Posts Tagged ‘Harry Chapin’

The Road To ‘Palo Alto’

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

In my early days online, years before I knew there were such things as blogs, much less blogs about music, and long before I had an inkling that I would write such a blog, I was looking for information about The Band. These days, even after learning about hundreds of other musicians and absorbing their work, The Band remains my favorite all-time group. (The Beatles rank second, and I’m not going to figure out who comes third right now.)

And I found myself, probably sometime in 2001, at a pretty extensive website about The Band, covering not only the group’s history and music as The Band but the group members’ history and music before the group formed in the late 1950s and after the original group split up in 1976. The website also had an extensive list of folks who’d covered songs by the band over the years, and I began to dig into the performers listed there who’d covered “The Weight.” One name baffled me: Bobby Jameson.

I’d never heard of the man, never knew – as I know now – that he’d once been promoted as pop-rock music’s next big thing, never knew that he’d worked in studios with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, with Frank Zappa, with Crazy Horse and with others who would become household names (at least in those households that loved pop-rock music). As I got better at navigating the ’Net, I learned that Working! – the album on which Bobby’s version of “The Weight” appears – commanded prices ranging from $40 to $100 on the used LP market. I also learned that his other two albums – Color Him In, which was released under the name of just Jameson, and Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest, released under the name of Chris Lucey – were nearly just as rare on vinyl.

Sometimes being slow, I didn’t discover music blogs until the summer of 2007 2006, and – like a starving shopper on sampling day at the supermarket – I gobbled up lots of music new to me. Among that music I found Bobby’s three albums, starting with Working!  As it was utterly out of print, I shared it and soon found myself in an email and message conversation with Bobby Jameson, who was living in California. He was pleased with my assessment of the album, and a long-distance friendship developed that’s still growing today. (I later found a copy of Working! online for the ridiculously low price of $10 and sent it to Bobby for an autograph. He happily complied.)

All of this is a long way to get around to the fact that “Palo Alto” from Working! is one of the records I’ve put into my Ultimate Jukebox. It was an easy choice. It’s not like I sat down and thought, “Boy, I need to get one of Bobby’s songs in there. Which one should it be?”

No, it was more simple than that. The first time I scrolled through the songs in my collection from 1969, I typed in “Palo Alto” without hesitation. Why? Well, first, I like it. There won’t be any music I don’t like on some level in the jukebox. By itself, though, that’s not enough. I like the Pipkins’ “Gimme Dat Ding” plenty, too, but it’s not going to show up in these posts. There needs to be an attachment of some sort: historical, intellectual, emotional. With “Palo Alto,” it’s the latter. There is such a sense of yearning, of regret in the song. Here’s a video Bobby put together for the song since he’s become a presence on the ’Net in the past few years.

When I shared Working! in late 2007, I simply said that Palo Alto sounded to me like the early work that Jimmy Webb was doing with Glen Campbell a few years earlier, songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” Bobby never said a thing about that, and I thought I’d missed the point entirely of what he’d been trying to do. But not long ago, when he posted his video for “Palo Alto” (he’s since removed it and then reposted it so the comment is gone), he mentioned that he and the crew he was recording with had been aiming for a “Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell kind of sound.”

Sometimes I get one right.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 9
“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, ABC-Paramount 9972 [1959]
“Palo Alto” by Bobby Jameson from Working! [1969]
“What About Me” by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Capitol 3046 [1971]
“Taxi” by Harry Chapin, Elektra 45770 [1972]
“When Will I See You Again” by the Three Degrees, Philadelphia International 3550 [1973]
“Here Come Those Tears Again” by Jackson Browne, Asylum 45379 [1977]

“Stagger Lee,” the tale of a craps game gone bad and the pissed-off player who won’t let it rest, has one of the more compelling introductions in early rock ’n’ roll (or maybe in all of rock ’n’ roll), with Lloyd Price singing atop a vocal chorus with just a tinkling of piano: “The night was clear and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.” And the drums bomp in (Earl Palmer, perhaps?) and we’re off into the tale of Stagger Lee, Billy Lyons, a Stetson hat, Billy’s sickly wife and the bullet that broke the bartender’s glass. The story of Stagger Lee came to Price and his collaborator Harold Logan from an old folk song – there are hundreds of verses to the song – that itself evolved from tales of a Nineteenth Century Memphis waterfront gambler named James “Stacker” Lee. (The tale of the song is told in Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock & Roll Music [1975].) The song’s genesis is fascinating, as is the fact that Dick Clark insisted that Price record a bowdlerized version of the record – in which Billy Lyons’ life is spared – before Clark would allow Price to perform on American Bandstand. But none of that seems to matter if you’re ever out on the dance floor while the original record is playing.

