Sunday, January 29, 2017

SONG #178: Dimming Of The Day

Richard and Linda Thompson, Pour Down Like Silver, 1975

Richard Thompson is due for a much longer blog entry— he is one of my all-time favorites, not very well-known, and part of the soundtrack of my life since 1985.  I’m posting this song today, however, in response to this weekend’s executive order.  This song is a love song to Islam, particularly the sect of Sufism, to which Thompson converted in the mid-1970s.  I am not a religious man, so I’ve always listened to this song as an extraordinary love song, but given the tenor of our national conversation, I thought I’d present a different Muslim voice in the hopes that it complicates our national conversation and promotes a little of the love that’s expressed in this song.

Link is for the original— Bonnie Raitt does a killer version as well.

This old house is falling down around my ears
I'm drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side

What days have come to keep us far apart
A broken promise or a broken heart
Now all the bonnie birds have wheeled away
I need you at the dimming of the day

Come the night you're only what I want
Come the night you could be my confidant

I see you on the street in company
Why don't you come and ease your mind with me
I'm living for the night we steal away

I need you at the dimming of the day

Saturday, January 21, 2017

SONG #177: The President

Robyn Hitchcock, Element Of Light, 1986

Watching the inauguration yesterday and the inspirational marches across America today, I’m drawn back to this song from 1986.  It’s written by a surrealist Brit, but it’s always been my favorite song about the relationship between the careless use of power and symbol and its effect on an audience.  It was inspired by Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, a Nazi cemetery, where he stated, “They were victims, just as surely as the victims in the Concentration camps:” perhaps Reagan’s most tone-deaf moment as President.  Not only does it match my own sense of overwhelmed bewilderment today, but it has one of my all-time favorite bass tracks by the under-celebrated Matthew Seligman; he steals the show.

Here's to collective participation in the days ahead.

Lyrics below—>

The President is talking to us through a microphone
Like he's trying to pack his mother off
To an old people's home

I know you're out there
I know you're out there somewhere
I know you're out there
When I hear the word "Democracy"
I reach for my headphones

He's the president of Europe and he's talking to the dead
They're the only ones who'll listen or believe a word he said
You know I'm out here
But you can't see me, darlin'
You know I'm out here 
When I hear the word "Security"
I reach for my shotgun

He's standing in a cemetery inside the western zone
I listen on the radio, I'm glad I'm not alone
I know you're out there 
I know you're out there somewhere
God knows you're out there

I can almost hear it raining
I can almost hear it raining

Thursday, January 19, 2017

SONG #176: Papa Was A Rollin' Stone

The Temptations, All Directions, 1972

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

Hearing this song for the first time was a turning point in my life.  It changed me, and my whole trajectory.  Without the night I’m about to describe, I would have been (and become) a different person.

I was eight years old, and we were visiting my grandmother in Melbourne FL.  This was not an unusual occurrence.  We went to Florida all the time.  I was born there, and then we moved to Newport RI, and then back to FL (Gainesville this time) and then finally to Maryland, but we went to Florida to see my grandmother three times a year, including every Christmas.  I spent 25-35 days a year at her house until I was in high school.  For a kid who grew up in the snowy East, my memories of childhood Christmases are mostly tropical.

It was a difficult visit every time.  My Ya-Ya (Mom’s family is Greek) was a troubled woman, beset by demons real and constructed.  Being around her took its toll— other songs will let me tell her story more vividly at some other time— and visiting her took work and effort to endure.  Because we went so often, and because I was an only child, I needed to bring entertainment with me to pass the time and to have something familiar to simulate some kind of home space.  In the winter of 1977, I traveled with a little suitcase record player.  

Pretty cool, huh?

When I arrived, there was a stack of 45s sitting in my room waiting for me, left there by a series of my grandmother’s boarders.  Ya-Ya took in foreign students attending FIT, or the Florida Institute of Technology.  The one I remember best is Munder, sent over by Quadafi from Lybia to learn Engineering in English so he could fly recon missions for the Lybian air force.  I swear I am not making that up.  He was an American culture nut, and consumed it uncritically.  The week he left for good in 1981, he bought a radio with a cassette deck in it, 100 90-minute tapes, and taped a top 40 radio station’s broadcast for 128 straight hours.  “I’ll need it,” was what he said when I asked why.  I often think of Munder, flying below our radar throughout the 1980s, spying on American aircraft carriers on the Line of Death, all while listening to Pat Benatar on a knockoff Walkman.

So there’s me, a little suitcase record player, a pile of random 45s, a room decorated in the mid-1960s, and the instructions to stay upstairs and entertain myself.  

A lucite spaghetti lamp: there were several in that room.

The grownups were having a party downstairs, and between my mom’s old friends and the neighbors, things got pretty loose.  After spying on the party a little bit from the top of the spiral staircase, (favorite overheard dialogue: “So you know that I told that damn P.I.G. to go to hey-ell!”) 

In my memory, the partygoers mostly looked like this.

I settled in with the record player and the 45s, and started to go through them one by one.  I don’t remember any of them, though I remember reactions of indifference, familiarity, disinterest, strong dislike, etc.  After an hour, and getting a little bored and stiff from sitting cross-legged in front of it, I reached for the next one.

I can still see it, vividly— it had the purple and yellow Tamla label.  No picture, no real info.

I was intrigued by the length: seven minutes! 45s were four minutes at most in my experience.  And I knew the phrase “Rollin’ Stone” was important— the band, the song, the magazine.  I felt like the title itself gave the song gravitas.  And I loved the name of the band: who were The Temptations?  I pushed the little yellow spindle into the center,

How beautiful is that?

put the record on, and the needle sputtered and caught the outer groove.


I could feel the silence in between the notes.


Those first bass notes and hi-hat were like a punch to the face.  I looked around, suddenly terrified.  I felt like the room had collapsed in size.  The sound of the party downstairs disappeared for me.  Those faraway strings, the rubberband guitar, the lonely trumpet— what the hell am I listening to? 

When’s the last time you listened to this song?  The introduction takes forever— it’s two minutes (1:55, to be exact) before the vocal comes in— you think it’s coming at 1:25, but the track breaks down instead, and 1:42, it’s back to square one, with that brilliantly simple and discordant guitar part imitating the bass.  The introduction is longer than some singles.

And then… “It was the 3rd of September, that day I’ll always remember (yes I will) ‘cause that was the day… that my daddy died.”

My dad had me when he was 22; he was only 30 years old the night I heard that song, and the idea that a kid could lose his father that early hadn’t crossed my mind.  Hell, my dad was still a kid.  And I was eight— the songs that came my way were big radio hits— “We Are The Champions” was #1, I think, right around then.  This song was different.  It was important.  I could feel it reaching out to me.  It felt so stripped down and intimate.  I felt the responsibility to bear witness to what was coming.

“Mama I’m depending on you to tell me the truth.”

And then mama gives that enigmatic half-answer:  “Your papa was a rollin’ stone / Wherever he laid his hat was his home / And when he died / All he left us was alone.”

That was my way into the  song— I had asked my mom what was wrong with Ya-Ya, and her answers were unified by the same vague half-truths.  I already knew there were questions about family you weren’t supposed to ask, and for which there were imperfect answers.  I felt immediate kinship.

But then the song went deeper, and I knew it was a song about something else besides a dead father. It was about the world around the character that had claimed them all, and the song was going to show it to me.

In 1977, we weren’t a rich family.  We rented a two bedroom duplex, both of my parents worked, and we didn’t take vacations that involved airplanes.  My parents paid the rent in quarters one month. I knew we didn’t have a lot of money, but we were stable, and I leaned into that stability.

“Is it true what they say that papa never worked a day in his life?”
“Three outside children and another wife”
“Stealin’ in the name of the lord”

I wasn’t sure what “outside children” meant; for a few years, I thought it meant kids who were homeless.  But I knew it was evil.

This description of poverty explained the difference between my house and theirs— it felt the desperation in it, both the skeletal insecurity (that haunting backing track) and the shared, collective despair (to this day, I imagine five brothers, maybe 6 to 18, all finally asking mom to give them the full story).  I couldn't believe how honest the singers were; the fact that the lead vocal jumped octaves and registers made it seem less like a song than a confrontation.

That night, I watched that record spin around for seven minutes and click off, and then I just sat there, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, alone in the unquiet darkness.  I had never been moved by anything quite like that before.  Almost scared to, I started the song over, and then I spent the 90 minutes playing and replaying it, ten times in a row.  To this day, I still get the chills when I hear it.  I’ve gotten the chills writing about it for the last few hours.  If I've ever had a listening experience like the one Ralph Ellison describes in the prologue of Invisible Man, this was it.

I credit this song with making we want to be a real musician.  It taught me rhythm— the off beat hand claps were the first syncopation I mastered.  It’s also the moment when I first began to understand the consequences of America’s obsession with race that became the focus of my adult scholarship.  I was a white kid who’d spent years in the south— I’d seen and heard plenty of racism.  But this song explained to me why racism was more than just trashy behavior I’d been raised to reject; it explained the impact.  Something began to shift in me that night that has never relented, and as I’ve grown more conversant and educated, the song’s impact doesn’t change— it just hits me differently.  But it always lands— hearing this song means something to me.  Every time.  Without it, I wouldn't have been able to understand what Ellison was talking about eight years later, or have the capacity to let Invisible Man keep changing me just as that song had.

If you wanted to explain race in America to foreigners, or aliens, or yourself, and you could only use three pieces of art to do so, I’d recommend the Frederick Douglass slave narrative, Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon, and this song.  “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” explains the sociopolitical, economic, psychological, and artistic fallout of slavery in seven minutes.  It’s as fundamentally American a piece of art to me as anything I’ve ever seen or heard.

So on this inauguration eve, my song is this one, a song that still resonates for me as a cry for American justice.  I plan to continue to do what I can to help us all come up with a better answer for that kid who’s asking his mom why he’s in the mess he’s in.  Yes, his dad lost the thread.  But he had some sinister help finding that darkness.

Where were you the first time you really “heard” music for the first time?  Do you have a memory of hearing something that made you different afterwards?  That made you a person who had now heard that music?  Can you still hear it? Feel it?  See it?

If you have a minute, tell me below.   

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

SONG #175: Every Little Bit

Patti Griffin, Living With Ghosts, 1996

Ah, 2017. 

I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out an artistic outlet for the voice that wants out of me concerning our country’s impending change in direction, and I’ve been wholly unsuccessful.  I find myself quoting other writers, trying to make connections among myriad texts and moments, binge-planning potential projects, and feeling hollow about them all.  At work, I’m energized, but otherwise I’m feeling a little bereft, spinning in circles.

Meanwhile, amazingly, people keep reading this modest blog and asking me why I’m not writing more of them.

Great question. 

I’m re-committing to the blog for awhile and we’ll see what happens.  I’m gonna start slow and follow where it takes me; maybe writing about one thing will lead me to another, and maybe remembering the past will help me find a voice about the present.  

So it’s back to basics for this quiet, tentative return; I hit shuffle and took the first tune the Pod offered, my favorite Patti Griffin track from her debut record.

Griffin’s first record is essentially the demo she recorded in preparation to make a debut record.  After struggling to give the songs a full-band treatment, she released this version instead.  It’s a great lesson in the pitfalls of record-making (sometimes you can gild the lily) but I also think it ultimately hurt her as a recording artist, as her audience expected her to be a folk troubadour going forward, and she had greater ambitions than that.  I happen to be a Patti Griffin fan who prefers her full band albums (Flaming Red and Silver Bell) and feel sad for her that she’s been forced to return repeatedly to acoustic music to satisfy her less-imaginative fanbase.  That said, there’s something undeniable about the power of this performance.  

I can’t decide whether “Every Little Bit” is a song about a regretful but pursued encounter, or a rape, or a confession about her emotional isolation, or a little bit of all of the above.  I love the skeletal guitar riff (easy enough for a beginner to play, but memorable and effective) and while the vocal is a little showy at the end, if I could sing like that, you better believe I’d hit those notes often.

My most vivid memory of this song was hearing it live. I saw Patti open for Shawn Colvin in 1996 when Colvin was touring her breakup album A Few Small Repairs.  Patti was a solo acoustic opener, and my seat was in the balcony of what was then the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa (now called something else— Wells Fargo Entertainment Box, or something like that).  I had heard of her, and maybe given the record a cursory spin at a Tower Records, but I wasn’t particularly moved by it.  In those days, though, I never missed the opening act.  I had been in my seat for about ten minutes when the lights went out, and Griffin walked onstage at 8:01pm (things start PUNCTUALLY at performing arts centers).  My first thought was how slight she looked— the guitar looked enormous on her.  She went right into the riff that leads off this tune,  opened her mouth, and filled the room instantly.  It was one of the most impressive first twenty seconds of a show I’ve ever seen.  She absolutely killed the whole song, and I was sitting at just the right angle for her guitar to catch the light and shine right at me. It remains a vivid concert memory two decades later.  While the rest of the set was strong, and I left a fan, nothing topped those first five minutes.

My view that night...

In 1996, especially, it spoke to that twenty-something kid in the balcony who was also just figuring out how to come out of his own wiry shell and not see nighttime encounters as skirmishes.  I remember feeling instant kinship with the fractured loneliness embedded both in the lyrics and in the voice, and since I was at the height of my sensitive-ponytail-solo-acoustic music career, I think I went home and wrote a dozen crummy knockoffs.  Listening all the years later, I feel pretty far removed from its jagged disaffection.  And I believe Patti now lives with Robert Plant, so hopefully she’s doing better also.

See you soon.