“Beyond the Blues,” Peter Case

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Some rock critic once described a song as sounding like the singer had traveled a long way to deliver their message. (It was probably Greil Marcus, and probably about Bob Dylan, but I truly don’t remember.)  There are songs like that, with a sense of hard-won but weary wisdom, deep truth that’s extracted a cost in being acquired. For you, it may be any one of a number of songs from Hank Williams’s sturdy catalog. For me, this song fits the bill.

In the first verse the singer talks about a moment of connection with a street singer he happens to hear. In the final verse that street singer is long gone, probably dead, but his song lives on in the singer’s memory. The song is about perseverance, about not giving in to circumstance, about the necessary belief in a place in this lifetime beyond darkness and pain and the necessary struggle to get there. In the middle verse the singer reflects on how this message applies in his own life:

You and me darling, we took the long way around
Across the wide open country, past the heart attack towns
We hit the fork in the road where we all have to choose
Between darkness and light
Beyond the blues…

I love that phrase “the long way around.” (Co-writer Tom Russell must have liked it too, enough to name the album on which he covers the song after it.) We all want shortcuts, but we seldom get them and when we do they don’t always work out as we expected. Perhaps we’d be happier if we resigned ourselves to a more methodical design for living. Or as expressed in another Peter Case couplet, from another song:

Been on this road since I was two
Just found out that it don’t cut through…

That resonates for me. But then I’ve always been an effort-is-its-own-reward kind of guy, and also a you-can’t-make-your own-circumstances-but-you-can-choose-how-you-respond-to-them kind of guy. Both of those are in this song.

Peter Case. Always thought he was English. “The Plimsouls,” what kind of name is that for an American band? “A Million Miles Away” is a great song, though. I was quite enamored of Peter’s first, folky solo album in 1986. I gave it a listen last night and it holds up well. “Walk in the Woods” is like a male version of “Ode to Billie Joe.” I saw him play at a club around that time; what I mostly remember is he looked homeless. I liked the album this song comes from, “Six-Pack of Love,” a lot too, but haven’t kept up since except the occasional song I hear on folk radio (seek out ‘Beautiful Grind”). So I know maybe 20% of his ouevre. There are probably 10 other great Peter Case songs I may or may not ever get around to hearing. Sad for me, sadder for Peter, but perhaps hopeful in a general sense of the existence of undiscovered richness, of so much good stuff out there ready to be stumbled over just when you need it most. Maybe even, as the song says, from some random old man on a corner playing guitar with a rusty knife.

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“You Light Up My Life,” Patti Smith

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Last Saturday I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about how Joseph Brooks, the guy who wrote this song (most successful single of the 70’s, 10 weeks at #1 in 1977, Grammy Award, Academy Award), later became a rapist who would lure young actresses to fake casting calls and assault them. He committed suicide in prison in 2011.

Does our repugnance at such behavior mean we should no longer like or listen to the song? Of course not! Which was why I spent the rest of the day remembering this Patti Smith cover of it I heard at an outdoor concert on a rainy night in Central Park.

Before the show, my girlfriend and I had gone to an automobile-themed restaurant that I thought looked cool from the outside. We took one look at the menu prices and bolted while the waiter went to get us water. Instead we ate hot dogs from a street vendor, one of the few times I’ve ever been brave enough to do that. It was raining pretty good and the crowd was sparse and I remember little about the show except the image of Patti on the edge of the stage with a boot up on the speaker and the wind blowing back her hair and her a capella rendition of this song.

This would have been 1979 or 1980, after the release of Easter with its rampant Christian imagery and the chart success of “Because the Night,” so it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise that Patti would sing a top forty song that could be interepreted to have religious overtones.

But it was! I still at that point believed my rock and roll heroes lived in some kind of bubble of artistic integrity and purity. I remember thinking, where did Patti even hear this? (Most successful single of the 70’s, 10 weeks at #1 in 1977, Grammy Award, Academy Award.)

Debby Boone later said she was thinking about God and not a boyfriend when she sang the song. We can take her at her word but in her version it’s arguable. As Patti sang it there was no question she had a higher power in mind. Nonetheless, she kind of butchered it: a crooner she was not, and the wet weather didn’t help her in reaching the high notes.

But close enough for rock and roll, as they say, and utterly sincere and spiritual and unexpectedly moving and one of my favorite live show memories. I still turn the song off if it happens to come on the radio (it is after all a saccharine piece of shit written by a rapist) but I usually wait a line or two to give a smile for Patti’s performance.

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“Clampdown,” The Clash

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Last week’s necessary listening was Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain” but this week I needed to hear the Clash. This song is perhaps not their best but is my personal favorite, a warning against complacency, a challenge to the listener to want more from themselves, their work, their country.

Some friends had an inauguration de-celebration last week and we each were asked to bring something hopeful to read. The best was a poem about organizing by Marge Piercey. I was tempted to read these lyrics, which are more cautionary than hopeful but very, very timely. You’d need the Clash’s musical maelstrom to do them justice though (check out some of the live vidoes on Youtube, amazing). Instead I shared a few readings about American exceptionalism, a topic I expect we’ll be hearing a lot about over the next four years.

I sort of believe in it but see it more as a responsibility than entitlement. I chose a paragraph from Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train” that spoke about how we are all of us in a kind of partnership to make America live up to its ideals and then a stanza from a John Ashberry poem my college professor Lee Schlesinger introduced us to that compares those American ideals to a letter we wait and wait to arrive and then when it does we accidentally tear in half. In the poem the letter’s still legible, though. Maybe it says something like this:

Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
Don’t you know that you can use it

Back in the day I found the Clash too on the nose, too direct. I still privilege the subtle but have gained respect for sometimes saying exactly what you mean in as clear terms as possible.

The inauguraton unparty was the rare room where I was one of the more optimistic people. We’ve had demagogues before, I said. They do damage but the system survives. Eventually he’ll lose control of the American people, and then of Congress. As the Clash say here, evil presidentes do sometimes fully get their due. There are people in power who care about more than power. Even some Republicans!

I could be wrong.

Vivid memory of dancing to “Clampdown” with a room full of friends at my wedding reception. The personal and political, they are intertwined, just the way Joe and Mick and Paul and Topper intended.

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2016 Favorites

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Superlatives:

Favorite Album: Once again I bought so few albums that this category should be retired for lack of candidates but it provides another opportunity to shout out the Hamilton soundtrack, which remains to me a jaw-dropping piece of work. How did Lin Manuel Miranda do this? For my best of below I chose “You’ll Be Back” which is not very representative but nothing else seemed to fit in with the rest of my picks.

Favorite Fast Song: Fill in the Blank, Car Set Headrest. Great vocal, great guitars, great lyrics. Drunk Drivers/Killers Whales may actually be the better song but I give the nod to this one for the lines, “You have no right to be depressed/You haven’t tried hard enough to like it.” I sequenced this after Leonard Cohen below and I can imagine the Act 3 Leonard Cohen saying something to himself…although not necessarily the Act 1 Leonard Cohen. Same holds true for me!

Favorite Slow Song: Needed, Robbie Fulks. I waxed eloquent about Humble and Kind as an advice-to-my-kid song but damned if a better one didn’t come along toward the end of the year. One of those songs that makes me feel like the writer is reading my mail. “May you steer past shallow freedoms,” there’s some advice we could all periodically stand to hear.

Song That Makes Me Inexplicably Happy Every Time I Hear It: Nobody Wins, Brian Fallon. It’s kind of a sad song, addressed to an ex-lover who’s probably not remotely interested in listening. But it seems to have a stoic acceptance of the passing of time that I am currently attempting to cultivate. Plus there’s something in the vocal so contradictorily unaccepting of the passage of time, so up to the challenge, so up to any challenge…file under early Bruce.

Disk 1:

  1. Leaving the Table, Leonard Cohen
  2. Fill in the Blank, Car Seat Headrest
  3. Shilpa Ray on Broadway, Shilpa Ray
  4. Fake I.D., Joyce Manor
  5. Shut Up Kiss Me, Angel Olsen
  6. Roller, Quilt
  7. Mono Pt. II, Trapper Schoepp
  8. Never Be It, Cotton Mather
  9. Easier Said, Sunflower Bean
  10. Impossible Hand, Stephen Steinbrink
  11. How Lucky Am I?, Lemon Twigs
  12. Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous, Walter Martin
  13. You’ll Be Back, Hamilton Original Broadway Cast
  14. A 1000 Times, Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
  15. Talking Quietly of Anything With You, Free Cake for Every Creature

Disk 2:

  1. Humble and Kind, Tim McGraw
  2. Wreck You, Lori McKenna
  3. Nobody Wins, Brian Fallon
  4. Back, I Don’t Cares
  5. Longer, Lydia Loveless
  6. Anyhow, Tedeschi Trucks Band
  7. Changes, Charles Bradley
  8. All Around You, Sturgill Simpson
  9. Northern Highway, Martin Courtney
  10. You Say, Dori Freeman
  11. Porch Light, Aoife O’Donovan
  12. If I Ever Was a Child, Wilco
  13. Hands of Time, Margo Price
  14. Only a River, Bob Weir
  15. Needed, Robbie Fulks

“Yeah, I Know, It’s Christmas,” Andrew Dost

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This starts out like that Martin-Short-as-Ed-Grimley on Christmas Eve sketch on SCTV, a throbbing piano and spoken delivery conjuring the singer’s too-excited-to-sleep thoughts:

Yeah, I know, it’s Christmastime
And I don’t care
Because I don’t ever get anything I want

Among the the things he does get: videogames, toys he’ll only play with once, and advice. (I think he says “bikes” but I prefer hearing “advice.” I personally hate getting advice for Christmas.)

But then he catches himself:

Of course I’m kidding
I love this freaking day
In fact the whole month leading up to it is great

…and then surrenders entirely:

Oh baby, baby, baby I can’t wait!

The song slows down, background voices enter, and the singer starts to actually sing, enumerating the stuff about the holiday he loves. Which, unimaginatively, turns out to be the same stuff about the holiday all of us love or say we do, snow, the skating rink, the Christmas tree, the whole “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” shtick.

All right fine, we have the same small town in all of us (thanks, Don Henley) and have all been sold the same dream of Christmas (RIP, Greg Lake). But what’s great about the song is that the singer doesn’t stop there with the standard-issue Christmas trappings (okay, I love them too!) but throws in enough quirky details to convince me Christmas really is his favorite time of year. Being together with people he’s not together with often enough allows him to let down his guard enough to dance to a Billy Joel song. Taking a break from all those people for a long walk in the cold with a special person, holding hands through gloves.

This comes from a mix CD I made about 10 years ago of Indie Rock Christmas songs. They are not genres that mix well. Indie rockers are generally too self-conscious and suspicious to give up much ground to a holiday like Christmas, and the result tends toward the morose or snarky. These are not the qualities I look for in my holiday music. I don’t play the CD very much.

But I love this song, which you can find on Youtube but not Spotify. I have no memory of where I originally stumbled over it or who Andrew Dost is or what else he’s recorded. But I hope Christmas is still his favorite time of year and that this holiday is the best he’s ever had, and I wish the same to you.

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“Ariel,” Dean Friedman

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“Have you heard the Paramus Park song?”

We lived, as the song says, on the other side of the Hudson, deep in the bosom of suburbia, and there was just something so cool about hearing one of our hangouts (it’s a Mall, or was back in the seventies) mentioned in a song that was playing on the radio. Others have spoken about how validating it can be to see people like yourself or a place you’ve been in a book, a song, a movie (and how excluding it can feel when you consistently don’t) and that may be one (of many) of the things we’ve lost in the Internet age. Every moment is captured and screened; it’s not a novelty anymore. There’s probably a Web site with old photos of Paramus Park. All is public, and so that thrill of seeing something you’ve felt was private suddenly opened up to the world (and it is a thrill, except to a few malcontents) has lost its intensity. Though I did think it was pretty awesome the other night to see the Boston Common rendered on “The Simpsons.”

The song was pretty good too, sort of bubblegum/Beach Boys with a touch of Elton John. The singer had a drawling, oddly-accented voice that could have come straight from one of the weirdos at the lunch table. The story was typical: boy meets girl, boy invites girl to gig, boy gets (romantically) laid. The saxophone solo was squirmy but the chorus was killer, just the word “Ariel” stretched over many notes, genius in its simplicity, the kind of thing you’d find yourself singing while driving without even noticing you were doing it.

Besides the ripped-from-my-life details (my Dad hung out at the American Legion hall!) what’s striking is how much we find out about the girl. She’s Jewish, vegetarian, pot-smoking, a good singer, bra-challenged. So much detail, as opposed to the faceless “you” of most (written-by-men) love songs!

Me and my girlfriend at the time (not Jewish, not vegetarian, not pot-smoking, but a good singer and also bra-challenged) loved the song, which we could only find in its single version. We also loved Dean’s second album, “Well Well Said the Rocking Chair” when it came out later that year. We played the cassette I made of it on many of our trips to Paramus Park, and were especially partial to the title song, “Sunday Papers,” and “Lucky Stars” (it said what we felt!) Listening to it now (I still own the album) is as squirmy as that sax solo in “Ariel” but that’s part of the fun, right?

From the Web: Dean is still around, still making (self-produced, self-released) music. He’s got name recognition enough to tour in the UK, where “Lucky Stars” was a big hit  (I had no idea). He seems to have made some money in video game companies. He still lives deep in the heart of suburbia, not far from where I grew up. The cocained-up Barenaked Lady (Steven Page) sometimes covers one of his older songs in concert. Good for Dean on all counts!

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