The G Word

With apologies to all those who think Eminem is a genius, I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. A guy in a hoodie and oversized pants who is wealthy beyond belief pacing around the stage, gesturing with his hands and yelling angry words into the microphone, most of which are unintelligible and the rest of which are bleeped out by TV censors. What’s genius about that? I wonder, if your message is so (bleeping) important and urgent, then why not try to make it (bleeping) understandable to those of us who don’t really listen to a lot of rap or hip-hop.

I realize I sound like a fogey, but I don’t care. First, I bristle at the overuse of the word genius. Like so many words we encounter in the language of pop culture writing – masterpiece, maverick, renegade, dangerous, etc – genius has completely lost its currency by overuse. Nikola Tesla was a genius. George Gershwin was a genius. Miles Davis was a genius. Eminem is not one. To be fair, he’s obviously able to rhyme with a fluid and complex ability, and if it’s not a pose, he seems passionate about whatever it is he’s saying. And he’s savvy on how to market himself. But to me, a genius is someone whose ideas and art completely transform and elevate the world. Hip-hop and rap have transformed the world, no doubt. But to my ears, I don’t hear any elevation. The opposite, really. No melody. No spirituality. No humanity. It’s also clear to me that since rap’s beginnings in the ‘80s, the genre has calcified into what sounds and looks like an endless recycled parody of itself. If anything, rap has led popular music straight into a cul-de-sac of boring repetition.

Just wanted to get that off my chest, as a response to the many tweets I saw during last night’s Grammy Awards broadcast about Eminem being a (bleeping) genius. Ugh. It’s not really what I wanted to write about today anyway . . . But since I’m on the subject of anger and (here come two other overused words) edginess and darkness in music, let me say that as time goes on, I have less patience and use for those things. I think that’s for young people (and rock critics) who haven’t experienced life yet. Life is already scary and dark enough without having to seek out extra doses in music. Once you’ve been fired from a job, had your heart broken nineteen different ways, had your house burn down, lost friends and loved ones to cancer and suicide and old age, and generally come to see how tedious and miserable and disappointing our existence tends to be most of the time, then can you be blamed for seeking a little consolation? A little uplift, beauty and cheer now and then?

If I’m having a crappy day, I think I’d rather hear Marshall Crenshaw’s “Whenever You’re On My Mind” than The Cure’s “The Drowning Man,” thank you.

Posted in Diary | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Songs As Puzzles

The writer Dave Eggers says that one of the reasons we listen to songs over and over is to figure them out. The implicit comment there is that once we solve the puzzle of a song, it will start to lose its mysterious hold over us. For a lot of pop songs, that’s true. The average tune is only three or four minutes long, after all. How much mystery and puzzlement could it hold on to after months, or years, or decades, of continuous play?

I’ve been thinking about Eggers’ idea lately. First, because I’ve been separated from my very large record and CD collection for five months now. After the fire at the condo, most of my possessions were taken away to be cleaned, disinfected, and de-smoked, and they now reside in a large metal pod container in a parking lot about half an hour outside of Nashville. It’s too sad to dwell on that thought for very long. Most of my possessions I haven’t missed all that much. But my records, I have. Not a day goes by when I don’t wish I had a particular title. Something Else by The Kinks, Toby by The Chi-Lites, the soundtrack of Sunday In The Park With George. I have almost 2500 songs on my iTunes, but it’s not the same as having my entire record collection. Also, I had (have) a vintage Marantz receiver, a high-end NAD CD player and good Ohm speakers, all to convey the music with warmth and air. No matter how much you love a song, it just doesn’t sound all that great coming out of an iMac.

