(Sunday, 1/31/2016) Song 288: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. You can find a YouTube video for this song here. While I liked a lot of LZ's first 3 LPs, I felt that somehow they hadn't yet painted that musical masterpiece that lurked somewhere in the soul of the band. Then in the late fall of '71 came word about a new Zeppelin record soon to rock the airwaves, and on the day of its official release, I caught the beginning of one of the tracks on my radio that immediately grabbed my attention. The opening riff had a bit of a different sound from their earlier work, but it sounded good, and when Robert Plant's voice came across, I knew it was a cut from the new disc. The track sounded similar to the earlier LPs, but better and clearer, and as the song went on, it continued to build, getting stronger and heavier, in a way that carried the listener along for an unforgettable ride. Instead of following the usual verse to chorus structure of almost every other song in prevailing musical genres, from rock to country to pop to soul, this new track moved linearly, from the mellow folky opening section to the heavy rocking climax, in a way that felt musically consistent, as it fully developed every musical thread on its journey. Soon, everyone was talking about this incredible new Zeppelin song, which, despite its 8-minute length, started conquering not only FM radio but the AM dial as well. Sometimes AM stations would cheat by playing shortened and sped-up versions, but with the smaller playlists that dominated radio in that era, inevitably, it became too much of a good thing. I can remember, about 6 months after the song's release, wondering if I'd ever choose to want to hear it again, given how I couldn't escape hearing it, even in the grocery store or walking down the street. Going on into the late '70s, when I rarely if ever heard it, I would still instinctively turn the dial when those opening chords came out of the speaker, and I cringed if someone started fingering those familiar riffs at a song swap. Fast forward a few decades, and a couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Brooklyn, I inserted into the player a homemade compilation CD that a friend had given me years ago, not knowing what to expect. Track 2 turned out to be Stairway to Heaven, and even though I knew very well the roads that we were winding down, both with the van and with the CD player, the moment brought back much of the fine feelings that this song had inspired 4 decades ago, and I felt like the tune had come to me at last.
(Sunday, 1/24/2016) Song 287: Why Not Me by The Judds, written by Harlan Howard, Sonny Throckmorton and Brent Maher. You can find a YouTube video for this song here. In the mid-'80s, the Judds made a very big splash on the country charts, with a string of songs that sounded good and did well on the radio, and this track, which was the title cut for their first album, grabbed my attention the first time I heard it. I remember checking out an LP cover of the mother and daughter duo, not knowing which one was the younger, and deciding that I found the mother more attractive than the daughter, though they both looked pretty good on that record jacket. During that era, it's possible that I might have been spotted on a stage in the East Bay area playing bass for a country bar pickup band, and if so, a female lead singer might have covered this song, as well as a few others by the Judds. On a side note, this track is a second sly reference to the second verse of my own song As Long as Merle is Still Haggard, which begins with the line Should Patty Loveless when Wynonna, she's Judd fine(?), Wynonna Judd being the daughter in the mother and daughter singing duo. You can find the As Long as Merle is Still Haggard video here. The songwriter's name Harlan Howard may look familiar, as it appears on a bunch of standout country songs, from early classics like I Fall to Pieces, Busted, and Heartaches by the Number, to more recent hits like the Pam Tillis cut Don't Tell Me What to Do (Song 210) which I used as my first sly reference to the opening line of verse one of As Long as Merle is Still Haggard, that line being Now Pam Tillis, the truth now.
(Sunday, 1/17/2016) Song 286: Doctor My Eyes by Jackson Browne, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for this song here. I had noticed Jackson Browne's name on the credits of a handful of excellent cuts in the 2 years before this single appeared. Tom Rush had a pair of very good JB songs on an LP he released in the spring of 1970, which was a record I had spinning on my own turntable a lot back then. The Byrds also had a JB track on one of their albums, as did Brewer and Shipley, so I already had a lot of respect for Jackson's songwriting long before word came that he would soon have his own LP available. During the spring of 1972, I happened to do a lot of hitching, shuffling between Chicago, Atlanta, and New York a few times, and somewhere along the way, I heard this cut for the first time while in a grocery store or drug store. I knew Jackson had a single out, and when this track started playing, I felt certain that it had to be the one. From that very first hearing, I really liked the catchy piano riff that kicks off the song, as well as the track's uptempo feel, which suitably supports the thoughtful and reflective words. So often in that era, in the early years of crafting my own lyrical stories, I would hear a new record and imagine some sort of accompanying deeply-poetic lyric, only to be disappointed, when I learned the actual lines, by mundane cliches and cheap rhymes. In stark contrast, Jackson's single, and indeed, his entire first album, totally lived up to my expectations, both in words and music. Doctor My Eyes always sounded very good to my ears, and quite illuminating to my imagination as well.
(Monday, 1/11/2016) Song 285: Crazy Ones by John Mellencamp, written by John Mellencamp and Randy Handley. You can find a YouTube video for this song here. I remember seeing the ads for JM's new album Whenever We Wanted on the buses in Manhattan in the fall on 1991, and I really liked the cover picture of him playing guitar in an artist's studio surrounded by paintings, with a pretty woman sitting in the studio, looking very much like an artist's model. That graphic gave me a very positive feeling for the CD, and when every track I heard on the radio sounded as good as it did, I soon decided I wanted a copy of that new record. It didn't take too many spins to conclude that, as good as some earlier Mellencamp albums might be, for me, Whenever We Wanted topped them all. This cut, near the middle of the set, really resonated with me, as one of those I could have written that -- I've been there too moments. At the time, I had recently gotten to the end of my second roller-coaster ride from falling for one of the crazy ones, after having taken a similar ride the year before. The 1990 experience inspired the song Thanks a Lot that appeared on the Country Drivin' CD, and the 1991 adventure inspired another song, though I haven't quite found the right context for a recording of that one. Over the last few years, I feel like I've found the answer to John's question, and I would share it with him if I ever had the chance. He's asking the right person when he sings, "Mama, why do I always fall for the crazy ones?" However, his mama may not be able to tell him, but being his mother's son lies at the heart of why "the crazy ones leave me (and him) feeling like this." If JM hasn't figured it out for himself yet, and if he'd like me to fill in the details, I could do it -- he'll just have to send me an email, or maybe connect on Facebook, Twitter or whatever.
(Sunday, 1/3/2016) Song 284: Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, written by John Fogerty. You can find a YouTube video for this song here. The YT video contains some very entertaining footage of the band performing the tune, although it's not a live performance video, but rather, live footage matched to the record, as well as a few stills of the band thrown in, but all in all, a good visual track that goes well with the cut. When this song came rocking out of the radio speaker a month or 2 before my HS graduation, if felt like a perfect fit for that moment. The decade I grew up in felt very intense and apocalyptic, in and of itself, with very real scenes from Viet Nam battlefields playing on the 6 o'clock news and the threat of nuclear war constantly hanging over our heads, sometimes haunting our dreams. Add to that the fundamentalist Christian background of my family, which included a strong belief in biblical end times prophecies, and this cut captured the essence of the era. Almost four years after Eve of Destruction (Song 146), it felt good that destruction hadn't yet arrived, but it also felt like we were that much closer to the stroke of midnight. When the actual stroke of midnight on 12/31/69 passed, and I celebrated the arrival of a new year and new decade by catching a ride from a friend on a snowmobile while on Christmas break as a college freshman, I felt a slight sense of relief that my species had made it out of the '60s without destroying ourselves. Much turmoil would lie ahead, including the Kent State shooting in the coming spring, more campus demonstrations against the war and the like, but at least we hadn't blown up our entire civilization, so the Bad Moon had risen, but it had also gone back down, and we were still around. On a humorous note, for the first few times I heard this, I thought Fogerty was singing Black Moon Rising, and that was what I mouthed when I sang along with the record. I also remember reading some critic who mentioned the '50s influence on the CCR sound coming through on certain tracks, this being one, and I didn't understand the context at the time, so I didn't know what to make of that critique, though it would become much clearer over the next few years as the classic rock of the '50s enjoyed a revival of sorts. Many fans of this song probably know the joke about the final chorus line "There's a bad moon on the rise" being sung as "There's a bathroom on the right" which reportedly Fogerty himself sometimes did, and if there's any truth to the rumor about me performing with a country bar pickup band in the East Bay during the 1980s, then it's quite possible that the lead singer for that outfit did the same thing. As the year 2016 begins, and candidates for the top spot talk about carpet bombing and making the sand glow, that bad moon could be rising once again, but hopefully, by early November, it will have gone back down and we'll still be around.
(Sunday, 12/27/2015) Song 283: Gravedigger by Richard Julian, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for this song here. Seven weeks after my last personal friend song post, this week's track is by my friend Richard Julian. He performed this song as part of a Fast Folk show at the Bottom Line in Manhattan in February of 1990, with Richard Meyer, Lisa Gutkin and Margo Hennebach adding the vocal backup, Mark Dann playing lead electric guitar, Jeff Hardy doing the stand up bass, Howie Wyeth handling the drums and Margo Hennebach playing the keyboard part as well as singing backup. I met Richard soon after arriving in NYC at the end of the summer of 1988, one night in a small folk club on MacDougal St. A few months later, when we'd gotten to know each other a bit better, he invited me to the songwriters gathering at Jack Hardy's Houston St. apartment one Thursday night, and that became a regular weekly stop for me for the next few years, and also led to my involvement as a contributor to Fast Folk. During the 4 years that I made that regular Thursday evening stop, I heard Richard debut a number of excellent songs, but I always liked this one the best, and I first heard him play it not at Jack's apartment but on the stage at that little MacDougal St. folk club where we'd met, one night a month or 2 before he invited me to Jack's place. The words go by pretty quickly and you might have to play the video a few times to get some of them, but he packed a lot of understated humor in those lines, and if you appreciate that kind of lyric, then I think you'll feel it was worth the effort when you get the full picture. If you've ever felt like a square peg being forced into a round hole, then quite likely you will understand the feeling that Richard is putting across here.
(Sunday, 12/20/2015) Song 282: The Pause of Mr. Claus by Arlo Guthrie, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for just the song here, or for the song and the hilarious spoken introduction here. The live cut that appears on the album Arlo includes a hilarious 6-minute-long spoken introduction preceding the song itself, which lasts about 2 minutes. When I posted the first Arlo track on the playlist 10 weeks ago (Song 272: Running Down the Road) I mentioned that I probably should have included him much sooner, but that I would make up for the oversight by posting another Arlo cut shortly, and with the holiday coming up this week, this one seemed like a good way for the playlist to observe the season. As I mentioned in the post for Running Down the Road, my appreciation of Arlo's music took a little time to develop, but once I got there, his records were spinning on my turntable quite often, and the Arlo disc always made me laugh, long after I'd gotten to know the jokes very well. I played that LP so often, in fact, that without trying, I memorized the 6-minute spoken introduction on this track, and could recite it by heart, without hesitation. While the sheer absurdity of lines like "Santa Claus has a red suit, he's a communist" never fail to entertain, in this modern era when some fool might throw a brick through the window of a book store named after the mythical Greek goddess Isis because that fool believes the store has some connection with a terrorist army in the Middle East, the parody actually lands much closer to reality that I would have guessed 4 decades ago, when I was first enjoying this cut. Sadly, the repeated question "Why do police guys beat on peace guys?" still needs to be asked, and could even be updated with timely references to pepper spray, but around this holiday, the phrase peace on earth comes along more often than it does in other seasons, and as it does, this song may also put a smile on some faces. Watch out for that Santa Clause guy, though, because, after all, What's in the pipe that he's smoking?
(Sunday, 12/13/2015) Song 281: Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On by Jerry Lee Lewis, written by Dave "Curlee" Williams. You can find a YouTube video for the studio version of this tune here. The writing credit on this song is sometimes shared between Mr. Williams and James Faye "Roy" Hall, and Mr. Hall is also sometimes referred to as Sunny David in the songwriting credits. For a good long time in my teenage years, I thought the Beatles and their companion English bands had invented rock and roll. I knew nothing of the '50s rockers except Elvis, and Hound Dog being the only Presley track I had heard then, I thought Elvis was some kind of hick singer. It truly surprised me in late '68 when the official Beatles biography landed and I read about how much the fab four idolized EP. Devouring that book, I slowly began to get a clearer sense of the origins of the musical style that had started shaking my world back in February of 1964. That process continued over the next few years, particularly as the early '70s brought along a revival of interest in the '50s rockers. During that era, more than once I heard the radio play the Woodstock recording of the 10 Years After cut I'm Going Home which seemed to incorporate (or steal) some '50s references. I had also read in the Beatles book about Jerry Lee Lewis's attempted English tour that came to a quick end due to a scandal generated by press revelations about his 13-year-old bride. Getting to know the '50s rockers, when I got to this record, I had to admit it sounded really good. I liked his other hits too, but I didn't truly appreciate Jerry Lee until I saw a video of him around 1975 or so. I'm not sure if this is the one, but the video I saw conveyed the same kind of Madman at the Piano energy as this TV appearance, and that just about knocked me over. At that moment I very well understood why Lewis had created such a sensation during his hit record days, prior to the marriage scandal that scuttled his career, and I had to wonder what else he might have done if that scandal hadn't broken his momentum. It also seemed highly ironic to contemplate that kind of history during a time when rock promoters had perfected the art of scandal publicity for grabbing headlines and furthering careers, but then maybe someone had to set the stage first, and get a whole lotta shakin' going' on, which is what Jerry Lee did, and what got people to notice him -- everyone could tell when they saw him perform that he surely wasn't fakin'.