Thursday, December 29, 2011

Four Seasons -- "Rag Doll" (1964)


Such a pretty face
Should be dressed in lace

When it came to cranking out top 40 singles, the Four Seasons were a machine.  But it took years for that machine to get started.

Lead singer Frankie Valli's first record was released in 1953, and he and his bandmates -- they used over a dozen different names -- released a lot of unsuccessful singles.

Eventually, Valli teamed up with 16-year-old Bob Gaudio, the co-author of the 1958 hit "Short Shorts."  Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe clicked as a songwriting combination, and the first three Gaudio-Crewe songs that the Four Seasons recorded and released as singles -- "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like A Man" -- were all #1 hits in 1962-63.  There were three more top ten hits over the next year, followed by the group fourth #1 single -- "Rag Doll."

The Four Seasons (from a 1964 TV appearance)
"Rag Doll" is about a wrong-side-of-the-tracks love affair.  (Billy Joe Royal's "Down in the Boondocks" is also a classic of this genre.)  The singer -- a typical, middle-class teenager -- is in love with a poor girl, but as we know (borrowing Shakespeare's words), "the course of true love never did run smooth." 

All the other kids laughed at the girl's hand-me-down clothes and called her "rag doll, little rag doll" when she moved into the town.  

The boy's parents want him to break things off -- they assume that just because she is poor, that she's "no good."  

The singer would "change her sad rags into glad rags" if he could, but it doesn't really matter to him how she's dressed -- "I love you just the way you are," he asserts.

The Four Seasons' only rivals for chart dominance until the Beatles came along were the Beach Boys.  Both groups sang simple songs aimed at a teenage audience, and both groups could sing harmony with the best of them.  

But in a way, the bands were mirror images of one another.  The Four Seasons were New York/Philly/Jersey boys, while the Beach Boys were pure southern California.  The Four Seasons were Italian-American, while the Beach Boys were WASPs.  

"Rag Doll" wouldn't have worked for the Beach Boys because there weren't any wrong-side-of-the-tracks girls in California in 1964 -- everyone there (except for movie stars, of course) was middle-class.  It was a different story on the mean streets of New York City, Philadelphia, and the New Jersey cities that were in-between.

"Rag Doll" was released in June 1964, just days after my 12th birthday.  I came down with the mumps that summer, and spent close to a week in bed.  I owned a copy of "Rag Doll" -- I only bought about half-a-dozen singles each year, so I must have really liked the song -- and played it about a thousand times while I had the mumps.  

Here's a picture of my copy of the "Rag Doll" 45.  (It's 47-plus years old, you say?  No, I don't think so -- you need to check your arithmetic.)


I played the "B" side of the single, "Silence is Golden" (which was a big hit in 1967 for the Tremeloes, an English group), almost as many times.


Shortly after I contracted mumps, a vaccine was developed for the disease.  You don't hear it much today.

But back in 1964, it was pretty common.  If you caught it when you were young, nothing much happened.  But it was a pretty scary disease if you were a postpubescent male.  

(Trust me, boys and girls, I was 100% postpubescent in the summer of 1964.  We don't need to get into the messy details of that, do we?)

Adolescent or adult males with mumps have about a 30% chance of suffering orchitis, and I do mean "suffering."  Orchitis is inflammation of the testicles, which often is quite painful and can result in some pretty gruesome things.  

In some cases, orchitis results in sterility or reduced fertility.  This obviously didn't happen in my case, because I have four children.  (Here's a funny thing -- my kids look a lot like the mailman in our old neighborhood.  Weird coincidence, huh?)

I do remember having a bit of orchitis.  What I remember most is the excruciating pain I felt when I tried to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich when I had the mumps.  Mumps cause your salivary glands to swell up, and chewing when you are in that condition is something that I don't recommend.


I bring up "Rag Doll" after all these years because my mother-in-law recently treated my family to a performance of Jersey Boys, the hit Broadway musical about the Four Seasons.  

It's become a tradition for her to give all of us theatre tickets for Christmas.  Over the past few years, we've seen South Pacific, My Fair Lady, and West Side Story.  I voted that we go to a revival of Hair a couple of years ago, but a certain uptight and narrow-minded person who shares my last name and my address has a problem with full-frontal nudity in the theatre, even when it is artistically necessary.  (I told her about driving to San Antonio to see a production of Hair when I was in college, and I guess I let it slip that the finale of the first act of the play was performed au naturel.  Live and learn . . .)