My data banks were pretty empty when I first got Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1970 album What About Me at a flea market in North Dakota in 1989. I knew the band had sprung up in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s, the same period that has produced the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company and many others. But I don’t know that I’d heard much of Quicksilver before. Digging into first What About Me and then the rest of the group’s catalog was rewarding. There was some aimless noodling, but there was also some brilliant playing, more of the latter than the former, I thought (and still think). And, getting back to the first album I found, there was “What About Me” with its straightforward message of environmental damage and social revolution and its nearly perfect hook of a chorus. The record was released as a single, but I don’t recall hearing it and don’t know how well it did.

The first few times I heard Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” in early 1972, I felt like I was listening to a movie, one studded with details that emerged bit by bit with each successive listening/viewing. The layers of detail and the strength of the story-telling fascinated me (and as I was beginning to write song lyrics at the time, humbled and inspired me at the same time), and over the years, I’ve lost myself in the story of Harry and Sue time and again. There has always been one portion of the record that’s confused me, though: I’ve never been able to understand the high female vocal in the middle of the song. I finally looked it up this morning. The words are:

Baby’s so high that she’s skying,
Yes she’s flying, afraid to fall.
I’ll tell you why baby’s crying,
Cause she’s dying, aren’t we all.

And as 1972 wandered on and “Taxi” went to No. 24, I thought I’d be perfectly happy to let the story of Harry and Sue end with Harry driving away with his twenty-dollar bill. But eight years later, Chapin released “Sequel,” a record that takes the couple’s story further. It’s maybe not quite as good a record, which is why it was one of those I trimmed as I was filling my jukebox, but it was still fine to catch up with those old friends Harry Chapin had introduced us to eight years earlier. (“Sequel” went to No. 23.) There are many reasons to mourn Chapin’s death in 1981, but one of them for me is that I tend to think he had a song planned for 1990, one called “Finale,” in which he’d let us know where Harry and Sue finally landed.

(The video I found for “Taxi” at YouTube is the original video made by Elektra to promote Chapin in 1972; the backing track is slightly different than the one that was released on the Heads & Tales album, and the video ends with a promotional message from Jac Holzman, at the time the head of Elektra Records.)

 

The sweet Philly soul of the Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again” has always carried a riddle of time for me. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits tells me that the record was released as a single in the autumn of 1974, peaking at No. 2, where it spent two weeks. That doesn’t jibe with my memory at all: To me, “When Will I See You Again” is the autumn of 1975, as it showed up on the radio about the same time as I met a young lady with whom I spent more than a decade. It was, for a brief time during that first season, “our song.” And I know for certain that we met in 1975. Did the record get ignored by Minnesota radio stations and jukebox jobbers for more than a year? Or did I just miss it? I don’t know the answers (I’m sure someone does), but I do know that the record is a lovely piece of music, and whenever I hear it, I remember the way the record would make the college-aged whiteray smile, and I smile back.

I wrote a while back about hearing “Here Come Those Tears Again” on the radio in February 1977, noting that it was one of the first recordings I ever owned that showed up after that on radio playlists: “Wow, I have that song already!” (The record went to No. 23.) Why is it in the Ultimate Jukebox? Because so many things are so good about it: Jackson Browne’s measured – for a while – vocal; the extraordinary foundation provided by the rhythm section of Bob Glaub and Jim Gordon; the guitar solo from John Hall (then of Orleans, now a U.S. Congressman), and, among more, the final couplet before the chorus repeats:

I’m going back inside and turning out the light,
And I’ll be in the dark, but you’ll be out of sight.