Wednesday, 15 February 2017


"Play That Funky Music," by Wild Cherry

How much fun is this song? Barrels of monkeys everywhere have no choice but to bow in its direction -- that's how much fun it is. It tells a story, it mocks itself, it growls, it comments socially, it scorches you with its guitars (the very brief solo is acutely, burningly precise), and moves your limbs and pulse with its horns and percussive, bassy joy, and its singers convince you that they mean every word they sing. It happened in 1976, which is about an average half-life span ago. I was listening to a lot of blues and rootsy rock 'n' roll back then, but I always turned up the car radio when this barrel of monkeys came on. Who wouldn't? And who wouldn't turn it up at any time in the intervening forty years no matter where he was or whom he was with, or no matter how old he and his fellow listeners were? None of 'em would have a choice but to stop whatever they were doing for this untamed burst of soulful fun. The band should've called itself "Wild Cheery."

Monday, 16 January 2017

Sympathetic Nervous Systemic Ecstasy

"Cold Sweat" (Parts 1 and 2), by James Brown and whatever his band was called in 1967

This body blow of a masterpiece, apparently put together and recorded in one take during one  afternoon in Cincinnati, Ohio, hit the world (dazed the world? KO'ed the world?) in 1967. If I recall correctly, 1967 was a heyday year for all the young rock gods living outside of Cincinnati, Ohio taking three days to get a guitar break down, which might have been part of a song that might take have taken several weeks, on albums that might have taken several months to finally -- what, "get right?"

One afternoon. C'mon, rock gods of 1967. James Brown and his company of consummate musical pros and artists made this -- "Cold Sweat," goddammit -- in less time than it took you guys to survive a minor siege of LSD madness. I've read some technical analyses of its great simplicity, and I sort of understand them, but what I do understand is that even if I one day end up in a hospital where no one knows me, in a bed constructed to keep me in it, and none of my children have yet reached me, and I'm worried about unfinished business, and I'm feeling pretty clammily anxious, I will search this song out, demand it from whomever is there. I am willing to pay extra taxes for it, beginning now.

Listen to it many times -- for the singing (and the screaming, oh, the screaming), for the horns, for the sax solo, for the bass line, for the drummer (who "gets some"). It's all so simple, and yet nobody thought it up until James Brown and his band thought it up and then played it, together, like early gods of the earth.

It's a hammer to the heart and the brain, and the rest of whatever body you've been blessed or cursed with, which will not only be compelled to move when you hear it, but to understand more than a little bit about itself (as opposed to the amorphous silliness of whatever "spirituality" is supposed to teach you).

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Knocked Out

"Knock On Wood" by Eddie Floyd

If you're like me when you're making dinner for one, you do more than a little scrolling through your playlist to find a tune that will help you through the tedium of mincing garlic or chopping or cutting or slicing some other dead thing, vegetal or carnal, or waiting for heat to do its physics. If you're even more like me, you will always stop at this great song because you can't not stop at it -- sorry, the rhythm guitar's slinky stroking of the groove makes that impossible. Add to that wonderfulness the lyrics' explication of the standard swoon of extremely experienced romantic love -- Mr. Floyd really doesn't want to lose what's good (thunder, lightning, the frightening way he's loved), he really knows he's a very lucky guy -- and you also, inevitably, start knocking on wood yourself. You don't even have to leave your post at the cutting board. If you're really like me, you remind yourself of how lucky you are just to get to listen to this song, even when you're making dinner for one.

Wood? Consider yourself knocked on. Person like me? Consider yourself knocked out.

Friday, 11 November 2016

He Was Our Man

"Tower of Song" by Leonard Cohen

This song contains one of my favorite couplets of all time -- Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play -- but there are so many brilliant, funny, arresting, heartbreaking lines from so many of his songs that I'm going to indulge myself:

From "I'm Your Man": If you want a lover/I'll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love/I'll wear a mask for you  . . . From "Chelsea Hotel": You told me again you preferred handsome men/but for me you would make an exception . . . From "Dance Me To The End Of Love": Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on/Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long . . . From "Famous Blue Raincoat": Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good so I never tried . . . From "Hallelujah": Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you . . . From "The Faith": The sea so deep and blind/The sun, the deep regret/The club, the wheel, the mind/O love, aren't you tired yet? . . .

I could go on, but I have to go out into the crisp clarity and brightness of the November autumn day outside my four walls -- to the bank, to the grocery store, to whatever other sacred trivial stuff I get to do while I'm still alive. The newspapers tell us that he died peacefully in the company of his family. Good for him.

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.