Saturday, April 30, 2011

Richard Fariña -- "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" (1965)


It was the red, white and blue 
Making war on the poor
Blind Mother Justice 
On a pile of manure
Say your prayers and 
The Pledge of Allegiance every night
And tomorrow
You'll be feeling all right 

On April 30, 1966 -- exactly 45 years ago today -- 29-year-old Richard Fariña attended a book-signing at a bookstore in Carmel.  It was two days after the publication of his novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me.

That evening, Fariña left his wife's 21st birthday party to take a ride with another guest who had a motorcycle.  Police later said that the pair must have been going at least 90 mph on twisty Carmel Valley Road when they crashed.  The driver survived, but Fariña was killed instantly.  

The Fariñas
Fariña and his wife Mimi (who was the younger sister of Joan Baez) had quarreled earlier that day because he seemed to have forgotten it was her birthday.  When she finally returned to their home several days after his death, Mimi found a bouquet of roses -- now dead -- and other gifts.  He had intended the gifts to be a surprise for her when they arrived home after her party. 

Sometimes, I let my magic iPod decide what song I'm going to post about next -- I get on my bike, set my iPod to "shuffle" and take off.  Sooner or later my iPod will find the right song for me.  That's why you're reading about Richard Fariña's "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" today.

I discovered this song about a year ago on a 5-CD compilation album titled Forever Changing:  The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973, which I found at my public library.  Most of that album consists of folk songs -- the artists who recorded for Elektra in those days included Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Tim Buckley, and Phil Ochs.  But the album also includes songs by the Doors, Arthur Lee and Love, Carly Simon, Queen, Harry Chapin, and Bread.  (The title of the album is taken from Forever Changes, Love's third studio album for Elektra -- which is a work of genius.)


I was familiar with very few of the songs on the Elektra compilation.  It's a very "eclectic" -- by which I mean to say "weird" -- collection of songs.  But I did discover some very intriguing songs on Forever Changing.  So consider this the first post in yet another 2 or 3 lines series.

Richard Fariña grew up in Brooklyn -- his mother was Irish, his father was Cuban.  He won an academic scholarship to Cornell, where he published several short stories and poems, and became friends with fellow student Thomas Pynchon, who published his first novel, V, in 1963.  Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, taught at Cornell in the late 1950s, when both Pynchon and Fariña were students there -- it was quite the little literary hotbed.

Carolyn Hester
Fariña was suspended for participating in a student demonstration, and eventually dropped out of Cornell before graduating.  He went to work for the famous J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York City in 1959, but spent more and more time at bohemian hangouts like the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.

After quitting his advertising job, he met folksinger Carolyn Hester (a native of Waco, Texas, of all places) and married her only 18 days later.    

Fariña with Dylan
Fariña wasn't much of a musician then, but faked his way through some live appearances and recording sessions with Hester.  (Hester had turned down an offer to form a trio with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, or we might remember her as a member of  "Peter, Paul, and Carolyn" today.)  Bob Dylan played harmonica on one of her studio albums in 1961, and he and Fariña became friends as a result. 

Here's Carolyn Hester singing the old gospel song, "I'll Fly Away":




Fariña met Mimi Baez while picnicking at Chartres Cathedral, which is about an hour's drive southwest of Paris, in the spring of 1962, when she was just 16.  (By the way, did you know that "picnicking" was spelled with a "k"?  That word tripped up a friend of mine in the 4th-grade spelling bee.)

Carolyn Hester was unhappy at the way Fariña had insinuated himself into her musical career, and left him later that year.  That cleared the way for Fariña and Mimi to be secretly married in Paris shortly thereafter -- Mimi was just 17.

David Hadju's book Positively 4th Street explores the lives and times of Fariña, Dylan, and the Baez sisters in considerable detail -- it's worth reading if you are interested in any or all of them.

The couple began to perform together in 1964, and were major folk music stars by the time they performed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.  Fariña kept writing fiction and poetry, and finished Been Down So Long shortly after he and Mimi issued their second LP, Reflections in a Crystal Wind.  That LP includes "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream."



Thomas Pynchon (who dedicated his 1973 novel, Gravity's Rainbow, to Fariña, and wrote this introduction to a recent edition of Farina's book) described Been Down So Long as "coming on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch . . . hilarious, chilling, sexy, profound, maniacal, beautiful and outrageous all at the same time."

The original paperback edition
I admire Pynchon's loyalty to his old friend, but I can't agree with his judgment of the book's merits.  I tried to read Been Down So Long again a couple of years ago, but I didn't finish it.  It certainly has its moments, but it's a bit of a mess.  Time magazine dismissed it (as well as Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which was published about the same time) as "gibberish literature."

Here's a link to a website that contains an essay that thoroughly discusses the novel (including its many, many allusions to Ulysses and The Odyssey) and also provides a detailed bibliography of contemporary reviews and literary criticism relating to Fariña's book.

"House Un-American Blues Activity Dream" shares certain elements with Been Down So Long.  For one thing, both exhibit the political paranoia that reached epidemic proportions in the 1960s, and the protagonist in both travels to Cuba, a place that was off-limits to Americans after Castro's takeover.

(Fariña told people that he had once travelled to Cuba and been a gun-runner for Castro.  He also claimed that he helped sink a British submarine as a member of the Irish Republican Army, killed a bear by inserting the barrel of his shotgun into the animal's rectum and pulling the trigger, and had a metal plate in his head.)

This song is certainly far-left in its politics, which I am not.  But some of my favorite songs are rebellious and anti-establishment and generally pissed off at parents and teachers and other authority figures.  This song is all that, although folk singers like Fariña rarely sound all that angry.  (The song also has some drug references, which hardly distinguishes it from most other songs of that era.)

Here's a video featuring a live television performance of "House Un-American Blues Activity Dream."  (That's a dulcimer that Richard is playing.  At the very end, he switches briefly to a kazoo.)  The quality of the video is horrible, but the sound is good and the brief shots of Richard and Mimi performing are priceless:




Here is the original recording of the song by the Fariñas.  This version (which is flawed by its very poorly mixed vocal tracks) appears on the Reflections in a Crystal Wind album, as well as on several subsequent "greatest hits"-type compilation albums, but is quite different from the version on the Elektra compilation (which is credited solely to Richard, not to Richard and Mimi):




Here's a link to use if you'd like to buy the Forever Changing version of this song from iTunes:

House Un-American Blues Activity Dream - Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra Records - 1963-1973 (Audio Version)


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



Thursday, April 28, 2011

Run-DMC (ft. Aerosmith) -- "Walk This Way" (1986)


So I took a big chance
At the high school dance
With a lady who was ready to play
It wasn't me she was foolin'
'Cause she knew what was she was doin'
When she told me how to walk this way
This last line reminds me of a corny comedy bit that has been used repeatedly in old TV variety shows (Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, et al.) and movies.

One character would say "Walk this way, please" to another character, then turn and walk away in some comical fashion.  He would mean "Follow me," of course -- but the other character would interpret the line more literally and follow the first character, walking in exactly the same comical way.

In the classic 1936 comedy, After the Thin Man, a butler says "Walk this way," and Nick Charles follows him, imitating the butler's odd, stiff walk.  In the 1981 version, of Arthur, Dudley Moore does essentially the same thing.  (The sincerest form of flattery, etc.)

Mel Brooks really must have loved this gag -- he used it over and over.  In Young Frankenstein, for example, the hunchback Igor tells Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) to walk this way.  (According to Wikipedia, Aerosmith was inspired to write this song by this movie.)




In The Producers, a gay character named Carmen Giya (remember Volkswagen's cute little Karmann Ghia coupe?) asks Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom to walk this way, and walks away in a stereotypical mincing, feminine gait.

Here's how the scene played in the Broadway production -- the "Walk this way" gag is near the end of this clip:




The origin of this bit was apparently an old vaudeville routine where a very fat woman enters a drugstore and asks a very bowlegged clerk where the talcum powder is.  The clerk says "Walk this way," and the woman replies, "If I could walk that way, I wouldn't need talcum powder." 

One of the things that sets hip-hop apart from most other kinds of popular music is that is there are almost no cover versions of rap songs.  Pop and jazz singers routinely perform "standards" -- some classic songs have been recorded by dozens of performers -- and singers like Sinatra and Elvis routinely sang songs written by other people.  But rappers rarely cover another rapper's songs, and very few rappers even admit to using rhymes written by someone else.

"Toys in the Attic"
Run-DMC's 1986 cover of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" (originally released on the band's 1975 album, Toys in the Attic) is one of the very few rap covers of a song by a white rock group.  In fact, it's the only one that I know.

Run-DMC follows the original pretty closely, although there are a number of small variations in the lyrics they sing.  They add a little scratching, but basically use the original Aerosmith music as their beats. 

This song was an early example of the collaborative efforts between two different musical performers that have become commonplace. 

Today, it seems that nearly all hip-hop songs feature more than one artist.  Usually they take turns rapping verses -- these aren't duets in the usual sense, but soloists taking turns performing.  Current rap albums often feature a different collaborator on almost every track.  (I don't understand the economics of this, but obviously it makes sense from each performer's standpoint.)  On occasion, two rappers who contribute verses to a song will tussle over who gets to release it on his or her album.  

Here's the official music video for "Walk This Way."  You gotta love the closeups of Run's and DMC's unlaced, old-school Adidas sneakers tapping in time to the beat:




Here's a link to use if you'd like to buy the song from iTunes:

Walk This Way - Raising Hell


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




Tuesday, April 26, 2011

J. Geils Band -- "Centerfold" (1981)



Years go by I'm lookin' through 
A girly magazine 
And there's my homeroom angel 
On the pages in-between 
My blood runs cold 
My memory has just been sold 
My angel is the centerfold 

Imagine how the poor singer of this song must have felt when he learned that the girl he had a crush on in high school ended up being a centerfold!

And when I describe him as "the poor singer," I mean that because his innocent and unrequited love for his "homeroom angel" has been transformed into something sordid and carnal and dirty!  :-(

1956 Playboy centerfold
You're not buying that?  OK, OK, what I actually mean when I describe him as "the poor singer" is that he is going to kick himself for the rest of his life for not jumping on that hot babe in high school, which would have allowed him to tell every guy he met for the rest of his life that "I PONED A CENTERFOLD!  I CRUSHED IT!"

This post is obviously not a "Hip Hop 101" post.  It's not about a song I listened to in law school, or a "Mystic Eyes" record.  It's more of a stand-alone post -- not really part of one of those series that "2 or 3 lines" is famous for.  

Although if we wanted to push the envelope a little, we could pair it with the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)!"  As you may recall, that song made reference to the singer's mom throwing away his best porno magazine.  Believe it or not, I have plans to blog about a third song (part of an upcoming "Mystic Eyes" series) in which the singer is a young man who has a certain attachment to a particular porno magazine.  Two's company, three's a series!

The J. Geils Band -- its original name was Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels -- was a very popular band in Boston when I was there for law school in the mid-1970s.  This song, which was released in 1981 on the Freeze Frame album, was the group's biggest hit.



"Centerfold" went to #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" in early 1982 and stayed there for 6 weeks.  (This is just a guess, but I have a feeling that a lot more men than women bought the record.)

Angel Tompkins
The song may have been inspired by lead singer Peter Wolf's romantic involvement with actress Angel Tompkins, who had appeared in the February 1972 issue of Playboy.  She was not the centerfold, but I doubt that bothered Mr. Wolf all that much.

Of course, Wolf (whose real name was Peter W. Blankfield) became involved with Tompkins after her "girly magazine" appearance.  Tompkins was 3+ years older than Wolf, who (like Alex Rodriguez) had a thing for older women.  (He was 5 years younger than his ex-wife, actress Faye Dunaway.)  

Ric Ocasek
It was a good time to be a skinny, geeky lead singer.  That description fit not only Wolf, but also Ric Ocasek of the Cars, another Boston band from the same era.  

Unlike Wolf, Ocasek was not into older women.  He met Sports Illustrated swimsuit-issue cover girl Paulina Porizkova in 1984 when he was 35 (and married to his 2nd wife) and she was 19.  Ocasek and Porizkova were married 5 years later.

Porizkova and Ocasek:
I can't explain it -- can you?

Germaine Greer
By the way, the interview subject in the February 1972 issue of Playboy was futurist R. Buckminister Fuller.  Other Playboy interview subjects in 1972 included feminist Germaine Greer, Russian author Yevgeny Yevtushenko, broadcaster Howard Cosell, Irish political activist Bernadette Devlin, Rabbi Meir Kahane (founder of the Jewish Defense League), and investigative reporter Jack Anderson.  Which explains why I and all my college friends read Playboy every month.

One final note.  The singer of "Centerfold" hopes to track down his old crush, take her to a hotel room, and recreate her centerfold pose in private.  But I've got news for him.  THAT IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!  YOU BLEW IT, LOSER!

Before we get to the "Centerfold" music video, here's a brief clip from an old Love Boat episode where Meredith Baxter Birney is freaked out because she's afraid her fiancé will find out she posed for the centerfold of a men's magazine.  This is so dated . . . especially Julie's disapproving "How could you?" and the lame explanation that Ms. Birney provides.  (Sorry for the commercials that appear before this and some of the other YouTube clips in my posts, but I can't do anything about them.)




We came a long way between that Love Boat episode and "Centerfold."

Here's the wonderfully dated music video for "Centerfold."  Perhaps the oddest thing about it is what the women in the video are wearing when they first appear -- black bras and white half-slips.  Did women really wear half-slips back then?



I can't resist including this cover of "Centerfold" by Hayseed Dixie, a band that specializes in doing bluegrass/country-style covers of rock and metal classics.  ("Hayseed Dixie" is a play on "AC/DC.")




Here's a link you can use to order "Centerfold" from iTunes:

Centerfold - Freeze Frame


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



Friday, April 22, 2011

Beastie Boys -- "Fight For Your Right" (1986)



Your pops caught you smokin' 
And he said "No way!"
That hypocrite 
Smokes two packs a day
Living at home 
Is such a drag
Now your mom threw away 
Your best porno mag 
You gotta fight, for your right,
To paaaaaaarty . . .


I bet you didn't know that the "Beastie" in Beastie Boys stands for "Boys Entering Anarchic States Towards Internal Excellence."  Or at least that's what founding member and former Vassar College student Michael Diamond ("Mike D") says.  (Other sources say that's a backronym.)

The Beasties started as a hardcore punk band.  Here's Mike D's description of what it was like when they were getting started:
H.R. of the Bad Brains
We played our first club gig at A7.  If you came up in NYC hardcore, you probably know the place.  If not, it was like playing in your aunt's living room -- that is, if your aunt's living room had cat pee all over and was a part time crack house. . . . H.R. of the Bad Brains saw us play and gave us a gig opening for them at the closing night of Max's Kansas City.  Talk about irony.  Then we broke up. 

"H.R." was the stage name of Paul Hudson, the lead singer of the Washington, DC, punk group, the Bad Brains -- it stood for "Human Rights."  The Beastie Boys were the first white hip hop group to achieve significant success.  The Bad Brains were something even rarer -- a black hardcore punk band.   

A "Cookie Puss" cake
The Beastie Boys began their transition from punk to hip hop with their 1983 song, "Cooky Puss," which was based on a prank call the Boys made to a Carvel ice cream store.  Carvel sold an ice cream cake named the "Cookie Puss."  (Here's a link to a famous Howard Stern/Fred Norris bit about the "Cookie Puss.")

Rick Rubin
The Beastie Boys hired a New York University student named Rick Rubin to DJ at their live shows.  Shortly thereafter, Rubin founded Def Jam Records, which became the most influential rap music label in the country after Rubin partnered with Russell Simmons (who was responsible for making his younger brother's group, Run-DMC, the first rap superstars).   

Rubin produced the Boys' first album, Licensed to Ill, which was released in 1986.  The first single off that album was "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)."  Breathes there a man (or woman) with soul so dead who never hath sang "YOU GOTTA FIGHT, FOR YOUR RIGHT, TO P-A-A-A-R-T-Y!"?

Without further adieu, here's "Fight For Your Right":



And here's the trailer for a 30-minute video that will be released on May 3 in conjunction with the new Beastie Boys album.  The video features Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and Elijah Wood as the current Beastie Boys, who face off against older Beastie Boys who have returned from the future -- played by Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly.  (There are cameos by Susan Sarandon, Ted Danson, Rainn Wilson, Stanley Tucci, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Poehler, and many others.)




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

Fight for Your Right - Licensed to Ill

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





Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Roxy Music -- "The Thrill Of It All" (1974)


So if you're feeling fraught
With mental strain
Too much thinking's got you down again
Well, let your senses skip
Stay hip
Keep cool
To the thrill of it all

No one stayed hipper or kept cooler than Roxy Music's frontman, Bryan Ferry. 

Bryan Ferry
Ferry has been described as "an aesthete, an exquisite, a dandy," a rock star "known for his exacting taste in, well, everything -- suits, paintings, cars, women, houses, wine, even interior design."

The British socialite and interior designer Nicky Haslam once said that Ferry -- in contrast to bad-boy rockers like Keith Moon and Keith Richards -- was more likely to redecorate a hotel room than to trash it. 

The Roxy album this song appeared on, Country Life, was released in November 1974 -- about two months after I started law school.  I probably first heard "The Thrill Of It All" on WBCN, which was the album-oriented rock ("AOR") station in Boston.
 
I bought the album at "The Coop" -- which is what we called the Harvard Cooperative Society store in Harvard Square.  The Coop is a member-owned cooperative that was founded in 1882.  It's sort of a cross between a college bookstore and a department store.  I don't think you have to be a member to shop there, but only members (mostly Harvard and MIT students, faculty, and staff) get to share in the store's profits each year. 

The Coop's big sellers in 1882 were textbooks and coal.  When I was there, the big sellers were textbooks, records, and Harvard-insignia apparel, notebooks, coffee cups, and so on.

The Coop's record department was legendary.  It had just about everything -- including lots of obscure folk, blues, bluegrass, and ethnic records.

By the way, "Coop" is pronounced like "coupe," not like "co-op."  If you don't know that already, then I guess you didn't go to Harvard, did you?

My copy of Country Life has the original cover, which features two German models that Bryan Ferry met in Portugal.  (The girls not only posed for the cover but also helped Ferry come up with some German lyrics for one of the songs on the album.)


Later, a censored version of the cover was released:


 
Of course, this was not the first rock album cover to be censored. 

Here's the original album cover for the Beatles' 1966 album, Yesterday and Today, which featured the lads from Liverpool dressed in white butchers' smocks and holding decapitated baby dolls and slabs of raw meat:


Here's the revised album cover:


The planned cover for the Rolling Stones' 1968 album, Beggars Banquet, featured a graffiti-covered bathroom wall:


The album as released looked like this:



But perhaps the most famous censored album cover was a fictional one -- the Smell the Glove album featured in the rock mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap.  The cover for that album depicted a greased, naked woman on all fours wearing a dog collar and a leash.  A man was holding the leash and pushing a black glove into her face, forcing her to sniff it. 

 
In the movie, the record company responded to protests from retail stores who refused to stock the original album by replacing it with a plain black album cover that didn't even have the name of the band on it.  Needless to say, this did not have a positive effect on sales.

This aspect of the movie appears to have been inspired by the controversy over the Whitesnake album, Lovehunter, which had a cover depicting a nude woman straddling a huge snake:

 
Roxy Music's music was often loud and fast, but Ferry and his bandmates never lost control.  Ferry looked more like Frank Sinatra than Mick Jagger or Robert Plant, and never let you forget that he was performing his songs -- not living them.

In some of his solo albums, the purported ennui and overall tongue-in-cheekiness crossed the line between irony and affectation.  His lounge-lizard act was more annoying than amusing at times.

But on the Roxy albums, Ferry's refusal to take things seriously added just the right touch of post-modern cool to the band's often hyperkinetic music.  The rest of the band pounded away like their lives depended on it, but Ferry never broke a sweat.  He looked a bit bored by all the sturm und drang around him.

I played side one of Country Life to death while I was in law school -- I also bought Roxy's two previous albums and several of their subsequent albums.  (I own a couple of Ferry's solo albums as well, which was not my wisest investment.)  I'll be posting about other records that I associate with my law school years -- 1974 to 1977 -- over the next few months, but something from Country Life had to be the first in this series.

Here's "The Thrill Of It All":



Here's a video of Roxy doing the song live -- not a great performance, but no rock star ever looked better in black tie than Bryan Ferry:



Here's a link you can use to order the song from Amazon.



Friday, April 15, 2011

Kingston Trio -- "A Worried Man" (1959)


I've been away on a business trip,
Travelin' all around 
I've got a gal and her name is Sue,
Prettiest gal in town
She sets my mind to worryin'
Every time I'm gone 
I'll be home tonight
So I won't be worried long!

Think again, you big dope.  Because Bobby's in the living room, holdin' hands with Sue.  And Nicky's at that big front door, 'bout to come on through.  In other words, that gal of yours is giving it up to half the guys in town. 


This song brings to mind a foam beer "koozie" I saw at a convenience store in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, many years ago.  (The Yankees used to hold spring training in Ft. Lauderdale, which is why I was there.)  It read as follows:

Definition of a worried man:
A wife, a mistress, a mortgage payment --
All one month overdue!

I regret that I did not buy that koozie.  It would have completely captured the current zeitgeist -- both the breakdown of traditional family values and a troubled economy, n'est-ce pas?

(I did buy a different koozie.  It read "Every man needs a wife -- you can't blame it all on the government."  So the trip wasn't a total loss.)

You may be asking yourself, "KINGSTON TRIO???"  I admit, this song is a bit of a departure from the usual fare on 2 or 3 lines.  But I like to mix it up -- be spontaneous -- go with the flow -- throw the occasional breaking ball to a right-handed hitter when the count is 3-2 and the bases are loaded.


