Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Pretty little hairdo
Don't do what it used to
Can't disguise the living
All the miles that you've been through
My first thought: Can supermarket play diminish a song's intrinsic value? A crazy notion, I admit. A song should be judged for what it offers the listener, not WHERE it might be heard -- something the artist has no control over (like so many other variables).
Yet there I was in Publix, searching for the impossible-to-find Sun-Bird Hot & Sour soup mix (this cold will not go away). And suddenly I was wondering if I needed to knock the Jayhawks' "Save It For a Rainy Day'' down a peg or two. Or just sing along.
"Rainy Day Music'' might be my favorite album of 2003. It's filled with great songs, harmonies and guitar work, and reminds us -- especially in these crazy moments of weakness -- that Gary Louris is a musical genius. Yes, here comes another PSSST (Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout).
Looking like a train wreck
Wearing too much makeup
The burden that you carry
Is more than one soul could ever bear
I had come to my senses by the time I reached the checkout line. "Whoever chooses your music deserves a raise,'' I told the teller. She smiled. It was, after all, raining outside.
I headed out to tackle my next chore, hoping very much not to run into the song again at the Beall's Outlet store.
Monday, March 30, 2009
If you come down to the river
Bet you gonna find some people who live
You don't have to worry
'cause you have no money
People on the river are happy to give
In the ensuing year an amazing string of memorable swamp boogie records would certify CCR as one of America's most popular bands. But none of them reached the top of the charts. Incredibly, five of their songs during that span stopped just short -- at No. 2. And here is the ultimate humiliation: two of them were blocked by pure bubblegum.
Here are CCR's five No. 2 songs during that stretch, and what stopped them:
March 1969, Proud Mary (Dizzy, Tommy Roe)
June 1969, Bad Moon Rising (Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet, Henry Mancini)
Sept. 1969, Green River (Sugar, Sugar, Archies)
Feb. 1970, Traveling Band (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel)
Sept. 1970 Lookin' Out My Back Door (Ain't No Mountain High Enough, Diana Ross
It makes me dizzy. My head is spinning...
Sunday, March 29, 2009
On thirty-seven dollars and a Jap guitar
Now I'm smokin' into Texas with the hammer down
And a rockin' little combo from the Guitar Town
Let me tell you a little story about the Jap guitar from Steve Earle's "Guitar Town''. Did you know that somebody must have found the word "Jap'' offensive, because the vinyl 45 RPM cut for jukebox play substitutes "Jap'' for "cheap''. Hmmm.
I mention this today because my very first guitar was a "Jap'' model Dorado made by Gretsch. It was purchased around 1971 off the wall of a music store in La Crosse, Wis, where I was attending college. My girlfriend at the time was very fond of me and bought it as a Christmas present that year. If she had really loved me, she would have upgraded to a Martin D-28 and we'd be having a different discussion right now. But we do not tempt the fates here in the Sanctuary.
The Dorado was just fine for me. Perfect, really, since I couldn't play a lick at the time. And it was a well-appointed guitar for an entry level instrument that cost about $115, with case. The spruce top came in red sunburst, the decorative pickguard featured red roses and the fret markers were (probably imitation) pearl inlay.
"The Western Rose'' would be my only guitar for many years. And it was more my fault than the Dorado's that I didn't step forward and become a picker of some renown. Every day I didn't play it -- and there were droughts of months or more when it sat in a closet -- I would think, well, today another 1,000 ambitious kids just eclipsed my playing skills.
But this is no tale of regrets. So many things get away from us in our lifetimes that we don't truly value until long after they have slipped through our hands. The Western Rose, though, never got away. I loaned it to my niece a few years ago when she was moving to Nashville, and it's still there, on a display stand in her living room. In Guitar Town.
Every time I visit she asks if I'm ready to take it home, and one of these days I will.
One of these days.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
I had visited Madtown before, but this was my true coming out party. And setting the tone was a stereo system blasting "Cheap Thrills'' by Big Brother & the Holding Company. So this was Janis Joplin. What a wild sound, what incredible pipes. They weren't playing this on the radio stations back home. This had to be the "acid rock'' my parents had warned me to stay away from. But now it was too late.
Little did I know -- did anybody know -- that the following year Joplin would be dead at age 27. Even if they're wild and reckless, as Joplin certainly was, you assume they'll be around awhile. But you never know. Three weeks earlier, Jimi Hendrix, also 27, was found dead in London.
A year later, on this date in 1971, Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee'' hit the top of the Billboard charts, becoming the second posthumous No. 1 rock song ever, following "(Sitting' on) the Dock of the Bay'' by Otis Redding, who, ironically, died when his plane crashed into Madison's Lake Monona in 1967. He was 26.
I found this studio recording of "Bobby McGee'' which Joplin apparently nailed on the first take. Give it a listen.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I can't remember with any great detail, no matter how hard I try, the 1957 World Series in which my childhood heroes, the Milwaukee Braves, vanquished the New York Yankees for their only world championship. I know everything there is to know about that classic seven-game set because baseball documents everything. I've listened to the radio accounts and watched video highlights. I remember collecting baseball cards of players with names like Adcock, Conley, Mantilla, Pizzaro, Pafko and Rice.
I've got a Bob Hazle signature model glove, and I even named two dogs after Braves pitchers from that miracle team: Spahnie (for Warren Spahn) and Lewie (for Lew Burdette -- who notched three complete-game victories, including the clincher at Yankee Stadium).
But I'll be damned if I can remember the intimate details of that glorious autumn in Wisconsin when "Bushville'' -- a name coined by a New York writer -- beat the bullies from the Bronx.
My excuse? I was barely 5 years old. Which doesn't really get me off the hook. People have earlier memories than that. Even I do. I can't remember listening to the '57 Series on the radio, yet I have vivid recollections about that same time of watching, with eyes wide open, "The Bridge on the River Kwai'' on the big screen at the Pix Theatre. (It's possible the movie didn't play in the tiny outpost of Whitehall until the following year. But still...)
And I remember a neighbor kid, just a year older than me, whistling that marching song everywhere he went. I can still see him strutting down Irvin Street, past our Whiffle Ball field, on his way to somewhere. You know the song, right? The proud British prisoners whistled it as they marched defiantly through the Japanese POW camp. It's widely known as "The River Kwai Marching Song'' but in fact it is the "Colonel Bogey March'' and was written more than 40 years earlier by a British military bandmaster who was taking shots at the menacing Chancellor of Germany.
(Just how did we get from a seven-game Series to a movie that won seven Academy Awards? We built a bridge, silly...)
The song supposedly has lyrics, but was whistled in the movie because the words were too "rude'' to be used. Something about Hitler only having one ball (and if that's true Eva Braun missed out on a great book title).
Me, I'm glad they whistled it. I might just whistle it today while recalling the chilling words of Commander Shears (William Holden):
And we think we've got it bad.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The split did allow us the opportunity to watch the progression of two great songwriters and musicians, and view the development of two terrific splinter bands. I suppose you could call that addition by subtraction.
But I must choose sides, so I'll say it now: I'm with Farrar, who was the unquestioned leader and mastermind of UT's trail-blazing sound. I need only Exhibit A to make my point: "Trace'', the first album Farrar produced with Son Volt after the the split-up of UT, is one of the favorites in my collection and has never been topped by either of the groups' follow-up efforts.
The occasional PSSST (Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout) is meant to uncover music that some of you might have missed and should consider putting your ears to, but there are times when it is simply an acknowledgement of brilliant work. "Trace'' is one of those rare, timeless albums that you never get tired of listening to. Take a breezy ride with some lyrics from "Wind'':
Switching it over to AM
Searching for a truer sound
Can't recall the call letters
Steel guitar and settle down
Catching an all-night station somewhere in Louisiana
It sounds like 1963, but for now it sounds like heaven
Jay Farrar may not have been built for the stage (as a previous poster recently pointed out). But his sturdy guitar playing, pain-inflected baritone warble and rich heartland lyrics kick the hell out of most everything I've heard since 1995, when "Trace'' was released.
May the wind take your troubles away...
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
America is one of those bands that was hard to dislike. First off, it would be, well, un-American. Second, the three-part harmonies were actually very good. So even though many of the song lyrics were, shall we say, less than sophisticated, the folksy tunes were -- in words my artist friend Rick reserves for very special occasions -- pretty OK.
America's first hit, "A Horse With No Name'', was actually written and recorded in London, where the band members were attending high school while their fathers served in the U.S. military. They hadn't even set foot on U.S. soil as the group America until the song was released and quickly shot up the Billboard charts.
It reached No. 1 on this day in 1972.
Not ALL of America's lyrics were dreadful. The words to "Sister Golden Hair'', for example, were better than the song title:
Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed
I ain't ready for the altar but I do agree there's times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine
Don't you know it, brothers.
Monday, March 23, 2009
We may be uncovering the greatest slight in CMT's Top 100: Buck Owens. Despite charting with more than 70 songs in his career -- including an incredible 20 No. 1s -- Owens appears only once on the list, with "Act Naturally'' (at No. 54). Not even close to his best hit, but a damn sight better than Ringo's version.
What a colossal oversight. Buck's songs would be peppered throughout my Top 100 (and, yes, my personal Top 10 will soon be revealed).
Maybe the Bakersfield sound never reached Nashville, Tenn. I can tell you it did infiltrate my sleepy hometown of Whitehall, Wis., where you didn't order up a tap beer without plugging coins into the jukebox. And the jukeboxes were heavily stacked with country music.
When I was in high school I had a job on Sundays sweeping and mopping the floor of the Walgert Hotel Tap Room. And there I would be, all by myself, playing air guitar with my mop while listening to wailing steel guitars and twangy twin Telecasters -- the signature sound of Buck's unique Bakersfield blend. Merle Haggard had it down, too, as well as some notable followers who would see the light, like Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam and the Derailers (one of my favorite bands).
Well, I ain't got nothin' but the shirt on my back
And an old two-button suit
I walked outta my job about a week ago
And now I'm sleepin' in a telephone booth
But I'm a gonna be the richest guy around
The day you say you're mine
I got the hungries for your love
And I'm waitin' in your welfare line
The release of "Waitin' In Your Welfare Line'' in early 1966 completely altered the country music landscape. It hit No. 1 and stayed there seven weeks, and six of Buck's next seven songs also charged to the top of the charts (somehow "It Takes People Like You'' only made it to No. 2). Buck was on fire. Three years later he was brandishing a red, white and blue guitar as co-host of the cornpone TV hit "Hee Haw.'' And the rest, you're dang tootin', is history.
Bakersfield, baby. If they weren't pickin', we weren't grinnin'.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
Now I love that 1968 standard with its whiny vocals and weepy steel guitar (though I fear American Idol judge Randy Jackson would call it ''pitchy.'') I plugged my share of change into the Wurlitzer to hear it, along with another Wynette classic that followed close behind: "D-I-V-O-R-C-E.'' The First Lady of Country Music deserves her due; both of those songs would be near the top of my list.
But author Paul Hemphill (another previous post) brought me to my senses in his revealing book "Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams.'' You would expect Hemphill to be an unabashed Hank sympathizer. A fellow Alabaman, he grew up in the blue collar South, witnessed as a kid the meteoric rise and fall of country music's greatest songwriter, and writes convincingly on subjects close to his pea-picking heart.
For its beautiful lyrics and raw-bone rendering, my vote goes to "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.''
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds to blue to fly
That midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry
Although it was Hank's personal favorite, "Lonesome'' was nowhere near his most popular or commercially successful song. In fact, it was released in 1949 as the B side to "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It'' and didn't make the Billboard charts until 1966 -- more than 12 years after his death.
But there are very few songs that evoke the pure emotions of that heart-wrenching dirge. "Never has so great a piece of songwriting been so egregiously overlooked,'' writes Hemphill.
I've never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry
Only four of Hank's songs made the CMT list: "Your Cheatin' Heart'' (No. 5), "Hey Good Lookin' '' (No. 18), "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'' (No. 28), and "Lovesick Blues'' (No. 60).Here is CMT's Top 10:
1. Stand By Your Man, Tammy Wynette
2. He Stopped Loving Her Today, George Jones
3. Crazy, Patsy Cline
4. Ring of Fire, Johnny Cash
5. Your Cheatin' Heart, Hank Williams
6. Friends In Low Places, Garth Brooks
7. I Fall To Pieces, Patsy Cline
8. Galveston, Glen Campbell
9. Behind Closed Doors, Charlie Rich
10. Blue Moon of Kentucky, Bill Monroe
You may not agree.
Friday, March 20, 2009
As we await the bewitching hour of 10 o'clock tonight (EDT) in Boise, where the little-regarded Wisconsin Badgers face very long odds against the upstarts from Florida State University, I'm heartened to know that one of the biggest upsets in history occurred on this very day in 1952.
Yes, folks, it was the night Humphrey Bogart stole the Academy Award for Best Actor -- the only Oscar of his sterling film career. Playing the gin-swilling riverboat captain Charlie Allnut in "The African Queen'' was a perfect role for a drink-swilling actor, and Bogie nailed it. The loser: Marlon Brando, a heavy favorite after his turn in "A Streetcar Named Desire.''
Come to think of it, "The African Queen'' might be much better viewing fare than another day of first-round NCAA games. Bogart and co-star Katharine Hepburn deal with spectacular odds of their own as they encounter scary white-water rapids, blood-sucking parasites and, finally, the dreaded German warship The Louisa. There is a scene near the end of the movie when the German captain announces:
"By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.''
But we know our heroes will somehow escape the nooses.
You gotta believe...
Thursday, March 19, 2009
It is what it is. And what it has been for me is a forum for expression and communication. A cathartic exercise to get me jump-started each day, to help me find purpose or meaning or amusement in ... something. And share it with others, who don't have to put a quarter in the slot.
I've actually gotten to the point where I feel comfortable encouraging people by word or email to "Hey, be sure to check out my music blog.'' This did not come easy.
But I admit my growing confidence was shaken yesterday after receiving a copy of Tim Dorsey's new novel "Nuclear Jellyfish.'' Dorsey, a former Tampa Tribune reporter with 11 books under his belt, wastes no time in the Prologue making his point about the 'B' word, starting with:
First off, fuck the word blog. I hate it and all who use it ... Shut up. The Internet was supposed to become the ultimate democratic forum. It did. Now everyone can be a porn star...
He's right, of course. The blogosphere (another stupid word) is a pretty mucked up place. But there's good stuff out there, too. You just have to trip over it. Even Dorsey comes around in the very next paragraph, explaining why he is thankful for the Internet. Hey, it's a novel. It is what it is.
Just like this blog. The beat goes on, six strings at a time.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
It is painful to watch the decline of the newspaper industry. The Herald, like virtually every paper in the country, just went through another round of difficult cuts. More people lost their jobs. There will be pay cuts and unpaid ''furloughs'' for those remaining on staff. The building is up for sale.
I walked through the cavernous newsroom. Granted, it was early -- 8:30 a.m. -- but there were only three people at their stations: the metro editor, the editorial page editor and a senior photographer. A lonely place. Not the daily hustle and bustle that energized me throughout most of my 33 years in the business. Not the buzz and fierce competitive spirit that kept us news junkies coming back every day for another fix. Again, it was early. These people always rise to the occasion. But it gets harder and harder to assemble an army for the charge.
I admire those who grimly fight on. Maybe someone will discover a new business model that works. The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have been toppled, and more will soon follow. Newspapering is a noble profession, but we're not hearing a lot sympathy from the public as these death warrants are issued.
What a crying shame.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Anyhow, you don't need Irish in your blood today to wear green clothes, drink green beer, sing "My Irish Eyes Are Smilin' '' and belch in the afterglow of corned beef and cabbage. But it certainly helps.
We "outsiders'' respect the traditions of the Irish. You can't help but envy the fun they have singing, dancing and making merry on St. Patrick's Day. I take particular delight in watching my friend Danny's complexion turn redder with each pull of the tap. And he is a very ruddy red to begin with.
It's worth noting that on this day in 1948 the Art Moonie Orchestra had a chart-topper with "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover'' -- and who couldn't use a lucky clover right now?
Last night at McKechnie Field the Pirates wore green caps, the bases were painted green, and the public address system sprinkled in a few Irish songs for a boisterous crowd that was eager to start the Paddy's Day festivities.
I'll wear Packer green today to blend in with the scenery. Come to think of it, I do that nearly every day. Maybe it's the Irish who are blending in with me.
Monday, March 16, 2009
But I just got around to reading my April copy of Acoustic Guitar, and there's hope -- in the form of the chords, words and picking pattern to Jimmy Buffett's "Come Monday.'' Even this song has a melancholy ring to it, but it's certainly more uplifting than the Mama & Papas' "Monday, Monday.''
Come Monday it'll be alright
Come Monday I'll be holding you tight
I spent four lonely days in a brown LA haze
And I just want you back by my side
I just wish I had that night in Montana to help me get through this one...
Saturday, March 14, 2009
I wasn't surprised. This friend shares my tastes in music, literature and sports (and other delights), but I don't remember us ever having a conversation about Papa Hemingway. Our chatter and swapping of books usually includes the latest from Paul Hemphill and Randy Wayne White. He had just handed me White's "Hunter's Moon'' to read.
Hemingway, though, is perfectly in tune with our view of the world. My friend is a Florida native and I am a Florida resident; we rock steady with the undulations of the Gulf waves.
Hemingway's thread about baseball and the beloved Yankees provides rich texture to this classic short story.
"I'll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the doorway?''
"Yes, I have yesterday's paper and I will read the baseball.''
The boy did not know whether yesterday's paper was a fiction too. But the old man brought it out from under the bed.
"Perico gave it to me at the bodega,'' he explained.
"I'll be back when I have the sardines. I'll keep yours and mine together on ice and we can share them in the morning. When I come back you can tell me about the baseball.''
"The Yankees cannot lose.''
"But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.''
"Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.''
My friend and I had returned to McKechnie Field on Thursday for another spring training game and we found ourselves at a picnic table, sipping beer beside a stranger. We asked her what she was doing in town, and she replied: "I'm here for the Yankees.''
Yes, the Yankees are here today. The woman was two days early. There's always a stir in town -- and a guaranteed sellout at McKechnie -- when the Yankees come to play. I cannot hate them, as so many others do, because baseball would not be the same without them.
Read Hemingway's story. Listen to the old man.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Marty Robbins actually got the ball rolling before Christmas of '59 when "El Paso'' took over the top spot and stayed there seven weeks.
Then, amazingly, two back-to-back songs reached No. 1 for 14 consecutive weeks. Jim Reeves was first with "He'll Have to Go'' and Hank Locklin followed with "Please Help Me I'm Falling.''
The other No. 1s included "Alabam'' by Cowboy Copas (12 weeks) and "Wings of a Dove'' by Ferlin Husky (10 weeks).
Were the songs that good to dominate for so long, or was country going through some lean times? I can't even seem to recall "Alabam'' but I consider the other four classics. Two of them made CMT's 100 Greatest Songs of Country Music: "El Paso" (No. 42) and "He'll Have to Go'' (No. 90).
By comparison, the song designated as the greatest ever by CMT, Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man'' was No. 1 for only three weeks in 1968 (before being bumped by Sonny James' "Born To Be With You").
This information and $3 will get you a beer at Robert's Western World, where nobody covers "El Paso'' as well as Brazil Billy.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Saturday, March 7, 2009
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Seriously, I can only remember two of the crooner's syrupy hits ("Mandy'' and "Copocabana'') and now the day is ruined for me.
Why do we pick on Barry the way we do? We don't talk this way about Clay Aiken (well, probably because we refuse to discuss Clay Aiken.)
Well, enough is enough. Today I have new-found respect for Manilow's music after reading an Associated Press story online (did you know you can get all kinds of cool news on the Internet?) Apparently a mall in the New Zealand town of Christchurch has been having problems with hooligans who congregate there and raise all kinds of hell.
Solution: Pipe in the music of Barry Manilow, and drive them from the premises!!!!! Sort of a reverse Pied Piper strategy.
This really ought to work anywhere.
Monday, March 2, 2009
As Annie Savoy remarked in "Bull Durham": "I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.''
Having a spring training stadium in your hometown is a pretty special deal. And McKechnie, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is a real jewel. They finally added lights last year but there are only two night games on the Buccos' home schedule this spring. Like the Cubs at Wrigley, it's just supposed be afternoons at the ballyard, ya know? In fact, the first game they tried to play at night here was rained out -- just like Wrigley in 1988. We should listen to the baseball gods.
It was cold, windy and ... spectacular. It's not often you can spend an afternoon at a park in Florida and not worry about your beer getting warm. While the Dow was sinking to its lowest close since 1997 I was gobbling a balldog, chatting with some old friends and watching the Pirates plate a run in the eighth to beat the pesky Reds 2-1.
Glorious, so glorious. My spirit is renewed.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
too bad you weren't in town tonight...
Attached was an email slugged "Pat McLaughlin Show -- TONIGHT!'' You little shit.
He isn't well-known outside Music City, but Pat McLaughlin is one of the favorites in a town bursting with musical talent. I saw him for the first time way back in 1986 and became an immediate fan. If you have the itch to visit Nashville you need to build in enough flexibility to include a show by one of the most enjoyable and energetic performers you'll see.
I once watched an exhausting, sweat-drenched show during which the funkified, gyrating McLaughlin went through three T-shirt changes.
Problem is, McLaughlin only plays about once a month, on a Friday night at Douglas Corner Cafe. And his website at http://www.patmclaughlin.com/ is often hopelessly out of date. If you hit it right, get to the club early or you'll be standing against the entrance wall for the entire show.
Among Nashville songwriters McLaughlin's peers would include John Prine and David Olney, another under-the-radar treasure. As a performer it's difficult to put anybody in his class. He's that good, especially when he's grinding away on his old red Fender Telecaster. And if his band happens to include guitarist Kenny Greenberg and bass player Michael Rhodes, well, the place will be smoking hot.
One of my favorite Pat albums is Next 5 Miles, a delightful 2003 romp that showcases the Iowa native's musical diversity and song-writing chops. On it is the bluesie "Mornin' Train'' (co-written by Prine, and included two years later on Prine's Fair and Square album) that includes this shout-out to Ray Charles:
Hey, Hey, Brother Ray
What'd you mean by "what'd I say"
You put me on a morning train
You put me on a morning train
There ain't no need to explain
You put me on a morning train...
And I've never counted the letters, but it must be correct when he sings:
Constantinople is a big long word
Got three more letters than mockingbird
You put me on a morning train...
Good enough for a PSSST (Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout)? Hell, yeah. Ain't no need to explain...