Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Vampire Weekend -- "Walcott" (2008)

Walcott, don't you know that it's insane?
Don't you want to get out of Cape Cod?
Out of Cape Cod tonight

Many of you -- OK, one or two of you -- have been eagerly awaiting my posts about my recent Cape Cod vacation.  Here goes -- but first, a little background about Vampire Weekend and our featured song, "Walcott."  Then we'll discuss Cape Cod architecture and hit the Cape Cod Rail Trail once again.

Jan. 4, 2010 New Yorker
The members of Vampire Weekend are four recent graduates of Columbia University.  A January 4, 2010 article about the band in the New Yorker described them as "four upper-middle-class boys . . . channeling Third World musical traditions," and that their first album "has a lightness that can be unnerving to hard-line rock enthusiasts."  
NPR included that album on its list of "Best African Music of 2008" and the band has called their sound "Upper West Side Soweto."  Some of their songs may remind you of Paul Simon's "Graceland," which features South African musicians, but it's a little ridiculous to say that Vampire Weekend plays African music because they sound a little like a white singer-songwriter who made one album with some African musicians.  Vampire Weekend's music is about as African as you'd expect music from four white kids who went to an Ivy League school to be.

One of their songs has this first line: "Who gives a f*ck about an Oxford comma?"  (Click here for more about the Oxford comma, which is often called the serial comma.)   Another of their songs -- "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" -- mentions Louis Vuitton and "the colors of Bennetton."  (Click here if you don't know what "kwassa kwassa" means.  Unless you grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you probably won't.)  Does NPR really believe that what Vampire Weekend plays is  African music?

I rarely like new music the first or second time I hear it, so I often find myself listening to the same old stuff over and over.  I rarely have the patience to sit still and listen to a new album straight through, but riding my bike distracts me enough that I can get through unfamiliar music without getting antsy.  So I load up my iPod with new music (usually from CDs I get from the public library) before I go to Cape Cod, when I have the time to take long and frequent rides.

Since the first Vampire Weekend album has a couple of songs that mention Cape Cod, I thought I might focus on their songs in the series of posts about my August 2010 Cape Cod rides I was planning to do. 

"Vampire Weekend" cover
The Vampire Weekend CD, which is less than 35 minutes long, doesn't really have that much substance -- the New Yorker article mentioned above calls their music "a cheery fusion of British New Wave and West African guitar pop," and goes on to say that instead of sounding "strummy and raw" like a lot of recent indie music, it sounds "spare and polished."  I would emphasize the "spare" part -- certainly not as minimalist as the xx, but pretty darn minimalist.  After a few times through it on a recent bike ride, I began to warm to it a little, but I wouldn't consider it a great loss if I never heard it again.

I think my main problem with this album is that there's no real emotional element to the music -- you don't get the feeling that these songs really mean that much to the band.  The songs are glib and clever, but when I call music "cute," it's not intended as a compliment.  If I were in college, I might have a different opinion.  But it seems to me that Vampire Weekend has a lot of growing up to do.

According to the New Yorker article, some of the songs are based on some very short stories that one of the band members wrote for a creative-writing class at Columbia.  One professor who read those stories compared them to the stories of Lydia Davis, "with her oblique and hermetic sense of humor."  Lydia Davis is sometimes gulity of being a little too oblique and hermetic in my opinion, but her best stories are as good as any stories I've ever read.  (Here's a site where you can read some of her stories.
"Walcott" may be the best song on the album, and it is serendipitous that it is about Cape Cod.  It mentions Hyannis Port -- famous as the site of the Kennedy family compound -- Wellfleet (perhaps my favorite Cape Cod town), and the "Provincetown bears."  (Believe me, they ain't talkin' about ursus americanus.)  So while I'm using it to kick off my series of posts about Cape Cod, most of those posts are going to feature System of a Down songs.

Let's move from music to architecture.  How about a brief introduction to the Cape Cod cottage, a style of house which originated in the area in the 17th century?

A traditional Cape Cod cottage is a simple frame building with a steeply-pitched roof and a central chimney.  It is covered with wide clapboards or wooden shingles, which if left unpainted will weather to a pleasing gray color.

A "full Cape" cottage has two windows on either side of the central front door.  Here's an old full Cape that's only a half mile or so from my family's house in Dennis:

"Full Cape" (Dennis, MA)
Here's a modern full Cape:

Modern "full Cape" (Orleans, MA)
Note that there's no chimney in this cottage.  This house is almost certainly new enough to have modern central heating instead of relying on fireplaces for heat.

A "half Cape" has only two front windows, both on the same side of the front door.  Here's a half Cape that stands on Route 6A in Yarmouth Port:

"Half Cape" (Yarmouth Port, MA)
A "three-quarters Cape" has one window on one side of the front door and two on the other side.  This one is a stone's throw away from Rock Harbor in Orleans, which we'll be visiting later.

"Three-quarters Cape" (Orleans, MA)
Click here for more information about Cape Cod cottages.

I saw dozens of old and new Cape Cod Cottages on my rides along the rail trail.  Some of the old ones had been modified -- new wings were built on, or dormer windows added to make the upstairs bedrooms more comfortable.  There were many newer homes that were much larger but still tried to look like traditional Cape Cod cottages.

Some of you have read my posts about my Memorial Day weekend bike rides on the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  (Click here to read the first of my two posts about my Cape Cod bike rides over Memorial Day weekend, both of which feature Modest Mouse songs.  Click here to read the second of those posts.)  On August 15 -- my first full day on the Cape -- I rode from the rail trail's South Dennis trailhead (Route 134 in Dennis) to milepost 6 (just past Seymour Pond on the Brewster-Harwich line).  That's an easy 12-mile round trip.
Along Long Pond, there were signs, signs, everywhere a sign:

"Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?"
As always, I took a break at the Pleasant Lake General Store, which maintains a policy of strict political neutrality:

I got back home in time for a nice sunset:

Cape Cod Bay at sunset
That's about it for day one of my Cape Cod vacation.  There's much more to come.

Here's Vampire Weekend's "Walcott":

Click here to order this song from iTunes:

Click here to order from Amazon:

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The xx -- "Shelter" (2009)

Maybe I had said something that was wrong
Can I make it better with the lights turned on?

Say what?  I was expecting the singer to suggest she could make things better with the lights turned off -- not on.  

This is part two of my two-part tribute to bands whose names start and end with the letter "X."  Here's a link to part one, which featured the Los Angeles punk band, X.

The xx is (are?) from London, and its members are all 21 years old, I believe.  This song is from their first CD, xx, which was highly praised by most critics and ended up on a number of "best albums of the year" lists.

This is not a paid endorsement
xx is the quietest band I've ever heard.  This is music to listen to while wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, although I did recognize one of the songs playing at a J. Crew outlet store I was in a few days ago despite a fair amount of background noise. 

One of the famous jokes in This Is Spinal Tap is that the volume control settings of a standard amplifier goes range from 1 to 10, but the volume controls on Spinal Tap's amplifiers go to 11.

The xx's volume controls must be calibrated in tenths -- o.1, 0.2, 0.3, and so on.  When a song starts off quietly, it usually builds in volume -- but xx's songs start off quietly and stay there. 

Pierce Brosnan
One British reviewer said xx "wouldn't say boo to a goose," and added that "[i]t's tough to think of anything more tender" than this group of shy, polite London schoolmates.  (The members of xx first met at the Elliott School in London, a comprehensive school with a strong tradition in the performing arts whose alums include Pierce Brosnan and Peter Green, the founder of Fleetwood Mac.)  Assuming his characterization is accurate, their music certainly reflects their personalities.

Another UK reviewer said that "[t]he xx are writing conventional -- and very near perfect -- pop songs . . . but refusing to indulge in pop's usual kitchen-sink production, and instead using the smallest number of musical elements that can convey the idea."  I think that's very perceptive, although it is hard for me to look behind the idiosyncratic, minimalist production and find the conventional pop songs that are hiding there.  I'll be interested to see what their second album is like -- whether xx is a one-trick pony or not.

Some reviewers say that xx's music is influenced by contemporary R&B and hip-hop.  I don't get that.  This is not music to which "it's got a good beat and you can dance to it" really applies.  

By the way, the xx appeared in New York City earlier this year with the Swedish band, jj.  Truth is often stranger than fiction, isn't it?

