Posts Tagged ‘Jesse Winchester’

Saturday Single No. 672

Saturday, January 4th, 2020

Having started and discarded in extreme dissatisfaction two posts this morning (my sinus infection and needy cats have been no help at all), I’m just going to punt and do right from the top the same thing we did here two days ago as we noted that 1970 is now fifty years distant:

I’m going to sort the releases in the RealPlayer from 1970 by running time, drop the cursor in the middle, and click on random ten times.

And we fall upon “Rosy Shy,” a track from Jesse Winchester’s self-titled debut album, a work produced by Robbie Robertson of The Band. And it’s today’s Saturday Single. (I hope to have more to say come next week.)


Friday, March 11th, 2016

When we sort the 88,000 or so mp3s on the digital shelves for the direction “north” – beginning, as we do so, our “Follow the Directions” journey promised a few weeks ago – we run into several obstacles.

First of all, numerous mp3s have been tagged by their rippers over the years as “Northern Soul,” a designation that, as I’ve noted before, tends to baffle me because it’s more reliant on the reaction of the listener than it is to anything intrinsic to the music. But never mind. We’ll have to ignore those.

We also lose tunes by those performers and groups that have “north” as part of their names, like Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, a 1920s string band; the North Mississippi Allstars, a current blues ’n’ boogie band; Northern Light, the band that released “Minnesota” in 1975; Canadian singer-songwriter Tom Northcott (without intending to, I’ve gathered eleven of his recordings); and a current folky group called True North.

Then we have to cross off our list a live 1982 performance by Jesse Winchester in Northampton, Massachusetts; and almost every track from many albums, including the Freddy Jones Band’s 1995 album North Avenue Wake Up Call, the Michael Stanley Band’s North Coast (1981), Dawes’ North Hills (2014), Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman & The Raven (1971), The Band’s Northern Lights/Southern Cross (1975) and Ian & Sylvia’s Northern Journey (1964). But we still have enough to choose from to find four worthy tunes pointing us to the “N” on the compass.

Regular readers know my regard for the late Jesse Winchester, and I think I know his catalog fairly well, but every now and then, his whimsy surprises me all over again, as happened with his tune “North Star” this morning. It starts like a serene, folky meditation:

Heaven’s got this one star that don’t move none
And that’s the place you want to aim your soul
Set you on a spot that knows no season
And be satisfied just to watch old Jordan roll

And then Winchester leaps:

Now, does the world have a belly button?
I can’t get this out of my head
’Cause if it turns up in my yard
I’ll tickle it so hard
’Til the whole world will laugh to wake the dead

Surprises me every time. It’s on Winchester’s 1972 album Third Down, 110 To Go.

If the North had ever had a poet/musician laureate, for years that place would have been filled by Gordon Lightfoot, and just three of his songs would have cemented him there: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Alberta Bound.” And it seems to me that Lightfoot summed up all of his Canadian lore in one last good Northern song: “Whispers of the North” from his 1983 album Salute:

Whispers of the north
Soon I will go forth
To that wild and barren land
Where nature takes its course
Whispers of the wind
Soon I will be there again
Bound with a wild and restless drive
That pulls me from within
And we can ride away
We can glide all day
And we can fly away

Back in the late 1980s, a ladyfriend and I included Lightfoot on our list of essential musicians; even so, I’ve never been driven to pull together a complete Lightfoot collection, as I’ve done with Bob Dylan (with the exception of his Christmas album). The urgency wasn’t there, I guess, although the shelves – both wooden and digital – hold plenty of Lightfoot. And “Whispers of the North,” though it might not rank with the other three Canadian anthems I mentioned above, is pretty high on my list. The loon call at the start doesn’t hurt, of course.

The song that shows up most frequently – twenty-two times – in my sorting of “north” is Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.” Beyond five versions by Dylan himself and four by Leon Russell (one of those with Joe Cocker and one with the Tedeschi Trucks Band), I have versions by the Country Gentlemen, Hamilton Camp, Howard Tate, Margo Timmins, Rosanne Cash, Mylon Lefevre, Jimmy LaFave, Leo Kottke and several other folks, including the previously mentioned Tom Northcott. A Vancouver native, Northcott had several charting singles in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s and got into the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. once, when his cover of Harry Nilsson’s “1941” went to No. 88 in early 1968. (A cover of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street” had bubbled under at No. 123 during the summer of 1967.) His pleasant take on “Girl From the North Country” went to No. 65 on the Canadian charts in 1968.

And we end today with “Lady Of The North” by Gene Clark, the closer to his 1974 album No Other. According to the tales told at Wikipedia, Clark – after some years of indulgence – was sober when wrote the bulk of the album’s songs at his home in Mendocino, California. After heading to Los Angeles to record, though, he more than dabbled in cocaine, and his wife, Carlie, took the couple’s children back to Northern California. Whether it was a direct response, I’m not certain, but Clark, with help from Doug Dillard, wrote “Lady Of The North” for Carlie and used it as the album’s closer. Wikipedia notes that the album was a “critical and commercial failure,” that the time and resources used to record were “seen as excessive and indulgent,” and that Asylum did little to promote the album. Two CD releases of the album in recent years have been met with better critical and commercial response.

Saturday Single No. 448

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

We’re going to play some games with numbers this morning, digging into some Billboard Hot 100s from a twenty-year span in search of a Saturday single. We’ll take today’s date – 5-23-15 – and add that up to 43, and then we’ll check out No. 43 in the Hot 100s for May 23 in the years 1987, 1981, 1976, 1972, 1969 and 1967.

Why, some may ask, are we beginning this in 1987, a year that rarely shows up here musically? (And many may not care.) Because May 23, 1987, was one of those dividing days, a day during which my life changed dramatically. First, and of lesser importance, it was the day that effectively ended my adjunct teaching time at St. Cloud State. I spent a good portion of the day sipping coffee in a St. Cloud restaurant, figuring out final grades for the students in my visual communications class. And then, that evening, I went to a friend’s party, where I met someone. By the time I drove home to Monticello in the early hours of May 24, my life had changed.

So off we go, starting with the Hot 100 released on May 23, 1987, where No. 43 was “Sweet Sixteen” by Billy Idol. More mellow and restrained than most of Idol’s charting work, the record was on its way up to No. 20. It’s catchy and sweet, but for some reason, the record unnerves me. I guess I’ve always had the sense that underneath the veneer of love, there’s an obsession for the young lady that might eventually find itself expressed in less-than-acceptable ways.

And in 1981, we fall directly on May 23 once more, and we find that the No. 43 record that week was “Say What,” by Jesse Winchester. The jaunty record was rising in the chart, heading for a peak of No. 32 (No. 12 on the Adult Contemporary chart), which would make it the only Top 40 hit in the long and mellow career of the late singer-songwriter. Running into “Say What,” which is a pretty good single, might be a sign, given my long-running affection for Winchester and his work, or it might just be a coincidence.

Things rock a little more when we go back to May 22, 1976, as we find “Crazy On You” by Heart sitting at No. 43. The first charting single for the Wilson sisters and their friends, “Crazy On You” was heading toward its peak at No. 35. (The Mushroom label reissued the single in 1977 after Heart had moved to the Portrait label on its eventual way to Epic; the reissued single went only to No. 52.) For some reason, I whiffed at the time on “Crazy On You” and its summertime follow-up, “Magic Man,” not catching on to Heart until “Dreamboat Annie” during the winter of 1976-77. I’ve since made up for that whiff.

And a decent bit of Stax soul greets us as we dig into the Hot 100 from May 20, 1972, when the No. 43 record was “I’ve Been Lonely For So Long” by Frederick Knight of Birmingham, Alabama. The record would peak at No. 27 (No. 8, R&B), giving Knight his only Top 40 hit. As I said, it’s a decent record, but the low bass parts contrast with the falsetto to make it sound – at some points, anyway – a little bit like a novelty.

And as we head back another three years, we go from an R&B singer with one Top 40 hit to a classic pop singer with twenty-seven Top 40 hits: “Seattle” by Perry Como was parked at No. 43 in the Hot 100 that was in play during this week in 1969. “Seattle” wouldn’t head too much higher; it would peak at No. 38 (No. 2, AC), but the song is etched deeply into my memory: One of Rick and Rob’s sisters was a big fan of the song and of the television series Here Come The Brides, which used the song as its theme, and I heard the record frequently when I was at their house. (According to Wikipedia, however, neither Como’s version nor the version recorded by Bobby Sherman – who starred in the show – was ever used on the show; when lyrics were added to the theme during the show’s first season, they were sung by “The New Establishment,” which one would guess was a group of studio singers.)

We finish our trek back today with a stop in the third week of May 1967, when the No. 43 record was “Melancholy Music Man” by the Righteous Brothers. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard the record until this morning, and it sounds like – a little more than a year after “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” went to No. 1 – Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield were throwing anything at the wall, as long as it had a Spectorish backing and some call-and-response vocals, to see what would stick. Well, “Melancholy Music Man” didn’t stick, as it moved no higher than No. 43. And I understand its failure: The record sounds like a mess.

So, with six candidates, where do we go? Well, long-time readers will know that as soon as Jesse Winchester showed up, anything that came after would have to be better than good to alter the outcome of today’s contest. And although I like “Seattle,” it’s just not good enough. That means that “Say What” by Jesse Winchester, is today’s Saturday Single.

(The video above uses the version of the tune from the album Talk Memphis. Whether it’s the same as the single, I don’t know.)

Jesse Winchester, 1944-2014

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

The broad outlines of Jesse Winchester’s life and work are pretty well known:

Born in Louisiana in 1944, raised in Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. Grew up playing music. Moved to Montreal after receiving a military draft notice in 1967. Met musicians there, including Robbie Robertson of The Band, who produced Winchester’s 1970 self-titled debut album. Became a Canadian citizen. Continued to record regularly into the early 1980s and performed regularly and recorded occasionally since. Moved back to the U.S. in 2002, settling in Virginia. Passed away last Friday, April 11, 2014.

In my brief post about Jesse Winchester Saturday, I wrote: “While regret and loss are part of any songwriter’s toolkit, they were perhaps sharper in Winchester’s toolbox than in the kits of most other songwriters.”

And where did those senses of regret and loss come from? Well, just as in literature, sense of place and a resulting appreciation of home are among the main themes of song, whether one is at home, going home or displaced from home. And in Jesse Winchester’s music I hear displacement – with those resulting senses of regret and loss – as a constant current. Part of that might simply have been his demeanor. A good portion of it is likely something Southern. And the largest part of that presence came, I would guess, from his status as an exile from his homeland.

Whatever the sources, that current runs true from his self-titled debut in 1970 to his last album, Love Filling Station, which was released in 2009. Here’s maybe the most overt expression of that displacement, “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind,” from the 1974 album, Learn To Love It.

For me, it was Winchester’s second album, Third Down, 110 To Go, that introduced me to his music. I remember liking the album a great deal when I heard it across the street at Rick and Rob’s house one evening in 1972. I thought I should maybe get my own copy, but I had other music in my sights at the time. Then Rob moved to Colorado, I went away for a while, and I saw the two brothers only sporadically for a few years. And I forgot about Jesse Winchester until the early 1990s when one of my twice-weekly stops at Cheapo’s brought me a vinyl copy of Winchester’s 1970 debut album. When I saw it and as it played it on my turntable, I thought about Third Down, 110 To Go and began to look for it and Winchester’s other work.

By early 1999, I had good copies of everything he’d recorded up through 1981’s Talk Memphis. I’ve since added his three last studio albums (but none of the several live albums). And listening to his work as a whole – as I have for a few hours over the course of the past weekend – I’m struck even more strongly by those qualities of regret and loss that seem to underlie even the lighter and sometimes humorous songs. (As an example, listen to “Snow” from 1970’s Jesse Winchester, which to me asks “How did I come to live in a place so different from my home?”)

Winchester might in the end be better remembered as a songwriter. There’s a long list at Wikipedia of folks who’ve recorded his work. And some of those covers are impressive. That especially holds true for the work on the 2012 album Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, which includes covers from Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill and others. But as good as those versions are – and I do enjoy Quiet About It – it’s hard to surpass Winchester’s versions of his own songs.

And we’ll close today with the gentle and lovely “Eulalie” from Winchester’s last album, the 2009 release Love Filling Station.

Saturday Single No. 388

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Jesse Winchester, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, passed on yesterday morning at his home in Virginia. He was 69. Rumors of his death had been flitting around Facebook and other social media sites for about a week, and yesterday they came true.

I’ll write a bit more about Winchester and his music early next week; things are a bit rushed this morning, and I want to let the mud settle down in the water before I write about someone whose music I enjoyed as much as I did his. But I also wanted to note his passing.

While regret and loss are part of any songwriter’s toolkit, they were perhaps sharper in Winchester’s toolbox than in the kits of most other songwriters. That’s evident in the melancholy strains of “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” from Winchester’s self-titled 1970 album, released after he left the U.S. for Canada as a draft resister.

Oh my, but you have a pretty face
You favor I girl that I knew
I imagine that she’s back in Tennessee
And by God, I should be there too
I’ve a sadness too sad to be true

But I left Tennessee in a hurry dear
In same way that I’m leaving you
Because love is mainly just memories
And everyone’s got him a few
So when I’m gone I’ll be glad to love you

At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air
At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
There’s no telling who will be there

When I leave it will be like I found you, love
Descending Victorian stairs
And I’m feeling like one of your photographs, girl
Trapped while I’m putting on airs
Getting even by saying, Who cares

At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air
At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
There’s no telling who will be there

So have all your passionate violins
Play a tune for a Tennessee kid
Who’s feeling like leaving another town
But with no place to go if he did
Cause they’ll catch you wherever you’re hid

At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
You’re literally waltzing on air
At the Brand New Tennessee Waltz
There’s no telling who will be there

And “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” by Jesse Winchester is today’s Saturday Single.

What Was That Song?

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

While I was writing earlier this week about spending Sunday evening at a Peter Yarrow performance (and sing-along), one of the songs Yarrow offered was running through my head. But since I wasn’t sure what it was, I didn’t mention it in the post.

Nor did I mention one of the nicer things about the show. During a twenty-minute intermission, Yarrow took song requests from members of the audience. He said as the first half of the show ended that he wouldn’t be able to perform them all, but with only a few exceptions, the second half of the show would be all requests. (The exceptions he mentioned were “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “If I Had A Hammer” and “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and I thought, “Yeah, like no one would request any of those . . .”)

Anyway, as he left the stage, I talked with him briefly and made my request. A while back, while looking for a CD of Yarrow’s 1972 solo album, Peter, I came across the last track from the album, and “Tall Pine Trees” was, for a few days, playing pretty regularly in the Echoes In The Wind studios. He nodded and smiled and said he’d see what he could do.

Twenty minutes later, as the second half of the show began, Yarrow held up a sheet of typing paper covered with scrawled titles and began to share the list of requests. “Well, for the first time ever, someone requested ‘Tall Pine Trees’,” he said. “And someone mentioned ‘Too Much Of Nothing’, and that one almost never gets requested.” He shook his head in mock bafflement, and the audience laughed.

As I expected, he did not perform “Tall Pine Trees,” but midway through the second portion of the show, he looked at the list of requests and said, “Let’s do ‘Too Much Of Nothing’, but let’s combine it with something else.” And he took off into a song that I knew I’d heard but that I couldn’t place, and after that song’s chorus came up – “Line of least resistance, lead me on” – he (and his son) would toss in the chorus of “Too Much Of Nothing.” It was a great combination, but the source of that vaguely familiar first part of the medley puzzled me.

Still puzzled Tuesday morning after writing that day’s post, I began to dig, and I soon learned that Yarrow and folksinger Chris Chandler had recorded a track titled “Isn’t That So/Too Much Of Nothing/Whoop” for Chandler’s 1999 album, Collaborations. I listened to an excerpt of the track and nodded in recognition. I didn’t care for Chandler’s (I’m assuming) spoken wisecracks during the track, so I didn’t buy it. But now I had a title for that vaguely familiar song. So I searched my own collection, and I found “Isn’t That So” as the first track of Jesse Winchester’s 1972 album, Third Down, 110 To Go.

If I were a tech wizard, I’d combine that track with the choruses from Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1968 take on “Too Much Of Nothing” from their Late Again album. That’s not going to happen, but here’s “Too Much Of Nothing”

And finally, yesterday I found a listing at Amazon for a box set of Peter, Paul & Mary’s 1972 solo recordings – Peter, Paul & and Mary – but I’m not ready to shell out sixty bucks for a used copy. I imagine that sometime soon, I’ll buy the three albums as mp3 downloads (the price is much more reasonable). But until then, I do have the closer to Yarrow’s album, the Russian-influenced “Tall Pine Trees.”

Revisiting Jesse Winchester’s ‘Biloxi’

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

In February of 2007, I wrote about Jesse Winchester and my favorite among his songs. Here, updated and revised slightly, is what I said:

One of the great themes of popular music – from the pre-recording days when music’s popularity was measured only by sales of sheet music, through the entire Twentieth Century to today – is displacement. From the day in 1853 when Stephen Foster – America’s first popular songwriter – wrote “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” American musicians and listeners have celebrated places dear to them, often longing for those places and grieving their separations from them.

The separation need not be physical: Time pulls us away, too, as places change and we ourselves are altered by the turning of the calendar. Joe South’s 1969 lament, “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” mourned the changes brought to his home place – and by extension, the entire south – by the so-called progress of that decade, which replaced orchards with offices and meadows with malls (and the orchards and meadows continue to disappear to this day, of course, not just in the south but all across the country).

The era during which Joe South sang – those volatile years from, say, 1965 to 1975 – was one of displacement for a lot of folks. Many of those who were displaced, of course, had not one bit of use for rock or soul or any of their relatives; they instead found their solace in gospel music or in the country stylings of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and their contemporaries. But the sense of longing wasn’t limited by genre. It’s not an accident that one of the better singles of the Beatles, the best group of the time – or any time, for that matter – told us all to get back to where we once belonged. We all wanted to go home.

One of those who couldn’t go home was Jesse Winchester, a native of Memphis who’d left the U.S. for Canada in 1967 instead of reporting for military service (and most likely an assignment to the war zone in Vietnam) when he got his draft notice. Living in Montreal in 1969, he met Robbie Robertson of The Band – himself a Canadian, of course, like three of the other four members of The Band. Robertson produced and played guitar on Winchester’s first album, Jesse Winchester, and brought along his band-mate Levon Helm to play drums and mandolin. The record, says All-Music Guide, “was timely: it spoke to a disaffected American generation that sympathized with Winchester’s pacifism. But it was also timeless: the songs revealed a powerful writing talent (recognized by the numerous artists who covered them), and Winchester’s gentle vocals made a wonderful vehicle for delivering them.”

Winchester, of course, was unable to perform in the U.S. to promote either the record or his career, and thus never was able to capture the attention of the listening and buying public as well as he likely deserved. He recorded four more albums in Canada until an amnesty proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 allowed him to return to the U.S. He’s recorded sporadically since then but has been an active performer, with several recent live albums preceding last year’s studio album, Love Filling Station.

Among all of Winchester’s fine songs, I find my favorite to be “Biloxi” from that first, self-titled album. Winchester’s back story comes along when I hear it, and regrets and longing linger under the gentle vocal as Winchester seems to recall the joy and solace he once found in a place he might never be able to see again. And all of that is why “Biloxi” belongs in the Ultimate Jukebox.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 10
“Question” by the Moody Blues, Threshold 67004 [1970]
“Biloxi” by Jesse Winchester from Jesse Winchester [1970]
“All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, Columbia 45673 [1972]
“Oh, Babe, What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith, Capitol 3383 [1972]
“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, Geffen 49824 [1981]
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, Elektra 96412 [1988]

“Question” was my introduction to the Moody Blues. I think that introduction took place across the street at Rick’s, when he and Rob shared some albums Rob had borrowed from a friend. One of those albums was A Question of Balance. I was entranced by the group’s sound and the songs’ content: These guys were singing about the same kinds of questions I was grappling with at the time. I’ll acknowledge that the lyrical content of some of the Moodys’ albums has not aged well, though the songs on A Question of Balance do not seem now as overcooked as do many of those on the other albums. And “Question” – which went to No. 21 during the spring and early summer of 1970 – still sounds good today, although I’m not sure if that’s a matter of the song’s maturity or of my carrying inside me a perpetual sixteen-year-old. Over the years, on oldies radio, the album version – with the (synthesized?) horns calling out during the introduction – has pretty much driven the simple strummed guitar introduction of the single edit out of circulation. The version I found at YouTube seems to be a hybrid: it has the single’s introduction but runs longer – by my reading – than the single edit ever did.

None of the kids I was hanging around with during the autumn of 1972 were listening to Mott the Hoople, so neither was I. But when “All the Young Dudes” began to push itself out of the radio speakers from time to time that November – the record spent just three weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 37 – I put the band on my list of music to check out. It took me years to get there, having detoured figuratively through Muscle Shoals and Macon, Georgia, but the crunchy chords of “Dudes” remained fresh over the years, even as the glam poses of Ian Hunter and his band got very old. I never thought the record was all that much a tribute to glam rock, anyway, no matter what David Bowie might have had in mind when he wrote the song. And this morning, I read Mark Deming’s review of the song at All-Music Guide: “In Bowie’s version, there seems to be a vague, under-the-radar suggestion that the ‘dudes’ in question were rent boys or glammed-out fashion victims, but Hunter’s vocals (buoyed by Mick Ralphs’ soaring lead guitar and Verden Allen’s superbly sympathetic organ swells) turned the song into an anthem for the guys on the corner, sticking by each other through the ups and downs of their lives.” Sounds about right to me.

Sometimes a hit record comes along that is so utterly out of step with current trends that I imagine some listeners assume that its popularity is a joke or an ironic comment. So there likely were folks out there in radioland as 1972 turned into 1973 who were chuckling or raising irony-laced eyebrows every time Hurricane Smith came out of the speakers singing “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” The faux Twenties/Thirties backing track, the pinched and sometimes awkward vocal and the guileless and romantic lyrics made the record unlike anything around it in the Top 40. (When “Oh Babe” reached its peak at No. 3 during February 1973, it was bracketed by Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weisberg and Steve Mandell, which itself was unlike anything else in the Top 40, of course.) As is well known now, the singer’s real name was Norman Smith, and he’d been an engineer and producer for EMI in England, working with – among many others – the Beatles and Pink Floyd. “Oh Babe” was his only hit in the U.S. although he had better success in the U.K., where eccentricity sells better, I guess. Eccentric or not, when “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” comes out of the speakers when I’m around, it’s greeted with a smile that hasn’t the faintest trace of irony.

Given my general disinterest in music from the 1980s – it wasn’t as awful as I thought it was at the time, but I still don’t think it was as good as recent waves of Gen X nostalgia have posited – I wondered as I trimmed my list of songs how many tunes from that decade would end up in my metaphorical jukebox. As I detailed in an earlier post, twenty-two songs from the Eighties survived the trimming. Two of them are in this grouping, and they were selected for diametrically opposite reasons, one for sound and the other for story. From the opening sax riff by Rindy Ross through her vocals to the end of the song, “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash just sounds good. The lyrics tell a universal tale, the songs lopes along, Ross’ vocals are believeable and, best of all, that sax riff is one of the greatest of all time. At the time the song was on the charts – it went to No. 3 during a nineteen-week stay after entering the Top 40 during early November 1981 – I wasn’t listening to a lot of Top 40, but “Harden My Heart” was inescapable. The radio station I listened to most often at home in those days was more focused on what I think was called adult contemporary, and Quarterflash was there, too.

By the time the end of the Eighties was drawing near, I was listening to newer music again, and when Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” hit the charts during the summer of 1988, I was fascinated by the record. It’s a no-frills recording: a simple acoustic guitar riff most of the way through with the drums and bass blowing in for the choruses. But it makes my list for its story, with its detail-studded portrait of a life on the fringes of American society, a life spent working in the check-out lane where the big house in the suburbs is unattainable, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether fate or frailty creates the barriers. “Fast Car” went to No. 6, and I sometimes wonder which reaction to the record was more prevalent among those who helped it get that high in the chart:  Was it “My God, that’s my life she’s singing about”? Or was it “Thank God that’s not my life she’s singing about”?

Saturday Single No. 175

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

I had several glimmering ideas last evening of what to do for a single today; they came and went like quiet observers as I unboxed a new computer, set it up and went about the task of installing all the programs I use from day to day. That task is nearly done. I have a few programs left to install, and I will have to spend some time today talking to someone in India to find out why my email program demands a password that I evidently do not remember.

So instead of trying to remember the intriguing ideas that came and went as I connected cords and clicked “Install” buttons last evening and early this morning, I thought I’d just use a tool that’s been used here before: A random twelve song click-through of my mp3 files, with the thirteenth song being today’s tune. (Will I edit for weirdness? Not today. I’ll use the time frame of 1950-2009 – moving nearer to the present by ten years than I usually do – and of course, I will skip over anything planned for the Ultimate Jukebox. And given that this is the first random sort since the RealPlayer’s new installation, it might have pulled in things that were in the files but were not intended for play; those will be skipped, too.)

So I’ve sorted the 43,700 mp3s by running time, and I’ve placed the cursor as close as I can to the middle of that list. Here we go!

The first click takes us to 1982 and “Gypsy” from Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, a good and popular tune from a good and popular album: A single version of “Gypsy” reached No. 12, and Mirage spent five weeks at the top of the album chart.

Our next stop is “Astahel,” a Lebanese tune that’s quite nice: a female vocal (by Nabiha Yazbeck), a few woodwindy instruments, guitar and rudimentary drums. The song has – not altogether surprisingly – the feel of a Mediterranean-Arabian hybrid. It’s from one of the omnipresent Putumayo collections, this one Sahara Lounge from 2004. I have no idea what Yazbeck is singing, but it’s pleasant listening.

From there, on to “Why,” a short helping of rock ’n’ soul slathered with echo from 1971, courtesy of Booker T. and  Priscilla Jones. “Why” came from Booker T. & Priscilla, the album the two performers recorded to celebrate their marriage. All-Music Guide says the two-LP album wasn’t bad, just over-long: “Cherry-picked and taken in smaller doses, which one can do now with a CD (but this is on vinyl and cassette), you could take the LP’s bitter with the sweet better. But constantly lifting the turntable arm to move to a different song gets old quick; just laying back and letting it roll isn’t the answer either. Nice singing, good tracks, but nothing to get up and boogie about. You keep waiting for the blockbuster that never comes.”

Our fourth stop this morning is “L.A. Woman,” the title tune from the last Doors’ album released during Jim Morrison’s life. It’s bluesy and gruff and feels to me – as it always has – as if it’s a song studded with sharp edges. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s a sense of the song I’ve had since I first heard it in someone’s dorm room long ago. The album was the last of seven Doors’ albums to reach the Top Ten; it went to No. 9 in the spring and summer of 1971.

Next comes “Trouble’s A Comin’” by the Chi-Lites, an album track from (For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People. It’s not particularly interesting, which is why, one supposes, it was left home from the singles dance in 1971 while its clearly superior neighbors – “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” and “Have You Seen Her” – jumped into the Top 40 (Nos. 26 and 3, respectively).

Our sixth click moves us ahead one year and west, from 1971 to 1972 and from Chicago to San Francisco,  for “Momotombo,” a track from Malo’s second album, Dos. I’ve noted here before my appreciation for Malo and several similar bands from the same time, and I like “Momotombo” a fair amount. It wasn’t a hit. “Suavecito,” which went to No. 18 in the spring of 1972, was Malo’s only hit. But it’s a nice nugget for a Saturday morning sequence.

Then comes “Listening Wind” from the Talking Heads’ 1980 album, Remain In Light. I wrote not all that long ago about not “getting” the Talking Heads. I’ve listened some more since then, and – though I still acknowledge the vision and artistry – the overall body of work still baffles me, though perhaps a little less than it has in the past. (Odd, the imaginary musichead who sits on my shoulders along with his twin, Pop, loves the Talking Heads and says that I should practice total immersion: an mp3 disc with nothing but the Heads played over and over for a week. Umm.) “Listening Wind” is a moody and atmospheric piece that – adjacent to Malo’s piece in this sequence – actually works quite nicely this morning. (Why do I think that the first disc burned on my new computer will be Odd’s work: All Talking Heads?)

The Texas Gal and I have seen the Wailin’ Jennys perform twice here in St. Cloud, and both times they sang “Deeper Well,” a selection from their 2001 EP, Wailin’ Jennys. The song’s tagline, I think, provides a good metaphor for the Jennys and their acoustic and choral journey: “Lookin’ for the water from a deeper well,” the place where few others’ musical buckets have reached. And “Deeper Well” is stop No. 8 this morning.

Larry Long is a Minnesota-based singer/songwriter who’s showed up here at least once, when I shared a couple of tracks from his 1981 album, Living In A Rich Man’s World. Today’s ninth track, the story song “Timber Of Love,” comes from the same album. I have to note that I’ve not listened to the album extensively, but whenever I lay it on the turntable or drop the recently acquired CD into the player, I enjoy it.

The first Steely Dan album I owned was Pretzel Logic, which I bought for the sake of “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” a song that became a talisman of survival and freedom in the long-ago summer of 1974, when I was recovering from a lung ailment. As much as I liked “Rikki,” however, I found when I finally had the LP – a couple of years later – that there were other songs I liked just as well. And one of them pops up this morning: “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” and it puts a gentle bobbing to my head as I write this. (There’s an extra resonance to the song these days, of course, as “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” was the inspiration for the blog Any Major Dude With Half A Heart, whose proprietor stops by here regularly and frequently leaves comments, as I do at his house.)

Our eleventh stop this morning is “Angel Eyes,” the gorgeous track from 1989 by the Jeff Healey Band. Buttressed by the late Healey’s sometimes-stunning guitar work and his earnest vocals, the record went to No. 5 during the summer of 1989. This record was one of the last ones trimmed from the Ultimate Jukebox before I decided I could trim no more, so it’s obviously one of my favorites.

One more stop before we find today’s big winner, and No. 12 for this morning is “San Diego Serenade” by Nanci Griffith from her 1991 album, Late Night Grande Hotel. A slow and meditative piece from the pen of TomWaits, the song has nothing more than emotional weariness at its core, and Griffith finds the voice to bring that weariness through the speakers. I do have one quibble: The background string section is a bit off-putting. For me, the filigree diminishes rather than enhances the vacancy at the center of the song. The album, one of Griffith’s best, languished in the charts, reaching No. 185 on the Billboard 200.

That brings us around the bend and onto the home stretch. And we find a tune from a singer/songwriter who’s showed up here before: Jesse Winchester, whose work I’ve liked a great deal for many years. (One of his recordings will eventually show up in the Ultimate Jukebox series.) All-Music Guide says that Winchester’s 1976 album, Let the Rough Side Drag, “with its accomplished mixture of country and R&B, was Winchester’s most accessible album so far, even if it was his least ambitious.” That’s sounds about right, but the album is enjoyable, as is the song “Blow On, Chilly Wind,” today’s Saturday Single.

“Blow On, Chilly Wind” by Jesse Winchester from Let the Rough Side Drag [1976]

(Incorrect name changed since original posting.)