Three Songs New To Me

“Yo, what the hell are you doing?” my editor, Edgar Reewright, shouted into the phone early last week. Wisely, I moved the receiver five inches away from my ear.

“I swear, never again will I take on a blogger as a client,” Edgar continued loudly. “Last week you wrote a story that featured three songs. And now you’re telling me that your next piece also is going to be about three songs? What gives, Neil? Can’t you come up with a different idea? How about writing about a childhood memory instead, like the time, when you were four years old, that you got your head stuck in an iron fence and Navy Seals had to be brought in to get you out? I tell you, if it weren’t for the $750 you pay me each week I’d drop you faster than I would a rattlesnake.”

“Edgar, maybe you mistake me for Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Updike,” I said. “They never lacked for things to write about. They were writing machines, for crying out loud. But me? Hey, story ideas don’t exactly flow from my cranium like lava. Right now, back-to-back pieces on music is the best that I can do. And how’d you find out about that iron fence incident anyway? The military’s report on it is locked away in their Too Weird To Be Made Public files.”

“Edgar,” I went on, “the check is in the mail. As always, it’s been a pleasure.”

I hung up. And Edgar didn’t call back.

Three songs it is then. A few weeks ago I heard them for the first time. They are good ones, two of them pretty spanking new and one an oldie that could be mistaken for a country-kissed soft rock number put on wax just yesterday. The tunes came to me via WXPN, a primo radio station in Philadelphia that should pay me a hefty fee for mentioning them as often as I have in my stories. WXPN loves to play new songs and obscure songs while finding plenty of space for ones we’ve heard a thousand times. I am one with the station’s mindset. That’s why XPN and I are pals.

I liked the three songs in question so much, I immediately made a note of their names and performers. Nightime Lady, by Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, was the first to reach my ears. Two days later, within minutes of each other, came Waxahatchee’s No Question and Zeek Burse’s Dry. As different as the three are, sonically-speaking, they share some common ground. Each examines love, for example, that most complicated and shape-shifting of emotions. And you can shake and groove to each of them, though the boogying you might do to Nightime Lady would be highly restrained compared with the workouts you’d get from the thrashing No Question and the pulsating Dry.

If I ever had heard Nightime Lady before, all memory of it was erased from my brain. I was slowly eating breakfast while leafing through the newspaper on a quiet Sunday morning when it came on the air. “Man, this is a lovely song,” I thought to myself. “Who is this? Sam Beam? Conor Oberst?” No, of course, it wasn’t either of those present-day heroes. I was a bit amazed when I soon found out that Rick Nelson is the singer and song’s composer. And that it dates back to 1972. Rick released the album Garden Party that year and had a monster hit with its title song. Nightime Lady is track number seven on that disc.

Well, I take Nighttime Lady as the tale of an immensely lonely man who finds comfort with and feels a mighty attachment to a lady of the night. Probably he has been with her on many an occasion. Lost when it comes to meeting true love, he’ll take whatever soothing caresses he can, wherever he may find them. I assume that Rick didn’t base Nightime Lady on personal experience. He always seemed well-adjusted to me, handling teen idol status in the 1950s calmly and politely. Then he plowed past those years to establish a long and successful career as a musician. Sadly, all came to an end when he died in a plane crash on the final day of 1985.

I was staring at the sky from my house’s deck when No Question grabbed me by my privates. Man, what a snarling rocker. It, and the album on which it appears (Out In The Storm), were released last month. I was panting for breath when the song ended because it doesn’t take much snarling before my head starts bopping to and fro uncontrollably. And oh happy day, WXPN wasn’t finished with me, as Dry, which came out in April on the album titled XXII, set me bouncing in my chair minutes later. Dry’s take-me-to-the-disco beats beckoned me to jump up and glide all over the deck à la Michael Jackson. I started to do exactly that, but then I remembered that my dancing ability is buried in the negative numbers. I stayed seated, though continuing to bounce in place.

No Question and Dry look at love from very different perspectives than does Nightime Lady. No Question’s young protagonist rages against her (former?) unfaithful lover. And in Dry we hear the thoughts of a guy who is ready to stay with and please his girl forever . . . or is he? He doesn’t seem all that certain, actually. Sure, everyone knows this, but I’ll state it anyway: If it weren’t for love — its solidity or lack thereof, its absence, its frustrations —  hardly any songs ever would have been composed. Topic number one it is and has been, by far.

So, what’s up with the name Waxahatchee? It’s the stage and recording moniker that Katie Crutchfield, who sings lead and wrote every song on Out In The Storm, goes by. She took it from a creek, the Waxahatchee, in Alabama, the state she grew up in. Katie, who now lives in Philadelphia, has become big in the indie rock world over the last two or three years. And probably is going to get even bigger.

Big is a word that Zeek Burse, another Philadelphian, probably hopes one day will apply to him. Stranger things have happened. He sings great, and that’s a big start. And he can write, having composed or co-authored every track on XXII. Still, the music biz is rougher than rough. For now, Zeek remains one of who knows how many thousands of professional musicians that virtually nobody ever has heard of.

Before I say goodbye till next time, I’d be impossibly remiss not to mention a main reason I wrote this article. You see, when it comes to music, we live in storied times. The number of ear-pleasers out there is beyond incredible. Nightime Lady, No Question and Dry represent merely a nano-percentage of the millions of good songs I’d never heard before that I could have chosen. And that’s because nearly everything that ever has been recorded is available to us in our Spotify-edly and YouTube-edly blessed age. Musical riches that only a handful of years ago were unimaginable are now a click here and a click there away.

Party on, amigos!

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My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

If (A Musical Story)

a2z_logo_final_social-620x324If, if, if. If only WXPN, a supremo radio station in Philadelphia, hadn’t come up with the idea to play almost 6,000 songs in strict alphabetical order, based on their titles, then I’d never have been flailing around helplessly in the monstrously deep rabbit holes that abound within my cranium. But XPN did, starting at 6:00 AM on November 30 with The Jackson Five’s smash hit ABC (click here to listen), and proceeding around the clock for what seemed like forever. The station finally closed the lid on the affair mid-day on December 17 after airing a song that just about nobody knows, ZZ Top Goes To Egypt (click here), by a band that just about nobody knows, Camper Van Beethoven. A tune with a title that begins with a double Z . . . who’d have thought that an animal like that exists? Leave it to the music worshippers slash obsessives at WXPN to come up with a stunning conclusion to the marathon.

And talk about obsessives. Me, I thought I was done with being one of them. Over the last few decades I’d shed a good ninety percent of my excessive tendencies. Still, backtracking happens, and I found myself being swallowed whole by what XPN was up to. Yeah, I got so involved with the A-to-Z my bodily systems started backfiring. For days I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. Even worse, I didn’t watch my favorite episodes of Duck Dynasty and The Real Housewives Of Atlanta over and over on demand. And not just because I was hopelessly involved in listening to that avalanche of music. Uh-uh. I also had been captured by letters, words, the whole alphabet thing. I was beaming in hard on alphabetic considerations of song titles. Pathetic, man.

I’d never before given more than a cursory thought to the words that song titles begin with or to the patterns that the titles form. Who knew that tons of titles begin with Just, for example? Or that there might be any titles starting with X (such as X Offender, by Blondie). Or that some letters (e.g. T, S and I) are the first letters of an astounding number of song names. Or that one artist (David Bowie) might show up with back-to-back songs (Fascination and Fashion), so tightly are their names alphabetically related.

“What’s going to follow Patti Smith’s Dancing Barefoot?” I frantically wondered during December 3rd’s early moments, unable to come up with the fairly obvious answer that soon hit the air: Dancing Days by Led Zeppelin. And I frantically wondered about countless other minutia throughout the A-to-Z, following along online as XPN posted each addition to its playlist (click here to see the playlist). Letters! Words! Sequences! My geeky and anal ponderings were getting the best of me. I needed relief, blessed relief. Who or what might be my savior?

“Snap out of it, you fool!” my wife Sandy commanded me, eight days into XPN’s extravaganza, as she dumped a pitcher of cold water onto my head. I was seated on the living room sofa, ears glued to the radio. “Thanks, Sandy, I needed that,” I said as the refreshing liquid ran lovingly from my head to my toes. I rose, gave Sandy a well-deserved hug and walked across the floor to turn off the radio. Over the following days I continued to listen to XPN, but in reasonable servings.

I guzzled many hundreds of the thousands of songs that spewed from WXPN’s studios during the festival. Great music abounded, yet one song more than any other brought me up short and went straight to my heart. It’s an oldie that most folks know. And, for reasons unknown, I heard it — no, felt it — much more powerfully than ever I had before.

Many sublime songs (Love Train; I Love Music . . . ) flowed from the minds and pens of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, but did any equal or surpass If You Don’t Know Me By Now? No way. Gamble and Huff, two of the progenitors of The Sound Of Philadelphia that soulfully and majestically conquered the world in the 1970s, surely realized that they had created a diamond when the writing sessions for that number reached their end. What a song, its finest version being the 1972 original by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. It’s a manifesto about the need for trust and honesty and, more than anything, a declaration of true love. You quiver when Teddy Pendergrass, lead singer for HM&TBN, unleashes pleas robed in frustration. When the rest of the group fills in all the blanks with angelic vocals that cushion and counterbalance Teddy’s hot emotions, you levitate and maybe find a few tears drizzling down your cheeks.

Sandy doesn’t know this yet, but one evening soon I’m going to dial up If You Don’t Know Me By Now’s number, turn the volume to a gentle but firm level and swirl with her around our living room. The song is in waltz time, and even a four-left-footed sloth like me can handle a waltz. Here, then, is the best song I know of whose name begins with If.

Stoned Again And Again (A Semi-Obsession With The Rolling Stones)

jumpin-jack-flash-coverIn the summer of 1968 I did a stint as a counselor at a boys’ sleepaway camp nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It was a good gig. I liked the kids in the bunk that I oversaw. And for some reason they seemed to like me. The air up there in the mountains was fresh, the water in the camp’s lake was clean and inviting and the female counselors in the nearby girls’ camp were cute. Like I said, a good gig. The best thing of all during that summer, though, was completely camp-unrelated. It was a tune that I heard for the first time ever while lying one evening on my bunk cot. A new song, it exploded from my teeny-weeny radio, and for the rest of my Berkshires sojourn I flipped that radio’s dial as often as possible each day, seeking out the music that had blown me away. Whenever I found it, which was pretty often, I shook my head in disbelief and let it rock me anew unmercifully. And you know what? To this day, a mere 48 years later, the tune has just about the same effect upon me. We’re talking The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, birthed in the era when those British lads were idolized, really mattered and were flabbergastingly creative, writing and recording amazing new songs prolifically and seemingly with ease.

Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP -- Getty Images
Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP — Getty Images

In 2016 the Stones are still idolized, at least by some. But really mattering and in possession of creative zing? Those days passed the Stones by long, long ago. Sure, the boys, who range in age from 69 (guitarist Ronnie Wood, a longtime but not original Stone) to 75 (drummer Charlie Watts) haven’t broken up, and for each of the last five years they’ve toured a decent amount, rocking ferociously on stage (meaning, they remain fairly active and haven’t lost their chops). Problem is, though, in concert they are nothing more than rehashers of their own well-worn classic material. And that’s because, when it comes to composing and then recording new songs, they’re plenty constipated. Guys, I’m going to ship 20 cases of prune juice to your manager’s office. You need it.

Hey, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, all of whose tree rings number about the same as those of the various Stones, continue to gift the world with albums of original material. But the Stones? Nah. The only album of new bonbons they produced this century was 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And in 2011 they managed to record and release two more original songs. The well dried up after that. They do have a studio album coming out next month, but it’s filled strictly with cover versions of old blues numbers. Apparently they had entered the studio to try and crank out an album of newbies, but got nowhere with that. Trying to salvage the sessions in some way, they fell into a blues groove, jamming on numbers composed by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues guys, and ended up with enough material for an album. I bet the record (Blue And Lonesome) will be good. But me, I’d much rather have the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards songwriting team on fire like they were looong ago. Who knows? Maybe it’ll happen again. Prune juice works.

Right, it’s kind of weird that I know about all of this Stonesy stuff. But I do. And the reason is that, in my wondrous dotage, I am, as I’ve been for nearly forever, a dopey fanboy of the Stones, though far less fervent than I used to be. I rarely play their albums at home anymore, something I once did religiously. But I keep my Stones jones alive by regularly checking up on their musical and other escapades on Google News. Did you hear, for instance, that Wood became the father of twins earlier this year? Or that Jagger will become a dad for the eighth time, at age 73, when his decades-younger-than-him girlfriend gives birth soon? Ah well, small news items like those fit comfortably into my small brain cavity. Decades ago I probably wouldn’t have thought my semi-obsession with the Stones would continue this far into eternity. Similarly, Jagger, when he was in his twenties, used to say that he couldn’t imagine performing rock and roll beyond age 30. So I guess I don’t feel too goofy about following him and his bandmates on their continuing trip. We spit at Father Time’s wrinkled face!

the-rolling-stones-we-love-you-london-3My best Stones moments in a while came recently courtesy of WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station adept at playing just about every style of music you can name. The morning DJ announced that she was spinning songs that originally had come out together on seven inch 45 rpm vinyl singles. In other words, she was playing sides A and B from a bunch of singles. When I heard her offer up the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend The Night Together something sparked in my head, turning my thoughts to another Stones 45 that I’ve always thought of as one of the ultimate singles, and whose two tunes I hadn’t heard in at least a few years. Released in 1967, during the Stones’ brief foray into psychedelia, We Love You and Dandelion found their most meaningful home on that single, as neither ever was part of a regular studio album. They did, however, eventually take up space on some of the greatest hits and compilation discs that the band is talented at issuing unnecessarily often. Great, great songs they are, despite being among the group’s lesser-known efforts.

I used to own the seven inch We Love You/Dandelion single. No more. My collection of 45s, unlike that of my vinyl albums, long ago found new abodes and/or an assortment of landfills in which to reside. Therefore, thank the stars above for YouTube, to which I turned to please my ears soon after the tunes popped into my mind. They sounded as good as I remembered them. Blessed with catchy-as-hell melodies, swirling and cascading vocals and pulsating instrumentations, We Love You and Dandelion set my head a-boppin’ and my mind a-floatin’. As always, shivers ran up and down my back as the songs’ high harmony vocal interweavings kissed the sky.

We Love You arrived in the wake of Jagger’s and Richards’ 1967 drug bust, short-term jailings, trials and, in the end, very light sentences. It was both a thank you to Stones supporters and a poke at the British legal system. Dandelion is less heady, a harpsichord and drum-driven relative of children’s songs aimed at anyone who likes to smile and groove. Both songs swell with musical daring, panache and beauty. I can’t recommend them enough. Such being the case, clicking here is what you’ll want to do to listen to the former, and here for the latter. I accept your thanks in advance.

 

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The Short And The Long Of It: Scattered Thoughts About Music

Tomaz oYou know, when earlier this summer I showered cyberspace with a three-part recap of my wife Sandy’s and my recent European frolics, I thought I was done with that subject. Next thing I knew, though, I was typing out a story that had its genesis during that same trip, in Amsterdam. In said story (which is viewable by clicking here) I wrote about the owner of a bistro we had dinner in. The restaurant’s name is Tomaz, and possibly the owner’s name is that too. But seeing that I don’t know for sure, I referred to him in the piece as Maybe It’s Tomaz. Man, I can’t believe it, but I’m about to talk about MIT again. Obviously it’s a good thing I met the guy, because he has become fodder for your frequently-devoid-of-story-ideas narrator. MIT, if by some fine miracle you ever read this post or the previous one in which you star, please know that I’m in your debt. Figuratively, not financially. Anyway, I’m certain you’d feel fully compensated by basking in the limelight that my epic tales place you within. Well, maybe limelight is too strong a word, considering that this blog is among the least-read publications on Planet Earth. Nevertheless, write I must. Or must I? I’ll have to think about that.

MIT became part of this article’s thought process the other day while I was listening to WXPN, a sharp radio station based in Philadelphia. They play so much music from so many genres, and know so much about music, it’s amazing. And the station always is trying to come up with cool ways of packaging its product. For example, during the other day that I mentioned, they hit upon a great idea. For hours on end they played only short songs. Short meaning under three minutes.

Now, I’m no music historian or researcher. My brain capacity, not to mention my patience, isn’t sufficient to take on either of those roles. However, I’m pretty sure that, before the hippie era bloomed in 1967, the bulk of recorded songs were under five minutes, and oodles of those — the truly short ones — topped out beneath three. This partly was due to the limited storage capacity of vinyl singles and albums. And there also were commercial considerations. Namely, if songs were short, then pop/Top 40 radio stations would be able to play a sizeable number of them per hour and still have plenty of time left over for ads. Things loosened up in many ways in and after the late 1960s, including the length of songs. To this day though, some still don’t surpass the three-minute mark.

3MinuteLogo riattrezzare-macchina-in-3-minutiOK, as with much of life, all of that is neither here nor there. Or is it? I’ll have to think about that one too. Getting back to WXPN, I listened on and off the other day for a total of an hour or so and was pleasantly blown away by all the great tunes that they spun. I’ll name a few (if you click on each title you’ll hear the songs). The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic?. Paul McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely. The Box Tops’ The Letter. Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces. Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri-Las. Each song has a wonderful melody, an alluring arrangement and is packed with feeling. And each satisfied my soul completely and then . . . bam! . . . was over just like that. They are perfect.

Would MIT have loved the XPN playlist as much as I? Let’s see. As Sandy and I ate in his restaurant, MIT and I gabbed away about music. Like me, MIT is a music nut. MIT piped sweet stuff through the restaurant’s speakers by Harry Manx, Jonathan Wilson and Israel Nash, artists I wasn’t familiar with (examples of their work are embedded in the aforementioned article in which MIT appears). The songs were on the long side (six minutes and up I think), transporting and satisfyingly spacey. And were, said MIT, typical of what he mostly listens to nowadays. He made a point to say that a song’s length, not just its style, was part of his selection method — he was into music that took its time telling a story. I liked the Manx, Wilson and Nash numbers. A lot. If I hadn’t been involved with swigging beers and downing a steak dinner, I might have laid my head on the table and gone on a magic carpet ride. Yes, I imagine that MIT would have said “yeah, terrific” about WXPN’s focus on the short the other day, but would have turned off the station after a bit and gone to Spotify or wherever to get his massive daily requirements of the long.

What’s my point, then? Good question. I’m likely to nab the trophy awarded to “The Person Who In 2016 Made The Most Obvious And Lame Observation” for the upcoming sentence, but here goes anyway: Music, as everyone knows, can be a joy and an inspiration and a release. (Oy. Let’s continue). The need for music is somehow built into the human genome. And my guess is that the need’s long form is the dominant gene. Really, not much is better than closing your eyes during a worthy, lengthy number, letting the sounds wash over you and take you on a journey. That’s true whether you’re listening to recorded music at home or on the go or grooving at a concert. On the other hand, there’s no denying the rush that just might overtake you from good songs that are oh so brief and tight. Me, I’ll keep listening to both the short and the long. And to whatever’s in between too.

Amen.

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Three From The 70s

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the 1970s used to get a lot of bad press when it came to music. I’m talking about 70s music in general, not to overlook the extra helpings of guano that were hurled at disco and jazz fusion. I never bought into that, what with all the great material we got during that decade from Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye . . . the list is endless. The knocks ended ages ago. Hardly anyone gripes about 70s music anymore. I mean, more so than the tunes from any other decade, it has become the soundtrack to our lives. But what about those who used to parade with their “Disco Sucks” flags held high? Hey, put on Disco Inferno, by The Trammps, or the Stones’ Miss You, and I guarantee that they’ll be boogying on the dance floor like puppy monkey babies. And if you don’t know what a puppy monkey baby is, get with it and click here.

70_greatest_ever_FB
Which brings us to my abode on a Sunday morning last month. A quiet morning. The neighborhood’s brigade of lawn mowers hadn’t approached the starting line yet, and nearby dogs, for reasons unknown, weren’t barking their f**king heads off. I was listening to WXPN, a radio station based in Philadelphia. It was in the midst of one of its one-off events: The Greatest 70s Music Ever Weekend. I listened for two hours and caught all 22 songs that they played during that span. My degree of awareness varied from song to song, though, depending on each number’s ability to penetrate a mind trying to unravel the secrets of the universe. As usual I didn’t get too far with that. Most of the songs I knew. Man, I hadn’t heard Steve Forbert’s It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way in at least five years. Hadn’t heard Tom Traubert’s Blues, by Tom Waits, in decades. And Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)? Well, anyone who’s a dial flipper like me is going to run across that one a whole lot. It’s probably being played on at least one station in the world at every moment of every day. As well it should be.

The bottom line was that nearly every song on WXPN sounded good or better than good. But three of them rang my bells more than the others. And of those three, one in particular unmoored my boat and sent me . . .

The three songs I liked best are on these albums.
The three songs I liked best are on these albums.

My faves from the morning were Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, David Bowie’s Wild Is The Wind, and El Condor Pasa (If I Could) by Simon and Garfunkel. Great recordings. Much of humanity is familiar with one or more of them. If I were asked to provide the briefest of descriptions of their essential natures, I’d say, in respective order: heartfelt, majestic, transporting.

I loved these three songs from the first moments that I heard them in the 1970s, which in each case was soon after their release on vinyl albums. Tupelo Honey is my number one song on the album of the same name from which it cometh, and the album is my number one among many primo efforts by Van The Man. Morrison was at the top of his game as a singer and songwriter when Tupelo Honey, the album, came out in 1971. I listened keenly last month as Tupelo Honey, the song, played on WXPN. My, my, my . . . how sweet it was, the languid pacing, each organ and guitar line issued oh so casually yet with a soulful caress, and Van’s voice wrapped tightly around the words, as if letting go would result in life’s lessening. “She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/She’s an angel of the first degree/She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey/Just like honey, baby, from the bee.” This song is the best (click here to listen).

Yet, David Bowie’s version of Wild Is The Wind might be better. And, David the prolific songwriter, didn’t even pen the tune. It was the title song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, of a 1957 movie, Dimitri handling the notes and Ned the words. Wild Is The Wind fit like a glove among Bowie’s compositions on Station To Station, his soaring, riveting album from 1976. Wild Is The Wind is a mysterious ride. Guitars calmly anchor the production with repeating and chiming lines as Bowie’s vocals take flight. His singing is dramatic, touched with eeriness and loaded with falsetto leaps. I sat back on the couch last month and let the sounds wash over me. Wild Is The Wind is the best (click here to listen).

Yet, to me El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is better. Maybe because of its simplicity, its sweet melody that relaxes my knotted guts. And because of Simon’s and Garfunkel’s unaffectedly angelic vocals. And the flutes. No question, it’s the flutes that get to me more than anything.

El Condor Pasa was composed in 1913 by Daniel Alomia Robles, a Peruvian. Robles, the story goes, based his music on traditional Andean folk songs that date back who-knows-how-many-centuries, probably to the time of the Incas. And speaking of Incas, Simon apparently first heard the tune performed by the band Los Incas, with whom he toured a bit during his pre-Garfunkel days. He fell in love with the song. Some years later, Los Incas backed up S & G for the recording of El Condor during the sessions that resulted in a famous album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon added lyrics to Robles’ composition. The album came out in 1970 with El Condor as its second track.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for the pure, innocent high notes of Los Incas’ flutes. I heard El Condor on XPN at the beginning of my two hour session. I was still in bed. My eyes might have been open, but I closed them when the song came on the air. Up, up and away it took me. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is the best. I mean it. Click here to listen.

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(Photo of albums by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on it, a larger image will open)

Missing David Bowie

On January 11, a Monday, I heard about David Bowie’s passing. He had shuffled off this mortal coil the prior day. I was shocked by the news, though I’d hardly have described myself as a devout Bowie fan. As that Monday morning segued into afternoon, I couldn’t get Bowie out of my mind. Neither could my wife Sandy, who is far less of a Bowie devotee than I am. We were drawn, as if by an invisible force, to WXPN, the Philadelphia area’s most astute music radio station. In tribute to the great man they were playing Bowie music exclusively for much of the day. We listened for two or three hours, and when XPN turned to other programming at 7 PM Sandy and I put on WPRB, the Princeton University station, to see if Bowie reigned there. He did, and we listened to his songs for several hours more. I can’t think of many artists who, following their deaths, would receive radio homages of this sort. And of course the Bowie outpourings weren’t limited to radio. Media coverage of his life and death has been enormous and heartfelt worldwide.

David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)
David Bowie fans left tributes to him outside his New York City apartment building. (Photo: Getty Images)

Naively I suppose, I’ve been amazed by the degree of attention that Bowie, in death, has attracted. I’ve been very glad to learn that countless journalists and media commentators held him in really high esteem, not to mention legions of fans. On January 11 Bowie was a top global story, probably the top story, in newspapers, on television and throughout cyberspace.

And I’m struck by the extent that Bowie’s death has touched me. My reaction took me by surprise, wasn’t something I’d have predicted. I don’t know the last time a celebrity’s demise hit me so strongly. Maybe it was in 1980, when John Lennon left us. Lennon was one of my heroes. Though Bowie wasn’t, I admired the heck out of him during a swath of the 1970s and always have considered him to be a cultural giant. That accounts for part of my sadness, but not for all. So, what else was it about Bowie’s death that got to me? I’ve thought about this for awhile and have come up with two main reasons.

David Bowie recorded 26 studio albums. His final work, Blackstar, entered the marketplace on his 69th birthday, two days before he died. I own six of his albums. All of them are from the 1970s except for 2002’s Heathen. I love my six from the 70s. Each I believe is great, and the greatest to me is 1976’s head-spinning and majestic Station To Station. I don’t know why I stopped buying Bowie’s releases after Station To Station. I read about them, heard some tunes on the radio, but didn’t lay down any dollars again till 26 years later. Nothing new, I was just plain stupid. Here was a guy with a brilliant track record, whose albums I once had spun over and over, and nonchalantly I had abandoned his singular musical journey. It wasn’t till a few nights ago that I realized what I had missed. WXPN and WPRB played tracks from Low, Lodger, The Next Day and other albums I barely, if at all, was familiar with. The music, as I might have guessed, was fantastic. And I played Heathen on my CD player. I hadn’t listened to it in so long I didn’t recall a single number. David, I only partly knew ya’. I should have kept up. Mea culpa.

Still, missing out on a lot of David Bowie’s music isn’t the end of the world. But it’s an example of not paying attention to life, of letting life pass on by without proper appreciation. And that’s a big deal. I try fairly hard to savor the moment and to do the right thing, but there’s mucho room for improvement. Bowie’s death somehow made me look at myself and my underachieving approach. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

And Bowie’s passing did more than that. In the recesses of my mind I discovered some connective tissues that bonded me with him. You see, David Bowie was only a smattering of months older than I, and because of that I subconsciously had felt a kinship with him. And so when he died an internal link to my younger self broke and I started to contemplate the big picture even more deeply. I mulled over the kinds of thoughts that aren’t reassuring. Such as: Even if I make it for another 25 years I’m a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. Man, that’s a bummer. My excellent friend Jeff recently asked me if I believe that human life goes on in a spirit mode after the flesh fails. He’s a believer. I’m not. My take is that each person’s trip is confined to Planet Earth and that the trip is one-and-done.

That said, on with the party. I plan to buy a bunch of David Bowie albums soon, to catch up with someone, now-departed, whom I miss.

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Ashes: Lindi Ortega’s Great Song Heard In The Great Outdoors

This is a story about life’s little surprises, about how one thing leads to another. In this gentle instance an unexpected impulse to relocate my duff from indoors to outside resulted in my hearing a song that I can’t get out of my head.

There’s something naturally relaxing about sitting outdoors when the weather is pleasant. Some people sit in parks, some on beaches, some a few feet from doors to their homes. One of my pals lives in Philadelphia in an old comfortable house, a sprawling place with a front porch. On evenings when the Philadelphia Phillies are taking the field, my friend positions himself in a porch chair, balances a small radio on a table beside him and turns on the Phillies station. He remains there till the game is over. This routine helps him stay calm.

A scene at dusk: Cheez-Its, iced tea and portable radio on the deck table behind my house. Photograph by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin
A scene at dusk: Cheez-Its, iced tea and portable radio on the deck table behind my house.
Photograph by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

I should emulate my friend’s fresh air example more often. I used to sit outside frequently, mostly on the deck behind my house, but haven’t much in the last few years. Most of my sitting and downtime in that stretch has taken place on the sofa in my living room. On a recent Monday night, however, a powerful urge to visit the great outdoors came out of nowhere, and so I stepped onto the deck as dusk was settling in, and sat at the deck table. The temperature was ideal, the evening peaceful. At least ten houses are within 100 feet of the deck, but they became less and less visible through the trees as blackness approached. These were conditions that agreed with my inner yearnings. That is, I felt isolated, away from it all. And three things made the scenario even better: Food, beverage and music. Munching on Cheez-Its,  sipping iced tea and, most important to this story, listening to my portable radio, I was as relaxed as I’m capable of becoming. The radio was tuned to WXPN.

In the Philadelphia region WXPN is the go-to station for rock, folk, blues and nearly any other non-Ariana Grande musical genre you can name. XPN plays everything from The Beatles to Mavis Staples to Caetano Veloso to Laura Marling. And the station makes it a mission to keep up with the continual avalanche of recorded music from established and never-heard-of-them-before musicians. Airing on XPN as I sat beneath the stars and amidst pulsating fireflies was a program showcasing nothing but new songs. And the tune that issued from my radio at about 9:00 PM swept me from my state of relaxation to a much higher plane.

There are certain songs over the years that infatuated me from the moment I first heard them. In 1968 it was Jumpin’ Jack Flash, by the Stones. To this day it stirs me up every time I hear it. California Stars, by Billy Bragg and Wilco (and lyrics by Woody Guthrie), brought me to my knees in 1998. I’ve added another number to the list of instant infatuations, all praise to WXPN’s new music show. The song is Ashes. Its singer and writer is Lindi Ortega. Ashes overwhelmed me on my deck. I think that the calm within and without me had unlocked fully the doorways to my emotions and ushered Ashes in. From its opening notes, Ashes in a good way made me shiver and melt. It went straight to my truest spaces.

I had come across Lindi Ortega’s name in print in the past but wasn’t familiar with her music. As I’ve learned, she’s a Canadian now living in Nashville and plays and composes smart country-hued material à la Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. With Ashes she and her production team have created a wonder, a stirring song about the need for love, the pain of loss. The heartbeat bass lines, the steady tension-inducing drumming, Lindi’s pleading and impassioned vocals that grow as the song develops, the soul-gripping guitar solo at the song’s three minute mark . . . Ashes to me is perfection. “Darling, this is madness, why don’t you come back to me?/Don’t leave me in the ashes of your memory.” Indeed. Indeed. When Lindi next appears in or around Philadelphia I’ll be at the show. For now, I’ll listen to Ashes on YouTube, where Lindi has gifted it to the world in advance of its release next month on her album Faded Gloryville. I recommend that you do the same. Here is Ashes:

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