Song 210, Sunday, 8/3/2014 -- Don't Tell Me What to Do by Pam Tillis, written by Harlan Howard and Max D. Barnes. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. At the turn of the 1990s, country music radio was buzzing about New Country, and with good reason, it seemed to me, as I started hearing a lot of new artists and clever, catchy songs that I liked, from a revitalized country music scene. In the process, I soon learned that Mel Tillis had a daughter, and from the sound of this track, I could tell that Mel's daughter could sing pretty well. This song alone was almost reason enough to buy the Pam Tillis CD Put Yourself in My Place, but I also heard a couple of other good tracks from the record so that by the time I picked it up, I knew I'd be spinning it quite a bit. If you know about country music songwriters, then you probably recognize the name Harlan Howard on this one, as the guy who also wrote a number of classic country tunes, including I Fall to Pieces, Heartaches By the Number and Busted. Not long after this record came along, I wrote a song called As Long as Merle is Still Haggard that makes puns like the title one from a whole bunch of country singers' names, and the one that I open the song with is... Pam Tillis. I'm sure that this record is the main reason why I thought of Pam, though it wasn't the only reason.
Song 208, Tuesday, 7/22/2014 -- These Dreams by Heart, written by Martin Page and Bernie Taupin. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. This week's track follows last week's song about hard-edged, oppressive political realities of war, injustice, assassination and class struggle, by moving into the soft-edged romantic unreality of dreams. Songs often create their own reality by virtue of their existence, and this one does so in a truly inspired and poetic way. Heart came out of the gate with a very strong first album (Dreamboat Annie) and had some excellent tunes on the follow-ups, but by the turn of the '80s the band seemed to hit a lull, despite having a couple of stand-out tracks. Then, a decade after their first LP, they came back strong on their 10th album (Heart), which contains this song as well as a few others that shouldn't be missed. One of the songwriters on this track, Bernie Taupin, had made his career in the early 1970s writing words that Elton John set to music and turned into hits, and I liked a lot of his early work, but by the mid-'70s his lyrics came across as more pop than poetry, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a songwriter, but it was also inspiring to note that a decade later, he could pen a song this richly evocative, with lines that suggested layers of meaning. Maybe I like this song as much as I do, though, because I've also had some of These Dreams myself.
Song 207, Sunday, 7/13/2014 -- Open Your Eyes by The Lords of the New Church, written by Stiv Bators and T. D. James. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. The YT video is a lyric video, and a wonderful thing that is, especially for someone like myself who had to wonder for years at what the opening words of this song are. I got the part about training the kids for war and something going on in high fashion stores, but I was missing a few important words. Sometimes when you can only get part of a lyric, maybe you guess at the rest of it, and when you later find out what the right words are, maybe you're amused, maybe you're impressed, or maybe you're disappointed, a little or more than a little. When I finally got to learn the opening lines on this track, I was truly impressed to find out that they're every bit as hard-hitting as the other lines in the song that I already knew. During that late-'70s/early-'80s punk era, I initially liked the basic idea of a rougher and harder-edged sound, but I didn't hear that many punk records that interested me because most of the songs didn't seem to have much to say. However, once in a while, a song would come along that spoke volumes in less than 4 minutes, and this track is probably the best example I could find of one of those. When I mentioned this record to a friend who was himself a big fan of the whole punk scene, he chuckled as he told me The Lords of the New Church were really a Who's Who of English punk, but I told him that I didn't care about their musical exploits -- what mattered to me then, and still does now, is that they created a record that packs a punch like very few before or since, particularly centered around a very strong and straightforward lyrical message, but also wrapped in a hard-edged musical sound to match those lyrics. If you're looking for a song with something to say, this is one that says a lot in a very short, tight space of time.
Song 206, Monday, 7/7/2014 -- The Winter Song by Jane Byaela, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. The visual for the YT video is just a still of the Burning Silver cover, but it is a nice image to look at while listening to a truly captivating song. Once again, seven weeks have passed since I last posted a friend's song to this list, so this week's tune is also by someone I've known personally. I didn't know Jane as well as some of my other singer/songwriter friends, but she was one of a group that graced the stage of the Sun Mountain Cafe on 4th St. in Manhattan on Tuesday nights, for a series of shows that I helped to plan and produce, back at the turn of the 1990s. Now in the middle of summer, it seemed like a good time to post a song about winter, just to remind everyone of what we're missing here at the moment. This one comes from Jane's 1994 Burning Silver album, and I recommend the entire album, especially for those who like the kind of dark territory that Leonard Cohen covers so well -- Jane's songs will also take you through some similar dark spaces, in a very compelling way, both with her lyrics and her music, and this track is a fine example of what the ride will sound like.
Song 204, Tuesday, 6/24/2014 -- Precious by The Pretenders, written by Chrissie Hynde. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. I first heard The Pretenders while riding in a car with my friend Eddie Spitzer, on our way going to or coming from one of our flea market selling adventures. Eddie knew the song Brass in Pocket well enough to sing along, and he was amused that I hadn't heard the track before. Over the next few months, I heard a few other cuts from that first album, and I liked them all, particularly for the over the top quality of Chrissie Hynde's persona that came through in the lyrics. Then I heard this song, and it instantly became my favorite Pretenders track, also instantly topping my list for over the top lyrics. Three and a half decades later, it's still at the top of that list, with those lines about shittin' bricks and not me, baby, I'm too precious, fuck off! Add that last line to the previous 2, which are Now Howard the Duck and Mr. Stress both stayed / trapped in a world that they never made, and you have the perfect distillation of the rock-and-roll attitude -- I doubt I could find a better one among the thousands of LPs, CDs and cassettes in my collection.
Song 203, Thursday, 6/19/2014 -- As the Raven Flies by Dan Fogelberg, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. Since Dan Fogelberg originally hailed from Illinois, his first LP, Home Free, which appeared in 1972, got some local play in the Chicago area, and since I lived there at the time, I heard a few of those tracks, but I didn't get that excited about them. Two years later, not long after his followup album Souvenirs arrived, I started hearing a song called Part of the Plan a lot, but that one also didn't move my meter much. However, when I heard this song on the radio not long after PotP arrived, it got my attention before it even got to the second verse, and I decided I'd have to find out more about Mr. DF and his new record. While I never warmed up to the hit song that opens the LP, I heard plenty of other good songs on the record, though this track remains my personal favorite, but I also included 2 or 3 other tunes from the album on the listening cassettes that I compiled back in the '80s and early '90s. The Souvenirs LP was typical of many 1970s-era albums, with its opening commercial AM hit track that got so much radio overplay the listeners would come to know every musical moment of the song, and wish to forget but be unable to do so. At friendly get-togethers, the person handling the turntable would often start such a record from the second track, omitting that all-too-familiar hit, and the conversation would momentarily center around how everyone couldn't stand to hear that hit song even one more time, but that the album had a bunch of other good songs which the radio seldom if ever played. This song was one of those other songs, though it did get some air time, but not nearly as much as I would have liked.
Song 202, Friday, 6/13/2014 -- The Pusher by Steppenwolf, written by Hoyt Axton. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. When figuring out what to post for last week, I originally thought of this week's song and last week's song around the same time, and decided to do them back to back. The two seemed possibly related in some way, and both do have the word damn in the chorus, but I didn't realize until I started writing last week's post that Hoyt Axton, the songwriter who wrote The Pusher, also wrote Greenback Dollar, which explains a lot of the similarities between them, despite the two very different eras in which they emerged. Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist home, I didn't hear the word damn from my parents, and they sure didn't want to hear that word come out of my mouth. This song, however, set up an even greater tension in my teenage soul. From the moment I first heard it, I couldn't deny its power over me -- I loved to hear it, and wanted to hear it again and again, but I also felt an intense sense of guilt for my enjoyment of it. My parents probably never heard it, for if they had, they surely would have made this song, with the words God damn repeated many times in the chorus, their Exhibit A as absolute proof that rock and roll was the devil's music. At the time, I would have had no defense, and a part of me feared the thought that my parents might actually be correct, but I loved RnR so much, not only did I have to hear it as often as I could, but I wanted to spend my spare moments writing, singing and playing it myself. Lucky for me, within a couple of years, no longer living under my parents' roof, I came to conclude that RnR was not at the center of some great moral conflict between warring eternal spirits, and I could freely enjoy it at my pleasure, to the extent that I could afford to buy the records I wanted. Not too long after that, President Nixon declared a new war on drugs, and I remember him saying the war was designed to target the pusher and not the user. Four decades and millions of arrests later, his lie couldn't be any clearer, especially to the millions who have had their lives ruined by his ill-conceived war. Nixon being the political animal that he was, no doubt he queried his advisors beforehand about the best way to sell his bogus war to the young people, and I wonder if one of those advisors hit upon the pusher angle because of knowing about this song. Maybe someday someone will find a reference to it while digging through those old Nixon tapes. I would bet there are at least a few smoking guns and steaming heaps in those tapes, if you know where to look and you understand the context. Bravo to the folks at nixontapes.org for all their work in digitizing the tapes and making them available to the public, and good luck to the diggers.