Letter to the Vatican

Steve Rostkoski

An Online Collection of Writings & Musings

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Life-long music fan STEVE ROSTKOSKI studied recording engineering and library technology, and has worked as a library technician, archival cataloger,  freelance journalist and publisher. His essays and reviews have appeared in Crawdaddy!, No Depression ,  The Rocket and other periodicals. Letter to the Vatican  began in 1991 as a self-published zine created for the writers' group APA Centauri. This online edition archives both past and present work.
This site would not exist without Paul Williams.  He started  the first rock music magazine, Crawdaddy!, in 1966, which I discovered in its  later 1990s  incarnation. I found Crawdaddy! so inspirational, I wrote Paul and sent him my zine about the book Glimpses.  He liked my essay so much that he invited me to be the first outside writer published in the new edition of his magazine.  I was honored. Paul's encouragement and support of my writing literally changed my life and I am forever grateful.  Thank you, Paul!

In 1995, Paul Williams suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bicycle accident, leading to early onset of dementia, and a steady decline to the point where he now requires full-time care. His friends and family have set up a website for donations to assist with Paul's care and medical expenses.  The site also provides examples of his work and information about his many accomplishments.


Also read Cindy Lee Berryhill's blog:



Out of all the books my friend Paul Williams has written, the one that I've found the most fun to read is "Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles."  Paul arranges his 100 musical love stories chronologically instead of making his number 1 choice any "better" than number 100.   This method frees him from having to justify ranking one song above another (which is really a waste of time anyway because when talking about  favorite music, all the songs deserve to be heard!).  Rather, he writes about each song entirely on their own merits.  Each essay reveals its own close, personal musical affair. 

In the Author's Note at the start of the book, Paul encourages readers to come up with their own list of favorites and listen to each song until their specialness is unlocked.  This was a challenge I could not resist!  As I started making up my list, I soon discovered that the criteria for selection had to be a lot looser than Paul's.  One of Paul's ground rules is that  his choices all had to have been released as singles in the U.S. or U.K.  But the seven inch 45 rpm single was not a big part of my musical history.  I bought albums.  So for consideration on my list, how a song has been released, be it on a single, LP or CD, is unimportant.  I have also chosen to ignore chronological order and any kind of ranking.  (I will say, however, that these songs sound great together on a tape so I suppose this counts as part of a criteria.)  The most important thing about my list is these songs shook me up when I first heard them and still do the same today. 

I'm planning my list to be a continuing series of zines.  It could end at ten songs or maybe I'll reach 100 or more.  I don't know where it will take me at this point.  Tearing songs apart piece by piece to try and find out why they work on me has been more difficult than I anticipated.  But so far I've had a blast doing it.  I hope you have fun with it too.

THUNDER ROAD by Bruce Springsteen
From the album Born to Run, 1975.

The start of a journey.  "Thunder Road," the opening song from Springsteen's Born to Run, represents the beginning of a musical trip for me.  It was September of 1975, only a couple of weeks into my sophomore year of high school.  I was sitting in my bedroom one evening doing my homework with the radio on, as usual, when the DJ announced that he was going to play Bruce Springsteen's brand new album, Born to Run, in its entirety.  As "Thunder Road" started playing, my jaw dropped in awe.  I never did get my homework finished.

Now, being an avid Rolling Stone reader at the time, I had heard of Springsteen.  And, to tell the truth, I was turned off by much of what I read about him.  He was being touted as the "new Bob Dylan," a catch-phrase that critics often used in the seventies to crown any aspiring folk/rock singer-songwriter who happened to have a rough voice and a way with words.  Once an artist was so tagged, it was frequently the kiss of death for their career.  The chance of  living up to such a  comparison was slim at best in most cases.  I'd just discovered the original Dylan for myself about a year before and remember thinking, "Why do I need a new Dylan?  I'm just getting into the old one." 

Well, on the basis of what I heard on the radio that night, this "new Dylan," or whatever you wanted to call him, was worthy of the comparison.  From the moment I heard its hushed harmonica and piano introduction, "Thunder Road" captured me.  You can almost feel the early morning coolness and see the first rays of the rising summer sun in its sound.  As Bruce's sweet raspy voice enters, a young man sits in his car in front of his girlfriend's house:

        The screen door slams
        Mary's dress waves
        Like a vision she dances across the porch
        As the radio plays
        Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
        Hey that's me and I want you only
        Don't turn me home again
        I just can't face myself alone again
        Don't run back inside
        Darling you know just what I'm here for
        So you're scared and you're thinking
        That maybe we ain't that young anymore
        Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
        You ain't a beauty but hey you're alright
        Oh and that's alright with me

At the end of the verse the music intensifies with the addition of bass and drums.  Then as Bruce implores, "Hey what else can we do now?/Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair" (Ah yes, the song itself is about taking a chance and starting a journey!), multiple guitars and keyboards roar in, punctuated by backing vocals and even a chiming glockenspiel.  Like a '57 Chevy roaring down the road, the song keeps shifting gears and gaining momentum as it goes along. 

Even more effective is how subtly the song changes texture at certain key points, as if the engine of this particular car tearing down Thunder Road slows down a bit as it changes gears before speeding off again.  A great use of tension and release.  Near the song's end, the guitars and piano go down the scale and it almost gets quiet for a moment (at least it feels like it quiets down) just before Springsteen delivers the final beckoning lines "So Mary climb in/It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win."  "Thunder Road" then explodes into a anthemic saxophone solo and fades out as the young lovers make their escape, disappearing into a cloud of dust.

Before that evening in 1975, I had never heard anything like "Thunder Road" before in my life.  The song's sound had the adrenaline blast of Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," but it felt more varied and complex.  I also discovered a romantic warmth to Springsteen's lyrics that I hadn't yet heard in Dylan's words.  Dylan's music spoke to me but the man himself seemed as inscrutable as many of his lyrics.  Springsteen, on the other hand, spoke directly to my dreams.  He was direct, honest and seemed like a regular guy.  A comrade.  Sure, looking back on it now, Springteen's early work is perhaps overly melodramatic sometimes but I fell for it.  Growing up in a cowboy town in the middle of nowhere, the notion of escape was quite a heady concept for me.  Not to say the song still doesn't have a resonance.  When I finally did leave many years later, it was "Thunder Road's" last lines that rang in my head.  Yeah, "I'm pulling out of here to win..."  It still sounds good to me.

From the album Pirates, 1981.

When Rickie Lee Jones bopped onto the radio with her 1979 Top 40 hit "Chuck E.'s In Love,"  I fell in love with her and it's easy to hear why.  On her self-titled debut album, like Springsteen, Jones comes across as a tough street-wise romantic, only with more of a jazz and Beat poetry influence.  (It helped that I discovered Kerouac around the same time I first heard Rickie Lee.)  It was two years before she released a follow up album called Pirates.  It drew praise from the critics but without a hit to jog their memories, the Top 40 crowd forgot about Jones.  Too bad.  Pirates remains her finest effort and the title track is still my favorite Rickie Lee tune.

"Pirates," the song, begins with a blare of a brass section.  The tune is reminiscent of "Chuck E.'s" jazzy strut, only the sound is fuller, more punchy.  Jones' cock-sure vocal delivery of her hit makes a return here too.  Like Springsteen's "Thunder Road," "Pirates" is about being young, climbing into a car and looking for escape.  In fact, Jones' could almost be the woman in "Thunder Road" as she sings: 

        Come on -- Joey get out of school
        We got places to go
        A '57 Lincoln you got a radio that hurts
        And the girls like to touch it
        Just to find out if it works
        But don't look at me
        It wasn't me

I like the "radio that hurts" line.  Music so good that it hurts.  Oh yes, turn it up!  Kind of a sexier version of Springsteen's "Roy Orbison singing for the lonely..." idea that goes right along with the sensuality of the next line,  "And the girls like to touch it..."  Wow, I don't think Bruce ever got this steamy though!

But wait.  I haven't even gotten to the best part of the song.  Mid-way through "Pirates," the music abruptly stops.  A bass guitar plays three notes up the scale.  A piano, and then some synthesizer coloring, softly enters.  In a wistful, vulnerable voice Jones reveals her dreamy romantic side:

        And I won't need a pilot
        Got a pirate who might sail
        Somewhere I heard far away
        You answer me
        So I'm holding on
        To your rainbow sleeves

The piano now gets more forceful.  Rickie Lee's voice drops almost to a whisper as the emotions rise:

        Well, goodbye boys
        My buddy boys
        Oh my sad-eyed Sinatras
        It's a cold globe around the sea
        You keep the shirt that I bought ya
        And I know you'll get the chance to make it
        And nothin's gonna stop you
        You just reach right out and take it
        You say--

Jones' voice absolutely soars as she then sings the climactic line, "So Long, Lonely Avenue," which never fails to send chills down my spine.  The line is repeated a second time, Jones' voice  fading away with the last word, allowing the piano and plucked violin strings to play a variation on the melody.  The instruments drop out once more and Jones comes back, full of breathless exuberance.  "I'll see you there/Just wait 'n see," she promises. The horns and the rest of the musicians return full force and storm to the finish as Jones pleads, "Be lookin' for me/Just like you/Just like me." (I like the imagery of lovers as roving pirates.  It implies the discovery and adventure of falling in love.)  By the end, the expectation of meeting up with her fellow pirate is too much for words so Jones scat sings, stutters and whoops for joy.  The echoes of Lonely Avenue can still be felt amid her hopefulness however.  "Pirates" concludes with the keyboards reprising the melancholy "So Long, Lonely Avenue" theme but instead of repeating it a second time, just two notes are played, leaving an unresolved feeling in the air.

How does Jones cover so much emotional ground in a song that's under four minutes long?  Her method isn't quite as concrete as Springsteen's in "Thunder Road."  "Pirates" is more of a mood piece.  The song's story is sketchy (I've quoted almost all of its lyrics here) but the images used are vivid and very sensual.  Add the musical arrangements which ebb and flow right along with Rickie Lee's evocative vocals, and you have a "story" that has excitement (the start of a journey again.  "...we got places to go..."), sex, longing, romance, loneliness and faith, with maybe a tinge of uncertainty in there somewhere too (remember, the song ends with a musical question mark). 

Whatever it is that makes "Pirates" work, it's just right.  I've just listened to the song again right now and it gave me goosebumps like it did the first time I heard it.  And hearing the song performed live is even more perfect.  In concert, the quiet middle section of the song leaves me breathless.  I mean, it's so exquisite, I really am unable to breathe when Rickie Lee reaches the "Lonely Avenue" part!  Like that radio in the first verse, "Pirates" is so good that it hurts.

From the album Blonde On Blonde, 1966.

Blonde On Blonde is one of my favorite albums.  "Visions of Johanna," "I Want You," "Stuck Inside of Mobile," "Just Like a Woman," are all songs from Blonde On Blonde that first introduced me to Dylan.  Perhaps because the album contains so much great material, I overlooked "One of Us Must Know" for what must have been a couple of years.  I never skipped over the song when I played the album.  It just escaped my notice somehow.  Ironic, since the song is about misunderstanding and being unable to connect with someone.  (He even sings, "I didn't realize just what I did hear" at one point.  Ha!  You're so right, Bob!)

"One of Us Must Know" is about a misunderstanding that ended a relationship. The  relationship sounds like it came to a rather nasty end ("An' I told you as you clawed out my eyes...") and at first, Dylan sounds rather vindictive about it all.  When Dylan vents his anger at someone, his put downs are brutal.  "One of Us Must Know" begins with a backhanded apology ("I didn't mean to make you so sad/You just happened to be there, that's all.") but as the song proceeds, Dylan admits that his own blindness played a part in the break-up.  The phrase "I didn't mean to..." of the first verse changes to "I couldn't see..." for the second and third verses.  His confession doesn't sound cynical at all.  Confession is a good word for what Dylan conveys here.  He sounds relieved as he lets go of his guilt.

"One of Us Must Know" isn't just a song about misunderstanding and guilt, it's a glorious song about a misunderstanding and guilt.  I think what makes the song so powerful  is the joyous sense of release heard in Dylan's voice.  Whether stretching out words, pulling back and becoming gentle, or letting loose on the choruses, his singing is remarkably fluid.  It's my favorite Dylan vocal performance.  As unconventional as his singing is, Dylan's voice is one of the most expressive in popular music.  And "One of Us Must Know" is one of the finest examples of how he uses his unique instrument in innovative ways.  The way he works with the phrasing and timbre of his voice is comparable to what a jazz musician does with their instrument.  Hmm, Bob Dylan as jazz singer.  Hey, maybe I'm a jazz fan after all!

The instrumentalists backing Dylan may not be jazz musicians but they are an accomplished bunch, that's for sure.  Nearly all of the songs on Blonde On Blonde were recorded with Nashville session musicians.  "One of Us Must Know" is the one exception.  It was recorded earlier than the rest of the album, using members of The Band, along with veterans from Dylan's previous album, including Al Kooper on organ, William E. Lee (father of filmmaker Spike Lee) on bass and Paul Griffin on piano.  Griffin, who played on countless recording sessions from the late 1950s to the 1990s, especially shines with his light but percussive riffs that are unlike anything heard on any other Dylan record. "One of Us Must Know" places the musicians in a super charged, white hot spotlight, putting their nerves on end.  The feeling is edgy, urgent, as if Dylan must release the music inside of him right now. 

Glorious release and urgency.  That is the feeling I get from "One of Us Must Know."  Exhilarating.  I'm sure it's a feeling I'll never misunderstand or be able to ignore again.

THIS TIME BABY'S GONE FOR GOOD by Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes.
From the album Hearts of Stone, 1978.

Talk about overlooked music.  Overshadowed by fellow New Jerseyite and buddy Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny's music never received the respect that it deserves.  With the success of Springsteen's Born to Run album,  Southside and Co. secured a record contract and swiftly put out two albums of tough fifties and sixties type R&B and soul.  Both albums contain some great music, some of it written or co-written by Springsteen, but overall the albums lack focus, as if the band were struggling to find their own identity.  All the pieces finally fall into place with Southside's third album Hearts of Stone.  Springsteen once again contributes a couple of tunes, including the heartbreaking title ballad, but this time the songs fit the band's soul driven sound perfectly and the album is a solid winner from beginning to end.  Unfortunately, at the time of its release, the record company lost interest and was unwilling to promote the record so it sank without a trace.  So I'm tellin' ya right now.  It may be a secret but some of the best soul music ever came out of New Jersey in 1978.  And the best of the best is a song titled "This Time Baby's Gone For Good."

Penned by Springsteen's guitarist and sidekick Steve Van Zandt, "This Time Baby's Gone For Good" takes the same rhythmic idea of the Ben E. King hit "Stand By Me" but casts it into a more despairing and darker tone.  Simple piano chords and drum beats establish the rhythm while Southside's bourbon and R&B soaked voce says to his "restless baby" that the "good has gone from your eyes."  The mood is one of quiet caution.  "I've seen that look before but it's different this time," Southside says.  The tension in his voice is palpable. He finally breaks down and admits his confusion:  "I can't hold on, girl/And I can't let go, no, no/I just can't turn and walk away."  The rest of the band then joins in, providing a sweet explosion of sympathy as the singer exposes his shattered heart.

Yes, it's the sound the musicians make here that gets to me.  Van Zandt's lyrics are sometimes clever (especially in the middle eight couplet:  "Baby must have what she sees/Was it so hard, couldn't you see me?" and the way he changes "This time baby's gone for good" to "This time baby knows she's wrong" in the last verse) but they rarely rise above the average love song lament.  The music itself communicates far more to me here than the lyrics do.  Words are almost no longer needed when you have a band as tight as the Jukes. 

The brass section is forceful yet warm, both reflecting and comforting the protagonist's pain.  I also like how Van Zandt's loud, crisp rhythm guitar work (similar to the sound Dylan uses on Blonde On Blonde) and the unpredictable drums ricochets of another Springsteen alumnus Max Weinberg, push the song along.  I also have a soft spot for Van Zandt's heartfelt backing vocals.  His distinctive nasal rasp, kind of a cross between Bob Dylan and Keith Richards, tugs at my heart for some reason.  Put all of this over one of the most irresistible heartbeats of rock 'n' roll, the DUM DUM, Da-DUM DUM beat borrowed from a master of the heart, Ben E. King, and a moment of pure heaven is captured.  Straight from the heart and soul right into yours.
From the album #1 Record, 1972.

A song about faith.  Listen to the words of brother Alex Chilton:

        Years ago my heart was set to live, oh
        And I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds
        It gets so hard in times like now to hold on
        And the guns the way to be stuck by
        And at my side is God
        And there ain't no one going to turn me around
A friend of mine was actually bothered that the lyrics to "The Ballad of El Goodo" could be an expression of Christian faith.  In light of the obvious Christian references on the I Am the Cosmos album by "El Goodo's" co-author Chris Bell, the song could be interpreted as a spiritual one, I suppose.  I hear the song as more of a statement of faith in oneself.  Some people use God to find such courage, some use other inner resources for strength.  No matter what the source of the faith is, "The Ballad of El Goodo" is about standing up for yourself against all the odds.

        There's people around who will tell you that they know
        And places to send you
        And it's easy to go
        They'll zip you up and dress you down
        And stand you in a room
        But you don't have to
        You could just no
        And there ain't no one going to turn me around

        I've been built up and trusted
        Broke down and busted
        But they'll get theirs and we'll get ours
        If we can just
        Hold On....

The music of "El Goodo" also confirmed my faith in Big Star.  After searching for their albums for years, their first two albums were finally released as imports and I snapped them up as soon as I saw them.  From all that I'd read about Big Star, I had an idea that they combined the melodicism of the Beatles with the toughness of the Who.  When I strapped on the headphones and put on #1 Record for the first time, with just the first two tracks my expectations of the band were fulfilled and more. 

An all out rave up called "Feel" kicks off the album, sounding at times like Led Zeppelin and, yes, the Who.  But the following song, "El Goodo," is the one that opened up the sky for me.  It's a pretty ballad with a slightly rough undercurrent, similar to some of John Lennon's later work with the Beatles.  I love the way the song unfolds before my ears.  It slowly builds, with each change more perfect than the one before.  Listening to the song is like opening a series of doors and being more astonished at what is found behind each one.

The first verse enters with a quiet folk-like melody that slides effortlessly into the more determined and intense "And there ain't no one going to turn me around" chorus.  The addition of some sharp background harmonies sustain the heightened emotion throughout the following verse.  Things get dark for a moment as the "I've been built up and trusted..." bridge takes the song into a minor key, until the gentle "Hold On..." refrain unexpectedly appears like the sun breaking through the clouds.  For the final stanza, some significant variations on the first verse are brought in.  The "unbelievable odds," are now merely "strong odds," sounding a little easier to overcome in the process.  The incomprehensible line about guns is replaced by the earnest resolution of "I'll fall if I don't fight" and "The Ballad of El Goodo" ends with the return of the "Hold On...." plea, as if to say, "Show a little faith, keep fighting for what you believe and there will be hope for the future."

Faith in God.  Faith in yourself.  You can hear either one or both of these sentiments in this song if you want to.  More importantly, with each verse, chorus and refrain, " The Ballad of El Goodo"  reaffirmed my faith in the power of music.  Listen and believe.

NO MATTER WHAT by Badfinger. 
From the album No Dice, 1972.

Big Star's #1 Record may show its Beatle and Who influences separately on its first two tracks but Badfinger's "No Matter What" takes these same two influences and puts them together in one song.  By mixing these two sides of British pop, Badfinger not only came up with what is regarded as one of the original tunes of  the "power pop" genre, they created one of the greatest songs of all time.  At least to my ears.

"No Matter What" is another song that is built up layer by layer with stunning results.  The opening guitar riff is irresistible.  Its power chords and rhythm make me want to turn the volume up every the song comes on.  (I just now realized that its rhythm is another variation on the "Stand By Me" beat.  Thank the Lord for Ben E. King once again!)    The lone crunchy guitar clears the way for the bass, drums and vocals.  In a way, the vocals establish the rhythmic groove of the song as much as the guitar does.  It's not what the vocals say here that really matters either.  The lyrics don't really go much beyond the idea of "No matter what you do/I will always be with you."   Rather, it's the sound of the vocals that helps make the song run.  This is especially apparent in the soaring bridge with its "Nothing to say/Nothing to see/Nothing to do" lines.  The flow of the words is wonderfully appealing. 

The second verse brings with it a second electric guitar, not as heavy as the first but with a ringing, slightly phased quality to it. The slide guitar solo that follows is just so right in it's simplicity, it's almost funny.  "No Matter What" is irresistible air guitar material.   

Even though the song has a fairly standard form of verse-bridge-verse-guitar solo-bridge-verse, with each section, a unique detail is added, keeping things fresh sounding.  As the bridge returns, some background vocals are added.  Between the second bridge and the final verse, a couple of percussive handclaps help keep the energy moving.  And perhaps best of all is the surprise false ending.  As the third verse concludes, everything is silent for a beat, leaving the song just hanging in the air before the band comes back to end the song in triumph.  All these great little moments add up to one great song.  I think I'll go listen to it again right now.  I can't resist.

Released 1963.  Now available on the Past Masters Vol. 1 CD.   

Another beginning.  The Beatles' Second Album is one of the first records I ever bought.  As Beatle albums go, the LP is somewhat of an oddity.  Capitol, the record label that released the Beatles' music in the U.S., cut up and rearranged the group's early British albums to squeeze out more product for the American market.  From 1962 to 1966, there were eight Beatle albums released in Britain.  In the same time period, 11 American albums were put together by Capitol.  Second Album is a patchwork collection of various songs that were excised from other albums and songs only available on singles and EPs in England.  Even though the Beatles' catalog is now available on pristine CDs, the Second Album is a piece of vinyl that I still put on my turntable and enjoy.

While many of the Beatles' early hits are pop oriented, the Second Album is actually a tough little record that shows off the group's rock 'n' roll and R&B roots.  I was unaware of it at the time I bought it but the album proves to be an excellent musical history lesson.  Over half the songs are cover versions.  Everything from Motown soul (Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold On Me" and Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)"), girl group tunes (The Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman" and the Donays' "Devil in Her Heart") and rock music's original poet, Chuck Berry ("Roll Over Beethoven")  are all represented.  Paul McCartney's penchant for ballads is nowhere to be heard.  In fact, his one real showcase is a vocal-shredding rendition of Little Richard's ultimate rocker "Long Tall Sally."  The Beatles' versions were the first that I'd heard of any of these songs so to me, they were simply great Beatle tunes.  And really, they still are since in many cases, their versions out shine the originals.

The two Lennon/McCartney originals that I've picked for my list are also quite an education.  "I Call Your Name" features a catchy melody that rocks in a kind of relaxed way, if that's possible.  It seems to move along effortlessly, even with the twanging guitars, banging drums and a relentless cowbell which sounds as if it stumbles in at the song's start (and makes me smile every time).  John Lennon's vocal matches the macho pathos of the lyrics ("I don't know if I can take it/I don't know who can/I'm not gonna fake it/I'm not that kind of man") with a unique tough and tender quality.  Lennon introduces another unique twist to the song in the instrumental break by adding more swing to the beat.  He got the idea for the rhythmic turn around by listening to music called "Blue Beat," an early incarnation of ska or reggae.  In hindsight, the variety of influences the Beatles brought to their music is amazing.  At the time I just thought it all sounded cool.  It still does.

"She Loves You" represents the start of my rock 'n' roll education.  It was the first Beatle song that I heard and may have been the first time I became aware of rock music.  What a start!  It's sound still gets me excited.  The sound is so huge.  Everything about it -- the first pounding drum beats, the ringing "yeah, yeah, yeah" hook, the enthusiastic vocals -- is, well, so fucking joyful.  And then there is that great last guitar chord.  It's a major sixth, I believe, resolving the song nicely but still leaving a lingering taste of expectation, as if to say, "there's more to come..."   And there was.  I was hooked.  "She Loves You" paved the way for a seemingly endless procession of music that has become the soundtrack to my life.  The soundtrack to my soul.  A revolution of the heart.




While at work, I recently came across a book called "Revolution of the Heart" and thought that its title fit these zines somehow.  As I said in the introduction to the first installment, these songs shake up my life, like a revolution suddenly "shakes up" the established order.  I just now realized that another meaning of revolution is the rotational motion of an object.   So the title is even more appropriate than I first thought.  You could say that a little piece of my heart is spinning around on these CDs and LPs every time I play these songs.  This time around my heart is spinning for. . .

I FOUGHT THE LAW by the Clash. 
From the album The Clash, 1979 (U.S. version).

Texas rockabilly by way of British punk.  Rock 'n' roll makes some strange and wonderful bedfellows sometimes.

I didn't quite know what to make of the punk movement when it came along in the late Seventies.  On one hand, it seemed scary with all the violence, spiked hair and safety pins through various parts of the body.  On the other, reading about the public antics of groups like the Sex Pistols, each more outrageous than the next, it all appeared to be one big publicity stunt.  (It turned out that this assessment wasn't too far wrong in the Sex Pistols' case, although they still made some great music.)  But my opinion of punk was formed by what I read about it in the press, and not on the merits of the music itself.  Why?  Because I never got the chance to hear much of the music.  The closest thing to punk played on the radio were New Wave acts like Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads.  Songs like "Psycho Killer" and "Watching the Detectives,"  were kind of scary and weird too but they were also very accessible, almost pop with a punk attitude.

It's not surprising that I didn't get to hear bands like the Clash, considering the attitude that many record companies had towards British punk.  At first CBS was reluctant to put out the Clash's self-titled debut album in America, saying it was too raw for the U.S. market.  But when the LP started selling briskly as an import, they had to give The Clash a stateside release.  Like the early Beatle albums, the U.S. release is a sliced and diced version of what British fans got.  Some weaker album tracks are dropped, other songs from singles and EPs added.  Purists might prefer the British pressing but in truth, many of the songs added to the U.S. album represent the band's best work.  One of these extra tracks is "I Fought the Law." 

A friend of mine was brave enough to buy The Clash so I borrowed it to find out what all the fuss was about.  I put it on and found more than noise and posturing.  Of course the music was rough and loud but it also had great guitar licks and irresistible melodic hooks.  The stop-start chorus of "Janie Jones" displayed the Clash's sense of humor, while "Career Opportunities," a scathing indictment of Britain's dead-end class system, showed that they could be pretty insightful too.

But it was a cover of an old Bobby Fuller Four hit that convinced me that the Clash meant serious business.  Written by Sonny Curtis, one of Buddy Holly's Crickets, and recorded by the band after Holly died, Bobby Fuller picked up "I Fought the Law" and had his biggest hit with it in 1964.  With its "I fought the law and the law won" chorus, the song is a classic example of rock 'n' roll bravado.  The Clash's version takes it one step further.  They really sound as if they've battled the law, been defeated, and are ready to take them on again. Drums furiously gallop as the song fades in.  The guitars then join in, taking on the song's main riff which is beefed up considerably from Bobby Fuller's already spirited version.  Ambulance siren guitars wail throughout the bridge bolstering Joe Strummer's slurred, passionate vocals.  Strummer sounds as pissed off as can be but somehow mixes in a little sadness too.  "I Fought the Law" is after all a prisoner's lament over being separated from his sweetheart.  But the Clash make it sound like the ultimate rock 'n' roll battle cry.  Forget about labeling it punk or whatever.  This is just great music.

BARSTOOL BLUES by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. 
From the album Zuma, 1975.

Zuma was one of the first Neil Young albums I ever bought.  I remember hearing the whole album on the radio when it came out but I didn't buy it until years later.  Neil Young was very confusing to me.  Maybe that's why I put off buying his records. 

In the mid to late Seventies, even though I'd started to explore a lot of different music, in some ways I still didn't stray too far from what was safe and familiar.  But Neil Young has never been what you would call a "safe" artist.  I was familiar with "Heart of Gold," his mega-hit of the early Seventies which I liked.  I'd also heard his Tonight's the Night album, a sobering exorcism of grief over the death of two friends, and about as different from "Heart of Gold" as you could get.  I liked the album but it wasn't exactly easy listening.  In 1978, Neil released a mostly acoustic country flavored album called Comes a Time.  My safety zone at the time didn't extend too far into country music so I wasn't too sure about that album either.  Young refused to be placed into a musical box that conformed to my standards.

That same year I read a glowing review of a series of shows Young put on at a small club called the Boarding House in San Francisco.  That was it.  I had to really check out this Neil Young guy once and for all.  (I have since heard a tape of one of these shows and it is truly amazing.)  I went out and bought his latest album Comes a Time and Zuma too, probably because I remembered hearing it earlier (staying with the familiar again).  Comes a Time is a good album, not a great one.  Many of its songs are pretty (and also fun to play on the guitar I might add).  Pretty and, well, insubstantial.  Once the album is over, I'm left thinking, "That was pleasant.  I'm not sure if I got anything else out of it but it was pretty."  Zuma is another story altogether. . .

Zuma isn't pretty.  Sure, a couple of its songs have pretty tunes but the album as a whole is anything but pretty.  Monstrous, somewhat mysterious, heart wrenching and perhaps slightly bitter describe the album more accurately, I think.  At the time I bought Zuma my life didn't seem so pretty either.  I'd just broken up with my first girlfriend.  So Zuma and I made a perfect match.  Songs like "Don't Cry No Tears," "Pardon My Heart," "Looking for a Love" and "Stupid Girl" all spoke to what was happening to me.  The huge, crunching sound of Crazy Horse on many of the songs made it all a wonderful catharsis.  I probably would have survived the whole ordeal without the album but Zuma made it a whole lot easier to get through.

Even though my heart has since mended, Zuma still remains one of my favorite Neil Young albums.  And one of my favorite songs on the album is "Barstool Blues."  If you don't care for Young's voice, you're gonna hate the way he sings on this song.  He pushes his already shaky voice until it cracks and breaks.  I love it.  I also love the lyrics.  I still feel this way sometimes:

                If I could hold on to just one thought
                For long enough to know
                Why my mind is moving so fast
                And the conversation is slow
                Burn off all the fog
                And let the sun through to the snow
                Let me see your face again
                Before I have to go

The first part of the verse reminds me of the times when my mind is so full of ideas but I don't have the time to get them down on paper or how sometimes I'm just unable to communicate what I'm thinking.

But Neil is lucky.  When his mind is moving too fast for him to speak, he can let his guitar do his talking for him.  Have you ever noticed the similarity between Young's voice and his guitar style?  Both waiver, are often pushed to their limits and sound strange to a lot of ears.  Yet both can speak volumes despite their limitations.  On "Barstool Blues" his guitar solos twist, turn and explode, communicating all the frustration and passion of the lyrics with just a few chords and notes.  This music speaks to me.  Even though its connected to a painful time in my life, I can listen to it now and be uplifted.  Turn heartbreak into joy.  Turn everything upside down!
I get it now.   I'm not so confused by Neil Young anymore.  His music, or any music for that matter, doesn't need to be categorized.  Neil's music doesn't want to be categorized.  Mix it all up and either it communicates to me or it doesn't.   "Burn off all the fog and let the sun through to the snow. . ."  Thanks Neil.

DEVON SIDE by Richard Thompson.  
From the album Hand of Kindness, 1983.

Another guitar hero and songwriter.  Quite different from Neil Young, though both Young and Richard Thompson tend to explore the dark side of life.

Like the old English ballads from which Thompson often takes his inspiration, "Devon Side" concerns war and death.  A woman, carrying a banner of surrender, comes upon a wounded soldier.  We are told that she has a "shiver in her eyes," a marvelously effective way of expressing the empathy felt in her gaze.  Thompson ends each verse with the phrase, using it as the song's focal point.  Along with bread and morphine administered by the woman, the man's pain and hunger are also quelled by the understanding he sees in her face.  When he longs for the comfort of his lover, her look of compassion holds him until he passes away and "the light (falls) from the shiver in her eyes."

Unlike Neil Young who expresses himself with relatively few notes but a big sound, Richard Thompson's style is more precise.  In the introduction to "Devon Side" his playing is stately as the brave woman marches along the battlefield.  Later on, the power of the woman's tenderness towards the dying young man is heard in the barrage of notes and different textures of his solos.  His guitar weeps but not gently.  The sorrow and passion in Thompson's playing is palpable.  That's what I like so much about Richard Thompson's guitar playing.  Technically he may be a great guitarist who can awe listeners with his speed and dexterity.  But even more importantly his solos convey so much emotion as few other guitarists can.  On "Devon Side" he makes you feel the shiver in her eyes down to your bones.

HEARTS AND BONES by Paul Simon. 
From the album Hearts and Bones, 1983.

I've been more of an admirer of Paul Simon's songwiting than a big fan of his music.  Many of Simon's hits have clever lyrical and melodic hooks but I think that's part of the problem.  Sometimes he's a bit too clever, as if he has to show off his talents.  This makes him seem more of a craftsman than an artist.  A very good craftsman, mind you, but one that rarely connected with me other than in sort of an intellectual game playing way.  Until I heard his overlooked 1983 effort Hearts and Bones.

Hearts and Bones preceded Simon's groundbreaking Graceland album (another of his projects that I marvel over more than listen to very often).  Maybe what I'm hearing on Hearts and Bones is Simon reaching for a new direction.  He may have found the direction he was looking for with Graceland but I say it's more fun to hear the quest.  Perhaps when Simon takes some risks and isn't quite so self-assured, we can hear him speak more from his heart than from his head.  He even addresses this on the album with two versions of a song titled "Think Too Much" (one from the right part of the brain and another from the left).

On many of the songs Simon uses the studio to experiment with a variety of sounds and styles.  "Cars Are Cars" has a honking, stop-and-go backing, while "Allergies" sounds urgent and itchy.  "The Late Great Johnny Ace" melds together the suicide of the early rock and roller Johnny Ace with the murder of John Lennon, and features sorrowful Phillip Glass orchestrations.  Paul's pretentious tendencies show themselves in the title of "Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War" (Gak!) but the song turns out to be a rather lovely tribute to doo-wop groups like the Penguins and the Moonglows.  The shadowy harmonies of the Harptones weave in and out of the song, evoking the ghosts of all the original gone but not forgotten vocalists.

The title track is probably one of the least experimental sounding songs on the album.  A plucked Spanish guitar accompanied by the percussive sounds of vibes and marimba give it a relaxed, breezy feeling.  The lyrics flow right along too, as if all the other experimentation on the album has loosened Simon's tongue a bit.  True, the prose shows signs of his over-cleverness but the word play used here works well and sticks forever in my consciousness:

            One and one half wandering Jews
            Free to wander wherever they choose
            Are traveling together
            In the Sangre de Cristo
            The Blood of Christ Mountains
            Of New Mexico
            On the last leg of the journey
            They started a long time ago
            The arc of a love affair
            Rainbows in the high desert air
            Mountain passes slipping into stones
            Hearts and Bones

The "one and one half wandering Jews" line is fun.  It kicks off the song with a unusual mental picture that makes me grin.  I like the "arc of a love affair" line too.  So much so that I borrowed it for one of my Crawdaddy pieces a while back.  All love affairs, at least in this physical world, have a beginning and an ending.  Like an arc.  A journey begins and ends too and Simon uses the concept of a journey to bridge the first part of the verse about the wandering Jews and the second part concerning a love affair.  He then continues the image of an arc by presenting a rainbow, which leads into another event of nature as "mountain passes (slip) into stones."  Mountains crumbling signify an end, like an end of an affair, while at the same time it refers back to the earlier mention of the Blood of Christ mountains.

Simon also reprises  the "arc of a love affair" line (he must like it as much as I do) later in the song and expands upon it to create a powerful image:

            The arc of a love affair
            Waiting to be restored
            You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
            Their hearts and their bones
            And they won't come undone
            Hearts and Bones 

Perhaps love affairs do endure on a spiritual level after the physical journey has ended.  And perhaps if Paul Simon listened to his spiritual side a little more often instead of listening to his intellect so much, we would get more great music like "Hearts and Bones.".

COME FLY AWAY by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. 
From the album Braver Newer World, 1996.

"Come Fly Away" is a song of such exquisite beauty that it makes even Paul Simon's best work sound forced in comparison.  The song is written by Al Strehli who came out of a small circle of musicians that emerged out of Lubbock, Texas in the early Seventies. Fellow West Texans Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are all talented songwriters but went on to hone their skills as live performers and recording artists as well.  Even though, in Jimmie Dale Gilmore's words, Strehli "was a fully-formed artist and writer" when the others were just starting out, Strehli has never recorded his remarkable songs and has played before a live audience only once.  He found the concert experience so painful that he has never tried it again.  Gilmore is perhaps the only musician to perform and record any of Strehli's songs (Butch Hancock may have played some too but I'm not positive) and even this limited exposure of his music bothers Strehli, who likes to refer to his songs as ghosts.  The world is indeed fortunate that Jimmie Dale is able to capture a few of these ghosts for all to hear.

Describing what "Come Fly Away" sounds like is like trying to describe the clouds during the most spectacular sunrise you can imagine.  The song is quiet and still, yet has a powerful force all its own.  Plucked strings and a lonely, far away French horn set the stage for the gentle breeze of Gilmore's pure tenor voice and the poetry of Al Strehli's words:

                I saw you yonder
                Where soon the snows will cover
                There, where the coumbine will grow
                Then I saw something
                Makes me know that I know nothing
                While high upon a steady wing
                The wild geese make their way

"Makes me know that I know nothing."  That's exactly the way I feel whenever I hear this song.  Sometimes I wonder how I could have even lived before I heard it.  Knowing the meaning of breathtaking is unimaginable without this song. 

The song's refrain is simple.  "We're gonna fly away/We'll fly and fly and fly and fly" with a final line changing each time the refrain comes around.  The first time it finishes with some uncertainty as Gilmore sings, "And maybe we'll find home."  This later changes to "Until we find our home," which is more hopeful and conveys the idea that we will eventually reach a place where we belong.  Finally at the end of the song we discover that "the earth is still our home."  We've been in the right place all along!  What an uplifting thought!  Braver Newer World is an apt title for an album that contains a song like "Come Fly Away" since it makes the world seem new and full of possibilities again.  "The earth is still our home."  Yes it is.

SHE'S GOT by the True Believers. 
Recorded 1987.  From the Hard Road CD.

From the stillness of Al Strehli's Texas sunrise to the blast of a Texas firestorm by the True Believers.  In the mid-Eighties, the True Believers whipped the Austin music scene into a frenzy with their hard hitting three guitar assault.  The band's incendiary live performances are still talked about in awed tones to this day.  Their self-titled debut album highlighted the melodicism of their songs but its thin sound was a far cry from the explosion heard by fans at shows around Austin.  But they toured relentlessly behind the record and the buzz about the Troobs began to spread.  As they entered the studio to make a second album, a new rhythm section was hired to bolster their sound.  Everyone involved felt good about the record.  The True Believers seemed to be on the verge of a big breakthrough.

Except it never happened.  Two weeks before the album's release date, the band was dropped by EMI amid record company shake ups.  Things were never the same afterwards.  The True Believers' spirit was crushed by the blow.  They struggled on for about a year longer before finally calling it quits in 1988.

The second album remained unreleased until a few years ago when Rykodisc paired it with the True Believers first album on a CD titled Hard Road.  (I hear that this CD is now out of print so grab it if you see it. Damn Rykodisc!  The label puts out a lot of great music but they seem to drop artists and albums from their roster faster than anyone can listen to them.)  "She's Got" opens the second album and from its first notes, there is little doubt that this time around the True Believers deliver.  The stinging slide guitar intro and the rock solid rhythmic slam of the drums are only the beginning.  Take a catchy chorus which ends with a rumbling guitar riff that sends each wildly unique guitar solo spinning out of control, and you've got a blistering performance that stands up to the Rolling Stones' classic rockers.  The Stones haven't rocked this hard in decades.  To do so would probably kill them these days.

The True Believers rock just as hard today as they ever did, in spirit anyway.  Every time former member Alejandro Escovedo pulls out "She's Got" in concert, it still sounds unbelievable.  Close your eyes and you could be in an Austin club ten years earlier.  Or simply queue up "She's Got" on your CD player and prepare yourself for one of the original Texas firestorms.  Either way, the True Believers live on in the roar of this song.

MONEY TALKS by Mud Boy & the Neutrons. 
Recorded 1993.  Available on the album They Walk Among Us.

Some strange and wonderful things have come out of Memphis, Tennessee.  And this is one of them.

It Came from Memphis is the title of a mesmerizing book about the Memphis music scene by Robert Gordon.  It manages to capture the crazy, beautiful chaos produced by the mixture of black and white cultures and the one of a kind vibe that can only be felt in Memphis.  A fine sampling of the eclectic Memphis sound can be heard on the accompanying It Came from Memphis CD.  Put on the album and you'll hear a song played on a one string guitar, a eerie fife and drum selection that sounds ancient and modern at the same time, and a symphonic piece performed on a cannibalized electronic keyboard.  But it's "Money Talks" by Mud Boy & the Neutrons that'll blow you out of your chair.  At least that's what it did to me.

Mud Boy & the Neutrons have been playing their own brand of whacked-out, heartfelt rock and blues for over twenty years.  In that time they have only released two albums, one is long out of print and the other is a hard to find import.  They Walk Among Us puts the best of both of them onto one CD.  This is cause for celebration!  The world can now hear Mud Boy in all their glory.  And best of all the CD includes "Money Talks."

The song's groove sounds a lot like ZZ Top.  A ZZ Top from an alternate universe, that is.  The bearded ones from Texas can only wish they sounded this outrageous.  Guitars pound out the relentless primal riff, a brass section stabs in some hot exclamation points, while the vocals shout and growl.  About the only words I can make out are in the final line of the chorus, which is a disdainful ". . . money talks!"  That's all you really need to understand because the sweaty live performance itself tells you everything else you need to know.

But wait.  The music quiets down.  The singer then starts testifying:

            I'm going to deliver a sermon on the topic
                of the Wages of Sin.
            Long, long time ago when I wasn't nothin'
                but a little boy
            Going to Bellevue Baptist Church Sunday School
            The Reverend Robert G. Lee come into my
                Sunday School class
            And he got down on his knees.
            He had long white hair and a big white suit on
            And a white shirt on and a skinny black tie
            And he sat right down there on his knees
            And it looked like he was going to sing "Mammy."
            But he didn't sing "Mammy."
            He preached a sermon.
            And that sermon was called "Payday Someday". . .

Well, you'll have to hear the rest for yourself.  But when you do, turn it up until the walls shake and the plaster falls from the ceiling.  Mud Boy is unleashed and walks among us.  All the way from another planet called Memphis, Tennessee.  I welcome the invasion.




INSTANT KARMA by John Lennon. 
Released as a single 1970.  Available on The John Lennon Collection CD.

John Lennon was one of rock music's finest singers and songwriters.  His work with the Beatles remains unparalleled.  Yet I find that much of his post-Beatle work has not aged very well.  His Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums hold up the best.  The former is Lennon's cathartic scream over his painful childhood and the bitter Beatles' break-up.  It is powerful, gut-wrenching stuff and many of the performances are the best of his career (the vocals on "God" and "Isolation" still give me goose bumps) but it's often difficult to connect with such personal statements.  Imagine is generally glossier, more lightweight.  Its songs are pleasant, melodic and in the end, unchallenging.  Other than the thoughtful utopian title track, many of the album's lyrics are rather mawkish.  Lennon's attack on Paul McCartney in "How Do You Sleep?" comes off as plain mean and slightly silly, considering the two songs before and after it ("Oh My Love" and "How?") veer close to the muzak Lennon accuses McCartney of making.  The rest of Lennon's solo albums are even more patchy affairs.  So whenever I feel like listening to some John Lennon music, I have a hard time deciding on what to play.  I find none of his original solo albums is really satisfying.

Lennon was a true rock 'n' roller at heart so it's appropriate that he was at his best on the original medium for the rock 'n' roll song, the single.  This is why his most rewarding album may be a compilation of his hits called The John Lennon Collection, the only place to find his early single releases.  My favorite of these is Lennon's second solo single release, "Instant Karma."

Producer Phil Spector, known for his bombastic mini-symphonic work on numerous hits in the sixties, often employed a lean, spare sound on Lennon's early recordings.  Only the most basic combo of piano, bass and drums seems to be behind Lennon's vocals on "Instant Karma."  Such simple instrumentation has rarely sounded so huge, however.  Spector can't resist building his Wall of Sound even when he only has a few musical bricks to work with.  The echo applied to the drums gives them a distinctive thump and thwack, while a chorus of percussive hand claps reinforces the backbeat.  The bass has a rumble a couple miles deep and what sounds like the world's largest piano turns out to be no less than three keyboards playing the same block chords simultaneously.  Finally, Spector adds a "bathroom tile" reverb echo to Lennon's vocals to give them a short, sharp attack, an effect Lennon loved so much he used it up through his final recording session ten years later.

Musically, "Instant Karma" shares the same chord progression as the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love."  Lyrically, the song is a harder-edged run through of the ideals that show up later in "Imagine."

            Instant Karma's gonna get you
            Gonna knock you off your feet
            Better recognize your brothers
            Ev'ryone you meet
            Why in the world are we here?
            Surely not to live in pain and fear
            Why on earth are you there
            When you're everywhere
            Come and get your share

            Well, we all shine on
            Like the moon and the stars and the sun
            Well, we all shine on
            Come on, ev'ryone

The sentiments are pretty close to "Imagine all the people/Sharing all the world. . . ," aren't they?  "Imagine" may be John Lennon's most beautiful and well-remembered tune but "Instant Karma" blends his idealism with his first love, straight ahead rock 'n' roll.  In other words, it's pure John Lennon.  Shine on, John.

WHAT'S GOING ON by Marvin Gaye. 
From the album What's Going On, 1971.

Hey, I just realized the message of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" is remarkably similar to the one in "Instant Karma" and "Imagine."  I guess we're on a little "world peace and harmony" roll here.  It's strange the coincidences that pop up when you throw songs together and start examining them.  Gaye's song is more of a protest song than the Lennon tunes are though.  Despite the mention of long hair and Vietnam, Gaye's lyrics still sound as poignant as they were over two decades ago.  Like "Imagine," its sentiments are universal.

The fact that "What's Going On" is one hell of a performance only helps to give it an ageless quality.  It was here that Gaye first experimented with weaving two or three different vocals together.  From the smooth restrained delivery of the introductory lines to the soulful pleading of the chorus, the range of timbres in Gaye's voice is astonishing enough.  But the way he intertwines both styles creates a startling atmosphere of understatement and unbridled passion that is perfect for conveying the song's fervent message of hope and peace.

Even disregarding Marvin Gaye's masterful singing and arranging (if that's even possible), the song itself is a powerfully great one.  The way it starts quietly and slowly builds to the chorus, until the instrumental interlude breaks the song free and makes it soar, commands attention.  If "What's Going On" were an instrumental piece, people would still sit up and take notice.  Indeed, cover versions of the song include renditions by artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper and Los Lobos.  And the song seems to keep its strength no matter who delivers it.

Marvin Gaye's recording is an outstanding take of an invincible tune with a timeless message.  Humankind will be asking the chorus' question till the end of time so the song will always be relevant.  Can a song help save the world?  "What's Going On" makes me believe it's possible.

JESUS by The Velvet Underground. 
From the album The Velvet Underground, 1969.

My first two song selections concern world salvation.  Now it's time for some personal salvation: 
            Jesus, help me find my proper place
            Jesus, help me find my proper place
            Help me in my weakness
            'Cause I've fallen out of grace
            Jesus, Jesus

A prayer.  Repeated three times.  That's the entire song.  Simple as that.

Well, really not all that simple.  The Velvet Underground were never a simple band.  Their album White Light/White Heat came out at the end of 1967, the year of the Summer of Love.  No one quite knew what to make of the aural equivalent of William Burrough's Naked Lunch.  Full of speed trips, operations, transvestites and blowjobs, White Light totally went against the "All You Need is Love" spirit of the times.  But a few people were listening.  The molten slabs of feedback and noise became the prototype for punks like Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls who came along later in the seventies.

The following album, The Velvet Underground, was as subdued as White Light was noisy.  Guitarist Sterling Morrison said that part of the reason for the change in sound was that most of the band's equipment was stolen before the recording sessions.  Lou Reed says he wanted to show another side of the group.  Whatever the reason, after the debauchery of White Light, The Velvet Underground's cry for redemption is the perfect antidote.

The sound is still electric but with the amps turned way down low.  The vocals and the strummed 12 string guitars are hushed, almost as if we're eavesdropping on a bedroom rehearsal.  "Jesus" captures this intimate ambiance best of all.  There are no drums and there may not be a bass guitar either.  The plucked bass notes could be just the lower strings of one of the two guitars being played.  The recording might actually be of three people.  Morrison and Reed on guitars, with Reed and bassist Doug Yule, who replaced original member John Cale shortly before the sessions, on vocals.  But the picture the performance conjures up is of two people sitting on a bed and facing each other as they softly sing and play their guitars.  The song begins with barely audible alternating bass notes, followed by a little bent note guitar riff that mimics the "Je-sus, Je-sus"  lyrics heard later on.   Careful and tentative, the vocals start out barely more than a whisper.  The voices become bolder as they sing, "Help me in my weakness. . . " as the guitars gradually build in volume.  Suddenly, the guitars drop out and the vocals quiet as they reach the end of the line with "grace," letting the word float in the air.  The state grace regained once again.  Reed and Yule quietly call out "Jesus, Jesus" at the end of the verse, and wait for the guitars to come back and start all over again.    I've been listening to the song for years and only discovered that it had one verse as I sat down to write this essay.

A simple song that somehow doesn't sound simple.  Amazing what a little prayer can do.

TUMBLING DICE by the Rolling Stones. 
From the album Exile On Main Street, 1972.

You were either a Beatle fan or a Rolling Stones fan.  That's the way it was when I was growing up.  I was a Beatle fan.  So I am by no means an expert on Rolling Stones music.  I'm still in the process of discovering it.  In fact, I bought my first vinyl copies of Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed only a few months ago.  This is the first time I've really sat down and listened to these early albums.  And I like 'em.

I did hear many of the Stones hits like "Brown Sugar" and "Honky Tonk Woman" on the radio back in the old days.  While I might not have admitted it to anyone, I liked the dangerous swagger of their sound.  And nothing sounded so deliciously wicked as "Tumbling Dice."

One thing I've noticed about the Stones is that even at their most rocking, they have a relaxed cool about them that makes everything sound so effortless.  Listen to the lazy slash of Keith Richards' guitar work and the precise ease of Charlie Watts' drumming on "Tumbling Dice."  Then there's Mick Jagger's vocals which meander and slur all over the place.  Critic Dave Marsh believes that Jagger is making up the lyrics as he goes along.  That's possible since only a few select phrases are decipherable.  "You can be my partner in crime," "Sixes and sevens and nines," just enough to make things sound slightly sordid and enticing.  The "Got to roll me" chant at the end brings up all sorts of seedy connotations.  Rolling dice as in gambling, taking someone's money as in rolling a drunk and then there is the sexual meaning too, of course.  Sex, crime, gambling, all the stuff your parents warned you about.  Hey, this is classic rock 'n' roll! 

The Rolling Stones were experts at exploiting the "bad boy" side of rock 'n' roll and made it work for them for a long time.  Their sixties and early seventies work is powerfully seductive like the best and dirtiest blues and r&b records.  They hardly ever sounded false.  Later they turned the image into an institution and looked ridiculous a lot of the time.  A woman I work with saw the Stones on their last tour and about all she could say about them was that they were so polite.  I guess it's difficult to cultivate the "bad boy" persona when you're pushing sixty.  Ah well, at least we have their old records to go back and listen to.  On "Tumbling Dice" the Stones still sound as good, and as raunchy, as ever.

From the album A Quick One, 1966.

So much Who music could easily find a place on my list of favorite songs.  "The Kids Are Alright," "Pictures of Lily," "Pure and Easy," "Substitute," just to name a few.  (This list is still young so I could still end up writing about some of these other Who faves.)  As I was compiling a tape of songs to consider for this zine, I knew I wanted to include a Who selection.   I kept returning to the somewhat obscure "So Sad About Us."

As far as I know, "So Sad About Us" was never a hit.  It's buried on the second side of the Who's second album.  Yet the song has always been one of my favorites.  Imagine my surprise when Pete Townshend used a charming early demo of "So Sad" to kick off the first volume of home recordings titled Scoop.  Imagine my horror as the recording cuts off in mid-song!  Ouch! However, the fragment that survives is a melancholy little ditty, carried by Townshend's winsome vocal and lilting acoustic guitar accompaniment.  It may be my favorite moment on either one of the Scoop collections.

By the time the rest of the Who get their hands on it, the gentleness of the demo transforms "So Sad" into a mighty slab of power pop.  Townshend's tuneful finger picking has now grown into one of his full-blown trademark chord progressions.  (I've always loved how Townshend puts chords together.  Listen to the intro to "Pinball Wizard" again sometime.)  John Entwistle's bass has a metallic buzz overtone that I haven't heard anywhere else.  Keith Moon's drumming is wildly all over the map, yet at the same time locks into the rhythm of Townshend's playing and holds the song together.  Ever the tough guy, Roger Daltrey's singing still manages to retain the sadness of the lyrics but in a way that says,  "Hey, listen here!  I'm hurting!"  All in all, it's a winning performance.  Without grand operatic statements or big productions, on "So Sad About Us," the Who sound like a band bashing away just for the sheer joy of it.  Sometimes that can say more than all the rock operas in the world.

THE KKK TOOK MY BABY AWAY by the Ramones. 
From the albums Pleasant Dreams, 1981 & Ramonesmania, 1988.

No one has done so much with so few chords.  The Ramones blend the urgency of punk with the melodic hooks of sixties bubblegum pop.  Their compact tunes, rarely exceeding the two minute mark, may sound simplistic but the Ramones are no dummies.  They know what makes a good rock 'n' roll song.  A good beat, a catchy chorus and lyrics that are biting and funny.      Really, their albums are pretty much interchangeable but you can't go wrong with the 30 track Ramonesmania best of collection.  It's all here.  From the early cartoon punk blasts of "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Teenage Lobotomy," to "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg's" pointed political commentary and a nifty cover of the Searchers' hit "Needles and Pins."  The song that I end up playing more than once whenever I put the CD on though is "The KKK Took My Baby Away," a sort of twisted rewrite of "I Fought the Law."

I love everything about this song.  The introductory power chords separated by the rousing "Hey! Ho!" chant.  The way the song modulates up a key midway through to turn the excitement up a notch (sure, an old trick but I'm not complaining when it works so well).  And then what about the absurdist lyrics?  The singer has lost his girlfriend.  Not just to another guy.  No.  It seems that the mean old KKK has done gone and taken her away.  He doesn't know why they would do such a thing or where they took her but not even the President or the FBI will help him find out.  What's a guy to do?  He could vent his frustrations in a two minute 31 second slice of punk 'n' pop, that's what.  Works for me.

"HEY!  HO!"

REAL ENOUGH TO LOVE by Jules & the Polar Bears. 
From the album fenetiks, 1979.

From the "dumb" pop of the Ramones to Jules Shear, one of pop's most intelligent songwriters.  Shear has been writing his finely crafted, heart tugging songs for over two decades now.  I first discovered him when he led his criminally overlooked band named Jules and the Polar Bears.  1978's Got No Breeding is an eclectic album full of McCartneyesque melodies and punk rock energy, topped off by Shear's machine gun lyrics.  With a voice a friend of mine once described as "a constipated Jackson Browne," Shear infuses each song with unrestrained pathos.  (I seem to have a penchant for singers with "bad" or "different" voices.  Maybe what I like is that they have to search for unique ways of using their limitations and in the process come, up with an even more effective way of expressing themselves. That's my theory anyway.)

While many of the songs on Got No Breeding literally go from a whisper to a scream and back again, the next album fenetiks (Actually Phonetics.  All the titles and lyrics are printed phonetically on the record sleeve, of course.) isn't quite as scattershot.  The more uniform production makes the songs more cohesive  But with Jules in charge the proceedings are still on the wild side.  "Smell of Home" has to be the wordiest reggae song of all time.  The Bo Diddley beat never sounded so acid fried as it does on "All Caked Up."  The chaos really only lets up once for the ballad "Real Enough to Love."  And even this song starts out a little skewed.

"Real Enough to Love" opens with a dramatic guitar solo that sounds as if Pink Floyd has come to visit, belying the tenderness that follows as Shear earnestly sings:

                The finish don't need to run too deep
                And the polish still will shine
                And you shined like a ghoul
                I was more fun than school
                So we lived in each other's time
                And your studying took
                What was in those big black books
                To be maps of the promised land
                You found where everything led
                With that map in your head
                And nothing with your hands

                A weakness real enough to love
                I know these jokes too well for me
                To laugh without a tear

Like many of Shear's early lyrics, they are obscure but the images hook you in.  I particularly like "lived in each other's time."  It sounds like the glow of new love.   Yet an underlying sadness lingers throughout.  The way the music surges as Jules sings the three line chorus and they way his voice breaks on "without a tear" is touching beyond belief.  And real enough for me to love.        

LOVE IS ALL I HAVE TO GIVE by the Checkmates. 
Released in 1969.  Available on the album Phil Spector: Back to Mono 1958-1969.

"Love is All I Have to Give" is a rather ironic title for a record that Phil Spector is responsible for.  In all the accounts that I've read about the man, love is one thing that Spector doesn't give out freely.  He has been a monster toward his wives, his sons and just about everyone else involved with him.  But man, this monster has an ear.  Some people believe that those who are geniuses in a specific area are often atrophied in other areas of life.  Phil Spector is certainly a good example to hold up in support of this theory.

Listening to the three disc Back to Mono set is an overwhelming experience.  It's one great song after the other, each one sporting the rich, deep sound that makes them all "teenage symphonies," as Spector liked to call them.  Listening to Back to Mono for the first time  convinced me that I've now heard every musical trick that Spector ever had up his sleeve.  How could there be any surprises left?  Then the final song on the last disc begins.  Boy, was I wrong.

"Black Pearl" is the Checkmates' best known song and also one of Spector's last productions to become a hit.  It's a smooth soul number that sounds understated next to Spector's earlier work.  "Love is All I Have to Give" was the group's previous single.  It was a total flop but the lush strings and enormous sound undeniably mark the song as a Phil Spector effort.  An obscure non-hit seems a curious finale for such a grand collection of music.  Except that in the song's last 30 seconds, Spector may perform his greatest hat trick of all. 

As the orchestra comes to its final crashing crescendo and the singer pleads, "Take me back and let me liiiive again!," a thousand mandolins start trilling away (Spector used this on John Lennon's "Happy Christmas" a couple years later too).  Most of the rest of the instruments fall away, the vocalist continues on, "And that one life is all I got to live. . ." and then it happens.  From out of nowhere comes a lone violin.  It takes an operatic flight up the scale then holds a few notes, creating an astonishing weeping effect.  The whole thing is so outrageous that it bowled me over!   This one moment is worth the price of all of the discs.  The violin's majestic entrance secures "Love is All I Have to Give" a place on my list of Spector favorites.

Only Phil Spector could take such a hokey device and turn it into a masterstroke.  Perhaps it takes an egomaniacal bastard to even think of doing such a thing and then be brave enough to actually pull it off.  I wouldn't want to know or be anywhere near him but I'll gladly listen to the creations of this troubled soul.

JULY 11-19, 1998


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