One of the most remarkable things I saw during my European travels so long ago was a gravestone in the cathedral at Salisbury, England. The man who was my host in Salisbury was an officer of some sort in the cathedral’s administration, so I received an amazingly thorough and well-informed tour through the massive and beautiful structure. And along with his informed commentary on the history and design of the great cathedral, Horace Rogers also showed me an oddity that I certainly would have missed had I been touring the cathedral on my own.
It was the grave of a child, and the stone showed the child to have been born on May 13 and to have died on February 9 in the same year. (Thanks for the webfind with the correct dates, blue50p.) He pointed the dates out to me and smiled as he saw my mental gears go into action and then stop with a nearly audible grinding. I finally just shook my head, baffled, and looked at him for an explanation.
That explanation was simple: Horace told me that from sometime in the Twelfth Century until 1752, while operating under the Julian calendar, each year in Britain began on March 25 and ended on March 24. So the child buried in that grave was nearly nine months old at the time of his or her death.
I mention this today because it points out how artificial a construct it is that each new year – like this morning’s 2011 – begins on January 1. Other cultures, of course, have long begun their years on other dates; it’s not uncommon for people to make note of the Chinese New Year, and there are others, as well.
But, artificial construct or not (and leaving aside the benefits of standards for record keeping), there is a personal value one can find in the establishment of beginnings and endings. We hear a lot of talk about New Year’s resolutions, though I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone who actually made any with the intent of keeping them. I imagine there are folks who do, and a well-defined starting point for change likely has some value. So for those who want to, say, quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more, spend more time with loved ones or whatever beneficial change one might want, January 1 provides a nice benchmark.
Change – as I mentioned the other day – is hard, even on the level of our personal lives, like the changes listed above. And I imagine it’s just as hard on the level of a resolution that came into my mind the other day and then fluttered away until just now. That resolution? To be a better citizen.
That’s a vague goal, and this morning I have no firm idea what actions go with attaining that goal. Does it mean to write more letters to the editor? To become active once again in the local activities of a political party? To be more careful about recycling? To share my views in letters and emails to elected officials, from St. Cloud to Washington, D.C.? I imagine all of those and more might help attain what seems this morning to be a nebulous goal. I have some thinking ahead of me.
And it’s a good day to start doing that, among the parades and football games and the likelihood of going out to lunch with the Texas Gal. I imagine that, if I do things right, by the time the next January 1 rolls around, I’ll have been busy but I won’t be anywhere near done thinking about what actions would help me meet that goal. And if that’s the case, that’s fine.
To go along with these vague thoughts, I decided to share a tune I came across during the last couple of days when I was wandering through the musical decade just ended. It’s one that the Texas Gal and I actually heard Richie Havens perform when we saw him in St. Cloud a couple of years ago, and its title and lyrics, come to think of it, form a pretty good goal for a New Year’s Day.
So, from his 2008 album Nobody Left to Crown, here’s Richie Havens’ cover of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
Dates and age of child corrected after first posting.
I was playing around with a new version of one of my favorite toys the other day – Google Earth – and found something new to tinker with. How long this particular feature had been available, I don’t know, but I was looking at the overhead view of our house just to see the date of the latest imagery – when we first moved here, the imagery was old enough that it showed a driveway that no longer exists – and I saw graphics that showed little representations of cameras.
I clicked on one, and then clicked on the resulting popup, and I was looking at a view of our home as seen from Lincoln Avenue. I panned south and around, and there was the closed American Legion, but there was no sign of the brand new residence for chronic alcoholics. Now panning west, I went to the other side of Lincoln, and there were the railroad tracks and the houses on the other side. Then, panning north and then east, the view came back across Lincoln and I found the apartment complex adjacent to our place, and then I was panning south and looking back up the driveway to the garage.
I clicked out of the picture and then chose another of the multitude of camera graphics that had sprouted on the streets alongside our home and checked out a few more views. Then I was off to travel the world. I checked out the nearby intersection of Kilian Boulevard and Eighth Street S.E. for the houses where Rick and Rob and I grew up. I went to Minneapolis and found the apartment I lived in for seven years on Pleasant Avenue. Further south in the city, I found the field called Bossen Park, and – across the street – I saw the short fence behind my apartment building on nearby Bossen Terrace, the fence on which the Texas Gal and I were perched when we shared a memorable moment during one of her first visits to the Twin Cities.
I entered “Fredericia, Denmark” in the address bar and looked at street views of that city. The youth hostel where I lived is gone, replaced by houses, and Google’s street-level photographers have not yet gotten to the short street where I lived with my Danish family. I clicked to Paris and looked at the front door of the hotel on the Île de la Cité where I stayed with five other students for a few raucous days, then flew back across the Atlantic and looked for the house that was home for two years in Minot, North Dakota; the street had not yet been photographed.
The main street of tiny Conway Springs, Kansas, has been, and I took a quick look at the house where I spent three months during the summer of 1990, and then – as I did in real life during that summer twenty years ago – I zipped from Conway Springs to Columbia, Missouri. The house I first settled in on Ripley Street – the one in which I was overexposed to pesticide, an event that echoes in my health to this day – looks battered and careworn, but at least it’s still there. The house I fled to after the overexposure – where I rented the main floor apartment from my employer, Stephens College – is gone, a parking lot in its place.
I looked at that parking lot on Willis Avenue for a while, recalling my months in that main floor apartment, which was a pleasant refuge after the health scare on Ripley Street. And I thought about all the streets of my life, some of which I have yet to check out.
And I thought I’d check out some musical streets while I was at it:
Here’s “Jump Street” by Boz Scaggs from his 1976 album Silk Degrees, which spent five weeks at No. 2 during September and October that year, blocked from the top spot in the chart by Frampton Comes Alive!
The Orlons, an R&B group from Philadelphia, had five Top 40 hits in 1962 and 1963. The most successful was the first, “The Wah-Watusi,” which spent two weeks at No. 2 in July 1962. But my favorite is “South Street,” which went to No. 3 in April of 1963.
From what I can figure out, folk singer Ralph McTell recorded at least three versions of his magnificent song “Streets of London.” The first was on his 1969 album Spiral Staircase; another, was released as a single in 1974, according to various sources, and went to No. 2 on the British charts. It showed up on the album titled Streets . . . in 1975. I think have no idea if the version used in the video below is that single version, though I’m not entirely certain. Nevertheless, it’s a gorgeous presentation of a great song.
Genya Ravan is a singer and producer whose story is amazing. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was a vocalist for the jazz-rock band Ten Wheel Drive (before starting her own solo career, which continues to this day; check out her page at Facebook). “Fourteenth Street (I Can’t Get Together)” is from 1971’s Peculiar Friends, the last Ten Wheel Drive album that had Ravan as lead singer. It cooks.
Somewhere, I came across an abum called The Burning of Atlanta by a group called the Spirit of Atlanta. Well, not quite a group. AMG says: “While essentially a vanity project for composer/producer/arranger Thomas Stewart, backed here by a cadre of ‘Hot ’Lanta’ session players, The Burning of Atlanta is nevertheless an excellent funk LP that boasts the panoramic scope of a classic blaxploitation soundtrack. With the vocals embedded deep in the mix, the emphasis lies squarely on the record’s intensely hypnotic grooves.” So here’s “Hunter Street” from 1973.
And we’ll end this trip through the streets with Richie Havens’ interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from the 1997 album One Step Up/Two Steps Back: The Songs of Bruce Springsteen.
All things going well, I’ll be back Thursday with the next installment of the Ultimate Jukebox.
I wonder how huge the eureka moment was when the producers of the television series The Sopranos came across the song “Woke Up This Morning” by the English group Alabama 3.
I can only imagine that the producers, trying to find a theme song that summed up mob boss Tony Soprano and his messy, conflicted, ordinary and brutal life, just stared at the speakers the first time they heard the track, with its odd and compelling mix of hip-hop, electronica and Americana. I’m sure those producers felt that the Alabama 3 song had just been waiting for them to discover it and provide it with a home.
And that’s what happened. For six seasons, stretching between January 1999 and June of 2007, an edit of the song led off each of the eighty-six episodes of one of television’s greatest dramas. Viewers would have been forgiven for thinking that that song was written for The Sopranos when it was actually released in 1997 on Alabama 3’s first album, Exile On Coldharbour Lane.
And viewers would also have been forgiven for thinking that Alabama 3 was an American group, when it was actually a product of England. To be honest, the band’s history is strange enough that I’m just going to turn to the account by Garth Cartwright at All-Music Guide:
“Alabama 3 was one of the oddest musical outfits to arise from late-’90s London, but also one of the most original. The band’s origins are shrouded in urban myth — the band likes to claim that the three core members met in rehab, while their Southern accents have many believing they are from the U.S. state of Alabama, although it appears vocalists Rob Spragg and Jake Black met at a London rave when Spragg heard Black singing Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway.’ Bonding, they set out about creating an agenda of Americana, electronica, leftist politics, and laughter. Joined by DJ Piers Marsh, the trio issued two 12” dance singles that combined their interest in gospel and country music, yet these went over the heads of the London dance scene. In Italy, where Spragg and Black began singing Howlin’ Wolf songs over Marsh mixes, the idea of the band began to take shape and back in Brixton, South London, they recruited a crew of musicians to shape their vision. This, combined with brilliantly theatrical live shows, meant the band attracted a huge South London following long before they had a record deal.”
Cartwright calls Exile On Coldharbour Lane “a groundbreaking work that effortlessly fused gospel, country, blues, and house music,” a style dubbed “chemical country.” While the British press – then caught up in what Cartwright calls its “infatuation with Britpop” – tended to ignore the group, the use of “Woke Up This Morning” in The Sopranos brought some popularity in the U.S. Unfortunately, that popularity brought legal action as well, says Cartwright, as the country group Alabama sued over the group’s name, which means that in the U.S., Alabama 3 is now known as A3.
Since its odd beginnings, Alabama 3 has continued to record and release albums, the most recent being Revolver Soul, which came out last May. I’ve not listened to much of their catalog, but the group’s approach is still novel, based on both the quotes from followers cited at the group’s website and on the tag line on the ad there for Revolver Soul: “Soul Music With A Gun Against Your Head.”
Sounds like something Tony Soprano would listen to.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 32
“Follow” by Richie Havens from Mixed Bag 
“Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3517 
“Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, Warner Bros. 7710 
“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum 11034 
“Bittersweet” by Big Head Todd & the Monsters from Sister Sweetly 
“Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, Geffen International 22302 
Television brought me another great recording a few years before I first heard “Woke Up This Morning.” One Sunday evening in May 1998, the law drama The Practice closed its season-ending episode with Richie Havens’ sublime “Follow” as the backing track. I recognized the voice but not the song, and as the last scenes played out, I went to the record stacks – the total number of records was then about 1,600 – and was stunned to find no Richie Havens. I grabbed a pen and piece of paper and jotted down “Follow” – that had to be the title of the song, I assumed – and over the next few weeks, I sought out and bought several of Havens’ albums, finally finding “Follow” on Mixed Bag at the end of July. Since then, I’ve continued to buy Havens’ albums on LP and on CD, but nothing I’ve ever heard from him – and he’s one of my favorites – is as good as “Follow.”
“They smile in your face; all the time they wanna take your place: The back-stabbers!” That warning couplet, following a lush and haunting string introduction laid on a bed of spooky percussion, brought the O’Jays to the attention of the world, or at least the portion of the world that listened to Top 40 radio in 1972. Those who listened to R&B, however, had known the group since at least 1967, when “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)” went to No. 8 on the R&B Singles chart, the first of eight O’Jays records to reach that chart before “Back Stabbers” was released. Seven of those early R&B charting singles – and one that did not make the R&B chart – had also reached the Billboard Hot 100, but until “Back Stabbers” came along, none had pushed into the Top 40. From 1972 through 1980, however, the O’Jays saw nine singles reach the Top 40, while even more reached the R&B, Disco, Dance and related charts from 1972 into 2004. There’s a lot of good work in that catalog – I particularly like the gospel version of the Bob Dylan title song on 1991’s Emotionally Yours – but not many of the O’Jays records sound better than that first major hit: “What can I do to get on the right track? I wish they’d take some of these knives off my back!”
I’ve never been much of a Deep Purple fan, but there was no escaping “Smoke On The Water” during the summer of 1973, when it went to No. 4. And the record, with its iconic opening riff, is here in my Ultimate Jukebox for a time and place moment: Sometime during late July or early August of that summer, many of us who would spend the next school year in Denmark through St. Cloud State got together for a picnic at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. At one point during that evening, I was standing at the base of Minnehaha Falls – the waterfall that gives the large park its name – talking for the first time with a young woman who would turn out to be a very important part of my next nine months. Some distance away, another group of picnickers had a music source of some kind, and in that moment, those distant picnickers were listening to “Smoke On The Water.” Ever since, that opening riff puts me back at the base of Minnehaha Falls during the first tentative moments of a friendship that for a while became something else.
I wrote a while back that I thought that “Help Me” was Joni Mitchell’s best work, noting that I found much of her post-Seventies records difficult to listen to. Some readers encouraged me to try those works again, suggesting specific albums. I’ve done some of that listening, and although much of that later work is still challenging, it’s not as entirely drear as I had thought. But I still think “Help Me,” which went to No. 7 in June of 1974 (No. 1 for a week on the Adult Contemporary chart), is the best thing she ever did.
I imagine I first heard the long strummed groove of “Bittersweet” on the radio, likely Cities 97, but wherever I heard it, I liked the song by Big Head Todd & the Monsters enough that – in a time when vinyl releases were rare and I had no CD player – I went out and bought the album on cassette, a format I tended to avoid. I think it was the long slow groove of the song that pulled me in, but it’s the story in the lyrics that keeps the track – which went to No. 14 on the Mainstream Rock chart – near the top of my list of favorites. Every generation finds its own versions of universal truths and tales, and “Bittersweet” is one generation’s version of the thought that even if you get what you dreamed of, you might find that it wasn’t what you really wanted.