Sunday January 28, 2024
I don't think enough attention has been paid to the second stanza of Leonard Cohen's “Suzanne.” Or maybe I just haven't paid enough attention to it. I've been on Cohen kick lately, and when listening to “Suzanne” recently that second stanza really hit home:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
I particularly like the idea of Jesus as a sailor that only drowning men can see. Also that almost throwaway “almost human” line. The idea of it. And pairing it with “broken” and “forsaken,” as if that's what makes us human. The song is a bit like “Hallelujah,” isn't it? The way it trades verses about the Bible and women. Cohen's two spirituals.
Monday December 04, 2023
Song for the Day
Don't mind me, just let me be
My eyes so far away
I don't need no sympathy
The word gets overplayed
I'm alright, it's just tonight
I can't play the part
I'm alright, it's alright
It's just a broken heart.
-- Eddie Vedder, “Broken Heart,” from Ukulele Songs, 2011
Thursday July 27, 2023
Sinead O'Connor (1966-2023)
The most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world
At a time when music videos were getting more elaborate and fantastic—from the special effects of “Sledgehammer” to Michael Jackson's 1930s gangster noir “Smooth Criminal”—director John Maybury, for the second single from the second album by Sinead O'Connor, went the John Ford route. One time, so the legend goes, when the weather was not cooperating in Monument Valley and his assistant kind of threw up his hands, thinking they couldn't shoot anything, Ford said they could still shoot “the most interesting and exciting thing in the whole world: the human face.” And that's what Maybury gave us: a video-length closeup of O'Connor in all of her tough, vulnerable, beautiful, ambisexual glory. That video, and the song, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” written by Prince in 1985, made the Irish girl with the shaved head an international star.
I was suffering my own breakup at the time so the song hit deep for me. The simple act of inverting the usual order of how we talk about time (“It's been seven hours and 16 days...”) made you realize the singer was counting every hour. The album, “I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got,” was on constant rotation for me, too. Every song was great. No bums in the bunch. It begins with the Serenity Prayer—the first time I heard it, I believe—and the irony is there was nothing serene about Sinead or her career. There were public dustups with Prince and Madonna, Frank Sinatra and Andrew Dice Clay, and nobody seemed able to get past her hair. Then there was the Pope-picture-tearing incident on “Saturday Night Live.” That was in 1992 and “SNL” kind of threw her under the bus and all the knives came out. The next week Joe Pesci hosted the show, proudly showing off the photo of Pope John Paul II taped back together, and talking about how he wanted to smack Sinead around. For that, he was applauded while she was booed. The '90s were a weird time.
Particularly when you remember why she tore up the Pope's photo. It was to protest the Catholic Church's silence on child abuse. She was in-your-face, impolite and impolitic, but she sure as hell wasn't wrong.
Given how much I loved the album, I don't know why I didn't seek out more of her stuff but I didn't. I wasn't the only one. “I Do Not Want...” was a No. 1 album everywhere, and her follow-ups were No. 1 nowhere. I get the feeling she didn't mind. In her 2021 memoir, she writes, “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career, and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.” In an interview with The New York Times, she adds, “It seems to me that being a pop star is almost like being in a type of prison.”
All the bells say: too late, as John Berryman wrote. These also say: too soon.
Tuesday August 09, 2022
Olivia Newton-John (1948-2022)
In the summer of 1978, I went to see “Grease” while on vacation in Rehoboth Beach, Del., in a movie theater near the boardwalk. Then I went back to watch it again. And again. And again.
I think I might’ve watched it a half dozen times that week. Because of Olivia Newton-John.
I’d known who she was, of course. When I first began listening to the radio, “Please Mr. Please” was all over it, and probably “Have You Never Been Mellow,” and “Let Me Be There.” I liked those songs. I think my older brother and his friends refered to her as Olivia Neutron-Bomb, which I kind of got. I thought she was pretty but I was also told—I think?—that she was a lesbian. Wasn’t that a rumor-mill thing back then or am I misremembering? That she was on “The Tonight Show” and after she left Johnny Carson said “What a waste” or something? And she sued?
Either way, watching “Grease,” I developed a mad crush on her. And with each viewing, my crush deepened.
Here’s something that doesn’t happen every time you develop on a crush on a celebrity, particular if you live in the Midwest, as I did: that same summer I got to see her in person.
Olivia, Minn., about 100 miles west of Minneapolis, was celebrating its centennial, and on a lark they sent a cheeky invite to Olivia Newton-John, thanking her for helping make their town famous, and hey, would she like to be grand marshal of the parade that year? Shockingly, she said yes. The female lead of the biggest movie of the year, with No. 1 hits up the wazoo, said, sure, I’ll come to your town, pop. 3,200, and no, you don’t have to pay me. In fact, I’ll pay my own way there. I’d just like some fresh corn, that’s all.
And who did the state’s biggest newspaper send to cover this story? My father, of course.
“Do you want to go?” he asked me.
Do I … want to ... go??????
I was wholly ill-suited for the whole thing, of course, a mumbling-into-his-sleeve 15-year-old, resentful of everything close to me, desiring everything far away, and with that deep, burdensome crush.
While Dad worked on his story, I wandered around the town, seeing what I could see, and hoping to see her. I even had a plan. At one point in “Grease,” her character, Sandy, is dating a jock, Tom, played by Lorenzo Lamas, mostly to make John Travolta’s Danny Zuko jealous. At the diner, talking to Danny, she waves to Tom, a kind of waggling of fingers. It’s almost like peek-a-boo—I see you—and I thought it was very cute. Once she winds up back with Danny, Danny mockingly gives Tom that same finger-waggling wave.
Anyway, my plan was to do that, to wave at her the way she'd waved in the movie.
I didn’t see her in town, only in parade, where she sat astride a horse. Which is when I put my plan into action. As she was smiling and waving to the crowd, and when her eyes were passing over me, I gave her that wave—that Sandy wave from “Grease.” And she smiled and gave me that same wave back.
Now what? I felt like I should do something but couldn’t imagine what it would be. I mean, I was 15 and wholly ill-suited for the whole thing. Do I just walk up to her? In the middle of the parade? And say what exactly? Who does that? Nobody does that.
Well, my father did that. He was doing his job, of course, which made it easier—I’ve since discovered that for myself—and he needed a quote for the story. So in the middle of the parade he walked up to her, astride her horse, and asked what brought her here. She told him, “The letter was such a kick, how could I pass it up? This is the only place I've ever heard of with the same name as me.” The Star-Tribune also had a photograher there, Darlene Pfister, and she captured the moment and later gave Dad the photo. That glossy, 8x11 or whatever it was, sat on Dad’s dresser for years, semi-mocking me. Be bold. Fortune favors the bold.
It is a great story. With “Grease” sweeping the country (it was the No. 1 movie of 1978, 28th all time, adjusted), how cool that she would do this, and for nothing, just for the fresh corn and bread. But it sounds like she needed it, like it was almost a breather for her amid the chaos.
The big final moment in “Grease” is almost a “Gift of the Maji” moment—Danny turns letterman-jock to appeal to Sandy, Sandy turns leather-clad wearing hottie to appeal to Danny—but the former, along with the letterman’s sweater, quickly gets shed, and it’s all about what a hottie Sandy is. And that’s kind of the direction ONJ’s own career wound up going. She shed the virginal, country-esque image, singing lovelorn ballads by the jukebox, and went sleek, short-haired and disco-y, with songs that increasingly got to the sexual point: “Totally Hot,” “(Let’s Get) Physical,” “Make a Move on Me.” And she just got bigger. “Physical” was No. 1 for 10 weeks and Billboard magazine considers it the biggest-selling single of the 1980s.
At the end of “Grease,” there’s a magic realism moment where Danny’s car, with he and Sandy in it, suddenly takes to the air, and Olivia’s subsequent movies kind of continued that magic-realism ride, to ill effect. In “Xanadu” she plays a literal muse, the daughter of Zeus, who hooks up with a struggling LA artist; in “Two of a Kind,” reunited with Travolta, she’s part of a couple who must find love and morality to stop God from flooding the earth again. On IMDb, the ratings go from 7.2, to 5.2, to 4.6, and just like that, she was back to earth. She starred in just the three movies and I only saw the one. But the one was huge.
Celebrity crushes are odd things but this one went deep. I’m nearly 60 now and it never really went away.
Tuesday July 05, 2022
Fear, Envy, Meanness
From Scorsese's doc on Dylan:
Dylan is quoting Liam Clancy, whom he knew in the early Greenwich Village days, and who was one of the big deals when Bob landed on the folk scene. He even does his Irish lilt. It's a great quote, and obviously meant a lot to Bob, but if I break it down I know I don't do any of it. Of the three, fear has been the biggest constant in my life. Envy was big, too, in my younger days, particularly when it came to writing and success, though there's way less of it now. I'll cut myself that slack. Meanwhile, I don't think I had meanness at all when I was younger but life changes you. I've had moments in my adult years. Not just anger but meanness. But again, cutting myself some slack, it's a rarity. If I had to compare myself to the whole of humanity, and why not, I'd say I've been more fearful, a little less envious and way less mean.
Anyway it's something to aspire to.
Saturday July 02, 2022
Dreaming That Big Broadway Musical
Here's a dream I had the other night. For some reason, my dreams early this week were fairly vivid:
There was this girl who thought I was smart, and who might’ve been sweet on me, and who gave me this part to do in a play. She said just read these lines, it’ll be easy, and I said sure. (I thought I was smart, too.) And then we get to my line and … it’s in a song? And I have to sing it? I look down and the line is:
Exposes exposes exposes
But how does it go? How do I sing it? The person who feeds me the line, the other actor, the main singer of the song, who’s in costume, is looking at me with panic as I haltingly read it off the paper rather than sing it as it should be sung. As I guess everyone knows it should be sung? Because it’s kind of famous? The big hit number in a big Broadway musical? We’re on the set of an old-timey store, an immigrant shopkeeper’s shop, vaguely Jewish, and maybe we’re being filmed for television or something, and this other actor then picks up his lines of the song, hurriedly now, since I’ve put us behind the pace. But there’s still panic because he knows I don’t know anything. We’re walking through the aisles of the shop, and he’s singing, and others are singing, and then everyone turns to me and I have to sing again. The same line? I look down. Yes, the same line:
Exposes exposes exposes
And after a few rounds of this, as it keeps coming back to me, the other guy, and the other cast members, begin mouthing the words at me, as well as the rhythm, and I begin to get it. And it’s not exposes, as I’d first read it and sung it. It’s exposés. And it goes:
The first two times sung hurriedly, the last time lingering over every syllable.
And while it’s beginning to work, as everyone is kind of pitching in to remake the disaster I’ve made of everything, I’m still hugely embarrassed and keep thinking, “How did I get here? How did we not practice?”
A few things about this.
After I dreamed the above and wrote it down in the middle of the night, then got ready for bed again, I worried that I wouldn't remember the tune when I woke up. I was proud that I'd dreamed up music. I mean, it wasn't Paul McCartney dreaming “Yesterday” but it wasn't bad for me, and I wanted to remember it. So I nudged my wife awake, gave her the Cliff's Notes of the dream, and sang her the chorus. “Will you remember that?” I asked. She nodded with eyes closed. I looked at her and thought, “She won't remember.” Then I realized I could just record it via QuickTime or whatever, which is what I did. A bit later, returning to bed, somewhat mischievous, I nudged her awake again. “Do you remember the song?” I asked. She nodded with eyes closed, 90% asleep, and sang: “Scandal, Scandal, Scaaaan-dal.”
It was only after I wrote down the dream that I realized there was a kind of real life precedent to it. When I lived in Taiwan in my mid-20s, I was private tutor to a Chinese woman who taught at a big ESL school. And she thought I was a great teacher and super-smart, and she may have been sweet on me, and one day or week or something she told me her school needed a new ESL teacher and she asked me to to do it. Are you sure? I said? Didn't you tell me your teachers have to go through like a week's orientation? Because you guys have a certain rote pattern and rhythm to your method? And she said, “Oh, that's just for them, you'll be fine. You won't need it.” Because I was so super-smart, see? So I agreed. And it was a disaster. I didn't know the rules, I was completely out of rhythm with the pace of the class, and at one point, trying to explain the word “dry,” I resorted to the Mandarin, but in my haste I went fourth tone instead of first and wound up saying the “F” word in Taiwanese. Worse, I realized I'd said the “F” word in Taiwanese, and went “Oops” and covered my mouth, while the kids in the class laughed. The parents sitting in the back row weren't too amused by that. I was not asked back.
Saturday June 18, 2022
Paul McCartney Turns 80
Bob (left) and Paul (right)
I took this photo of a framed photo of my father with Paul McCartney when I flew to Minneapolis last January for Dad’s 90th birthday. The photo hangs in his basement study next to his computer. It’s of him and another journalist standing in line to get Paul’s autograph during an event for Paul’s film “Give Me Regards to Broad Street” in 1984. These were guys who never did that kind of thing. They never asked for autographs from people they were covering, and they certainly didn’t stand in line to do it. Just wasn’t professional. But they did it for Paul.
Well, Dad did it for me. In my teen years in the late ’70s and early ’80s I was still Beatles-mad, and Paul was my favorite, so he asked Paul to sign his reporter’s notebook to me. I still have it. That's here, too.
Paul McCartney turns 80 today. Eighty. Seems like yesterday I wrote about Paul’s 70th. Yesterday and a million years ago.
My friend Adam recently tweeted about this article, with musicians from all over the world breaking down favorite Paul tunes. I asked Adam which one he’d take a shot at and he said he wouldn’t ignore the greats: “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be.” I liked that. My first thought for me was “Listen to What the Man Said.” It was the McCartney song that was charting when I first began to listen to the radio, and I used to listen to various stations for hours just to hear it. I still like it. A lot. It would be fun trying to figure out why.
This isn’t true of other solo McCartney efforts. I recently heard “With a Little Luck” for the first time in, I don’t know, decades, and I was still sick of it. And I’d forgotten all about “Take It Away” and “No More Lonely Nights” until I looked up his discography. And “Arrow Through Me”? From the album “Back to the Egg”? Back to the Egg? What the hell was Paul thinking?
I kept going back and forth on his albums. Yes to “Venus and Mars,” no to “At the Speed of Sound.” Yes to “London Town,” god no to “Egg.” I bought “McCartney II” but … nah. It was “Coming Up” and not much else. “Tug of War” was his first post-John album, and it was supposed to be a return to form, a more mature work, and it kinda was, but it was just too uneven, and I look at it now and think the laudatory critics were engaged in some serious wish fulfillment there. Which I get. I was the same. I kept listening and wishing and willing it to be better. Same with “Pipes of Peace.” C’mon, Paul, you can do it!
And then he tried the movie, “Broad Street,” which I began with hope and ended with an eyeroll, and he was onto symphonies and things, and I was onto other music, and now it’s now and Paul is 80. But today, in honor, I listened to the whole of “Venus and Mars” for the first time since probably 1980-81, and maybe it's the '70s baby in me listening to one of the first contemporary albums I ever bought, but it's pretty good: from “You Gave Me the Answer,” his throwback to throwback songs like “When I’m 64,” with a lovely little line: “I love you/And you, you seem to like me”; and the “Oh, Darling!”-esque “Call Me Back Again,” and “Treat Her Gently/Lonely Old People,” another Paul song about the aged (he was the only rocker doing that, wasn't he?), as well as “Crossroads,” the instrumental snippet at the end with the “Abbey Road” vibe. Plus of course “Listen to What the Man Said,” which still sounds good to me, and which I’d forgotten I'd bought back then, as a single, until my older brother, who keeps everything, gave it back to me a few years ago. He'd kept it all these years and he gave it back to me, and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, sparking joy.
Happy birthday, Paul.
Saturday December 25, 2021
Skip to St. Lou
The other night we watched “Meet Me in St. Louis” for the first time in forever, and so this morning, when I woke too early, the traditional song “Skip to My Lou,” sung by the Smith family and their guests, was bouncing around in my head. (Not, oddly, the better-known songs “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”) Though in the brain fog of sleep, I couldn't quite get one of the verses. I was thinking: “Butterfly in the ... milk? No, that scanned wrong. Butterfly in the buttermilk? That seemed more right. But why would you worry about a butterfly? Doesn't everyone love a butterfly?”
A second later, when I was more awake, it hit:
Fly in the buttermilk — shoo shoo shoo
But then what about the “Skip to the Loo” part? And that's what I was thinking it was: the loo. Was “loo” a bathroom? Was “loo” to the left? Skip to the left? That kind of made sense. But wrong. It's “my lou,” and according to Wikipedia, via Alan Lomax's “The Folk Songs of North America” (New York: Doubleday, 1960), it's Scottish for “my love.” It was a partner-swapping song—the swipe right/left of its time. One wonders if you could update a verse that way.
Swipe to the left of me —shoo shoo shoo
Swipe to the left of me — shoo shoo shoo
Swipe to the right of me — who are you?
Skip to my lou my darling
Here's the Smith family and their guests going at it. Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Friday August 20, 2021
Louis Menand on Elvis, the Beatles, and Where the Hell Teenagers Came From
Elvis on the Dorsey Show. Radio didn't care about race, TV did.
I’ve been slogging through Louis Menand’s “The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War” for the past few months now, setting it down for another book, picking it up again when that book was finished, hoping it would get better or more interesting or more interesting to me. I liked the chapter on Orwell well enough, and the chapter on the sham of the beats, but once he got into the philosophers and the art world, well, I guess I put it down because I had trouble picking it up. Too much of it went over my head. But the other day I skipped a chapter to the one on music and “youth culture,” and … holy fuck. I wish I could buy people just this chapter.
I know a lot about Elvis and the Beatles, but not completely, and some of the angles Menand comes from are new. He doesn’t underline it, but each act presented its opposite face when performing. Privately, Elvis was polite and deferential, onstage he roared with rebellion. The Beatles flipped this script. Onstage, they were polite—bowing after each number—while in private and in press conferences, they were cheeky, rebellious, dismissive of authority. Press agent Derek Taylor talks about their fangs. Producer George Martin, the fifth Beatle, said they didn’t give a damn about anyone—that’s partly why he liked them. “They sang of love,” Menand writes; “they were loved by millions; ‘loveableness’ was the essence of their appeal. But they loved only one another.”
How the Beatles disarmed the press is well-known, and Menand calls one of the exchanges on Feb. 7, 1964, the day they arrived at JFK Airport and all hell broke loose, “sublime.” This one:
Q: What do you think of Beethoven?
Ringo: Great. Especially his poems.
Some of the Beatles’ wit can be credited to the social style of working-class Liverpool life. Ringo, for instance, who was by far the least educated Beatle (childhood illnesses had kept him out of school for long periods), did not acquire his drollness with the mohair suit Brian Epstein accoutered him in. It was his natural manner of deflecting insults. The question about Beethoven was a genteel insult, and it is telling that he, the Beatle least likely to know much about Beethoven, should have had the quickest retort, and a retort to which no follow-up is possible.
He adds: “If Elvis Presley had had a month to think about it, he couldn’t have come up with that line.”
But it’s in the pullback into how teenagers became a thing where this chapter completely jazzes me. Where did teenagers come from? Hadn’t they always been? Not really. So why did they become a thing? Because high school happened. In 1900, he informs us, only 10.2% of 14- to 17-year-old Americans were in school. By 1940, it was 73%, and it kept growing. And that emphasis on education was specific to America. I’ve never heard this 1966 quote of John Lennon’s but it’s telling: “America used to be the big youth place in everybody’s imagination. America had teen-agers and everywhere else just had people.”
Teenagers happened in part because the family farm stopped happening: “In 1900, 38 percent of employed Americans were farm workers; in 1950, 12 percent were. By 1960, it was a little over 6 percent.” Then college was added. There was all this time, and money, and what do you do with it?
Menand goes into the copyright and financial battles between the behemoths ASCAP (founded in 1914) and BMI (founded in 1939), and how after World War II the FCC set out to license new, independent radio stations to create media competition. They were everywhere, and radios were increasingly added to automobiles. Menand gives us the birth of things. In 1948, Columbia issued the first 33 1/3 LP. Eight months later, RCA introduced the 45 RPM single. Phonographs, particularly for singles, became more affordable. Portable transistor radios began selling in 1953. Jukeboxes went from holding 24 records, to 100, to 500.
Why Elvis? R&B was breaking through, for both white and Black performers, and they were all played on the radio. Radio was integrated. TV segregated them again. “Many sponsors avoided mixed-race television shows,” Menand writes, “since they were advertising on national networks and did not want to alienate white viewers in certain regions of the country.” Plus TV is a superficial medium and Elvis was young, sexy, sneering. America and the world went nuts. Read George W.S. Trow on Elvis ’56.
Why the Beatles? I remember Philip Norman talking up how they were a cheery media distraction after tawdry or tragic events—the Profumo scandal in Britain, the JFK assassination in the U.S.—but Menand goes to other places. The baby boomers were coming into teenagehood, the business machinery was in place, and all the great rockers had died (Buddy, Richie), been busted (Chuck, Jerry Lee), or gone Hollywood (Elvis). “When the Beatles arrived in New York, the pop charts had been dominated by singers like Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian—the ‘teen idols’—and groups like the Four Seasons. Presley had not had a No. 1 single since April 1962; he would not have another No. 1 in the United States until 1969.”
Why the British invasion? I found this info fascinating:
Britain had more art colleges per capita than any nation in the world. The establishment of a National Diploma in Design, in 1944, lowered the bar for entry—probably all [John] Lennon had to do was to submit to an interview and show a portfolio of his drawings—and this led to an academically permissive environment. … Every British act that had a lasting impact on popular music in the 1960s had at least one member who attended art college: the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards and Charlie Watts), the Who (Pete Townsend), Cream (Eric Clapton and the lyricist Pete Brown), Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page), the Kinks (Ray Davies), the Jeff Beck Group (Jeff Beck and Ron Wood, later with the Stones), the Animals (Eric Burdon), and Donovan.
My interest waned when Menand tries to say something meaningful about Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine. But the rest of the chapter fucking rocks.
The Beatles arrive, Feb. 7, 1964, filling a huge gap.
Sunday June 20, 2021
Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word
“You know, it was probably a stupid thing to do, not letting her play, but you can't be wise and in love at the same time, so I hope she sees the light sooner or later on that.”
-- Bob Dylan, talking about not letting Joan Baez go on stage with him during his disastrous 1966 tour of England, in Martin Scorsese's great 2006 documentary “No Direction Home,” which is currently steaming on Netflix. I've seen the doc three, four times, but tonight the highlighted just leapt out at me. This is around the time in the doc Joan Baez talks about stealing Dylan's song “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word.” Later Dylan hears it and goes “Huh ... pretty good song,” and she has to tell him, “You wrote it, you dope.” All of that is part of the doc's idea that a young Dylan somehow tapped into our collective unconscious. Which certainly explains why he was so wise at ages 21, 22, 23.
Friday May 15, 2020
7th Avenue Comfort
This morning I heard Simon & Garfunkel's “The Boxer” and recalled an epiphany I had a few years back. This part:
Asking only workman's wages, I come lookin' for a job
But I get no offers
Just a come-on from the whores on 7th Avenue
I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there
It's the “comfort there” line. Or simply the “there” there. As a kid/teen/young adult, I thought the singer was taking comfort from the come-ons themselves. As in: “Well, I may be lonely, but at least they seem to want me.” I thought it was an amusing line. As an adult, I see a more obvious meaning.
Seriously, sometimes I look back at myself and wonder how I got through life.
Thursday April 09, 2020
John Prine (1946-2020)
This was pre-Covid times. I was taking a walk in Seattle over to Volunteer Park—named for the men who volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War—and I think I was just leaving the park when, on my iPod shuffle, John Prine's live version of “That's the Way the World Goes Round” came on, and I felt such joy. It's more than the song; it's the story he tells about the girl who mishears the words.
The words go:
That's the way that the world goes ‘round
You’re up one day, the next you‘re down
It’s a half an inch of water, you think you‘re gonna drown
That’s the way that the world goes ‘round
And instead of “half an inch of water” she hears “happy enchilada.” Right. “It’s a happy enchilada and you think you‘re gonna drown.” So that’s what she aks him to play: “That song of yours about the happy enchilada.”
He tells that story halfway through the song and then finishes it up by singing her words in the chorus. When he does, there's a woman in the audience who lets out a scream of pure happiness and humor and joy. And I felt that pure happiness and humor and joy walking back home from Discovery Park. And here's the thing: I always felt that joy when I listened to the song. The whole thing is so perfect. The screw-up fits the theme of the song. You write a humorous song about the minor mishaps of life and someone comes along and totally mishears the words and renders the whole thing meaningless. How can you not laugh? How can you not embrace it? It's the way the world goes ‘round.
So I was happy that day thinking about how much I loved this song and John Prine. And I was sadder than I expected two nights ago when John Prine died from complications from the Covid-19 virus. I expected it when I heard he contracted it. He was not in good health. But there was still a sudden deep empty sadness.
I didn’t know Roger Ebert helped discover him. It was 1970, Ebert went to review a movie, but he left because his popcorn was too salty (really, Roger?) and went to a local bar for a beer. The bartender told him to check out the guy playing in the back room. He not only checked him out, he wrote about him for the Chicago Sun-Times:
“[Prine] appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Among the songs Ebert heard? “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery.”
Here's Prine on NPR in 2018:
“I never had an empty seat after that. I was still making my living as a mailman. And [after that review] I was singing three nights a week and two shows a night. And there was a line outside. And things just got better from then on.”
Kris Kristoferson helped, too, and took him to New York and had him open for him. Bonnie Raitt helped, too. She plucked “Angel from Montgomery” and sang it in 1974. The people who knew, knew. I was late to the party. I think I first started listening to him in the ‘90s? Bob Dylan writes the best story-songs I’ve ever heard but I doubt anyone ever told better stories before singing their songs than John Prine: Sabu. Oldest baby in the world. Sam Stone.
Before the live version of “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam Vet who becomes an addict when he returns home from the war, Prine talks about how he and his friend had a day to kill in D.C., and this is what they saw:
- Lincoln Memorial
- Hot dog stand
- Kennedy's grave
- Vietnam Memorial
I love the addition of the hot dog stand. It's so true for D.C. You check out this, check out that, then suddenly it's 1 PM and damn you‘re hungry and hey there’s a hot dog stand. You eat on the Mall and continue.
I just like were they go. It's where I go. Jefferson Memorial, too, probably, and the new FDR, and Chinatown. I like looking at the statues around town. I mean, I‘ve done DC a zillion times, but those are my places, and I’m glad they‘re his places. At the same time, it makes me wonder where Republicans go when they go to DC. Lincoln was a Republican, sure, but everything he stood for they now repudiate; so where do they go? I’m kind of curious.
John and his friend also head to the Vietnam War Memorial, which is right by Lincoln on the Mall, and what he says about it is probably the most succinct thing I‘ve heard about the dark beauty of that Memorial. Worth listening to.
Some twinkle in the eye is gone from the world. But it’s also still here.
Sunday March 17, 2019
Trow on Elvis '56
Re-reading George W.S. Trow. Always worthwhile. In the beginning of “Pilgrim's Progress/Media Studies,” he's ragging on a multimillion-dollar study on violence that ignores what Trow calls “sequence” and what I tend to call “chronology.” He gives a great example of why sequence and chronology matter:
In analyzing violence on television, it was all treated as though it had been ever with us, like sugar use—as if, naturally we‘ve always had sugar in coffee and tea, and how much are we using now, and what does it do to our energy level, and should we cut down on sugar? Like that. No sense of when sugar was invented, no sense of the sequence of it. And the note I made at this point is, “Like analyzing rock-and-roll on TV without looking at Elvis Presley’s appearance on the Dorsey Stage Show in 1956.”
Well, in 1956, in January, Elvis began to appear on television, and his first appearance was on a program called Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, who'd been a hit with teenagers twenty years before, were now fifty years old, and the show was corny, and it was corny precisely because we'd been through the experience of the Second World War, which was a very puritanical experience, a military experience, an experience of privation and seriousness. ... The Dorseys presented themselves as something from the hall of fame of popular culture. They had jugglers, they had tap dancers, it was just the standard stuff that adults had grown up on, and Elvis came into that, and anyone who wants to see the moment, and nearly everyone should see the moment, can watch a documentary called Elvis ‘56. Elvis came into it, and you know—I hope you know what Elvis was like when he was twenty-one years old. He wasn’t dressed like Liberace, he was dressed to kill, and he did kill. He killed Stage Show, and everything it represented, in a moment. This has to do with the quality of unexampled people in life, it has to do with the quality of talent, it has to do with the history of Dionysian energy. Of course, there would have been no point in counting everything that was happening in television in December 1955, because in January of 1956 a human avatar of unparalleled power named Elvis Presley was going to change the whole thing forever, and to leave that kind of truth out of a media discussion is simply to have a discussion—well, worthless is the word that comes to mind.
I‘ve been sick for the past few weeks, and today was sunny, so I walked over to Seattle University and read this in the sun by the fountain where dogs play. Made me want to watch “Elvis ’56” again. Also made me think that Elvis' much-praised comeback special in ‘68 was just a ’68 version of Stage Show with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. It was the show for '50s kids who were confused by civil rights, anti-war protesters and hippies.
Anyway, pay attention to chronology.
Friday October 19, 2018
Your Kids Will Always Be Embarrassed of You
“I was incredibly flattered. It was very cool. It was a little embarrassing at times. You know, carpool with the kids and the song comes on and my son's like... [imitates him shrinking back into his seat].”
Michelle Pfeiffer on being namechecked in the Mark Ronson/Bruno Mars hit, “Uptown Funk.”
Thursday August 16, 2018
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
How isolated was I as a kid in the ‘70s? How segregated are we as a society and a culture even though we had national meeting places like the three big networks back then? I saw “The Blues Brothers” in 1980, age 17, with some little knowledge of the world and music; and when Jake and Ellwood, on a mission from God, are putting together their band again, and recruit Matt “Guitar” Murphy at the diner, and his wife, a waitress, tries to stop him, singing “Think,” this was my thought halfway through that song:
Wow, that waitress sure can sing.
I’d heard Aretha's name, of course, I just didn't know what she looked like. Of the big-name singers from that movie, Aretha, James Brown, Ray Charles and Cab Calloway, I only knew Ray. This was my intro to the others. So at least it gave us that.
The Queen of Soul died this morning at the age of 76. Other remembrances here. The greatest remembrance of all is the music, which everyone is listening to this morning, and which lives on and on and on.
The other day, when news broke that Aretha was sick, my friend David, a good Southern boy, posted this clip from the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals” to social media. It's a reminder that even with all that talent, even with all that power, it didn't have to happen. It's not just talent and hard work. You need people who know what they're doing. And even if you have all that, sometimes you need the right piano riff.
All previous entries