Second, because I’m a fortysomething person, and I have more frequent thoughts of mortality, part of that is considering what music I’d like to listen to in the time I have left. If Eggers is right, I’ve solved the puzzles of many songs that have brought me pleasure over the years, and probably don’t need to hear them anymore. Let me glance at my iTunes for a random selection. “You Are The Girl” By The Cars, “Oblivious” by Aztec Camera, “Everybody’s Out Of Town” by B.J. Thomas (an uncharacteristically dark, apocalyptic lyric from Hal David and a song I need to blog about), “Bluebeard” by Band Of Horses, “You Keep It All In” by the Beautiful South. . . haven’t I listened to these songs enough to know their intimate secrets? Probably. But I can’t deny that at the right moment, in the right setting, they can still bring me pleasure, and I’m not ready to delete them, or sell them off from my collection. For example, that Cars song. There’s a lot of pleasure for me in just hearing Ric Ocasek’s voice. His cool, nasally sound. It’s like an old friend. And Eliott Easton’s feisty, melodic guitar solos always tweak my love for the instrument. I might be the only person I know who is genuinely excited that the Cars are releasing a new album this spring, their first in over twenty years.

I think that when I’m finally reunited with my record collection, I may see certain titles with a clearer, colder eye, and that certain titles may end up at one of the local second-hand shops. That’s okay. Maybe they can become new puzzles for new listeners. In the meantime, it’s exciting to know that there are still so many artists I haven’t explored, new and old. Did you ever hear “3 O’ Clock Flamingo Street” by the Bachelors? That’s an old record that I discovered lately. It’s like a poppy take on Morricone western themes, weird and dense, with a lyric that puts me in mind of those lonely paintings by Dichirico. I haven’t solved it yet. Or to choose something new, how about “I Wanna Go To Marz” by John Grant? Grant’s Queen Of Denmark album is great start to finish, but that song in particular, has had a strange hold over me for months. I wish I hadn’t read an interview with Grant where he explains that the imagery in the lyric is related to a candy store that was a favorite of his as a kid. It kind of took some of the mystery out of it for me.

And I’m ashamed – and delighted – to admit that I’ve never heard Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. Surely, there are beautiful puzzles there to be solved.

Posted in Diary | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“Bridge Over Troubled Water”

The 40th Anniversary Edition of Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is coming out in a few weeks. It includes a DVD with a wonderful documentary about the making of the album. Here’s a piece I wrote for Classic Rock about the title song:

Spring 1969. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were gone. Racial tensions were erupting across the country. The war was raging in Vietnam. And Richard Nixon was in the White House.

What was a sensitive singer-songwriter like Paul Simon to do but dig for some deep words of solace? As he gazed out the window of his New York apartment across the East River, he sang the opening lines he’d had for over a week. “When you’re weary, feeling small . . . When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all.” He especially liked how the melody to the second couplet echoed one of his favorite Bach chorales.

But after that promising start, there was only the sound of silence.

“I was stuck for a while,” Simon admits. “Everywhere I went led to somewhere I didn’t want to be.”

What ultimately inspired him to finish his “humble little gospel song” was an album by southern gospel group The Swan Silvertones.

“Every time I came home, I put that record on, so it was in my mind,” Simon says. “I started to go to gospel chord changes, and took the melody further. Then there was one song where the lead singer was scatting, and he shouted out, ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.’

“And well,” Simon says. “I guess I stole it, actually.”

Simon couldn’t wait to play his new song for Art Garfunkel. With its sweeping melody and sustained high notes, it would be perfect for his partner’s choirboy-pure voice. Or so he thought.

“He didn’t want to sing it,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1973. “He couldn’t hear it for himself. He felt I should have done it. And many times, I think I’m sorry I didn’t do it.”

Today, Garfunkel remembers it differently. “When Paul showed me Bridge Over Troubled Water, he did say it was for me. And I loved the song immediately. My way of saying thank you was, ‘Are you sure? Because you sound lovely singing it, and it’s almost like you could do it . . .’ Now the famous story is that he took offense and that became a thorn between us, as if I was rejecting the song. That’s nonsense. I don’t remember him having a hard time with my grace. He said, ‘No, I wrote it for you.’ I said, ‘Thank you, man,’ and got into singing it.”

Within a week, the duo was in CBS Studios in Hollywood, huddled around a piano with session ace Larry Knechtel, chiseling out the finer points of the arrangement. But it soon became apparent that Simon’s two-verse song wasn’t quite finished.

Garfunkel: “It was supposed to end with the second verse, but there seemed to be a promise of what could be if Paul were to extend the song. The whole production could open up, and we could make a record with real size.

“We modeled it after the Righteous Brothers’ Ol’ Man River,’” he continues, “where Phil Spector holds back his production until the last line. What a neat thing to save it, save it, save it, then give ‘em the kitchen sink!”

Simon wrote a third verse (“You could clearly see it was written afterwards,” he says), making room for a kitchen sink that included two bass parts, vibraphone, a string arrangement (“A bit stock but it does the job,” Garfunkel says) and a thundering beat, courtesy of Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine.

Blaine recalls, “The image I got when I heard the song was a black man in a chain gang. So I went out to my car, got my chains from my snow tires, and overdubbed the ending section. I was on my knees in front of the snare, pulling the tire chains across the head, and slapping them down on two and four. It created a cool after-beat.”

With the instrumental track done, Garfunkel spent a week perfecting his vocal. “The last verse I nailed because of the thrill of pole-vaulting over the high notes. Getting the middle verse was pretty easy too. But the first verse, in its delicacy, was the devil’s business. That took a lot of sessions.”

Two weeks in the making, Bridge was a dynamic tour-de-force, swelling from a cathedral hush to a deeply moving finale which left all who heard it teary-eyed. It was also five minutes long, which guaranteed no radio play. But Columbia Records honcho Clive Davis declared, “It’s the first single, first track and title of the album.”

“I’m eternally grateful for his belief in the song,” Garfunkel says.

The duo’s biggest hit, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” spent six weeks at #1 in the US (three weeks in the UK). It swept the Grammys in 1971, claiming six awards, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. A standard that’s been translated into many languages, it’s been covered by hundreds of artists, including Johnny Cash, Annie Lennox, The Shadows, Bonnie Tyler and most recently, as part of the Hope For Haiti benefit, by Mary J. Blige and Andrea Bocelli.

Ironically, this song of fellowship contributed to Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup in 1971. As Simon said, “Many times on stage, when I’d be sitting off to the side . . . and Artie would be singing it, people would stomp and cheer when it was over, and I would think, ‘That’s my song, man. Thank you very much. I wrote that.’ In the earlier days, when things were smoother I never would have thought that, but towards the end when things were strained, I did. It’s not a very generous thing to think, but I did think that.”

Garfunkel says, “We’re strong in our musical opinions, and we’ve had lots of differences, but we’ve remained pretty damned gentlemanly all the way. These stories about how much we didn’t make harmony always make me laugh, because I think, ‘Isn’t the obvious thing about Simon and Garfunkel that they really made harmony very closely?’”

As the duo reunite again this year for what may be their final tour, Bridge Over Troubled Water will close every show with a blast of harmonic love.

“I’ve sung it six million four hundred thousand times,” Garfunkel says, “and every time, I get a little visitation of the power of a great song. To say, ‘Whoever you are, if you need some solace, I will try to be a moment of sweetness for you.’ This kills me. To be the lucky one to express that. It moves me every damned time.”

==

In the late 60s / early 70s, scouring songs for hidden meanings was every rock fan’s favorite hobby. Though Bridge Over Troubled Water seemed to be a straightforward hymn, there was that ambiguous “Sail on, silver girl” line. Paul Simon says, “There was a whole period of time where the song was supposed to be about heroin.” And silver girl was the syringe. “It’s absolutely not so,” Simon says. In fact, silver girl was a sly reference to Simon’s then-wife Peggy. “It was half a joke,” Simon explains, “because she was upset one day when she found two or three gray hairs on her head.”

Posted in Diary | Tagged , | 1 Comment

I Gotcha

I wonder how Joe Tex would’ve felt if he knew that his song “I Gotcha” made a 7-year old kid laugh hysterically every time he heard it. I was that kid, and Tex’s LP, also called I Gotcha, was one of the first I ever bought. At that young age, I was strictly 45 rpm. I don’t think I ever clicked the 33 rpm switch on my record player, unless it was for comic effect in slowing something down. Even then, I would’ve chosen 16 rpm, which could transform any singer into a dimwitted low-voiced monster. I must have bought the Joe Tex LP because I couldn’t find the 45, and was desperate to have the song. In the plus ca change department, just yesterday, I bought a used copy of a Rhino compilation CD called New Wave Hits Vol. 1, because I absolutely couldn’t live another day without Tim Curry’s “I Do The Rock” (couldn’t find it on iTunes or Amazon). Do you know that song? If “Werewolves of London” and “Walk On The Wild Side” had a baby, it would be “I Do The Rock.” What other rock song name checks Edith Sitwell and Rodney Bingenheimer?

Anyway. Joe Tex. I went nuts for “I Gotcha.” Especially the way it started, with the funky drum beat and Joe screaming and grunting. The effect it had on me was instant. I’d laugh and jump around my bedroom. I’d sing along and grab and clutch at the air. I remember playing the song for a few friends, but it didn’t have the same effect on them. But years later, my older brother told me that he remembered laughing hysterically the first time he saw James Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not laughing at James Brown, but just at the totally wild and unhinged way this guy was screaming and dancing. Joe Tex was definitely cut from the same cloth, and “I Gotcha” could’ve been a James Brown song (I mean, one of James’ biggest hits is called “I Got You”).

I couldn’t remember the last time I heard “I Gotcha,” so I bought the single this morning from iTunes. It still sounds amazing. That groove. The horns. Joe’s performance. But the lyric is kind of, I don’t know, troubling. In places, it has the tone of a mean landlord intimidating a tenant more than a man talking to a woman:

You made me a promise and you gonna stick to it
You shouldn’t have promised if you wasn’t gonna do it
You saw me and ran in another direction
I’ll teach you to play with my affection

Hmm. I guess a lot of the songs we loved as kids can sometimes make us slightly uncomfortable when we revisit them as adults. It’s like that great scene in Arrested Development where Michael and his niece Maeby sing a duet of “Afternoon Delight.”

The thought of rubbin’ you is gettin’ so exciting . . .

Posted in Diary | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Opening Riffs

The local music store used to be a kind of proving ground for budding guitarists. Back in the late ‘70s, you’d plug in a Strat or Les Paul to a Fender Twin, and show off your chops by playing one or all of the holy trinity of hard rock intros – “Smoke On The Water,” “Stairway To Heaven” and “Iron Man.” Then if you were really cool, you might throw in “Tie Your Mother Down” or “More Than A Feeling” or “Rebel Rebel.” The rest of the song was not required. Just the intro. It was the musical equivalent of marking territory. I’m in the know. I’m cool. It implied that your talent ran much deeper.

All of the other guitarists in the store pretended not to listen or care, but secretly they were judging you, waiting for you to muff a note, so they could feel superior. I remember feeling very snobby about someone not getting the intro riff right on “Good Times, Bad Times,” because I had logged hours perfecting it note for note. Do kids still do this today? Probably. Weirdly, the riffs might even be the same, give or take a Metallica or Guns ‘n’ Roses tune.

It’s weird to think how badly I once wanted to be a lead guitarist in a hard rock band, because it couldn’t be further from what I ended up wanting as a musician, which was – and still is – to write great songs. Even though I practiced long hours, and had a Marshall 50 watt head, and grew my hair out and obsessed over Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page, I never really had the right personality to be a rock lead player. I wasn’t extroverted enough, and couldn’t brandish the guitar neck like the phallic extension it needed to be.

Two things cured me of wanting to dedicate my life to lead guitar. One was seeing Van Halen in concert. I was in the fifth row, and the force of Eddie’s awe-inspiring talent pretty much short-circuited my own dream. I realized that even if I practiced eight hours a day my whole life, I’d never be that good. And even if I got close, I’d be entering into a kind of gunslinger existence, where there’d always be some kid trying to play faster and hotter licks than me. It didn’t seem to have much to do with music.

The second thing: shortly after that concert, I heard Squeeze’s Argybargy for the first time. I think I’ve blogged about this before, but from the opening notes of “Pulling Mussels (From A Shell),” I felt transformed. Shortly after, I sold my Marshall, got a new wave haircut, started wearing thin ties and writing my first songs. A few months later at the music store, I plugged in and played the opening riff to “Watching The Detectives.”

Posted in Diary | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment