Still Powerful

A while back, on one of those Facebook memes that friends send through occasionally, I was asked to list the twenty essential songs/records for my desert island. I don’t recall everything I listed and then sent out to other friends, but I do recall the top two: “Cherish” by the Association and “We” by Shawn Phillips.

I got a note from my friend, the Half-Hearted Dude, who blogs at Any Major Dude With Half A Heart and who stops by here and leaves an occasional note. He said – and I’m paraphrasing here, as the note has been consigned to the ether and to whatever files Facebook keeps on its registrants –  that when he saw that I had responded, he figured that “Cherish” and “We” would show up somewhere on my list, and their presence in the top two spots was not at all surprising.

Well, I guess it shouldn’t have been startling. I’ve written about “Cherish” several times during the life of this blog, calling it at least once the best single ever released. And although I’ve written about “We” far less often – and do not recall exactly what I said about it – I know that I’ve never hidden my high regard for Shawn Phillips’ 1972 recording. In it, one can hear many virtues: strong melody; inventive, coherent and cohesive lyrics; a sparkling backing track; and the conciseness of a record that gets all that done in 3:43 (and I’ll acknowledge, as a fan of Phillips, that concision wasn’t always present on his other 1970s albums).

Then add to those virtues Phillips’ remarkable vocal, especially the portion where his scat singing takes him into the stratosphere (starting at 2:38 into the song), and you’ve got a record that for me, at least, comes very close to the top of the all-time list.

But wait, as the hawkers on television say, there’s more!

Faces, the album that is home to “We,” was released in 1972. The album got to No. 57 on the Billboard chart, and “We,” its lone charting single, got to No. 89 in the Billboard Hot 100 during the last week of January 1973. What’s always puzzled me, then, is how the single showed up on the jukebox in St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center during the early autumn of 1974, twenty-one months after it spent three weeks in the Hot 100. Was it re-released? Did the jukebox jobber goof? I don’t know, but whatever the reason for its late appearance, the record was welcome. I dropped a lot of quarters into the machine that autumn, and “We” was one of the preferred records for me and a couple of other folks at The Table, the diverse and sometimes odd collection of people with whom I spent my free time.

The song’s lyrics, of course, tell of how two – a “he” and a “she” – can make a “we,” and I was dreaming about that same process that autumn. Those dreams left abruptly, as friends and long-time readers likely recall. And I don’t think I heard “We” again for almost nine years. I imagine I could have sought out the album, as I did for a few records that marked that autumn. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1983, when I chanced on Faces at a flea market in Monticello, that I heard “We” again. If anything, it had become more powerful in its absence. Over the years, I’ve increased the quality of my copy of the album, finding a better vinyl version in 1997 and then finding a rare CD copy in 2007. But no matter the format or quality, “We” remains one of the most emotionally potent songs in my entire universe of music.

Its potency is not tied, as some might guess, to the young woman who might have been the other half of that “he and she make we” equation. (At least not entirely.) It’s linked, rather, to a time before things changed, to a vague memory, a moment when all of us at The Table were listening to Shawn Phillips’ voice soar through the basement snack bar where we gathered, all of us – for that moment – looking at things beyond the range of our vision and finding bits of our own dreams expressed in Phillips’ words and music.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 27
“San Francisco Girls (Return Of The Native)” by Fever Tree from Fever Tree [1968]
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 2486 [1968]
“Vehicle” by the Ides of March, Warner Bros. 7378 [1970]
“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces [1972]
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees from Main Course [1975]
“Four Strong Winds” by Neil Young from Comes A Time [1978]

The myth of San Francisco circa 1967 and 1968 was grist for the mills of who knows how many songwriters and performers, with the best-known result probably being John Phillips’ “San Francisco  (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” which was a No. 4 hit for Scott McKenzie during the singular summer of 1967. Fever Tree, a relatively forgotten band that offered an odd mix of psychedelic tunes, soft ballads and cover versions of others’ hits, didn’t get its San Francisco tune out until June of 1968, when “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” spent three weeks at No. 91. Despite the group’s eclectic style and despite the lack of attention given the single, I think that “San Francisco Girls” is just as evocative of what was happening in that California city as McKenzie’s record, especially in its opening, with the harpsichord eventually joined by tympani and organ for the hushed opening verse:

Out there it’s summertime
Milk and honey days
Oh, San Francisco girls with
San Francisco ways.

From there, the song takes off in a rushed, fuzz-laden gallop, and the rest of the tale isn’t quite as interesting. But those first few moments pull me in every time.

I don’t have much to say about Aretha Franklin and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I mean, she’s Aretha, and the record was one of her forty-five Top 40 hits (covering a span of years from 1961 to 1998). Add that “Since You’ve Been Gone” went to No. 5 in the early spring of 1968 (and was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart), and all you need to do after that is listen.

There was a discussion not long ago at the blog AM, then FM about how the lyrics to “Vehicle,” the Ides of March hit from 1970, might play today, what with the “friendly stranger in the black sedan” inviting the object of his interest into his car: “I got pictures, got candy. I’m a lovable man, and I can take you to the nearest star.” I’d guess – as did Jeff at AM, then FM – that what was heard as a (lame) come-on forty years ago would come off today as really creepy: This dude is exactly the kind of guy parents have been warning kids about for years! So times have changed, and the guy in the car would have needed to find a new way to get the attention of a pretty young thing. But as he long as he brings those horns along, he’ll do okay, as the horn chart was at least partly the reason that “Vehicle” went to No. 2 during the spring of 1970.

The Bee Gees’ long career had, as I see it, three distinct segments. Call them acts, if you want. Act One was the group’s early work as a kind of Down Under Beatles, running – as far as hits in the U.S. were concerned – from 1967 into 1969. Act Two was the split in the group and then the tentative music after the reunion, with that segment running from 1970 to 1972. Then, in 1975, started Act Three, during which the Bee Gees were for a while the world’s most popular group, throwing off hits for themselves and producing them for others as if there were nothing hard about it at all. The first portion of that third act was the 1975 album Main Course, which telegraphed the disco triumph to come in its first two hits, “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” which went to No. 1 and No. 7, respectively. My favorite from the album, though, is the third hit, “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” which went to No. 12 during the early months of 1976. Why that record? It’s no secret that I like a good ballad, and to me, “Fanny” is one of the best. And it comes from a time in my life that held at least two good things: my college internship and the pleasant (and unfamiliar) dilemma of having to decide between two very nice young women.

“Four Strong Winds,” Ian Tyson’s song of retreat from love to the Alberta prairie, has been recorded by hundreds of folks since he wrote it as the title tune to the second album he and his then-wife released as Ian & Sylvia. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that familiar with the song until I heard Neil Young’s 1978 version on the radio one day. Young’s cover of “Four Strong Winds” was released as a single but only got to No. 61. Nevertheless, hearing the tune inspired me to run down to the local record outlet and grab a copy of Comes A Time, which has only turned out to be my favorite Neil Young album. And the tune marks the only appearance of Neil Young in my mythical jukebox.

(Parenthetical comment added January 2, 2013.)

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7 Responses to “Still Powerful”

  1. Deadguy says:

    Bong bong bong bong they just don’t write lyrics like that anymore, thats what I have on a loop in my head when I think of Cherist.

    But in this dialogue you missed ” Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke.

    http://www.zshare.net/audio/7876961205152c5d/

  2. Yah Shure says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if “We” had shown up on the Atwood Center jukebox so late in the game thanks to a request by the Atwood folks to the jukebox vendor (Krueger Novelty, perhaps?) “We” was a huge airplay hit in the Twin Cities on KQRS, KRSI and the campus station at the University of Minnesota. Minneapolis and Austin were by far Shawn’s national hot spots.

    I’m going to spend a week’s allowance on playing the Fever Tree 45 on your Ultimate Jukebox. My neighbor brought the album over for a spin in ’68, and we were both sold on “San Francisco Girls.” The edited 45 ran at a faster speed. “The Sun Also Rises” also gets multiple plays from that album whenever I hear it, and their 1971 cover of “She Comes In Colors” on ‘For Sale’ easily bests the Love original in my book.

    I was always used to the Bobby Bare hit, but was shocked the first time I heard Neil’s version of “Four Strong Winds” because of *where* I was hearing it: on that there country and western station in St. Cloud, WWJO. Great job, Neil.

  3. Sharon Rogers says:

    Interesting reading. I was and still am a fan of the Bee Gee’s (even though some would throw rocks at me for being so). I lived on a commune outside of San Fransico in 1968 – in Novato, Marin County – across the Golden Gate bridge from San Fransico). I have reached that part of my story yet – it was quite an experience. I wanted to read your post since you have been kind enough to read mine. 🙂

  4. Sharon Rogers says:

    Sorry, I have NOT reached that part of my story yet – typo.

  5. jb says:

    I have somehow missed hearing “We” until today, but I’m certain I would have dug it, especially had it come on the radio stations I was listening to late in ’74. I dig it now, that’s for sure.

  6. Paco Malo says:

    That’s an interesting point you make about how politically incorrect the lyrics to “Vehicle” may seem viewed in a contemporary light. I never really thought it out at the time. I was quite simply captivated by the hard driving vocal and compelling music.

    “I’m you’re vehicle, baby, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.” That was what caught my attention lyrically when I was listening to the 45. And it’s still a solid teen metaphor all these years later.

  7. Phil says:

    San Francisco Girls by Fever Tree – those words jumped right out at me from your blog… I have that 45! It came my way in 1973, when I used to buy the early additions to my LP collection via mail order in the UK. For some reason the company gifted me a free 45 with one order and that’s how I became the owner of Fever Tree’s record. If it only made 91 on the US chart, it was totally unheard of in the UK – at least by me! At the time my record collection was a bunch of singles and even less albums so Fever Tree did get a few plays – it must still be up in the loft with the rest…

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