(Sunday, 7/24/2016) Song 313: Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar, written by Eddie Schwartz. You can find a YouTube video of it here. This week's track provides a major contrast with last week's cut, going from a recording that broke new musical ground, opened up new musical possibilities and featured poetic lyrics with layers of meaning, to a 45 in the love category that's about a simple as a song can get. When this single hit the airwaves about 11 years after last week's track, it didn't create the kind of expectations for Pat Benatar that King Crimson's debut did for them, and no one expected her to do much more than make some fun records, but she certainly did do that, with this hit being the one that first got her some major recognition, though it was actually from her second LP. I'll admit that I didn't get too impressed when I started hearing it on the radio, but I did notice after a while that I didn't get tired of it the way I often did with other radio hits, and over time I got to liking it more. Don't look for any deep shades of meaning in the words, because you won't find any, but if you want a few short minutes of simple rock and roll fun, Pat's first top-tenner will hit you with her best shot, or at least one of them.
(Sunday, 7/17/2016) Song 312: The Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, written by Ian McDonald and Peter Sinfield. You can find a Vimeo video of it here. Not long after I arrived at Northwestern in the fall of 1969, King Crimson arrived on the radio with their first album, for which this was essentially the title track. The LP sounded totally different from anything that had come along before, incorporating elements of classical music and jazz in ways that no one had ever thought of, so it attracted a lot of attention, and justifiably so. The Who's Pete Townshend called the record "an uncanny masterpiece" and during the year that followed its release, plenty of listeners made it quite clear how significant they felt the album was. At that point in my career, feeling the need to transition away from the top-40 style that I had previously evolved from my HS listening choices, I searched for a more serious and original personal singer/songwriter approach, and King Crimson's debut came along at just the right time, showing me a way to blend in some of the classical influences that I had learned in my younger days, having played violin for the orchestra. Over the next couple of years, I would put that classical influence to good use in composing tracks such as Shake the Dust, Ghost of a Chance, Fly So Free and a few others. While In the Court of the Crimson King seemed to open up new possibilities, very few records in the progressive rock genre would come close to reaching the high bar King Crimson had set on their debut, with Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon being the one notable exception. If you'd like to get some idea of the direction I took after being inspired by this influence, you can hear Shake the Dust here.
(Sunday, 7/10/2016) Song 311: Drugs in the White House by Bob Nichols, who also wrote the song. There's no YouTube video for this recording, but you can hear the mp3 here. Seven weeks after posting a track by my friend Jeff Larson, this week's cut is by my late friend and former Berkeley housemate Bob Nichols, who died back in November of 2005. I was there at People's Park in Berkeley on the day in 1980 when Bob did this performance, accompanied by a few friends, although at this point I no longer remember who the other players were. Bob made no secret of his advocacy for a chemically-enhanced lifestyle, and in the opening (and title) line of this recording, he celebrates the story that then-current President Jimmie Carter had a top advisor who admitted to having indulged in marijuana, possibly in the company of Mr. Carter. Bob was also a strong advocate for the homeless, who he helped in his community in quite a few extraordinary ways (check out his obituary), plus he was a strong advocate for People's Park, so it's fitting that he made one of his best recordings by performing live there. I do sometimes miss my old friend and former housemate, and I continue to listen to his music quite a bit. Over the years, his line "We are filling our lives with too much jive" has often come to mind, particularly at moments when I feel myself getting overloaded with stuff. In his chorus, Bob vows to keep on rockin' no matter what happens, but while he obviously can't do that any more, some of us can keep on rockin' for him, while listening to his rockin' recordings.
(Sunday, 7/3/2016) Song 310: My Tennessee Mountain Home by Dolly Parton, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for it here. The first version I heard of this piece was from Maria Muldaur's debut solo album, which, by the summer of 1974, about a year after its release, had become one of my favorites, with lots of spins on the turntable. Coming from a country background, I had found the Chicago area oppressively urban, and I enjoyed hearing the colorful detailed descriptions of Dolly's mountain home. I had noticed her name on the songwriting credits for this title, and I think I knew a little bit about who she was, but then in that summer of '74, her career came into much sharper focus with a hit called Jolene and another called I Will Always Love You, which would soon appear on one of my favorite Linda Ronstadt LPs. Dolly had a few more hits in the next couple of years that I really liked, including The Bargain Store and her first million-seller, Here You Come Again. She continued doing well on the charts for the next couple of decades, even expanding her career to act in movies, and in this year of 2016, at the age of 70, she actively persists with touring and recording, having released her 42nd studio album in 2014. Dolly has covered quite a lot of ground since leaving her Tennessee mountain home, but she still seems to carry that inspiration that she picked up as a child, watching and listening as a songbird on a fence post sings a melody. On a side note, this track is a third 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 and Dolly, beg your Parton, puts up a good front (?) You can find the As Long as Merle is Still Haggard video here.
(Sunday, 6/26/2016) Song 309: Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out) by The Hombres, written by Jerry Masters, Gary McEwen, B. B. Cunningham and John Hunter (the four band members). You can find a YouTube video for it here. Again this week, last week's cut leads to another, this time due to the lyric. In After Midnight, J. J. Cale sings the line "After midnight, we're going to let it all hang out" a lot, so this track seemed like a good follow-up. I thought perhaps one lyric might have owed something to the other, since they both originated in roughly the same era, but I could find no clear indication of that. When this single showed up in the fall of my junior year at HS, a few of my friends used it as yet another occasion to make fun of me for how unhip I was, because I initially felt that the title phrase had sexual connotations. "Oh, you don't know what it means," they laughingly said to me, and, during that fundamentalist Christian phase of my life, I found it a bit reassuring to believe that the song wasn't a sly sexual reference, although I liked plenty of other records that did have such hints. Somehow I never managed to clearly hear the spoken intro during the 45's chart run, and I'm sure that if I had, that would have bothered me too, but a few years later, free of the fundamentalist constraints and able to collect old favorites, I added this one to the collection, and the first spin on the turntable, the intro really made me smile, at a moment in my life where I could freely appreciate the temptations of Eve rather than fear them. By then, I understood that my HS friends had been playing with me when they insisted that the phrase had no sexual overtones, but I also had grasped the other nuances of it as well, so I felt like I too could let it all hang out.
(Sunday, 6/19/2016) Song 308: After Midnight by JJ Cale, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for it here. It seemed appropriate to follow last week's post of a track by the King of the Slide Guitar Elmore James with another cut that features slide guitar, although this one does so in a much more laid back manner. After my 1971 summer in Atlanta, when I discovered the music of the Allman Brothers, quickly developed an appreciation of Duane Allman's slide guitar wizardry, and even made a vain attempt at sliding up and down a guitar fretboard, the following summer, this record started lighting up the airwaves. My failed attempts at playing slide guitar had deepened my appreciation of the technique, and of the musicians who had mastered it, so for me, this track came along at exactly the right time. Little did I know then that JJ had released the song as a single 6 years earlier, and I had also missed Eric Clapton's hit version from 1970. It was actually Clapton's hit that prompted Cale to re-record the piece and include it as part of a complete album called Naturally. Not long after this single appeared, Naturally I added the LP to my collection, and it spent plenty of time spinning on my turntable. Sadly, JJ died of a heart attack about 3 years ago, in July of 2013, at the age of 74, so even After Midnight these days, he's not gonna cause talk and suspicion any more, but maybe once in a while some of the rest of us can, and we can occasionally think of him and the inspiration he provided for doing so.
(Monday, 6/13/2016) Song 307: Dust My Broom by Elmore James, written by Robert Johnson. You can find a YouTube video for it here. After I started writing songs, at the age of 14, I soon became acquainted with the 1-4-5 12-bar blues song structure, though I didn't know that it had originated in a genre called blues, and I didn't even know about the existence of that genre. Not long into my freshman year at Northwestern, in the fall of '69, I found myself hanging out with a few other dorm mates in another fellow student's room as he played some blues records and talked about how much he liked that genre. This first encounter with the blues did not impress me, because all the records he played circled around that same 12-bar blues formula, so I thought that many of them sounded alike. Not long after that, though, one of the guys from the room across the hall showed off his blues-flavored piano improvisational style, and in doing so, he opened up a whole new world of musical possibility for me, inspiring me to explore my own bluesy piano improvisations. Concurrently, as I listened to a lot more of the rock and roll music I had already grown to love, and I could finally buy at least some of the LPs I had always wanted, plus I had a subscription to Rolling Stone, I began to learn more about the roots of that RnR music, and how much of RnR could be traced back to blues. I spent the summer of '71 in Atlanta, GA, and there I discovered local heroes The Allman Brothers, quickly tuning in to Duane Allman's outstanding slide guitar wizardry. That summer I tried fiddling with a slide, but I felt so inept in the initial attempts that I wouldn't even consider another try for almost 2 decades. That first vain attempt did increase my appreciation of slide guitar, however, and in that context, as the name Elmore James kept coming up, when I started hearing his records, I immediately understood the important role EJ had played in creating the musical foundation for later RnR players. Fast forward only a few years, and around '76, I played piano for a one week gig in Chicago with a band led by EJ's cousin Homesick James that included Snooky Pryor on drums, so I guess that by then, I had paid enough of my dues that I could at least play the blues, even if it would be well over 10 years before I would again try to slide along a guitar fretboard.
(Sunday, 6/5/2016) Song 306: Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf, written by Mars Bonfire. You can find a YouTube video for it here. In the summer of '68, before my senior year at HS, I had started working on a film project, along with a few friends, and later that fall a group of us would form our high school's first official film club. I had written a script for a sort of Man from Uncle-style spy movie, and one day my group managed to get permission to film in part of the high school. The scene would include a rock-and-roll band playing on the auditorium stage, and one of my friends had agreed to act as the guitar player for the band. I suggested a couple of cuts for him to play, and he said, "We should do some newer songs instead." He started with Break on Through, which I of course already knew, but after that, he played a newer track that I didn't recognize, which was a riff tune built around an E chord riff that moved from the 5th tone to the 6th, and then to the 7th. Hearing the guitar alone, I thought the riff seemed very simple, and I wasn't sure it could support a whole song, but then, a week or 2 later, I heard the new Steppenwolf 45, and it quickly erased any doubts I might have had. In fact, having heard the guitar riff before hearing the actual single made the record sound even more impressive for the way the band crafted such a rocking classic around that simple riff. This one, like their follow-up single The Pusher (Song 202), would create some internal conflicts for me as I struggled with a religious background that viewed the devil's music as a dangerous influence, because these cuts seemed to embrace the dark side of human nature that my parents kept warning me about, but by the time, 2 years later, that I heard this track as a golden oldie in the opening sequence of Easy Rider, I could enjoy it without guilt, just as I had enjoyed the motorcycle ride my cousin gave me in the summer of '66 (see Song 302 -- Monday, Monday). For many years I dreamed of the moment when I too would head out on the highway on a motorcycle of my own, but at some point that dream lost its appeal, and these days, I'd rather listen to this track on the CD player inside a 4-wheel vehicle when I'm racin' with the wind along the 2-lane or 4-lane blacktop and concrete.