Archive for the ‘1999’ Category

‘One Last Chance To Make It Real . . .’

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Down on East St. Germain – the main street here on the East Side – there’s a pawnshop. It’s right around the corner from Tom’s Barbershop, and I pop in from time to time. Granite City Pawn Shop, it’s called. It’s kind of dusty, and it’s well-stocked with tools and outdoor sports equipment.

And in the middle of the shop, sometimes guarded by a gantlet of other merchandise – a telescope tripod the other day – is an alcove filled with CDs, all priced at $1 apiece. Over the past couple years, I’ve made a few interesting finds there – probably the best was Blue & Sentimental by 1950s sax player Ike Quebec – and filled some gaps, most of them in my country collection.

I stopped by there the other day and found three CDs from the 1990s by country singer John Berry, about whom I’d read a few nice things. They’re all pretty good, and it turns out that one of them – Saddle the Wind – was an album Berry recorded and released in 1990, before he was signed to Liberty Records. Liberty released it in 1994, and that’s the version I found. And when the CD got to the fifth track, here’s what I heard:

He sings it well, but to my ears, the track hews far too closely to Bruce Springsteen’s version to make it more than interesting. But for the last ten days or so, I’ve had “Thunder Road” running through my head as Berry’s cover inspired me to make my way through various versions of one of Springsteen’s greatest songs.

Along the way, I’ve been wondering if the harmonica and piano that lead off “Thunder Road” on Born to Run might not be the very first things that lots of folks ever heard from Bruce Springsteen. My reasoning: It was with Born to Run, of course, that Springsteen made the leap from regional favorite to national artist, and I figure a lot of folks picked up the album on the basis of the national noise without having heard anything from Springsteen before, even the single “Born to Run.” The album reached the Billboard chart on September 13, 1975, showing up at No. 84, a week before “Born to Run” jumped into the Hot 100 at No. 68. And “Thunder Road” leads off the album. So that introduction could have been the introduction to Springsteen for a lot of people.

Well, it’s an interesting thought (to me, anyway), but it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that “Thunder Road” is one of the sturdiest songs Springsteen’s ever put together. Wikipedia notes that in 2004, the song was ranked No. 86 in Rolling Stone magazine’s assessment of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” And, as Wikipedia notes, the song has shown up highly ranked on several similar lists.

Like all sturdy songs, it’s been covered fairly frequently. Among those who’ve tackled the song are Badly Drawn Boy, Frank Turner, Tori Amos, Mary Lou Lord and Bonnie “Prince” Bill with Tortoise. I’ve heard some of those, and I’ve come across a few more. Melissa Etheridge sang the song in concert at least once after Springsteen performed the song with her at an earlier show. (Her solo performance of the song is listed as being in 2009, but I don’t know when the duet took place.) I also found a few studio covers that I thought were interesting: Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners recorded the song for his 1999 album My Beauty, but – according to a comment at YouTube – the track was held back because Springsteen thought Rowland took too many liberties with the lyrics. I thought the Cowboy Junkies did a nice version; it was released on the bonus CD that came with their 2004 album One Soul Now.

And I came across this version by a string quartet calling itself the Section; it came from the 2002 CD Hometown: The String Quartet Tribute to Springsteen:

 There are other covers out there, but my energy waned. Of the covers I found, I think I like the Cowboy Junkies’ version best; Margo Timmins can do little wrong from where I listen. But the best version of the song I found on YouTube isn’t really a cover at all.

In 2005, Springsteen toured as a solo artist after the release of Devils & Dust, and for that tour, he shelved a lot of the songs he normally performed live. But he did “Thunder Road” once, backing himself on the piano. And it’s neat to know that the performance took place in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium on October 12, 2005. (No, I wasn’t there, but I sure wish I had been.)

Corrected and edited slightly after posting.

‘If I Was A Master Thief . . .’

Friday, July 29th, 2011

So, which Fourth Street is paved with Bob Dylan’s nastiest thoughts?

When Dylan sneers and slices his way through his 1965 single, “Positively 4th Street,” is he taking aim at the mid-1960s hipsters and posers in New York City’s Greenwich Village? Or is he looking back to the Midwest, slashing and lacerating his way through the remembered slights from his days at the University of Minnesota and its Dinkytown district? Both the Village and Dinkytown have as one of their main thoroughfares a Fourth Street.

I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone besides the Bard of Hibbing knows for sure. The heavy money, I would guess, is on New York City’s Fourth Street, simply because the Village was where Dylan became famous as a folkie and then – after turning to rock – became an infamous pariah among the folk set in the Village. Add that New York was where he was living when the song was written and released as a single, and you might have a case. But I have a sense, and I doubt that I’m alone in this, that when Dylan was writing the song, he was very much aware that there was another Fourth Street in his rear-view mirror and if folks from his Dinkytown days were wounded because they thought the tune was about them, well, that would be okay.

Whatever street provided the inspiration for the song, the song itself provided listeners with a lot to take in. The lyrics – starting with the snarling “You got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend. When I was down, you just stood there grinning.” – have always sounded to me like the 1 a.m. party rant of guy all the guests have been sidestepping all evening. He’s like the character on a new Tarot card for the modern age: The Volatile Man. He’s the one who eventually spews his bitterness over everyone, halting every conversation like an Icelandic volcano grounding air traffic. And he never stops as everyone else makes excuses and heads for the door.

The vitriol makes “Positively 4th Street” a one-of-a-kind rant that went to No. 7 in the autumn of 1965, with a performance that Dave Marsh called “an icy hipster bitch session” that turned out to be “brilliantly poisonous.”

Given the tune and its indelible origins, one would think that cover versions would be scarce. Well, they’re not plentiful, but there are more than I expected. The Byrds took a shot at the song with a live version on their untitled album from 1970, and it’s not bad. Others who’ve recorded the song include the Jerry Garcia Band, Johnny Rivers, Merl Saunders & Jerry Garcia, punk band Antiseen, Spirit, Bryan Ferry, Simply Red, Sue Foley, Scottish performer Junior Campbell, Scott Lucas & The Married Men, Lucinda Williams, Deb Callahan, the Stereophonics, the Persuasions, Winston Apple and someone named Farryl Purkiss.

I’ve heard a few of those, and I’m interested in hearing a number of the rest. Williams’ take on the song is, as might be expected, idiosyncratic, and I’ve read a lot of praise for Simply Red’s version, but I find it a little bland both in vocal and in backing. I like very much the version Johnny Rivers presents as the closer to his 1968 album, Realization. But in sorting through the covers I had at hand this morning – and I could spend more time and money digging, but I won’t – I was more pleased than I expected to be with Ferry’s take on the tune.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan!

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Whenever a pop culture icon reaches an age of, oh, fifty or greater that ends with a zero, the mass media finds itself cluttered for a few days with rethought biographies, appreciations, and assessments of said icon’s influence on our popular culture. The zero rule has held true again in the past few weeks regarding Bob Dylan, who turns seventy today: I’ve seen numerous magazine pieces and book reviews in the past weeks re-examining the life, music and impact of the Bard of Hibbing, and I expect that if I watch one of the national newscasts tonight – I generally watch CBS – I’ll see a piece that looks at all of those things and adds to it a commentary on the aging of the Baby Boom generation.

(I should note that there was not long ago a similar appreciation and assessment of a pop culture icon for a birthday that did not end in zero: In June of 2006, Paul McCartney was, quite appropriately, thus feted and assessed as he turned sixty-four.)

I’ve written and presented at this blog over the years a fair amount of my own assessments and appreciations of Mr. Dylan’s work. I think it’s almost enough to say this morning that Bob Dylan’s music is one of the foundations on which my own life in music comfortably rests. He wasn’t the first artist whose music captivated me – those honors, such as they might be, go to Al Hirt, John Barry and the Beatles, with Dylan coming along shortly thereafter. But, as he did for the culture at large, it was Dylan who taught me that the music I listened to – and the music I wrote – could be lyrically and topically challenging.

(That lyrical liberation brought with it its own burden, one that has been hefted by creative people around the world, many of them better at their crafts than I: It’s all too easy for writers to lapse into Dylanese while crafting lyrics, with the resulting product coming off more as pale imitation than influenced creation. That can happen, of course, with any artist and in the context of any art-form. I’ve discarded many a lyric because it comes off as faux Dylan or stale Springsteen, and I assume – as an example – that many screen writers have reread their works in progress and mourned the presence of limp Scorsese.)

So, rather than assess, analyze or rehash Bob Dylan’s career and influence here this morning, I thought I’d just stack up a set of six cover versions of his work that I enjoy or admire. My favorite among the cover versions of Dylan’s tunes is not listed among them; I’ve written before about Eric Clapton’s bluesy reconstruction of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” during the 1992 celebration of Dylan’s career. But the cover versions that follow rank high on my list.

The album Tangled Up In Blues: Songs of Bob Dylan was released by the House of Blues in 1999, pairing a selection of twelve Dylan tunes with performers steeped in the blues, rock or R&B traditions. Among the performers and tunes paired on Tangled Up In Blues were Taj Mahal with “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” Leon Russell with “Watching the River Flow,” Mavis Staples with “Gotta Serve Somebody” and R.L. Burnside with “Everything Is Broken.” But one of my favorite tracks on the CD is “Ballad of a Thin Man” as interpreted by James Solberg. Solberg, whose band spent much of the 1990s backing bluesman Luther Allison, delivers a biting performance, instrumentally and vocally, of Dylan’s long-ago shredding – if legend is to be believed – of a New York Times reporter.

Covers of “Blowin’ In The Wind” are not scarce, of course. I’m not going to even try to estimate how many there might have been, but four of them reached the Billboard Hot 100 (or bubbled under): Peter, Paul & Mary in 1963, Stan Getz in 1964, Stevie Wonder in 1966 and the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969. The version that soul performer O.V. Wright released in early 1970 wound up as the B-Side to a tune titled “Love The Way You Love,” which made neither the Billboard Hot 100 nor the magazine’s R&B Top 40. I found Wright’s version of the Dylan tune on a 2010 collection on the Ace label titled How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan.

Maria Muldaur has moved in and out of public view for years, often performing in a folk-roots vein since growing up – according to All-Music Guide – in New York’s Greenwich Village and then joining, in the mid-1960s, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Likely best-known for her 1974 hit, “Midnight at the Oasis,” she’s released in recent years a series of bluesy, rootsy albums, one of which was the 2006 CD Heart Of Mine (Love Songs Of Bob Dylan). That’s where I found her very good cover of “Buckets of Rain” from Dylan’s 1975 classic album Blood on the Tracks.

