Sunday, November 27, 2011

David Bowie -- "1984" (1974)

You've read it in the tea leaves
And the tracks are on TV 
Beware the savage jaw 
Of nineteen-eighty-four

I'd like to help you out, but I have no idea what "Beware the savage jaw/Of nineteen-eighty-four" means.  Sorry 'bout that.

I went to a Bowie fan site that features a long list of misheard Bowie lyrics to make sure I had these lyrics right.  It turns out that a lot of people are confused by these lines.  Here are a few other examples of what people have mistakenly believed Bowie is saying here:

Beware the saboteur/Of nineteen-eighty-four
Beware the savage roar/Of nineteen-eighty-four
Beware the savage law/Of nineteen-eighty-four
Beware the savage whore/Of nineteen-eighty-four

I can't say that the correct lyrics make any more sense than the incorrect ones.

David Bowie's 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, is a bit schizophrenic -- half glam rock, half funk/soul/disco.  "1984" is from the funk/soul/disco part of the album.

The song was obviously inspired by the George Orwell book of the same name.  Bowie wanted to do a theatrical production based on the book, but Orwell's estate wouldn't give him the rights to the name.  So Bowie took this song and some others he had written for the planned 1984 production (one was called "Big Brother") and dumped them on Diamond Dogs.

The wah-wah guitar on "1984" is a dead ringer for the guitar in "Theme from Shaft."  Bowie played guitar on most of the album's track, but the guitar part for "1984" was played by a veteran British session guitarist, Alan Parker.

The Diamond Dogs cover depicted Bowie as half-man, half-dog.  The original art had to be modified a little.  Here's the original cover, followed by the airbrushed version:

About a year later, Bowie released the Young Americans album, which featured his biggest American hit, "Fame," which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  John Lennon was given a co-writer credit and it is Lennon's electronically distorted voice that is heard singing "fame, fame, fame" over and over again near the end of the song.  

I was not amused by the shift from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane/Diamond Dogs style to the "plastic soul" of Young Americans.  I have to go back to the classic Motown days to find much mainstream soul/R&B music that I like.  A lot of commercial R&B of that era is the African-American equivalent of commercial country-western music from that era -- it all sounded like it was written by a committee whose job was to create crappier and crappier music until they reached the absolute lowest common denominator.

Here's "1984":

And here's Bowie performing the song live on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974.  (Check out those clothes -- and check out David Bowie, who was seriously weird in those days.)

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

David Bowie -- "Rebel Rebel" (1974)

Got your mother in a whirl
She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl

I've got some advice for the mother who is in such "a whirl" over her ambiguous-gendered child: just ignore him/her.  He/she only looks that way because you and his/her dad and his/her teachers make such a fuss about the way he/she looks.  Trust me -- pay him/her no attention and he/she will get tired of looking that way and go back to shopping at J. Crew.

(Love the eyepatch!)
To call David Bowie a musical chameleon is an understatement.  A chameleon may be able to change its colors, but it remains a chameleon.  It can't turn itself into a fish or a bird or a monkey.

It seemed that Bowie changed musical identities almost as often as I change my underwear.  (Once a week, whether I need to or not.)  When I was in college, he was a glam-rocker from outer space (Ziggy Stardust).  During my law-school years, he was a funk/soul/disco dude (the "Thin White Duke").  Later he transformed into the cooly post-modern minimalist of the "Berlin Trilogy" albums.  So confusing!

His 1974 album, Diamond Dogs, was his last glam-rock album and his first "plastic soul" album.  (One + one = one in this case.)

"Rebel Rebel" -- his last glam-rock single -- was originally written for a planned Ziggy Stardust musical that never got off the ground.  It's a gender-bender like the Kinks' "Lola," but sounds more like an old Rolling Stones song.  

Dozens of other artists have covered it -- everyone from the Bay City Rollers to Def Leppard to Duran Duran to Joan Jett to Iggy Pop to the Smashing Pumpkins.

Manchester United soccer fans sing this tribute to Gary and Phil Neville, two brothers who once played on the team to the tune of the chorus of "Rebel Rebel":

Neville Neville, they're in defence
Neville Neville, their future's immense
Neville Neville, they ain't half bad
Neville Neville, the name of their dad

Netballer Neville
And yes, Neville Neville is the actual name of Gary's and Phil's dad, a former cricketer.

