033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by jeff on Apr 15, 2010 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With male pianists, that can get pretty boring for me. But with female singers it can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and control, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the sublime to the grotesque, from the poignant to the maudlin. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’



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036: Laura Nyro, ‘Sweet Blindness’ (“Eli & the 13th Confession”)

Posted by jeff on Apr 8, 2010 in Rock, Song Of the week

I had an epiphanous listening experience today, of the type that make all that training and preparation and drudgework worthwhile.

I had a playlist for the day of things I wanted to get through: Don Friedman (a fine Bill Evans-styled pianist), the 5 CDs I own, because he’s coming to town next week, and I’m planning on seeing him; a new one by Liz Story, a youngish Californian Bill Evans-styled pianist who impresses me greatly every time I listen to her; and ‘At Last’, recorded in 1959 by cool bop clarinetist Tony Scott, backed by the very young, um, Bill Evans himself. Now, it’s true I start my listening most days with Bill Evans and 2 cups of brewed coffee, to ease my way into the real world. But by 9:30 I’m usually awake enough that the grey matter is beginning to stir, and I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I’m going to have to activate it at some point. That’s when I put on something a bit spicier than Bill Evans. Pick up the tempo. Add a saxophone or a singer.

But today Messrs Friedman and Evans and Ms Story held me in this very elegant, very gentle groove till way into the afternoon. So by about 4 o’clock I was ready to rip the roof off. And I’d been listening to new music, so it was time to allow myself my daily portion of the familiar. If I ever have rocking hours, it’s those.

And what did our fancy fall upon? One of our 10 Desert Island Rock Albums. Now, that’s a special occasion because, believe me, folks, no balanced person walks around listening to his DIRAs regularly. You gotta save them for the DI, right? You don’t want to wear them out. But the catch is how did they become DIRAs? Because you’ve known them and loved them and listened to them so hard and for so long that they’re often consigned to the same box in the back of the attic of your mind as the security blanket you slept with until you were six. Or fourteen.

So it’s 4:30, and we’re on the treadmill at the gym, and thank heavens there’s no one there and I’ve put MTV on mute, plugged into my Zen Creative, and–whoosh, my old aural lover, Laura Nyro’s “Eli and the 13th Confession”.

I had to pick one song to present you from this almost uniformly sublime album, no easy choice for me. So we went for one that’s fairly well known, “Sweet Blindness“, a paean to getting drunk on wine. But it just as well could have been ‘Luckie‘ or ‘Lu‘ or ‘Eli’s Coming’ or ‘Timer‘ or ‘Stoned Soul Picnic‘ or ‘Emmie‘ or ‘The Confession’.

How much do I love Laura Nyro? Well, enough that at the time my friend Mike and I intended to drive from Ohio to NYC to tell her how just much we loved her. (The pilgrimage fell through when Maybelline, my 1962 Triumph Herald, broke an axle.) She accompanied me through the darkest night of my life. And I’ve been listening to her for, well, 42 years now, and my admiration and enjoyment haven’t diminished a whit.

A lot of people don’t love Laura Nyro (pronounced ‘nero’). She was booed at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. She was affected, eccentric, at times self-indulgent and annoying. Her voice could put a banshee to shame.

But she also wrote a more than respectable list of hits embedded in the public’s ear: The 5th Dimension’s “Blowing Away”, “Wedding Bell Blues”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, “Sweet Blindness”, “Save The Country” and “Black Patch”; Blood, Sweat & Tears and Peter, Paul & Mary’s “And When I Die”; Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”; and Barbra Streisand with “Stoney End”, “Time and Love”, and “Hands off the Man (Flim Flam Man)”.

But of course that’s not the music I have cared about so deeply and so long.

She was born Laura Nigro in 1947 to an Italian musician father and a Jewish mother. Grew up in NYC, listening to ’50’s and ‘60’s girl groups, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, Mary Wells, Dusty Springfield, and the early Burt Bacharach-Hal David songs of Dionne Warwick, Leontyne Price, Ravel, Debussy and Persicetti, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. Laura always “adored” the music of Van Morrison.

Her writing is a unique blend of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, show tunes and rock.