Of all of the folks who’ve covered a Dylan tune, one of the least likely names I’ve come across is that of Julie London, the late 1950s and early 1960s chanteuse. Described by AMG as a “sultry, smoky-voiced master of understatement,” London shone on titles like “Cry Me A River,” “September In The Rain” and “Black Coffee.” That’s why her turn on “Mighty Quinn (Quinn, The Eskimo)” seems at first thought to be a mismatch and at second thought to be surreal. But the understatement that AMG cites makes the tune work for London. At least it works for me. The track comes from London’s 1969 album Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, on which she also takes on – among other things – the title tune (which was a No. 4 hit for the Ohio Express; London’s version, released in 1968, bubbled under at No. 125) and the venerable “Louie Louie.”

Odd pairings are, it seems, easy to find when one is digging into covers of Bob Dylan tunes. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” remains one of Dylan’s most cryptic and most bitter songs, a seeming stream-of-consciousness epic that timed out at 7:33 on his 1965 masterpiece, Bringing It All Back Home. So seeing the tune listed with a running time of 3:49 on an album by R&B master and one-time gospel prodigy Billy Preston can bring all sorts of cognitive dissonance to the fore. But through either the song’s durability or Preston’s skill and talent, the cover version works (and I’d vote for a combination of the attributes of the song and the singer). The track comes from Preston’s 1973 album, Everybody Likes Some Kind Of Music.

And I’ve saved one of my personal favorites for the last spot. During the first iteration of this blog, I wrote about the three albums released in the 1960s by Bobby Jameson. (Those posts have now been archived and are available here.) The first Jameson album I posted was 1969’s Working!, and after I wrote about it, Bobby got in touch with me. During those first few months of our friendship, he offered me a track from those 1969 sessions that had been pulled from the album and had never been widely heard. Even after a few years, I find Bobby’s take on Dylan’s “To Ramona” to be world-weary, almost desolate and utterly lovely:

‘It’s A Restless Hungry Feeling . . .’

Friday, March 25th, 2011

With a nearly complete* collection of Bob Dylan’s work available, I can pick and choose when I want to listen to an hour’s worth of the Bard of Hibbing. And there are a few of Dylan’s albums that rarely make it to the CD player or turntable or mp3 player.

Chief among those are Saved, the 1980 release that was the second of the three Christian-era albums; At Budokan and Dylan and The Dead, two pretty bad live albums; his debut album, titled simply Bob Dylan; and his third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’.

That last album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was released in 1964 and was Dylan’s most topical during his early folkies-can-change-the-world days, and as such, it’s not aged well. Not all the songs are tied to then-current events, but enough of them are – “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “Only A Pawn In Their Game,” for example – that it’s not an album I play very frequently. And that’s too bad, as it means I have to find other settings – beyond the hope of a random play – for some strong songs that aren’t tied to those times, like “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Restless Farewell,” to name two.

The same holds true for my favorite on the album, “One Too Many Mornings,” which was written for Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend at the time. (Rotolo, who crossed over February 25 at the age of sixty-seven, was the girl walking with Dylan on the cover of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In the evocative words of Jeff Ash of AM, Then FM: “The girl on the cover, now forever young.”) Their relationship lasted into 1964, and Rotolo was the inspiration for some of Dylan’s most enduring songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” “Tomorrow Is A Long Time” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.” But out of the cluster of songs that I’ve read were inspired by Rotolo, “One Too Many Mornings” is my favorite:

Down the street the dogs are barkin’
And the day is a-gettin’ dark
As the night comes in a-fallin’
The dogs’ll lose their bark
An’ the silent night will shatter
From the sounds inside my mind
For I’m one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind

From the crossroads of my doorstep
My eyes they start to fade
As I turn my head back to the room
Where my love and I have laid
An’ I gaze back to the street
The sidewalk and the sign
And I’m one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

It’s a restless hungry feeling
That don’t mean no one no good
When ev’rything I’m a-sayin’
You can say it just as good.
You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just one too many mornings
An’ a thousand miles behind

Dylan’s version of the song from The Times They Are A-Changin’ is a solo take, with just his guitar and harmonica. It’s thoughtful and gentle. That wasn’t the case with the next version of the tune in Dylan’s catalog. On stage during a 1966 concert in Manchester, England (erroneously and eternally known as “The Royal Albert Hall Concert” and released in 1998), Dylan and his band – four-fifths of The Band and drummer Mickey Jones – tear into the song with gusto, and Dylan makes his way raggedly through the song in the weary, half-sneering voice that every Dylan imitator prizes. It’s a fun trip.

The third version of the song that Dylan released, a take from the 1975 Rolling Thunder tour that was released in 1976 on Hard Rain, is maybe the most interesting. Still ragged, but less frenetic than the 1966 version, the version on Hard Rain finds Dylan seeming to actually think about what he’s singing as he provides slight changes from the 1964 melody.

Still, as much as I love Dylan, none of his versions of “One Too Many Mornings” provide my favorite take on the tune. For that, I have to turn to a cover. And there are plenty of them from which to choose. All-Music Guide lists 196 CDs that include a song with that title. At a guess, two-thirds of those are duplicates or different songs with the same title. That kind of blunt math leaves us with about sixty-five different versions of the Dylan tune.

I’ve posted videos in the past couple weeks of two of those covers: a 2007 release by David Gray this week and a 1989 release by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings in February. That last outing wasn’t the first time Cash had taken on “One Too Many Mornings.” He and Dylan gave it a try – I believe there are bootlegs out there – during the sessions for Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline, and he recorded a solo version in 1964 with help, it seems, from June Carter Cash. That one was released in 1978 on Johnny and June:

A lot of familiar names pop up in the list of covers. The Association released the song as a single in 1965, and it showed up on the group’s 1970 live album. The Beau Brummels also released the tune as a single; it went to No. 95 in 1966. Joan Baez took a couple of shots at the song; her first version showed up as a bonus track on the CD reissue of her 1964 album, Farewell Angelina, and a version with a slightly Latin tinge to it – one I like a lot – came out in 1968 on Any Day Now.

Perhaps the most surprising name on the list of those who’ve covered “One Too Many Mornings” is that of Bobby Sherman, whose 1969 version – from his Bobby Sherman album – isn’t bad at all.

The list of names goes on, some familiar and some not: The Dillards, the Kingston Trio, Jerry Jeff Walker, Radio Flyer, Robyn Hitchcock, Jaime Brockett, Tony Furtado with Jules Shear, Steve Howe with Phoebe Snow, Ralph McTell, the Alan Lorber Orchestra and more.

But my favorite take on the song comes from the later version of The Band. Released as the closing track of the 1999 CD Tangled Up In Blues: Songs of Bob Dylan, it’s a cover that echoes the classic sound of The Band, with Dylan’s old friends Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson joined by new members Jim Weider, Richard Bell, Randy Ciarlante and guest Derek Trucks.

*A while back, I wrote that I owned a copy – vinyl or CD – of everything Dylan has ever released. I was in error. I forgot about Live at the Gaslight 1962, which was sold through a chain of coffee shops that has no St. Cloud outlet (though a friend was nice enough to provide me with a digital copy, which is good, with even used copies of the CD going for more than $22), and I do not have Christmas in the Heart because I don’t do Christmas records, not even Dylan’s. Since I wrote the post overlooking those two albums, Dylan has released Bob Dylan In Concert: Brandeis University, 1963, which I plan to get soon. I also see limited copies for sale of Live At Carnegie Hall 1963, which isn’t yet listed on Dylan’s website, but when it is officially released, I’ll make sure it’s soon on my shelves.

(Lyrics copyright © 1964, 1966 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1992, 1994 by Special Rider Music)

Some Highlights From 2001-2005

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Well, Odd and Pop didn’t show up this morning here at Echoes In The Wind. I think they’re outside playing in the rain that will soon freeze and turn St. Cloud into one large skating rink. And as I have errands to run today and don’t want to slide into the side of the drug store while running them, I’ve split what was a one-day idea into a two-day project, which it seems I will have to complete without any help from the two little tuneheads.

My thought was to look at some of my favorite music from the last ten years, the first ten years of the 21st Century, but as I waded through thousands of titles, it got more and more difficult to decide on favorites, so I thought I’d just mention a couple of titles from each year. And I dithered and dithered and then realized I was going to have to do this over two posts, which means a rare Friday post tomorrow, the last day of the decade.

Well, all right. So, what do I like to hear from these years? Well, lots of stuff, as it turns out. But if I had to pull one album and one track from each of the ten years, here’s how the first half of the list would look today:

From 2001, I’d end up with Bob Dylan’s album Love and Theft, a ramble through various styles of American music: folk, blues, rock and some other genres that might not have labels unless one uses a lot of hyphens. Among my favorite tracks are “Mississippi” and the great “High Water (For Charley Patton).”

I got into Texas singer Pat Green when he hit with “Wave on Wave” in 2003. (I’ve listened to and learned more about country music and Texas music in the past decade than ever before; the Texas Gal obviously gets grateful credit for that.) Anyway, liking “Wave on Wave” as much as I did, I got the CD and then began to dig into Green’s earlier stuff. And I discovered “Southbound 35” from his 2001 effort, Three Days. Another version is on the same year’s Dancehall Dreamer. I’m unable to find a video of either of the studio versions, so we’ll have to go back to the last century and a version of the song on Green’s 1999 release Live At Billy Bob’s Texas.

It took me a couple of years to catch up to it, but this morning, my favorite album from 2002 is Jorma Kaukonen’s Blue Country Heart. The former guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane (and cofounder of Hot Tuna) put together what All-Music Guide called “his most summertime-afternoon, front-porch-pickin’ album.” My favorite track? Probably Kaukonen’s take on Jimmie Rodgers’ classic “Waiting For A Train.”

One of the other musical highlights of 2002 was the massive memorial Concert for George in London on November 29. Recorded for release in 2003, the concert featured a gathering of friends who’d played and recorded over the years with the quiet Beatle, including his old bandmates Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney along with Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and more. The least well-known performer on this side of the Atlantic, I’d guess, was Joe Brown, who closed the concert with a heart-tugging cover of a very old tune, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” I couldn’t find a video of the live version from the concert, but here’s a studio version on which I’ve been unable to put a date.

Another album I caught up with a couple years late was by another alumnus from Jefferson Airplane and the other co-founder of Hot Tuna: bassist Jack Casady. His 2003 effort, Dream Factor, was an intriguing tour through blues, folk and Southern rock, featuring a strong list of guest vocalists and Casady’s always supple work on bass. My favorite tracks are likely “Paradise” and the closer, “Sweden.”

Country music pulled me in more during 2003. The Texas Gal and I spent a fair amount of time on quiet evenings watching country videos on cable and keeping track of CDs we wanted to hear. One of those videos was a Brooks & Dunn piece, and it led me to a CD that still shows up in the CD player around here. Here’s the official video for Brooks & Dunn’s “Red Dirt Road.”

The 2004 CD Original Soul was credited simply to Grace Potter, but the album was actually the first ever heard of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, a band out of Vermont that has since released three more well-received CDs, all of which have places on my shelf. If I had to choose one track from Original Soul, I’d probably go with the slow groove of “Go Down Low,” but that’s a default choice; the album is too good to pull just one track as a favorite.

Continuing in a rootsy vein (no surprise there, I imagine), one of the other highlights of 2004, at least looking back, was the release of 40 Days, the first full-length CD by the Wailin’ Jennys, a trio of women formed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The Texas Gal and I have seen the Jennys twice, and both times, one of the highlights was “Arlington” from 40 Days.

Choosing an album from 2005 was easy, and the choice might be seen as an odd one. Through my blog-created connection with Patti Dahlstrom, I was also linked to long-time musician Don Dunn, who – among his many accomplishments – was the cowriter of one of my favorite tunes ever, “Hitchcock Railway.” And through that connection, I got hold of Don’s Voices From Another Room, an album recorded unexpectedly in Odessa, Ukraine. It’s a CD I often pop into the player late in the evening. My favorite track? Probably “Two Tanyas.”

What else from 2005 has kept my attention? Well, I still listen to all four CDs by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, and my featured track from 2005 comes from the album Naturally, which finds Jones and her amazingly tight band offering an inventive – and somewhat doleful – revision of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Finally, for today, one of the most memorable records of the the first five years of the decade is one that I cannot place accurately. Gary Jules’ cover of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” first showed up, I think, on the soundtrack to the 2001 film Donnie Darko. Jules later released it on his own Trading Snakeoil For Wolftickets in 2004. So I don’t know where it fits temporally. But it doesn’t matter, really, as the recording is one of the best things I recall hearing from those first five years of this century.

I’ll be back tomorrow – perhaps with Odd and Pop – to look at music from the years 2006-2010.

(Title error corrected since first posting.)

‘And So This Is Christmas . . .’

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

As regular readers know, we here at Echoes In The Wind don’t do much about Christmas. It’s generally been three posts and two songs since the blog marked its first Christmas in 2007. And that’s not going to change. We started Saturday with a salute to Darlene Love and her “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home),” and – as has been our habit – continue today with a cover version of my favorite Christmas song.

But before getting into the cover, I thought we’d dig a little deeper into the original record. I don’t know what John Lennon’s hopes were when he released “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” in December 1971. I doubt that he thought that he and Yoko Ono had released a holiday classic. (The record was actually credited to John & Yoko/The Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir.) At the time, it seemed to me that I heard the record enough that it would have made a sizable dent in the Billboard chart.

Not so. To my surprise, when I checked this morning, the record – according to both editions I have of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits – did not reach the Top 40. I find the same information in Mark Wallgren’s The Beatles On Record. Wallgren notes, however, that “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” did reach No. 36 on the Cashbox chart, and on the very long-gone Record World chart, the record went to No. 28.

The Billboard results are surprising, as Wallgren notes, as “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” became “the very first Lennon single not to make the [Billboard] charts at all.”

Just in case Wallgren was referring only to the Top 40, I went this morning to my collection of week-by-week Billboard charts. And there is in fact no sign of the record even making the Hot 100. I checked a couple of other places, and another source, the Brit-centric The Great Rock Discography, also has the record not showing up on the American chart but shows the record reaching No. 4 in Britain.  Still, somehow, both All-Music Guide and Wikipedia have the record reaching No. 3! (I dearly want to know where those rankings came from; I suspect either a massive compounded error or a separate Christmas chart about which I know nothing.)

There are answers somewhere to all of those questions, but we’ll let them show up later.  (As I’d hoped, our pal Yah Shure has the answers; see the comments below.) I want to talk about the record, which was a Christmas song offered additionally as an anti-war anthem. (The Vietnam War was still going on as of Christmas 1971; an agreement for the U.S. to withdraw its combat troops came in January 1973, and the war ended with the defeat of South Vietnam in April 1975.) My sense of the time the record came out tells me that anyone who thought about it – citizens and civilian and military leadership alike – knew that the war was going to be ended; it was just a matter of how and when (and a matter of U.S. presidential politics, with an election set for 1972).

So the chorus of Lennon’s song wasn’t likely to change any minds, but it served as a reminder that even as public opinion had turned on the war, the war still went on.

And over the nearly forty years since the single was released, the song has become a holiday anthem as well, perhaps not as popular as some of the long-time December reliables that I’ve heard far too many times but still more than welcome when it rises from the speakers above the Christmas chaos. And it’s been covered many times since 1971. All-Music Guide lists more than 320 CDs that have a version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” on it (many of those the Lennon/Ono version, of course), and we find another 134 CDs listed that present the song as “Happy Christmas (War Is Over).”

Among those listed as covering the song under either title are Placido Domingo, the Vienna Boys Choir, Acker Bilk, Rebecca St. James, the Alarm, Jessica Simpson, Delta Goodrem, the Bachelors, the Finnish singer Tarja Turunen, Sarah Brightman, Neil Diamond, Maroon 5, Randy Bachman, Sent By Ravens, Dorsey Dodd, the Moody Blues, Andy Williams, the Canadian Brass, Diana Ross, Darlene Love, Celine Dion, Yo-Yo Ma and many, many more. I’ve heard some of those, but most are unknown to me.

In years past, I’ve presented Sarah McLachlan’s version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” from her Wintersong album. But I’m changing course this year and presenting a live version by Melissa Etheridge. Evidently from 1994, it was released on the 1999 CD VH1: Pop-Up Christmas. It’s a remarkable performance.

We’ll see you briefly on Christmas Day.

It Was A Splendid Time For All

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Yesterday’s gathering went wonderfully. There were nearly twenty of us here on the outskirts of town doing damage to a table that included barbequed beef and pork, barbecued beans, several vegetable platters and dips, chips, various types of pickles and two types of cake, one frozen.

The conversations ranged from exactly where near New Ulm, Minnesota, did the Dakotah Indians chase the buffalo over a cliff (somehow inspired, I think, by the fact that the Texas Gal and I served a vegetable dish laced with sausage made partly with yak meat) to tales of 1950s and 1960s St. Cloud, related for the benefit of those who missed that era either by being elsewhere or not being born yet at all.

And we took turns playing a beanbag game and just sitting in the shade of the trees, sipping beer and other beverages to a soundtrack that included a custom CD titled Summer Means Fun, brought to our gathering by our pal Yah Shure. (I’ll pull some nuggets from that compilation later in the week, I hope.)

But all the to-do on Sunday – a delightful way to mark the oncoming end of summer – has left me less energetic than I would like on Monday. I’m going to put off until tomorrow a further exploration of the history of the group alternately known as Michael’s Mystics and the Mystics and the song “Pain.” Instead, I’ll leave you with an entirely acceptable and aesthetically wonderful track from Bill Morrissey’s 1999 exploration of the catalog of Mississippi John Hurt.

“Monday Morning Blues” by Bill Morrissey
(From Songs of Mississippi John Hurt, 1999)

Another List From Your Host

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

This is most likely a fool’s errand, but, being a lover of lists, I got to wondering the other evening about what names would show up on a list of the most influential musicians, performers and/or songwriters in American popular music. I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about this, but no real research, so this is a first draft, if you will. I know I’ll likely miss some, and suggestions will be gladly accepted in the comments.

I’ll start with one Nineteenth Century figure and two whose careers span the divide between the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and after that, we’ll stay in the last century.

Stephen Foster

John Philip Sousa

Ma Rainey

Louis Armstrong

The Carter Family

Duke Ellington

Muddy Waters

Cole Porter

Frank Sinatra

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Chuck Berry

Elvis Presley

Phil Spector

Berry Gordy

Bob Dylan

Prince

And there we’ll stop. I know, only one woman. I considered several others: Jenny Lind, Bessie Smith, Julie London, Carole King and Madonna among them, and of those names, I think Bessie Smith’s would have been the next to be listed. But I wanted to keep the list to a manageable length.

And I also wanted to stop, essentially, twenty-five years ago, which is why the list stops with Prince. There no doubt have been writers and performers in these past twenty-five years who will belong on such a list someday, but I think we need to let the dust settle a little. If I were forced to guess right now, two names that I think will belong on that list would be those of Kurt Cobain and Will.I.Am.

There are, of course, plenty of folks from the years I’m considering who came close but didn’t seem to me to have as much influence on American pop music as the sixteen listed above. The next two likely would have been Buddy Holly and Michael Jackson. There’s no doubt that they changed American music, as did those listed above. But then, so did others not listed, like Scott Joplin, Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Stephen Sondheim, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and on and on.

So why this list today? Well, I was looking at how the Ultimate Jukebox would play out from here on, and I noticed that several of the chapters had multiple entries for which I hadn’t yet been able to find clips on YouTube. I did some shifting of those entries so that no more than one of those would show up in each segment, without paying attention to which songs they were. After I did that, I noticed that this week’s random list of songs ranged from the 1940s to the 1990s, beginning with Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”

That got me thinking about Waters’ place in that hypothetical list of American music, and I took a closer look at this week’s entries and saw that two more of those whom I’d place on such a list would also show up this week: Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. And I began to think about who else would be on that list. So there you go.

(I do have to acknowledge one thing: After my initial round of tinkering with the upcoming segments of the Ultimate Jukebox, I noticed that this week’s entry had songs from the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1990s. [I think; see the final paragraph.] I looked ahead and switched the next song from the 1980s into this week, replacing a second song from the 1970s. This will be the only time I switch a song for any reason other than balancing the non-YouTube entries.)

And here’s the video for the most recent song on this week’s list. (You may have to sit through a brief advertisement.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 18
“I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters, Aristocrat1305, 1948
“Carol” by Chuck Berry, Chess 1700, 1958
“Daddy (Rollin’ In Your Arms)” by Dion, Laurie 3464, 1968
“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & The Pips, Buddah 383, 1973
“On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, Scotti Bros. 04594, 1983
“Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan from the soundtrack to Wonder Boys, 1999

“I Can’t Be Satisfied” was Muddy Waters’ first hit after moving permanently to Chicago from Mississippi in 1943, and it followed five years of scuffling in Chicago’s clubs while working day jobs. The Aristocrat label was run by Leonard and Phil Chess, who soon changed the label name to Chess, and Waters recorded for the label into the 1970s. Because of reissues, his discography is difficult to follow, but during his lifetime, he released about sixty singles and thirty albums, including compilations, says Wikipedia. It’s probably impossible to overstate his influence on blues and rock and American pop culture. Want one small reminder? Listen to “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in the player below and note the introduction. Then go listen to the Allman Brothers Band’s “Pony Boy” and pay close attention at the forty-second mark.

Muddy Waters – “I Can’t Be Satisfied”

Just as with Waters, Chuck Berry’s influence on the music we listen to is vast and incalculable. From “Maybellene” in 1955 through a live version of “Reelin’ & Rockin’” in 1973, Berry got fourteen singles into the Top 40 (and more than that on the R&B chart). And according to a piece I read recently – though I cannot for the life of me remember where it was – Berry, now 83, still shows up once a month at a St. Louis club to play a set. He was (justifiably) among the first members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his riffs have influenced – directly or indirectly – anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar with rock music on his or her mind. I won’t say “Carol” is my favorite Berry tune, but it’s not heard as often as, say, “Johnny B. Goode” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or a few others. Given that, its relative lack of familiarity makes me listen a little bit closer, which is a good thing.

Dion’s “Daddy (Rollin’ In Your Arms)” was the B Side to his 1968 hit “Abraham, Martin and John” and had to be a stunning surprise to anyone who ever flipped the 45 over. Dave Marsh called it “a surging, churning, angry, anguished version of Robert Johnson’s country blues,” adding, “Haunted electric guitars clang and clash against one another, drums pound in from another room, uniting in a wad of noise symbolizing nothing but spelling out pain and fear.” Yeah, it’s all of that, and it’s a compelling record, one that Marsh placed at No. 452 in his 1989 ranking of the top 1,001 singles

Gladys Knight – with and without the Pips – had twenty-seven Top 40 singles between 1961 and 1996, and “Midnight Train to Georgia” is likely the best of all of them. The tale of a man’s retreat from California to his home in Georgia – and the willingness of his (one assumes) California lady to go with him – was No. 1 for two weeks on the pop chart and for four weeks on the R&B chart in late 1973. Unlike a lot of stuff that topped the pop charts even in 1973, this was an adult record telling an adult tale of displacement, failure, loyalty and finally, a different type of success in the wake of that failure. And it had a compelling mid-tempo groove, too.

I’ve written a little bit previously about “On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, noting that it’s the best non-Springsteen Springsteen record I know of, so we’ll pretty much leave it at that. The record is from the 1983 movie Eddie & The Cruisers, and in the fall of 1984, it spent eleven weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 7; it was also No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart for five weeks.

 I confess to a quandary. I have a date of 1999 on my mp3 of Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” but everything I see this morning dates the release as 2000. I’m certain I have a reason for dating it 1999 – perhaps a recording date listed somewhere in the notes to some anthology – but I can’t lay my hands on that information this morning. If I’m wrong, then this week’s chapter misses the 1990s and there goes that nifty little bit of programming. Ah, well. It’s still a great piece of music.

Good News From London

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Sometimes, really good things happen. Today’s tale is proof.

It was two years ago this week that I first shared the music of Patti Dahlstrom, writing about her first album, a self-titled 1972 release. Hers was a name that I did not remember from that era, when there was so much new music to hear, but once I heard her music – years after her four albums came out – I loved it: the bluesy and sometimes countryish shadings in her vocals, backed by some of the best players on the West Coast.

I first heard two of her tunes at the fine blog Ill Folks and then immediately clicked my way to Ebay and found all four of Patti’s albums, released between 1972 and 1976. As they arrived in the mail, I began turning the vinyl into digital files and sharing the results. And then came a surprise: I got a note from Patti Dahlstrom, now living in London. Not only was she pleased that I was sharing her music, she passed on to me CD copies of her four albums that had been burned, she said, from the best sources available outside of the master tapes.

We exchanged notes about her music and about life in general. Along the way, after I’d shared three of her four albums, she asked one day if I could post the final album – Livin’ It Thru from 1976 – as some folks from a record label were thinking about releasing a retrospective CD of her music and she thought that the easiest way to get them the album was through Echoes In The Wind. (You can imagine the grin on my face.) As it happened, I’d already been preparing to write about Livin’ It Thru, and I was more than happy to accelerate my timetable.

The music folks must have liked what they heard, as the wheels of the business began to turn toward the release of a compilation of Patti’s best recordings. And come next Tuesday – March 22 – the CD Emotion – The Music of Patti Dahlstrom­ will be released. The twenty tracks cover half of the songs that were released on Patti’s four albums.

Patti says she’s thrilled, adding that there’s always been some interest in her music: “Over the years, so many have contacted sites about my music on CD.” She said that folks who’ve listened to the tunes on the CD “have said they are amazed at how well a number of the tracks/songs have held up, but then I did have the most remarkable players in pop history working with me. Good talent never fades.”

Good talent, indeed. A page at Patti’s new website – you can buy the CD there – lists the musicians who worked on her four albums, and many of the names are very familiar. It’s almost unfair to list some of the musicians here and not others, but among the  names listed in the credits are those of Larry Knechtel, Jim Horn, Michael Omartian, David Lindley, Jim Gordon, Leland Sklar, Tom Scott, Jay Graydon, Craig Doerge, Steve Cropper, Klaus Voormann, Chuck Findley, Don Dunn, Jimmie Haskell and Jeff Porcaro. (That’s just a sample: Look at the credits for all four albums at Patti’s website.)

As Patti and the folks at Rev-Ola put the CD together, I had a chance to play a small part in the process. Patti sent an email one day asking me – and several others who got the same email – if I would go over her catalog and list the seventeen tracks that I thought should be on the CD along with three tracks that had been released as singles in the 1970s. I was delighted, and I spent a weekend reviewing her four albums and putting together my list. As it turned out, about half of the tracks on the CD were among those I recommended.

The first song I put on that list for Patti is my favorite track of hers. “Wait Like A Lady” was on her debut album in 1972 and was released as a single on the Uni label. I don’t recall hearing it in 1972, but when I first put Patti Dahlstrom on my turntable a couple of years ago, I loved it. So when I began putting together the Ultimate Jukebox last autumn, I made sure it was on the list. And when I got an early look at Patti’s website the other week, I was pleased to see that “Wait Like A Lady” was one of the twenty tracks on her new CD.

Patti was kind enough to allow me to share “Wait Like A Lady” this week, and before we head to the music, I’ll let her have the last word about her CD:

“I just feel so blessed that this is happening,” she said, “another in a long line of wonderful events in my life.”

Video placed May 9, 2011.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 8
“Down By The River” by Buddy Miles from Them Changes [1970]
“Long Long Time” by Linda Ronstadt, Capitol 2846 [1970]
“Mother Freedom” by Bread from Baby I’m-A Want You [1971]
“Wait Like A Lady” by Patti Dahlstrom from Patti Dahlstrom [1972]
“The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzy from Jailbreak [1976]
“South Side” by Moby with Gwen Stefani from Play [1999]

About a month after I started this blog, I wrote:

“There was a half-second of empty air after the commercial ended. A softly strummed guitar broke the silence, and then, above that, came the moan of an electric guitar playing one long note and then a short break of melody in a minor mode. A choir came in behind the guitars, a chorus of ‘oooooh’ sounding as lonely as a back road while the guitar continued its forlorn dance above the chorus. A quiet organ wash replaced the chorus as the drums entered and set a pace, and then a tortured voice sang, ‘Be on my side, I’ll be on your side, baby. There is no reason for you to hide . . .’  Rick and I paused whatever we were doing – probably playing a board game – and stared at the small radio and the sounds coming from its somewhat tinny speaker. What the hell was that? And who was singing?”

That’s how I remembered my introduction to Buddy Miles’ cover of Neil Young’s “Down By The River.” It seemed like we heard the song on WJON at least twice a week that summer, until it became one of the recurring sounds of that season along with, as I wrote then, “oak leaves whispering in the wind, a car’s honk some blocks away, the faint breek-breek of frogs in the low places near the railroad tracks, the laughter of teens out walking in search of something, the distant horn of an approaching train.”

I don’t know that I ever associated one specific young lady with Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time,” but I do know that from the first time I heard the tune sometime during the autumn of 1970, it became one of those songs that will always make my heart ache for a few moments. The yearning tone of Ronstadt’s voice and the weeping strings tilt the record – which went to No. 25 – in that direction anyway. Add some adolescent dreams, and there you go.

“Mother Freedom” is pretty crunchy and not at all what most people think of when they remember Bread. The group had its catalog of soft and often sad songs, yes, but there was a tougher side that you can find by revisiting the group’s original albums. Of those harder songs, “Mother Freedom” is my favorite. Most listeners liked the softer stuff, though: “Mother Freedom” went only to No. 37, the poorest peak among Bread’s twelve Top 40 hits.

I don’t know that I have much more to say about the Thin Lizzy record than I said last autumn:

“With its almost relentless guitar riffs, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ dares you not to tap your feet or bob your head or pound out a rhythm on the steering wheel. And if you’re in the car, there’s no way you’re not going to turn the radio up all the way. The single was Thin Lizzy’s only hit, peaking at No. 12 during the summer of 1976. Oh, and that line about ‘drivin’ all the old men crazy’? It’s a little disquieting to realize that if I were anyone in the song these days, I’d be one of those old men.”

“South Side” brings back a particularly pleasant memory for me. It’s sometime in the early months of 2000, and I’m sitting at my computer, having a long chat with a woman from Texas. There’s something there, I think, and it turns out she thinks the same. And as we chat, my radio plays a catchy tune that seems like it’s part rap, part techno and part something else. It took me several listens over the course of a few months to figure out what the song was. By that time, the Texas Gal and I had figured out a few things, too. Moby’s tune, according to All-Music Guide, went to No. 14 in 2000, but the album from which it was pulled, Play, came out in 1999, so it belongs here. And finding out what and who belongs where is kind of what life is all about.