Among the first things on my agenda this morning was clearing the sink of dishes, generally a task I leave for the afternoons. Why this morning? Not sure, but it was something to do while the coffee brewed and the Texas Gal got her day started.
As usual, I got the iPod rolling and kept track of the tunes it offered as I cleaned, rinsed and placed items in the dishwasher. I heard some nice stuff: “The Ballad of Casey Deiss” by Shawn Phillips (1970), “Never Ending Song Of Love” by Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (1971), and a Neil Young triple play: “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970), “On The Way Home” by Buffalo Springfield (1968) and, by Young on his own, “Look Out For My Love” from his 1978 album, Comes A Time.
Tunes from that album have shown up here frequently through the years, and in recent months, it’s been one of the albums that I keep on my nightstand for late-night listening. That alone tells me without thinking too much about it that it’s one of my favorite albums. As I wrote eight years ago:
If I had to go through my 1978 collection and rank the albums, I think that every time, I’d come up with Neil Young’s Comes A Time in the top spot. Far more country-ish than most of his other albums, it’s also the one that Young seems most relaxed with. It sounds like he had fun making the record, and I rarely get that sense about his music.
Even after eight more years of collecting, listening and assessing, I think that judgment holds. There are other albums from 1978 that I like a great deal – the self-titled effort by the duo of Craig Fuller & Eric Kaz, Willie Nelson’s Stardust, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Van Morrison’s Wavelength are among them – but I think, without chewing on the topic too firmly this morning, that Comes A Time would still be my favorite from that year. (And this slight discussion might well be the source of another series of posts.)
Anyway, here’s the tune that sparked this slight post and helped me get the dishes into the dishwasher to start the day: Neil Young’s “Look Out For My Love” from Comes A Time.
I noticed, just by digging into the files I have of the Billboard Hot 100, that February 17, 1979 – thirty-six years ago today – was a Saturday. And I noticed as well that I would not have been horribly impressed with what I might have been hearing on the radio as the Other Half and I ran errands around Monticello and/or sat reading that evening with the radio keeping us company.
The radio station would likely have been the same in both the car and the living room: KS95 from the Twin Cities. And given KS95’s format – almost but not quite Top 40 (and I’m sure the format has a formal name, but I don’t know it offhand) – we would likely have heard most of the current Top Ten sometime during our errands or our quiet evening:
“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” by Rod Stewart
“Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People
“A Little More Love” by Olivia Newton John
“Fire” by the Pointer Sisters
“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor
“Every 1’s A Winner” by Hot Chocolate
“Le Freak” by Chic
“Lotta Love” by Nicolette Larson
“Somewhere In The Night” by Barry Manilow
“I Was Made For Dancin’” by Leif Garrett
Actually, I’m not certain all of those would have gotten airplay on KS95, but if they did, at least five of them would likely have made the two of us either groan or roll our eyes: The top two for sure would have elicited that response, and the records by Hot Chocolate, Chic and Garrett were unlikely to please us, either. The others, from what I recall, were okay, but only two of them – “Fire” and “Lotta Love” – get passing grades from me all these years later.
With hit radio providing fifty percent satisfaction at best in that long-ago Top Ten, I wondered what would have been on my turntable those days. I wasn’t buying a lot of vinyl at the time for a couple of reasons: Budget was one; we were trying to be prudent with our money, and we were still slowly filling the needs of a new household. Availability was another; the only place that sold records in Monticello had a scatter-shot inventory. So, splurging a bit, I joined a record club, and the first three albums from the club arrived in February 1979. Add in one trip to a mall in the Twin Cities, one to St. Cloud, and one lucky find in a store in Monticello, and the album haul for the month of February 1979, which accounted for almost all of my acquisitions for the entire year, was pretty good:
Time Passages by Al Stewart , February 3 Barry Manilow Live , February 10 Night Moves by Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band , February 10 Octave by the Moody Blues , February 10 Sing It Again, Rod by Rod Stewart , February 10 Comes A Time by Neil Young , February 15
I was catching up on relatively recent stuff, except for the Rod Stewart collection, and two of those albums – Time Passages and Comes A Time – would likely end up on a list of my thirty essential albums. I’d buy five of them again, skipping only the Manilow, which I think I got just for his “Very Strange Medley” of jingles from his advertising days. As 1979 went on and we pinched pennies, I wound up buying just one more album all year, a used copy of Elton John’s 1970 self-titled release, probably at the local flea market in October.
And to mark what was a very good February, here’s a track that, as far as I can tell, I’ve never featured here: “Comes A Time,” the title track to that 1978 Neil Young album (with the aforementioned Nicolette Larson on background vocals):
On occasion, I’ve alluded here – sometimes obliquely, sometimes in a more straight-forward manner – to some physical limitations that have set in over the past dozen years or so. I’ve tried not to make them too much a part of this blog, and when those limitations have made themselves known, I’ve coped. Sometimes I’ve mentioned it here, and other times I have not. Generally, however, that coping has not involved my missing something that’s important.
Twice in the past few months, it has.
In late summer, I was unable to take my mother to an event in the Twin Cities; she understood but was nevertheless disappointed, as was I. And today, I’ve had to cancel my own trip to the Twin Cities to play Strat-O-Matic baseball in my pal Dan’s second annual tournament. That, too, is disappointing.
And I find myself fearing this morning that as the years pass, my activities will be limited more and more by my chronic ailments and I will be less and less able to do those things I love. A good chunk of that fear, no doubt, is today’s disappointment leaking over the top of its container. To mix metaphors, that no doubt tints my vision in a manner that’s not necessarily accurate.
So I know I need to take a long view. I need to stay positive and appreciate those things I do have today, as I wrote about not long ago. In short, I need to listen to Neil Young’s advice in the title of his tune “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.” It’s from his 1970 album After the Gold Rush, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
As I did something inconsequential the other day, the RealPlayer kept me entertained with a random selection. And then, in the space of five songs, it played two with the same title: “One,” first by U2 and then by Three Dog Night.
That got me to wondering how many tunes I have with the word “one” in the title, so I went looking this morning. I have no answer. The sorting function on the RealPlayer finds every instance of the letters “one” occurring. So I’ve had to bypass multiple versions of “Black Cat Bone” and “Another Man Done Gone” as well as every song with the word “lonely” in its title and the entire catalogs of the Rolling Stones, the Freddy Jones Band and C.W. Stoneking.
But even if I have no specific count, there were plenty of titles to choose from. Here’s a selection:
As has been mentioned before in this space, Neil Young’s 1978 album, Comes A Time, is my favorite album by that changeable and often enigmatic performer. On that album, “Already One” tells the tale of a love that’s difficult yet essential, a story that I’d think most of us have experienced along the way, even if the configuration was a little different than the one in Young’s song.
The Wilburn Brothers – Doyle and Teddy – were from Hardy, Arkansas, and performed at the Grand Old Opry and for a similar radio program, Louisiana Hayride, during the 1940s into 1951, before either of them was twenty. Between 1954 and 1970, they placed twenty-eight records into the Country Top 40. One of those came in late 1964, when “I’m Gonna Tie One On Tonight” went to No. 19.
Marva Whitney is a singer from Kansas City, Kansas, who toured between 1967 and 1970 as a featured performer in the James Brown Review. She recorded a fair number of singles during that time and on into the 1970s, with most of them released on the King label. Three of her singles reached the R&B Top 40; the best-performing was “It’s My Thing (You Can’t Tell Me Who To Sock It To),” which went to No. 19 in 1969. “He’s the One” was not one of those charting three, but it’s a great piece of 1969 R&B nevertheless.
The Sundays released three CDs between 1990 and 1997 in a style that All Music Guide says owes a lot to “the jangly guitar pop of the Smiths and the trance-like dream pop of bands like the Cocteau Twins.” For whatever reason – probably memories of hearing “Here’s Where the Story Ends” on Cities 97 during the early 1990s – I have all three Sundays CDs. Jangly and romantic, “You’re Not The Only One I Know” comes from the first one, 1990’s Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.
The James Solberg Band spent a lot of time during the 1990s touring as the backing band for bluesman Luther Allison. Still, Solberg and his mates found time to record a couple of pretty good albums (for some reason, AMG calls the group the “Jim Solberg Band,” while the CDs themselves credit the James Solberg Band), and Solberg himself put together a few good solo albums starting in the late 1990s. In our search this morning, we come across “One of These Days” from the 1996 album of the same name.
Almost every time Al Stewart pops up on the radio or on the mp3 player, I find myself admiring his songcraft and performance. With his smart and literate lyrics and his generally accessible and atmospheric music, Stewart almost always casts a spell. I’ve no doubt heard “One Stage Before” from Year of the Cat hundreds of times since the album came out in 1976, but I’m not sure I’ve really listened to it. I did this morning, and all can do is admire it:
It seems to me as though I’ve been upon this stage before
And juggled away the night for the same old crowd.
These harlequins you see with me, they too have held the floor
As here once again they strut and they fret their hour.
I see those half-familiar faces in the second row
Ghost-like with the footlights in their eyes,
But where or when we met like this last time, I just don’t know.
It’s like a chord that rings and never dies
And now these figures in the wings with all their restless tunes
Are waiting for someone to call their names.
They walk the backstage corridors and prowl the dressing-rooms
And vanish to specks of light in the picture-frames.
But did they move upon the stage a thousand years ago
In some play in Paris or Madrid?
And was I there among them then, in some travelling show?
And is it all still locked inside my head
And some of you are harmonies to all the notes I play;
Although we may not meet, still you know me well,
While others talk in secret keys and transpose all I say
And nothing I do or try can get through the spell.