By the way, Neville Neville's other child, daughter Tracey -- Phil's fraternal twin -- is a professional netball player (whatever netball is).

Here's a fabulous old video of Bowie lip-synching "Rebel Rebel."  The image quality is great, so hit "full screen" and enjoy.

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Katy Perry -- "Firework" (2010)

You don't have to feel like a waste of space
You're original, cannot be replaced
If you only knew what the future holds
After a hurricane comes a rainbow . . .

I promised myself that I would never feature a Katy Perry song on 2 or 3 lines.  

She always seemed like the ultimate generic pop star to me -- a creation of the star-making machinery behind most pop songs (to paraphrase Joni Mitchell).

What changed my mind?  A video that was shot in and around the post-tornado Joplin High School, which features not only Katy Perry's "Firework" but also the Black Eyed Peas hit, "Let's Get It Started."

The new Joplin High School
This video is no amateur production.  I understand it was shot by Simon Jayes, who is a big-time Hollywood camera operator.  (His credits include the latest James Bond movie, the latest Indiana Jones movie, and the latest Bruce Willis Die Hard movie.)  It's about eight minutes long, with no cuts, and the camera never stops moving.

To be honest, the video starts off a little slow.  The lip-dubbing itself is not particularly convincing.

From the video
But the Joplin High School students who are featured in the video are just wonderful, individually and collectively.  There are so many appealing kids here -- I have a 17-year-old son, and maybe the high schoolers in the video remind me of my son and his friends.  Whatever the reason, I thought it was great -- especially the second half, which features the Katy Perry song.

It's not a great song -- like its singer, it's a very professional piece of work but pretty generic.  But I'm happily suspending my critical judgment for the night.  The song is perfect for this video and for these kids.  

About five minutes into the video, you'll see a student named Quinton Anderson appear.  (He's wearing a baseball cap and a number 6 football jersey.)

If you're from Joplin, you know all about Quinton Anderson.  But if you don't know his story, I'll summarize it.

Governor Jay Nixon with Quinton Anderson
Quinton and his family lived a few blocks from St. John's Hospital, near where the tornado that hit Joplin on May 22 of this year first touched down.  

Quinton's parents were among the 162 residents of Joplin whose died as a result of the tornado.  He woke up in a hospital in Springfield with a fractured skull, three fractured vertebrae, and a long list of other injuries.  He spent 5 1/2 weeks in the hospital, and had to learn to walk again.

Here's a short video featuring Quinton, who will carry the physical and emotional scars from the tornado for the rest of his life.  But it's clear from the video and from this article about him that those scars will not define him.  In the words of our song, he's an original, and cannot be replaced:

To commemorate the six-month anniversary of the Joplin tornado, here's the Joplin High School lip-dub video.  It disappeared for a couple of weeks after I first saw it -- yes, the copyright Nazis had ordered Youtube to take it down -- but maybe someone sent a six-pack of the milk of human kindness to the soulless bastards in the record company's legal department.  Or maybe it will disappear again -- but hopefully not until after you have a chance to watch it:

Here's a link you can use to buy "Firework" from Amazon.  But if the video has been taken down again, please do not send a penny to Katy Perry's record company.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Artful Dodger -- "Wayside" (1975)

On the wayside
You see me standin' here
This voice will whisper in your ear

OK, OK, I admit it.  I kind of phoned in that last post about Dr. Dre.  But he was on the "Hip Hop 101" syllabus, so I couldn't just skip him -- even though the songs on The Chronic didn't really do much for me.

I promise this post is a lot better -- one might even say that it is a very special 2 or 3 lines.

Jack Dawkins was the chief boy pickpocket in the Dickens novel, Oliver Twist.  He was better known as the "Artful Dodger," a term that is still used to describe someone who is good at eluding responsibility for his actions.  

There's another writer who comes to mind when I think about Artful Dodger:  Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson
The "Belle of Amherst" wrote these words, which seem très à propos to Artful Dodger's career:  "Fame is a fickle food/Upon a shifting plate."

Fame never smiled on Artful Dodger the way it smiled on so many others.  Ever wonder why some musicians enjoy fame and fortune when others who are just as gifted languish in obscurity, appreciated by critics and a few perceptive fans but largely ignored by the rest of the world?

2 or 3 lines doesn't know the answer to that question.  I bet you don't either, do you?  I didn't think so.

Artful Dodger got their start in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, in 1973.  On the strength of a demo tape, they hooked up with Aerosmith's management firm and released their eponymous (of course) debut album in September 1975.

The first track on that album, "Wayside," is power pop of the first order, and still sounds pretty good today.  I won't say Artful Dodger's body of work makes it a power pop band of the first order like the Raspberries (some phenomenal singles), Big Star (some phenomenal albums), and one or two others from that era.  But they came pretty close.

What all these bands had in common was the innocence and sincerity of their music.   There's not a mean or cynical or ironic note in their songs -- no hidden agenda.  The singer bared his heart and his soul and trusted the world to treat him as kindly as he was prepared to treat it.

He was usually disappointed, of course.  In these songs, things almost never turned out well for the singer and his girl, but he never stopped wishin' and hopin' to find love.  The songs are often kinetic and upbeat as far as the music -- power pop songs aren't dreary ballads -- but there's rarely a happy ending.

I probably bought the Artful Dodger album on the strength of a positive review in one of the two free weekly papers that you saw everywhere in Boston in those years -- especially if you lived on or near a college campus.

Harvard Square, 1975
I bought a lot of records based on the reviews in those papers.  Some of those purchases were winners, and some were not -- but there was no better alternative.

Artful Dodger didn't sell well.  Neither did their next two albums, which were released in 1976 and 1977.  The band released one final album in 1980.  When it sank like a stone as well, they gave up.

For some reason, Artful Dodger was always popular in Cleveland, and in 1991 the boys got back together for a couple of reunion shows there.  The reunion didn't stick, but they tried again in 2005, reuniting once more to play a concert in Cleveland.  They continue to play in Cleveland every year or so, and recorded a live album there in 2009.  It's as yet unreleased.

*     *     *     *     *

As noted above, Artful Dodger was released in the fall of 1975.  I had just started my second year of law school.

All we really thought about that semester was interviewing.  Shortly after classes began in September, representatives of law firms from all over the country started arriving at the law school's placement office to begin sniffing around for prospective summer hires.

The idea was that you would work at a firm the summer after your second year and if  the audition went well, you'd get an offer of a permanent job at that firm after you graduated.

Interviewing season lasted until just before Thanksgiving, as I recall.  Firms who were interested in you would fly your to their offices for a day of interviewing and perhaps a nice dinner with a couple of young partners and their wives.  (I'm not being sexist here, folks -- it was 1975, and there weren't too many female partners in big law firms in those days.)

If you got horribly drunk and touched one of the wives inappropriately, you might still receive a job offer.  But probably not if you showed up for your interview dressed in this suit:

I had actually managed to snag a summer job after my first year, so I was rather jaded by the whole interview experience my second year -- it was old hat to me.  I remember that only spent about 3/4 of November on the road.  I remember flying to St. Louis one Sunday, interviewing at two different firms on Monday and Tuesday, spending the rest of the week hanging out with friends, flying to Houston the following Sunday, interviewing with two firms there on the next two days, and then heading home for Thanksgiving.)  

Aaahhh . . . those were the days.  Law firms were rolling in the dough in the late 1970s, and that translated into lots of expensive and highly-caloric meals for us bright young whippersnappers.  I had gone from a svelte 165 to a new personal best of 200 pounds during my first summer stint at a law firm in Houston, which gives you some idea just how few meals I actually cooked for myself that summer.

During my return trip to Houston my second year, the firm where I had worked my first summer -- they wanted me back, of course -- invited me to the Monday Night Football game between the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers at the Astrodome.

The Monday Night Football crew:
Meredith, Cosell, and Gifford
This was back when Monday Night Football was a really big deal, with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, and "Dandy" Don Meredith in the broadcast booth.  That night, the 7-2 Oilers were going up against the 8-1 Steelers.  

The Steelers -- these were the Terry Bradshaw-Franco Harris-Lynn Swann-Jack Lambert-Mean Joe Greene "Steel Curtain" Steelers, who would finish the regular season 12-2 and go on to win Super Bowl X -- crushed the Oilers, 32-9, but it still would have been fun to go to the game.

The Astrodome
But I had already scheduled a dinner that night with another firm, and firm #2 was really quite ungracious when I tried to beg off in favor of attending the football game with one of their biggest competitors.  (I can't imagine why.)

To get a small measure of revenge, I asked a secretary from firm #1 to be my date for the evening and encouraged her to order the most expensive thing on the menu.  

When I finally did return to law school, one of the records I probably listened to first was this one.  Here's "Wayside":

(Sorry, but "Wayside" is not available from Amazon.  You can make a copy from my LP if you'd like.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dr. Dre -- "Nuthin' But a G Thang" (1992)

Now it’s time for me to make my impression felt
So sit back, relax, and strap on your seatbelt
You never been on a ride like this befo’
With a producer who can rap and control the maestro

Andre Romelle Young -- better known as "Dr. Dre" -- was born in 1965 in Compton, the Los Angeles County city whose name is as closely associated with West Coast gangsta rap as Nashville is associated with country music.

Dre grew up on some very mean streets, but unlike some other rappers who we're learning about in "Hip Hop 101," he was not a drug dealer or gangbanger.  You wouldn't know that from his lyrics, which certainly talk the gangsta talk:
Now soon as I said it
Seems I got sweated
By some nigga with a TEC-9 
Tryin' to take mine
Ya wanna make noise, make noise
I make a phone call
My niggaz comin' like the Gotti boys
Bodies bein' found on Greenleaf
With their f*ckin' heads cut off
(From his 1993 single, "Let Me Ride."  A TEC-9 is an inexpensive automatic weapon that was a favorite of the bad guys on Miami Vice.  When a thug tries to use one to "sweat" -- or assault -- him, he summons his fellow gangstas for some payback.  Pretty soon, decapitated bodies are being found along Greenleaf Boulevard, which is a main east-west street in Compton.)

Dr. Dre made his name as a member of the granddaddy of all gangsta rap groups, N.W.A. ("Niggaz With Attitude"), whose debut album was titled Straight Outta Compton.  

After Dre quarreled with fellow N.W.A. member Eazy-E and left the group, he became the first rapper signed to Death Row Records, which was run by Suge Knight, his former bodyguard and probably the scariest guy in the rap world (which is saying something). 

Dre's debut album with Death Row, The Chronic, went multi-platinum.  Snoop Dogg was featured on several tracks on the album, and Dre returned the favor by producing Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle album, which was the first album ever to debut at number one on the Billboard album charts.  Dre also collaborated with another rising superstar, Tupac Shakur.

Dre left Death Row in 1995, partly because he was concerned that Suge Knight was corrupt and out of control.  Shakur's murder the next year was another serious blow to Death Row's business.  Knight was in prison from 1997 to 2001, again in 2003, and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Dre has continued to release albums, but is better known for his work as a producer.  He's worked with a "Who's Who" of hip-hop stars, most notably Eminem and 50 Cent.

The lyrics quoted above make reference to the fact that Dr. Dre has worn two hats during his career in rap -- he's a rapper, and he's the producer who pulls the strings for other rap maestros.

Dre's favorite musicians are 1970s funk guys like George Clinton and Isaac Hayes, but he doesn't use many samples -- he prefers to have live musicians recreate snippets of old records that have inspired him.  

Dre is known as a perfectionist in the recording studio.  He has refused to release albums by a number of the artists who have signed to his Aftermath label because they didn't meet his very high standards.  (Eminem is also a perfectionist, and that may explain why he and Dre have been such a successful team.)

Here's the music video for "Nuthin' But a G Thang" (i.e., "gangsta thing"), featuring Snoop Dogg and a 1964 Chevy Impala, Dre's favorite car:

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Johnny Bond -- "Hot Rod Lincoln" (1960)

I wound it up to a hundred and ten
Twisted the speedometer cable off the end
Had my foot feed clear to the floor
That's all there is -- there ain't no more

When I was a freshman at Rice University in 1970-71, I thought the campus radio station was amazing.  

After all, I was used to listening to AM radio in my hometown of Joplin, Missouri -- where the coolest top 40 station refused to play Beatles records after John Lennon had observed that they were "more popular than Jesus."

The Rice station -- the call letters were KTRU -- was programmed entirely by students, and they played some pretty crazy stuff.  (I'm guessing a number of the student DJs were serious drug users, which was nothing very remarkable in those days.)  I remember being shocked five years later to hear one of the KTRU DJs doing a very professional job as the morning drive-time DJ on a popular St. Louis FM station.

KTRU's programming was disseminated using a technology called "carrier current," which uses electrical wiring to propagate AM radio transmissions.  Carrier current transmitters are low-powered and relatively cheap, so the technology was commonly used by college and other noncommercial stations.

Your radio didn't have to be plugged up to pick up the station, but you had to be fairly close to the campus electricity grid -- once you left the Rice campus, you left KTRU as well.

One night I was listening to KTRU when the DJ was giving away promotional copies of records that the station didn't want to people who called in with the correct answers to trivia questions.  I have no idea what question I answered, but I won a copy of "The Best of Johnny Bond."

I had never heard of Bond, but I loved his multicolored shirt, which really emphasized his turkey neck.  Johnny was a pretty handsome guy when he was young, but this photograph was taken when he was a few years past his prime.

Bond's real name was Cyrus Whitfield Bond.  He was born in 1915 in the tiny Oklahoma community of Enville (which is supposedly a contraction of "End of the Road Ville"), headed west where he performed in a few movies with singing cowboys like Gene Autry, and became a country music star in 1947, when he released "Divorce Me C.O.D." and two other top 10 singles.  

Most of Johnny's best-known songs are either about cars or about getting drunk.  Actually nearly all of them are about getting drunk.  There was "Sick, Sober, and Sorry," "Three Sheets in the Wind," "Here Come the Elephants," and his biggest hit, "Ten Little Bottles."

His album titles included "Bottles Up," "Ten Nights in a Barroom," and "Drink Up and Go Home."  The guy had kind of a one-track mind.

"Hot Rod Lincoln" was actually a hit on the pop charts, not the country charts.  It was first recorded in 1955 by one of its authors, Charlie Ryan, and was an answer song to a 1951 hit, "Hot Rod Race."  The guy who recorded "Hot Rod Race" also recorded several sequels to that song himself, and a bunch of other guys put out hot rod songs that were more or less inspired by it.  Here's a link to a history of the whole phenomenon from the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website.  

I actually owned another record with "Hot Rod Lincoln" on it -- Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in 1972.  

Like most songs about street racing -- "Maybelline" and "Dead Man's Curve" are other examples -- "Hot Rod Lincoln" was probably looked down on by true aficiondos of automobiles and automobile racing.  Even I knew that these songs weren't terribly authentic and I wasn't a car expert by any means, although I did read quite a few hot rod magazines before I discovered other magazines of a somewhat more interactive nature.   

One final note: "foot feed" is an archaic term for the accelerator pedal (which feeds gas to the engine when you push your foot down on it).  That's what my mother used to call the accelerator when I was learning to drive.

Here's Johnny Bond's version of "Hot Rod Lincoln":

Here's Commander Cody's version:

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Blur -- "Popscene" (1992)

A fervoured image of another world 
Is nothing in particular now 

I assume you've noticed what today's date is -- 11/11/11.  This song and this post have nothing in particular to do with the date, but I thought it was worth mentioning.  (Hopefully we'll all be around in 13 months and a day for 12/12/12.)

I have a few photos left from my trip to Joplin earlier this fall, and I might as well put them to good use.  

I suppose you could say they are "fervoured images of another world" -- that world being post-tornado Joplin.  But perhaps you would say they are "nothing in particular now."

Here's one example of "nothing in particular":

(Of course I don't know how a bowling ball ended up here -- that's kind of a dumb question, don't you think?)

Here's an even odder scene:

This house was presumably damaged severely enough that it couldn't be repaired.  But the owner left all the plumbing in place.  I guess he's going to rebuild his house exactly as it was:

Does the recliner convey with this property?  If so, I'm ready to make an offer:

This guy seems a bit touchy.  Probably not a good place to go on Halloween.

I never thought of Joplin as having much in the way of trees -- the Washington, DC area where I've lived for over 30 years is very heavily wooded (as an allergy sufferer can tell you).  But if you look at pre-tornado video of Joplin and compare it to the way it looks now, you'll see that there were a lot of trees to be seen before May 22.

Those trees that were not blown over by the tornado were greatly diminished -- in most cases, there wasn't much left other than about ten feet of trunk.  Most of the trees looked like a Napoleonic-era sailing ship that had been through a long and painful battle.  The hull was still intact, but all the masts and spar and rigging had been shot away.  What remained didn't really look like a ship, and what remained in Joplin didn't really look like trees.

I assumed that the severely damaged trees that were left behind after the tornado were goners -- all their leaves were gone, for cryin' out loud, and the 2011 summer in Joplin was famously hot and dry.

To my surprise, many of the skeleton-like trees I had seen in June had leafed out by September.  Here's an example of one such tree:

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom seems to be that most of these trees won't survive for long.  I have a feeling that we may be surprised by how stubborn some of these trees are -- I bet a lot of them hang on.  But a lot of them won't.

Someone once said that there are two good times to plant trees:  25 years ago, and right now.  A generation or two from now, Joplin will probably have as many or more trees as it did before the tornado.  There are a lot of people working hard to make that happen.

The last picture I'm going to share is one that makes me very sad.  This is Irving School, where I attended grades one through six.  (I remember the principal, Gerald Prater, and teachers like Mrs. Belford and Mrs. Croddy and Mrs. Denham like it was yesterday)  Irving seemed old when I was a student there -- along with so many of my oldest and best friends -- 50 years ago.  

I guess you can always rebuild a building.  Let's just be glad that no one's children or grandchildren were around when the tornado hammered my old school.

Blur had planned to put "Popscene" on its second studio album, Modern Life Is Rubbish.  But when the song did poorly when it was released as a single in the UK in 1992, the group decided to punish the British music-buying public.  "We thought, If you didn’t f*cking want it in the first place," Blur guitarist Graham Coxon told an interviewer, "you’re not going to get it now." ("Popscene" was included on the American version of that album.)

"Popscene" is a great little pop song, thanks in large part to the horns.  The lyrics are rather opaque -- this song is about 90% music, 10% words.

Here's the official "Popscene" music video.  I like the odd way in which the video was edited, but you may not -- it's sort of annoying to watch:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Aerosmith -- "Back in the Saddle" (1976)

I'm calling all the shots tonight
I'm like a loaded gun . . .
I'm back in the saddle again

Veterans Day is celebrated today because the armistice that brought an end to World War I -- at least on the Western Front -- took effect at the 11th hour (11:00 AM) of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918).  Today, you can add one more 11 for the current year.

Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day in the United States -- that's what my father called when I was growing up.  The name was changed after World War II, when we had many millions more veterans to honor.

November 11 is still called Armistice Day in France and Belgium.  It is celebrated as Remembrance Day in the UK and the countries of the British Commonwealth.

I'm not posting this at 11:00 am, because the song that is featured in this post -- "Back in the Saddle," from Aerosmith's 1976 album, Rocks -- has absolutely nothing to do with Veterans Day.  Perhaps I could have come up with a song that did have some connection to Veterans Day if I had spent a little time and effort trying, but it's been a busy week for me.  (2 or 3 lines a day has a more topical post.)

Aerosmith was sort of a big deal in the Boston area in the mid-1970s, when I was going to law school there.  I wasn't a huge fan, but I had two or three of their albums, including Rocks, which was a favorite of Slash, Kurt Cobain, and James Hetfield.

A lot of their music seemed a little formulaic to me -- it was very skillfully put together, and it could be a lot of fun, but not necessarily something to take very seriously.  

Take "Walk This Way," for example.  Clever lyrics, dirty (but not too dirty), and some unexpected twists and turns to keep things from getting predictable.  It's a lot like a hip-hop song, with the speeded-up lyrics and the internal rhymes. 

"Back in the Saddle" is slower, and rawer, and dirtier.  The guy in this song isn't tongue-in-cheek dirty, he's seriously dirty. 

Aerosmith in 1976
 He's not a 16-year-old at the high-school dance, he's a saddle-sore outlaw who's been riding around in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks -- and after he gets good and liquored up, he's going to grab a skanky whore, drag her upstairs, and jump right back in the saddle.  It's not going to be pretty.

By the way, some of you will remember that good ol' Gene Autry had a song that also started with  "I'm back in the saddle again."  Very different song, boys and girls.

Aerosmith (like the Rolling Stones) stayed around way too long and put out a lot of crap.  But at their peak, they killed.  It's a miracle Steven Tyler has any voice left at all after opening so many concerts with this song over the past few decades.

Here's "Back in the Saddle":

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tupac Shakur -- "Brenda's Got A Baby" (1991)

She's 12 years old 
And she's having a baby
In love with a molester, 
Who's sexin' her crazy . . .
He left her 
And she had the baby solo
She had it on the bathroom floor
And didn't know
She didn't know what to throw away
And what to keep

Tupac Shakur was only 20 years old when he released "Brenda's Got A Baby," the first single off the 2Pacalypse Now album in 1991.  Less than five years later, he was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas after attending a Mike Tyson fight.

Tupac (or 2Pac, if you prefer) was a very talented rapper, but has attained a cult status that far transcends the music he left behind.  He is the James Dean of hip-hop.

James Dean
Tupac didn't have the stereotypical rapper's upbringing -- he didn't grow up in the projects, and he wasn't pushing drugs when he was 14.  

His parents were active members of the Black Panther Party in New York, and he was born just a month after his mother was acquitted of federal conspiracy charges.  (He was named after the leader of an indigenous revolt against the Spanish that took place in Peru in 1780.)  His stepfather landed on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list for his role in the robbery of a Brink's truck in which a guard and two policemen were killed.

When his family moved to Baltimore, Tupac enrolled in the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he appeared in several Shakespearean productions and danced in The Nutcracker.  A few years later, the Shakurs moved to Marin County, California, where Tupac hooked up with a Bay Area rap group, Digital Underground.

J. Lo and P. Diddy
Most of the songs on his first solo album explored various social issues that were of particular relevance to the African-American community -- poverty, police brutality, and (in the case of "Brenda's Got A Baby") teenage pregnancy.

Tupac's later albums were characterized by more aggressive and violent themes.  Some of the songs from those albums are little more than profanity-filled screeds that threaten Tupac's enemies -- mostly East Coast rappers like The Notorious B.I.G. and Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs -- with all sorts of mayhem.  Those songs are so far over the top that you have to wonder about Tupac's mental health.

Tupac Shakur
We'll get into Tupac Shakur's later music a little more deeply in future "Hip Hop 101" lectures, but let's focus now on the song that first brought him to the attention of the rap world, "Brenda's Got A Baby."

As told by Tupac, Brenda's story is about as sordid a story as you'll ever hear.  You may think the lines quoted above are bad, but just wait until you hear what happens next.  

"Brenda's Got A Baby" is not a work of art -- as noted above, Tupac was only 20 when he recorded this track, and it's about subtle as a nuclear bomb.  Brenda had about as bad a life as it's possible to have, and Tupac wants to make sure you get the picture -- he really rubs the listener's nose in it, if you know what I mean. 

Here's "Brenda's Got A Baby":

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

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Brothers Four -- "Greenfields" (1960)

Once there were green fields kissed by the sun
Once there were valleys where rivers used to run
Once there were blue skies
with white clouds high above

It's been over five months since the tornado that wiped out a broad swath of Joplin, Missouri, and a lot has happened in the meantime.  

When I visited shortly after the May 22 tornado struck, it seemed like all there was to see in my old neighborhood was rubble.

Here's what the 2100 block of Mississippi looked like on June 3:

Here's a video showing the view in all four directions from 24th and Missouri.  (Sorry about all the wind noise.)

But by the time of my return visit in the fall, virtually all the rubble was gone.  (I've read that there was three times as much rubble in Joplin as there was in lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks.)  So what you saw were a lot of vacant lots -- the rebuilding was just getting started.

I did a lot of walking around during both visits, and took a lot of photos.  My photographic talents are average at best, and I was equipped with only my Blackberry's humble built-in camera -- so don't expect too much from the photos I'm sharing with you.

Perhaps the most memorable image from the May 22 tornado's aftermath was the large and seemingly undamaged metal cross that towered over the ruins of St. Mary's Catholic Church.  (My understanding is that the cross will be preserved and made an integral part of the new church.)

Here's a picture of that cross, an American flag, and a bulldozer -- perhaps the combination of these three things sums up what the residents of Joplin are all about these days.

The thought that was always first and foremost in my mind during both of my Joplin visits was how fortunate my parents had been.  

Actually, the thought that was really foremost in my mind during those visits was how fortunate I was that I didn't have to deal with helping my parents rebuild.  Dealing with insurance companies and contractors and all that would have been overwhelming enough, but I think the psychological effects of losing a home would have been far more difficult to deal with than the physical effects.

My parents' home, which is at the corner of 24th and Alabama, was damaged but not seriously -- it was never uninhabitable.  But if you walked north not quite two blocks (about 1000 feet) this is what you would have seen:

You're standing at the corner of 22nd and Alabama, looking north.  Somehow, one house of the 22 houses between 22nd and 20th streets on Alabama remained standing.  The other 21 were a total loss.

Let's go one block east and look north from the intersection of 22nd and Mississippi:

That's pretty much the same view, except not even one house survived of all those that once stood between 22nd and 20th on Mississippi.

Let's turn 180 degrees and look south from 22nd and Mississppi:

Everything looks pretty normal, doesn't it?  That because it was pretty normal.  Some of the houses on this block sustained some damage, but they all looked like they had been restored to their original condition.

The Joplin neighborhood where I spent the first 18 years of my life (plus the next several summers) changed hardly at all while I lived there.  I've been back once or twice a year since then, and it hadn't changed that much in the ensuing 35-plus years -- until May 22.

It's disorienting to stand at 26th and Pennsylvania or 24th and Missouri or any number of other intersections in that neighborhood and see virtually no structures for several blocks in any direction.  I looked to the west, the north, the east, and the south, and the view was pretty much the same: all you could see was a lot of concrete slabs where houses used to stand, and some badly battered trees.

Here's the view from 26th and Pennsylvania, looking to the northwest:

Here's the view from at 24th and Minnesota, looking west:

And here's the view from 26th and Missouri, looking northeast towards what's left of Joplin High School:

I know it's hard to tell much from this picture, but the white building is a brand-new house that is going to have to be torn down to make room for the new high school.  As I understand it, the owner of that lot was eager to rebuild, and was one of the first people in Joplin to get a building permit.  Unfortunately, the school district then found out that the high school had been built in a floodplain, and would have to be relocated.

The school district is buying up some 80 building lots in a four-block area just west of the current high school.  The owner of the white structure in the photo above is the only landowner in that area who had started to rebuild.

Here's a link to a Joplin Globe story about all this.

There is quite a bit of building going on.  The owner of this house in the 2600 block of Grand, which was severely damaged but not completely destroyed, is adding a second story.  (There were zero two-story houses in this neighborhood when I was growing up.)

Here's a view from the 2100 block of Mississippi, looking north toward Ozark.  The lot in the foreground is one of the few I saw where the rubble had not been cleaned up.  The two houses in the background are brand new:

I've got a few more pictures from my Joplin trip to share with you, but I'll save those for the next 2 or 3 lines.  Let's move on to our featured song.

The Brothers Four met at the University of Washington in 1956, where they were Phi Gamma Delta fraternity brothers.  After college, they went to San Francisco and signed a recording contract with Columbia Records.  Their first (and eponymous) album made the top 20, and their single, "Greenfields," made it to #2 on the pop charts in January 1960.  

A lot of the folk music from that era tries too hard -- the musicians grin, and nod their heads in an exaggerated way, and virtually beg the audience to sing along.  It's all a little phony.  

But "Greenfields" is about the quietest record I've ever heard.  The first two lines of each verse are sung in unison at a very low volume.  The boys crank up the volume a little and break into harmony for lines three and four, but there's a gradual decrescendo, and the last line of each verse is as soft as the first.  

The instrumentation is a simple as it gets -- acoustic guitar and bass violin, playing on the beat.  There are no cutesy little riffs or lead-ins -- just the metronomic, on-the-beat chords.  The tempo is that of a slow walk, like the person walking doesn't really want to get to his or her destination.  

A few years later, the kids started listening to much edgier music and the Brothers Four fell on hard times.  The group recorded a cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" in 1965, but the release of Dylan's version of the song was delayed, so he refused to approve the release of the Brothers Four's (Brothers' Four?) version.  In the meantime, the Byrds recorded the song and the rest is history.

The Brothers Four weren't the only ones whose version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" was left in the dust by the Byrds.   Judy Collins, the Four Seasons, Johnny Rivers, Odett, and Dino, Desi, and Billy (remember them?) also covered the song in 1965.

Here's "Greenfields":

You can use this link to buy the song from Amazon: