Dancing Fool

“Would you like to dance?” Outside of old movies and reruns of Happy Days, that’s a question that you don’t hear much anymore. You didn’t hear it much when I was a kid either. I have a vague memory – probably too painful to revisit – of being at a church dance when I was about twelve and asking a girl if she’d like to dance. She said, “Um, not really.” That was enough to stop me from asking that question for another five or six years. But not enough to keep me off the dance floor.

I love to dance. When I say dance I mean free-style dance. I do know a little box-step and foxtrot, but I get nervous if there’s a lot of structure involved in dancing. If I have to silently count to myself and picture a pattern for my feet to follow, it’s not much fun. My style is a cross between the kids on Soul Train and early Jerry Lewis. Or more precisely, Martin Short doing early Jerry Lewis. Expressive, silly and a little spastic, but full of joy.

Years ago, when Swan Dive made a video for“Groovy Tuesday” there was a part where the director wanted us to dance. I went into this finger-snapping shuffle move that felt right with the beat of the song. A few months later, when we were in Japan, I was tickled to see that a few of our friends at the label had actually learned my dance move, and did it back to me. It’s also comforting to know that a younger version of myself will most likely be preserved on YouTube, forever dancing. If I ever have kids, they’ll be able to see that their old man wasn’t always a total square.

Funny aside. Remember those dancing shoes called Capezios? Back in the 80s, my friend Pam told me that she went out with this guy, and after spotting a pair of denim Capezios in his closet, decided that the relationship was doomed.

Anyway, these days, I don’t do much dancing (outside of private performances for my girlfriend). I mean, I’m not even sure where I would go in Nashville to dance. And chances are, the clubs, if there are any, would be playing music I didn’t like or wouldn’t want to dance to. But there may be some hope at the YMCA. Lately, when I’ve been working out, I’ve noticed a class – I think its called Zumba – that looks like it might incorporate some freestyle-ish dance moves. I’ll keep you posted on what I find out.

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Harper Simon – “Berkeley Girl”

If anyone has the right to sound like Simon & Garfunkel, it’s Paul’s son Harper. Not that he necessarily wants to or tries to. In fact, when Harper’s lovely, but mostly overlooked album came out in 2009, he spent a lot of time in interviews creatively dodging the dreaded “dad questions.”

It’s hard enough to make a good record, no matter what your background. But imagine being the son of an icon.

A few years ago, I interviewed Jakob Dylan. His publicist asked me ahead of time not to mention Bob. I took offense at that. First, I’m not the kind of journalist who’d lead with some dumb question like, “So, what does your dad think of the new album?” But then again, it’s an undeniable part of who he is, so if Bob came up in conversation – and he did – I wasn’t going to avoid it.

At least Paul and Bob didn’t give their sons their first names, like Frank did. Can you imagine being Frank Sinatra, Jr.? I know it’s an Italian thing for fathers to give firstborn sons their names, but didn’t the old man realize he was stacking the deck against his kid?

All that father – son stuff aside, you should really check out Harper’s album. This song is particularly beautiful (not to mention that the video stars Jena Malone):

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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