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265: Dion DiMucci, ‘Abraham, Martin and John’

Posted by jeff on Jun 23, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Dion — ‘The Wanderer’

Dion — ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’

Dion — ‘Kickin’ Child’

Dion — ‘Spoonful’

Dion — ‘I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound’

Back in my playwrighting days I used to tape a short note to the screen (it was the early days of word processors), right in front of my eyes, the key message I needed to focus on (“Put the girl behind the 8-ball! Keep the girl behind the 8-ball!!” or “He doesn’t take the gun out till the third act!” For this piece I resorted to that old habit: “Jeff, move it forward or you’ll never finish.” And of course I didn’t, and I didn’t’.

imagesI had hoped to cover the whole arc of Dion’s career here, but I of course got bogged down in his riveting, obscure years in the later 1960s and managed only the first 11 years (out of 49). That’s alright. Dion’s worth revisiting.

You all know ‘Runaraound Sue’ and ‘The Wanderer’. If you’re of a certain age, you might even know our ostensible Song of The Week ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. But chances are you’ve only scratched the surface. Our SoTW isn’t really about that song, it’s about Dion 1964-68, floundering careerly, knocking out lots of bold, innovative, relevant contemporary music during one of the most interesting periods in pop music – a legend languishing in drugs and obscurity.

Dylan (on “Kickin’ Child”): “If you want to hear a great singer, listen to Dion. His voice takes its color from all palettes–he’s never lost it–his genius has never deserted him.” You can’t always take Bobby’s recommendations at face value. This one I think you can. As a matter of fact, if you look closely, you might just reach the conclusion that Dion was the most respectable and successful and honest follower of his Columbia stablemate, both in covers and in original songs, as well as the entire nascent folk-rock sensibility.

c5dbf8747d64f5323c916ed993630d4eDion DiMucci is a really cool guy. A nice guy, a walking and talking legend who has been consistently (more or less) knocking out fresh, appealing music for longer than anyone else on earth, and deserves a whole lot of appreciation.

How many major recording artists from the 1950s can you name who successfully transitioned through the British Invasion to remain relevant, honest, creative musicians. I can name one. Elvis? He died in the army. Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? The Everly Brothers? No, no, and no.

Was Dion any different from Ricky Nelson or The Everly Brothers or Roy Orbison or Elvis Presley?
They all started as teen mega-idols in the late 50s. Their work has stood the test of time—they were the best of their era (excepting the great Buddy Holly, whose early death appears more tragic with each passing decade). These were never Fabians, but real creative artists (as far as that was possible in the Brill Building/Top 40 culture of the time. When the Brits came, they grew their hair and tried to remain au courant. Unsuccessfully. Each faded in his own way (Rick in a plane crash, Don and Phil in acrimony, Roy in personal tragedy, Elvis in pills and pitiful self-parody.)

dion-60s-2-500Dion sank into drugs in the mid-60s, disappeared from the public eye, struggled commercially for many years before finally attaining some degree of recognition for his ongoing musical achievements in his later years. But those struggles produced almost 30 original, interesting albums between 1967 and 2017!

I’ve been gorging myself on that corpus, but I’ve only partially digested it. He switched recording companies frequently, and some of his best work was never released or only in secret. But every single one is worth listening to (and talking about, thank goodness).

1957-60, Wop Doo Wop

Authentic doo-wop Bronxters, The Belmonts had hits with ‘I Wonder Why’ (“We sang ‘gna gna gna’ because the only lyrics we could think of all included ‘knockers’), ‘A Teenager in Love’ (Dick Clark’s audience painfully clapping on 1/3), ‘Where or When’ (from the 1937 Rogers and Hart musical “Babes in Arms”). In 1959, on tour in Iowa, he gave up his seat ($36 was a month’s rent for his parents) on the plane which crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper (‘the day the music died’).  Young Bobby Zimmerman saw a show from that tour, and if you’re wondering what effect it had on him, listen to his Nobel speech. By the next year Dion was being treated for heroin addiction.

1960-64 Tearing Open His Shirt

Where's 'Rosie'??

Where’s ‘Rosie’??