So one more time we’ll dim the lights and ring the curtain up
And play again like all the times before,
But far behind the music, you can almost hear the sounds
Of laughter like the waves upon the shores
The plan for today was to return to the game of “Jump!” Along with Odd and Pop – my two imaginary tuneheads – I was going to go through the Billboard Top 40 from September 24, 1966 – forty-five years ago today – to see which record had moved the greatest number of places in the previous week.
The winner of that little game would have been the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” That’s a fine record, but it’s nearly the end of September, and I’m not in a summertime mood. So we’ll pass on that one and do something we haven’t done for a bit here: Go random through the RealPlayer and take the sixth record as today’s feature.
First up is “Tortured, Tangled Hearts,” a track from the Dixie Chicks’ 2002 album Home. The album, according to Wikipedia, was written and produced while the members of the country/bluegrass trio were in a conflict with Sony and were mostly spending their times at their Texas homes. Thus, I imagine, the CD’s title. Anyway, “Tortured, Tangled Hearts” is an up-tempo lament about the vagaries of love. But there’s plenty of banjo and fiddle, so it’s a good way to start our search.
And we stay in a country mode on our second stop of the day, moving from 2002 back some fifty-five years to Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over.” I found it on a compilation of twenty of Williams’ hits, and the notes tell me that the tune was recorded in August 1947 at the Tulane Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Issued on the MGM label and credited to – I believe – Hank Williams & His Drifting Cowboys, the record only turned out to be the first of Williams’ forty singles to hit the country Top 40 (the last seven of them coming after his death on New Year’s Day 1953). “Move It On Over” went to No. 4 on the country chart.
Next up is a 1973 cover of Sylvester Stewart’s “Family Affair” by MFSB, the Philadelphia instrumental ensemble brought together by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The track comes from MFSB, the group’s first album, which All-Music Guide describes as “more of a soul-funk mix than the kind of disco for which the band would become known with their [sic] ‘T.S.O.P.’ hit.” That hit would reach the charts in March 1974, the year after the band funked around with this pretty good cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s No. 1 hit from 1971.
Our fourth stop this morning takes us back even further than our 1947 stop in Nashville. In 1930, as the Great Depression was gathering steam, country musician Carson Robinson penned “Poor Man’s Heaven,” a tune offering rewards – “ham and egg trees that grow by a lake full of beer” – and vengeance – “the millionaire’s son won’t have so much fun when we put him to shoveling dirt” – for those laid low by hard times. The tune was recorded by Robinson and Frank Luther (performing as Bud Billings) in New York City in April of 1930. The record’s title was later used as the title of a collection of Depression-era songs released in 2003, one of eleven CDs in the fascinating series When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll.
Ray LaMontagne is one of the more interesting of the performers who’s emerged in the last ten years. With a voice that AMG describes as “a huskier, sandpaper version of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley,” LaMontagne makes his way through literate and tuneful songs that I find more than enjoyable. “Sarah,” from LaMontagne’s 2008 album Gossip in the Grain, is a flowing and sweet look back – “Sarah, is it ever going to be the same?” – that has AMG referencing Morrison again: “Echoes of . . . Astral Weeks are apparent in the gorgeous chamber jazz.” It’s our fifth stop this morning.
When Neil Young recorded his Unplugged album for MTV in February 1993, one of the tunes that showed up in his set was “Stringman,” an obscure song that was an outtake during the 1970s sessions that resulted in American Stars ’N Bars. (It showed up in a longer studio version on the Chrome Dreams bootleg in 1992.) Obscure it may be, but it’s a gorgeous song both in its bootlegged studio incarnation and in the unplugged version that Young offered for the MTV session. Add the fact that it’s a heartfelt salute to Stephen Stills, and that’s a fine place to end up this morning, with “Stringman” as our Saturday Single.
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 
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 2486 
“Vehicle” by the Ides of March, Warner Bros. 7378 
“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces 
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees from Main Course 
“Four Strong Winds” by Neil Young from Comes A Time 
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.
Yearbook portrait; memories sing.
A smile to wrap your college dreams around.
Madness in Ohio spring.
Dreams were taken, broken on the ground.
Marchers mourn for violence unbound.
You’re more than just a name to me.
It’s hard to say how that can be.
I was too young and lived too far away.
I wouldn’t know what to say to you,
Who I can’t forget but never knew,
So I light a candle every fourth of May.
Imagination changes fact:
Allison lives and life is unrehearsed.
Work is started, bags are packed.
But time and bullets cannot be reversed.
Atlantis will forever stay immersed.
I saw your name again last week
On a painted stone in a college lawn.
I sat and thought ’til day was gone.
I found no answers. I can’t say why
Your name still glows internally
More vivid than the other three;
But I can hear your silence cry:
“Remember me, remember me.”
Martyrdom is no one’s aim.
The crimson cloak chose you for its embrace.
And time and distance are the same:
So few of us would recognize your face.
And shadows in the springtime take your place.
You’re more than just a name to me.
It’s hard to say how that can be.
I was too young and lived too far away.
I wouldn’t know what to say to you,
Who I can’t forget but never knew,
So I light a candle every fourth of May.