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249: Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’

Posted by jeff on Nov 4, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

vee-bobby-51e155b0efd19Bobby Vee, ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’

Bobby Vee (1943-2016) died last week at 73 from complications arising from Alzheimer’s. That’s pretty surprising, considering that he’s still an 18-year old pop star and I’m still a pimply 13-year old with my ear glued to a Top 40 transistor radio. They say inside every man there’s a 15-year old screaming “What the fuck happened????”

February 3, 1959, the day the music died. Fifteen year old Robert Velline was prepping to see the first rock-and-roll show to hit Fargo, ND, home of:

  • PDQ Bach (Peter Schickele)
  • Roger* Maris (did you know that Babe Ruth held the record for home runs in a single season for 34 years, and Roger* for 37?)
  • Actress Kristin Rudrüd (who played William H. Macy’s wife in the Coen brothers’ film “Fargo”, which was of course set in…).
Bad news on the doorstep

Bad news on the doorstep

But in February, 1959, rock and roll was just reaching Fargo. Bobby and a couple of friends had formed a band two weeks earlier. Bobby came home from school for lunch, and found bad news on the doorstep. Headliners Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper had been killed that night in a plane crash, on their way to Fargo.

A call went out from KFGO, Fargo’s Top 40 station. Was there a local group that could step in and help the show go on? Bobby’s mom ran out to buy the boys matching sweaters and ties, his dad came up with the name The Shadows, and the boys cram-rehearsed all the Buddy Holly songs they could play.

Though the scars of that night haven’t yet healed (see ‘American Pie’), Bobby and the boys were a hit. By June they had recorded a Bobby-penned Buddy Holly-cloned single, ‘Suzie Baby’, virtually indistinguishable from the master himself. The song went world-famous in Minnesota.

Elston Gunnn

Elston Gunn

The boys decided they needed a pianist, and auditioned a kid from Hibbing who introduced himself as Elston Gunnn, but whose real name was Bobby Zimmerman. He played a few gigs with The Shadows, then left for Omaha where he had gotten a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night.

In 2013, Elston (now more widely known as Blind Boy Grunt) was playing a show in St Paul, where he said:

“Thank you everyone, thank you friends. I lived here a while back, and since that time, I’ve played all over the world, with all kinds of people. And everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna. And everybody in there in between. I’ve been on the stage with most of those people. But the most beautiful person I’ve ever been on the stage with, was a man who is here tonight, who used to sing a song called “Suzie Baby”. I want to say that Bobby Vee is actually here tonight. Maybe you can show your appreciation with just a round of applause. So, we’re gonna try to do this song, like I’ve done it with him before once or twice.”

Sounds fabricated? You can see it, right here. Elston also recalled that Vee “had a metallic, edgy tone to his voice and it was as musical as a silver bell.” Vee for his part remembered Elston Gunn “played pretty good in the key of C.” But we get ahead of ourselves.

Snuff and Bobby

Snuff and Bobby

The Elston-less Bobby Vee and The Shadows were signed by Liberty Records in LA and assigned to the tutelage of a Texan high-school dropout, the 19-year old Snuff Garrett. Snuff went on to work with Sonny Curtis, Johnny Burnette, Brenda Lee, Roy Rogers, Gene McDaniels, Buddy Knox, Walter Brennan, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Del Shannon, Sonny & Cher, Cher and JJ Cale. He gave Leon Russell and one Phil Spector their first jobs in the business. Walter Brennan and Phil Spector—I’m not making it up.

Snuff took Bobby to Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis, NM, where Buddy had gotten his start. Their version of an old R&B cut by The Clovers (who did the original version of the Leiber-Stoller classic ‘Love Potion #9’), ‘Devil or Angel’, went to #6 nationally, as did their next single, ‘Rubber Ball’ (co-composed by Gene Pitney under his mother’s maiden name).

smthenigthasateSnuff took a shopping trip to New York to shop at the Brill Building, where he was offered a tune by the young husband-and-wife team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who had just had their first #1 hit with The Shirelles’ ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. Dion had recorded it, but wasn’t planning on releasing it. Snuff felt that the song lacked a kick, so Carole added the “My tears have fallen” intro. It sounded like this. Bobby’s version went to #1, his only one, Goffin-King’s second of many.

Bobby had 36 songs in the Top 100, mostly in the pre-Beatles early ‘60s. You’ll forgive me for not giving you all 36. Or not. But as far as I’m concerned, you’re going to have to make due with a few of my favorites:

  • Run to Him‘ – #2, written by Goffin and Jack Keller, another member of the Brill-based Aldon Music stable, which had 54 top ten songs between 1960 and 1963.
  • Sharing You‘ – Goffin-King, #15

lr-nighteyes-2blog

Both of these seem to me clearly influenced by Roy Orbison’s ‘Running Scared’ – conflicted love triangles in which the narrator is wrenched with fear and anxiety, 2’15” melodramas in a minor key, climbing single-mindedly from the tense git-go to an operatic climax without a detour into a chorus. Oh, the drama in those three songs, fantastical passions for a bored and horny 15-year old boy from the suburbs, each one grist for an entire soap.

  • Punish Her‘ – #20; don’t worry all you politico-correctnessers, you’re supposed to “kill her with kindness” and “blind her with kisses”
  • Charms‘ – #13, a charmer of a song, written by brilliant Brillers Helen Miller and Howard Greenfield
  • Be True to Yourself‘ – #34, fine advice for all seasons, Burt Bacharach and Hal David at their Brill best

And last but certainly not least in the list, my personal favorite, the song I choose to remember Bobby by:

It was kept out of the top spot by Paul & Paula’s ‘Hey Paula’ and The Rooftop Singers’ ‘Walk Right In’. Competition was stiff before The Fab Four took over.

Elvis, Weisman

Elvis, Weisman

Bobby’s ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ was written by Benjamin Weisman, Dorothy Wayne, and Marilyn Garrett. I don’t know nothin’ about the two ladies, but this is what Elvis (Presley) had to say about Mr Weisman (at a bacchanalian post-Vegas run party, shortly before The King died): “I want you all to meet Ben Weisman. The man who has written more songs for me than any other writer – 57! I want to hear it for this man”.

What can I say about it? Not too much, really. It’s a pop song. Charming and catchy. The stuff of my innocent youth. I readily admit that when I was listening to it in 1962, I didn’t visualize it like this freakish, bizarre clip. The director is uncredited, but I sure hope he wasn’t allowed out unsupervised.

night1000eyesBobby’s tune shouldn’t be confused with

  • The 1948 film noir in which Edward G. Robinson plays a New Orleans nightclub fortune teller who unwittingly becomes a psychic, bleakly predicting all sorts of mayhem.
  • Or the theme song from the movie, performed here by Harry Belafonte (with the Zoot Sims Quartet), here in a cool live clip by Stan Getz.

Bobby’s song has had numerous covers, including by Jennifer Connelly (from the movie “Dark City”, better on the eyes than on the ears) and American Idol Vegas Week, one of the ugliest, most aesthetically offensive clips I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch 8 seconds of.

So, Bobby, what shall we say in parting? R.I.P. Thanks for the hits, thanks for the mini-dramas, thanks for the memories. We’ll remember you fondly. And who knows, maybe Elston Gunnn will play ‘Suzie Baby’ or ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’, or even ‘The Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ at the ceremony in Stockholm next month.

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4

248: Bob Dylan, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’

Posted by jeff on Oct 23, 2016 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

You Ain’t Going Nowhere

Too Much of Nothing

Quinn, the Eskimo

Nothing Was Delivered

2014bobdylan_getty50989898_10170914Well, Bobby, you done it. Pulled another rabbit out of your illusionist’s top hat. The master of sleight of word has once again danced the dance of the seven veils and come out fully clothed, masked and smirking.

Folks are all a-buzz, and that’s great. The more people buzz about Bob, the better the world. A bunch of SoTW readers have said they expect me to weigh in, so here goes my 2¢.

Disclaimer

I’m going to step on some toes here. (Howie/Shmuel, I love you, but I’m gonna be speaking my mind here, not The World’s.)

I’m going to talk about my relationship with Bob.

Wheel's on Fire

Wheel’s on Fire

Let me clarify that. Most people who write or talk about Dylan passionately want to explain him to you. I once saw a TV show in which a bunch of local artists each presented “My Dylan”.  I was sick in bed for two weeks. My Dylan? What is he, a catcher’s mitt? An aquarium?

They don’t own him, any more than you own your child, any more than you own the wind. He owns himself. I have no My Dylan. He baffles me. He befuddles me. He eludes me, deludes me, precludes me, secludes me, fastfoods me…

I don’t own Dylan, I don’t possess him. Hell, I don’t even grasp him.

The most I can do is to try to describe how I perceive him, shade it with some biographical or socio-historical hues, season it with a bit of humor. But if you’re looking for the key, that’s not me. You can find it in the Nobel-worthy John Wesley Harding liner notes: ‘The key is Frank.’

I offer you as a foil My James Taylor.
James began sharing his most intimate thoughts and feelings with me when we were 20, and they have been a balm for me ever since. I embrace him in my mind, in my heart.
Not so Mr Dylan. He has informed me, stirred me, enlarged me, served me as a model for emulation. But I wouldn’t go up to him and hug him. The one time I did meet him, in his dressing room backstage at The Johnny Cash Show, May 1, 1969, I had the opportunity. I didn’t hug him. I stuttered. “Hi. I’d like to talk to you.” “About what?” “About music.” “I don’t know much about music.”
The fleeting moment of Dylan intersecting with my real world.

My Perception of Dylan

Minstrel Boy

Minstrel Boy

I’m guessing that 98% of the people voicing their thoughts about Dylan receiving the prize will talk about him still growing strong at 75. I’m in the 2%. I just listened to 20 seconds of him at Desert Trip, 10 of McCartney and 5 of The Stones. That’s way more than too much for me.

Dylan earned my vote for what he did 50 years ago. I choose to ignore these old farts’ pathetic attempts to stay relevant (and rich). My respect is for them in their prime, not in their dotage.

What I talk about when I talk about Dylan

His great works:

  • Freewheeling (1963)
  • The Times They Are A-Changing (1964)
  • Another Side Of (1964)
  • Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
  • Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  • Blonde on Blonde (1966)
  • The Basement Tapes (1967)
  • John Wesley Harding (1967)
  • New Morning (1970)
  • Blood on the Tracks (NY sessions, 1975)
  • Desire (1976)
  • A couple of handsful of assorted songs.

I’m not including his admirable-but-less-than-great works, because they obfuscate matters: Nashville Skyline (1970), Planet Waves (1974), Oh Mercy (1989), Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006).

I’m also not including a whole gaggle of stuff I have great admiration for, which reflect Dylan at his finest, but are outside the scope of his primary achievement, his songs: various liner notes (especially Bringing It All Back Home and John Wesley Harding), Chronicles, his satellite-radio show Theme Time Radio Hour.

Is Dylan eligible for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

St Augustine

St Augustine

A former secretary of the Nobel Committee told me that the judges adhere meticulously to the letter and spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament. But I checked, and Al’s will doesn’t specify what constitutes ‘literature’.  “…One part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Al invented dynamite, and was sharp enough to appoint experts to choose the laureates. ‘The prize shall be awarded by the Academy in Stockholm.’

Last year’s laureate was Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian investigative journalist whose written corpus consists of interviews. No one made a peep, not even in Belarusian. Winston Churchill was an orator.

Haruki Murakami was considered a leading candidate. I’ve read a number of his books, and I’d put money on him saying something like ‘Dylan’s a million times more worthy than I of the prize’. Haruki is a fine writer, and he sounds like a guy I’d want to hang out with over a couple of beers. We’d probably talk about Dylan. In my most Dylanesque dreams, I couldn’t envision myself schmoozing with Bob over a brew, talking about Murakami.

Leonard Cohen’s reaction: “It’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.”

In other words, the prize is nice, it’s cute, but it’s not validating. Dylan doesn’t need anyone’s validation.

Does Dylan write poetry?

The fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains

The fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains

Answer #1:

No.
He writes lyrics to songs that he sings.
But he publishes his lyrics as written words!
So did Harold Pinter. You can buy the script of a Bergman movie.
Dylan’s defining mode of expression is singing songs. The lyrics and the music and the arrangement and the performance are all part of his artistic gestalt.

Answer #2:

I’m no expert on the subject, although I do have a couple of academic degrees in the subject, and I’ve been following Dylan closely for about 52 years, so I guess I ought to be able to say something coherent on the subject.

Unfortunately, I can’t. The question of whether Dylan’s lyrics stand as ‘poetry’ is one I’ve never really been interested in addressing. It’s speculation, it’s moot, it’s irrelevant.

It’s no more reasonable to judge his lyrics as poetry than it is to set Shakespeare’s sonnets to music and to judge them as lyrics.

Old Willie Yeats hit it on the head: O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Is Dylan worthy of The Nobel?

For Halloween give her a trumpet, and for Christmas buy her a drum

Dylan made his initial mark as a protest singer. I’m not even going to put that in quotation marks. It was his first persona, singing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’ and ‘With God on Our Side’ with Joan Baez and marching with Martin Luther King (August, 1963). But by January 1964 (liner notes to “The Times They Are A-Changing”) he was singing a different tune:

Woody Guthrie was my last idol/he was the last idol/because he was the first idol/I’d ever met/face t’ face/that men are men/shatterin’ even himself/as an idol/an’ that men have reasons/for what they do/an’ what they say/an’ every action can be questioned/leavin’ no command/untouched an’ took for granted/obeyed an’ bowed down to/forgettin’ your own natural instincts/(for there’re a million reasons/in the world/an’ a million instincts/runnin’ wild/an’ it’s none too many times/the two shall meet)/the unseen idols create the fear/an’ trample hope when busted/Woody never made me fear/and he didn’t trample any hopes/for he just carried a book of Man/an’ gave it t’ me t’ read awhile/an’ from it I learned my greatest lesson/ /you ask “how does it feel t’ be an idol?”/it’d be silly of me t’ answer, wouldn’t it . . .?

And by August, 1964, we were listening to another side of Bob Dylan: Good and bad, I define these terms/Quite clear, no doubt, somehow./Ah, but I was so much older then,/I’m younger than that now.

Thin Man

Thin Man

That was the first life lesson I learned via Dylan. Not from him, but through him. I was only 16 when he recorded and I heard ‘My Back Pages’. I had my pantheon of heroes—John & Paul, and John Keats, I guess. Preceded by Mickey Mantle and The Lone Ranger. Succeeded by Hitchcock and Primo Levi and Oliver Sacks and Rav Soloveitchik and JS Bach. In 1964, at 16, Dylan was my idol. And he’s telling me that there ain’t no idols. So that was a bit confusing. But most everything is confusing for a 16-year old, and Dylan is so often confusing. Like in 1974, when he finally released a live album with The Band, and it was so bad, his shouting a parody of a drunken, tone-deaf fraternity boy shouting out the lyrics. Or 1980, when he espoused a belief in Christianity. Dylan, the brightest of all, was spouting patent poppycock.

First he told me that there are no idols. Then he demonstrated it to me.

I always lagged behind Dylan, for a myriad of reasons. One of them is that he’s seven years older than me. I really encountered Dylan seriously in 1964, with “Another Side Of”. I was in the 10th grade. He was 23. That’s a big difference. I didn’t have 23-year old friends then, obviously. He was writing songs like ‘All I Really Want to Do’, the most disingenuous seduction song I know.

New York

New York

I’m guessing that at 16 I took it at face value, hearing the same theme as The Beatles’ ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance with You’, which was released the very same month. (If you’re wondering why Dylan got the Nobel and not the Beatles, there’s your answer. Sixteen year-old Jeff had no trouble palling around with them.) Or the rich, impassioned love/hate songs ‘I Don’t Believe You’ (I can’t understand, she let go of my hand) and ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ (Go ‘way from my window, leave at your own chosen speed.) How could I grasp those songs at 16? I’d barely been kissed.

And so it went, over the decades. So many songs just took me years to digest, to intuit, to get close to. I started to say ‘to wrap my mind around’, but that’s not really true. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ or ‘As I Went Out One Morning’–I fail to comprehend (that’s denotation as ‘wrap your brain around’) as much today as I did at 19, when “John Wesley Harding” was released. I’ve learned to accept their mystery, to love it. That’s where Dylan’s energy is, his electricity. In the synapses between what he says and what I understand.

Big brass bed

Big brass bed

What has Bob Dylan been for me? (And again, let me stress how different that question is from ‘Who is Bob Dylan in my eyes?’.)

Prophet?
I’m very uncomfortable with that term. No, he’s a human, directed not by the word of God, but by his own imagination. I’d maintain that there’s a fundamental connection between God and Dylan’s imaginative capacity, but Isaiah and Jeremiah made their reputations on the distinction between themselves and God, not by the overlap.
From the git-go, Dylan has been a man not of answers, but of questions. The answer is blowing in the wind.

Teacher?
I’ve certainly learned through him. But he’s never stood up in front of me and said ‘Open your book to page 61’ or ‘Spit out the gum’ or ‘You have to listen to this’. And I never asked him for permission to go to the john. All three times I saw him, I bought a ticket and he sang some songs.
Myself, what I’m going to do is rent Town Hall and put about thirty Western Union boys on the bill. I mean, then there’ll really be some messages.

20161023_130100Role model?
I’ve never sneered at a former girlfriend ‘How does it feel to be on your own?’. I’ve never flirted with Christianity. I’ve never been painted in white-face, sported a pencil moustache, or uncovered Sinatra.

Bob Dylan writes songs about what he sees and thinks and feels. I listen to them, form my impression of them, and go my merry way. More often than not, they give me food for thought. They enlighten me, because I learn things about the world through his eyes.

As he said in his later years about Woody Guthrie, “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.” There’s a big difference between that an idolatry. The learning is on the listener.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.
The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.

Music like that that played an instrumental, formative role in my learning how to live – to the extent that I’ve done so.

The Basement Tapes

510sg2it5lIn July, 1966 (shortly after the release of “Blonde on Blonde”), Dylan had a motorcycle accident and disappeared from the public eye. In December, 1967, he released the somber, enigmatic, cryptic “John Wesley Harding”, full of biblical allusions and newly-coined myth.

I ingested the album immediately – acoustic, soft and gentle in texture, profound and ominous in content. I’m still working on wrapping my mind around it, because that’s what I do. I know I’ll never be any wiser for all the effort, at least not in this lifetime.

We didn’t know it back then, because there were no alternative media resources, no Rolling Stone, no interweb, but Dylan recorded “John Wesley Harding” during a short break from his main occupation of the summer of 1967. He was hanging out with The Band in the basement of Big Pink, making music, old and new. Garth had a tape recorder.

A few pieces leaked out, but we couldn’t put them together: Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (September, 1967); Manfred Mann’s ‘Quinn the Eskimo’ (January, 1968), and most importantly “Music from Big Pink” in June, 1968, containing ‘Tears of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’. In November, 1968, The reconstituted Byrds released the first country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, including ‘Nothing Was Delivered’ and ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’.

Each one was an inscrutable, Sphinx-like enigma, although together with “John Wesley Harding”, some sort of picture was beginning to emerge – something home-sy, acoustic, grounded, back to basics. There was sublime humor (‘I looked at my watch, I looked at my wrist, I punched myself in the face with my fist’) and profound anguish (‘Any day now, any day now, I shall be released’).

“Nashville Skyline”, released in April, 1969, just made things confusinger.

Jeff the Bootlegger

20161023_125934But sometime in the winter I took a trip up to that town of refuge for bohemians, Yellow Springs, home of Antioch College, and came back with some paradigm-shifting booty: “The Great White Wonder” and “Troubled Troubadour”— unofficial, illegal vinyl recordings of the Basement Tapes and a few other unreleased Dylan oldies–the very first bootleg albums.

Years later I would organize the best of these recordings onto a cassette that I played till it plopped. I called the cassette “Never Felt So Good”, which can be read in two very different ways. The music reflected both.

The Up Side was a series of hilarious verbal tours de force – Yeah, Heavy and a Bottle of Bread; Million Dollar Bash; Tiny Montgomery; Lo and Behold; Please, Mrs Henry.

The Down Side contained several Scary Clown cuts (Nothing Was Delivered, Quinn the Eskimo, Too Much of Nothing), and several songs so serious, so profound, so rich that they continue today to shake and touch me to the very core–Tears of Rage, This Wheel’s on Fire, I Shall Be Released.

There was one cut that was too serious for The Up Side, too funny for The Down Side. Just like life. To even out the cassette, ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ went on the shorter side.

Tree with roots

Tree with roots

Clouds so swift rain won’t lift, gate won’t close and the railings froze

Get your mind off wintertime, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

(chorus) Whoo-ee! Ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s gonna come.

Oh, oh, are we gonna fly down in the easy chair!

I don’t care how many letters they sent, morning came and morning went.

Pack up your money and pick up your tent, you ain’t goin’ nowhere

Buy me a flute and a gun that shoots, tailgates and substitutes.

Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Genghis Khan, he could not keep all his kings supplied with sleep.

We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep when we get up to it

That’s Dylan for me. Elusive, slippery. Riveting. Hilarious and harrowing. “You could listen to that music and learn how to live.”

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

But my mind was busy rocking and rolling at that time. I’d mark ‘that time’ from the release of “John Wesley Harding” (December 1968) till May, 1970, 18 months.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

It was the headiest of times. Musically, it was the golden age of our lifetimes. Politically, the war was raging and the draft was a horrifying specter. Personally, I was having the time of my life. Hell, it was Woodstock! It was the apex of “The 60s” – sex, drugs and rock-and-roll dangling from every lovely tree.

8Then on May 4, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on protesting students at nearby Kent State, and it all came crashing down.

The university closed down, and every single familiar, friendly face in my life disappeared into the woodwork. My parents had left town half a year before. I was unmoored. Lost, disillusioned, terrified. Freefall.

Suddenly, I was rudderless, depressed and desperate. I did something unconscionably reckless, and paid for it with a 24-hour living nightmare. The next day, my sister was in town to visit her in-laws. I sat in the front seat of my car with her, held her perfect, innocent 10-month old baby in my arms, and wept.

I said, “I don’t like the life I’m leading. That’s not me.”

But what was me? I had no clue. Like always, I turned to the jukebox in my head for an answer. Do you know what came on? “Strap yourself to a tree with roots, you ain’t going nowhere.”

Within six months I was engaged to a rigorously clear-minded and focused woman, had moved to a fledgling country whose very existence was still precarious, and had committed to a religiously observant life.

The Meshel

rs-74-bob-dylanAm I thrilled by Dylan’s being awarded The Nobel?  As my father used to say, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. But, no, The Nobel is nothing more than a nice-to-have.

Almost 50 years ago, in my heart and soul and mind and life, I bestowed an award on this artist for introducing me to a new direction, a path I chose to adapt and adopt and live by. So today, let’s make it public and formal:

I hereby pronounce you, Robert Allen Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, the recipient of The Meshel, for creating music that has had a profoundly formative impact on my life.

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4

147: Frank Sinatra, ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

Posted by jeff on Oct 1, 2016 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

Frank Sinatra — ‘It Was a Very Good Year’

It’s early October, the leaves and the pages of the calendar are turning. Here in our little corner of the world it’s the New Year, a time for some sober and somber thoughts about whither we are tending. April may be the cruelest month, but September is hands-down the most reflective one.

My wife, my best friend and severest critic, is my first reader of these blogs. She catches my spelling errors, my typos and my incomprehenibilities. She doesn’t care too much for most of my kinds of music, but over these many years she’s learned to put up with it (at reasonable volumes).  She often asks me why I can’t every write about a nice song.

Here goes, Sports Fans – a great nice song about September and life and reflection, Frank Sinatra’s ‘It Was a Very Good Year’.

I’m not going to try to analyze Old Blue Eyes’ career. I have neither the tools nor the inclination. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been a great fan. I’ve always felt he was a very good singer of standards, even an excellent one, but with really nothing of significance to add artistically. Perhaps some of that negative bias is an arrested-adolescent reaction to my mother’s bobby-sox utter flutteration about him.

Ervin Drake

Sinatra’s contribution to our music can’t be overstated. He took the work of great theater composers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s –Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers – and recreated their songs in the 1950s and ‘60s as The Great American Songbook.

But us jazz snobs like to maintain that he’s not a jazz singer, certainly not in the sense that Ella and Louis were. He certainly swung, but improvisation wasn’t part of his musical vocabulary. The jazz singers I most admire praise him without reservation for being The Master of breath, phrasing, repertoire and attitude, but that sounds like damning with faint praise if you’re arguing that he’s an artist.

But I’m thinking that maybe I’m letting some old prejudices unfairly color my listening habits over the years. Not that Frankie needs my approbation. But maybe I have been missing some very obvious qualities that trillions of other people have been enjoying since 1939.

Mallard Drake

I have indeed always been a fan of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’. Yeah, the strings are a bit over the top, but what the heck, it’s September, life is passing by, one wants to indulge in a bit of gooey reflection.
I got very nervous when I saw that the song was written by one Ervin Drake, but a quick check showed that his parents were Max Druckman and Pearl Cohen, so I calmed down. He also penned classics such as ‘Perdido’ (great performances here by Duke Ellington and here by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), Frankie Laine’s inspiring  ‘I Believe’ (recorded also by both Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley), and ‘I Wuv A Rabbit’ (you don’t want to miss this video).

Kingston Trio

In 1961, his agent asked him to write a song for the mega-popular Kingston Trio. He obliged by knocking out overnight ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, here in the original version, the lead sung by Bob Shane. A couple of years later Sinatra heard it on his car radio, and thought it would fit perfectly in the album of melancholy and introspective songs he was assembling at the time.

That album, “September of My Years”, thirteen songs on the theme of aging and reflection, won the Grammy in 1965 as Album of the Year. It beat out the soundtracks for “Mary Poppins“, “My Fair Lady“, “Fiddler on the Roof“, “The Sound of Music“ and “Hello, Dolly“ – talk about a bumper crop!; as well as Barbra Streisand’s “People”, The Tijuana Brass’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights”,  Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”, and “Beatles ‘65’, “Hard Day’s Night” and ‘Beatles VI”. The song ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ won the Grammy as Best Male Vocal Performance.

The speaker recalls his life in terms of his loves, at the ages of 17, 21 and 35. Now (at 50, in Sinatra’s case), he remembers it all as sweet and clear vintage wine. I suppose many of us would like to reflect back on our lives in similar terms. The Turtles, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, William Shatner, Boris Karloff, Michael Jackson, Statler & Waldorf (the two old geezers in the opera box in The Muppets), Robbie Williams (dueting posthumously with Old Blue Eyes), Homer Simpson, Ray Charles with Willie Nelson – they all did so, some reverent, some as parodies.

I never had a very high opinion of Sinatra as a person. I recently rewatched “The Godfather” (the First), in which ‘they say’ the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) was modeled on Sinatra. If you remember, Johnny’s floundering career was resurrected by a horse’s head getting him cast in a major Hollywood role. In 1952, Sinatra’s floundering career recharged was by his performance in “From Here to Eternity”. I wasn’t there personally, so I don’t know how he really got the part.

Gordon Jenkins, Frank Sinatra

But there is a fascinating video of Sinatra recording ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ in the studio, under the baton of Gordon Jenkins. Sinatra often hosted a few cronies at his recording sessions, but allowing in cameras was a rarity. The clip is worth watching closely.

I would have expected Sinatra in the studio to be glib, self-satisfied, strutting and vain. The truth is very far from that. He’s all business, deadly serious, and palpably engaged in the very evocative material. Just at the end of the ‘When I was 21’ verse, you see a thought pass across his face, a very serious memory I suppose, and he’s visibly moved by it. He turns to the page, checking the score.
As anyone who’s been on stage knows, there’s no alternative to emotional commitment.  You want to convey an emotion, you gotta experience the emotion. It’s gotta be real. What’s going on in Frank’s mind seems very, very real to me, thoroughly convincing. He’s thinking about the passage of his life. Every one of us thinks about that in September. Every one of us is mortal, every one of us has one year less left in his life. That’s pretty harrowing.

Then check out his face on ‘When I was 35, it was a very good year’ and on ‘When I was 35’ at the beginning and at the end of the third verse. He smiles slyly. It’s not a glib smile, it’s the smile someone who had a memorable experience years ago and has just relived it in his mind. I don’t know what Frank was doing when he was 35, but it looks like he is viscerally recollecting a very good time indeed.

And then in the final bars, after he’s finished singing, he’s listening to that army of violins conclude the story, he’s visibly moved. It’s over, and boom, “What was the time on that?” He just won my heart, Frank did. 100% passion, 100% technique. 200% artistry.

Sinatra died in 1998 at the age of 82. Gordon Jenkins died in 1984 at the age of 74. Ervin Drake turned 93 in April. We’d like to take this opportunity to wish Ervin, and all of you, A Very Good Year.

When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights.
We’d hide from the lights on the village green when I was seventeen.

When I was twenty one, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs,
With all that perfumed hair and it came undone when I was twenty one

Then I was thirty five it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls of independent means.
We’d ride in limousines, their chauffeurs would drive when I was thirty five.

But now the days grow short, I’m in the autumn of the year.
And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs.
From the brim to the dregs, it poured sweet and clear, it was a very good year.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

009: Barbra Streisand, ‘Lover Come Back to Me’
065: Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’
101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin’”

 

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246: Tom Waits, ‘Kentucky Avenue’

Posted by jeff on Sep 23, 2016 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

Tom Waits, ‘Kentucky Avenue’

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Tom Waits, ‘Kentucky Avenue’, live, 1979

In 1945 at 26, my father returned from the war, settled into family life with my mother and the 2-year old daughter he didn’t know, in the small New Jersey town where I’d be born three years later. He went to work in his father’s store. A war of wills ensued between my mother and her father-in-law. My mother won, and they had to leave.

My mother had a romantic predilection for Ohio, where she’d gone to college for a year. She sent my father to drive through Ohio till he found a town that looked like it could use a children’s clothing store. He found Lima (Lye-ma, like the bean, not like the one in Peru).

Young me

Young me

They were penniless. The first year we lived in a brand-new tract housing street, a slum even while it was being built. I attended second grade, my 13-year old sister raised me. The second year we moved to a very basic triplex in a mixed neighborhood with a decent school. After a year or two we moved into a house in the same neighborhood (reasonable except for the occasional rats and bats and the coal furnace that needed to be stoked every day–by me), where we lived through my 7th grade, till we moved to a Big City. Classmates included Charley Thomas, a black kid who lived in a shanty town; and Kathy Schoonover, whose father owned a bank and whose mansion had an elevator. All within a five-minute bike ride from my house and my school.

My buddies were Bill and Scott. I went to church for their confirmations, they came to Temple for my Bar Mitzvah. In between, we tried to get into as much trouble as possible. Soaping windows, stealing gas caps, shoplifting, exploring homes when the residents were away. A childhood I’m not proud of, not thankful for, a model devoutly avoided in raising my own kids.

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Photo by Anton Corbijn

My sister graduated from high school in Lima, a full couple of generations before it would serve as the setting for Glee. Back then, in real life, Lima was not where one would choose to grow up. More pipelines ran under Lima than any other place in the world (big Standard Oil refinery). There was a factory for making yellow school buses. Phyllis Diller, Hugh Downs and Joe Henderson were born there. There was a school for disabled children named for Roy Rogers’ and Dale Evans’ Downs Syndrome daughter, Robin. John Dillinger had escaped from jail in Lima. I knew I had a chance.

But, oh, that feeling of liberation—a Schwinn bike painted powder-blue with pink polkadots. (What on earth was I thinking?) It could, and did, go everywhere. Through every lane and cranny and backyard of the neighborhood, out to the first shop(lift)ing center, the trampoline place next to the Hires Root Beer stand, the dairy where we gorged on defective Heath Bar ice cream bars, and on out past eternity, all the way to the limits of our imagination, as far as our bikes would carry us.

935 State Street, Lima Ohio

935 State Street, Lima Ohio

Through the kind offices of Google Maps’ Street View, I’m able to see what 935 State Street looks like today. I don’t recognize much. But I don’t need a computer program to climb up on Rickie Rocky’s garage roof. To browse surreptitiously through the soda fountain and the candy counter (and of course those magazines) at Matthew’s Drug Store. To bike down to the Saturday morning cartoon marathon at the Sigma Theater. They’re all hardwired.

Kentucky Avenue, Whittier California

Kentucky Avenue, Whittier California

Tom Waits was born a year after me and grew up on Kentucky Avenue in Whittier, California. He wrote a very beautiful song about a very sordid place and time. The details are different, but the principle is the same.

Joey Navinski, the one who bragged about French-kissing Hilda the strip poker player, was a neighborhood kid who played the trombone. Dicky Faulkner, who’s “got a switchblade and some gooseneck risers,” (condoms) was known for always having a runny nose. “Mrs. Storm will stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn” – the real Mrs. Storm lived with her sister and would sit by her kitchen window armed with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Young Tom

Young Tom

Waits’ best friend was a boy named Kipper who had polio.

“I didn’t understand what polio was. I just knew it took him longer to get to the bus stop than me. I dunno. Sometimes I think kids know more than anybody. I rode a train once to Santa Barbara with this kid and it almost seemed like he lived a life somewhere before he was born and he brought what he knew with him into this world and so – it’s what you don’t know that’s usually more interesting. Things you wonder about.”

Things you wonder about at 12. The last verse of ‘Kentucky Avenue’, tying the spokes of his wheelchair and a magpie’s wings to Kipper’s shoulders and feet so that he can fly, fly away. Just like Aretha sings, in another context. Airborne by wonder, lifted on the wings of imagination, from Lima or from Whittier all the way to New Orleans and on to places we couldn’t yet even dream of.

Eddie Grace’s Buick got four bullet holes in the side.
Charlie DeLisle is sitting at the top of an avocado tree.
Mrs. Storm will stab you with a steak knife if you step on her lawn.
I got a half a pack of Lucky Strikes, man, so come along with me.
Let’s fill our pockets with Macadamia nuts
And go over to Bobby Goodmanson’s and jump off the roof.

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Photo by Anton Corbijn

Hilda plays strip poker when her mama’s ‘cross the street.
Joey Navinski says she put her tongue in his mouth.
Dicky Faulkner’s got a switchblade and some gooseneck risers
That Eucalyptus is a hunchback, there’s a wind down from the south.
So let me tie you up with kite string, I’ll show you the scabs on my knee.
Watch out for the broken glass, put your shoes and socks on
And come along with me.

Let’s follow that fire truck I think your house is burnin’ down
And go down to the hobo jungle and kill some rattlesnakes with a trowel.
We’ll break all the windows in the old Anderson place
and we’ll steal a bunch of boysenberries and I’ll smear ‘em on your face.
I’ll get a dollar from my mama’s purse and buy that skull and crossbones ring
And you can wear it round your neck on an old piece of string.

Then we’ll spit on Ronnie Arnold and flip him the bird
And slash the tires on the school bus now, don’t say a word.
I’ll take a rusty nail and scratch your initials in my arm.
I’ll show you how to sneak up on the roof of the drugstore.
I’ll take the spokes from your wheelchair and a magpie’s wings,
And I’ll tie ‘em to your shoulders and your feet.
I’ll steal a hacksaw from my dad and cut the braces off your legs
And we’ll bury them tonight out in the cornfield.
Just put a church key in your pocket, we’ll hop that freight train in the hall.
We’ll slide all the way down the drain to New Orleans in the fall.

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SoTW 179: Tom Waits, ‘Ruby’s Arms’

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