Posts Tagged ‘Grateful Dead’

‘West’

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

Today, finally, we go west, sorting through the digital shelves for four tracks that use the word “west” in their titles.

Sorting in the RealPlayer for the word, we get 613 tracks, but as I suspected, we have some winnowing to do. Numerous tracks have been labeled “West Coast” in the genre slot, and they fall by the wayside, Jackson Browne’s For Everyman, the City’s Now That Everything’s Been Said, and Walter Eagan’s Not Shy among them. Anything titled or tagged as having been recorded at the Fillmore West will be ignored, as will numerous blues joints that came out of West Helena, Arkansas (many of them by Howlin’ Wolf).

Most of Alfred Newman’s soundtrack to the 1962 movie How The West Was Won is lost, as are Ray Charles’ two volumes from 1962 of Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music. The same holds for anything by Cashman & West (with and without Pistilli), and for a group called West, which gets double-docked for its 1968 self-titled album.

We also throw out the fight song from Western Illinois University, and numerous singles, starting with those on the Westbound and EastWest labels. Among the lost singles are “Linda’s Gone” by the West Coast Branch, “Fairchild” by Willie West, “Rave On” by Sonny West, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” by Tex Williams & His Western Caravan, “Tennessee Toddy” by Billy Gray & His Western Okies, “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A Little While)” by Kim Weston, “500 Miles” by Hedy West, “Take What You Want” by West Point, and “The Ballad Of Paladin” by Johnny Western.

Still, we have enough to work with.

Trying to tap into the spirit of the music they’d made a decade earlier, the Allman Brothers Band offered “From The Madness Of The West” on its 1980 album Reach For The Sky. In its six-plus minutes, the jam gave the listener the expected: parallel guitar lines playing arching melodies, a percussion solo, modal progressions and a technically precise guitar solo. What it could not offer, of course, were those people and things the Allman Brothers Band lost along the way: the departed Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, the bypassed Jaimoe, and the ability to do things no other band could. “From The Madness Of The West” is decent listening but no more than that. If you let it roll by in the background without thinking about it, it’s pleasant music, but when you stop to think about the arc of the Allman Brothers Band, the track – and in fact all of Reach For The Sky – feels like the part in a novel where you pause and wonder if in fact there can be any revival.

In 1987, when the Grateful Dead released the album In The Dark and pulled from the album the single “Touch Of Grey,” I wonder if Jerry Garcia and the rest of the band were baffled by the result. The album went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200, and the single went to No. 9 on the Hot 100. The group had reached the Top 20 of the album chart a few times before – Blues For Allah had done the best, going to No. 12 in 1975 – but never before had a Dead single hit the Top 40, much less the Top Ten. The group’s highest charting single before “Touch Of Grey” had been 1971’s “Truckin’,” which topped off at No. 64. As it happened, the Dead’s burst of popularity coincided with the rebirth of my interest in buying tunes, and In The Dark became the first Grateful Dead album on my shelves. And one of my favorite tracks from the album – “West L.A. Fadeaway” – qualifies for today’s exercise, bringing along a blues verse that more often than not makes me chuckle: “I met an old mistake walkin’ down the street today/I didn’t wanna be mean about it, but I didn’t have one good word to say.”

With a spare accompaniment – guitars and few strings – Nanci Griffith sings:

Wash away the tears
All the angry times we shared
All the feelings and the sorrows come and gone
We have let them slip away
Because I’m standing here today
And I’m smiling at your old West Texas sun

I remember times
When you’d weathered out my mind
But you always had a peaceful word to say
And you could always bring a smile
With the mischief in your eyes
Still, I’m glad the miles keep me separate from your games

You know you’re still as wild
As those old west Texas plains
Standing by the highway do you still call my name?
Lord, I can’t believe it’s been such a long, long time
Since I’ve seen that Texas boy smile

Well, I’ll be heading out of town
I may stop by next time around
Hell, it’s raining, but at least that’s something real
I came shackled down with fears
About our dreams and wasted years
And now I know exactly how to feel

Wash away the tears
All the angry times we shared
All the feelings and the sorrows come and gone
We have let them slip away
Because I’m standing here today
And I’m smiling at your old West Texas sun

The track is “West Texas Sun” from Griffith’s first album, the 1978 release There’s A Light Beyond These Woods. As one might expect for a first album, it’s a little tentative; the confident story-teller that I discovered in the early 1990s has yet to show up. (I think of “Love at the Five & Dime” from The Last of the True Believers in 1986 and “Trouble In The Fields” from Lone Star State Of Mind a year later, just to highlight two great songs that came along very soon.) But even early Griffith is worth a stop this morning.

And we close this morning with a recent version of a song that’s been around for nearly ninety years: “West End Blues.” Written by Clarence Williams and King Oliver and first recorded in 1928 by King Oliver & His Dixie Syncopators, “West End Blues” was one of the tunes that New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint selected for his 2009 album The Bright Mississippi. In his review of the album at AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that “although straight-out jazz is uncommon in Toussaint’s work, this neither feels unfamiliar or like a stretch,” adding, “Upon the first listen, The Bright Mississippi merely seems like a joyous good time, but subsequent spins focus attention on just how rich and multi-layered this wonderful music is.” As I listened to the most recent cover of “West End Blues,” I noted that the digital shelves also hold a copy of one of the earliest covers of the song: A 1928 release by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five.

Saturday Single No. 465

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

While cleaning the kitchen this morning to make way for another Saturday of pickle power – the last of the season? We’ve thought so before – I let the iPod keep me company. And as one of the tunes played, I wondered how often had it been mentioned here over the past eight-plus years.

Only twice, as it turns out, and it’s been offered for listening only once. So I thought I’d let the archives do the bulk of the work for me today. Here, edited slightly, is something I wrote in October 2007 about the year of 1987:

In 1987, I began what I now call the nomadic phase of my life. During the nearly five-year period from May 1987 through March 1992, I moved eight times, wandering from Minnesota to North Dakota back to Minnesota to Kansas to Missouri and back to Minnesota.

It was, clearly, an unsettled time in my life. I taught at two universities, a college and a community college, lost one cat, wrote for four newspapers, wrote a novel and lots of lyrics, fell in love three times and watched it fade three times, bought more than six hundred records, made friends and lost friends, survived the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 (a total of twenty-eight inches of snow fell in the Twin Cities from October 31 through November 3), and wound up on Pleasant Avenue in south Minneapolis, where I lived for the next seven years, waiting (though I did not know it) for the Texas Gal’s path to intersect mine.

And, as always, I listened to a lot of music. Being on college campuses at various times during those years kept me more in touch with new music than I had been when I was working as a free-lance writer. That was especially true in Minot, North Dakota, where I advised the university newspaper for two academic years, from the autumn of 1987 through the spring of 1989. My office was adjacent to the paper’s newsroom/workroom and the sound of the radio in the next room was inescapable. Luckily, I liked most of what I heard.

Among the tunes I heard coming from that radio in the next room was the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey.” It turned out to be the band’s only Top 40 hit, going to No. 9 in the Billboard Hot 100, and it came from the band’s only Top Ten album, In The Dark, which went to No. 6. Chart success, of course, was never the Dead’s primary motivation, but the record sounded good coming from the radio and eventually, from my stereo.

And because that sound is one of the good memories I have from my time on the Dakota prairie, “Touch Of Grey” is today’s Saturday Single.

A Long, Strange Trip Indeed

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Not all that many years ago, as these things can be measured, I met someone while I was working at St. Cloud State. This was years before I had an inkling of the Texas Gal’s existence, and I was trying to fill the empty place. It worked, for a while.

That someone and I spent a brilliant summer together and then a few less-than-brilliant months sliding slowly apart before we realized that what we had found instead of a life-long romance was a lasting friendship, a rare enough commodity itself. That friendship endures today, as do the memories, most of them dear and a few of them not so happy.

Among the most fascinating memories – from this side of the fence, anyway – are the evenings we spent tracing our steps through the separate lives we’d led in the years before. Many times metaphorically and two or three times literally, one of us had left a room bare moments before the other entered. At least twice, we were at the same event among crowds small enough that we could have found the other, had we been aware there was someone to find.

We did many more things that summer than plot our movements over the years, of course, but we lazed into the topic frequently as the records or the radio played in my apartment or hers. And one evening, as the campus radio station provided the soundtrack, we were musing over where we had been and dreaming about where we might go. The strains of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” came from the speakers in the corner.

Then Jerry and the boys got to the tag line: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” And she and I looked at each other and laughed and then nodded, and for the rest of that summer, there were moments when one or the other of us would quote the line in amusement, wonder or resignation.

“Truckin’” was never “our song.” The Dead’s saga of chemical enlightenment, crash pad paranoia and the rest was too, well, too something to be the romantic touchstone that both of us needed “our song” to be that summer. For that purpose, we found a song, and another and another and then more, stacking those tunes in a kind of sweet hierarchy, like a series of 45s stacked on a portable record player. The Grateful Dead’s song, on the other hand, served as a reminder of how remarkable our meeting was and of how close we might have come to not meeting at all.

Months later, aware in sorrow that the long, strange trip would continue as two separate voyages, I tried to reframe the song as a reminder that companions and destinations find us, not the other way around.

This is the version from the 1974 anthology Skeletons from the Closet, and I think it’s the same as the 1970 album track from American Beauty. According to The Grateful Dead Family Discography, an edit of the album track was released in 1971 as a single, Warner Bros. 7464, with an edit of “Ripple” from the same album on the flip side. The same edit of “Truckin’” was also released on singles twice more, first as the B side to a live version of “Johnny B. Goode” in 1972 and then in 1974 as an A side, backed with “Sugar Magnolia.” I have no idea how well the single did in any of those three iterations, except that it did not make it into the Top 40.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 12
“Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead from American Beauty [1970]
“Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes, Enterprise 9038 [1971]
“I’ll Be Long Gone” by Mother Earth from Bring Me Home [1971]
“Waking Up Alone” by Paul Williams from Just An Old Fashioned Love Song [1971]
“Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed, RCA 0887 [1973]
“Second Avenue” by Tim Moore from Tim Moore [1975]

I checked this morning, and this is the only weekly selection from the Ultimate Jukebox that plants itself entirely in the decade of the 1970s. There didn’t have to be one, I suppose, and I imagine there could have been more, but this is the way the random sorting worked itself out.

I know I’ve had some things to say in the past about the Hayes, Williams and Moore selections. Obviously, all three remain favorites, and I’d have to put “Waking Up Alone” and “Second Avenue” high on the list of best post-romance songs ever, the first in the category of “It Happened Long Ago” and the second in the category of “It Happened Recently.” Both still can tug at my heart, but the best moment in the two of them combined has nothing to do with the lyrics or the stories told thereby. It’s the saxophone that comes in late on “Waking Up Alone,” hanging around long enough to take a nice solo and then walk us home. The two sad songs also fall into the category of records that should have been hits.

“Theme from Shaft was a hit, of course, sitting at No. 1 for two weeks in the autumn of 1971. The record earned Hayes an Academy Award, two Grammys and the undying gratitude of anyone who wanted to hear something funky and slinky coming out of their radio speakers.

This is the second time Boz Scaggs’ tune “I’ll Be Long Gone” has shown up in this list: Scaggs’ original version was listed here some time ago. As I was trimming the list of songs in the Ultimate Jukebox, I never could decide which of the two versions I wanted to include, so I kept both of them. The similarity in arrangement bothers me a little, but that’s redeemed by the vocal reading from Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson. (I did trim, with some reluctance, another very good version of the same tune by Cold Blood and Lydia Pense.)

“Walk On The Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s incredibly catchy sketch of transvestite bliss in New York City, always brings me a chuckle. The record went to No. 16 in the late winter and spring of 1973, and I don’t recall hearing it then at all. The next autumn, when I was in Denmark, another American guy and I would spend evenings with my American girlfriend and the Danish girl with whose family my gal was living. We’d lounge on the floor of Ulla’s room, and Ulla would keep the record player spinning with her 45s. Whenever she’d cue up “Walk On The Wild Side,” we three Americans would glance at each other as Ulla sang along, phonetically perfect but linguistically unaware of a good deal of what she was singing about. “A hustle here and a hustle there . . .”