Archive for the ‘1988’ Category

Saturday Single No. 545

Saturday, June 17th, 2017

The number of mp3s currently loaded into the RealPlayer is 95,083. We topped the 95,000 mark sometime in the past two months, when I wasn’t watching carefully. Both Odd and Pop, however, insist that the last couple thousand tracks we’ve added to the main shelves here at EITW were carefully curated.

Well, let’s take a look at some of the recently added albums that got us to the big number:

We have three CD’s worth of work – with some duplicates winnowed out – by the original Carter Family: A.P. Carter, his wife, Sarah, and A.P.’s sister-in-law, Maybelle. After watching the PBS special American Epic, a three-hour look at the years when recording industry representatives went out and recorded a vast array of American folk music, I thought I needed to hear a little more from the Carter Family, and with some help, I got some new stuff. If I have a favorite among the tracks that were added, it might be the 1929 track “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blues Eyes.”

After listening for years to a badly ripped version of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled debut from 1969, I took advantage of a visit to a major brand bookstore the other week and plucked Crosby, Stills & Nash from a budget bin. The CD also has four unreleased tracks, but they don’t seem integral to the story of the album (though they’re pleasant enough to hear). I dropped the CD into the player in the car as I was running some errands the other day, and I was reminded once more how good the album is and how ingrained in my memory it remains. My favorite track? Well, that’s hard, but I do remember that after I got the music book for the album, “Helplessly Hoping” was the first track I learned to play on the guitar.

During that retail stop, I also grabbed the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the stereo version newly produced from the original tracks by Giles Martin, the son of Sir George Martin. You’ve probably heard about it. I ripped the album as one long mp3 for the files, but I gave the CD its first listen on a larger player, and it sounds new and remarkably clear. I’m going to have to give it a few more listens to note specific differences between this version and the three others I already had (stereo vinyl from 1970, CD release from the late 1980s, and The Beatles in Mono release from 2009). If I had to choose a favorite, it’s not very original: the suite from “Good Morning Good Morning” through the last fading seconds of the massive piano chord that ends “A Day In The Life.”

I stopped in the other week at Uff Da Records, St. Cloud’s new place for vinyl and CDs, both used and new. A quick rifling of the used CDs brought me two finds. The first was Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, an album that I’ve had on vinyl since 1988 and had occasionally looked for on CD since 2000 or so. My copy is a record club edition, which doesn’t bother me because the music is the same, and the tunes put together by the Wilburys – who were, of course, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison – still holds up. I have two favorite tracks that I would find hard to separate: “Handle With Care,” which I first heard in 1988 while driving home one afternoon in Minot, North Dakota, giving me some of the relatively few moments of undiluted happiness I felt that year, and “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” Dylan’s winking parody/tribute aimed at Bruce Springsteen.

The other find at Uff Da was a disappointment: Boz Scaggs’ 1997 release, Come On Home. I’ve enjoyed Scaggs for years, even some of the more uneven work, and I’ve long had his 1976 masterpiece, Silk Degrees, on a short list of essential albums. But I’ve run Come On Home through the CD player in the car a couple of times and it falls flat. The blues licks and the arrangements are okay, Scaggs’ voice is still great, the lyrics leave a great deal to be desired, and the result is one of the most disappointing albums I’ve bought in a long, long time. I think I have to go back to 2004 and Brian Wilson Presents Smile to find an album that has left me feeling so empty. So there are no favorite tracks from Come On Home.

As I wrote about the Traveling Wilburys this morning, I remembered how good it felt to smile as I listened in my car to George Harrison’s lead vocal on “Handle With Care.” That smile got wider when I heard Orbison’s voice on the first bridge and the whole crew – led by Dylan and Petty – on the second bridge. And as the song began to fade, just when I thought I could grin no wider, the harmonica solo – it had to be Dylan, right? – just about split my face apart. For the memory of that pure joy in the midst of a very hard year, “Handle With Care” by the Traveling Wilburys is today’s Saturday Single.

‘East’

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

In our first two installments of our “Follow The Directions” adventure, we’ve hit “North” and “South” and for some reason bypassed “East” along the way. Today, we head that direction, looking for tunes for the eastward road.

A search for “east” on the RealPlayer gives us exactly 400 tracks, but as usual with these searches, many of those tracks will be dismissed. Anything recorded at the Fillmore East goes by the way, including the Allman Brothers Band’s astounding live album from 1971, a full concert by Leon Russell from 1970, and single performances by the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

We also lose some entire albums (except title tracks, in some cases): Mandrill’s Beast From The East (1975), Don Henley’s Building The Perfect Beast (1984), Tower Of Power’s East Bay Grease (1970), Joe Grushecky & The Houserockers’ East Carson Street (2009), the Patti Smith Group’s Easter (1978), Badly Drawn Boy’s The House Of Bewilderbeast (2000) and Jason Isbell’s Southeastern (2010).

