Monday, 8 August 2016

Not When, Not Where, Not What, Not Even Who

"Why," by Annie Lennox

This might be the saddest goddamned love song I've ever heard. It's got everything love has: passion, boredom, pity, self-pity, weakness, strength, honesty, dishonesty, despair and hope and inside-out wretchedness. It's also about two people who are finished with each other, which is why it's so goddamned sad. And, just as love so often does when it spreads through you, it never lets you know who's talking or what's being heard or felt by the partner in the whole enterprise. Nobody gets -- i.e., understands -- love, so that's no big surprise, but it takes a master actor-singer to get us hoping that someone might.

From what I can tell, Annie Lennox is one of those masters. She uses the studio and her backing singers to ecstatic effect, but they know who's boss in this tune: you don't even have to listen closely to realize her voice is always in charge. But then, almost four minutes in, when you've already been bushwhacked by all the aural beauty, you get the singer singing and reciting the blunt, hair-raising poetry of the song's last words: This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is the path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead/This is the joy that's seldom spread/These are the tears/The tears we shed/This is the fear/This is the dread/These are the contents of my head/And these are the years that we have spent/And this is what they represent/And this is how I feel/Do you know how I feel?/'Cause I don't think you know how I feel/I don't think you know what I feel/I don't think you know what I feel/You don't know what I feel. . . . 

. The song is done, and so are you.

(I like singing along to the music I listen to as much as any fellow, and, thankfully, those lines are great even with lesser voices like mine trying them out, but they're even greater when you stop singing and just pay attention to them. Just stop and listen. Maybe tomorrow, if you're feeling up to it, try joining in.)

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Something Else

"Tell It Like It is," as performed by Nina Simone

Strong, proud, helpless, vulnerable, cool, ecstatic Nina Simone pretty well says all there is to say about romantic love in this song, and it takes her only about four minutes. She's got some help, of course: her elemental and soulful band, and her piano, which forces you to sway yourself into a good mood; but most especially her voice's masterful knowledge of all our connective tissues. (In another life, she would have made a great doctor.) She hums and semi-sings in little waves of pure human sound before she sings the lyric, and hums afterwards (remember -- she's in love), and takes us up there with her as she does. But her love isn't stupid. It's also wise and certain, as the best kind of love should be. 

I'm sort of embarrassed that I took so long (sixty-plus years, more or less) to start listening to this great musician, this great artist of song and feeling. She died quite some time ago, and I barely knew who she was back then. I've since learned she suffered greatly (mental illness, racism, thieves, trouble with men, and more), but my hunch is that when she was happy, she was really happy. She was, and this song is, something else.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Can We Be Franklin?

"I Say A Little Prayer," as performed by Aretha Franklin

"I don’t care what they say about Aretha,” Billy Preston, who died in 2006, once said. “She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

That's the final paragraph of David Remnick's wonderful profile of Aretha Franklin in the April 4, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. 

To realize that what Billy Preston said was utterly true, all you have to do is listen to this song and hear Aretha Franklin's body and soul all over it. What a treat to the blood and the brain it is to hear (twice!) that silky, sexy voice caress ". . . There is no one but you . . ." like it's got the whole Eros thing in us completely figured out. "The Sweet Inspirations" are the pleasingly identified girls behind her (more bodies and souls all over the song), and are just as wonderful: all that gorgeous mutuality makes you wonder how we ever manage to feel unhappy sometimes. 

But whenever you do feel miserable, or just mildly sad, or just a little off, I suggest this singer and these singers singing this song. They're all over it.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Ali Out

"What A Man," by Salt-N-Pepa

He took big punches (and so many of them!) from everything and everyone: from himself, from the American government, from gigantic white America, from swindlers of his wealth, from disease, from old age, from other boxers -- Joe Frazier, according to the man himself, almost killed him; Joe Frazier, rightfully, hated him because Ali tried to rob him of his humanity. They fought three times, Frazier officially lost twice, but both of them lost all three times. They were both infinitely braver than I ever will be, but they didn't really win anything.   

He made his living from fighting. That used to be something I liked to watch, but because I've learned how frail the brain can be, I don't care for it anymore. I still respect it, I just can't watch it.

I could never stop watching Muhammad Ali, however, even when I wanted to: He was just too tough, too strong, too smart, too brave, too old, too frail, too beautiful, his face too bright and pretty, his eyes too alive. It's been the strangest thing: Ever since I found out, in the middle of a few nights ago, that he was gone, whenever I've subsequently seen him and heard his voice in the papers and on TV, my normally reliable resistance to tears just checks out for a second or two. The tears evaporate quickly, but leak out from somewhere they do.

The linked song is all about romantic love and has nothing to do with Muhammad Ali, but the refrain is all him, and you will want to sing it (and dance) when you think about him.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Cold, Broken, Happy

"Hallelujah" as performed by Rufus Wainwright

What is it about the singing of words like these: ". . . her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you . . ."? Or these: ". . . remember when I moved in you / the holy dark was moving, too / and every breath we drew was Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah / Hallelujah . . ."? And these: ". . . Maybe there's a God above / and all I've ever learned from love / was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you . . ."? What is it about words like all those, and like all the others in this magnificent song, being sung by a voice that will put you on the floor every time you hear it?

I have no idea -- I just accept it as one of life's gifts.

The words belong to the great Leonard Cohen, the voice to the great Rufus Wainwright. The song has been covered -- beautifully so -- by many, but only this one makes me cry, only this one makes me feel so mystifyingly happy for four short minutes. I've been allocated millions of those things, but not many of them have been, or will be, better than these four.

I think it might be the best song in the world, and this its best version. Praise its harsh beauty. Join in on the "Hallelujahs," of which there are twenty-nine. I counted, and I sang along. (Good thing I live alone.)

Monday, 28 March 2016


"Fuck Tha Police" by N.W.A.

I've tried really hard to learn how to listen to rap music because African-Americans have always made transformative and transcendent music, but I confess to both a cognitive and existential deficit when I listen to this genre: it all comes too fast and too nimbly for my auditory processing neurons (they're slow and not clever), and even when I can make a very basic sense out of all the words, the worlds they describe are really difficult for me to understand, what with my being a middle-aged, Euro-descended, twice-divorced, middle-class Canadian who has most of what he can deal with trying to figure out the world he's living in.

But those beats are gonna get to you, regardless of your origins and attitudes and age. Luckily (even though it wasn't hiding), I found this number, a brilliant rock (it's a fucking genuine fucking diamond) in all the roll of contemporary life. I was already a self-embroiled grown-up when it came out, and I remember hearing about it, but I didn't ever listen to it (I was busier back then). Now that I have more time, I realize what I was missing, and how narrow and stupid I was about music I wasn't used to; I still am, but less so, I hope.

It's a miracle, this more-than-a-song song. It takes you from your world (if you're a middle-aged, Euro-descended, twice-divorced, middle-class Canadian blah, blah, blah) into its world. It's like reading Shakespeare, except you get to dance.

Saturday, 26 March 2016


"I Got Everything I Need (Almost)" by Downchild Blues Band*

I had forgotten how good these guys were. I also forget what led me to stream this song on to my playlist. (I have a "playlist" that I can listen to however I want to -- and without wires! Some technology is too wonderful for my poor words.) I was in my twenties when I often saw this brilliant band in bars in cities where I was living, and falling in love, and learning about the blues -- of goddamned course, they're on my playlist.

This singer (he was big and hairy and completely unpretentious, as I remember) -- oh man, back so many years ago, he told us all about how he had it all: a car, a wish on a star, lots of friends (who liked him!), lots of dough, fame, no trouble getting high. But he had wisely discovered what he'd been missing, and now he was just telling us about how he'd come to his senses. Perfect horns, drums, guitars, and a dazzling harmonica that forced us to move our bodies backed up his epiphany. (There's usually music for those, right?)

* I believe they eventually shortened their name to "Downchild", but I prefer the extended nomenclature.