” That’s James Taylor playing acoustic and singing backup. The two of them continued to perform the song together on their 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour. It was also performed by Trisha Yearwood, Gloria Estefan & Emile Sandé at the White House when President Obama awarded Ms King the 2013 Gershwin Prize.

‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ has had more cover versions than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill – 555, according to one count. It’s been a favorite on American Idol/The Voice, but you’re going to have to check out those versions yourself, Virginia, there’s a limit to how low I’ll stoop even for the sake of completism.

…plus c’est la même chose.

There have been some fine ones. Here’s Roberta Flack, whom I often find somewhat heavy-handed, doing a great job on it. Here’s the ever-fetching Norah Jones. Here’s the ever-marvelous Laura Nyro in an inspired version released posthumously. And yes, Virginia, here’s the version you love so much by Amy Winehouse.

A surprising number of fine artists have recorded lousy covers of the song (which I’ll refrain from linking here), including the Bee Gees, Elton John, Dusty Springfield, Smokey Robinson, Lykke Li, and Linda Ronstadt. It seems everyone loves to sing ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’. (I sure did, back in The Day, with my buddy Becca.) So here’s a Carole King-karaoke version for you to sing along with. Go on, give it a go.

The song still strikes a responsive chord, even in an age where the boy could be singing it to the girl. Our insecurity about opening ourselves up, revealing our insecurities, praying the heat of the moment won’t leave us embarrassed in the morning. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, they say. Some things don’t change, Virginia. Such as, for instance, a fine song. As your Amy Winehouse says, “I never want it to end.”

Tonight you’re mine completely
You give your love so sweetly
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes
But will you love me tomorrow?

Is this a lasting treasure
Or just a moment’s pleasure?
Can I believe the magic of your size?
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Tonight with words unspoken
You say that I’m the only one
But will my heart be broken
When the night meets the morning sun?

I’d like to know that your love
Is love I can be sure of
So tell me now, and I won’t ask again
Will you still love me tomorrow?

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

034: Dionne Warwick, ‘Walk On By’ (Burt Bacharach)
117: Carole King, ‘It Might as Well Rain Until September’
160: Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

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