13

107: The Association, ‘Everything That Touches You’

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2017 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Hey, y’all, join me this week for a walk on the wha? side, a stroll along the tightrope between the sublime and the embarrassing, an exploration of the no-man’s land between refined taste and that which makes our blood bubble and our minds swoon. The confection of adolescence, The Pop Song.


I once took a paying job, helping a very untalented, Miss Piggy-clone wannabe pop diva (with wealthy, well-connected, criminally persistent parents) translate her lyrics into proper popper English. The music was so bad that—well, let’s just leave well enough alone, it was really bad. And after a week of working on it, I found the tunes sticking to my mind. Skipping through my synapses while I was shaving, ringtoning my brain while I was reading Rilke, subliminially muzaking beneath my consciousness while having a Meaningful Discussion with my Significant Other. And this was some terrible, terrible music. We’re talking stuff that makes Britney Spears sound like Baruch Spinoza.

So I said to my friend EG that perhaps they’re not such bad tunes if they stick to my brain like that. “Bubblegum,” he answered. “Your brain sat on a big pink pre-masticated wad of Bazooka. That don’t make it good. It makes it inextricable.”

Clearly, I think I learned something from that experience. Think back to the Top 40 songs of your Junior High School incarnation. I remember thinking – nay, feeling – that ‘Theme to a Summer Place’ was sublime, that ‘Enchanted Sea‘ was the pinnacle of exotica, that ‘Bernadine’ was about as sexy as a song could get.

Given, prepubescent imbecility, including my own, is an easy target. The strange part, what’s puzzling me now, is the obverse side of that swooning, the songs that I am not inclined to stand up on a soapbox and praise as unacknowledged masterpieces, but yet that I’m also not ready to dismiss as pop pablum. I’ve called certain songs masterpieces without blushing, such as Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ (SoTW 28) and Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick’s ‘Walk On By’ (SoTW 34). But what about The Fleetwoods’ ‘Mr. Blue’, Skeeter Davis’s ‘End of the World’ or ‘It’s All in the Game’ by Tommy Edwards (SoTW 23)? I called the latter a “very beautiful, touching ballad that has been playing over and over in my head for almost half a century now”.  No gainsaying that these are pop fodder. But they’re also indelibly carved in our hearts and our musical minds, not mere wads of Bazooka.

Pat Boone in the film ‘Bernadine’

Fast forward to 1968, when the music, the world, and Jeff were all presumably more mature, sophisticated and discerning. “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air.” A lot of very fine music. It seemed that every week, two or three albums were being released that demanded and justified repeated listening, some for weeks, frequently for months and years. Many for decades. Almost fifty years on, so much of the music of the late 1960s still speaks strongly and convincingly. Much of it is still inspiring and instructive. I listened this week to the first two albums by Love, who have a rabid following here in our little corner of the Middle East half a century on (found the first one weak but the second quite respectable), and to Moby Grape’s first (a 5-star album the day it was released, and still is today).

Um, Jeff, this is Song of The Week, right? Wanna get to the point?

Ok. The point is that the border between fine music and cheap pop is sometimes fuzzy, even to me, subjectively. So here comes a song. I’m not sure whether I should be shouting its praises or not speaking of it to anyone whose opinion I value.

The Association. They formed in 1965, one of the numerous California early rock groups with roots in the folk movement, bringing with them close harmonies and consciousness of the poetic potential of lyrics—The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, many others. The niche of The Association, a new term I just learned this minute, was ‘sunshine pop’, characterized by a cheerful attitude, close vocal harmonies and sophisticated production, the sound track of California escapism, including groups such as The Mamas and the Papas, The Beach Boys, and other lesser lights such as The 5th Dimension, Harpers Bizarre and Spanky and Our Gang.

Their first single, ‘Along Comes Mary’, was a charter member of the club of songs whose lyrics were reputed to obliquely refer to Devil Marijuana, such as ‘Eight Miles High’ (SoTW 226), ‘Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35’, ‘Mellow Yellow’ and even ‘Puff, The Magic Dragon’. ‘Along Comes Mary’ (live from the Monterey Festival) has Dylanesque long phrases, 60% More Words!! crammed inside a single breath. What happens if an infinite number of stoned teenagers spend an infinite number of hours trying to grab the words “Andwhenthemorningofthewarning’spassed, thegassedandflaccidkidsareflungacrossthestars, Thepsychodramasandthetraumasgonethesongsareleftunsungandhunguponthescars…” ‘Along Comes Mary’ was released in July 1966. “Sgt Pepper”, released a month earlier, was the first album to include lyrics. So stick your ear right up close to the speaker, kids, and write fast.

The Association’s material came from a number of sources, none of the band members providing a real auteur voice. Perhaps the strongest presence was producer Jerry Yester (brother of guitarist Jim), who went on to replace Zal Yanovsky in The Lovin’ Spoonful and contribute masterful arrangements to some of John Sebastian’s greatest compositions, such as ‘She’s Still a Mystery’ and ‘Six O’Clock’.

‘Mary’ hit #7, and was soon followed by three consecutive #1 hits: ‘Cherish’ (the beautifulest/shlockiest song ever recorded), ‘Windy’ (a sunnier version of New Yorker Paul Simon’s overcast ‘Cloudy’/’Feeling Groovy’) and ‘Never My Love’ (according to BMI, the second-most played song in the twentieth century!). In my ears today, they’re all respectable— memorable melodies, good harmonies, strong hooks, distinctive arrangements–but not songs I would put on my desert island playlist.

The song that’s been on my mind for the last couple of years is the last and commercially least in their string of hits, the runt of the litter, ‘Everything That Touches You‘. Written by vocalist/wind instrumentalist Terry Kirkman (also ‘Cherish’), the song is a rich pastiche of drums and bass and guitars and keyboards and chorus, an exuberant, loving melody, soaring harmonies, a hook-laden bass, a devotional love song, a hippie anthem.

I revisited and became preoccupied with this song a few years ago when I was doodling over a screenplay project imagining an almost unknown band from the late 1960s whose one minor hit achieved an unpredictable posthumous grassroots cult following many years later (inspired by the true story of Eva Cassidy—see SoTW 029). You can read those doodles here. I needed to write lyrics for their one hit, which I imagined as a ‘hippie anthem’. Looking for a model, my first thought was ‘Let’s Get Together’ by The Youngbloods and the pre-Grace Jefferson Airplane. Apocryphal description from Life’s coverage of Woodstock: “There was a small car that drove very slowly with the throngs of young people walking along the road. A hippie girl sitting on the roof of the car with a little, battery operated record player kept playing The Youngblood’s version of this song over and over and over again; supplying a solid contribution to the ‘peace and love’ vibe that permeated the whole magical weekend.” I don’t know if it’s literally true; but I was there, walking down that very road, and I can attest that that’s the most truthful image I can conjure of the entire festival, more than anything that took place onstage. But I wanted a more commercial model. ‘Everything That Touches You’ wheedled its way into my consciousness, where it’s stayed since.

I’ve been listening to the song regularly for a couple of years now. Is it sophisticated bubblegum music that my brain sat on? Is it an elegant, inspiring pop gem? I really can’t decide, and I’d be most grateful to y’all if you’d contribute your thoughts and comments right here in the Reply box below.

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6

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

Posted by jeff on Jul 15, 2015 in Song Of the week, Vocalists

I made a discovery this week, and I’d like to share it with you – you can learn something about life from music. If you choose to quote or reprint that pearl of wisdom, please make sure you give me due credit for having coined it.

But, like all truisms, it is in fact true. You see, there’s this song we all know, “Over the Rainbow”. There are a number of remarkable things about it.

For one, in their list of Songs of the Century, the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts ranked it Number One, surpassing both ‘My Way’ and ‘Ballad of the Green Berets’. Not bad. Secondly, the musical database I know and love and live inside, AllMusic (God bless their souls), lists over 4000 renditions of the song. Thirdly, by my accounting, it is the runaway record holder for Most Artists’ Signature Song. By my accounting, and I probably missed a couple, ‘Over the Rainbow’ is/was considered to be My Signature Song by no less than Judy Garland, The United States Army, Art Pepper, Livingston Taylor, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright, Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole, “American Idol” television show contestants, and Eva Cassidy.

If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share with you why I chose Eva’s version as our Song of The Week. Hands-down.

‘Over the Rainbow’ was of course written for the movie “The Wizard of Oz” in 1938, and sung by Judy Garland. Judy Garland’s Dorothy sings Over the Rainbow 20 minutes into the movie after unsuccessfully trying to get her aunt and uncle to listen to her regarding an unpleasant incident involving her dog Toto and the nasty spinster Miss Gulch, whom Toto bit after she struck him with a rake. Now, that’s heavy stuff, but I’m not sure it’s a seminal enough event to inspire the #1 song of the century.

The brilliant 1998 documentary film “An Empire of Their Own”, based upon Neal Gabler’s book, presents the song, very convincingly in my eyes, as an emblem of the fears of Jews in America of what Hitler was might do to the family they had left behind. Sounds far-fetched? The song was written by Harold Arlen (music), E.Y. (Edgar) Harburg (lyrics). As kids, they were named Chaim Arlook and Yipsel Harburg. Look at original movie version of the song, think 1938, remember where Harold and Yip’s families were, and you tell me what was on their minds when their heads hit the pillow at night.

The American fighting troops in WWII adopted it as ‘their song’, but I don’t have any recordings of that to share with you. Fortunately, perhaps.

Art Pepper (1925-1982) was a white alto saxophonist who led a life tormented by his heroin addiction, as harrowingly described in his autobiography, Straight Life. He certainly went through a lot of pain, which he expressed through his rendition of the song. I’ve read the book, I’ve listened to over a dozen albums carefully, and I admire his playing, but he doesn’t grab me viscerally. I don’t warm up to him. I don’t want to say that he brought his addiction on himself, and shouldn’t be pitied for it. Well, maybe I do. I have boundless admiration and affection for Bill Evans, a contemporary of his, also a white junkie. But I don’t pity him. If the junk informs the music, fine. But I want to listen to the music, not the junk.

Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole (you can call him Iz) also brought a whole pile of tsuris on himself. He was a 350 kilogram (that’s 770 pounds, Virginia) ukulele-strumming Hawaiian tenor whose version was a big hit a few years ago. Before you watch the clip (8 million hits on YouTube), I should warn you that he sings part of the song topless. That’s ok, he’s male (I think he is–it’s a bit hard to tell at that weight). Even though he botches the lyrics throughout, you do get to see both a Photoshopped rainbow (to illustrate the lyrics, in case you didn’t understand them) and shots of a local shindig scattering all the ashes (it’s a big urn) of the 38-year old into the Wakiki surf. What can I tell you? Not my cup of tea.

Livingston Taylor is James’ younger brother. Liv looks like him, sounds like him, wrote some songs that are indistinguishable from James’, went through similar psychiatric issues. But if you listen to this version, and I’ve heard a couple of others at least as bad, I think you’ll see just where the watershed line lies—Liv’s version is hokey where it should be heartfelt, has lightness at the core where James’ would invest the same material with the heaviness of uranium. Think of his ‘Oh, Susannah’, for example.

Willie Nelson’s a great performer, but he’s not a life-changer.

Rufus Wainwright is the ultra-gay son of singers Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle. I really enjoy some of his extravagant music. But his version of ‘Over the Rainbow’ as part of his tribute to Judy Garland – sorry, I find it just too self-conscious and affected. And in this song he hasn’t yet come on stage in black fishnet stockings (yes, he really does). But this straightforward version works better—it starts just him accompanied on piano by his mother. But then, I knew it, these extravagants just can’t resist it, the cloying violins come in, and then towards the end the song explodes in a diarrhea of kitsch, kettledrums and harps and kitchen sinks. You live by your excesses, you die by your excesses.

But then there’s Eva Cassidy, born in 1963. She did some singing and recording around her native Washington, D.C. But her career never took off, hampered by her acute shyness and her unwillingness to be marketed by record companies in the niche of folk or blues or pop or jazz or R&B or gospel. She sang them all. You know, ‘music’.

She recorded 3 albums—one by herself for a rinky-dink label, one collaboration with the king of DC go-go (including her studio version of the song, with a synthesizer accompanying her and her acoustic guitar), and ‘Live at Blues Alley’.

I don’t know why the live album doesn’t contain ‘Over the Rainbow’ – her live version is from the show at which the album was recorded – but someone luckily had a hand-held camcorder at the show, and here is the result you should listen to and watch. The former is a bit cleaner technically. But the latter has an affective strength you don’t come across every day.

This is what interpretive music should be. It’s all about the experience of the song. Eva Cassidy had incredible chops, technical vocal prowess. But she holds back. She restrains herself, because she’s too dignified to score cheap points out of mawkishness. And she plays a lovely guitar, and the phrasing couldn’t be better, and God bless, thanks for this clip.

In 1993, Cassidy had a mole removed from her back, and was told it was malignant. In January, 1996, she recorded the show at Blues Alley. In July, during a promotional event for the album, she felt an ache in her hips, which she attributed to her day job, painting murals at elementary schools while perched atop a stepladder. A few weeks later, she learned that the melanoma had spread to her lungs and bones. In four months, she was dead, unknown outside local D.C. circles.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Three years after that, a British DJ started playing ‘Over the Rainbow’. By Christmas, 2000, her compilation CD ‘Songbird’ was platinum in England and a hit throughout Europe. The black-and-white video became the most requested video ever shown on Top Of The Pops 2. “There’s an undeniable emotional appeal in hearing an artist who you know died in obscurity singing a song about hope and a mystical world beyond everyday life”, wrote “The Guardian“.

Only a year later did she start to catch on in the US. Eventually, everything she ever recorded, including all the demos, was released. In 2005, Eva Cassidy was the 5th best-selling artist on Amazon. Her songs have appeared in numerous movies, a book of interviews with her friends and family has sold 100,000 copies, her life story has been adapted to a musical, a bio-flick is in the works.

My enthusiasm over Eva Cassidy’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ cannot be attributed to her personal story, tear-jerking as it is. I think her tear-jerking personal story informed her with an understanding and passion that she, with her great talent, could invest in a song that was a proper vehicle. That’s the necessary condition for a great performance.

See, I told you so. You really can learn something about life from music.

Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high.
There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops, Away above the chimney tops.
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow,
Why then – oh, why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow,
Why, oh, why can’t I?

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3

155: Buddy Holly, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’

Posted by jeff on Nov 30, 2012 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Buddy Holly – It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

The kids in our mailroom have been on strike now for two days over the massive overload caused by my inadvertently broken promise. They’ve been climbing over the mailbags full of the letters pouring in demanding to know the answer to The Question That Has The World On The Edge Of Its Figurative Chair: the third and climactic final of that iconic triptych, Spookily Existential Posthumous Hit Records (SEPHR).

I apologize. There was a trip to the other side of the world, there was a war. Force majeure, darlings. But we’re back in the saddle, a promise is a promise, and this is one I’m pleased as punch to have the opportunity to keep.

We told you about how Otis Redding recorded ‘(Sitting on) The Dock of a Bay’ three weeks before he died in a plane crash.

We told you about how Sam Cooke released ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ weeks before he was shot in a seedy motel in unsavory circumstances.

SoTW mailroom this week

We’re going to skip all the SEPHR runners-up: Hank Williams’ ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’; Chuck Willis’ two-sided hit ‘Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes’ b/w ‘What Am I Living For’; and Eva Cassidy’s ‘What a Wonderful World’). We’ll skip right to the final member of our morbid trilogy. The envelope, please.

This week we’re going to share the story of Buddy Holly’s last recording session and the song ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, recorded in October 1958 and released in January 1959, exactly a month before ‘the day the music died’.

Show of Stars, including The Crickets

My admiration for Buddy Holly (1936-1959) is immeasurable. I’ve written about his influence on the Beatles and the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones (SoTW 70, ‘That’ll Be the Day’), about his originality (SoTW 122, ‘You’re The One’), and about his stunningly beautiful music (SoTW 2, ‘Learning the Game’). If I may quote myself, I wrote in one of them “Could be I invented Song of The Week just to have a platform to sing Buddy Holly’s praises.”

I think he’s one of the finest artists in popular music, period. I’m not alone in that appraisal. Bruce Springsteen: “I play Buddy Holly every night before I go on – it keeps me honest.” Buddy Holly was the John Keats of rock and roll, a pure artist, with an innocent, disinterested aesthetic. Keats (1795-1820) lived to the age of 25, but was too sick with tuberculosis to write for the last year and a half of his life. Buddy Holly’s life was truncated at 23 in a plane crash on February 3, 1959.

(Back of the bus) Paul Anka, Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly made his money travelling by bus on endless one-night Rock and Roll tours with the likes of Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Dion and the Belmonts, and wunderkind Paul Anka (b. 1941). By the age of 17 he already had a remarkable string of self-penned hits, including ‘Diana,’ ‘Puppy Love,’ ‘Put Your Head on My Shoulder,’ and ‘You Are My Destiny.’ Okay, they’re not ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or ‘All My Loving’, but give the kid credit; he was one of the first singers to write his own material.

But he was a pill. Nikki Sullivan, Buddy Holly’s rhythm guitarist: “Paul was a brat. All the time he was getting into trouble, or doing something wrong. He just couldn’t sit still–a thousand, billion volts of energy. We were onstage in St. Louis, and Paul was horsing around backstage when he kicked the microphone plug out of the floor and all the mikes went dead. We just stood there onstage, helpless. It was just a few minutes, but it seemed like three or four days until the microphones got plugged back in and we could start over. At this point, Buddy was boiling up inside, just ready to explode. When we walked off, the clapping stopped the minute we got offstage, into the curtains–it wasn’t a very long clap. So it’s totally quiet, and the MC is walking out on to the stage to introduce the next act, and Buddy yells, ‘Who in the hell kicked out the goddamn plug?’ It rang throughout the auditorium. He calmed down after a bit and went back to the room, and later Paul Anka came back and apologized. And in fact, from that incident, Buddy and Paul became very close, and even rehearsed a few songs together from then on.”

LtoR: Buddy Holly, Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis

Anka asked Holly if he’d record a song he’d written. “Sure, why not, let me see it,” said Buddy. “Oh, but it’s not finished yet. I’ll bring it to you when I’m done with it,” said Paul.

Buddy Holly’s final recording session was his first and only with strings, October 21, 1958. Anka finally finished the song and brought it to Buddy on the very day of that session. Buddy quickly learned it from him and ran to Dick Jacobs, the arranger/producer. Holly played it on guitar and sang it, and Jacobs worked out a quick arrangement. Dick Jacobs: “I had no time to harmonize the violins or write intricate parts, so I wrote them all pizzicato. That was the most unplanned thing I have ever written in my life.” (Pizzicato means ‘plucked’, for all you who don’t speak Italian or Music.)

Four songs were recorded: the lightweight ‘Moondreams’; the lush ‘True Love Ways’ (a college friend said on hearing it for the first time, ‘A girl could get pregnant just listening to that’); the wondrous, heart-wrenching ‘Raining in My Heart’; and ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’.

Three weeks later, Buddy recorded ‘You’re the One’ in a radio studio back home in Lubbock, Texas. In December, he recorded six songs in his New York apartment, including his compositions ‘Learning the Game’, ‘What to Do’, and ‘That Makes it Tough’.  Buddy was 22 and a half when he recorded these songs. At that age, John Lennon was recording “Love Me, Do”, and Dylan had recorded one album of original material.

On January 5, the single of ‘Raining in My Heart’ b/w ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ was released. A month later, Buddy Holly was dead.

I can’t say ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’ presents any earthshaking ontological or eschatological world view. After all, it was written by the 17-year old Paul Anka. But I think a case could be made to draw a line from it to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ via ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’: “With all due pain and regret, screw you, honey.”

But there isn’t much music that affects me as strongly as this song does. Back in the days when I played guitar, it brought me to tears more than once.

There are a number of noteworthy covers. Here’s Paul Anka telling the back-story and singing it at a Buddy Holly tribute. Here’s Linda Ronstadt singing it early on in her career, and here she is ten years later. I sure wish she’d kept those boom-chukka drums out of the arrangement, because it’s fine up till then. Eva Cassidy showed better taste in her impeccable treatment.

But of course we’ll always go back to the original, the utterly honest Buddy Holly version, with all its helplessness and hopelessness, regret and resignation, passion and pain.

There you go and baby here am I.
Well, you left me here so I could sit and cry
Golly gee, what have you done to me?
Well I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.

Do you remember baby, last September
How you held me tight each and every night?
Oh baby how you drove me crazy,
But I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.

There’s no use in me a-cryin’.
I’ve done everything
And now I’m sick of trying.
I’ve thrown away my nights
Wasted all my days over you.

Now you go your way baby and I’ll go mine
Now and forever ’till the end of time
And I’ll find somebody new and baby
We’ll say we’re through
And you won’t matter anymore.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’
070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’
122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’

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5

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?
Right.

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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