No one will believe this, but it's true.  When I listened to the song "Infinity" from xx, I was immediately reminded of the dreamy, swirly, bittersweet Chris Isaak song, "Wicked Game," which became a top ten hit after it was featured in the 1990 David Lynch film, Wild at Heart.  A few minutes later, I found a BBC review of the album that made exactly that point and it turns out that a lot of others also noted the resemblance.  One guy went so far as to create a mash-up that combines the two songs.

Here's "Shelter."  Remember -- turn the volume down.  (That's still too loud -- turn it down a little more.)

Here's a video of xx performing the song at a record store in Vancouver:

Click here if you'd like to buy this song from iTunes:

Click here if you'd like to buy it from Amazon:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

X -- "Nausea" (1980)

Today you're gonna be sick, so sick
You'll prop your forehead on the sink
Say oh Christ, oh Jesus Christ . . .

I've been thinking for months that I should do a post on a song from X's first album, Los Angeles (released in 1980), but I just couldn't decide which song to choose. (I take decisions like that very seriously, you know.) But given the events of the past week, the choice had to be "Nausea."

We arrived at my mother-in-law's Cape Cod house for our annual family vacation a week ago Saturday. Sunday morning, my wife woke up with terrible stomach pains and uncontrollable vomiting, and we took her to the emergency room.  The doctor diagnosed her problem as diverticulitis and sent her home with antibiotics, an anti-nausea medication, and Vicodin. 

But she was no better Monday night -- if anything, her nausea was worse -- so we went back to the emergency room. She was admitted to the hospital that night and wasn't released until Thursday, after a few days of an intravenous anti-nausea cocktail had worked well enough for her to be able to tolerate solid food.

They have cool barf bags at hospitals these days.  My wife went through quite a few of them:

X's original members were Exene Cervenka (vocals), John Doe (bass/vocals), Billy Zoom (guitar), and DJ Bonebrake (drums). I have a funny feeling none of those names appear on official birth certificates.  Cervenka and Doe were married from 1980 until 1985, and later she married and then divorced actor Viggo Mortensen.

X was a great punk band, but didn't want to be just a punk band -- they wanted to be a commercial success as well, and their music suffered a bit as a result.  I think their first two records were their best.

Along with Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and several other bands, X was featured in Penelope Spheeris's documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, which was released in 1981 but shot in 1979 and 1980. I saw this startling and very compelling movie when I was living in San Francisco.  I would guess that all or most of those bands played at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, but I never went there -- one more dumb mistake I made.

Here's "Nausea":

Here's X performing the song in The Decline of Western Civilization:

Here's a link to iTunes if you'd like to buy "Nausea":

Here's a link to Amazon for "Nausea":

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Asylum Choir (feat. Leon Russell) -- "Ballad of a Soldier" (1971)

Stray dogs that live on the highway
Walk on three legs
They move too slow to get the message

Hannah, our 13-year-old dog, has osteosarcoma -- an aggressive bone cancer -- in her right foreleg. The cancer has almost certainly spread to her lungs and other organs, and it is very doubtful that she has more than a couple of months to live.

We brought Hannah home from our local humane society shelter when she was six months old. We think she's a Treeing Walker Coonhound. But whatever she is, she is built like a racehorse and is as fast as lightning. She still takes off like she has been shot out of a cannon when you open the door to let her go out in the morning. We have a big yard and try to give her the exercise she craves, but she doesn't really belong in the suburbs -- she should live on a farm and have a pickup truck to ride around in.

When I took her to a veterinary oncologist last month, he suggested an amputation followed by chemotherapy. Many dogs adjust quickly to life with only three legs, and there's no reason to think that Hannah couldn't handle losing a leg. That might give her another year of life -- assuming no complications from the surgery -- but she has already lived longer than dogs of her breed usually live, so there's no guarantee it would extend her life.

My family has decided we're not going to do that. We're not really brave enough to deal with seeing Hannah with three legs, living on borrowed time. It's already very sad knowing that we are going to lose her soon -- seeing her limping so badly is a constant reminder of that hard reality, although she remains very active, has a good appetite, and wags her tail wildly every time any of us so much as look at her.

So we will enjoy Hannah's company during our last family vacation on Cape Cod with her -- our simple, happy, affectionate dog, who seems to have changed very little since the day we brought her home over 12 years ago. In a few days, we will head back home -- my kids will return to school or to work, so she won't get the constant attention she is getting this week.

And one day soon I will take her to our neighborhood vet and tell him to end Hannah's life. I'm not sure how we will know when it is time to do that, but I know that day will come, and likely come sooner rather than later.

I will cry that day -- I'm crying now, just thinking about it -- but life will go on. Pets come and they go. That's just the way it is. If you're going to have pets, you'd better be prepared to say good-bye to them. We've been very lucky with Hannah, who's enjoyed perfect health for 13 years, but her luck -- and ours -- finally ran out.

Eventually we will adopt a new dog, who will give us just as much pleasure and affection as Hannah has. But no matter how wonderful that new dog is -- no matter how much we come to love that dog -- he or she won't be Hannah.

This song may seem like a strange choice to accompany this post. It's from a very obscure album I bought when I was in college, but haven't listened to in years -- I don't have it on CD or in mp3 form. But when Hannah's cancer was diagnosed and the vet recommended amputation, the lines popped into my head immediately.

The rest of the song -- which was written by Leon Russell, who has performed with anyone who is anyone (Jerry Lee Lewis, the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Willie Nelson, etc., etc.) -- is an anti-war song that seems to have been inspired by the My Lai massacre, perhaps the most shameful episode of the Vietnam War.

But while that incident occurred in March 1968, the American public didn't learn about it until journalist Seymour Hirsh broke the story in November 1969. The Asylum Choir II album that included "Ballad of a Soldier" was released in 1971, but recorded early in 1969, according to Wikipedia,which attributes the delay to "legal hassles."  (When in doubt, blame the lawyers.)

I don't know if Russell could have become aware of My Lai prior to Hirsh's story appearing in November of that year. You have to think he had heard something -- either that or he was amazingly prescient. It's hard to believe that he didn't have My Lai in mind when he wrote these lyrics:

And now I stand alone with the charges made
Nowhere to run, not a place to hide

While 26 soldiers were originally charged with criminal offenses for their actions at My Lai, only Lt. William Calley was convicted.

I had no understanding 'til I saw my mother cry
When they told how many babies I had killed   that night
A dozen color photographs inside of a magazine
Told the morbid story like a movie screen

Calley was convicted of murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Babies were killed at My Lai, but I'm not sure if Calley was accused of personally murdering any babies. The Cleveland Plain Dealer published (in black and white) color photographs of dead villagers taken by an army photographer with a personal camera, who later sold the photos to Life magazine.

The general was convicted to get off of the hook
But the President might free me for the chance I   took

No general was convicted of any offense related to My Lai, although the colonel who was in command of the brigade that the My Lai troops were part of stood trial on charges relating to the cover-up of the massacre. (He was ultimately acquitted.) Lt. Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, but President Nixon directed that he be released pending his appeal. He eventually served three and a half years on house arrest before prevailing a habeus corpus proceeding. A federal court of appeals reversed the district judge's decision that he should be released, but his sentence was commuted to time served.

Here's "Ballad of a Soldier":

Click here if you want to order "Ballad of a Soldier" from Amazon:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Bobby Troup -- "Route 66" (1964)

Now you go through St. Louis
Joplin, Missouri
Oklahoma City is mighty pretty

This will be my last post about Joplin for awhile -- it's time for 2 or 3 lines to leave for college.  But I'll be back for visits in the future, I'm sure.

One of my high-school classmates, who had mixed feelings about attending our recent 40th reunion, wrote these words: "[T]he door opens both ways . . . I can always run back out."  

Route 66 is the most famous road in the United States.  There have been no songs written about I-44 or I-70, and there was never a TV show titled "Will Rogers Turnpike."

More important for our purposes, Route 66 was the road that brought a lot of people to Joplin.  But it also took a lot of people away from Joplin.  Route 66 ran both ways.

There are a number of ways you can divide the people who came to the reunion into two groups:  Parkwood people vs. Memorial people, married people vs. single/divorced people, and so on.  Perhaps the most interesting dividing line is people who moved away from Joplin vs. people who still live in Joplin (or close by).

I don't think there is a simple way to categorize or differentiate those who stayed and those who left.  I have friends in both categories.  

If you were trying to come up with an explanation for why people left, one obvious theory is that those people were dissatisfied with life in Joplin and wanted out.  For some, that might have been a temporary thing -- they went away to college, or joined the military, or bummed around for a few years, but eventually moved back and settled down.  For others, Route 66 (or I-44) was a one-way road that took them away for good.

I've done a fair amount of genealogical research over the years.  From what I can tell, my ancestors left England for Virginia because they weren't having a lot of success in England -- that's the classic reason for emigrating.  (My ancestors moved on to Kentucky and Tennessee -- I guess things didn't work out in Virginia -- and then went to Missouri and Arkansas.  They weren't smart enough to keep going to California.)

People who are happy and successful where they are don't really need to emigrate to somewhere else.  That was the case for a lot of the people who never left Joplin, I'm sure -- they were content with life there, and had no reason to leave.  Some may have had family businesses to move into, or significant others who didn't want to leave.  Others may not have been happy to stay, but didn't have any more attractive alternatives.

I lived in Joplin from the day I was born until I graduated from high school.  I never really considered moving back for good after college or law school.  I did often think about what it would have been like to live there as an adult -- would I have been happier marrying someone I knew in high school, and staying around?  I know there would have been both positives and negatives for me.  

It would be interesting to know if the people who stayed or the people who left are "happier" -- if there were a way to measure that.  I'm guessing there's a full spectrum of people in both groups.  I'm also guessing there are a lot of people who have "the grass is always greener on the other side" feelings.

I'm sure there are people there who think they'd like to trade places with me and live in a big city, but when I come back, I see what the advantages of living in Joplin would be.  (Last Friday, my 35-minute subway ride to my office took 90 minutes due to a broken train and a "police situation" at a station down the line.  Coming home that night also took 90 minutes -- because "routine maintenance" required trains going in both directions to share one track, and because a 70-person brawl broke out in the station I was leaving from.  A 10-minute drive to and from work every day suddenly sounded very good.) 

I think the reunion experience was probably quite different for the people who have moved away than it was for the people who have stayed close.  I come back to see my parents once a year or so, but rarely see people I knew growing up.  So a lot of the people at the reunion were people I had not seen or thought much about in either 20 years (if they were at the 20th reunion) or 40 years.  It was pretty intense for me, and I know it was intense for several friends who had also moved away a long time ago.  We're far from getting over the reunion.

I'd be surprised if it was that dramatic for some of the local folks because they might run into a fair number of classmates on a regular basis.  On the other hand, I'm sure that seeing people who left Joplin after high school must make those people wonder about the road not taken.

I don't know -- you make a decision when you're 18 or 21, and your whole life is different as a result.  That decision could have been easily reversed a year or even 5 years later.  But not any more.  We're 57 or 58, and whether we like it or not, there are more leaves on the ground than remain on the tree (to quote a book I read recently).  

You can't turn the clock back four decades, and it's probably too late to get over a lot of our regrets about the past.  But it's never too late to make changes.  I hope the reunion was something of a wakeup call for us -- not necessarily to turn our lives upside-down and go off in a completely new direction, but to have a better understanding of where we are and how we got there . . . and where we go now.  

Nat King Cole

"Route 66" was written by Bobby Troup (a Pennsylvania native who had obviously never been to Oklahoma City) in 1946, and was a hit that year for Nat King Cole.  Since then, it has been recorded by Perry Como, Louis Prima, Bing Crosby, Natalie Cole, Asleep at the Wheel, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, the Cramps, the Cheetah Girls, John Mayer (for the soundtrack of the movie "Cars") and many, many others.

All Gaul was divided into three parts.  And all recordings of "Route 66" can be divided into two groups: the ones that say "Joplin, Missouri" (which is part of the original composition) and those that say instead "down through Missouri" or something similar.  

One of my first Rolling Stones albums had a live version of "Route 66," but Mick Jagger disappointed me by not saying "Joplin, Missouri" when he should have.  The Depeche Mode version doesn't mention Joplin either -- they must have learned the song from the same Stones record.

One good thing about the song rhyming "Missouri" with "St. Louis": it promotes the correct pronunciation of our home state.  As far as I'm concerned, it's "Missour-ee," not "Missour-uh."

Here's Chuck Berry's version of "Route 66":

Here's Asleep at the Wheel:

For a change of pace, here's Depeche Mode (sans any mention of Joplin):

And here's a very, very cool performance by the song's composer, Bobby Troup:

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

Arthur Lee and Love -- "You Set the Scene" (1967)

You look so lovely
You with the same old smile
Stay for awhile

I started writing this one night just after I finished dinner.  These days, that means I've had a glass of red wine – just following doctor's orders, of course. 

As the philosopher said, "In vino, veritas."  So perhaps I was a little more uninhibited and unguarded than I usually am when I started to write this.

Especially because the glass that night was not the usual six ounces, but more like eight – maybe even nine.  (I'm driving to Cape Cod tomorrow for a well-deserved vacation, and I needed to finish off the magnum of Barefoot shiraz I opened a couple of nights earlier before I hit the road.  Waste not, want not!)  

The extra vino would have meant some extra veritas if I had finished the post that night.  But I didn't, so this has a little less veritas than it might have.  That's probably just as well.  

Anyway . . .

I listened to this song while I was biking last weekend.  The lines quoted above brought to mind a number of women I knew in high school (some well, some barely at all), but hadn't seen for  many years until recently.  This is my little tribute to all those lovely girls of 40 years ago who are now what the French call femmes d'un certain age – "women of a certain age" – and still lovely.

When I see one of those women, I don't just see her as she is now – I see her as she was 40 years ago as well.  She's really the same person deep down inside, after all.

You may all look your age.  (So do we men, of course – heaven knows I do.)  But that's fine.  It's better than having plastic surgery or otherwise trying too hard to turn back the clock.  

Hey, I like women my age – actually, I much prefer them.  It's a lot easier to talk to them than women who are 20 or 30 years younger, and they really do look just as good – they look different than younger women, certainly, but that's OK.  It would be awful if all women were lovely in exactly the same way.

One final thought before we go to the music.  I was absolutely clueless about women when I was in high school.  Actually, that's an overstatement – I wasn't completely clueless, just mostly clueless.  I really would love to go back 40 years and do some things differently.  Knowing me, of course, one chance to go back and follow a road not taken wouldn't be enough.  I'm guessing I might need a dozen or so do-overs to get it right.

Aren't you glad I waited until I was perfectly sober to write this post?  Just think how much more incoherent it might have been if I had poured that supersized glass of red wine down my throat just before sitting down at the keyboard.

*     *     *     *     *

A brief word about the music.  Arthur Lee and Love are one of my favorite groups of all time – eccentric, eclectic, and generally all over the place.  They are everything you want from a sixties band.

And Arthur Lee was everything you want from the frontman of a band like Love – he was Jim Morrison (the Doors were big fans) before Jim Morrison was Jim Morrison.

Or maybe he was Jimi Hendrix before Jimi Hendrix was Jimi Hendrix.  (Lee claimed that Hendrix stole his style of dress from the Love frontman.)

Arthur Lee and Jimi Hendrix
You've gotta love a guy who wears glasses with one lens tinted red and the other one tinted blue in order to purposely screw up his vision and see the world like no one else sees it.

I'm going to write about Arthur Lee and Love in greater detail in the future.  Suffice it for now to say that this is one of their more complex songs in terms of both the music and the lyrics.  It's really two songs in one.

Let's get right to it, shall we?  Click here to listen to "You Set the Scene."

Click here for a stunning live performance of the song.

And click on the link below to buy "You Set the Scene" from iTunes:

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Original Broadway Cast of Hair -- "Hair" (1968)

I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy,
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty,
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining,
Gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen,
Knotted, polka-dotted,
Twisted, beaded, braided,
Powdered, flowered, and confettied,
Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied!

I must have read about the Broadway musical, Hair, in Time or Newsweek.  (I doubt that the Joplin Globe had a story about it.)  I ran right out to the record store that used to be on the south side of Main Street between 15th and 16th (I think) to buy the soundtrack. 

The album cover
I took the record to someone else's house to listen to it.  My recollection is that I was a junior (which fits with the 1968 release date for the record) and that I listened to it that day with two senior girls -- musician types, like me.  I had a pretty good guess as to who one of those girls was and, thanks to Facebook, I was able to locate her and get my guess confirmed: "Yes, I was one of the girls who listened to that album over and over with you, and I kind of remember that afternoon." 

When I got home, I didn't want to play the record on the console stereo in our living room -- I feared that the lyrics were a little racy for my parents' taste.  (E.g., "S*d*my, f*ll*t**/C*nn*l*ng*s, p*d*r*sty.")  So I closed the door to my bedroom and listened to it over and over and over on the little portable record player I had won in the KFSB spelling bee in 1962 -- writing down the lyrics to all the songs, one line at a time  -- including the parts that made no sense to me. 

This was harder than you might think, especially if you're used to MP3 files that you can pause at any point and restart exactly where you stopped.  I don't think that record player even had a 33-rpm speed setting. It was designed strictly for 45's, as I recall, so I may have had to put a couple of fingers on the edge of the LP to slow it down sufficiently to decipher the lyrics.

In near mint condition, worth about $600
When I was in Joplin recently for my 40th high-school reunion, I found the three-hole, wide-ruled notebook paper on which I had written the lyrics.  As previously noted, my mother hasn't thrown away anything (God bless her) -- including report cards, class photos, or 4th-grade piano recital programs -- except all my old baseball cards.  (That's the only reason I'm still working.)  So I found my handwritten Hair lyrics, unseen for 40 years or more, but perfectly preserved because they had been stored in a Rubbermaid storage box on a closet shelf.

Here's one of several pages where I scribbled down some of the lyrics to the song "Hair."  This was apparently my first try with this song, so the lyrics are quite fragmentary.  (Some of the songs were quite easy to decipher, but "Hair" took a lot of work.)  I found other lyrics to this song elsewhere among those pages -- put them all together and they were fairly comprehensive. 

My handwriting was much better then

To say that this record had a major impact on me is an understatement.  (Is the Pope Catholic?  Does a bear . . . etc.?)  I thought it was the greatest thing in the history of Western civilization, and I listened to it until I essentially had memorized the whole thing.

The original production of Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968, where it was a big popular and critical success.  Soon Hair was playing simultaneously in nine American cities and in London, Munich, Paris, Sydney, and a dozen-odd other foreign cities.  The musical score of Hair became the most successful score ever written for the Broadway stage -- five of its songs became major radio hits.

Diane Keaton in Hair.
The list of well-known performers who appeared in one production of Hair or another is a long and rather random one.  The original Broadway cast included a 22-year-old Diane Keaton.  Joe Mantegna, Philip Michael Thomas ("That's T-U-B-B-S – Tough, Unique, Bad, Bodacious, Sassy"), Ben Vereen, Meat Loaf, Jennifer Warnes, and David Patrick Kelly appeared in other American companies.  Disco superstar Donna Summer somehow ended up in the Munich Hair, while Richard O'Brien and Tim Curry (who gave us the Rocky Horror Picture Show0 met while performing in the London production.

A traveling production of Hair came to San Antonio when I was a freshman in college, and one of my suitemates and I drove from Houston to San Antonio to see it in early 1971.  The music was (sorry to use such a bad 1960's cliche) "mind-blowing" enough, but you combine that with full frontal nudity  . . . hey, what's not to like?  If I could have gone on the road with the touring company that night -- in any capacity whatsoever -- I would have done so in a second.

Hair was successfully revived on Broadway in 2009, and was a hit again when it reopened in London earlier this year.  A U.S. touring production -- featuring "American Idol" finalists Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo -- hits the road in October 2010, and its first big stop will be the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.  I'm not sure if I want to see it or not -- I don't have a good vibe about it.  Maybe I'll just stick to my well-used original Broadway cast LP and my San Antonio memories.

I still love about half of the other songs on the Hair soundtrack.  (There are quite a few lame songs, as well.)  This wasn't a "rock opera," like Tommy.  Instead, it was a fairly traditional Broadway musical in many ways. 

I've always liked two of the less-well-known songs from act two of the play.  Here's "Walking in Space":

Here's "Three-Five-Zero-Zero":

Here's "Hair":

Remember the Cowsills?  I remember watching the Cowsills perform "Hair" on the Ed Sullivan show one Sunday night.  The band -- which inspired the "Partridge Family" television show --consisted of five brothers, a sister, and their mother.  My father said how nice it was that the kids let their mom be in the band (perhaps hoping that I would ask my mother to join the Rogues).  I said that was probably only because their dad wouldn't buy them guitars and drums unless they agreed to let good ol' mom join in.

Here's the Cowsills' version of "Hair":

Here's where to go if you'd like to buy the single from iTunes:

And here's where to go if you'd like to buy the whole album from Amazon:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band -- "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)" (1969)

But if it's a dream, I don't want (no, I don't really want it)
Yeah, if it's a dream I don't want 
Nobody to wake me

One morning my freshman year of college, I was having a dream about a high-school classmate.  No, it wasn't a nasty dream -- shame on you! -- it was just a wonderful dream about a beautiful and very nice girl.

And then one of my roommates came into the room and woke me up -- whether inadvertently or because it was time to go to class, I don't remember.  It doesn't really matter.  What does matter is that he woke me up at a really good part of the dream.

Johnny Depp, star of 21 Jump Street
I don't think he knows how close I came to killing him with my bare hands.  I would have strangled him like Homer Simpson used to strangle Bart in the brief Simpsons cartoon that were a small part of The Tracy Ullman Show, one of the original Fox network shows (along with 21 Jump Street and The Gary Shandling Show).  I don't ever recall feeling more upset, more frustrated, more disappointed.  I was beside myself.

Now let's roll back the clock a year, to the spring of my senior year at Parkwood.  I had taken summer school the previous two summers, and I had taken government -- usually a first-semester, senior-year class -- my junior year, despite opposition from a guidance counselor who just kept repeating, "But it's usually a SENIOR class."

It turned out that nearly all of my classmates were seniors who had failed the class first semester -- not exactly my crowd.  Plus the teacher (a girls' PE teacher who looked a little like Babe Ruth) was not the most accomplished teacher I ever had.  So maybe I should have listened to that guidance counselor.

Anyway, I had sort of run out of classes to take senior year.  There was English, and math, and physics, and . . . what else?  (Latin IV?  Are you freakin' kidding me?)  I was in the chorus, and I was in the orchestra, even though I didn't play an orchestra instrument.  (The orchestra director knew I was a good musician so he asked me to help out with various minor percussion instruments -- triangle, bass drum, tambourine, that sort of thing.  It was not the most exciting gig I ever had.  You'd count 86 measures of rests, then hit the bass drum or triangle, then rest another 131 measures, and so on.)

The Kozmic Blues album cover
So I ended up joining the Spectator staff -- it was unofficial (I was never listed on the masthead) because I had never taken the journalism class, but our advisor overlooked that.  I got dropped off at school pretty early because of my parents' work schedule, and on the days when we didn't have before-school jazz-band practice, I went straight to the journalism office, which had a turntable and Janis Joplin's I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! album.

This song was side one, track one, and I probably played it a few hundred times that semester.  I think it was Janis's best song ever.  (The Kozmic Blues album was released in September 1969, at the beginning of my senior year of high school.  A year later, Janis Joplin was dead of a heroin overdose.)  

When I was in college, I was a little frustrated that telling people that I was from Joplin, Missouri didn't really impress that many people.  So occasionally I would gild the lily just a bit.  

For example, I remember telling someone that Janis Joplin got her last name because her mother left her on the doorstep of an orphanage or convent in Joplin, and the people in charge gave her the town name for a last name because they didn't know her actual last name.  

Pretty lame, right?  But I think a few people bought it.  Of course, there was a lot of Boone's Farm and marijuana and LSD being  consumed in those days.  (One spring break, my suitemates drove to the south Texas desert and brought back a gunny sack full of peyote buds.  Talk about your long, strange trips.)

Which reminds me that in 9th grade, when we were the student managers for the South basketball team (the UNDEFEATED South basketball, thank you very much -- you'll suck on it and you'll like it, East and North basketball teams), Bob Parrish and I persuaded Mark Hemingway that Bob (or perhaps both of us) had written the words to the Monkees' hit record, "Last Train to Clarksville."

I'd better stop right here.   I see a few more tangents coming up dead ahead, and we'll go off on every single one of them if I don't pull the plug on this post right now.

Without further adieu, here is Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band performing "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder"):

Here's her performance of the song at Woodstock:

You can click here to buy the song from iTunes:

Or click here if you prefer Amazon: