(Monday, 9/21/2015) Song 269: Bottom Rung by Jim Allen, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. Seven weeks after my last song post by a personal friend, this week's track is by my friend Jim Allen, and comes from the December 1992 issue of Fast Folk. I don't remember exactly when Jim first showed up at Jack Hardy's Thursday night gathering on West Houston Street, but I do remember that he made quite an impression on every one of us in that apartment. I often had a different take on the songs performed in that room than most of the other songwriters, but if there was one thing we all agreed on, it was Jim's songwriting talent. Jim impressed us all with his truly unique approach, both musically and lyrically -- he had his own guitar tuning, different from every tuning variation I'd ever seen, and, as this song illustrates, he came up with lines that no one else would have imagined. Jim included this song on his first CD, Weeper's Stomp, which was released on the Prime CD label in 1996, and around that time, while designing the cover for Aztec Two-Step's Highway Signs CD, I had Weeper's Stomp on the CD player at the Prime office, and in talking with one of the Two-Step guys, with Jim's music playing in the background, inevitably, the conversation turned towards how much we both admired Jim's abilities. Among the singer/songwriter types in the greater NYC area during the early to mid-90s, there were probably very few who didn't know and respect Jim Allen -- I thought of him then as the era's songwriters' songwriter. During this period I often got junk mail from agencies offering to set poems and/or song lyrics to music for a price, and once, as a lark, I sent them the lyrics for this song, just to see how they'd react. This was well after the song appeared on the FF record, so I knew Jim was covered as far as his copyrights, although I also thought it unlikely that anyone would actually try to steal the words of this piece. I expected that I'd find any reply from the song sharks amusing, though I also didn't expect there to be one. When I mentioned to Jim, some months later, what I had done with his lyrics, while pretending to be him and using his return address, he said, "Oh, that's why I've been getting some strange mail lately," though he also confirmed that, as expected, the song sharks had not offered to actually put this particular set of lyrics to music. One further note -- I probably should have waited until December to post this song, but don't be frightened by the 12 shopping days bit in the final verse, because, in reality, there are a lot more than 12 shopping days left before you-know-when.
(Sunday, 9/6/2015) Song 267: Somebody to Love by Jefferson Airplane, written by Darby Slick. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. Somehow I knew the name Jefferson Airplane for a little while before I heard this song, and I believe that name came to me from 2 different directions. First, I think someone in my social circle had a copy of the Donovan LP Sunshine Superman, and in a casual listening to the record, the words "Fly Jefferson Airplane, get you there on time" floated by my ears once or twice. I also seem to recall a magazine article mentioning that newer rock groups were choosing names less like the Byrds or the Seekers and more like Buffalo Springfield or Jefferson Airplane, which was a change I didn't necessarily welcome. At any rate, I had no particular attachment to the JA name until this single took off all over the airwaves in the spring of '67, at which point I decided that maybe the name Jefferson Airplane actually did have a good sound. I couldn't get enough of this single in that spring, no matter how many spins the radio gave it, and on a sunny midsummer afternoon when I snuck the transistor radio out into the back yard, at the magic moment the local station played this track, life felt very good indeed. I had very quickly learned the lead singer's name Grace Slick, and at some point saw the name Slick listed as the songwriter on the 45, so I mistakenly assumed that the woman with the very impressive voice had also written the tune. She did actually write the follow-up hit White Rabbit, but it would take a couple of years before I found out that it was her then brother-in-law Darby Slick who had penned this track. That little piece of info doesn't add or take anything away from this amazing recording, but as a songwriter, I've always paid attention to who writes the songs, and I always want the writer to get some share of the credit for a magic song. Decades later, I still feel that magic rush of joy when I hear Grace sing "When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you... dies!"
(Sunday, 8/30/2015) Song 266: All My Ex's Live in Texas by George Strait, written by Sanger D. Shafer and Linda J. Shafer. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. If the rumor about me playing bass in a country-bar pickup band back in the mid-80s in northern CA happened to be true, then it's quite possible that during the final year of that crew, I could have been seen plunking out the 1-5-1-5 as the lead singer led the way through this track, and if so, then the performance of it carried its own small unintended piece of irony, as that lead singer delivered lines about his ex's while his ex-wife added the harmonies. Though I won't try to credit this song as conveying any sort of poetry or depth, from the first time I heard it, I liked the clever and entertaining lyric that automatically registered on my "Oh, I wish I'd thought of that" button -- you don't have to think too much about this one, just sit back and enjoy. On a side note, this track is my fifth (and final) sly reference to the first verse of my own song As Long as Merle is Still Haggard, which begins with lines that mention Pam Tillis (Song 210), Johnny Cash (Song 218) and Randy Travis (Song 231), followed by a line about Reba (Song 239) and George: does Reba McEntire-ly too much and should George Strait-en her out if that's so? You can find the As Long as Merle is Still Haggard video here.
(Sunday, 8/23/2015) Song 265: Upon the My-O-My by Captain Beefheart, written by Don Van Vliet, Jan Van Vliet and Andy DiMartino. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. The first name among the songwriters on this track is actually the Captain, going by his legal name, and Jan Van Vliet was his wife. In the spring of 1970, during my freshman year at Northwestern, someone stuck a sticker for Captain Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby album near the entrance to my dorm building, so I remember seeing it a number of times, and the understated humor always made me smile, putting that one near the top of my list of favorite LP titles, but I had the impression then, having heard a few cuts from Trout Mask Replica, that Mr. B's sound largely ventured into an area of experimental rock and jazz that didn't appeal to me, so I didn't pay much attention to him. However, in early 1974, I had a good gig for a few months playing piano in a Shakey's Pizza place in Atlanta, GA, and around the time that the gig came to an end, in June, I happened to hear Sugar Bowl (Song 148) on my car radio one day, and I liked it so much, I decided to get a copy of Unconditionally Guaranteed soon after. This track opens the LP, in a very strong way, as I hear it, followed by Sugar Bowl and then 8 other cuts that I truly enjoy. The lyrics paint an impressionistic picture of some sort of happening aboard a ship at sea, and include the line "Tell me, Captain, how does it feel to be driven away from your own steering wheel?" Since this song, and all the cuts on the album, where written as collaborations between the Captain and his wife, I wonder if she actually originated that question, perhaps doing so in the context of a car episode. At any rate, despite how much Unconditionally Guaranteed appealed to me, the critics didn't like the LP, and when I tried to interest a friend or 2 in the album, I didn't get much traction. A few years after its release, the Captain disavowed the record as a commercial sellout, and some of his players have had bad things to say about the LP as well, but I never cared -- I always liked the album, from my first time through it. In fact, it got me interested in giving his earlier music a listen, and along that way, I discovered many other cuts that I really like. While the Captain came to disagree with the label of his record, I still feel that the LP qualifies as "100% Pure and Good" and that, 4 decades after its release, the warranty that applies to "all sounds, vibes, feelings, light waves, projections, auras, test patterns, etc., which originate from this record" still holds up pretty well. I would advise listeners, though, to heed the label warning that the album "could be harmful to closed minds" and so therefore take caution to "check ears and other sensory equipment for socially induced limitations" and act accordingly, especially if you might happen to venture anywhere close to the My-O-My.
(Sunday, 8/16/2015) Song 264: Mississippi Delta by Bobbie Gentry, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video of this tune here. This track served as the B side to the Ode to Billie Joe single as well as the opening cut for the LP of the same name, and was even originally considered as the possible A side for the single. This song may also be the best-sounding spelling lesson you'll ever hear, and even if you only listen to it once, afterwards you will have no excuse for not knowing how to spell Mississippi. I followed up on last week's James Taylor track with a Bobbie Gentry one because, while I had heard the Ode single during its time on the top 40, I didn't get to hear the album until the warmer months of 1970. That summer, working as a camp counselor, I had JT's Sweet Baby James on the turntable every day, turning the other counselors in our cabin into James Taylor fans, while the head counselor, who owned the fancy stereo system, was spinning BG's LP every day, turning me into a Bobbie Gentry fan. I got to liking every track on the album, and a couple of them showcase Bobbie's sense of humor in a very entertaining way, but on this opening cut, she really rocks out, with a bit of gravelly bite to her voice, which appeals to me even more. While I will admit that I too have had me a little of that Johnny cake, I never got into any of that apple pandowdy, but I truly enjoy the way BG paints a picture of life on the Mississippi delta through the details that her lyrics share. If I ever head down towards the Mississippi Delta, I'll know enough, thanks to this song, to be wary of a chigger bite, and I hope I'll know enough not to bet five dollars to win two bits (that's 25 cents, for those who have never heard the stadium 2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar cheer).