Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Montgomery Gentry -- "Hell Yeah" (2002/2003)


He works way too much for way too little
He drinks way too early 'til way too late
He hasn't had a raise since New Year's Day in '88
Gets trampled on by everyone 
'Cept when he comes in here
He's a product of the Haggard generation
He's got a redneck side when you get him agitated
He got the gold tooth look from a stiff right hook he's proud he took
For his right-wing stand on Vietnam
Says he lost his brother there
He yells out "Johnny Cash!"
And the band starts to play 
"Ring of Fire" as he walks up 
And stands there by the stage
And he says
"Hell yeah, turn it up, right on!"
That's right -- 2 or 3 lines is featuring a country-western song.  You got a problem with that?

(You're thinking to yourself that 2 or 3 lines has finally jumped the shark, aren't you?  I mean, we're jumping from pop bimbos like Ke$ha and Nicki Minaj to what's shaping up to be an ENDLESS history of rap music to a country-western song?  Folks, 2 or 3 lines jumped the shark a long, long time ago.  And I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better.)

I shouldn't have waited this long to do a country song -- a lot of you probably thought that I didn't like country music, or that I see myself as too good for country music or something -- that my you-know-what don't stink.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Just like the guy described in the lines from "Hell Yeah" that are quoted above, I am 100% redneck by birth.  I have a perverse pride in being a redneck, and you'll never catch me denying that I am  one.

My wife does NONE of these things!
My ancestors are nearly all English, and when they fell on hard times in England, they came to Virginia sometime in the 1700s.  I don't know precisely why they came to Virginia, but I assume they were having trouble making a go of it in the old country -- would you really pack up and take a dangerous and uncomfortable sea voyage to settle your family in a wilderness if you were making beaucoup bucks in Ye Merry Olde?

After a couple of generations in Virginia, my ancestors moved to Kentucky and Tennessee -- presumably because things didn't work out according to plan in Virginia.  Later they moved to Missouri and Arkansas -- obviously life sucked pretty bad in Kentucky and Tennessee if they were that desperate.  

One of my great-great-grandfathers founded Ava, the county seat of Douglas County, Missouri -- where parts of the movie Winter's Bone were filmed.  If you've seen the movie, you'll know that Douglas County ain't exactly California.  I took my kids to see Winter's Bone so they could see how things might have turned out for us if those ancestors had ended up on the wrong side of the law.

Speaking of California, my forebears were apparently too clueless to keep going west to California 80 years ago when even John Steinbeck's Okies were able to figure out that was the smart move. 

Even they were smarter than my ancestors
 Nope, my folks stayed right where they were -- in places like Neosho, Missouri, and Goshen, Arkansas (near Fayetteville).  

Given all that, why don't I listen to country music?  I have listened to a fair amount of country-western at times.  I listened to it all the time when I was in law school in Boston -- all part of that perverseness I mentioned earlier.  (The Harvard University radio station had a weekly show that featured equal parts outlaw country and traditional/bluegrass music -- it was called "Hillbilly at Harvard," and it's slogan was "Country music for eastern New England.") 

My daughters -- who grew up in suburban Washington, DC, and went to a Catholic girls' high school, for cryin' out loud -- have been country music fans for years.  My sister and nearly all of my Arkansas cousins (of which there are several thousand, many of whom are married to each other, or at least very close friends) listen to it.  

But I haven't listened to country music regularly for a long time.  But occasionally I will stumble across a good country song that will stick in my brain. 

By "good country song," I mean one with a heapin' helpin' of ATTITUDE.  "Hell Yeah" certainly qualifies.  

(By the way, I assumed until I was writing this post that Montgomery Gentry was one guy.  But it turns out that the name refers to a country music duo with two singers -- Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry.  Live and learn . . .)

I've been writing a lot about hip-hop music recently.  One reason it appeals to me is that my wife thinks I am far too old and upper-middle-class to listen to it, and I'm contrary enough to listen to it for that reason alone.  Also, rap songs are so chock-full of words, and can be so clever or funny or outrageous that they appeal to me intellectually as well.  But rap songs usually don't tell a story and rarely have good characters.

"Hell Yeah" is a brilliant character sketch.  We meet two characters who are very different people, but who end up in the same place (a redneck bar), doing the same thing (yelling out song requests to the band).

I'm going to call the first character "Joe."  We learn in the first verse that he has a deadend job and a drinking problem.  Although the song doesn't tell us this explicitly, I don't think Joe went to college.  And I'm betting his wife kicked him out about 20 years ago, and he's been living in a one-bedroom apartment or a trailer park ever since.

Joe grew up on Merle Haggard, and supported the war in Vietnam not for political reasons, but because his brother fought and died there.  So be careful what you say about Vietnam around him.  You may be 20 years younger and 50 pounds heavier, but Joe's is going to come after you if you say the wrong thing, sucker.

Once Joe's had a couple of beers more than are good for him, the bar band starts playing "Ring of Fire," and that's all he needs to go a little crazy.  (Say what you will about Joe, but he has good taste in music.)

Why "Ring of Fire"?  Because that's what Joe was listening to with his brother back before Vietnam.  It's a great song -- but more importantly, it's a song that evokes a particular time and place for Joe.

Now let's meet the other character in "Hell Yeah" -- I'm going to call her Amy.
She's got MBA and a plush corner office
She's got a don't-mess-with-me attitude
She'll close the deal, she don't reveal that she can feel
The loneliness, the emptiness 
'Cept when she comes in here
She's a product of the Me Generation
She's got a rock 'n' roll side when you get her agitated
She's got the tattoo there on her derriere from a spring-break dare
In Panama where love was all 
She thought she'd ever need
She yells out to the band, 
"Know any Bruce Springsteen?"
Then she jumps up on the bar
And she starts to scream
She says,
"Hell yeah, turn it up, right on!"

(Note: as any redneck would know, "Panama" does not refer to the country where the Panama Canal is, but to Panama City, Florida, a popular spring-break destination for drunken college kids that sits smack-dab in the middle of the stretch of Gulf Coast beaches known as the "Redneck Riviera.")

Spring break at Panama City Beach, Florida
Amy is a somewhat more problematic character than Joe.  You might say Joe is a bit of a cliche, but Joe's a somewhat more convincing character than Amy is.  

If Montgomery Gentry had asked me, I would have told them to make Amy a little less successful in business.  I'd give her a business degree from some no-name state college, not an MBA.  And I wouldn't give her a "plush corner office" -- I'd make her a salesperson, working mostly on commission, cold-calling strangers in the hope of landing some new business.

But the rest of the portrait of Amy is dead on.  She's a generation younger than Joe is -- maybe 35 years old, while he is 55 or so -- but they aren't so different.  She's working too hard to have much of a personal life -- or maybe the only guys she meets are jerks and losers -- so she ends up having one too many drinks at some random dive on her way home from work.  (The bar where she and Joe are drinking is Joe's regular place, I think, but not hers.)  

And why does she want to hear "The Boss"?  Same reason Joe gets excited when "Ring of Fire" is performed.  Springsteen evokes a special time and place for her -- namely, a bar in Panama City when she had just turned 21 and was about to get a tattoo on her derriere.  (In a way, she's sorry to have the tattoo today -- but she's not sorry she got it.  I bet that she and her friends had a helluva lot of fun that night.)

There's no indication in the song that Joe and Amy have any kind of contact.  They don't have a drink together, or go back to Joe's trailer park, or fall in love and get married -- not a chance.  They are just two solitary people, drinking to forget their troubles, until the music suddenly strikes a spark and they are up on their feet, singing along, and shouting out a request when that song is over.

This song gets you going and puts you in a great mood, even though it is about two fundamentally unhappy characters.  It captures that moment when you have had a little too much to drink, but not a lot too much. 

A couple of more drinks and your mood will turn from euphoric to desperate or angry, and you'll start to feel sorry for yourself as you realize it's well after midnight and your alarm is going to wake you up at 6 am in the morning.

But right now -- at this exact moment -- you're energetic and excited . . . the band has just begun to play a song you love, and you're going to sing along to it at the top of your lungs.  For the next three minutes, everything will be just fine.

Tomorrow's another story, of course -- but for now, to quote Matthew 6:34, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

Here's the official music video for "Hell Yeah," which has a much more light-hearted spirit than the gloomy spin I put on it:



Here's a link you can use to buy the song on iTunes:

Hell Yeah - My Town

Here's a link you can use to buy it from Amazon:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Clara Engel -- "Madagascar" (2009) (part 2 of 2)

You could take me down 
With one touch of your scorn 
Your kiss like a whip 
Your caress full of thorns 
Desire desirous 
Pleasure that tears itself apart



In the first part of this post, I talked about the lyrics of "Madagascar."  Now let's talk a little about the music.

"Madagascar" -- which is track 6 on Clara's 2009 album, Secret Beasts -- is musically very different from "Accompanied by Dreams."  (Click here for a different video of Clara performing that song.)

"Madagascar" is mostly just Clara Engel's voice and percussion -- although there's some guitar and even a little trumpet.  The drums sound somewhat tribal -- as in African -- which is appropriate given where the angels hail from.  But Clara does other songs where she is accompanied by similar drums.

Clara Engel
Clara sings the first verses quietly, although she sings with considerable intensity.  She doesn't really start to cut loose until about two minutes into the song, when the first chorus begins.

There are two brief post-chorus bridges where Clara wails wordlessly to a noisy and dissonant instrumental accompaniment.  The second one of these passages -- which begins at about 3:35 -- is real possessed-by-spirits stuff that is almost certainly going to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.  

The volume then gets turned down and the song closes as quietly as it began with a repeat of the first six lines -- it's just Clara's singing and some drums.  

I might have ended the song after that second chorus/bridge, when both the volume and the emotional intensity were at peak levels.  (To borrow a joke from This Is Spinal Tap, on a scale of one to 10, "Madagascar" hits 11 here.)  I understand why Clara wanted to repeat the first verse -- it's a really good verse, and there's got to be a temptation to sing it again to make sure your listeners get it.  

In addition, it enables her to come down slowly from that second chorus/bridge and allow the audience's heart rates to return to normal levels.  Perhaps ending the song as abruptly as I've suggested -- with the drums pounding and the horns blasting and Clara wailing -- would have been too shocking.

"Secret Beasts" cover
We just had a close call, boys and girls.  If Clara hadn't e-mailed me, I probably would have never heard this song.  It's a little discouraging to realize how much good music I'm missing out on today, not to mention all the music from 10 years, or 20 years, or 30 years ago that I overlooked at the time and will likely never stumble across in the future.  

The same is true for books, of course -- and movies.  And women, too, of course.  Life is just too short.  You barely have time to scratch the surface. 

But let's look on the bright side.  Kismet brought Clara Engel's music to me, and now I'm bringing it to you.  Let's look at the glass as half full, not half empty.  In the words of the old hymn, let's "count our blessings, name them one by one."

And now that the hymn is over, it's time to pass the collection plate.  Remember that stuff at the beginning of this post about your having a chance to become a patron of the arts?

Here's how Clara described life as an independent musician to another blogger:
I’m independent, yes. I am working with two small labels right now . . . . In terms of business, at the moment, I’m horribly broke and can’t afford to record. 
Music scenes, and maybe all art ‘scenes’ are usually run by nepotism. [Note: I'm think she's talking about "cronyism" more than "nepotism."]  If you don’t know the right people, and you aren’t good at mingling and social climbing, you become isolated. No one will hear you, no one will book you. It doesn’t matter how strong your material is. . . .
The people who buy my music online mostly live in Europe and in the USA. I’ve experienced such kindness, support, and generosity from my online listeners -- it’s amazing. But it’s a hard balance, and a huge job: marketing oneself and creating. I want to devote my time and energy to my work, not to promoting myself on Twitter. That just seems like a waste of my mental resources.
I do value my independence, artistically speaking -- I would never ever want to be bound to a label that put limits on my creativity or withheld any of my output. I am my own boss. I will always be independent in that sense. I don’t have a desire to be rich, but I would love to be a self-sustaining indie artist, and I’m still in the process of figuring out how to do that.
I want to single out two of the things she said:

1.  "I’m horribly broke and can’t afford to record."

2.   "I want to devote my time and energy to my work, not to promoting myself on Twitter. That just seems like a waste of my mental resources."

And here's something else she said without coming right out and saying it:

3.  Clara LOVES music and nothing is going to stop her from creating it.  (I love music, but I don't think I LOVE it -- given the way I've lived my life, I must love other stuff more.)

One way to support Clara's music is to go online and buy one of her albums -- or at least buy a couple of her songs.  Here's a link to her web store.  (Some of her stuff is available on iTunes and Amazon, so you can buy from them if you prefer.  But quite a few of her songs are only available through her web store, and don't iTunes and Amazon have enough money already?)

You can use this link to listen to and then buy "Madagascar."  (It only costs a dollar, for cryin' out loud.  Archduke Rudolf had to give Beethoven thousands of crowns, or florins, or thalers, or whatever they called Benjamins back in the day.  Of course, he did get his name on the Fourth Piano Concerto.)  

But there's an even better way to become Clara's patron.  Click here and you'll be taken to Clara's Kapipal page.  

I had never heard of Kapipal until now.  It's what is called a "crowd funding" site that enables you to create a web page where friends and strangers can contribute money to you or to your cause.  Maybe you want to raise money for earthquake relief in Japan, or you need help to pay for your wedding -- or for a new music album you hope to record -- so you post a link to your Kapipal page on Facebook or whatever and hope that your friends and family come through.

Click here to learn more about Kapipal.

Any money that you send to Clara via Kapipal is going to help pay for the recording and editing of her new album.  I'm giving you a chance to assist in the creation of a work of art -- and if Clara's work to date is any indication, it will be a very original and very provocative work of art as well.

There are several ways to go here.  You can donate as little as $10 and Clara will list your name in the album credits.  But for $15, you'll get a download of the album.  And for $30, you'll get not only a free download but also a CD of the album, which Clara will autograph for you.

Clara figures that if she can raise only $3000, she can produce her new album.  That's not a lot of money -- it doesn't sound to me like you have to worry about your contributions being wasted on chaffeur-driven limos or cocaine.  

If you like "Madagascar," this is a no-brainer.  But even if you don't know what in the hell to make of "Madagascar," that doesn't mean you can't help a sister out.  

So you can do the right thing, or you can just turn the page -- or, in this case, close your browser.  I hoping that a few of you will decide to help Clara get to her goal.


Once again, here's a video of Clara performing "Madagascar" live:




(By the way, Madagascar -- an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa -- is the 4th largest island in the world.  Not counting Antarctica and Australia -- which are usually considered continents, the four biggest islands in the world are Greenland, New Guinea, Borneo, and Madagascar.  Madagascar is slightly larger than France and quite a bit larger than California, and has a population of 20 million people, which is more than New York and almost as many Texas. ) 

Madagascar



Friday, March 25, 2011

Clara Engel -- "Madagascar" (2009) (part 1 of 2)


An angel from Madagascar 
Picked me up in a motorcar 
We filled our bodies up with stars
Now we're iridescent in the dark 
Now our mothers don't know who we are 
But I love my angel from Madagascar 
I'm going to give you a chance to be a patron of the arts today -- a chance to help a very talented young singer/songwriter named Clara Engel create music.  

This is a priceless opportunity, although you are probably too clueless to realize it.  So I am going to educate you.  In fact, I'm going to educate you at such great length that I had to break this post into two parts.

Archduke Rudolf
Let me tell you a little about Archduke Rudolf -- short for Rudolf Johannes Joseph Rainier von Habsburg-Lothringen, Archduke and Prince Imperial of Austria, Prince Royal of Hungary and Bohemia (1788-1831).  He was the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, an Archduke, a Prince, an Archbishop, and a Cardinal, but he is remembered today for one thing and one thing only: he was Beethoven's greatest supporter and patron.  

The compositions that Beethoven dedicated to Archduke Rudolf to thank him for his financial assistance include some of the most legendary musical works ever composed.  We're talking about the Piano Sonata No. 29 (the Hammerklavier), the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, and -- of course -- the Archduke Trio.

I played the Fourth Piano Concerto many years ago.  I didn't play it very well, but well enough to appreciate that it is simply the greatest piano concerto ever written.  Here's a brief excerpt:




And if it hadn't been for Archduke Rudolf's patronage of Beethoven, it might never have been written.

I'm going to fast-forward 200 years now, and transport you from 19th-century Vienna to 21st-century Montreal.  It's too late to do anything for Beethoven -- he died in 1827.  But you can do something for another talented and deserving musician, a young woman named Clara Engel.  I'll explain how you can help Clara a bit later.

Clara Engel
Clara Engel -- who is 28 -- was born in Toronto but now lives in Montreal.  Here's a link to a recent interview with her that discusses her early experiences with musical instruments, what books she read in the last year, what songs are currently on her iPod, etc.  (I can't say I'm familiar with any of the contemporary recording artists she mentions.)

Here's a quote from that interview:  
I’m drawn to songs that go for the jugular.  I am simple and brutal when it comes to the music I love.  I hardly even like to talk about it.  I get inarticulate.  Explaining, understanding, pinning them down is like butterfly collecting – highly stylized murder.  Now I think about it, music and butterflies are kind of alike . . . fleeting and unattainable, not to be held. 

 It makes me think of William Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy."  The more I try to explain why I love something, the farther I feel from its living, changing being. 
Here's the entire Blake poem she quotes from above:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise. 

Blake was a painter and printmaker as well as a poet, and Clara is also an artist:

Clara Engel's "Arc"
Clara has recorded six studio albums (plus one live album) -- the first one was released in 2005, the most recent in 2010.  Here's a link to her web store, where you can buy downloads of her albums and her individual songs.  

Clara talks about herself, her music, and her art in this brief documentary: 



One of the differences between Clara Engel and me is that I would never think to use the word "Madagascar" in a song or a poem or a story unless I was writing something that was literally about Madagascar.  

I would be even less likely to write about an angel from Madagascar picking me up in a motorcar -- not to mention an angel from Tangiers whispering a rancid lovesong in my ears.  I guess that's why I write a blog about other people's songs instead of writing songs.  

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Clara Engel until now -- I didn't know anything about her either until a few weeks ago, when she sent me an e-mail.

I write this blog for two different groups of people: friends and strangers.  (I guess that pretty much covers the universe, doesn't it.) 

I have a small cadre of friends who follow 2 or 3 lines closely and offer their comments on occasion.  (I wish there were more of you, and that you commented more often.  But I'm not complaining -- I'm grateful for each and every one of you, and each and every one of your comments.)

Then there are the strangers who read 2 or 3 lines.  Most of them say nothing after visiting my website.  I'm usually able to identify what country they live in and which of my posts they've looked at, but that's all I know about them.

Occasionally one of the strangers does say something.  I've even heard from a few of the musicians I've written about -- most notably, Patricia Barber.  (I wrote about her "The New Year Eve's Song," and she flattered me by posting my little essay on her website.  I got a lot of traffic back in the early days of 2 or 3 lines as a result of her doing that, and we continue to correspond today.  I'm going to see her perform live in Chicago next month.)  

Here's the e-mail I received from Clara Engel a few weeks ago:  
Greetings.
I am an independent Canadian musician and artist, and I'm wondering if you'd be interested in featuring my work on your blog.
Here's a free song for you to sample, called "Lick My Fins."
Clara Engel
Clara had me even before she told me she had a song called "Lick My Fins."  But that song title really sealed the deal.  So I promptly responded, asking her about 100 annoying questions.

My most urgent question -- of course -- was why had she contacted little ol' me?  

I was hoping that the answer would be that she had stumbled across 2 or 3 lines somehow and was so taken by my unerring taste in music, my insightful analysis of the songs featured in my posts, my charming and colorful personal anecdotes, or my desperate attempts to get attention that she was compelled to sit down at her computer and write to me immediately.

But I am a realist, so I was expecting the answer to be that she had done a Google search to identify every music-related blog out there and sent them all a form e-mail with a bunch of links in hopes that they would help her publicize her music and enable her to sell a few more downloads.  

(By the way, there would have been nothing wrong with her doing exactly that.  After all, as Eric Burdon of the Animals once sang, "It's a hard world to get a break in."  Clara's serious about her music, and she wants the world to know about it.  But there are about a zillion other musicians out there competing for our attention.  I don't envy her the task she has set for herself.  It's kind of like going online to find the woman of your dreams -- the odds are succeeding aren't very good.) 

Happily for my ego, the truth was a bit closer to the former scenario than the latter.  Clara had been looking for blogs about Lhasa de Sela, an American singer-songwriter who had  settled in Montreal, which is where Clara now lives.  I wrote about one of Lhasa's songs last New Year's Day, which was the first anniversary of her death from breast cancer at age 37, and Clara read it and decided to contact me to see if I might post about one of her songs.  

I will admit that I was so pleased that Clara had noticed 2 or 3 lines that I probably would have agreed to write about her music even if it had been only average stuff.  

It turns out that Clara's music is about as far from being average as it is possible for music to be.  I have just begun to acquaint myself with her oeuvre, but the songs I've heard so far are strikingly original.  

The one I've chosen to feature here -- it's my favorite of her songs at this point, although that could change -- is intense and edgy and has some real all-hell-is-breaking-loose moments.

But before I discuss "Madagascar," I want to share a very different kind of Clara Engel song.  Many people may find "Accompanied by Dreams" the more appealing of the two -- it's certainly more conventional than "Madagascar" (which is NOT to say that it is conventional), and might be preferred by more people, at least initially.  It's a gorgeous song, and she performs it beautifully -- she walks the line between emotion and self-control very nicely.
You said that I would be 
Accompanied by dreams 
That would make this place 
Less sinister to me 
But you lied 
I'm terrified 

Here's Clara's music video for "Accompanied by Dreams":


"Accompanied by Dreams" is from Clara's newest album, The Bethlehem Tapes (which was recorded when she was visiting Bethlehem, Pennsylvania).  Click here if you'd like to download the song and read the lyrics. 

On to "Madagascar." 

I've done line-by-line analyses of a couple of songs on 2 or 3 lines -- most notably "The New Year's Eve Song" (by Patricia Barber) and "Blue Alert" (by Anjali).  The lyrics of both those songs are subtle, but I felt fairly confident that I was on the right track when I explained what their lyrics meant.  "Madagascar" is much less literal and much more dreamlike in content.  It's a song that you simply open yourself up to and experience -- not a song that you can analyze intellectually.

I'd compare the Patricia Barber and Anjali songs to Italian Renaissance paintings.  Such paintings often tell rather complicated stories (usually from the Bible, or classical mythology), and you need to be quite learned to appreciate all their subtleties.  But "Madagascar" is more like a Max Ernst or Salvador Dali painting -- surreal, even psychedelic.   

"The Angel of the Hearth" (1937) by Max Ernst
I usually have little patience with prose or poetry that is too opaque -- I want the writer to tell me what exactly is happening, and that's the way I usually write.  

The lyrics to "Madagascar" are not indecipherable, so they don't frustrate the listener.  But they certainly aren't what you'd call linear, and the song doesn't tell a story that makes a lot of sense if your frame of reference is everyday life.  But it does tell a story -- the kind of story that takes place only in a crazy dream, or in a fantasy. 

Before I discuss the lyrics, I want to share something Clara said in an e-mail:

[M]y songs aren't autobiographical -- as Rimbaud said: "I is another" . . . so in "Madagascar" the "I" is not me.

The Rimbaud line in French is Je est an autre -- it has also been translated as "I am someone else."  (This line seems to have influenced Bob Dylan greatly.) 

I take Clara at her word.  It is a mistake to assume that a writer's writing is always autobiographical.  My attempts at fiction have all been about 99% autobiographical -- but that may not be true of writers with more imagination.

On the other hand, isn't everything that a novelist or songwriter or poet writes autobiographical to some degree?  Not in a literal sense, but reflective of the writer's desires, or fantasies, or fears?  I suppose a writer could consciously choose -- perhaps as an intellectual exercise -- to make up something that has nothing to do with himself or herself, but I don't think many writers do that. 

Let's walk through the lyrics before we listen to the song.  Here are the first 12 lines:

An angel from Madagascar 
Picked me up in a motorcar 
We filled our bodies up with stars
Now we're iridescent in the dark 
Now our mothers don't know who we are 
But I love my angel from Madagascar 
An angel from the slums of Tangiers 
Whispered a rancid lovesong in my ears 
And filled my memory up with her tears 
An angel from a Dead Sea dawn 
Lashed my skin with a branch of palm 
And told me to love isn't just to disarm 

[Note:  Clara doesn't break the lines quite the same way in the lyrics printed on her website.]

There are three "angels" in the song -- one is expressly referred to as female, and I'm assuming all three are females -- as is the narrator, the "I" character.  The three certainly aren't angels in a literal sense.

The angel from Madagascar "picked me up" -- literally (in a car) and figuratively -- and now their mothers "don't know who [they] are."  

If you were a young woman rolling around in bed or in the back seat of a car with a hot African babe, your mother might not recognize you either -- "Honey?  Is that you?  What are you and that girl doing with that . . . OH MY GOD!"  

(Clara is young, and as far as I know she doesn't have any children.  If she was 40 and had a couple of kids, I wonder if the line would have been "Now our children don't know who we are."  Which would be a more disturbing event for a woman?  To have her mother walk in on her while she was having sex with another woman, or to have her children walk in on her?)

Tangier street scene
Next the narrator is with an angel from the slums of Tangiers -- or Tangier, if you prefer.  (My son visited Tangier when he was studying abroad in Scotland a few years ago, and he tells me the slums of Tangier are some very serious slums.)  It sounds like it would be very nice to have an angel whispering a love song into your ear.  But a "rancid" love song?  

Absolutely.  If you're in the right mood, a rancid love song could be just the thing.

Dead Sea bather
Finally, there's a third angel from a "Dead Sea dawn" -- Jordan is east of the Dead Sea, so this may be a Jordanian angel.  This third angel whips her with a branch from a palm tree -- what my parents would have called a "switch" where they were trying to scare me into behaving.  Juxtaposing references to the Dead Sea and a palm branch has Biblical overtones.

And then we get to the chorus.  

You could take me down 
With one touch of your scorn 
Your kiss like a whip 
Your caress full of thorns 
Desire desirous 
Pleasure that tears itself apart

("Pleasure that tears itself apart" is very good, I think.)

The narrator seems to welcome her lover's scorn, the "kiss like a whip," and the "caress full of thorns."  Her "angels" seem to enjoy hurting the one they love, and the narrator doesn't mind -- it hurts, but it hurts so good!

After the chorus, the narrator continues the story of her encounter with the angel from Madagascar:

An angel from Madagascar 
Picked me up in a motorcar 
We got drunk in the moonlight, threw knives, and bloodied the stars 
(It was fun, I'd do it again!)

But that night it rained, I caught a fever and died 
Night swallowed me up, and when I opened my eyes 
It was all a dream, but there's a star in the palm of my eye 

The line I put into parentheses -- "It was fun, I'd do it again!" -- is a very tasty little aside.  Clara doesn't really sing these words but speaks them in a tone of voice that's partly defiant but mostly seductive.  

The line and her delivery of it bring to mind the Carmen Sternwood character in The Big Sleep.  I would guess that this character was actually about 18 years old, but she acted much younger despite being well-acquainted with all the vices of a much more mature woman.  (One website describes her as "a dizzy nymphette who sucks her thumb in the presence of men she finds exciting" -- including Humphrey Bogart.)

The singer and her angel got drunk and threw knives and it was fun -- so damn the torpedos, she'd do it again!  

And if you're honest with yourself, you'll admit that all of that does kind of sound like fun, and that you'd probably do it right along with the narrator and her angel from Madagascar if you had any balls. 

We'll turn from the words to the music in part 2.

Here's Clara Engel performing "Madagascar":

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jefferson Airplane -- "How Do You Feel?" (1967)


Look into her eyes

Do you see what I mean?
Just look at her hair
And when she speaks
Oh, oh, what a pleasant surprise
How do you feel?

Surrealistic Pillow was the first big psychedelic album to come out of San Francisco, and it has been a favorite of mine for over 40 years.

The album hit the stores in early 1967, but I probably didn't get it until some time after "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" were relased.  (Both were top-10 singles.)


I remember ordering Surrealistic Pillow in response to an introductory offer from the RCA record club -- you know, "Get 12 records free when you agree to buy 6 within one year," etc.  This particular RCA offer was two records for 99 cents, as I recall, and there were no strings attached.

What was the other record I got?  Hugo Montenegro's Music From The Man From U.N.C.L.E. album.  I don't think this was the actual music played during the television show -- it consisted of a cover version of the main "Man From U.N.C.L.E." theme plus other instrumentals in the spirit of the show.





I remember playing it one Saturday night when my parents were out to dinner with friends.  I was pretending to be Napoleon Solo, jumping from one hiding place to another -- peeking around the corner, and then diving behind the sofa, firing my imaginary Walther P-38 pistol at my pursuers all the while.  (I was at least 15 years old -- maybe even 16 -- so this is a little embarrassing to admit.) 

I didn't play the LP very often, so it's got to be in pristine condition -- probably worth a fortune on eBay.

Surrealistic Pillow didn't inspire me to run around my house in fantasy secret-agent mode.  In fact, it often put me to sleep.

I remember sitting in the big, overstuffed La-Z-Boy in our living room and drifting off to sleep (despite it being the middle of the day) while Surrealistic Pillow played on our Magnavox console stereo.

It was such a relaxing record to listen to -- not boring, just relaxing.  Classical music often had the same effect on me.  I rarely made it through a Mozart or Beethoven symphony without nodding off.  (I wish I could just let myself fall asleep at an orchestra concert.  It's such a nice feeling to go to sleep while listening to music.)

Surrealistic Pillow has a lot of very good songs:  "She Has Funny Cars," "Today," "Comin' Back to Me," and others.  "How Do You Feel?" is not my favorite, but I was listening to it while walking my dog, Lily, the other day and was struck for the first time by how it sounded exactly like a Mamas and Papas song.

The Mamas and Papas
I don't know whether the Airplane consciously tried to sound like the Mamas and Papas on this song, but I don't see how anyone could deny the resemblance.  In fact, I can't imagine how I could have missed picking up on the similarity until 2011.  (I think it's Grace Slick's presence that is most responsible for that -- there aren't that many groups from that era that featured male-female harmonies.)

Surrealistic Pillow generally doesn't sound very much like the other music I think of as psychedelic, or acid rock.  But it's not really folk or folk-rock music either.  (It doesn't sound anything like Bob Dylan, and seems quite different from the Byrds as well, although a lot of people would probably classify the Airplane and the Byrds as being very similar.)

The best songs on this album have the innocence and the great harmony singing of the Rubber Soul-era Beatles and the Beach Boys, and "How Do You Feel?" also has the natural ebullience and the male-female harmonies that are characteristic of the best Mamas and Papas records.  Listen to it, and then listen to "Monday, Monday."

Here's "How Do You Feel?":



Here's "Monday, Monday":




Here's a link you can use to buy "How Do You Feel?" from iTunes:

How Do You Feel - Surrealistic Pillow


Here's a link to use if you prefer Amazon:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five -- "The Message" (1982)

Don't push me 
Cause I'm close to the edge 
I'm trying 
Not to lose my head 
It's like a jungle sometimes 
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under 


"Rapper's Delight" was a bit of a fluke, but there was nothing fluky about the success of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.  Their first album, The Message, was the first great hip hop album.  It went platinum in less than a month, and its title track was the first great "message" song -- which was titled "The Message."



Craig Hansen Werner, the author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America, wrote that "The Message" is the rap song that "changed the game."

"In the unforgettable first verse," Hansen says, "Melle Mel [the only one of the Furious Five to appear on the record] immerses his listeners in an urban nightmare of broken glass, rank smells, and unescapable noise."

Broken glass everywhere
People pissin' on the stairs
You know they just don't care 
I can't take the smell, can't take the noise 
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice 
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back 
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat 
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far 
'Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car 

DJ Melle Mel
The song pulls no punches in the last verse, which tells a cautionary tale of how one ghetto teenager ends up.

Turned stick-up kid
But look what you done did 
Got sent up for a eight-year bid 
Now your manhood is took and you're a Maytag 
Spend the next two years as a undercover fag 
Bein' used and abused to serve like hell 
'Til one day, you was found hung dead in the cell 

When I couldn't figure out the "Maytag" reference, I went to Mahbod Moghadam, a/k/a "The Rap Genius," who quickly pointed me to the Urban Dictionary website.  Urban Dictionary says that "Maytag" is used to describe a submissive prison homosexual because of the reputation of Maytag's washing machines for reliability -- like that brand of washing machine, a prison "Maytag" keeps working and working and working without malfunctioning. 




The synthesizer riff used in "The Message" has been sampled by Ice Cube and Puff Daddy, and its lyrics have been quoted or paraphrased by a "Who's Who" of rappers: Tupac Shakur, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, and many others.

Here's "The Message":



Here's a link you can use to buy 'The Message" from iTunes:

The Message - The Message


Here's a link you use if you prefer to buy it from Amazon:




Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ke$ha -- "TiK ToK" (2010)


I'm talkin' about everybody getting crunk
Boys try to touch my junk
Gonna smack him if he gets too drunk


It's St. Patrick's Day, which once must have had a legitimate reason for being, but which now is an excuse to engage in binge drinking.  (Not that binge drinkers really need an excuse.)

He's no amateur
I once had an Irish friend who was a big drinker.  (But I repeat myself).  He never went out drinking on March 17 -- he always said (with a sneer) that St. Patrick's was the day when all the amateurs went out drinking.

I not only don't go out drinking on St. Patrick's Day,  I am also careful not to wear green, lest people think I am Irish.

Speaking of binge drinking, I first wrote about Ke$ha a few months ago.  For my money, Ke$ha is the undisputed queen of drunken, trailer-trash pop stars.  

Ke$ha, queen of drunken, trailer-trash pop stars

Katy Perry?  Not even close.  

Britney Spears?  Yesterday's news.  (Britney does have a new hit out, and it may be the worst single I've heard played on the radio in years.  It's called "Hold It Against Me," and it's a play on the very old and very lame pickup line -- "If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?")


Britney and Katy: very trashy,
but no match for Ke$ha!

Ke$ha's songs are so unrelentingly sleazy that I have to believe she's just putting on an act.

(By the way, Ke$ha, girls don't have "junk." Boys have junk, but what girls have something very, very special that should not be referred to as "junk."  For those of you who aren't familiar with "crunk," it's a rap euphemism for getting drunk and high and generally effed up.)


Ke$ha ready for a night on the town

The lyrics to "TiK ToK" include what has become a notorious line about Ke$ha's dental hygiene practices:

Before I leave brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack
'Cuz when I leave for the night I ain't comin back

Ke$ha, before and after a bottle of Jack Daniels
Jack Daniels isn't the only thing she drinks, of course.  (I'm guessing water is the only thing she doesn't drink.)

Ain't got a care in world, but got plenty of beer
Ain't got no money in my pocket, but I'm already here

Ke$ha probably doesn't need to worry about being short of money to buy drinks.  I'm sure there are plenty of latter-day Sir Galahads out there who are happy to buy her drinks.

Binge drinking is a leitmotiv for Ke$ha.  (Fathers of daughters in their twenties may want to avoid exposure to Ke$ha's music.  You're going to want to lock them in their rooms, or send them to a convent, and neither of those options is going to go over very well with them.)  

Here are some lines from another Ke$ha hit, "Take It Off":

Got a water bottle full of whiskey
In my handbag
Got my drunk text on
I'll regret it in the mornin'

A few more lines from that song:

Now we're getting so smashed.
Knocking over trash cans.
Everybody breakin' bottles
It's a filthy hot mess

Ke$ha's destination in "Take It Off" is a place downtown "where the freaks all come around."  It's a "hole in the wall" and a "dirty free-for-all."  

To me, "hole in the wall" means a small place --  more likely than not, a hole in the wall is a dump.  

Some people have speculated that Ke$ha is talking about a club that has glory holes in its walls, but I really don't think that is the case.  (Let's not gild the lily.  Isn't this song sufficiently sleazy without bringing glory holes into the picture?)

In any event, it's clear that Ke$ha would have us believe that she drinks herself into oblivion seven nights a week (maybe eight).  I'm guessing that's an act.

I know that Rihanna is putting on an act in her new song, "S & M":

Feels so good being bad
There's no way I'm turning back
Now the pain is my pleasure . . .
Sticks and stones 
May break my bones
But chains and whips
Excite me


Rihanna
 "S & M" stands for "sadism and masochism," Rihanna.  It's not a game, and a bouncy little pop song is not really the appropriate musical vehicle to explore it.  This song is strictly poseurville . . . pretending to be into kinky stuff in order to sell downloads to teenagers.  Given that Rihanna's ex-boyfriend, Chris Brown, beat her up a couple of years ago, it's a little surprising that she would sing "pain is my pleasure," etc.

I heard Ke$ha a few weeks ago on "American Top 40."  That's the very popular syndicated radio show usually hosted by Ryan Seacrest, but he was gone on this particular Sunday morning and Ke$ha was sitting in for him.

Ke$ha didn't sound like the sharpest knife in the drawer that day.  She talked about her gal pal, Katy Perry, and how they were both starving musicians hanging out together in Los Angeles back in the day, waiting for their big break.  

She also talked about how she is a big fan of classic rock -- the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc. -- and likes to listen to it on vinyl.  (I think she was being honest about.  That part of the show sounded less like she was reading off a teleprompter than the other parts.)

Ke$ha with Seacrest
I sent the following text message to all four of my kids while I was driving around listening to Ke$ha -- "Ke$ha is hosting ATF [i.e., "American Top 40"] instead of Secrist [sic] on 99.5!!!"  I was so excited that I sort of lost my head, as my misspelling of Ryan Seacrest's name demonstrates.  

My 16-year-old son (who had once corrected my pronunciation of Ke$ha's name with more than a trace of scorn in his voice) texted me back as follows:

"You need psychological help.  Listen to old people music like you should."

I was thrilled to get that from him.  He has a rather short fuse at times, and his rants can be very funny.  

But then I noticed that he had added this at the end of the text: 

:-)

That kind of ruined it for me.  It's funny if he was serious, but not so funny if he was just kidding around.

Here's Ke$ha singing "TiK Tok":




Here's a pretty good parody of "Tik Tok":




Here is Ke$ha singing "Take It Off":




Here's a link you can use to buy "TiK ToK" on iTunes:

TiK ToK - null


Click here if you prefer Amazon: