Friday, 12 July 2013

Merry Any Day Of The Year

"Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones

Back when the Rolling Stones were my favourite band (a long time ago, back when I still had favourite things), this was my favourite Rolling Stones song. So I guess even when I knew nothing, I knew something. I've been reminded of it because, earlier this week, I heard a radio interview with the director of a documentary called Twenty Feet from Stardom, which is about back-up singers. Among those featured is Merry Clayton, who in this number sings back-up to Mick Jagger and who blows him out of the water despite his being in very fine and graceful fettle himself (it's hard to hear in the mix, but listen for his growl of appreciation and encouragement from behind her for how she's raised a third warning cry about rape and murder during her turn up front).

Yup. It's Ms. Clayton who blows not only Mr. Jagger out of the water, but all the players as well, and lifts the whole thing into an ocean sky of pure aural splendour. Without her, "Gimme Shelter" would be a pretty good punch-in-the-gut rock song; with her, not only does your gut get punched, your flesh gets goosed, you hair raised, your spine tingled, your blood heated, your heart gladdened, and your circuits repaired: you're hearing a true and magnificent Wow! song. I love great female voices singing greatly, as Merry Clayton's does on this song, and even though I can't sing for shit myself, I still do it a lot when I'm alone. But I gotta admit I don't even try to accompany Ms. Clayton here -- hell, I can't even keep up with Sir Mick on this number. Instead, I settle for playing clumsy but energetic air drums to Charlie Watts's primal ferocity, and tell myself I don't need no stinking aerobics and that sometimes it's good just to shut up -- easy to do, as long as I get to listen to "Gimme Shelter" once in a while.
Oh, yes: I have got to see that movie. (Gotta stop spending so much time alone, too, I guess . . . Well, no, maybe not -- if I did that, I'd have to cut down on my singing.)

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Got Nothin' Here (Just A Pair)

"Tiger Woods" by Dan Bern*
You don't often hear in a few minutes of pop music as much as you hear in these few minutes.

It's not about Tiger Woods, it's about testicles (the human ones), and while sneering at their oversized reputation, this surreally funny, wonderful song alludes to five cultural icons -- three human (the title character, plus Muhammad Ali and Madonna) and two non-human (arches that are golden and a bridge over a golden strait). Because of its subject, the song may be of no interest to women, but I think anyone who digs comedic flights of fancy, and tall tales, and lacerating self-mockery, and urgent, growly rock n' roll would probably like it.

Other than, in the final refrain, swinging a golf club at the end of an outrageous and hilarious series of similes about balls (the human ones), Tiger Woods doesn't do anything. The comparisons threaded earlier through the song are also very funny, especially the one about the singer's own pair swelling -- at least "on [his] really good days" -- to the size of a small dog. Before he swings his big swing, Tiger Woods is just a static big-balled icon the big-balled singer admires. How do we know the singer has a big pair? Because he tells us he does. We infer that Tiger Woods has an even bigger pair since the singer repeats a few times that sometimes he wishes he was Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods (his usage, not mine). Big always wants to be bigger, I guess.

Muhammad Ali gets fleshed out slightly more when we're reminded that back when he was Cassius Clay he asserted that bragging wasn't bragging if that which was being bragged about was true, which is no big surprise -- neither the assertion nor that Cassius Clay would've made it. Sadly, that was a long time ago, before Mr. Ali (I'll always call that big-balled son of a bitch "Mister) "fought too many fights/and left his brain inside the ring." This song may admire the size of Mr. Ali's balls, but it isn't blind to the high price that sometimes gets paid for having things like that. (Hmm . . . you get to have big balls, but you lose your brain . . .)

Which brings us to Madonna, who, according to the singer, was gone down upon by, at the time, a thirty-four-year-old friend of his who had dedicated his life to accomplishing that very empty goal. It turns out that despite having balls large enough to have been granted permission to go down on Madonna one night in a hotel in Rome, he was too young and it was too soon -- the singer tells us his friend's life has been nothing but depression and shit ever since. (Hmm . . . you get to have big balls, but you lose your mind. . .)

Which brings us to the singer, whose main concern seems to be distinguishing between women who ignore him because they "like" him and women who ignore him because they ignore him. I guess it's not the most important question, but it's not without interest. In any case, he guesses that all you need to do is ask them, and that all you need to do that is "one good pair of big balls", and, as he's already told us, he owns such a pair.

You know what? I think he's confused about big balls. Shouldn't his ambition be, well, bigger? Big balls are for more than boys or men just trying to get laid -- they're also for boys or men trying to be brave when it's hard to be brave. Most of us -- Tiger Woods, the singer or his thirty-four-year-old friend, you other guys or me -- almost never have to be brave. Which is why this song is so cheerfully, ironically, and sneakily subversive. You might even call it the perfect amorality tale.

Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali had to be brave. They weren't bragging, because it was true. Yes, sir.

By the way, when you listen to this great song again (if you do), while you're admiring the sneery, growly voice telling its funny cynical stories so concisely, and while you're revelling in the hilarity of all the differently large balls and the mockery of all men (I told you ladies there's something in this song for you), remember also to enjoy getting your hair raised by all the jangly guitar and other controlled noises behind the beautifully delivered lyrics. Those are some words, and that is some music.

* This song was written way back in 1998, when Tiger Woods was just a sports wunderkind and had yet to reveal himself as a major-league asshole.