Thursday, 22 February 2018

That's What I Call Punctuation

"Lawyers, Guns, and Money," by Warren Zevon

I like it when songs abandon love, their most common subject, for stories. Love is wondrous, but you can get too much of a good thing.

This song tells a hilarious, cynical, very short story (it clocks in at under four minutes), with one of the most reliable unreliable narrators -- he ain't nothing if not obvious -- you'll ever come across. I think an aesthete might call it using broad, mordant brushstrokes. The broadness includes the raucous players, who sound like they're having the time of their lives. They're all pounding at their instruments with great wit and panache, and Mr. Zevon (goddam, I miss that unlucky bastard), does what he so often did so wonderfully while he was still here -- talk really clearly to us while also grunting and yelling and exclaiming with near-monosyllabic verve:  Hyeah! . . . Alright! . . . Huh! . . . Yes! . . . Unh! . . . Oow! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh! . . . Yeh!
. . . Unh! . . . Alright!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


"St. James Infirmary," as performed by Louis Armstrong et alia

I recently stayed overnight in a local hospital because a part of my body that had been proceeded upon normally and safely in a local clinic by highly qualified and competent medical professionals joined the club of statistically anomalous phenomena that force all those poking and probing pros to make you sign a paper that accepts the reality of inner organic variety. My particular anomaly involved a significant loss of blood, but I was taken care of with great respect and kindness and ability, and when I arrived home with my clean bill of health, I started wondering about songs involving hospitals. This song topped the Google list. I'd listened to it before, and maybe because I'm probably just generally sadder now than I was then, it struck me as a very sad song.

But the celestial trumpet and clarinet and voice also cheered me up because, well, sad songs, if they're beautifully played and sung, can't not make you feel happy (especially just after you've been loved by strangers). Ironic, huh?

Friday, 20 October 2017

Up, Frontman

"At The Hundredth Meridian," by the Tragically Hip

On stage, he mesmerized us all (and himself, too, I'd guess). He couldn't really dance, but he could really beautifully move that utterly honest, entranced body of his when it contained only the music he was hearing. He "danced" like Van Morrison sings: you can't exactly predict what's about to happen, but when it does, you know it was the right thing to do. I saw The Tragically Hip in a small venue (can't remember what it was called) in Toronto in the early 1990s. My friends and I were a lot older than most of our fellow fans, and I myself was also probably the most uncomfortable pre-geezer in that little hall. (Where were all the chairs?) But it was all tremendous vibrating fun, and we all got to see a top-notch rock combo right in front of us in a place that wasn't big enough to muddify the music. 

No song I heard at that concert stands out above the others, so I can't use its memory to choose a number from the night that makes me feel both great and grateful to this band and its kinetically amazing front man, who died far too early a couple of days ago. I like to believe was as good a father to his four children, who were with him when he died, as he was a rock star and an activist and worker for a wider benevolence.

But this song, this number, this three-and-a-half minutes of swampy, joyous energy -- well, it makes me believe in magic, an essential element of all great songs. And if you don't think Gord Downie was a magician, just listen to him sing this song, especially when, near the end, for the seventh and final time, he sings the phrase "where the great plains begin," stretching it and holding on to it until you're worried he might not make it out of the song alive. He did, of course, which is at least partially why it gets me down that he isn't anymore.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Guest Who?

"Chelsea Hotel No. 2," as performed by Rufus Wainwright

Oh, the poetry in this song. There's lewd, cynical poetry: ". . . Giving me head on the unmade bed/While the limousines wait in the street . . . " There's rueful, grieving poetry: ". . . Ah, but you got away, didn't you babe/You just turned your back on the crowd/You got away, I never once heard you say/I need you, I don't need you/I need you, I don't need you/And all of that jiving around . . ." There's exaltative poetry: ". . . I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/You were famous, your heart was a legend . . . "  There's funny poetry: ". . . You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you would make an exception . . ." There's cruel poetry, too: ". . . I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel/That's all, I don't even think of you that often." 

The star of the song, according to legend, is a dead female rock 'n' roll singer, but it's composing Leonard Cohen and singing Rufus Wainwright (my favourite reader of the former's songs), together again, melting everything inside you until it comes out your eyes.  

I recommend listening to it more than once. 

Monday, 28 August 2017

Not Here, Not There, But Everywhere

"I've Been Everywhere," as sung by Johnny Cash and played by players whose names I don't know but who perform this number so flawlessly and beautifully that I couldn't help feeling better when I finally decided to listen to it. (And who doesn't need cheering up once in a while?)

I've heard parts of "I've Been Everywhere" countless times, but had never closely listened to the whole thing until yesterday. Shame on me. It's the human heartbeat sped up and amplified and the human brain humorized and satisfied and improved, and whatever functioning human limbs and digits and joints and muscles you've still got, energized. You don't have to move while it's in your ears, but I dare you not to. Some of the rhymes are even deft enough to have come out of a rapper's brain. The song was born in Australia about sixty years ago and has been, if not everywhere, a lot of places where folks speak English, each locale supplying its own subset of "everywhere." Since Johnny Cash lived in North America and I live in North America, I've chosen his version. Well, that and the wittily twangy virtuosic combo playing the hell out of backing him up. Once Mr. Cash finishes his unerring vocal, they play us down the road, the crackerjack guitarist and pianist leading the way. What geographers, all of them!

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Basie Ball

"Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" by Count Basie and his Orchestra, with vocals by Taps Miller and Ensemble

I love baseball, especially daytime baseball: everything feels clearer (at least it did when I played). The baseball team I'm helplessly in love with is having an off year, but I still love it as I would a wayward child, and today* that team played a wonderful game with a hootingly dramatic conclusion (yes, I hoot alone) -- a walk-off, extra-innings grand slam homerun. I've only now come down from the high, but you know how euphoria is -- it can always use some music.

So, of course, I had to google-meld baseball and songs (and singers and singing and playing and seeing and listening), and many of the results were -- forgive me -- hit or miss. But not this one, not "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" Everyone and everything is having absolutely brilliant swinging fun during this song: the voices, the horns, the reeds, the percussing personnel, the emerging zeitgeist. I was yet to be conceived when it was made, and although I may have seen Jackie Robinson on television in my infancy and toddlerdom (my father loved baseball, too), I have no memory of doing so. Which doesn't matter, of course, because I love history as much as I do baseball and music, and Jackie Robinson, for my money and until I can be convinced otherwise, is still one of history's heroes.

(And how cool it would've been to have a name like Count Basie!)

* "Today" is now last week, which is when I wrote the three paragraphs above. Between then and now, the same hitter who walked the team off into that victory with his wonderful hit did an even more wondrous thing a few days later! What made it better and even more delightful? This time it was a "Super Grand Slam" [my italics], which the Baseball Almanac tells us is one consisting of (and I'm paraphrasing here) the guy at home having to bring three of his friends home and then coming home himself by hitting the ball they're all playing with far away. It was all very giddy and joyous and warm and domestic and strange and delicious, and it lacked Jackie Robinson's historical punch, but I'll never forget how stupidly happy I felt at least twice last week.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Send More Chuck Berry

"Wonderful Woman," by Chuck Berry
Right now I'm reading Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil Degrasse Tyson. As a retired person, I'm not generally in a hurry about anything. (As an older person, I might be in a hurry to get more things figured out while school's still in.) But with a title like that, I told myself, the book had to be an attempt to explain complicated things even to slower-moving dopes like me.

So far so good. Mr. Tyson's voice gets a bit cutesy at times, but it's also very funny and very lucid, and I'm understanding stuff I sort of knew and sort of learning new stuff that I definitely didn't know. But what's a dope gonna do?

Here's my favourite part so far: "Pioneer [a space probe engineered to escape the solar system] wore a golden etched plaque that showed, in scientific pictograms, the layout of our solar system, our location in the Milky Way galaxy, and the structure of the hydrogen atom. Voyager [another space probe engineered to escape the solar system] went further and also included a gold record album containing diverse sounds from mother Earth, including the human heartbeat, whale 'songs,' and musical selections from around the world, including the works of Beethoven and Chuck Berry. While this humanized the message, it's not clear whether alien ears would have a clue what they were listening to -- assuming they have ears in the first place. My favorite parody of this gesture was a skit on NBC's Saturday Night Live, shortly after the Voyager launch, in which they showed a written reply from the aliens who recovered the spacecraft. The note simply requested, 'Send more Chuck Berry.'"

Chuck Berry isn't here anymore, but his music is still moving through our part of the universe. "Wonderful Woman" is the single off an upcoming collection called Chuck, his first album in many, many years. You listen to it and you feel all the eruptive elements of deep gratitude: for, the existence or non-existence of aurally able aliens notwithstanding, the fact that at least you have ears; for the part of your brain that understands poetry; for the hair on your body that gets raised by the acute electricity of amplified guitars (Mr. Berry has a partner, and that partner fits his partner); for the ability of your feet and hands to respond to clanging, slapping, splatting percussive actions by other human bodies; for the permanence of genius.

Not bad for any five-minute chunk of cosmic time.