He recorded a string of hits which still are still utterly convincing today – ‘Lonely Teenager’ (this live acoustic version is so reminiscent of Buddy Holly’s apartment tapes; it’s delicious to imagine how John Lennon would have reacted to this), ‘Runaround Sue’ (time capsule material), ‘The Wanderer’ (more swagger than Jagger), the knockout ‘Little Diane’ (darkest, most manic kazoo ever), ‘Lovers Who Wander’ for the little Laurie label. He then moved to Columbia (their first ‘rock’ signing), where he had a string of moneymakers, including the oh-so-cool Leiber-StollerRuby Baby’ (originally by The Drifters) and ‘Donna the Prima Donna’, despite a burgeoning heroin addiction.

Dion wrote or co-wrote most of his material, an anomaly at the time. No one had yet dreamed of the term ‘singer-songwriter’.

1965-67 The Harbinger Unnoticed

Looking to leverage his pop success, Mitch Miller of Columbia tried to make Dion (“Last of the One-Name Singers”) into a Las Vegas crooner. But he was coming under the sway of producer John Hammond, with a pronounced predilection for the acoustic blues (e.g., ‘Spoonful‘) which he maintains till today.

05813584d5af614f7ff971bf79e73349Then he hooked up with Tom Wilson, the Columbia producer he shared with folkie Dylan. Conventional wisdom says that Wilson made Dion sound like “Bringing It All Back Home” Dylan. It seems at least as likely that Wilson made Dylan sound like Dion. Think about it. Who of the three of them really knew electric blues and rock and roll (Wilson’s background was avant garde jazz)?

On December 8, 1964, with Dylan out on tour, Wilson recorded Dion with the expressed purpose of trying to imagine what Dylan would sound like in an electric context. Here’s ‘So Much Younger’ from that session.

Then Wilson took Dylan’s ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and overdubbed a rock band on it. Dylan liked it so much he recorded immediately recorded the electric tracks for BIABH (January 13-15, 1965). (Wilson would pull the same trick on folkies Simon and Garfunkel, electrifying their acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ in abstentia with studio musicians.)

dion050710wDion’s 1964-65 discography is rich, intriguing and murky. Most of it wasn’t released at the time. Compilations were made in 1991’s “Bronx Blues”, 2007’s “The Road I’m On”, the 2015 box set “King of the New York Streets”, and the recently released “Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965” (given a glowing 5-star review by All Music’s Thom Jurek: “It’s absolutely one of the greatest folk-rock records ever”).

During mid-1965, Dion and Wilson (with help from one Al Kooper) recorded the tracks on “Kickin’ Child”. They include some of the most honest readings of Dylan songs I’ve ever heard, some of them obscure gems: ‘Baby, I’m In the Mood for You’ (Dylan’s version), ‘Farewell’ (Dylan), and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ (Dylan). There are also Dion-penned cuts that, to be honest, aren’t all that distinguishable from ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ et al, such as ‘Kickin’ Child’, ‘My Love’, ‘Two Ton Feather’.

728b3454c652aa8016efdf36c61414c7You have to remember that Dylan was being heard only by folkies, and there was tremendous pressure by The Suits to capitalize on his potential in the pop market (“Nobody Sings Dylan Like Dylan”). There was also a desire by some of the more open-minded folkies to explore the lands discovered by The Beatles. Thus was born folk-rock, the dominant aesthetic in serious popular music for the past two or three generations.

Cher, The Turtles, Them, The Byrds – all of a sudden everyone was generating hits from Dylan songs cast in a rock context. They all were of course misdirected. Does The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (also electrified in the studio) illuminate Dylan’s original? I think not. I think it’s a commercially-successful, historically significant but artistically insignificant gesture.

pepperdionColumbia and McGuinn/Clarke/Crosby/Hillman should have understood – let Byrds be Byrds, not Dylan wannabes. Dion was never a bandwagoner. He was a rocker before The Beatles (of enough stature that they’d put him on the cover of “Sgt Pepper”; together with Dylan, the only live Americans to be so honored).  Dion’s Dylan recordings are genuine, honest, and as opposed to all the aforementioned hits—totally legitimate readings.

Most of the recordings went unreleased at the time, so Dion reunited with The Belmonts on ABC records in 1966-67 for another musically ambitious album very much of the era, “Together Again”.  The album tanked in the US, but generated a number of charted covers in the UK, including the flower-power ‘My Girl the Month of May’ (covered by The Bunch, including Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson) and ‘Your Own Backyard’ (a minor 1970 hit, a confessional account of his ongoing struggles with H, successfully covered by Mott the Hoople).

Thought I saw him walking along a hill...

Thought I saw him walking along a hill…

In 1968, following another period of cleaning up his habit and getting reacquainted with the Church of his youth, he went back to the little Laurie label to record a mix of (again) forward-looking contemporary covers. It includes a soft, acoustic ‘Purple Haze’; a very cool ‘Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever’ (this is years before James Taylor or anyone else gave intelligent, gentle white readings of Motown power classics); songs by Canadian brand-newcomers Joni Mitchell (‘Both Sides Now’) and Leonard Cohen (‘Sisters of Mercy’); and a mash-up of the Dylan gem ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ with Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talking’ (a year before Nilsson’s version), as well as a few respectable originals – very similar to Judy Collins’ influential album of covers from the year before “In My Life”.

But little Laurie had a caveat – Dion had to include ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, inspired by Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations (tied to those of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy), perhaps the last patriotic song to come from ‘our’ side of the fence before the shit hit the fan several weeks later in Chicago.

hqdefaultThe song was written by Dick Holler and produced by Phil Gernhard, who had worked together back in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, where Dick led The Rockets (later The Holidays), a local band that included at times Jimmy Clanton, Dr John Rebennack and Johnny Rivers. Holler had a minor hit with ‘A Double Shot of My Baby’s Love’ (better known as the cover by the Swinging Medallions) and a major one with ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ as recorded by The Royal Guardsmen.

‘AM&J’ was a major hit, still covered today. Perhaps not Dion’s most typical song, but respectable, touching. (Who among us is not profoundly saddened by those assassinations and the change they wrought on our world?) Okay, that harp is just a bit gushy (Dion added some classical guitar just to class it up a bit–gee, we never even got to talk about what a fine guitarist he is.)

Ah, there’s so much more to tell. But my time has run out, as I’m sure has your patience. So I’ll just have to leave y’all cliffhanging till the next installment of that long, tortuous road Dion has travelled, and the fine music he’s made along the way.

We hope to continue the Dion saga. In the meantime, you can keep yourself busy with his unknown masterpiece, SoTW 082, “Sit Down, Old Friend“.

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262: Bob Dylan, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

Posted by jeff on May 12, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Dylan1970‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Went to See the Gypsy’ (“New Morning”)

‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘This Evening So Soon’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

‘Pretty Saro’ (“Another Self-Portrait”)

From 1963 to 1967, Bob Dylan released the seven consecutive great albums (eight if you count the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. No one else, not even The Beatles, has made seven consecutive records that are at the absolute top of their game. It can legitimately be argued that no one else has made a single album that can stand with these eight, but that’s a different question.

Then came the motorcycle crash, two years of silence, and “Nashville Skyline” (1969), a clichéd, crooning bewilderment to his fans. I remember its reception well. There were those who said it was great, beyond our grasp; there were those who said it was regrettable schlock; the majority of us are still scratching our heads.

71wTIJj+1ZL._SL1280_Then came “Self-Portrait” (1970), a hodgepodge double album of covers of contemporaries (‘The Boxer’), traditional standards (‘Copper Kettle’), and sub-standard live cuts (‘She Belongs to Me’). Greil Marcus’s Rolling Stone review of the album opened “What is this shit?” It was Dylan’s first commercial and universally critical failure.

Four months later, he released “New Morning”, a laid-back paean to family life. In my opinion, it stands in line with his great works. Not everyone agrees.

In the late 60s, some anonymous hippie entrepreneurs began printing up “bootleg” recordings of Dylan, featuring cuts from the Basement tapes. I was a proud owner of ‘The Masked Marauder’ and ‘The Great White Wonder’, the first and most famous bootlegs. In 1975, Columbia convinced Dylan to capitalize on the great public interest in these recordings, and released a double LP.

Another Self Portrait_1In 1991 Columbia began releasing official “Bootleg Series” CDs, of uneven quality and interest. To the utter amazement of many, there were indisputable gems among the dross, such as the brilliant ‘Blind Willie McTell’, inexplicably excluded from release on the mediocre+ 1983 “Infidels”.

In 2013, they laid on us “Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10”– mostly outtakes from “Self-Portrait”, with a few uninteresting alternate takes from “Nashville Skyline” and a few abysmal ones from “New Morning”with horrifying orchestration by the once deified Al Kooper. Outtakes from “Self-Portrait”? C’mon Bob – wasn’t the original bad enough?

But Dylan is Dylan, and there’s a reason he won the Nobel Prize. “Another Self Portrait” contains a number of unqualified, indisputable wonders that somehow justify the original disaster. As Rolling Stone put it, “a great record lurked inside all along.” I’m gonna chew the fat about a few of my favorites here.

  • The Road

    The Road

    Pretty Saro’is an English ballad that originated in the early 18th century, disappeared for a hundred years, resurfaced (via oral tradition in the Appalachians) in the mid-20th century, as recorded by Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Bert Jansch and Mr Z himself.
    Dylan’s version is more direct, heartfelt, compassionate, and downright pretty than you’d believe. It’s just a heartbreaker of a song.

  • ‘Annie’s Going to Sing Her Song’ was written and recorded by Tom Paxton in 1970.
  • ‘This Evening So Soon’ is Dylan’s version of Bob Gibson’s “Tell Ol’ Bill”, here performed by Dave Van Ronk (yes, the subject of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’), an old cohort of Dylan’s from the Village days.
  • The words of ‘Spanish is the Loving Tongue’ were written as “A Border Affair” in 1907 by the Poet Laureate of South Dakota, Charles Badger Clark and set to music in 1925 by Billy Simon (a real cowboy!). It was originally recorded by Tex Fletcher (1936), but the best we could come up with is Texas Jim Robertson’s 1941 version. Sue me. Bob’s version is—oh, Bob! That piano! That voice! Oh, Bob!
  • Well, Well, Well -- Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    Well, Well, Well — Elvis (foreground), Dylan (hidden)

    And our SoTW, ‘Went to See the Gypsy’, which we’ve known and loved since it appeared on “New Morning”. The song has often been parsed as Dylan’s depiction of a meeting with Elvis in a Las Vegas-ish hotel – which never took place. They never met, in reality. But this fictitious non-meeting is memorable, both the released version (Dylan on piano, Kooper on organ, the whole band keeping the tempo moving forward) and the bootleg (Dylan on acoustic, probably David Bromberg on acoustic lead).

So it goes like this:

  1. I went to see the gypsy. I met him, but nothing happened.
  2. I snuck out on the pretext of making a phone call.
  3. A go-go girl caught me and said, “Try again, he’s a real guru.”
  4. I watched the lights on the river.
  5. I went back upstairs to his suite, but he was gone.
    (I went back downstairs to look for her, but) the dancing girl was gone as well.
  6. I thought about my childhood.
Meeting of Titans--Dylan (l), Presley (r)

Meeting of Titans–Dylan (l), Presley (r)

One other point that’s always intrigued me about the song. We’re at the height of drama, the meeting of titans, on the edge of our chairs, and what happens? “I went down to the lobby to make a small call out” (in both versions). A ‘small’ call, nothing that couldn’t have waited.

What does all this mean? I have no idea. If I were being paid to teach sophomore English, I could make up some sort of scenario that encompasses all that, but it would leave a bad taste in my mouth, and make the kids hate college even more than they already do.

Rescue Team

Rescue Team

There are differences in lyrics; nothing in the league of the “Blood on the Tracks” material, but telling nonetheless:

Bootleg: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he wished me well.”
Official: “He smiled when he saw me coming, and he said ‘Well, well, well!’”
Giant win for O.

Bootleg: “How are you?” he asked of me/And I asked the same of him.”
Official: “How are you?” he said to me/I said it back to him.”
Giant win for O.

Official: “Outside the lights were shining on the river of tears/I watched them from the distance with the music in my ears”.
Bootleg: “Oh, the lights were on the river shining from outside/I contemplated every move, or at least I tried”.
A tie. Both are strained, underwhelming.