The Best of the Kingston Trio (which was released in 1962) is one of the first LPs that I remember my family owning.  When my parents bought a Magnovox console stereo in the early 1960s, they bought a lot of jazz records, which were of little interest to me.  But I loved Mitch Miller and the Gang's Sing Along With Mitch record.


The Mitch Miller was a lot of fun to sing along with, and I still remember most of the songs on that LP.  Here's an example of the charmingly archaic lyrics the album featured:

That's where my money goes
To buy my baby clothes
I buy her everything
To keep her in style (well, well, well!)
She wears silk underwear
I wear my last year's pair
Say boys, that's where my money goes!

(There may come a time when I forget my name and my childrens' names and every other important fact I know -- but I will never forget those lyrics.)

The songs on the Kingston Trio record were more contemporary and interesting.  Several of them were about criminals -- "Tom Dooley" (I think my junior high boys' chorus sang that song, along with "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" from South Pacific), "Everglades," "Tijuana Jail," and "Bad Man's Blunder."

It's hard to believe just how popular the Kingston Trio was back in the day.

They released their first album in 1958 and it went to #1 on the Billboard album chart.  (That album included "Tom Dooley," which sold 3 million copies.)

The Kingston Trio issued 18 more albums between 1959 and 1964 -- an average of three albums per year.  Five of those albums went to #1, five were either #2 or #3 albums, and three others made the Billboard top 10.  They had four albums in the top 10 simultaneously for five weeks in 1959.  That is positively Beatles-esque.

Purists sneered at the Kingston Trio because they were so successful, accusing them of prostituting folk music.  The group never claimed to be real folksingers, but they made folk songs wildly popular here and abroad.  

Eventually, the Trio expanded its repertoire to include songs like "It Was a Very Good Year" (which later became a hit for Frank Sinatra) and "Scotch and Soda."  They recorded music by young songwriters like Hoyt Axton and Rod McKuen (remember Rod McKuen?), and were one of the first American groups to perform a Jacques Brel song in English.  Last but far from least, they popularized the famous anti-war ballad, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" 

This song is one of their more light-hearted ones.  It uses the chorus of the old folk song, "Worried Man Blues":

It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
It takes a worried man to sing a worried song
I'm worried now, but I won't be worried long

But "Worried Man Blues" -- which was recorded by the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, among others -- is about a man who is in prison.  

Here's "Worried Man Blues" performed by the legendary bluegrass duo, the Stanley Brothers:



The Kingston Trio's version is quite different:



Here's a link you can use to buy this song from iTunes:

A Worried Man (Remastered) - The Capitol Years (Remastered)


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

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

U.T.F.O. -- "Roxanne, Roxanne" (1984)


[Kangol:]
There goes that girl they call Roxanne
She's all stuck up
[EMD:]
Why you say that?
[Kangol:]
She wouldn't give a guy like me no rap
She was walking down the street 
So I said, "Hello, 
I'm Kangol from UTFO."
And she said "So?"


There's a long tradition of "answer" or "response" songs in popular music.  For example, Big Mama Thornton's original "Hound Dog" song (which was covered by Elvis Presley) generated six answer songs by other artists.  

Van Zant, Young
Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" was a response to Neil Young's "Southern Man" -- and one of the few answer songs that was more popular than the song to which it responsed.

The rap genre has inspired a lot of answer songs.  Most of these battles have been fairly benign recording-studio affairs that may have injured a combatant's pride but did no tangible harm.  (A few have resulted in assaults and even a drive-by shooting or two.)  The "Roxanne Wars" exceeded by far all other hip-hop music rivalries in terms of the number of answer songs that were produced.

In 1984, the New York City hip-hop trio U.T.F.O (which stood for "Untouchable Force Organization"), released a single that bombed.  But the record's B-side -- a song titled "Roxanne, Roxanne" -- became quite popular.

In "Roxanne, Roxanne," each of U.T.F.O.'s three MCs -- the Kangol Kid, Doctor Ice, and the Educated Rapper (a/k/a "EMD") -- take turns complaining about how a stuck-up girl named Roxanne failed to respond to their def rhymes and their other charms.  Frankly, the song is no great shakes, and seemed destined to be quickly forgotten.

But one day, a New York City radio DJ and a local record producer were complaining about how U.T.F.O. had cancelled a live appearance at a show the two were promoting.  A 14-year-old girl named Lolita Shanté Gooden heard the conversation and suggested they produce an answer record to get revenge on the group.

In "Roxanne's Revenge," the precocious singer -- now known as Roxanne Shanté -- puts all three of her would-be seducers in their place.  She has better rhymes than any of them, she brags, and how can a girl be impressed by an MC who doesn't have fresh rhymes?

Here's how she dismisses Kangol:

I met this dude with the name of a hat
I didn't even walk away, I didn't give him no rap . . .
Every time that he sees me, he says a rhyme
But, see, compared to me it's weak compared to mine
In any category I'm considered the best . . .
And everybody knows I will win the contest

Adelaida Martinez
U.T.F.O.'s response was interesting.  They released an answer to the answer, featuring a female rapper named Adelaida Martinez, who claimed to be "the Real Roxanne."  Her response responds to the original "Roxanne, Roxanne" almost line by line, but she belittles the U.T.F.O. threesome just as badly as Roxanne Shanté did.

Here's the Real Roxanne taking on the Educated Rapper:

Your nose is always runny
You look like Bugs Bunny
All your raps are old, ancient as a mummy
Your house is so scummy
Your clothes are so bummy
But now with your hit record all I want is your money
Educated Rapper, You ain't nothing but a dummy
You try to be chummy or you plays gin rummy
I bet makin' love to you must really be crummy

That's some bad rapping.  But both Roxanne answer records were big hits as well.  And that inspired a fourth Roxanne record -- then a fifth -- then a sixth -- and so on and so forth.

Roxanne's entire (fictional) family got into the act.  There was "The Parents of Roxanne" and "Yo, My Little Sister (Roxanne's Brothers)" and "Rappin' Roxy: Roxanne's Sister."  

There was "Do the Roxanne" (which created a dance but didn't diss anyone).

And finally there was "Roxanne's a Man," which claimed that Roxanne was really a transvestite whose manhood had been taken from him in prison, and insulted U.T.F.O. for getting all hot and bothered over a crossdressing sissyboy:

After things had died down, U.T.F.O. issued an answer of its own, insulting Roxanne and claiming never to have liked her in the first place, which generated a second answer from Roxanne Shante.  (Stop the world -- I want to get off!) 

Estimates of the total number of "Roxanne Wars" records range from 30 to over 100.  (That means I could have chosen different Roxanne-themed songs for the February 2012 version of "28 Posts in 28 Days" -- if I had wanted to drive away all my remaining readers, that is.)  Yet not a single Roxanne record is explicated on www.rapgenius.com -- a very surprising oversight on my brother Mahbod Moghadam's part.

Here's a video piece on the Roxanne Wars that aired on "Beef," a BET series that focused on feuds in the world of hip-hop.




It's hard to understand how the "Roxanne Wars" could have happened.  The original song was nothing special, and the first answer was notable mostly for its aggressive tone and amount of profanity.  Rarely does a song generate more than one answer, but somehow the third song in the Roxanne series seems to have opened the floodgates.

Let's all hope nothing like this ever happens again.

Here's the original "Roxanne, Roxanne":




Here's "Roxanne's Revenge" -- recorded in one take, boys and girls:




Here's "The Real Roxanne":




Finally, here's "Roxanne's A Man":




Here's a link you can use to buy "Roxanne, Roxanne" from iTunes:

Roxanne, Roxanne - Hits


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




Sunday, April 10, 2011

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -- "Country Girl" (1970)

Country girl I think you're pretty,
Got to make you understand,
Have no lovers in the city,
Let me be your country man.
In the course of writing this blog, I've discovered a lot of great songs.  I've also rediscovered a lot of great songs that I used to know but had forgotten about.  For some reason, the rediscovery of a forgotten song is even more satisfying than the discovery of a new one.

Bitoni's "Return of
the Prodigal Son"
Until yesterday, "Country Girl" was dead to me, but it is alive again.  It was lost, but now it is found.  (Apologies to Luke 15:32.  By the way, do you remember what the prodigal son spent all his money on?  "Harlots," according to the King James Version.)

Last year, I began a series of posts on songs from albums that everyone listened to in when I was in college.  Those years -- the early 1970's -- was a sort of "Golden Age" of popular music, and I had no problem finding great songs that were also well-known and very popular.

2 or 3 lines has a short attention span, however, and that series has sort of petered out after roughly two dozen posts featuring songs by King Crimson, It's A Beautiful Day, Led Zeppelin, James Gang, Traffic, Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Steely Dan, Derek and the Dominoes, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, David Bowie, and many others.

I've been ready to move on and post about the music I listened to in law school and afterwards, but felt that I needed to bring the college-era series to a formal close.

I have a long list of remaining "possibles" for that series -- Pink Floyd, Yes, Blind Faith, the Allman Brothers, the Who, Steve Miller, George Harrison, T. Rex, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, among others.  But there was one group from that era that was so popular and so iconic that I simply could not overlook them: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.



I was never a huge CSNY fan.  In fact, I never owned any of their records -- as a group, or as solo performers -- while I was in college.  They were a little on the soft side for my taste.  Or to be more accurate, they were a little on the soft side for me to admit that I had a taste for them. 

There is a lot of music from those days that I've always liked, but that didn't fit the image I was trying to project -- not only to the world at large, but also to myself.  I think I've gotten over that now.  But back in the day there were a number of songs (usually sentimental, girly songs) that had an effect on me that I refused to acknowledge -- even to myself.  Some of CSNY's songs fit in that category.

But I didn't think I could claim to have really covered the music of my college years without posting about a CSNY song.  Plus I know that a lot of you love CSNY, and -- let's be honest here -- if I want 2 or 3 lines to remain a wildly popular blog, I've got to keep the customers satisfied.   

Crosby, Stills and Nash
So I took a quick look at the group's first two albums -- the first one without Neil Young and the second (Deja Vu) with him.

I quickly rejected about half the songs on those records.  "Marrakesh Express" is OK, but too lightweight.  "Wooden Ships" is too serious, and the Jefferson Airplane's version is more interesting.  "Guinnevere" sounds more like Simon and Garfunkel than CSNY, plus they misspelled it.  "Teach Your Children" always made me roll my eyes, and "Almost Cut My Hair" is not a song that can be taken seriously.

So what did that leave me with?  "Judy Blue Eyes" is a very interesting song, but also very familiar.  "You Don't Have to Cry," "Pre-Road Downs," and "Carry On" are all very representative of the group's style, but no one of them really stood out for me.  I've listened to "49 Bye-Byes" a few times recently -- the words don't make much sense, but I like the song a lot, and it hasn't been played to death -- so it was probably the leader in the clubhouse.

Neil Young
Then I got to "Country Girl," which I don't think I had heard in at least 30 years.  I think of the group more as CSN than as CSNY, so I resisted using a Neil Young song at first.  But after I listened to "Country Girl" all the way through, I could not say no to it.  

I can't make an intellectual argument for the song, but I can't deny its emotional effect on me.  I have no clue what the song is about -- it's all pretty vague.  The line "Country girl, I think you're pretty" is as sappy as it gets -- I don't think I've ever told a girl or a woman that I think she is "pretty" because I think the word is vapid and unconvincing -- but somehow it works.  

Stehpen Stills has claimed that Deja Vu is the result of 800 hours in the studio.  I don't think of CSNY recordings as being particularly polished in terms of production -- too many of the songs sound pretty casual, and the harmonies wander at times.  But "Country Girl" shows considerable attention to detail.   

"Country Girl" is subtitled "A. Whiskey Boot Hill -- B. Down, Down, Down -- C. Country Girl (I Think You're Pretty)."  But "Country Girl" doesn't sound like three different songs to me -- in contrast to "Judy Blue Eyes," which sounds like three distinct songs that have been stapled together.

Let's listen first to a Neil Young-only version of this song:



I think that version is very good.  But the four-voice harmony and the other instrumental touches that were added to the Deja Vu version add a lot to the song.  Also, Young loses control a little in the last chorus -- he is pounding away on his acoustic guitar and singing at the top of his lungs.  You can't help but be moved by his letting all his emotion come out, but I think most people would say he crossed the line just a little.  (It's always been a challenge for Neil to stay on pitch, and he wanders quite a bit here -- and he overwhelms his microphone as well.)

But I like the fact that he didn't hold back here.  I used to do the same thing on the piano -- at times, I couldn't play loud enough to suit myself.  My audience may have preferred to turn the volume down on me just a bit, but I was having none of it.

The Deja Vu version strikes the perfect balance between transcendence and self-control.  The song builds and builds, but saves something for the end.  The final chorus is like the sun bursting through the clouds.  

Here's CSNY's "Country Girl."  With this song, I am declaring "The College Years" series of 2 or 3 lines posts to be officially over.  That doesn't mean I won't blog about other songs from that era in the future, of course.  But it does mean that I can move on to our next series: "2 or 3 lines: The Law School Years (1974-77)," which will feature songs by Roxy Music, Brian Eno, the Tubes, 10cc, City Boy, the Sparks, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, and others. 



Here's a link to use if you want to buy the song from iTunes:

Country Girl: A. Whiskey Boot Hill / B. Down, Down, Down / C.


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