(Sunday, 8/9/2015) Song 263: Fire and Rain by James Taylor, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. I first heard of James Taylor on a visit with Hank Neuberger. Hank occupied the room right across from me in the college dorm, and had the most amazing record collection, plus a high-quality component stereo setup. Hank happily introduced me to a lot of fine music, and one day when I dropped in to see him, I picked up a copy of JT's first album (on Apple Records) and checked out the lyrics. I noticed the song Something in the Way She Moves, and I remarked about how he had apparently borrowed some lines from the latest Beatles single, only to be told that it was actually George Harrison who had borrowed from Mr. Taylor. Having a subscription to Rolling Stone, I read a review of Sweet Baby James a few months later which made it sound like a record I might want, so I soon got a copy of it. The first few spins on the turntable, I wasn't that excited about the latest addition to my small but growing LP collection -- it didn't curl my socks the way Revolver or Surrealistic Pillow did. However, after a half dozen spins, I began to like the album more and more. I started getting to know the lyrics, and felt a real sense of "Won't you stay inside me, month of May" when June 1 rolled around. I spent a good portion of that summer of 1970 working as a camp counselor, and the cabin where I bunked included a truly impressive component stereo system. I played Sweet Baby James almost every day, and by the end of camping season I had converted the other counselors into James Taylor fans. My study of JT's music that summer, along with a handful of others, also helped me to find my own personal singer/songwriter voice and style, as I pieced together what I heard and connected it with all of the guidance that my freshman roommate Abby had provided over the preceding winter and spring. In late August, I visited the Glorieta Southern Baptist center near Santa Fe, traveling with some of my SBC friends from Northwestern U., and I met a Christian songwriter there who spoke to a group of us about songs that had a Christian message, such as Jesus is Just Alright. I thought about mentioning Fire and Rain, but I didn't because I was quite sure he wouldn't have heard of it. On returning to Evanston, I tried to spread the James Taylor gospel, and I played SWJ for a few friends. I didn't seem to get much traction with anyone, but I remember playing the LP for a woman I knew, and singing along with it, which didn't convert her to being a JT fan, but did elicit a remark that my voice had come to sound just like his. A few years later, when I started hitting the stage more often, at first I felt both bewildered and relieved when people told me that my sound reminded them of Neil Young. While I have great respect for Neil, and I have listened to him often enough, from the beginning, I focused on James Taylor, from his guitar to his voice to his onstage persona, listening to and studying his records way more than Neil, even to the point of consciously imitating a few of JT's techniques, and yet, over 4 decades later, not one listener has ever connected a single element of my style to James Taylor. Anyway, back in that September of 1970, I continued trying to tell my friends about Mr. Taylor, and then suddenly one day, one of them said, "Oh, he's the one that does that new song Fire and Rain" and I said, "Yes, that's the one." My friends began to know about him then, but at first, they said they didn't get that excited about his song. Then, a week or 2 later, they started talking about how good the song was. Before long, JT made the cover of Time, and by then everyone knew who he was, and they knew this track, so I no longer needed to tell people about him. Even so, after listening to this cut hundreds of times over the years, and the entire Sweet Baby James album countless times over the decades, still, hanging out with some friends at a lunch counter in southern CT in the summer of 2001, I can remember the moment when Fire and Rain came across the restaurant radio speakers, and in my life "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend," but hearing this track made me feel as if an old friend had just walked into the room.
(Sunday, 7/26/2015) Song 261: Peace Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello, written by Nick Lowe. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. It might seem a bit soon for Costello to show up on the playlist again, since I posted Girls Talk as Song 246, but that was Linda Ronstadt covering his song, whereas here he's covering a Nick Lowe composition, so I believe that spreads the spotlight around a bit. As you may notice, this week's track continues the peace theme from last week in recognition of the historic agreement reached with the Islamic Republic of Iran and the resulting clash swirling around D.C. as the pro-war gang struggles to derail that deal. In the fall of 1977, I saw EC on his first U.S. tour, and I enjoyed his show, although I liked the opening act (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) a bit more. I thought this new late-1970s Elvis sounded pretty good, though, and when he came along with this song a year or two later, I felt he had exceeded my expectations. Certainly Dylan, Pete Seeger and a few others had written some good songs about war and peace, but I longed for one that really rocked out, and that also took on the issue with some genuine feeling while delving into the complexity of human conflict instead of painting a simplistic, two-toned good vs. evil picture of the matter, so then EC suddenly had this new track that accomplished all of that, in a way that made it sound easy. As a songwriter myself, I had wanted to meet that challenge, and at the time, it certainly did not come easily to me. I especially like the way this lyric asks why so many people would laugh at the very suggestion of wanting to have peace, when, as H. G. Wells warned us, "If we don't end war, war will end us." Now, more than ever, in this era of atomic weapons, we need to take peace, love and understanding seriously, and to get there while we still can, before we set ourselves on a path to our own destruction.
(Sunday, 7/19/2015) Song 260: Give Peace a Chance by The Plastic Ono Band, written by John Lennon. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. In light of the historic peace deal that the Obama administration, under the guiding hand of Secretary Kerry, has now reached with the Islamic Republic of Iran, I can think of no better song to fit this political moment. The pro-war contingent in Congress has vowed to do everything possible to scuttle this deal, so right now they really need to hear the message of this song. Actually, the entire D.C. government throng needs to hear it, regardless of party affiliation, position or ideology -- hear it, understand it and act on it, as if the future of humanity depended on it, because it very well might. Back in the middle of the summer of 1969, not long before my 18th birthday, I toured Europe for about a month with my high school singing group The Vestal Voices, and near the end of the tour we visited Venice, on Wednesday, 8/13, though we didn't perform there. When we split into smaller contingents, according to the tour rules, we were supposed to chaperone each other so that no one ended up walking around alone, but once again, as usual, my designated companions deserted me. I think they mostly wanted to get some alcohol, which I didn't care to do, but for whatever reason, I soon found myself exploring the streets of one more European city on my own, and while I have always had a good general sense of direction, this time, I did get lost. I had wanted to get beyond the touristy parts of the city, and I managed to do so, finding myself totally alone in an area that was a bit funky, and not at all like the picturesque Venice that graces most photographs of the famous city. I felt a touch of anxiety, not quite knowing where I was, but I had some time, and I expected that I'd find my way back to the group. As I walked along, I heard the sound of an acoustic guitar and John Lennon's voice coming from an upper-story window. About a week earlier, a bunch of us had located the latest Beatles single (The Ballad of John and Yoko/Old Brown Shoe) on a juke box in Munich, and listened to both sides, though the sound quality of the machine made it difficult to hear clearly. Now, here was another new Lennon recording, though it didn't exactly sound like a Beatles track. I liked it a lot on first hearing, even though at the time I still worried about dominoes falling near Viet Nam, and Lennon's view, as expressed in this song, seemed a bit simplistic and naive, but I still wanted to give peace a chance whenever possible. Over the years, as I have gained a deeper understanding of the causes of war, I have come around to John's POV. Meanwhile, not long after I heard this song, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the Bridge of Sighs, as I later wrote in my diary entry for the day. I didn't mention this track in my diary, but 46 years later, I remembered the song moment very well, and also being lost, but didn't recall the Bridge of Sighs until I read the diary. At any rate, over the next 2 months, we all need to strongly aim this message towards D.C. in whatever way we can convey it, because the future survival of humanity may very well depend on whether enough government people there make the right choice to give peace a chance.
(Sunday, 7/12/2015) Song 259: Tomorrow is My Turn by The Fifth Estate, written by Wayne Wadhams and Don Askew. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. In that long ago era before you could own a movie, the once-yearly broadcast of The Wizard of Oz become an annual event for my school mates and me, well enough established by 1967 that some of my chums, knowing it so thoroughly, might even choose to skip the annual viewing ritual, though it never lost its magic for me. However, when The Fifth Estate released their updated hit version of Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead in the summer of '67, I had no interest in it -- I liked the movie soundtrack and, despite my passion for '60s-style music, I didn't feel that any of the Wizard material needed an update. I had similar feelings about TFE's hit version of Heigh Ho! that followed some months later, so I had no great expectations at that point about liking anything the band did. The following spring, I somehow managed to talk my parents and grandparents into allowing me to buy a small box of rock and roll 45s -- they didn't approve of my interest in the devil's music, but I persuaded them to make a solo exception to what had previously been an unbending rule. The box contained 10 singles, for a very good price, and though I recognized less than half of the titles, I thought it would make a very good start for a record collection, and it did, although not in the way I had anticipated. I already had a small record player set up in my own basement area that could play 45s, and I soon discovered that most of the titles I didn't recognize also didn't thrill me. The existence of that box of singles gave me cover, though, as I began smuggling in 45s that I bought from neighborhood friends when they got tired of their golden oldies, and before long I owned 2 or 3 dozen, but my parents never knew the difference, since my records all sounded the same to them, and I kept most of my vinyl collection hidden except for a handful that I would be playing at any given time. My parents and grandparents said more than once that they regretted allowing me to buy that box of records, but as far as I know, they never caught on to how I had greatly expanded on the original 10 singles. Among that first bunch, though, there was one that I really liked, and that I played a lot, and it was this track, which was actually the B-side of the Morning, Morning 45. I liked and played the A-side as well, but this B-side track left a deeper mark on my musical landscape, to the point where I knew it well enough to sing along even when it wasn't spinning on the turntable, and I understood exactly what the singer meant about when the circle comes 'round.
(Sunday, 7/5/2015) Song 258: Do It Again by Steely Dan, written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. Rock and roll had begun to lose its luster by the fall of '72. The radio still played plenty of good songs by new and established artists, but music fans felt the lack of something truly dynamically new. The previous decade had featured acts that practically exploded onto the scene, with a dizzying variety that ranged from The Beatles to Hendrix, Dylan to the Doors, and many seemed to widen the range of possibility with each new release. Near the end of the following decade's 3rd year, rock and roll had not yet produced any really exciting new sounds, and as the listeners wondered how much longer it would take until the Magic Next Big Thing would arrive, this single popped up on the airwaves. It sounded dramatically different from everything else, suggesting magic new musical directions, with lyrics that hinted at poetic possibilities. The album title Can't Buy a Thrill payed homage to Dylan, and raised the prospect that perhaps the Supergroup of the '70s had finally arrived -- a band which would mix the best of the '60s RnR influences together into a unique and timely brew, with words and music that matched the current calendar page. This track sounded so good then, and still does today, but alas, the rest of the album didn't quite fulfill the expectations raised by this cut, even though the LP had plenty of other fine songs. As it turned out, that decade did not produce any acts that truly qualified as the '70s Beatles, the '70s Hendrix or any other updated versions of '60s musical icons, but for a brief moment in the fall of '72, this track raised the possibility that Steely Dan might blaze a new musical trail that would define the era. If you had waited for the arrival of the mythic Supergroup of the '70s, and you thought the wait was over when you heard this song, unfortunately, you had to go back, Jack, and do it again -- waiting, that is, and specifically, waiting for the band that never arrived.