Tag Archives: rock & roll

With a Song in My Heart: Y is for…

“Your Song” – Elton John, 1970.

Kids these days (ugh) probably don’t know what a B-side is.  Well, young’uns, back in the dark ages of analogue music, songs were released on these archaic, dinner plate-shaped things called records, which, unlike their later brethren the CD, could be played on a mind-blowing TWO sides, helpfully labeled A and B for quick reference.  “B-side” was generally bandspeak for “throwaway”:  when a band put out a single they’d usually stick some filler or weird experimental crap on the B-side, fated to be swiftly forgotten by all but hipsters and pretentious music critics.  Elton John’s “Your Song” is that rare example of when the B-side outshone the ostensible hit.  Released in 1970 as the backing track for the single “Take Me to the Pilot,” the DJs of the day decided they liked “Your Song” better and put it in heavy rotation instead.  It’s arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever created by the songwriting duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and was praised by none other than John Lennon as the best thing done in rock following the breakup of the Beatles (never one for modesty was he).  Interestingly enough, Elton John has suggested in interviews that he took only about half an hour to write it.  Not bad for something banged out over a tea break, n’est-ce-pas?

What I’ve always liked about “Your Song,” and what I suppose appeals most to my nature, is the modest, insecure manner in which the lyrics shuffle themselves forward.  This isn’t the kind of bravado and boasting about wealth and sheer awesomeness we’d see in say, gangsta rap.  Instead, the singer is apologetic at his lack of money, offering the usual empty promises about what he would buy for his love if only he could afford it.  Then, he can’t even decide what hypothetical successful person he wants to be – “If I was a sculptor, but then again, no, or a man who makes potions in a traveling show.  I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.”  In life, love demands confidence, but the shy still feel it and burn with it and need it as much as anyone else.  As he struggles on, the singer complains about getting the verses wrong and not even being able to remember the color of his love’s eyes, asserting only that they are the sweetest he has ever seen.  The chorus, too, pleads for reassurance that the object of the affections doesn’t mind this grossly inadequate tribute, which in the end can but say simply “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

When you style yourself a writer, or indeed, any kind of artist, there is something of an unconscious expectation among others that you should be able to express yourself flawlessly in each moment.  That you should be a boundless reservoir of wisdom concerning the human heart, that you should be able to navigate relationships with the ease and skill of an emotional Magellan, and moreover, always know exactly what to write on a birthday card.  In fact, I have lost track of the number of serious conversations I’ve been in where I have sat dumbfounded and dumbstruck and totally without words, and come away thinking there was something wrong with me, unable to reconcile the contradiction of being adept in one medium of language and inept in another.  So too do I find that when I’m trying to reassure my loved ones or my dearest friends in a difficult moment my platitudes sound to me like bad soap opera lines that have been translated from Mandarin Chinese via Czech, Swahili and Esperanto.  There was a point in my twenties when it felt like everyone was coming to me for advice on some matter or another, though I wasn’t sure where I got the guru reputation.  The best I could do would be to recycle something I heard or read and hope that it fit the occasion.  Wisdom is a quality I’ve never perceived in myself; rather, I’m like the narrator in “Your Song,” stumbling about in the dark, only ever by happenstance finding words that fit.  My idle fantasy of giving a TED talk one day seems destined to remain just that.  Dammit.

My wife and I met at a karaoke bar, and we used to go to that same one every couple of weeks when we were first dating.  “Your Song” was heavy on my performance rotation, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (the first song she ever heard me sing) and a few of the others who’ve found their way into this series of posts.  (Also “Love Shack,” but that’s another story.)  “Your Song” was my favorite to sing to her, however, and it remains in the opinion of your humble narrator the greatest love song for the tongue-tied.  It also happens, in my case, to be true – my wife’s pale, enchanting blues are indeed the sweetest eyes I have ever seen.  Love songs like this one resonate most because they are surrogates that let us speak the emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, directly and without distraction, cutting right to the unburdened clarity of one person’s passion for another.  We often can’t say – or sing – it better.  Though I’ve never fancied being a sculptor or a snake oil huckster, this song fills that slot for me.  It’s a good reminder at those instances of awkward flailing that I remain one of the better B-sides, a person of deep feeling, though my inability to speak such things aloud can make me seem in person to be cold, verging on Vulcan, as if the heart beats only at the basic task of pumping blood.  That blood, however, runs hot.  And I hope you don’t mind if I put it down in words.

With a Song in My Heart: M is for…

“Maneater” – Hall & Oates, 1982.

Mondegreen is the word for the phenomenon that has plagued music since the dawn of recorded sound:   the misinterpretation of mumbled lyrics to mean something other than what was intended.  If you’ve ever sung “scuse me while I kiss this guy” to “Purple Haze,” “there’s a bathroom on the right” to “Bad Moon Rising” or pretty much anything to “Louie Louie,” congratulations, you’re a mondegreener.  The term was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay after her mishearing of the line “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen,” in the 17th Century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and it seems that so long as vocalists continue to sing with marbles their mouths, mondegreens are ensured a healthy reign.  Bob Dylan’s output alone contains enough potential mondegreens to leave several small countries scratching their heads and rewinding to give it another listen.  More on this in a minute.

My father’s enormous vinyl record collection was a sampler of some of the greatest rock & roll ever written and performed.  His expertise in the two decades of music spanning the Eisenhower to Nixon years was unsurpassed.  I remember once playing the “RPM” version of Trivial Pursuit with him, which had a category called “After the Beatles,” spanning the era following their breakup.  He’d always struggle to get those ones correct, and he once commented that it was because it was such a terrible time for music.  Anything from the 50’s or 60’s, however, he knew cold.  The “Lookin’ Back” dance parties held by local radio station CKFM were annual appointments for him and my mother, with my sister and I left with a babysitter (one of whom made me watch Tommy, traumatizing me for life with the baked beans exploding over Ann-Margret) while they tore up the floor to the jukebox standards that continued to fire the souls of the baby boomers with nostalgia for proms and sock hops.  For my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, Dad drew on his archive to create his gift of a themed playlist:  Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” and the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” among others, and again this was back when that meant carting records and reel-to-reels from house to house in a couple of banker’s boxes.  He was an attorney by trade, but a DJ at heart.

Being his son meant absorbing that passion as well, learning the legendary songs of his past and discovering the new music of our present together in the form of cassettes loaded into the car stereo on long drives to Blue Jays games, with gems as varied as Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the Footloose soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the collected works of Hall & Oates, specifically their album Rock & Soul, Part 1 (there never was a part 2.)  This is where we return to the subject of mondegreens.  Back in those days, of course (to channel Grampa Simpson a little) there was no Lyrics.com to visit if you didn’t catch the middle eight in “I Want a New Drug,” you just had to listen over and over again and try to discern the meaning.  That is, if you cared.  Dad didn’t.  His love of singing was about the feel of the music and not the substance of the words, so, half-heard verses were substituted with fantastic inventions coming not within a light-year of their actual meaning, or general sense for that matter.  “Trouble wander cheek new see behind me” was the placeholder for “Devil and the deep blue sea behind me” in the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”  And Daryl Hall’s perfectly logical “The woman is wild, ooh” from the song that lends itself to the title of this post transmogrified between my father’s ears into “poobulasquaw, ooooh.”  (A million quatloos to anyone who can divine a reasonable-sounding explanation of what that means.)

I’d roll my eyes and sigh, “Daaaaaaad,” but the truth is that his fanciful interpretations were far more memorable than whatever the artist had recorded in the first place.  I recall looking at the liner notes of a Seal album once where he was asked why he didn’t publish his lyrics, and his rationale was that music was supposed to be more about how it was received rather than how it was meant, and that he had no business stepping on what people felt he was singing by providing a definitive answer.  In retrospect I think my father always knew the lyrics, and for him, getting them wrong was mere spirited improvisation; having fun and seeing if his often literal-minded boy would notice.  Today, “Maneater” is the song that reminds me it’s okay to color outside the lines, that imaginative speculation can sometimes outdo whatever The Man has decided the correct answer is.  And Seal was right – Daryl Hall and John Oates by no means intended “Maneater” to be a song that could help recall a bond between a father and his son.  We added that ourselves and made the result something greater than the sum of its parts.  Let us then continue to celebrate the mondegreen as the spirit of human invention, where even our mistakes can bring forth genius, or at the very least, a good laugh and a treasured memory.

With a Song in My Heart: H is for…

“Hotel California” – Eagles, 1977.

“Hotel California” is not a song I like very much.  That’s something of an understatement, really.  I detest it.  The hatred began as a seed of indifference, nourished by decades of hearing it overplayed on the radio, oversung off-key at karaoke bars, over-requested at weddings and over-selected on pool hall jukeboxes, blossoming finally into a putridly fragrant flower of pure, embittered, soul-deep loathing.  Even hints of the first tinny, ear-scraping chords are enough to send me into paroxysms of bile-spitting fury, questioning how anyone could possibly endure this egregious example of rock & roll wallowing in its own crapulence yet again.  And I know I’m in the minority opinion, as there are millions who consider it one of the finest rock songs ever written.  Rolling Stone magazine ranks it 49th on their list of the 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs of All Time.  Myself, if I have to hear the insipid banality of the warm smell of colitas or sweet summer sweat or prisoners of our own device one more time, I may punch something.  You know when I laugh the loudest at The Big Lebowski?

theeffineagles

Yep, right there.  As an aside, there’s a story to this:  The infamous Allen Klein was planning on charging the Coen Brothers $150,000 to use Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits, which would have broken the movie’s music budget.  When Klein saw this scene, he erupted in a fit of gut-busting laughter and told the Coens they could have “Dead Flowers” for free.  So even though I rue realizing I have anything in common with Allen Klein, on this point he and I are in complete agreement.  And before you ask, yes, Dad had a worn copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Mom loved Glenn Frey, so clearly that was one trait that skipped a generation.  (My son does not know who the Eagles are so perhaps we’ve broken the cycle – now I need to cure him of his fixation with Nickelback.)

At this point you are wondering, why on earth is this song on the list?

In July 2008, just after a certain junior Senator from Illinois secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, my wife announced that she’d purchased tickets to the upcoming Eagles show in Toronto, part of their Long Road Out of Eden Tour.  It is a common occurrence in marriage, I suspect, that from time to time one partner must work on feigning excitement in something that the other is bubbling with enthusiasm over.  “We’re going to see the Eagles” was about as scintillating to me as suggesting that we attend a three-hour dramatic reading of Canada’s federal tax code.  I chewed through my tongue to prevent quoting the above-noted Lebowski moment and said “great!” while simultaneously invoking my inner weasel to think of legitimate reasons to not attend.  Still, I knew it was important to her, and I reconciled with the idea by reasoning that the Eagles were considered in some circles to be legends, and that seeing them live would be something to tick off the proverbial liste de seau.  I’d just have to endure the visions of a bunch of aging 70’s rock fans swaying on replaced hips to that damnable song for 7 interminable minutes.

The date arrives, we find our way to the venue and take our seats.  It’s the first time I can recall that I’ve never felt the slightest twinge of anticipation about a concert.  This should be a big deal, and it isn’t.  I’m wasting a seat someone else who will enjoy these guys even a modicum more could be otherwise making better use of.  No matter though, I’m here and I’ve gotta get through this.  I’ve gotta choke this down like that childhood plate of brussel sprouts.  The lights go down, the crowd roars, and the Eagles take the stage.  Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit walk out attired in matching dark suits, pick up their instruments, check their amps and start to play.

And they rock.

By the second song I’m sold.  They’re incredible.  They play with the studied, impeccable craftsmanship acquired only by those who’ve been at it for forty years.  They banter together and with the audience with the healthy self-deprecation that is earned only by a life hard-lived and knocks well-taken.  (Glenn Frey, introducing “Take it to the Limit,” or as he calls it, the ‘credit card song:’  “I’d like to dedicate this to my first wife, or as I call her, Plaintiff.”)  They blow the typically reserved Canadian audience back against the wall with nothing but tunes and talent.  Joe Walsh even earns some hometown cred (or cheap applause, if you will) by donning a Maple Leafs cap for a couple of numbers.  Running through a healthy combination of Eagles classics, covers, selections from their respective solo careers and material from the new album, the Eagles, for lack of a better word, fly.  It’s one of the tightest, most accomplished, most exciting shows I’ve ever seen.  No messing about with pyrotechnics or stage diving or bollocks political posturing.  Just four gifted guys bringing their best, seasoned game.  This is a shimmering blade of rock and roll forged with an expert hammer and polished to a perfect shine.

Naturally, there comes an inevitable point midway through the song list.  Those all-too-recognizable tinny chords start twanging.  The crowd loses it.  As Don Henley invokes the dark desert highway, my wife gives me a knowing look, and I smile.  Yeah, okay.  This isn’t so bad.

Since that night, “Hotel California” has been a lesson in humility for me.  A reminder to temper my opinions, to crawl back from the edges of extremism and recognize that the truth lies somewhere in the mushy middle.  It’s one thing to hate a particular song, or movie, or any work of art, really, but there are precious few instances where that can lead legitimately to a complete dismissal of the artist as a worthwhile creative force.  There is usually some value to be found in everything, and in the cases where there isn’t, it’s not worth giving those sorts more than a microsecond of our precious consideration.  Music preference, and by extension the professional criticism of same, has always been about strong opinions, but the danger is in letting ourselves get caught up in how much this band is infallible while this other one sucks beyond redemption.  It’s hardly worth the rise in blood pressure, especially when – as the Eagles proved for me – you can still occasionally find yourself pleasantly surprised, and well and truly rocked.