Kitchenette

Kitchenette

But the way he picks that up for the knockout ending? He couldn’t find the pretty dancing girl, “So I watched the sun come rising on/in that little Minnesota town.” Yow. Where did that come from?

But it fits so well with the dreamlike, non-sequiturial goings-on. In tone, and even in sense – with a mind-tingling stretch of the imagination. ‘What am I doing here, I’m just a boy from Hibbing?’

But what the heck? This isn’t James Taylor talking about Carolina or Joni Mitchell talking about Canada. Dylan doesn’t go back to Minnesota. He’s deleted it from his memory map. He changed his name, invented a new biography. So where did this suadade come from all of a sudden in 1970? Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bob Dylan. Then wait 20 seconds and you get to meet another one.

dylan24n-5-web

Tracks

Official: “From that little Minnesota town” is repeated, with a resolution in major on the second phrase.
Bootleg: He says it only once, leaves it hanging in an unresolved minor chord, with a lovely, long instrumental outro.
Big win for B.

Both versions are convincing renditions of an enigmatic, intriguing song.  If I had to choose a favorite between the two, I’d choose both. But if you’re trying to make sense of all this, you’re barking up the wrong Gypsy. Welcome to Dylanland.

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259: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: ‘Marcie’ (Joni Mitchell), ‘Don’t Think Twice’ (Dylan)

Posted by jeff on Mar 24, 2017 in Jazz, New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

122815-r4-f3_wide-3f58a2451f6181b363e9f119d2fe83033cd14290-s900-c85Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Marcie’

Joni Mitchell — ‘Marcie’

Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

Bob Dylan — ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’

I’ve made it a guiding principle of this blog to focus on music I love. Hence, you only know the jolly, positive, coddling Jeff.
Alas, there’s an alter ego lurking in the nether depths of my Critic’s Psyche: the censorious, condemnatory, disparaging, judgmental Jeff, the one those near and dear to me have the misfortune of suffering through.

maxresdefaultSo this week I’m going to share with you not one but two! new covers of great songs from not one but two! artists I greatly admire. Except I’m going to step on some toes and sour-milk some sacred cows along the way. Bear with me, I promise there will be a happy ending.

Chris Thile (b. 1981) and Brad Mehldau (b. 1970) just released a double CD. I have great admiration for the former, the preeminent jazz pianist around today; immense respect for the latter, a certified MacArthur wunderkind. But I find it a mediocre disk, even boring. I’ve listened to it maybe 25 times in the last two weeks, and most of it still just wafts past my ears.

Perhaps it’s something in the sound of the mandolin. Say what you want, it sounds to me like a toy guitar from the Ozarks, no matter how brilliant the notes are.

Perhaps it’s the fact that Mehldau tends to disappear in collaboration, displaying excessive modesty when he should be leading the band.
That’s why I always prefer listening to him solo. Nowhere to hide, Brad – it’s all painfully vulnerable, exposed, grave and seriously profound, whether he’s playing Bach or Radiohead.

However, there are two cuts on the album that made my head spin. Both are covers of great songs by great artists. And in one way or another, both improve on the original.

#             #             #

11e499000e1ae934ee0afb385d9863ca‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, from Dylan’s first real album (of originals).

I don’t say that lightly. The very idea of someone improving on Dylan’s treatment of his own song is fundamentally questionable. “No one sings Dylan like Dylan.” In one of our first SoTWs we wrote about exactly such a case—Fairport Convention singing ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’. But there, if you’ll pardon the hairsplitting, it’s more Dylan’s fault than Sandy Denny’s achievement. He wrote a gentle, intriguing song and shouted it out, banging on the piano. Fairport just laid back and gave it a suitable, straightforward reading.

Not so with ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’, one of Dylan’s first ‘hits’ (popularized by the fine Peter, Paul and Mary cover from late 1963, half a year after the release of “Freewheelin’”). Dylan “borrowed” a lot of the song from fellow folkie Paul Clayton’s ‘Who’s Gonna Buy You Ribbons’, but the scathing, caustic dismissal of the girl (in retrospect, of course) and the relationship they did/didn’t have is all Dylan aged 22 par excellence. Dylan raised snide, furious, finger-pointing name-calling to a Nobel Prize-level art form.

Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is ironic. He doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t think twice. He’s beating her up verbally, machine-gunning her with his esprits de l’escalier, getting in all the last punches beneath the belt after the bell has rung. It’s all condescension and self-righteousness. He means that he’s going to leave her with a pummeling that will make her regret losing the wonderful Him 10,000 times a day while she’s recuperating.

Thile-Chris-07Chris Thile tells a very different story. It’s all insouciance, nonchalance, cool. What we adults call indifference. There’s no recrimination, no great regrets, because, really, who cares? Who needs a real relationship? Who wants commitment? We were together, it’s getting messy, I’m out of here before I get anything sticky on me.

When Dylan sings “We never did too much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘little you wasn’t capable of entering a dialogue with wonderful me.”
When Thile sings “But we never really did that much talking anyway”, the subtext is ‘What’s the big deal? It’s not like we talked or anything.”

When Dylan sings “I gave her my heart by she wanted my soul”, he’s accusing her of predatory rapaciousness.
When Thile sings it, with a wonderfully expressive squeal, he’s saying ‘Hey, she tried to scratch my Teflon, man! I’m out of here!’

Now, the question is whether the song holds the potential for both readings. Admittedly, Chris has the distinct advantage of coming from a generation that doesn’t give a fuck about anything.

Want to hear my opinion? I have a lot of respect for Chris’s reading. Dylan’s is a perfect example of why I admire him so much and have no affection for him. He’s really quite obnoxious in his self-righteousness. Chris? He may be as uncommitted as a jellyfish, but at least there are no pretentions about it.

#             #             #

joni&doug

Photo: Rod Pennington

‘Marcie’, from Joni Mitchell’s first album

I’ve written a series of postings about Joni’s early albums: ‘Cactus Tree’ from the first album; ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ from the second; ‘For Free’ and ‘Woodstock’ from the third; ‘Blue’ and ‘River’ from the fourth. Someday I’ll get to the enigmatic, elusive ‘For the Roses’.

The first album occupies a place in my heart for a number of reasons, as I wrote in SoTW 106: She was unknown, she was mine. It was the first collaboration of David Crosby (producer) and Stephen Stills (bass), a harbinger of things to come. It was the music she was singing when I met her in Nashville with Bob Dylan on the Johnny Cash show.

It’s a groundbreaking album. Together with Laura Nyro (who released her first album in February, 1967, and her masterpiece “Eli & the 13th Confession” the same month as Joni’s first, March 1968) they gave a new voice to the nascent new womanhood.

But most of all, it’s just a very fine album. Every song on Joni’s first album is a perfectly crafted gem of a vignette from her first taste of independence as a newly liberated woman, Greenwich Village.

I sat up straight and smiled broadly when I first heard Chris Thile’s ‘Marcie’. It was for me an utterly refreshing look at an old friend. It’s a fine example of the justification for covers, shining new light on great music. Not a revelation, perhaps, but certainly a revealing of truths I had previously not seen.

hqdefaultIf ‘Don’t Think Twice’ is all about Thile’s plinky mandolin, here it’s Brad’s elegant, legato accompaniment that carries the arrangement. Even Thile’s vocal is serving the tone set by Brad.

Thile/Mehldau’s reading isn’t so different from the original. It’s the same girl with the same predicament – living her life, but thinking only of the man not calling. But it does shed light some of the limitations of Joni’s music. That’s not a criticism – Joni’s reading is full, convincing, unassailable, memorable. But you’ve always got the road not taken – every choice you make means passing on the alternative, never to be explored. At least until someone comes along and covers your song.

Chris’s treatment is so much more intimate, fraught with so much empathy. In contrast, Joni sounds removed, distant. As painfully confessional as Joni is at her best, the exposure is in the lyrics. Her carefully controlled tremelo sounds just a little standoffish in comparison with Chris’s candor. She is here at her most precious –just a little too delicate, too refined. She’s presenting a finely crafted portrait. Chris is lamenting the predicament of a Marcie he feels for.

Still, he’s singing Joni’s song. It’s the difference between a creative artist and a performing artist. You gotta give the nod to creator. You just got to.

#             #             #

You don’t need “Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau” to justify the standing of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People will be singing their praises and their songs “somewhere ages and ages hence”. But they are not the end of even their own story. They’ve given us – and Brad and Chris – a legacy to explore, to build on, and maybe even here and there to serve as an inspiration for genuine and new readings that amplify and enhance the originals.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Brad Mehldau SoTWs

Chris Thile SoTWs

Bob Dylan SoTWs

Joni Mitchell SoTWs

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176: Chuck Berry, ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ (Bob Dylan, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’)

Posted by jeff on Mar 17, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Chuck Berry – ‘Too Much Monkey Business’

Bob Dylan – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

 

© Mark Seliger

I don’t know bubkes about hip-hop, and I can’t say I feel any pervasive sense of inadequacy or overwhelming need to learn. The sum total of my ignorance is from good-old Wikipedia: “Hip Hop” usually refers to Hip-Hop music, aka MCing, aka rapping. But Hip-Hop culcha is also marked by DJing/scratching, breakdancing, and graffiti writing. There’s some conceptual dissonance in the parallelism of that list, but I guess that’s the point.

I’ve seen enough of it at the gym to know that ‘rapping’ is chants rhymed verse to a strong 4/4 beat, and that the attitude is distinctly anti-establishment. There’s Gangsta Rap, there’s West Coast rap, but there’s apparently no Republican rap – unless I missed something by Pat Boone.

The origins of rap have been attributed to everything from Pigmeat Markam’s ‘Here Come the Judge’ (1968, Chess Records) to the opening scene of “Music Man” (1962) to Glenn Miller’s ‘The Lady’s in Love with You’ (1939), not to mention Woody Guthrie’s talking blues, Gilbert & Sullivan and the Beat Poets.

Who yo’ daddy?

Even Rolling Stone Magazine has asked “Is Bob Dylan Hip-Hop’s Godfather?” Sure, there’s the obvious heavy, in-your-face, chunky, chutzpadik rhyming, performed by a sullen, gum-chewing, too-inured-to-touch punk. Oh, the world’s such a mess but I’m so cool.

Of course, the quintessential expression of that particular Dylan persona is ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, the opening track on “Bringing It All Back Home” (March, 1965). This was a few months before the infamous Newport Folk Festival Fiasco. The album was the public’s first exposure to Electric Bob, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ the first-punch KO.

It’s eight minutes of frenetic, seditious lyrics packed into 2:22, immortalized by the famous visual gag in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary “Don’t Look Back”, in which Poker-Faced Bob peels off key words in a series of cardboard signs in an alley with Allen Ginsberg (in a tallis?) chatting in the background.

Johnny’s in the basement/Mixing up the medicine/I’m on the pavement/Thinking about the government/The man in the trench coat/Badge out, laid off/Says he’s got a bad cough/Wants to get it paid off.
Look out kid/It’s somethin’ you did/God knows when/But you’re doin’ it again/You better duck down the alley way/Lookin’ for a new friend/The man in the coon-skin cap/By the big pen/Wants eleven dollar bills/You only got ten.

Maggie comes fleet foot/Face full of black soot/Talkin’ that the heat put/Plants in the bed but/The phone’s tapped anyway/Maggie says that many say/They must bust in early May/Orders from the D.A.
Look out kid/Don’t matter what you did/Walk on your tiptoes/Don’t try “No-Doz”/Better stay away from those/That carry around a fire hose/Keep a clean nose/Watch the plain clothes/You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows.

Get sick, get well/Hang around a ink well/Ring bell, hard to tell/If anything is goin’ to sell/Try hard, get barred/Get back, write braille/Get jailed, jump bail/Join the army, if you fail.
Look out kid/You’re gonna get hit/But users, cheaters/Six-time losers/Hang around the theaters/Girl by the whirlpool/Lookin’ for a new fool/Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parkin’ meters.

Ah get born, keep warm/Short pants, romance, learn to dance/Get dressed, get blessed/Try to be a success/Please her, please him, buy gifts/Don’t steal, don’t lift/Twenty years of schoolin’/And they put you on the day shift.
Look out kid/They keep it all hid/Better jump down a manhole/Light yourself a candle/Don’t wear sandals/Try to avoid the scandals/Don’t wanna be a bum/You better chew gum/The pump don’t work/’Cause the vandals took the handles.

The song’s impact was ubiquitous. John Lennon was so overwhelmed when he first heard it, he was quoted as saying he didn’t know how he would ever compete. The 1960s radical communist group the Weathermen took their name from the song’s famous line, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” (The Weathermen went on to bomb several political targets in the late sixties.) A 2007 study of legal opinions and briefs found that that was the song line most often cited by judges and lawyers. For many of us, ‘Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift’ expressed the essence of the baby boomers’ abrupt collision with economic reality. (My first job after graduating with a BA in English Lit in 1969 was actually the night shift in a Pepsi Cola bottling factory.)

But the line my friends and I loved most was ‘The pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles.’ Fifty years on, it still loiters around my consciousness.

So if ‘SHB’ is the daddy of rap, who’s its forefather? Dylan: “It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and some of the scat songs of the Forties.”

If you had to pick one person to credit as the father of rock and roll, it would probably be Charles Edward Anderson Berry (b. 1926).  Brian Wilson says Chuck wrote “all of the great songs and came up with all the rock & roll beats.” And Brian should know. John Lennon said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” We’re not going to try to discuss the totality of Chuck’s songwriting, guitarism, lyric sophistication, showmanship, or musical impact here. His oeuvre and artistry won’t share the stage with anyone. Today we just want to credit him as

The Grandaddy of Rap

When Chuck received the PEN award from the JFK Library, Dylan wrote him: “To Chuck, the Shakespeare of rock and roll, congratulations on your PEN award, that’s what too much monkey business will get ya… Say hello to Mr. Leonard [Cohen, another recipient], Kafka of the blues, and Lord Byron Keith (Richards) if he shows up. In all seriousness, Chuck, congratulations on this prestigious honor. You have indeed written the book with a capital B, and congratulations to Leonard, who’s still writing it – Bob Dylan”

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ was released as the B Side of ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’ (a 1956 euphemism for ‘brown-skinned’). The insistent beat, rapid rhymes, monotonous reliance on a single chord, the disaffected litany of kvetching – people who know a lot more than I do about rap have credited it as a seminal progenitor. (Listening to the guitar solo, I can’t help but remember a take on it that I saw in a Mothers of Invention concert in 1966 – Frank Zappa playing the guitar break on ‘Louie, Louie’, a single note that must have gone on for three minutes.)

Here’s Chuck performing it with acolyte Keith Richards in 1987. He may be past his prime, but check out his dance at 1:20 in the clip. Here’s Hippie Chuck performing it in 1969. And just to remember what he looked like in his hey-day (1959), here he is performing ‘Little Queenie’.

‘Too Much Monkey Business’ isn’t even one of Chuck’s dozen greatest songs, but it is one of his most influential. It’s been covered by no less than Elvis (a knock-out treatment, well worth listening to), The Beatles (an unreleased BBC recording), and other British Invaders such as The Hollies (that’s Graham Nash with the white guitar), The Kinks, and Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds (1964).

So, hey, all you hotshot gangstas out there – who da meanest mothafucker you on da block? Y’all listen up to yo’ grandaddy:

Running to and fro/Hard working at the mill/Never fails, in the mail/There comes a rotten bill–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business/For me to be involved with.

Salesman talking to me,/Tryin’ to run me up a creek,/Says you can buy it, go on try it,/You can pay me next week–Ahh–/Too much monkey business…

Pay phone, something’s wrong,/Dime gone, will mail,/Oughta sue the operator/For telling me a tale./Too much monkey business, …

Blonde hair, good-lookin’,/Trying to get me hooked,/Wants me to marry, get a home,/Settle down, write a book./Too much monkey business, …

Been to Yokohama, been/fighting in the war,/Army bunk, army chow,/Army clothes, army car./Too much monkey business, …

Same thing every day,/Getting up, goin’ to school./No need for me complaining,/My objection’s overruled–Ahh–/too much monkey business, …

Working in the filling station,/Too many tasks,/Wipe the windows, check the oil,/Check the tires, dollar gas–Ahh–/Too much monkey business,/Too much monkey business,/I don’t want your vib-o-rations, get away/and leave me alone.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’
087: Bob Dylan, ‘Black Diamond Bay’
162: The Everly Brothers, ‘Crying in the Rain’

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