Her first album (1967) included a few enduring gems despite a disastrous recording session: the divine, ebullient “Wedding Bell Blues“, the prescient “And When I Die“. She was considering an offer to become lead singer for Blood, Sweat and Tears after Al Kooper split, but was dissuaded by her new manager and close partner David Geffen.

“Eli & the 13th Confession” was released Feb 15, 1968. It was her second album, it had a perfumed lyric sheet insert (at a time when lyrics were not yet being printed), and it made her a cult heroine upon its release. That’s no small achievement, considering that at that time it was competing for attention with The White Album, Beggar’s Banquet, Astral Weeks (in my mind, always Eli’s soul brother), Music from Big Pink, Bookends, Notorious Byrd Brothers, Cheap Thrills, Child is Father to the Man. Pretty heady company, huh? And it takes a back seat to not one of them.

Then the fine but less-than-divine follow-ups “New York Tendaberry” and “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.” Then in 1971 a very funky album of covers with Labelle, “Gonna Take a Miracle”. Then she married a carpenter and retired from the music business at the age of 24. Then in 1976 she got a divorce and made her first of several comebacks, accompanied by a handful of lackluster albums over the next 20 years. Then in 1977 she began a life-long relationship with painter Maria Desiderio. Then she had a kid. Laura Nyro died at 49 in 1997 of ovarian cancer.

During these last 20 years, she wrote and sang songs about her pregnancy, animal rights, the unjust relocation of the Navajo people, and her menstruation cycle – you don’t believe me? “The descent of Luna Rosé (dedicated to my period)” from her 1993 CD “walk the dog & light the light”.  But that doesn’t diminish what she did in 1968.

Joni Mitchell owes her a great debt musically. The influence on Rickie Lee Jones can’t be overstated. She’s been praised most highly, and her impact acknowledged by the likes of Elvis Costello, Elton John and Bob Dylan (who reportedly went up to her at a party and said “I love your chords”). Alvin Ailey choreographed 5 dances to her music.

In recent years, Laura has been widely promoted as a lesbian voice. Well, that’s fine, I suppose. I do think that interpreting a song such as ‘Emmie’ (‘You were my friend, and I loved you’ as a Sapphic statement is creatively rewriting history. In any case, I’m sure not going to get passionate about any music or musician because of his/her/its sexual predilections.

So why do I have this intimate, passionate relationship with “Eli & the 13th Confession”? It’s a pageant of bright lights and fierce emotions. It’s gospel and doo-wop and a spiritual carpet ride through sex, love, the elation and deflation of relationships, drugs, God, the devil. The entire gallery of experiences of an eccentric, passionate, spiritual, loving person. She embraces her lover like a god, her God like a lover. It’s a trip.

Her words: There’s an avenue of Devil who believe in stone, Walking on God’s good side. A little magic, a little kindness. God is a jigsaw timer. Time and wine, red yellow honey sassafras and moonshine. The natural snow, the unstudied sea, a cameo. Super ride inside my lovething.

Catch the lyric—insisting that she “Ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking”, and then she does just that: “Wine of wonder”. Listen to the ebullient vocals, lead and backing. Laura’s wonderful blue-eyed soul piano. The terrific, brash, brassy New York studio musicianship. The shifting tempos (check the humor and funk in the ritardando when she segues from the intro into the opening lyric, and then shifts back a tempo in the refrain.

Oh, Jeff, shaddup already and let them enjoy this great, glorious music.

Let’s go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, get happy.

Down by the grapevine, drink my daddy’s wine, get happy, happy.

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a bit of a shade hung over.

Come on baby, do a slow float, you’re a good looking riverboat

And ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?


Let’s go down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, good morning.

Down by the grapevine, drink my Daddy’s wine, good morning, morning.

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Please don’t tell my mother, I’m a saloon and a moonshine lover.

Come on baby, do a slow float you’re a good looking riverboat

And ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?


Don’t ask me cause I ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking,

Ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking, ain’t gonna tell you what I’ve been drinking–

Wine of wonder, wonder, (by the way).

Oh, sweet blindness, a little magic, a little kindness. Oh, sweet blindness, all over me.

Don’t let daddy hear it, he don’t believe in the gin mill spirit.

Don’t let daddy hear it, he don’t believe in the gin mill spirit.

Come on baby, do a slow float you’re a good looking riverboat

and ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?

Now ain’t that sweet eyed blindness good to me?


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Van Morrison SoTWs
SoTW 28: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’
SoTW 66: Rickie Lee Jones, ‘Skeletons’

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024: Oi Va Voi, ‘Refugee’

Posted by jeff on Feb 28, 2010 in Other, Rock, Song Of the week

Three facts:

  • I admire a British ‘world/klezmer’ band called Oi Va Voi.
  • When I tell most of my friends that, they take off in the opposite direction.
  • After I corral them, beg/bribe/coerce them to try it, they agree.

Let me clarify a couple more points:

  • I’m Jewish, I’m proud of it, and I can’t stand any klezmer music (although I think guys like Andy Statman and Dave Grisman are going in interesting directions).
  • The chances that I would be pushing a young British band with the name ‘Oi Va Voi’ are about as great as the chances of me beginning to fly or adhering to a serious diet. For the uninitiated out there, oi va voi in Yiddish denotes ‘Oh, dear!’ but connotes ‘Ay, all the woes of the world and hardships of history are on my shoulders!’ It would be equivalent to naming a Gentile band ‘Aren’t They Cute?’

Wait!!! The fact is that I have indeed foisted them on innumerable friends, the great majority of whom actually appreciated the gesture. So before you Delete me and them, give a listen to their song ‘Refugee’ from their first CD, “Laughter Through Tears” (2003).

The make-up of the group seems rather amorphous, more a scene than a band. The extravagant violin and all the charisma seem to have been supplied by Sophie Solomon, and the talent by Lemez Lovas, both of whom subsequently left the bash, after which the party crashed musically.

They call themselves a klezmer band. But it turns out that when they say klezmer, they mean Jewish ethnic, and when they say ethnic they mean ‘world’. Uh-oh.

The term world music used to make me extremely uncomfortable. I always figured that anything that big can’t mean anything other than ‘part-of-the-universe’ pablum. But then I saw somewhere a definition that gave me great comfort – it’s music you can dance to, with some Balkan and Afro-Cuban ingredients and maybe a shot of Arabic. That’s comforting because it excludes a whole lot more than it includes. No Japanese Gagaku. No Mongolian Khöömii. No Andean Sikú. Okay, now I have some idea of what I’m getting. I can do Balkan.

So how does Sophie Solomon, a young half-Jewish British violinist become a klezmerite? >From a BBC interview with her:

[In the 1950’s] my uncle Harold was very into Yiddish song and trying to revive it. He cut a 78rpm recording of himself singing Yiddish and Hebrew songs. He was a really bright guy who went up to Oxford to read philosophy at 16 and was really good friends with Bertrand Russell. He immersed himself in Yiddish culture and wrote a contemporary “Third Seder “(Passover supper) piece with Yiddish music. But his father told him that if he continued his relationship with his non-Jewish girlfriend, he would say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) for him. So in 1954, instead of coming home for the Passover supper, he turned on the gas in his Oxford flat and that was that. He left behind the old 78 of him singing the songs.

Of course he died 24 years before I was born in 1978 and I didn’t know much about him until I got into klezmer. Then my dad told me more about him and found his old record. It was an amazing discovery for me and I got more and more intrigued. And recently I was commissioned by the Jewish Institute, funded by the National Lottery’s Milennium Award scheme, to write a piece based round my Uncle Harold’s story for string trio, accordion, clarinet and the samples of my uncle’s vocals. I called it Feter Chaim Moyshe (feter = uncle), his Hebrew name. Its first performance was at Trinity College in London in March 2003

What can I tell you? It’s not life-changing music. Well, I guess for Sophie it was. But everyone who hears it says, ‘Hey!’, and dances a little Balkan jig.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:
092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)
071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’
030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’

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021: Mal Waldron & Steve Lacy, ‘Snake Out’

Posted by jeff on Feb 28, 2010 in Jazz, Song Of the week

A serendipitous happenstance, as my mother used to say.

