(Sunday, 5/15/2016) Song 303: Green Grass by Gary Lewis and the Playboys, written by Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. You can find a YouTube video for it here. This song is a companion to last week's track Monday, Monday by The Mamas and The Papas. I heard both of them on a bus day trip to the Bronx Zoo with a bunch of my classmates 50 years ago, in May of 1966, and whenever I hear this one, the first image that comes to mind is of a spot on the NYS Thruway in the Bronx, climbing the hill on the northbound side, on a bright, sunshiny spring afternoon. It felt very good to be alive at that moment, and this cut seemed to encapsulate the moment perfectly, even though, unlike the lyric of the song, I had no lover by my side. As I mentioned last week, the music I heard on that bus ride in May of '66 sounded so good to me that I gave up any further attempts to resist rock and roll, despite whatever my family might have believed about it being the devil's music and threatening my soul. My friend Brian and I discussed plans for a band of our own, my mother bought me an acoustic guitar not long after the beginning of the summer break, and I started writing songs as soon as I got that guitar. On a car ride soon after, heading up to visit relatives in Syracuse, I sang and played a few of my new songs in the back seat, and told my parents, who were sitting in the front seat, that I had written them. My mother, sitting on the passenger side, gave me a small smile and said, "That's nice," but my father, who was driving, frowned, and he said, "It sounds just like that junk they play on WENE." (WENE was, of course, our local top-40 radio station.) I would bet that he had no idea how good it made me feel, hearing him say that, because that's exactly how I wanted my songs to sound. I managed to snag a couple of Gary Lewis 45s during my HS days, though I don't think I had this one in my small collection, but one of my good friends had the GL greatest hits package that included it, and when I visited him, I would often ask him to spin that LP while we played pool in the family's basement, so this track brightened every spring of my HS career. Gary Lewis is, BTW, the son of famous comedian Jerry Lewis.
(Sunday, 5/8/2016) Song 302: Monday, Monday by The Mamas and The Papas, written by John Phillips. You can find a YouTube video for it here. 50 years ago, in May of 1966, near the end of my HS freshman year, I took a bus ride to NYC with a bunch of my classmates, on a day trip to the Bronx Zoo. My friends and I had a really fun day at the zoo, but for me, the best and most memorable part of the trip was the music on the radio, which included this cut. Since the Beatles rocked my world a couple of years earlier, I had struggled to justify my enjoyment of music that my religious family believed was of the devil. I would at times righteously resolve to turn my back on rock and roll, but the resolve would quickly crumble when my ears detected some magic sounds from a nearby transistor radio. That May day when I first heard this song, I liked it so much that it totally destroyed any possibility of resistance -- if RnR could sound this good, I couldn't resist, no matter how much the heavenly father, and my earthly one, might want me to do so. I mistakenly thought at first that the background singers at the beginning were singing "Bow down""and it made me wonder whether a devil-worship subtext might lurk in the recording, but if they wanted me to bow down, I would have to do it. My friend Brian had already discussed the idea of forming a band, and not long after the school year ended, my mother bought me an acoustic guitar. I wrote 8 songs in my first week with the instrument, composing a new one every time I learned a new chord. That summer we also did our visit to my father's Ohio relatives -- I mentioned in last week's post about a Hank Williams track that in my younger years we made the drive every summer, but then in the '60s the family decided to only do alternate years, making the trip on the even-numbered ones. During that Ohio visit in the summer of 1966, as usual, we spent one night with my father's brother's family, but this time around, their house had changed dramatically. Previously, for as long as I could remember, the family had lived in a finished basement, presumably built by my father's brother, but when we visited in '66, the man had constructed a handsome 2-story house on top of that basement -- the house that had been envisioned and promised for well over a decade had finally risen. Hanging out with my cousin in his fancy new bedroom, he soon put If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears on the stereo. I felt the LP lived up to its name, sounding unbelievably good, and I had no doubt that my cousin felt the same way. The next day, he would give me my first motorcycle ride, making the visit even better. Having become a major MnP fan, I would have loved to own their debut album, but my system for smuggling records into the family home was limited to singles, so I picked up whatever MnP 45s I could manage, including this one, and they spent plenty of time spinning on my little turntable in the basement. One other memory I have of this cut happened near the end of my HS sophomore year, when the disc from the previous spring had become ancient history according to the radio standards of the era, When I heard it playing on a radio at school, the version seemed much shorter than normal, and one of my classmates told me the local station would sometimes do a mini-spin on oldies. Even that short, edited-down model sounded very good to me, and to my ears, this track never lost its magic, so it surprised me decades later to read that the other members of the group had opposed Papa John's idea of releasing it as a single, and they had not expected it to take off the way it did. To me, Monday, Monday was a perfect 45, and perhaps the perfect 45, from the first time I heard it, 50 years ago.
(Sunday, 5/1/2016) Song 301: Honky Tonkin' by Hank Williams, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for it here. I don't know how I managed to get past the 300 mark on this list before including a Hank Sr. track, but realizing that I had neglected him, this seemed like the right week to make up for that lapse. During my early childhood, my parents and grandparents made a yearly visit every summer to my father's relatives in western Ohio, and by the age of 7 or so I had gotten acquainted with the relative family's country music album collection and their stereo record player, to the point that my aunt and uncle felt totally at ease with letting me choose and play whatever LPs I wanted to hear, knowing that they could trust me to handle both the records and the equipment with appropriate care, and also with some genuine affection. I listened to a lot of Hank Sr., along with other major country talents like Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff, and got to know many of those songs by heart, including this one. Growing up in a very religious home where alcohol and cigarettes did not intrude, and bars were thought of as dens of iniquity, I didn't exactly know what to picture when Hank sang about honky tonkin', and I also thought it a bit odd, from the male-centered perspective of the era, that he expected the woman to bring along some dough, but I never let any of that hinder my enjoyment of his performance. I didn't know if I would have enjoyed honky tonkin' with Hank, but I always had a good time hearing him sing about it.
(Sunday, 4/24/2016) Song 300: Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for it here. This song was the theme music for the TV show of the same name, and the record appeared in 1959 as the opening track of the album The Music from Peter Gunn. I know that as a kid I never watched the Peter Gunn TV show because our antenna didn't pick up NBC, but I did manage to hear this song many times, quite possibly in the form of the Ray Anthony version or the Duane Eddy model, since they both scored hits with this piece around the turn of the '60s. While much of Mancini's work found its inspiration in jazz, and garnered its audience from the easy listening segment of the dial, this cut clearly owes its roots to rock and roll, and nearly 6 decades after it first hit the airwaves, it can still get my feet tapping to the beat pretty quickly.
(Monday, 4/11/2016) Song 298: Swinging Doors by Merle Haggard, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for it here. This week I'm posting a Merle Haggard track as a tribute to one of country music's most important figures, because, sadly, he had to leave country music last Wednesday, on the date of his 79th birthday, 4/6/16. I would rank this as my second favorite Merle cut, closely following Mama Tried (Song 191). I don't remember the first time I heard it, but if there's any truth to the rumor about me performing with a country bar pickup band in the East Bay during the 1980s, that band might have included this song during a set on any given night, and the first time we played it, I already knew it well, and felt as if I'd always known it. I read a few articles in Rolling Stone in the '70s that made a point about Merle being the real deal, as someone who had actually lived the life he wrote about in his songs, including spending time behind bars, although, fortunately for us all, when he turned 21 in prison he wasn't really doing life without parole, but actually just a couple of years, because he hadn't killed anyone -- he had only committed a botched burglary. During his time in San Quentin, he got to see a Johnny Cash show there, and that show inspired him to take a much better direction when he got out of jail. In the early '90s, I usually tried to make the weekly songwriter's gathering at Jack Hardy's place on Houston St., and the group basically tuned in to only new material, so I tried to come up with a new song every week for the meeting. One particular week, I still hadn't written anything by the day before the gathering, and as I desperately tried to come up with a lyric idea, my mind wandered into thinking about Merle, and how his last name couldn't have been more perfect for him and his role in country music. I thought of the line, As long as Merle is still Haggard I guess country music will do all right, and from there, I suddenly had a concept for a song about puns of country singers' names. I finished it before the meeting, and when I played it for the group, Richard Julian (see Song 283) looked at me and said, “That song could be a hit in Nashville.” So far that hasn't happened, but later in the decade, I did get to see Merle perform in a small (but packed) club in Manhattan, not once, but twice, and I felt like country music was doing all right then. I can't say how country music will fare following Merle's death, but at least Willie is still willin' and Charley still has his Pride. You can find the As Long as Merle is Still Haggard video here.