Gone, too, are any tracks by East of Eden, the Voices of East Harlem, Head East, the Beastie Boys, Skip Easterling, the Eastenders, the East Texas Serenaders, the East River Boys, the East Side Kids and a few singles on at least two labels from over the years: “East West” and “Eastwest.” And at least eighteen additional tracks with the word “beast” in their titles (and a few with “Easter” and “feast”) go by the wayside as well.

But, as almost always happens, we have enough tracks left for us to sort through, and we’ve found four good examples to accompany us as we head east:

We’ll start with a track from a friend of mine, the late Bobby Jameson. His “Girl From The East” is a song he wrote and recorded as Chris Lucey in 1965 for the album Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest. (Performer Chris Ducey came to a disagreement with the Surrey label after he’d recorded an album by that title; Bobby was hired to write songs with titles matching those that Ducey had recorded for the album, and the album cover – already printed – was altered to make the performer’s name “Lucey” instead of “Ducey.”) “Girl From The East” was also recorded by the Leaves and showed up as a B-side on some versions of the Mira label’s release of “Hey Joe.” Here’s the video Bobby made in 2010 for “Girl From The East.”

One of the delights of the CD age has been the unearthing of alternate takes and unreleased tracks offered as addenda to long-familiar albums. An example of that for our journey this morning is “East of Java” from the 5th Dimension’s sessions for the 1968 album Stoned Soul Picnic. As it happens, the track could easily have been called “Java Girl,” because to my ears “east of Java” doesn’t come into the mix until near the end of the record. And for those looking for something with a South Asian/Indonesian flair, well, sorry. The track is firmly rooted in the L.A. session sound that the 5th Dimension offered on its thirty hits in the Billboard Hot 100 (including seven in the Top Ten) between 1967 and 1976.

On my 35th birthday in 1988, I got some records (huge surprise, right), scoring LPs by Cream, the Grateful Dead, the Who and Van Morrison. But the best album I got that day was Folkways: A Vision Shared, subtitled “A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.” The album offered fourteen tracks written by the two long-gone roots legends as performed by artists ranging from Little Richard, Brian Wilson and Sweet Honey In The Rock to John Mellencamp, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. One of those taking part, of course, was Arlo Guthrie, who offered his version of his father’s “East Texas Red” to the proceedings. The tale of the railroad guard and the men who eventually take their revenge is classic Woody Guthrie.

Also in my listening mix during the difficult year of 1988 was lots of Gordon Lightfoot (and his presence in my playlists remains even as the years have gotten better). His 1986 release East Of Midnight was on the turntable on occasion but not as frequently as some of Lightfoot’s other work, most notably Sundown, Shadows and If You Could Read My Mind. Still, I found myself humming the title track at odd times, as lines like “For the things that might have been, I need no more reminders,” and “The ocean is where lovers meet again” wound their ways into my head and heart that year. It’s an oddly metered song and probably not high on a curated list of Lightfoot’s work (it was not one of the two Lightfoot tracks that showed up on my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox), but for at least a few seasons, it was part of my life.

Saturday Single No. 440

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

For all of the music I’ve bought or been given over the past fifty years, it’s astounding to note this morning that only two LPs and one CD have come my way on any March 28. Those three albums are:

Valotte by Julian Lennon, acquired March 28, 1997;
Aretha Live At Fillmore West, acquired March 28, 1998; and
Texas Worried Blues by Henry Thomas, acquired March 28, 2003.

It’s entirely possible that some of the LPs I acquired before 1974, when I began recording the specific date of acquisition instead of just the month, might have come my way on March 28. But those LPs account for – at a quick estimate – only about 1.1 percent of the LPs & CDs that make their home here in the EITW studios. So those LPs – as much as I love some of them (and I do) – are statistically insignificant.

So what else can we find out about March 28 over the years in the reference books and files here? Well, Billboard has issued charts several times on March 28 in the years that normally interest us here:

In 1956, the No. 1 record on the pop chart on March 28 was “The Poor People of Paris” by Les Baxter. In 1964, the No. 1 record was “She Loves You” by the Beatles. In 1970, the No. 1 record was “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfukel. And in 1981, “Rapture” by Blondie topped the charts on March 28.

What about No. 1 albums on March 28 in those various years? In 1956, the top album as March drew to a close was Belafonte by Harry Belafonte. In 1964, it was Meet The Beatles! In 1970, the top album on March 28 was Bridge Over Troubled Water. And in 1981, the No. 1 album on March 28 was Hi Infidelity by REO Speedwagon.