On the one hand, I just returned from a short visit to Paris (hence my absence last week), and was looking for a  French connection Song of The Week, having quite a hard time of it. It says a lot about my lack of appreciation for le scene that I couldn’t think of a single piece more recent than Eric Satie that speaks to me (with the glaring exception of James Taylor’s lovely tune ‘Chanson Française’, which probably doesn’t count).

And on the other hand, I got a lot of flack about SoTW 19, the free jazz bass player playing with Mal Waldron, sounding like chickens being beheaded right there in the studio. And I feel very bad about that, not for the chickens, not even for the bassist, but because I didn’t give Mal Waldron his proper respect.

So, a confluence of interests–I’ve been listening to Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy’s 4-CD “Live at Dreher, Paris 1981” on the hatology label for years now, and every single time, it’s a trip.

I raised the subject of ‘free jazz’ in the previous mailing, and I’d like to try to present a bit of a defense of it here, if you’ll bear with me. I know it’s an uphill fight, because normal people aren’t predisposed to subject themselves to music which is a priori painful to the ears. But really, it’s not that simple.

What are we talking about? It’s music that’s highly improvisational, usually starting from a pre-composed theme and then typically flying off into extreme improvisation. It’s often hard on the ear, aggressive, non-melodic, even atonal.

So what’s the attraction? There are times when ‘nice’ just doesn’t do it. When you feel you need a challenge, something larger and more weighty to wrap your mind around. Not necessarily ponderous or profound or pompous or pompommed (sorry for that last one). Something with grit and gristle.

I’m hoping you’ll have the courage and patience to give our Song of The Week a good listen. It’s 15 minutes long, and it’s definitely not background music for riding an elevator or shopping for groceries or talking to your mother-in-law on the phone. Know what? If you’re not willing to give it a good, serious listen, don’t even turn it on, because it’ll just annoy you. But I do urge you to try it. Learning takes work. I don’t enjoy a lot of what I listen to, but I work at it. What can you do? Listening to music is serious business.

This piece is called ‘Snake Out’, written by Waldron. A song is worth a thousand words, even if it’s 15 minutes long. It needs space to, if you’ll pardon the eponymousness, ‘snake out’. This week’s SoTW does just that. I find it hypnotic, engaging, passionate, dignified. And extremely edifying.

Mal Waldron (piano) has worked in a whole range of styles and contexts. In the 1950s he was house pianist and composer for the Prestige label, played in many dozens of sessions (including Coltrane, and in Mingus’s band), and one session entirely of Thelonious Monk compositions led by the soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1958. In the late 50s he accompanied Billie Holiday on stage and in the boudoir till her death. In 1961 he recorded ‘The Quest’ with Eric Dolphy and Ron Carter, an avant-garde classic. He then emigrated to Europe, suffered a breakdown, returned to record prolifically, mostly on small European labels, often in his very personal, dark, brooding, insistently percussive style. I’ve heard one CD of him playing Brahms and Chopin, and even they sound like good old obsessive, depressive Mal. He met up again with Lacy in the 1970s, and over the years they recorded over half a dozen albums together, sometimes as leaders of a hard-bop/avant-garde group, sometimes with Lacy’s very open jazz ensemble, and several times as a duo, which are some of my favorite music, especially this set. Waldron spent most of his time in Europe till his death in 2002, with some 70 recordings under his name.

Steve Lacy was born Steven Norman Lackritz. Not an auspicious name for an entertainer, huh? But from 1957 till his death in 2004 he also recorded some 70 albums, also mostly for small European labels. He’s been the leading proponent of the soprano sax, an instrument for which I hold a very strong predilection. It has a sweet mournful sound, and seems to cause people playing it to go in that direction, even more than flautists are drawn to the flighty and bouncy, or cellists to the thoughtful and poetic.

Both Waldron and Lacy have a strong personal voice, and play in contexts ranging from the ‘pretty’ to the horrifying (for the unaccustomed ear). I’ve deliberately chosen a piece from the Dreher set which isn’t too easy, melodic, or accessible. But neither, I think, is it impenetrable or painful to the ears. It’s intense, focused, insistent. Both Waldron and Lacy will grab a phrase, work it and rework it, knead it and probe it and dissect it and squeeze it and exhaust it to a point of catharsis. It’s an arduous trip (like mine to Paris), but enriching. Bon voyage.

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