Here's the original recording of "Rag Doll":


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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Roxy Music -- "Nightingale" (1975)


Before the morning comes
Will I hear your song?
Come little nightingale, 
I won't be here for long

Can you imagine the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam or U2 or the White Stripes doing a song about a nightingale?  I can't.  Roxy Music is about the only band I know that I can imagine doing a song about a nightingale.

The nightingale's song is considered by many to be especially beautiful.  Here's a link to a recording of the nightingale's song.  But what really distinguishes the nightingale from other songbirds is that it sings at night as well as during the day.

A nightingale
Only unattached male nightingales regularly sing after dark.  Why do they sing?  

Surely you can guess the answer to that question.  What motivates lonely males of any species to do what they do?  They are trying to attract a female mate, of course.  Nightingales are no different than men.  

The nightingale has long been a favorite bird of poets.  There's a beautiful passage in Homer's Odyssey in which Penelope compares herself to a nightingale in a conversation with an incognito Ulysses.  Sophocles, Aristophanes, Ovid, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and T. S. Eliot all wrote about the nightingale.

Most of those literary references to the nightingale have their roots in the horrific Greek myth of Philomena and Procne.  According to that myth, Procne was married to King Tereus of Thrace, who offered to travel to Athens to escort his wife's sister, Philomela, to Thrace for a visit.  

During the journey, Tereus was overcome by his lust for Philomela, and raped her.  After the rape, she defiantly threatened to tell the world what had happened, so Tereus cut her tongue out.

But such crimes "cannot be hid long," as Shakespeare said -- "at the length, truth will out."  Although she was unable to speak, Philomela wove a tapestry that depicted her rape and sent it to her sister.  (An e-mail or text message would have required much less effort, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words.)

Appalled and perhaps just a bit unhinged by her husband's dastardly crime, Procne killed their son, cooked him, and served him to Tereus for dinner.

Bon appétit, Tereus!
The gods eventually turned all three into birds.  Depending on the version of the story you are reading, either Procne or Philomela became a nightingale.  (Early writers thought it was the female nightingale who did the singing -- not the male.)

In the most famous nightingale poem  -- "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats -- the bird represents an idealized poet, and the bird's song represents a perfect poem.  

Percy Bysshe Shelley also used the nightingale as stand-in for poets: 

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.

Brian Ferry
Roxy Music's lead singer, Bryan Ferry, wrote the lyrics to Roxy's "Nightingale," and his choice of that particular bird was no accident.  Ferry is clearly familiar with the literature of nightingales.

The song begins with the singer calling on the nightingale to begin his nocturnal song (in the lines quoted above).  He then asks the nightingale some questions:

When you're up there flying, do you care 
If there's no one else around?
When your lover leaves you in the air,
Do you waver, do you fall?

The singer has known the feeling of flying high with his beloved, only to be left alone -- left to waver, or to fall.

Next, the singer invites the nightingale to join him in singing a song of lament for their lost loves.  If nothing else, it's a way to pass the lonely hours until the sun rises.  Their only audience will be the moon and the stars -- "They've heard it all before," of course, because what is more commonplace than a lonely man bemoaning his loneliness?  

Now while the moon is high
Shall we, nightingale,
Duet all through the night
A pair of souls for sale
Stars cluster glistening
Captive till the dawn
Patiently listening
They've heard it all before

The music then shifts gears and becomes more urgent.  The singer is no longer addressing the unseen nightingale but speaking to himself:  

Should I stay here or should I go?
I couldn't bear to be alone
Was it really love I saw?
Oh, now I'll never know

The singer has been projecting a clinical, almost insouciant attitude about his solitary condition, but these lines reveal what is going on behind the facade -- he's uncertain and he's fearful.  

But out of nowhere comes the nightingale's song, just in the nick of time:

What is this I hear?
I recognise that song
Sweet little nightingale
I knew you'd come along

The singer's situation has not fundamentally changed.  But he knows that the daytime will bring plenty of distractions if he can just hold out for a few more hours.  He is grateful for the nightingale's company, which will help him make it through the night: 

Soon when the morning comes
We will both be gone
So sing pretty nightingale
Lead, I'll follow on

"Nightingale" is from Roxy's 1975 album, Siren -- the one with model Jerry Hall, Ferry's girlfriend du jour, on the cover.


The song's musical structure is interesting, too.  It starts with an eight-bar acoustic-guitar figure, which is repeated between each verse -- it's almost as if the singer needs a little time to catch his breath and gather his thoughts.

But at the end of each of these instrumental interludes, there's a two-count measure featuring two fortissimo drum beats.  That truncated measure propels the song forward into the following verse before we're quite ready for it.  

The song also features an oboe solo by Andy Mackay, who usually plays saxophone.

Here's "Nightingale":



You can use this link to order "Nightingale" from Amazon:
 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Dukes of Stratosphear -- "Pale and Precious" (1987)

If all of her moments were put down in a book 
Then I could read it 'til I went blind

I have to think that those lines would be pretty irresistible to a woman.  If I saved them for just the right moment -- by which I mean after she's had a few drinks -- I think it would be a slam dunk.  

If those lines didn't get the job done, I'd follow up with this:

If all of our time together fell on one day 
It would be like every Christmas there's been 

I'd like to meet the woman who could resist that one-two punch.

But instead of selfishly keeping these lines to myself, I'm sharing them with you -- my loyal fans.  Consider "Pale and Precious" your Christmas present from 2 or 3 lines, boys and girls.

I thought about playing a little trick on everyone and labeling "Pale and Precious" as a Beach Boys song.  Maybe I'd claim that the master tape had been recently discovered after being AWOL for years, or that there was some sort of legal snafu that prevented the song from being released for decades.

The Beach Boys
After all, this is probably the greatest Beach Boys song ever recorded.  Sure, you can quibble with that statement on the ground that the Beach Boys had absolutely nothing to do with "Pale and Precious."  But don't be so literal-minded.  

XTC was an English alternative/art-rock group that released some stunning and absolutely unique albums in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The group never sold a lot of records, although the critics loved them.  Lack of sales wasn't their only problem.  XTC had to cancel an American-European tour in 1982 because their guitarist and primary songwriter, Andy Partridge, suddenly became unable to perform due to severe stage fright.   

Partridge had toured with the band for years with the help of Valium, which had first been prescribed for him when he was a teenager and his parents were getting divorced.  His wife became concerned that he was too dependent on the drug, so she threw all his Valium away, which precipitated an attack of the heebie-jeebies that was so severe that Partridge never performed in public again.

XTC's members had always loved classic 1960s psychedelic music.  On April Fool's Day, 1985, they released an EP titled 25 O'Clock under the pseudonym Dukes of Stratosphear.  The EP's cover -- drawn by the multitalented Mr. Partridge (who called himself "Sir John Johns") -- was obviously inspired by Cream's Disraeli Gears album cover.


Here's the Disraeli Gears cover:


In 1987, the Dukes followed up with a full-length album, Psonic Psunspot


Some of the songs on these records are clearly inspired by a particular band -- there's not only a pseudo-Beach Boys song, but also a pseudo-Hollies song, a pseudo-Byrds song, and several pseudo-Beatles songs.  (The Dukes of Stratosphear didn't just do pseudo-Beatles songs, they did pseudo-McCartney songs and pseudo-Lennon songs.)  Others amalgamate aspects of several different groups.

"Pale and Precious" is most reminiscent of "Good Vibrations" -- perhaps the greatest Beach Boys song ever.  The Beach Boys did a lot of fairly conventional AM-radio-type pop songs, but they did some stuff that was as crazy as anything that the post-LSD Beatles did.  ("Heroes and Villains" is just as crazy as "Good Vibrations.")

If you like the Beach Boys, you should love this song.  It has Brian Wilson's heart-on-his-sleeve innocence, and also wonderfully loopy lyrics.  

The song's lyrics feature some very subtle borrowings from "Good Vibrations."  For example, "Good Vibrations" begins with these lines:

I love the colorful clothes she wears
And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair 
I hear the sound of a gentle word
On the wind that lifts her perfume through the air

"Pale and Precious" opens with these lines, which also refer to hair and perfume:

So pale and precious is the light that will shine 
Out of her perfumed golden hair 

The song ends with these lines, which refer again to the smell of the beloved's hair and include the word "gentle," which Wilson also used in "Good Vibrations":

The smell of the pinecones and the sea in her hair
Silver, gentle   

Here's "Good Vibrations."  I don't care if you've heard it a thousand times -- listen to it again:


And here's "Pale and Precious."  Pay particular attention at the 2:30 mark, when a minute or so of breathtaking three-part vocal polyphony begins:


Click below to order "Pale and Precious" from Amazon:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Simon & Garfunkel -- "I Am A Rock" (1966)

A winter's day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

It's December, and while there is no "silent shroud of snow" covering the streets in my neighborhood, it is certainly dark outside.  Today is the winter solstice, the day that has the fewest hours of daylight and the most hours of darkness for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere.  So it's an appropriate day to for 2 or 3 lines to feature a song with rather cold and dark lyrics.   

Carl Wiser of Songfacts (www.songfacts.com) -- a searchable online database that has information about thousands of popular songs -- has been kind enough to contribute to 2 or 3 lines once again.  

Carl recently interviewed two legendary studio guitarists.  One of them, Carol Kaye,  has played guitar on a number of notable hits but she is best known as a bass guitarist.  She was the bassist on "I'm a Believer," "Midnight Confession," "Wichita Lineman," "The Way We Were," "Sixteen Tons," "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'," the Mission: Impossible TV show theme, and a bunch of Beach Boys songs, including "California Girls," "Sloop John B," "Help Me Rhonda," and "Heroes and Villains."

Carol Kaye
Ralph Casale had an equally impressive résumé -- he played the guitar on recordings by Frank Sinatra, the Four Seasons, Janis Ian, and Simon & Garfunkel, and contributed to hit singles like "Happy Together" (a hit for the Turtles and also for my 8th-grade band, the Rogues) and Lou Christie's "Lightnin' Strikes."

Ralph Casale
Carol worked in Los Angeles, and Ralph worked in New York City.  So how did both of them end up playing on Simon & Garfunkel's "I Am A Rock"?

For the answer to that question and more about "I Am A Rock," here's Carl Wiser: 

There are times when a songwriter will take what he or she knows about lyrics and melody, and set out to write a hit song that is totally devoid of personal inspiration. "I Am A Rock" is one such track, and while the meaning of the song is unremarkable, its recording and release history tell a much better tale. 
When Simon & Garfunkel's debut album -- Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. -- was released in 1964, it went nowhere, and the duo split up.  Simon focused on songwriting and came up with "I Am A Rock," which was offered to Chad and Jeremy, who turned it down.  So Simon recorded it himself for his 1965 solo album, The Paul Simon Songbook.  (That album was initially released only in the UK -- it wasn't available in the US until 1981.) 

Later that year, Simon was pleasantly surprised when Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson added overdubs to the Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. track, "The Sound Of Silence," and it became a huge hit.  So it was time to get the boys back together.
Columbia needed some singles to follow up on the success of "The Sound of Silence." Two of Simon's solo tracks, "I Am A Rock" and "Homeward Bound," were chosen and were recorded in a late-night session that was overseen by producer Bob Johnston, known for his work with Bob Dylan. 
[NOTE: "Homeward Bound" was one of the first songs the Rogues learned.  The guy who put the band together was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan.  I was more of a Rolling Stones guy -- I had a lot more in common with party animals Mick and Keith than with nerdy intellectual types like Simon & Garfunkel.  (Sorry for the interruption, Carl -- you were saying?)]
Ralph Casale played guitar on these sessions, and he remembers that Dylan mainstays Al Kooper (organ) and Bobby Gregg (drums) were also at the session. 
Ralph told us: "I was given a lead sheet for 'I Am A Rock' with just chords and asked to play the electric twelve-string guitar. The producer wanted a sound similar to the Byrds. It was important that session players became familiar with the current hits because many times producers describe the style they want by referring to well-known groups."
Columbia Records found the Simon & Garfunkel sweet spot, and "I Am A Rock" was a hit, going to #3 in America.  They weren't through twiddling with the song, however.  
For the Sounds Of Silence album, Simon & Garfunkel were sent to Los Angeles, where they recorded a new version of the song with the top studio musicians out there, including Carol Kaye, Larry Knechtel, Glen Campbell and Hal Blaine.  (Carol has never liked "The Wrecking Crew," the moniker that drummer Blaine coined for the famously anonymous group of several dozen session musicians who appeared on just about any record of merit that was recorded in Los Angeles back in those days.) 

So now there are three recorded versions of "I Am A Rock":  Simon's solo effort, the single version (recorded with the best studio pros who worked in New York City), and the album version (backed by the cream of the West Coast session musicians).
The release history of the song in the UK is truly baffling, and likely explains why it only made it to #17 across the pond.  

In a one-year span beginning in August 1965, there were four different releases of "I Am A Rock":
1) as the first track on the Paul Simon Songbook album;
2) as a Paul Simon solo single;
3) on a Simon & Garfunkel EP called I Am A Rock; and
4) as a Simon & Garfunkel single
It was a time when record companies were willing to throw huge resources at their proven winners, which came in handy when Simon & Garfunkel used all that Columbia money to go all out with their final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Note that Paul Simon uses the word "rock" literally.  He's not talking about a musical genre here.  Simon, who always thought of himself as a folk singer, went literal with the term again on his 1973 song "Loves Me Like A Rock."

My thanks to Carl for contributing once more to 2 or 3 lines.  I always hesitate to include links to Songfacts in my posts because once one of my readers goes to Carl's website and sees just how much good stuff it has, I've probably lost that reader for a long, long time.  

But it wouldn't be fair of me not to share Carl's interviews with these legendary studio musicians, which reveal a lot about what went on behind the scenes at some legendary recording sessions.  They are "must" reads for any fan of popular music.



One final note.  I recently had occasion to read about Emily Dickinson, the very reclusive poet.  I wonder if Simon was thinking of her when he wrote the last verse of this song:
I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island
Here's Paul Simon's solo version of "I Am A Rock":


Here's a live television performance of the song:


And here's what I think is the single (New York City) version "I Am A Rock" -- I'm not sure, but the organ part sounds like Al Kooper to me:
Click here to get a copy of the song from Amazon:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Screaming Trees -- "Gospel Plow" (1996)

Mary had a golden chain
Every link spelled Jesus' name
Hold on, hold on, hold on

It doesn't happen on every bike ride I take.  But it happens often enough that I've concluded that my humble little second-generation iPod "Shuffle" ($39 at Radio Shack, as I recall) is a sentient being.

Magic 8-Ball
I'm not saying it's as smart as that IBM computer that plays chess, but I think it's just as smart as the "Magic 8-Ball."

What I'm talking about is a phenomenon I have described several other times.  On occasion, I will be riding my bike and minding my own business when my iPod will present me with a song that is completely unknown to me but clearly deserves to be featured on 2 or 3 lines.  It's uncanny.

Magic iPod
Screaming Trees was a Seattle-area grunge band that became famous in the early 1990s, along with Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.  Screaming Trees released seven studio albums between 1986 and 1996, but the only song of theirs that I was familiar with until recently was their 1992 single, "Nearly Lost You."  I heard it a lot on WMMR-FM (93.3), the alternative rock station in Philadelphia, when I was working there during the week and commuting to my home in the Maryland suburbs of Washington on the weekend.

"Nearly Lost You" was on the sixth Screaming Trees studio album, Sweet Oblivion.  Somehow I ended up with the band's seventh and final album, Dust, on my computer.  But I have over 17,000 songs in my iTunes collection.


I don't recall ever listening to a song from Dust until my last bike ride, when my iPod decided that I should hear "Gospel Plow."

The first part of "Gospel Plow" -- including the lines quoted above -- is taken from an traditional American song of the same name, which is #10075 in the Roud Folk Song Index.  (That's a database of references to about 21,600 English-language folk songs.)

Some of the other famous traditional songs listed in Roud include "Casey Jones" (Roud #3247),  "Tom Dooley" (#4192), "Shortenin' Bread" (#4209), "Turkey in the Straw" (#4247), "See See Rider" (or "C. C. Rider"), which is #10056, and "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" (#10259).


The lyrics quoted above vary somewhat from the traditional lyrics for "Gospel Plow":

Sister Mary was bound in chains
And every link was Jesus' name
Keep your hands on that plow of God
Hold on, Hold on
Keep your hands on that plow, Hold on

Bob Dylan's version of "Gospel Plow" is on his eponymous first album:
Mary wore three links of chain 
Every link was Jesus name
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on
Oh Lord, Oh Lord, 
Keep your hand on that plow, hold on.

Ordinarily, I would embed the Dylan version of the song here, or at least provide you a link to it.  But it is really bad -- Dylan rushes the song like he's late for his train.  He sings like he had way too many cups of coffee that morning.

Now that I've teased it, I guess I have to embed his performance:


Pretty awful, n'est-ce pas?

After the "Gospel Plow"-based beginning, Screaming Trees segues into a more traditional Seattle grunge song.  The song concludes with a long instrumental "outro."

The song sounds a bit jury-rigged, but it works for me.  And IT'S MY BLOG, isn't it?
Here's "Gospel Plow":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mac Miller -- "Poppy" (2010)


And maybe I am in a little bit over my head
But I'm feeling so alone 
Trying to cope with your death
Holding my breath, 
Wishing I had one more day
Wishing you could be there when I graduate

Unbeknownst to me, a young rapper named Mac Miller recently performed at a venue in Montgomery County, Maryland (which is the suburban county just north of Washington, DC, where my family and I live).

Chris Richards, the Washington Post's 32-year-old popular music reviewer, was not impressed.  He trashed Miller and his enthusiastic audience:

Teenagers of Montgomery County and vicinity, I’m concerned.

I know I’m not your cool older cousin or your college radio DJ buddy at the University of Maryland, but it’s clear you don’t have an influence like that in your life. I know this because I saw you at the sold-out Mac Miller show on Thursday.