Well, nothing’s really exciting me this morning. The albums and tracks from Aretha and the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel (and even Blondie) are fine stuff. At the right moments, I like the Les Baxter and the Belafonte, and Henry Thomas’ vintage songster tunes have their place, too. (The less I think about REO Speedwagon, however, the better I feel.) But as we look for a track for the morning – and that’s what this is always about here on Saturday, even though I did not say so at the top – none of that grabs me.

So, let’s look at the slender list of tracks that we know were recorded on March 28:

Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers recorded “Blues In A Bottle” on this date in 1928 in San Antonio, Texas. In 1939, March 28 was the date that Hal Kemp & His Orchestra, with vocals by the Smoothies, recorded “Three Little Fishies (Itty Bitty Pool).” Robert Petway laid down “Catfish Blues” in a Chicago studio on March 28, 1941. Six years later, Chicago was also the site for John Lee Williamson – the first Sonny Boy – when he recorded “Mellow Chick Swing” and “Polly Put The Kettle On.” Bluesmen Sammy Lewis and Willie Johnson were in the Sun Studios in Memphis on March 28, 1955, when they recorded “So Long Baby, Goodbye” and “Feel So Worried.” And in Nashville in 1979, Johnny Cash worked on his version of “Ghost Riders In The Sky.”

And finally, in Detroit on March 28, 1988, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band recorded a live performance of “Be True” that wound up on the four-track EP Chimes Of Freedom released in 1988 to support Amnesty International.

I’m tempted by the silliness of “Three Little Fishies,” which I used to have on a kiddie 78 when I was about four years old, but, then, I hadn’t listened to the live version of “Be True” for a while. It’s pretty damned good, and since I’m almost always in a Springsteen mood here, that live version of “Be True” from 1988 is today’s Saturday Single.

They Weren’t ‘One-Hit Wonders’

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

As the Texas Gal and I watched the second hour of American Idol last evening, I was grumbling. Now, lots of folks grumble about American Idol, many of whom don’t watch the show, so I was in good company. But I had a specific complaint.

The second half of last evening’s singing competition was dedicated to “one-hit wonders.” Each of the four remaining contestants – four talented young women – got to choose and perform a one-hit wonder. But as that second hour of the show moved on, it became obvious to me (and to other chart geeks out there, I imagine) that AI had not spent much time – if any – working on a definition of “one-hit wonder.”

What’s my definition? Having thought about it overnight, I’d say an artist or group qualifies as a one-hit wonder by placing one and only one single in the Top 40. As to calling songs themselves “one-hit wonders” as AI did last evening, my thought is that the term should be reserved for songs that were in the Top 40 only one time. I think that’s reasonable. (What about artists and groups whose body of work was album-based or not specifically aimed at hit singles? That would seem to be a matter of common sense. As an obvious example, I think all record and chart geeks would agree that calling Jimi Hendrix a one-hit wonder is silly, even though he had only one record in the Top 40.)

Applying the above definitions, none of the four “one-hit wonders” served up last night on American Idol qualify, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles. The songs were: “MacArthur Park,” which was Richard Harris’ only hit when it went to No. 2 in 1968 but was also a No. 1 hit for Donna Summer in 1978; “Emotion,” which was Samantha Sang’s only hit when it went to No. 3 in 1978 but was also a No. 10 hit for Destiny’s Child in 2001*; “Whiter Shade of Pale,” which went to No. 5 for Procol Harum in 1967 but was one of three Top 40 hits for the group (“Homburg” went to No. 34 later that year and “Conquistador” went to No. 16 in 1972); and “Cry Me A River,” which was Julie London’s only Top 40 hit when it went to No. 9 during a 1955-56 stay on the charts but which also went to No. 11 for Joe Cocker in 1970.

Mention is made occasionally on the show of lists from which the performers select their songs when those songs fall in a specific category, so I’m going to assume that all four of those songs were on a list provided to the performers by the show’s producers. If that’s the case, it makes the show’s producers seem uninformed, if not disingenuous or actually dishonest, as they essentially sold those four songs as something they were not.

Does it matter? Not really, not in the large scale. But in the area of pop music and those who love it, I think it does. As I indicated above, I doubt that I was the only viewer bothered by the song selections last night. If there’s one thing that the Internet has taught us by giving us a number of ways to find kindred souls in large numbers, it’s that there are more chart geeks out there than anyone might have realized in, say, 1990, although it should be noted that even at that date, Whitburn was selling a lot of chart books.

And it’s not like there aren’t a lot of good songs available that would qualify on both portions of the definition I offered above. Let’s look for four of them just from the 1980s alone.

First stop as I wander through my files, my books and Wikipedia is “Tainted Love,” a song that was Soft Cell’s only hit when it went to No. 8 hit in 1982. The song was originally recorded in a superb soul version by Gloria Jones in 1965 (in what All Music Guide says is “one of the great ’60s hits that never was” and which would be a far better approach on AI than Soft Cell’s synthpop). It’s been covered by many – more than fifty versions are listed at Second Hand Songs – but was a hit only once.

For a performer with a country bent, there’s Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache,” which went to No. 22 in 1981. Trisha Yearwood covered it in 2001, according to SHS, but that version didn’t chart and Cash’s did, making it Cash’s only Top 40 hit (which is an injustice, but that’s another post entirely).

Benjamin Orr’s “Stay the Night,” which he co-wrote with Diane Grey Page, was synth-heavy when it went to No. 24 in 1987, but it’s a good song that I could very well hear from one of the four remaining AI contestants. The late Orr was bassist for the Cars, of course, and saw the Top 40 thirteen times as a member of the group, but “Stay the Night” was his only solo hit, and no other versions of the song – if there are any – have made the Top 40.

We’ve found a soul song, a country tune and a mid-tempo pop rock song. You want a ballad? How about “She’s Like The Wind,” a tune from the movie Dirty Dancing sung by the late Patrick Swayze with some help from Wendy Fraser. The record went to No. 3 in 1988, the only time either one of the performers hit the chart. Gender-flip it for one of the final four contestants, and you’re in business. A cover of the song by Lumidee with Tony Sunshine did get to No. 43 in 2007, but that’s not Top 40.

See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Those titles might not be to everyone’s taste, but it took me less than an hour to find four viable songs that are true one-hit wonders according to the definition I laid out above. It seems to me that the producers on American Idol could have easily compiled a long list of similar songs.

*Mention was made last night on American Idol of the Bee Gees’ recording of “Emotion.” That version never made the Billboard Top 40 or Hot 100 and is listed by Whitburn as a “classic” recording.

Cosmic Marker? Or Just Another Day?

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Today’s date is, of course, irresistible: 11-11-11.

According to the soothsayers of one type or another out there, the confluence of all those identical digits either means that a lot of very good things or a lot of very bad things are going to happen. Today could find some regular dude in Artmart, Idaho, winning it big in the lottery, or else all those 1’s lining up might mean the universe has reached some long-awaited cosmic alignment and tomorrow – if there is a tomorrow – we’ll find ourselves either in eternal nothingness or an existence of peace, love and Melanie tunes.

I wouldn’t bet on any of those. After all, I’m writing this in the late morning. We’ve already had ten and a half hours here of the Day of the Elevens and everything looks to be okay outside my window. It’s already Saturday – 11-12 – in Manila, and there is no sign of either the apocalypse or the Age of Aquarius on Yahoo! News. It seems to be a perfectly normal day, one during which we wander out and take care of our business and then wander back toward home, thinking about indulging in a doughnut, some chocolate or maybe that bottle of cream stout that’s been waiting patiently at the back of the refrigerator for a month or two.

But it’s a regular day. After all, days like this come along eleven times a century, usually eleven years, one month and one day apart. About a decade into a new century, we get a cluster of four of them. Now, that’s not all 11’s, of course Just last October, we had 10-10-10. Last January, we rolled through 1-1-11. Next December, we’ll have 12-12-12. Then, in not quite ten years, we’ll get 2-2-22. After that, for the next seventy-seven years, we’ll get what I call jackpot dates every eleven years, one month and one day.

I don’t know that they have any significance at all, except that they might be more memorable simply because of the numbers. But I’m not even sure about that. I recall noting the confluence of the numbers on June 6, 1966. But I remember little else about the day. And I don’t recall even noting the passage of the date when similar days came past in 1977, 1988 and 1999. But thinking about those dates today gives me an excuse – as if I need one! – to dig into my library of the Billboard Hot 100 charts. We’ll start with 1955.

On May 5, 1955 – a date I have no chance of recalling, as I turned twenty months old that day – the No. 5 song was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” by Fess Parker, who played the role of Crockett in the Disney television series that spawned the record (and so much more merchandise for the young’uns of the mid-1950s). That was the peak for Parker’s version of the tune; the version by Bill Hayes was sitting at No. 4, on its way down the chart after spending five weeks at No. 1. And that’s it for 1955, as the Billboard chart only included thirty records.

By June 6, 1966, the Billboard chart had gotten larger, and so had I. I was twelve, and I remember the day – a Monday, according to the perpetual calendar at timeanddate.com – as being one of those bright summer vacation days that we’d like to have last forever. But that and the fact that I noted the uniqueness of the date are all I remember. The No. 6 record that day was “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra, on its way to a one-week stay at No. 1. The No. 66 record was “Take Some Time Out for Love” by the Isley Brothers. The brothers’ follow-up to “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak For You),” the record would go no higher, which is too bad, as it’s a good one.

I do not recall anything at all about July 7, 1977. It was a Thursday, which likely meant that I spent the day at St. Cloud State in a summer workshop for either newspaper production or 16mm film production. That was a full summer: I burned my hand badly, I broke up with my girlfriend of the time and – after spending some weeks with another young lady – got back together with her, and I played guitar and harmonica in an ensemble that performed a couple of times in a city park near the college campus, and I took three or four workshops. Any one of those things could have touched on July 7 that summer, but I cannot say for sure.

Sitting at No. 7 on 7-7-77 was the somewhat racy-for-its-time “Angel In Your Arms” by the trio from Los Angeles called Hot. The record was on its way up the chart and would advance one more slot, peaking at No. 6. Further down the chart, at No. 77, we find Leo Sayer with the awful “How Much Love” making its way up the chart to No. 17. (Believe me, if Sayer’s record had not been No. 77 on 7-7-77, there’s no way I would have featured it here.)

A little more than eleven years later, August 8, 1988, found me in Minot, North Dakota. I most likely spent the day at a phone bank on the third floor of an office building in downtown Minot, trying to supplement my college teacher’s salary by selling memberships to a health club. Whatever I did, I likely stayed home and listened to the radio that evening. The No. 8 record on 8-8-88 was “Monkey” by George Michael,which was on its way to a two-week stay at No. 1. It’s not one of my favorites. I quite like, however, the record that was sitting at No. 88: Belinda Carlisle’s cover of “I Feel Free.”  The song – written by Peter Brown and Jack Bruce – had been recorded and released as a single by Cream in 1967; that version bubbled under for one week at No. 116. Twenty-one years later, Carlisle’s cover would peak at the No. 88 spot where it sat on that day of eights.

And that’s all the further down the timeline we’re going to go today. The hits of 1999 don’t interest me much – I did look to see what they were – and, anyway, I have to go keep an eye on the cosmos just in case.

Going Random Through The Eighties

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Last week, I took a six-tune random walk through the Seventies. Today, with my creativity evidently in a waning rather than a waxing phase, it seems like a good idea to do the same with a decade I tend to ignore: the Eighties. There are about 4,500 tunes from that decade in the RealPlayer, so let’s see where we end up.

Our first stop is a track from Showdown!, an album released in 1985 by blues veterans Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins and the newcomer (at the time) Robert Cray. Trading guitar solos and vocal takes throughout the album, the three bluesmen put together a set that All-Music Guide calls “scorching.” This morning’s track – “The Dream” – finds Cray taking care of the vocal and Collins adding the solo guitar work.

Then it’s onto a Duke Ellington/Bob Russell tune as interpreted by a Sixties icon for an album that originally wasn’t available in much of the world: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” was recorded by Paul McCartney for his album Снова в СССP, which was issued in 1988 only in the Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia, McCartney “intended Снова в СССР as present for Soviet fans who were generally unable to obtain his legitimate recordings, often having to make do with copies; they would, for a change, have an album that people in other countries would be unable to obtain.” The Soviet release contained eleven songs at first, with two tracks added for later pressings. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the album was released world-wide in 1991 with one more additional track.

One of the mainstays of my music collection – and this will likely be no surprise – is Gordon Lightfoot. While he didn’t issue albums in the 1980s with the frequency that he did in the previous two decades, his Eighties work includes some of my favorites, especially the1986  album East of Midnight. While the track “Anything For Love” doesn’t top the list of my favorites from that effort – the title track does – it’s still a good effort worth a listen, and it’s our third stop this morning.

Hailing from near Liverpool, China Crisis started as a duo, according to AMG. But when Virgin Records picked up the single “African and White” in 1982, Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon put together a full band. The group never made much headway in the U.S., with only two of their eight albums even making it into the lower half of the Billboard 200 and one single – “Working With Fire and Steel” – reaching No. 27on the Dance Music/Club Play list. But somehow, I came up with a copy of the group’s 1985 album, Flaunt the Imperfection, and “Bigger the Punch I’m Feeling” from that album is where today’s journey finds its fourth stop.

It’s Hard, the 1982 album by the Who, contains one tune that truly grabs me: “Eminence Front.” Other than that, the album – billed as the last by the group at the time and released in conjunction with what was called a final tour – is kind of blah. That album’s “Why Did I Fall for That” is the RealPlayer’s fifth stop this morning. It’s a tune that has always come off to me as an inferior remake of the brilliant “Won’t Get Fooled Again” from the similarly brilliant Who’s Next.

And we come at last to a track from one of the albums I had long included on what I call my hopeless list: Albums I wanted to hear but that I thought were lost for one reason or another. In early 2007, during the first incarnation of this blog, I wrote a bit about the late Tom Jans, mentioning his final album Champion, which was released only in Japan in 1982. Having cobbled together a collection of the rest of Jans’ brief oeuvre, I dug a bit for the album without result and then gave up the quest. But during 2009, fellow blogger Chun Tao at Rare MP3 came up with a copy of Champion, which was as good as I’d hoped it would be. Here’s the magnificently sorrowful “Mother’s Eyes,” the final track on the album.

A Note:
A little more than a year ago, after I landed here at my own place, I began to set up an archive of the posts from Echoes In The Wind during its Blogger and WordPress days. That effort flagged for several reasons, and when I returned to it over the weekend, I decided to start over again. So at Echoes In The Wind Archives, I’m working on reposting material – without any active music links – from early 2007 through January 2010. As I said once before, I’m not sure how much interest there might be in my archives, but the site will eventually allow me to see what I might previously have written (as it did today in the case of Tom Jans).

Revisiting Jesse Winchester’s ‘Biloxi’

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

In February of 2007, I wrote about Jesse Winchester and my favorite among his songs. Here, updated and revised slightly, is what I said:

One of the great themes of popular music – from the pre-recording days when music’s popularity was measured only by sales of sheet music, through the entire Twentieth Century to today – is displacement. From the day in 1853 when Stephen Foster – America’s first popular songwriter – wrote “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” American musicians and listeners have celebrated places dear to them, often longing for those places and grieving their separations from them.

The separation need not be physical: Time pulls us away, too, as places change and we ourselves are altered by the turning of the calendar. Joe South’s 1969 lament, “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” mourned the changes brought to his home place – and by extension, the entire south – by the so-called progress of that decade, which replaced orchards with offices and meadows with malls (and the orchards and meadows continue to disappear to this day, of course, not just in the south but all across the country).

The era during which Joe South sang – those volatile years from, say, 1965 to 1975 – was one of displacement for a lot of folks. Many of those who were displaced, of course, had not one bit of use for rock or soul or any of their relatives; they instead found their solace in gospel music or in the country stylings of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and their contemporaries. But the sense of longing wasn’t limited by genre. It’s not an accident that one of the better singles of the Beatles, the best group of the time – or any time, for that matter – told us all to get back to where we once belonged. We all wanted to go home.

One of those who couldn’t go home was Jesse Winchester, a native of Memphis who’d left the U.S. for Canada in 1967 instead of reporting for military service (and most likely an assignment to the war zone in Vietnam) when he got his draft notice. Living in Montreal in 1969, he met Robbie Robertson of The Band – himself a Canadian, of course, like three of the other four members of The Band. Robertson produced and played guitar on Winchester’s first album, Jesse Winchester, and brought along his band-mate Levon Helm to play drums and mandolin. The record, says All-Music Guide, “was timely: it spoke to a disaffected American generation that sympathized with Winchester’s pacifism. But it was also timeless: the songs revealed a powerful writing talent (recognized by the numerous artists who covered them), and Winchester’s gentle vocals made a wonderful vehicle for delivering them.”

Winchester, of course, was unable to perform in the U.S. to promote either the record or his career, and thus never was able to capture the attention of the listening and buying public as well as he likely deserved. He recorded four more albums in Canada until an amnesty proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 allowed him to return to the U.S. He’s recorded sporadically since then but has been an active performer, with several recent live albums preceding last year’s studio album, Love Filling Station.

Among all of Winchester’s fine songs, I find my favorite to be “Biloxi” from that first, self-titled album. Winchester’s back story comes along when I hear it, and regrets and longing linger under the gentle vocal as Winchester seems to recall the joy and solace he once found in a place he might never be able to see again. And all of that is why “Biloxi” belongs in the Ultimate Jukebox.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 10
“Question” by the Moody Blues, Threshold 67004 [1970]
“Biloxi” by Jesse Winchester from Jesse Winchester [1970]
“All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, Columbia 45673 [1972]
“Oh, Babe, What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith, Capitol 3383 [1972]
“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, Geffen 49824 [1981]
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, Elektra 96412 [1988]

“Question” was my introduction to the Moody Blues. I think that introduction took place across the street at Rick’s, when he and Rob shared some albums Rob had borrowed from a friend. One of those albums was A Question of Balance. I was entranced by the group’s sound and the songs’ content: These guys were singing about the same kinds of questions I was grappling with at the time. I’ll acknowledge that the lyrical content of some of the Moodys’ albums has not aged well, though the songs on A Question of Balance do not seem now as overcooked as do many of those on the other albums. And “Question” – which went to No. 21 during the spring and early summer of 1970 – still sounds good today, although I’m not sure if that’s a matter of the song’s maturity or of my carrying inside me a perpetual sixteen-year-old. Over the years, on oldies radio, the album version – with the (synthesized?) horns calling out during the introduction – has pretty much driven the simple strummed guitar introduction of the single edit out of circulation. The version I found at YouTube seems to be a hybrid: it has the single’s introduction but runs longer – by my reading – than the single edit ever did.

None of the kids I was hanging around with during the autumn of 1972 were listening to Mott the Hoople, so neither was I. But when “All the Young Dudes” began to push itself out of the radio speakers from time to time that November – the record spent just three weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 37 – I put the band on my list of music to check out. It took me years to get there, having detoured figuratively through Muscle Shoals and Macon, Georgia, but the crunchy chords of “Dudes” remained fresh over the years, even as the glam poses of Ian Hunter and his band got very old. I never thought the record was all that much a tribute to glam rock, anyway, no matter what David Bowie might have had in mind when he wrote the song. And this morning, I read Mark Deming’s review of the song at All-Music Guide: “In Bowie’s version, there seems to be a vague, under-the-radar suggestion that the ‘dudes’ in question were rent boys or glammed-out fashion victims, but Hunter’s vocals (buoyed by Mick Ralphs’ soaring lead guitar and Verden Allen’s superbly sympathetic organ swells) turned the song into an anthem for the guys on the corner, sticking by each other through the ups and downs of their lives.” Sounds about right to me.

Sometimes a hit record comes along that is so utterly out of step with current trends that I imagine some listeners assume that its popularity is a joke or an ironic comment. So there likely were folks out there in radioland as 1972 turned into 1973 who were chuckling or raising irony-laced eyebrows every time Hurricane Smith came out of the speakers singing “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” The faux Twenties/Thirties backing track, the pinched and sometimes awkward vocal and the guileless and romantic lyrics made the record unlike anything around it in the Top 40. (When “Oh Babe” reached its peak at No. 3 during February 1973, it was bracketed by Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weisberg and Steve Mandell, which itself was unlike anything else in the Top 40, of course.) As is well known now, the singer’s real name was Norman Smith, and he’d been an engineer and producer for EMI in England, working with – among many others – the Beatles and Pink Floyd. “Oh Babe” was his only hit in the U.S. although he had better success in the U.K., where eccentricity sells better, I guess. Eccentric or not, when “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” comes out of the speakers when I’m around, it’s greeted with a smile that hasn’t the faintest trace of irony.

Given my general disinterest in music from the 1980s – it wasn’t as awful as I thought it was at the time, but I still don’t think it was as good as recent waves of Gen X nostalgia have posited – I wondered as I trimmed my list of songs how many tunes from that decade would end up in my metaphorical jukebox. As I detailed in an earlier post, twenty-two songs from the Eighties survived the trimming. Two of them are in this grouping, and they were selected for diametrically opposite reasons, one for sound and the other for story. From the opening sax riff by Rindy Ross through her vocals to the end of the song, “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash just sounds good. The lyrics tell a universal tale, the songs lopes along, Ross’ vocals are believeable and, best of all, that sax riff is one of the greatest of all time. At the time the song was on the charts – it went to No. 3 during a nineteen-week stay after entering the Top 40 during early November 1981 – I wasn’t listening to a lot of Top 40, but “Harden My Heart” was inescapable. The radio station I listened to most often at home in those days was more focused on what I think was called adult contemporary, and Quarterflash was there, too.

By the time the end of the Eighties was drawing near, I was listening to newer music again, and when Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” hit the charts during the summer of 1988, I was fascinated by the record. It’s a no-frills recording: a simple acoustic guitar riff most of the way through with the drums and bass blowing in for the choruses. But it makes my list for its story, with its detail-studded portrait of a life on the fringes of American society, a life spent working in the check-out lane where the big house in the suburbs is unattainable, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether fate or frailty creates the barriers. “Fast Car” went to No. 6, and I sometimes wonder which reaction to the record was more prevalent among those who helped it get that high in the chart:  Was it “My God, that’s my life she’s singing about”? Or was it “Thank God that’s not my life she’s singing about”?

Back To The Jukebox

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

I think that every once in a while as I explore the Ultimate Jukebox, I’m just going to let the selections go on stage without an opening act.

A Six-Pack From The Ultimate Jukebox, No. 3
“Baby It’s You” by Smith, Dunhill 4206 [1969]
“I’ll Be Long Gone” by Boz Scaggs from Boz Scaggs [1969]
“All Right Now” by Free from Fire & Water [1970]
“Guilty” by Bonnie Raitt from Takin’ My Time [1973]
“Take Me Home” by Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle from the One From The Heart soundtrack [1982]
“Under the Milky Way” by the Church from Starfish [1988]

I’ve written before about Smith and “Baby It’s You,” and I know my blogging friend jb at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ has as well. So without digging into my Word files, I’m not sure whether a reference held in memory will be mine or his or maybe someone else’s. Either way, the record – a cover of the Shirelles’ 1962 hit – was a tasty and thick slice of organ-dominated pop-rock, laced with chunky guitar and topped with the sweet and gritty voice of Gayle McCormick. The record – pulled from the album A Group Called Smith – went to No. 5 in the autumn of 1969, the only hit for the Los Angeles-based band. The video I found shows a television performance on which, I believe, McCormick sings live to a canned background. Key lines: “It doesn’t matter what they say. I know I’m gonna love you any old way.”

For most people, I suppose, the highlight of Boz Scaggs’ self-titled 1969 album, his first solo work after his years with the Steve Miller Band, was the long blues number “Loan Me A Dime,” on which he, the Muscle Shoals crew and Duane Allman simmer for a long time and finally boil over. But every time I listen to Boz Scaggs, that astounding set of performances is challenged for the top spot by the record’s second track, “I’ll Be Long Gone,” which starts in a contemplative mood before shifting into its own up-tempo statement of purpose. Key lines: Good luck with your path/But it wasn’t built to last/Or we might take it differently.”

In an art form where macho postures abound – and they’ve done so in every generation, from the leers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry onward – one of the more blatant macho statements was Free’s “All Right Now,” which came ripping out of radio speakers during the late summer and early autumn of 1970 on its way to No. 4.  Dave Marsh nails the record perfectly in The Heart of Rock & Soul when he calls it “Cock rock extraordinaire,” noting that “All Right Now” is “the apotheosis of the form, as unrelenting as a hard hat’s street corner come-ons.” And yes, the narrator’s approach to the young lady in question is brash and clumsy and self-involved. But you know she had to love the guitar hook and the chorus. Even if she did nothing else with the guy, she had to play air guitar and sing along with him. Or maybe not. Key lines: “She said ‘Love?’ Lord above, now you’re tryin’ to trick me in love.”

As I’ve noted before while writing about Bonnie Raitt’s cover of Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” the opening chords by pianist Bill Payne always make me slow down, close my eyes and travel in time. I first heard the song through the wall of the hostel room where I lived during half of my college year in Denmark, as one of the girls in Room 6 had the song on a mixtape someone had sent her from home. And in the many years since then, no matter where I am, the song places me for at least an instant in my room in the middle of a winter night with the muted sounds of “Guilty” seeping through the wall with its mix of sadness and resignation. I heard the song so frequently during my four-month stay at the hostel that Raitt’s recording, as I wrote once, “took on forever an aura of beer-soaked regrets and midnight grief.” That’s okay, though. We need to recall our grief and regrets from time to time. They are, after all, a large part of what has made us who we are today. And for me, as I would hope it does for all of us through time, the grief has eased its way to bittersweet, and the song triggers these days nothing more than a half-smile at how young we all were. And the recording – which includes among others Lowell George on slide guitar and New Orleans pillar Earl Palmer on drums – stands up well after thirty-seven years, too. Key line: “It takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend to be somebody else.”

I’ve never seen the Francis Ford Coppola film One From The Heart, a lack in my experience that will have to be remedied some day. But if the film is as good as the soundtrack that Tom Waits composed and then recorded with help from Crystal Gayle, it’s a hell of a film. I first became aware of “Take Me Home” from its use in a CBS Television drama, The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire, which had a seven-episode run in the autumn of 2003. At the end of one of the episodes, Mare Winningham sang the song to another of the cast members, spurring me to find out more about the song almost as soon as the show’s credits ran. I soon found Waits’ soundtrack and Gayle’s superb vocal on “Take Me Home” and then learned I needed to add the song to that list of tunes that can bring me to tears no matter what else is going on. Key lines: “Take me home, you silly boy/All the world’s not round without you.”

I imagine that the radio stations I listened to in Minot, North Dakota, during the spring and summer of 1988 likely played the Church’s “Under the Milky Way” at other times of the day, but when I hear the record’s moody jangle, it always makes me feel as if it’s sometime around eleven o’clock at night. I’m in my apartment on Minot’s north side, reading or petting a cat as the music brings me closer to ending another day in a season that was little more than a test of endurance. I imagine I heard the record a fair amount during that time, as it went to No. 24. And given that, it’s a pleasant surprise that I still like the record very much. Key lines: “Wish I knew what you were looking for/Might have known what you would find.”

(My thanks to Caesar Tjalbo for “Take Me Home.”)

– whiteray