(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).
(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.