You’re gonna hate me in five minutes, but please know that I’m only trying to let the tough love flow because music is important, youth is fleeting and I think you’re totally blowing it on this one.
This was the single worst concert I’ve been to all year — and I go to four shows a week. . . . I know Miller’s new album, "Blue Slide Park," debuted at No. 1 last month . . . . But seriously, guys. He’s a 19-year-old from Pittsburgh who raps about how much he likes bagels with cream cheese. You deserve better . . .

I heard you cheer when Miller shouted, “My music is an expression of my life!” Maybe he’s expressing your life too: being bored, skipping class, craving fun, beer and weed. But music can also be that magical thing that shows us how life can be so much bigger, so much more complex than what we already know.

A few days later, Richards posted about the reaction to his review of Miller's concert on "Click Track," the newspaper's pop music blog:

After my review ran in Saturday’s paper, my inbox filled up with pats on the back from readers who agreed with my curmudgeonly assessment of the 19-year-old Pittsburgh rapper.

Also in the pile: One of the most thoughtful rebuttals I’ve ever received. It comes from 14-year-old Nora Wahlbrink of Rockville, MD, who makes a fantastic case for Miller’s appeal and the role that pop music plays in young lives today.  We thought it deserved to be published here on "Click Track" in its entirety.  Enjoy.

Nora and her parents -- who are friends of ours -- live in our neighborhood, and Nora goes to the same high school as my son.  After reading her defense of Mac Miller in the Post, I immediately thought to myself that it was deserving of being posted on 2 or 3 lines.

The photo of Mac Miller performing that
accompanied the Washington Post review
Actually, what I thought to myself was that a golden opportunity to target a younger demographic and boost my blog's page views -- which have been rather flat -- had just dropped into my lap.  It was also a chance to get some free content for my blog.  (So many people who have promised to write guest posts for me have failed to come through, and it's not easy having to crank out all the posts for my wildly popular blog all by myself.)

Here's an edited version of Nora's letter:

I want to weigh in on the Mac Miller concert. I was there; I’m a huge fan. You make some valid points in your article, but you also make some completely ridiculous ones.

First off, he doesn’t only “rap about how much he likes bagels with cream cheese.” I want to know why you failed to mention when he rapped the song “Poppy” about his grandfather dying and how he was tearing up on stage. In your piece, you make it seem like he only raps about stupid stuff and never says anything with deeper meaning. . . .

[A]long with his lyrics about “being bored, skipping class, craving fun, beer and weed,” he also has a lot of lyrics regarding life that “show us how life can be so much bigger,” as you seem to think music is all about.  Just to name a few, in his song “Senior Skip Day,” the same song about the cream cheese and bagel, he says, “Enjoy the best things in your life, cause you ain’t gonna get to live it twice.” . . .

I think it is important to remember that he raps for the youth. Your life as a 32-year-old may not reflect the activities Mac Miller talks about in his songs, but mine does, as well as teenagers around the world. 

[NOTE:  When you're 14, a 32-year-old seems pretty ancient.  As someone who is old enough to be that 32-year-old's father, I don't know whether to laugh or cry about that.  Nora's comment reminds me of the classic drive-in movie of my youth, Wild in The Streets.  In that movie, a rock star played by Christopher Jones leads a movement to lower the voting age to 14.  When the movement succeeds, he is elected President and orders that everyone over 35 be rounded up and sent to "re-education camps," where they are given LSD everyday to incapacitate them.  But it becomes clear that the 24-year-old President is going to be hoist with his own petard.  The ominous final line of the movie is spoken by a young child: "We're going to put everyone over 10 out of business." ]  

Sometimes, it’s nice to have something I can relate to on a regular basis. I don’t always want music to be teaching me something and have some intense deeper meaning. I like hearing Mac Miller's songs and being able to be, like, “Yeah, I know what that's like. I deal with that daily.” . . .

I completely agree with you when you say that you think we should seek out different types of music. I have all sorts of music genres on my iPod, but Mac Miller is my favorite, because in my opinion, he can do it all. He can rap, sing and play guitar about regular things that happen every day, and also about life-changing moments and events. He stays true to his music and true to his feelings, and I think that’s the most important thing for any artist.

As upsetting as older people may find this, he IS a leader of our generation. He says what he’s thinking, much like you do, and he reveals the life of an average teenager through music the we like to hear. He represents the hope of following your dreams and doing something you love, and the idea that no matter what happens in your life, everything will be okay. He reminds us to keep our “thumbs up” and our heads high, and he gives us pride in being kids. He makes teenagers feel like we're part of a unified movement that kids all over the world live life by: Stay happy and enjoy life as much as you can while you're young. He is a positive symbol in a world full of negative, cynical people.

So to conclude this, I would like so say that yes, he may rap about bagels and cream cheese, and yes, he raps a lot about smoking and drinking, but if that’s what kids do nowadays, what’s so wrong with someone speaking the truth? And what’s so wrong with us kids having a positive leader to help us keep faith in the midst of a world full of negative adults trying to rid us of our unrealistic dreams?

Nora's favorite Mac Miller song is "Poppy," from his K.I.D.S. mixtape (2010).  "Poppy" is about Miller's late grandfather, who was obviously a major influence in the rapper's life.
 
Nora says that Miller teared up on stage when he performed this song, and there are other reports online about Miller losing control of his emotions while performing this song at other concerts.  Clearly, Miller is still grieving for his grandfather.

Do you remember the first time someone you were really close to died?  I was 12 or 13 when my grandfather died.  My grandparents lived only two blocks from my parents, and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was a kid.  They were relatively young -- almost like a second set of parents for me.  I have vivid memories of being told by my parents that my grandfather had died.  

Miller was several years older than I was when his grandfather died, but that may have made things even harder on Miller -- he had spent more time with his grandfather, and was probably mature enough to better appreciate his grandfather's feelings for him and the relationship they had.

I can't say that I find "Poppy" particularly moving.  I certainly don't question the magnitude of Miller's loss, or the sincerity of what he has written.  But the song didn't have the emotional impact on me that other songs and stories and poems about the loss of a loved one have had.  Obviously, Nora feels differently -- the song resonates very deeply for her.

Here's what Nora had to say about what "Poppy" means to her:

The first time I ever heard this song, it had a really powerful effect on me. My granddad died a few years ago, and though I wasn't as close with him as Mac Miller was to his grandfather, it is still really easy for me to understand what he is feeling. 

One of the hardest things for me to deal with regarding my granddad's death was the thought of all the milestones in my life he would never be able to see. He would never be able to watch me graduate or get married or have kids, and that was a difficult realization. 

When I heard the song "Poppy", everything just clicked for me. The song taught me to keep my granddad in my memories, but also to move on and keep living my life to the fullest. It helped me understand that even though he's gone, I should live everyday trying to make him proud and ever since then, that's what I've done. 

Mac Miller taught me a lesson through this song that has gotten me through some of my worst times and I will carry that lesson through my entire life. Maybe it's just me, but I think Mac Miller has some pretty meaningful words to say, and if everyone would just give it a chance and really listen, I believe those words could change the world.

I didn't know Nora's grandfather, but I'm sure he felt the same way about her that my parents feel about my children.  Is there any better example of unconditional love than the love that grandparents have for their grandchildren?  Just about every time I speak to my parents, they report that one or more of my kids have called them that day or the day before.  I know how happy that makes my parents, and it pleases me just as much.  I can't think of anything that makes me prouder of my kids than the fact that they call their grandparents regularly without having to be prodded or pushed to do so. 

Back to Mac Miller.  I haven't heard enough of his music to have an informed opinion about it.  But let's assume that Nora and I end up agreeing to disagree about Miller.  If my feelings about Miller's music are closer to those of the Washington Post reviewer than to Nora's, is that because Miller's music is intended for teenaged listeners, and Nora is 14 and I'm not?  (Boy, am I ever not 14 . . . )

Members of different generations often have different musical preferences.  That's nothing new -- it was true when I was a teenager, and it's true now that I'm a parent.  

But while Nora and I may disagree on Mac Miller, we may agree when it comes to Kanye West, or Katy Perry, or the Black Eyed Peas, or the Beatles.  My kids and I like a lot of the same music -- of course, it's also true that a lot of the stuff I like seems incredibly lame to them.  (And vice versa, I might add.)  So there's clearly more to it than just the age gap.  After all, a lot of the people I know who are my age have very different musical likes and dislikes. 

It's a mystery why we respond positively to certain music and negatively to other music.  I can articulate reasons why I admire certain songs.  But there are other songs that have an appeal that I can't explain -- in fact, there are songs that I almost feel guilty about liking because I know they aren't really honest or original.  I just can't help myself.

That's just the way it is with music.  We can talk about it and analyze it all we want, but a lot of it comes down to our subconscious.  Most of the time, I can't explain logically why one song appeals to me and another one doesn't any more than I can explain why one woman's appearance and personality appeal to me and another one's doesn't.

Regardless of whether we agree on Mac Miller or any recording artist, Nora and I definitely have one thing in common.  We care a lot about music, and we take it very seriously.  We not only like to listen to it for our own enjoyment, but we like to talk about it with our friends or fellow fans.  

And both of us are proselytizers when it comes to the music we love.  I try to convert you into fans of the songs I feature on 2 or 3 lines, and Nora did her best to turn the Post's music reviewer around.

I get far too few comments about the songs I write about to satisfy me.  One of the great pleasures of doing this blog is getting a positive reaction from someone who was previously unacquainted with a song that I have written about.  But even a negative reaction is better than no reaction at all.

But while differences of opinion are certainly tolerated on 2 or 3 lines, here's a word to the wise.  If I were you, I wouldn't say anything too negative about a song or an artist that Nora likes.  You may end up on the receiving end of a verbal spanking that smarts just as much as the one she gave that smarty-pants reviewer from the Post

Here's "Poppy":



Click here if you'd like to buy Miller's latest album, Blue Slide Park, from Amazon:




Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tupac Shakur (feat. Dr. Dre) -- "California Love" (1995)

Out on bail, fresh out of jail, 
California dreaming
Soon as I stepped on the scene, 
I'm hearin hoochies screaming
Fiending for money and alcohol
The life of a Westside player 
That first line isn't an exaggeration.  The story goes that when Death Row Records CEO Marion "Suge" Knight bailed Tupac Shakur out of prison in 1995, Tupac went straight to a recording studio.  The first single he released after getting out of jail was "California Love," which reached #1 on the Billboard "Hot 100" in early 1996.  

A remix of the song appeared on Shakur's double album, All Eyez on Me, which eventually sold nine million copies.


Tupac kept his lawyers busy in the last few years of his life.  In 1991, he filed suit against the Oakland Police Department, claiming that he had beaten for jaywalking. 

Dan Quayle
In 1992, a Texas state trooper was killed by a teenager who was listening to 2Pacalypse Now, which included songs about killing police.  Vice President Dan Quayle demanded that the record be taken out of stores.  (Believe it or not, rumor has it that Quayle may appear on next season's "Dancing With the Stars.")

Later in 1992, after performing at an outdoor festival in Marin City, CA, he pulled his revolver during an argument, cocked it, and then dropped it.  Someone picked up the gun and fired a shot.  At about the same time, a 6-year-old boy who was riding his bike in the same neighborhood was killed when he was struck in the forehead by a bullet, but ballistics tests proved the bullet that killed him did not come from Shakur's gun.

In 1993, Shakur and some friends got into an argument with two off-duty policemen who were out with their wives.  Shakur shot one of them in the buttocks and the other one in the back.  Charges against Tupac were dropped when it was determined that one of his victims had lied to the police during the investigation.

The next month, Shakur and some friends were charged with sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel room.  Shakur claimed the woman had given him oral sex on a club dance floor several days earlier, and that he was asleep during the alleged gang rape.  

The night before the verdict in that trial was to be announced, Shakur was shot five times after entering the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio.  He accused rival rappers Sean Combs and Christopher Wallace (a/k/a "The Notorious B.I.G." and "Biggie Smalls") of arranging the "hit," and also suspected that his friend, Randy "Stretch" Walker, was involved.  A year later, Walker was shot and killed.

Shakur left the hospital only three hours after surgery, and was in court the next day in a wheelchair.  He was found guilty of sexual abuse and sentenced to 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years in prison.  

Suge Knight
Tupac appealed his conviction but served 11 months in prison because he couldn't afford the $1.4 million bail.  That's when Suge Knight stepped in and put up the money in exchange for Tupac's promise to record three albums for Death Row Records.  

"California Love" was produced by Dr. Dre, who raps the first verse.  The track is a rap paean to thug life, California style.  Tupac and Dre shout out the names of several California cities -- San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Long Beach, Inglewood, and so on.

I'm sure Tupac did do a lot of California dreaming during his months in a New York prison.  And I'm sure the hoochies were all over him, trading sex in exchange for drinks and drugs and cash.

Tupac's life as a "Westside player" ended less than a year after "California Love" was released.  He was murdered while riding in a car in Las Vegas with Knight in September 1996.  Biggie Smalls was shot and killed six months later.

Tupac with Suge Knight, moments before he was shot and killed in Las Vegas
Arguably the two greatest rappers of hip-hop's golden age, Tupac and Biggie were even bigger celebrities after their deaths.  They usually rank high on the annual Forbes magazine "Top-Earning Dead Celebrities" list. 

Here's one of the two official music videos for "California Love."  This one, directed by Hype Williams, utilized some of the Mad Max sets.  (Be patient.  The song starts about 90 seconds into the video.)


Click here to buy the song from Amazon: