Looking At Love: A Musical Story

It was about 8:30 on a recent Saturday morn. Breakfast having slid down my throat 15 minutes earlier, I was in position on the living room sofa where I was thumbing through the newspaper, absentmindedly twirling the handful of hairs on my head into poor facsimiles of ionic columns, and listening to the radio. In other words, per usual, I wasn’t doing much. But that’s the way I often like it.

The radio station generating tunes in my house was WXPN, the stellar music provider from Philadelphia that has sparked me to compose any number of stories since my blog’s inception in April 2015. I’ve given XPN a ton of free publicity on these pages, but that’s a-ok. They deserve it.

WXPN likes to keep things mellow on much of Saturday and Sunday mornings. Appropriately, they named the show that airs during those hours Sleepy Hollow. You ain’t going to hear anything by Albert Ayler or Public Enemy or The Sex Pistols on the Hollow. James Taylor and Billie Holiday and Conor Oberst you will. Nice and easy does it, as Frank Sinatra once sang.

And that’s fine with me. And with my wife Sandy. We’re of the sort who like to ease slowly into the day. Sleepy Hollow is the proper conduit for such.

There I was, then, having constructed two unstable ionic columns and working on a third, when a lovely song caught my attention. A few numbers later another beauty made my eardrums sigh. And, it being my lucky day, a third tune, sweet as it could be, soon entered my living room. I’d never heard the songs before. Right away I suspected that I was going to write about them.

The songs in question are Cold As Canada, Time Will Tell and Love Had To Follow. Paul Kelly, Gregory Alan Isakov and Ron Renninger, respectively, are their composers and singers. I’ve given each song repeated listenings on YouTube since that fateful Saturday morning and have not lowered my estimations of their qualities. They are real good works of art.

I think these songs grabbed hold of me because of their sonic similarities. Each is spare in instrumentation, and each singer handles his words gently. Plenty often that formula results in sappy drivel, but not in the case of the Kelly, Isakov and Renninger opuses. And what I realized, after first hearing them, is that they concern themselves with the most powerful and basic of human emotions, and the one that I’d guesstimate about 75% of the non-instrumental songs ever written either touch upon or are fully consumed with.

Sisters and brothers, we’re talking about love.

Yeah, love. I’m not exactly issuing any news bulletins when I say that love can be as present as air, as elusive as a yeti or as slippery as a shapeshifter. It might be hot, it might be tepid, it might barely register a reading on the Celsius or Fahrenheit scales. What can you say? . . . Love’s usually complicated.

We get three differing discussions of love in my Sleepy Hollow songs. Cold As Canada, tender and sorrowful, an ideal vessel for Paul Kelly’s nasal, Dylanesque voice, is about a gal whose love for her guy has faded a whole lot. Unhappily cold, she’s leaving him, knowing that, as Kelly writes, there’s “no good way to say goodbye.” There isn’t.

Cold As Canada, which comes from Kelly’s 2012 album Spring And Fall, is a straightforward and humble work, its melody clean and pure. Kelly, a gent of 62 with a four-decades-long career in place, is a major star in his native Australia and can rock vigorously. But rock he doesn’t on this song or on quite a few others in his large oeuvre.

Now, I’m a sucker for a waltz, especially one with an unusually beguiling melody. Which means that Time Will Tell doesn’t want to give up occupancy in my brain. If there’s a lovelier, more wistful tune out there, I’d eat my hat if I owned one. And you know what? A few days ago I almost rolled off my bed when I heard Time Will Tell in a Subaru television ad. Huh? How did Subaru come across this song? Whatever, I’m glad that what I imagine are decent bucks have landed in Isakov’s pockets. It’s a struggle for most musicians to pay the rent.

What we have in Time Will Tell is a lyric open to interpretation. The words are seductive and vivid, but somewhat cloudy at the same time. Blowing the clouds away, however, I’ve decided that the story concerns a couple, two good folks who have been together for a long time and, as good folks sometimes do, are wondering if their common path is separating. It might be, but not too seriously. Their love is destined to get back on track. “Time will tell, she’ll see us through.”

Time Will Tell, from 2013’s The Weatherman album, is not dissimilar to much of Isakov’s output. He’s a folkie at heart, a mystical one who has attracted a lot of fans and has sold a lot of tickets. At 38, he’s two decades into his career and seems to have found a good, solid path to mosey down.

What, then, of Love Had To Follow? This is an easy one to decipher, even for the likes of me who couldn’t get the gist of Horton Hears A Who and How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The song is all about love at first sight, a love that lasts forever. Really, it’s that simple. I promise.

Unlike Kelly and Isakov, I’d never heard of Renninger before the Hollow brought him my way. He’s one of those guys who has been around forever (his music career began in the mid-1960s) but has never come remotely close to becoming even a wisp of a household name. But he’s still at it. Love Had To Follow is found on The Man Who Became A Song, his album of one year ago. If I owned a hat, I’d tip it to Renninger’s perseverance and love of music.

Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands, probably several million good songs have been written about love. I imagine that hundreds more were composed while I penned this article. Love . . . it makes the world, and the music biz, go round.

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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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Almost (A Musical Story)

A couple of weeks ago my brother Richard sent me an email about music. A friend of his had burned a copy of an album for him, a record that Richie never had listened to before. “Have you ever heard David Crosby’s album If I Could Only Remember My Name? It’s excellent,” Richie wrote. Well, my memories of this Crosby opus, which came out in 1971, were beyond fuzzy. I wrote back to Richie: “I think I knew the Crosby album a long time ago. Is that the one with Almost Cut My Hair? I hated that song.” Concluding this magnificently scintillating exchange of questions and observations, Richie wrote back: “Almost Cut My Hair isn’t on it.”

Outer cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name
Outer cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name

I then put Almost Cut My Hair out of mind, where it belonged. But, lo and behold, three days later the highly unexpected happened. I was out doing errands, the car radio tuned to The Loft, a channel on SiriusXM satellite radio. As I pulled into my bank’s parking lot to take out a few bucks from its ATM, the infamous Crosby song, which I hadn’t heard in who knows how long, began to play (click here to listen). I couldn’t believe my ears. And you know what? My opinion about it hadn’t changed. I hated it. Fifteen seconds into the tune Crosby began singing some of the dumbest lyrics around.

Almost cut my hair.
Happened just the other day.
It’s gettin’ kind of long.
I could’ve said it was in my way.

Oy vey! I know that Crosby intended Almost Cut My Hair to be a statement of defiance, a paean to personal freedom. But it’s hard to relate to words so clunky and lame. David Crosby, a legendary talent whose resume famously includes membership in The Byrds; Crosby, Stills & Nash; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young was having a very off day when the words to Almost Cut My Hair spilled from his brain. I forgive him. After all, anybody who composed Guinnevere (click here to listen) and Long Time Gone (click here), which Crosby did, is more than A-OK in my book. And he could (and still can) sing like an angel, though gruff was the order of the day for Almost Cut My Hair.

Nevertheless, I was taken aback by Almost’s reentering my life less than 75 hours after my brother’s email had loosened from the dusty corners of my cranium the fact that the song even existed. I examined the situation from all angles and, illogical and prone to belief in fantasy as I am,  easily concluded that there had to be a reason for the occurrence. But what was the reason? Why, it could only be one thing: I was meant to write a piece about song lyrics that always have made me cringe, lyrics that suck big time shall we say. Such as those of Almost Cut My Hair, of course, and especially of A Horse With No Name (click here). The words to the latter strike me as the absolute worst I’ve ever encountered, especially this line: ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain — Yo, what the f**k? That loser, and plenty of others in the song, give me pain. As if the bottom-of-the-barrel wordsmanship mattered in the least to the band America, one of whose members (Dewey Bunnell) wrote the song. America, as we all know, had a mega-hit with the nameless horse in 1971. And its popularity on the airwaves remains considerable to this day. America has been laughing all the way to the bank for a long time.

As we can see, my idea for a piece about terrible lyrics looked promising. If I had continued to think about it I’m sure I’d have come up with several more numbers whose lyrics can sit proudly beside those of Almost Cut My Hair and of A Horse With No Name. However, that article is going to have to wait awhile and will need a measure of readjustment. And that’s because, shortly before I sat down to begin writing, I clicked my way over to YouTube to give Almost Cut My Hair another listen, aiming to pinpoint all the reasons I can’t stand it. Holy crap! All of a sudden I found myself listening to the song with a refreshed set of ears. Sure, the lyrics still stunk — that hadn’t changed — and Crosby’s angry vocal stance rang as false as a cracked bell. But the instrumental work on the track . . . somehow I’d never really paid attention to it before, and it rocked very righteously. I was smacked in the face by roaring guitars, seething keyboards and pounding drums. I shrugged off Almost’s dopey lyrics and overblown vocals and gave myself over to its mighty, surging roar. By the time the song ended I had changed my tune. That’s fine. In fact, I was glad about it. Hell, being open and flexible often is what life’s all about.

I now am nearing the end of this wee tale. Before I lay down my weary head I should mention a couple of items that will help tighten some loose knots. First, Almost Cut My Hair comes from Déjà Vu, the 1970 disc by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that spawned several big hits, including Teach Your Children (click here) and Our House (click here). Somewhat oddly, Crosby is the sole singer on Almost. His bandmates, each in possession of unique and striking pipes, sat this one out vocally. But they powered the song majestically with their instruments.

Second, a trip to my basement, where I store the many vinyl albums I bought decades ago, confirmed what I suspected might be true. Namely, that I own a copy of If I Could Only Remember My Name. The last time I’d given it a spin most likely was a year or two after its release. Conscientious journalist that I am, I went upstairs to the living room, pulled the platter from its housing and placed it on my music system’s turntable. And then I listened to both sides. As already noted, my brother Richie thinks that If I Could Only is excellent. I’d rate it almost that high. Trippy and shape-shifting, the songs on the album take you on a complex ride. Good job, David. Good job.

Inner cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby is at bottom right corner.
Inner cover of If I Could Only Remember My Name. Crosby is at bottom right corner.

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