A convenient time to talk about inconvenient things.

All of these people are much brighter than I

In any fair system they would flourish and thrive

But they barely survive

They eek out a living

They barely survive

Randy Newman

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Memphis Garbage Workers’ Strike of 1968

I’ve got old records spinning and I’m sitting at my beloved writing desk on an early autumn evening. The crickets are making plenty of great noise outside.

I’ve spent most of the year (and the past several years) making my living leading a band called the Loyales that plays covers at weddings, parties, bars and restaurants.  I’ve also played my own material in a whole bunch of shows in listening rooms, concert series venues, small theaters and festivals in different cities around the U.S., mostly as an opening act.  In order to make sure that the rent and bills are always paid, I’ve maintained a view of my gig playing duty like that of a fireman. If the phone rings, I slide down the pole and play the gig. It doesn’t matter what time it is, what the weather is like or if it’s a holiday.  If I’m lucky enough to make my living playing music, the answer to the question of “are you available to play…?” is almost always “yes”.  I spend a lot of hours at the wheel of my van.  I’ll be back on the road in just a few days.

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On nights like tonight with no gigs and no rehearsals, I often work on my band homework, learning new material, practicing parts, making set lists, planning travel logistics, ordering replacement gear for stuff that broke, changing guitar strings.  I spend hours upon hours corresponding with venue managers, booking agents and wedding and party clients.  I also spend a good deal of my free time reproaching myself for not being more productive (I don’t recommend this as a worthwhile expenditure of anyone’s time). It’s been a long time since I wrote a piece for my blog and I’ve really been missing it.  As far as I know, only a few people have ever read this blog.  I am supremely thankful to you all.  A handful of people have gotten in touch with me over the last couple of years to respond to blog posts.  They’ve all warmed my heart in doing so.  I really enjoy writing this blog and deep down I know that it doesn’t really matter if a million people read what I have to say or if ten do.  If I really feel I’ve got something to say, I’d better say it.

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I just finished reading a book about the last year of Martin Luther King Jr’s life called “Death of a King” by Tavis Smiley, with David Ritz, author of many of my favorite music biographies. I couldn’t recommend the book highly enough.  It’s a proud, though often painful look at a world leader, a firm believer and a practitioner of a faith in his darkest hour. People all over the planet are familiar with the name and image of Mr. Luther King Jr. History has left most of us with the picture of an African American minister leading well-dressed protestors in non-violent marches for civil rights. We see and hear King in black and white film, making his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial before a huge crowd in 1963. We think of him as a man of peace, a hero to the black community and to the American people. We know that he was murdered a few years later, shot by a bad man, but loved by us all.

 The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Oscar Wilde

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Tavis Smiley’s book shows us a portrait of a leader of a movement that is running out of money and has divided into factions vying for power, a citizen of a country whose government considers him one of it’s most dangerous public enemies, a once widely beloved public figure whose popularity has dropped dramatically in a very short period of time, and a practitioner of a philosophy that has been largely declared passé and ineffective by the majority of the people that once supported him. This is not the part of the MLK story that we Americans like. It’s not the part of the story that we choose to teach our children. The part where the humble, respectable minister sticks to his ideals, turns the other cheek to hateful aggression, gets a whole country marching in the streets and overturns old legislation in the name of freedom is fine by us.  But we’re not very keen on the part where the same minister wakes up each day after the legislation is passed to face a country whose race problems haven’t gone away.  We don’t sing songs about the public figure returning to Memphis to continue working on a very unpopular garbage workers’ strike after violence has erupted at his last attempted peaceful protest there.  We’re not proud of the American activist who wants us to face the fact that the American dream of freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is being actively denied to millions of people by the policies of the country that introduced the very dream.  We don’t celebrate a Christian pacifist who reminds us all that our country leads the world in acts of violent aggression. We’re not comfortable with the humanitarian who reminds us that a nation in which money buys human dignity is not a just nation.

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…you’ll find out when you reach the top

you’re on the bottom

Bob Dylan

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By the time he died, MLK had “seen the mountain top” as he said in his last public speech in Memphis.  He had seen the mountain top of triumph for his struggle when civil rights legislation was passed in 1963.  He had seen the mountain top of popularity when he addressed enthusiastic throngs in Washington DC, when he was celebrated by the president of his country and when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in Sweden.  But King was not a man who chose his causes by their popularity.  He dedicated his life to his faith in the power and value of human kindness and compassion, based firmly in the scripture of his religion. By the time King was shot in 1968, pacifism was no longer the most popular form of protest among black activists in the US. King’s style of non-violent protest was seen by many as out of date, out of touch and weak. But faith is not a style or a trend.  Martin Luther King didn’t believe that non-violence was the expedient way to achieve a specific political goal.  He believed it was the right way for humans to interact with other humans at all times.  He saw no reason to change his belief in something that had never proven harmful to anyone.

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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A few nights ago I was riding across the State of Ohio with my bass player and pal Joe Plowman.   We were listening to Sean Penn reading Bob Dylan’s Chronicles on an audio book. It was such a pleasure to see the Bohemian Greenwich Village that existed before my time come alive before my eyes, with the help of Dylan’s formidable prose writing and Penn’s apt audio acting.  What a story!  The precocious young kid from Minnesota comes to the big city and navigates his way around the folk music scene, the Village counterculture and the major label record business, staking out a territory all his own and rising to legendary status.  The rough outline of Dylan’s life story, along with that of the Beatles and their career in music has served most of my life as one of the central mythologies in whatever you might call my own religion.  Dylan is just about the same age as my parents.  He sprang into notoriety rapidly within the American folk music scene at exactly the same time that MLK was making his “I Have A Dream Speech”.  He was even there that day at the Lincoln memorial, singing his songs with Joan Baez. Like King, Dylan would see a large number of his original supporters turn on him just a few years later when they became unhappy with the music he was making. Unlike King, Dylan was not killed, nor made the target of FBI harassment (to my knowledge). And though he may have lost some of his original fan-base and received plenty of hatred from those opposed to him, his world-wide popularity and commercial success grew over the many years that followed, with some dips and disturbances along the way.  Still, there is similarity to be seen between the artist and the activist in the artist’s choice to make works not based on their potential popularity but rather based on the genuine nature of the expression that lies at their core.  When Dylan made a series of songs praising Jesus in the early 1980’s, many people were not interested in hearing them.  I wasn’t crazy about those records myself. Many people voiced their bewilderment and annoyance with Dylan’s choices loudly.  He still made the records.   I’m glad he did.  Dylan’s kind of bravery was not the kind that makes a public speech with death threats coming in by phone.  But an artist’s ability to follow his own artistic vision regardless of it’s affect on his reputation and financial success is still genuine bravery.

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The adherence to a greater calling than the maximization of personal gain seems more and more rare in American society and talking about that fact is less popular than ever. For Americans, a success story is almost always the story of someone becoming rich.   Think if you can of a very famous American, who’s broke or even one who’s moderately well-to-do.  Name a very successful American in any field, who isn’t the ally or the employee of a large, for-profit corporation. …Come up with anyone?

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Don’t get me wrong.  Wanting to be rich makes perfect sense to me. From a very young age it looked really great to me to be rich and famous and I wanted to be rich and famous too.  My heroes were the Beatles and Dylan and boy weren’t they rich and famous?  They flew all over the world all the time in jet planes. They rode in limousines and lived in mansions with swimming pools. Their outfits were always unique and fabulous.  They could have whatever they wanted for dinner and own all of the records and guitars they wanted.  Interviewers were fascinated by their opinion on everything, their writings and sayings were quoted all the time and big crowds of people showed their approval wildly any time they so much as walked into a room.  That all looked wonderful to me.  But the gift that the Beatles and Bob Dylan gave me was infinitely greater than the luxuries the world has thrown upon them.  I started listening to their records on loan from the library for free when I was about 6 years old.  Anytime I wanted to for my whole life, I could listen to their beautiful, joyous, masterful and inspiring music.  I still can and it only gets better each time I listen to it.  What was and is great about their music and all of the famous songs that I love so much by anyone is not that how famous they are but how good they are.  And there are plenty of artists whose work I’m crazy about who lived and died without owning much more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

Henry James

Reading Tavis Smiley’s book about Martin Luther King reminded of some truths that are often lost in the day to day struggle to get by and the day to day struggle to find peace with oneself.  Whatever you’re trying to achieve, there may be big loud powerful voices all around you, telling you that you’re wrong, that you’re irrelevant, that you’re goals are useless.  You don’t owe it to the world to agree with them.  The agreement you’d do best to find is within yourself.  Martin Luther King knew that creating an industry of war machines for profit was evil.  He knew that using military might on civilians to achieve a political aim was also evil.  He knew that the poorest people in the world were at their core the same as the wealthiest people in the world and deserved as much human kindness, respect and dignity as anyone else.  He knew that people still organized themselves in unequal casts based on racial and ethnic identities.  He knew that a society that oppressed its poor masses would eventually self-destruct.  He wasn’t willing to pretend that he didn’t know any of those things.   …And none of the truths he lived, worked and died for seem irrelevant at all today.

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Rather than irrelevant, MLK’s truths were and are “inconvenient”, to borrow the title of Al Gore’s book on climate change from a few years back.   It’s painful to face the hypocrisy of your own country.  It’s unpleasant to face the un-improving condition of the down-trodden.  It may be unpopular to sing songs about decidedly unpopular subjects.  However inconvenient, however unpleasant, however strange and unpopular these truths were, MLK was brave enough to speak those truths until the very end.   I hope that I can find that kind of bravery within myself and that we all can.  It doesn’t matter if the truth we must speak is that our country is perpetrating acts of violence on innocent people or whether that truth is simply that “looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired”*.  If we’ve really got something to say, we’d better say it.

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Old records Listened to while writing:
Stephen Stills – Mansassas

Manassasss

Les Paul Now

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Josh Graves w/Bobby Smith & the Boys from Shiloh

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Creaciones Inolvidables de Ariel Ramirez

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Sly & The Family Stone – Small Talk

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The John Lewis Piano

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Bob Dylan (self-titled)

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The Best Of Etta James

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Heifitz, Primrose and Piatigorsky – Beethoven Trios

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Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Tell It All Brother

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Harry Belafonte, Mark Twain and other folk favorites

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Most of these records were purchased at

Clockwork Records in Hastings on Hudson, NY

Everybody’s Records in Cincinnati, OH

Mystic Disc in Mystic, CT

* from “Natural Woman”  lyrics by Gerry Goffin.

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Love Letters Straight from the Heart

Ketty Lester  Unknown

I’m listening to a song on repeat called “Love Letters” by a singer named Ketty Lester.  Have you ever listened to it?  Please do.  I heard it for the first time the other night.  It was playing over the closing credits of a documentary I was watching.  I was taken with the recording, the playing, the singer’s performance and the song.  “Love Letters” came out in 1962 and it’s the kind of song often referred to as a “torch song”.

According to my dictionary a torch song is: a sad or sentimental song, typically about unrequited love.

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The name “torch songs” probably comes from the expression “to carry a torch for someone” i.e. to have strong feelings for someone.  Historically, women more than men have been placed in the category of “torch” singers.  The classic torch singers sang their siren songs over elegant band arrangements, dressed in elegant clothing and fine jewels.  The heyday of the great torch singers and their recordings came between the early 50’s and the early 60’s.

A few of the more famous ones:

Sarah Vaughan
Rosemary Clooney
Julie London
Dinah Washington
Judy Garland
Nina Simone
Peggy Lee
Dinah Shore
Nancy Wilson

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I’m a huge fan of a good torch song and a good torch singer.  Nothing gets me through my darkest hours quite like a good torch song.

I’m not alone in the night

when I can have all the love

you write[1]

 Many of the recordings that I would consider my favorite torch songs feature male vocalists and come from other periods in time.  And though I love the visual elegance of the famous chanteuses, I don’t really care so much about their get-up when I’m listening.  What’s more important to me is the way the song is written and the way the song is played and sung.  Torch singing is not to be confused with the vocal acrobatics that we celebrate on all of our favorite reality/game shows today.  It’s not about how a voice gets contorted or the size of a singer’s range; it’s about what you can feel when you listen to the track.

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We should also not confuse torch songs with the “confessional” material of many singer/songwriters.  A great torch song is extremely personal and yet not personal at all.   The song might hit you in a very personal place, but one of the great things about the torch song is the fact that it’s bound to no one person.  A torch song works because it’s not about what some schmo like me did today.  It’s not a song about how I was going to go to see the new Wes Anderson movie with you at the movie theater on Route 119 but we were late at the Italian restaurant and we got in a fight about our plans next weekend.[2]  Rather it’s a song about people feeling things that people have felt and will feel as long as there are people.

Most often, the torch singer is not the person who wrote the song.  You may never have heard of the person who wrote the song.  But whoever the writer is, somebody has written a song that’s good enough for the singer (and many singers) and the listener (and many listeners) to relate to.  Hoagy Carmichael might have been thinking about the summer he spent at the lake with a girl named Mildred when he wrote “Stardust”[3], but that’s not what a singer would need to know to feel the song.  And when that singer goes to sing that song, he or she reaches deep down into that inner chamber where the torch is burning.  That torch is burning in all of us.  The torch singer and the torch song take us to where the embers glow.

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All good songs are really torch songs at their core.  Song is really just the voice of the human soul.  Whoever or whatever we carry a torch for in the depths of our soul will live and move in a good song.  Those who have really mastered the craft of singing and writing songs did so by working and working at it, and putting the song first in their choices.  All great writers and singers must be honest, and their honesty must include the ability to leave what doesn’t work on the cutting room floor.  They must be good listeners, especially good at listening to their own hearts.  Deep down they are carrying a torch and they have very good access to it.  They strengthen that inner connection through the pursuit of their craft.  The craft in turn becomes seamless to the listener.  Someone we don’t know who doesn’t know us has worked very hard honing phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, breath and tone to give us what we will perceive as a “love letter straight from the heart”.

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If you think a torch song is corny, trite or easy, sit down and try to write one some time.  After you’ve tried, go back and listen to “Love Letters” again.  Let me know what you think.

Here are a  few torch songs I love.  I’m pretty sure all of them are up on youtube if you’d like to listen to them:

“Love Letters”  by Ketty Lester
written by Victor Young and Edward Heyman

“Our Day Will Come” by Ruby & The Romantics
written by Bob Halliard and Mort Garson

“If I Had You” by Nat King Cole
written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Ted Shapiro

“Nothing Takes the Place of You” by Toussaint McCall
written by Alan Robinson & Toussaint McCall

“Again” by Dinah Washington
written by Dorcas Cochran and Lionel Newman

“Stardust” by Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey
written by Hoagy Carmichael & Mitchel Parish

“Do What You Gotta Do” by Roberta Flack
written by Jimmy Webb

“I Cry Alone” by Ruby and The Romantics
written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

“Standing In The Doorway” by Bob Dylan
written by Bob Dylan

“A Cottage For Sale” by Les Paul & Mary Ford
written by Willard Robison and Larry Conley

“Forever” by Marvin Gaye
written by Brian Holland, Freddie Gorman & Lamont Dozier

“That’s All” by Sam Cooke
written by Alan Brandt and Bob Haymes

“All I Could Do Is Cry” by Etta James
written by Billy Davis, Bill, G Fuqua, and Berry Gordy Jr

“What’ll I Do” by Nat King Cole
written by Irving Berlin

“Who’s Lovin’ You” by the Jackson 5
written by Smokey Robinson

…Do you have any favorites?  I’d love to know.

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[1] From “Love Letters”

[2] That’s not what I did today, but I guess you’d know that because that’s not what you did today either.

[3] I have absolutely no reason to believe that’s what inspired him to write that song.

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February 25, 2014

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It’s easier to tell a lie than it is to tell the truth
It’s easier to kill a fly than it is to turn it loose
It’s easier to criticize somebody else
Than to see yourself

It’s easier to give a sigh and be like all the rest
Who stand around and crucify you while you do your best
It’s easier to see the books upon the shelf
Than to see yourself

It’s easier to hurt someone and make them cry
Than it is to dry their eyes
I got tired of fooling around with other people’s lies
Rather I’d find someone that’s true

It’s easier to say you won’t than it is to feel you can
It’s easier to drag your feet than it is to be a man
It’s easier to look at someone eles’s wealth
Than to see yourself

-George Harrison

February 25, 1943 – November 29 2001

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If Not For Lou

10-28-13

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Some years back I wrote a song called “In the City”.  I was walking across Greenwich Village to the subway after a rehearsal on the Lower East Side and I felt gushy with love for my hometown and the stomping ground of my youth.  Towards the end of the song there’s a long chain of rhymes about people and things that I encounter on the streets of downtown Manhattan. Included in that list are “The Warhols and the Lou Reeds”.  Lou Reed died yesterday and I feel moved to write something about him. His work has meant so much to me.  I’m not sure I ever realized just how much.

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Like most suburban rock fans my age, I first heard and enjoyed Lou’s most famous anthem “Walk On The Wild Side” on classic rock radio as a kid in the 80’s when it was already an oldie. His album New York came out when I was in high school and I was way into it.  I lost myself in the tough street scenes and bohemian daydreams that his songs evoked.  In the lore and artistic romance of Manhattan that I acquired and carried around with me as a kid, Lou Reed’s influence was right up there with that of Woody Allen and Bob Dylan.  In college, I discovered Lou’s earlier work with the Velvet Underground and completely flipped out over their records.  I’ve spent hours upon hours of my life listening to the VU over the years, thinking about their music and reading about their career and their influence.  I even played the part of Lou Reed and performed the VU’s songs with my band in an interactive theatrical show about Andy Warhol’s Factory a few years ago. I’m listening to “Venus in Furs” from The Velvet Underground and Nico right now as I write and it sounds as exciting to me as always.  The immediacy of the thing is just so inspiring.  A young English major has written some intentionally dark and rather well crafted poetry based on an S&M book he read.  He’s delivering his narrative as dramatically as he can with his own Long Island accent.  A make-shift orchestra of his friends playing a viola, a kick drum with a mallet and a loud electric guitar are accompanying him with smart, sleek arrangement, raw energy and complete dedication. So much started for me and for so many others, digging the vibe of this DIY band of twenty-somethings, full of attitude and love of art and literature.

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Lou Reed grew up in suburban Freeport, NY, studied English at Syracuse University and then moved into Manhattan after college.  He was working as a staff writer for a cheap knock-off record label when he met avant-garde classical musician John Cale and they formed the Velvet Underground with a college buddy of Reed’s and his Long Island pal’s little sister.   At the time the VU were forming, The Beatles, British pop and Motown dominated the American pop radio.  Bob Dylan and folk music were huge in Greenwich Village.  Reed & Cale chose to make something else.  They were pop music fans who were too weird and too smart to make main stream pop music themselves.  And just at the moment of their formation they were introduced to Andy Warhol, the king of the outsider artist’s take on insider’s pop culture.  Under Warhol’s patronage they made their first album and began appearing as part of the pop artist’s traveling multi-media shows.  They went on to make 4 inspired studio albums to limited commercial success before breaking up in 1970.  Lou Reed went on to a long solo career with a devoted cult following and a radio hit or two.  To this day, the Velvet Underground are well known to be the inspiration for countless famous bands and artists that came after them from all over the place.  “The Lou Reeds” that I sing about in my song are every such aspiring rocker whoever dreamed of coming to the big city, re-defining himself with an air of intimidating New York cool and making some uncompromising yet ultimately successful work.

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I myself came to live in the city from suburban New York. By the time I was a teen, I wanted to live in downtown Manhattan and spend my life making art.  I wanted to read every great piece of literature I could read and write my own narratives.  I wanted to be surrounded by invigorating art & culture, wild goings on and extreme personalities.  I wanted to feel the collective groove of sexy, catchy pop rhythms and sing my own weird song over that groove back into the collective.  I wanted to feel the sonic wash of loud music all around me.  I wanted real, no bullshit personality, craft and human experience to shine through the songs I made and listened to. I wanted everyone I worked with to share that excitement and that addiction to the miracle of music and language and art, the mystery of life and the joy of rock and roll…

…I wanted to be the Velvet Underground. I wanted to be Lou Reed.

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Recommended listening:

The Velvet Underground:

The Velvet Underground and Nico 1967

White Light/White Heat 1968

The Velvet Underground 1969

Loaded 1970

VU released 1985

Another View released 1986

Lou Reed:

Transformer 1972

Berlin 1973

New York 1989

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The Words

During the recording sessions for my album Grand Hotel a few years ago, I had lyric sheets sitting out on the console in the control room.  One of the musicians playing on the album picked up the sheets and started reading the lyrics while I was out of the room.   When I came back, he told me he’d just read the lyrics and was happily surprised to find out how cool the words to the songs were.  This guy had probably already played those very songs 50 times or more with me in concert.  He just hadn’t ever paid any attention to what I was singing.  It’s not really that rare.  I’ve met a lot of people claim to not really care at all what the words to a song are.

Personally, I’ve always cared about the words to songs.  There’s an incredible feeling I get when I hear a well-crafted line sung or read.  I got hooked on that feeling at a very young age and I’ve never been able to kick the habit.  Have you ever seen a well-turned double play in a baseball game?  A well-turned lyric gives me a similar feeling, but on many more levels.  Maybe it’s like the taste of a fine wine for a wine connoisseur or a rich Columbian coffee for a coffee freak.  When I hear or read a great line, I feel a heightened sense of wonder and a deep gratitude for being able to be here to experience the delight.   When a great lyric sits upon a delightful tune, the pleasure is even more exquisite.  Give an Irving Berlin song a shot sometime, or a Bob Marley song.  You might feel it.

People have found delight in rhyme and they’ve written and sung verse of some kind or another for centuries.  Truly gifted poets have always been rare.  It seems like they get more and more rare.  In recent years what’s most often called “poetry” is some kind of faux intellectual exercise, usually the opposite of well-crafted lyric expression.  It’s a shame.  I heard Joni Mitchell talking on the radio the other day.  She was saying all kinds of nasty things about poets, quoting put-downs about poets from Nietzsche[1].   When I was in high school, Joni came out with a record called Night Ride Home.  I can still remember the lyrics from several of the album’s tracks.

Is this just vulgar electricity?

Is this the edifying fire?

Does your smile’s covert complicity

Debase as it admires

Are you just checking out your mojo

Or am I just fighting off growing old?

All I ever wanted was just to come in from the cold…[2]

…Sounds kind of like poetry to me, Joni…really good poetry.

Lyrics can lift you up; they can knock you over; they can blow your mind.  And they don’t have to be lofty or intellectual or academic in any way.  Willie Dixon didn’t study verse at a university, but his great lines get me every time I hear them…

I was accused of murder in the first degree

The judge’s wife cried “Let the man go free”[3]

I feel an equal lift from the lyrics of an old folk song “Shady Grove”

Peaches in the summertime

Apples in the fall

If I can’t have the girl I love

I don’t want none at all

A truly poetic moment of lyric craft is an arrangement of words or word images that moves us, that speaks to us in a way more profound than conversational words might.  Well-crafted lyrics have a rhythmic sense and an aesthetic sense and they lead us to a truth or truths we may have trouble articulating otherwise.

For all we know this may only be dream

We come and go like a ripple on a stream…

 

A great deal has been conveyed in two pretty little lines.  The last two lines of that same song hold a lot of weight too:

…Tomorrow was made for some

But tomorrow may never come for all we know.[4]

Simple, yet expressive and beautiful lyrics are extremely hard to craft.  Writing really good lyrics requires clearing away all of our own personal bullshit and tapping into a kind of collective dream so we might speak on a broader level to a host of people outside the particulars of our own experience.  That’s always been a fairly tall order and it’s only getting taller in the individualist consumer societies we’ve set up.

You can have the best there is but it’s going to cost you all your love

You won’t get it for money.[5]

Most people aren’t up for giving anything all of their love, or even beginning to find out how much love they have to give.  But ol’ Bob was right, the best of anything real can’t be bought, however well the illusion of store-bought experience is woven into our imagination by generations of our own lore and advertising.   So maybe all of the lame “poets” that abound today and have annoyed Joni & Nietzsche so much historically are people who aren’t willing to give “all their love” to their lines.  Poetry, the really good stuff, is a serious dedication for sure.   Words can be a whole lot more than just babble, but it’s going to take some work.  Getting at what Van Morrison aptly called the “inarticulate speech of the heart” takes a kind of digging and searching few will be up for.

When I cannot sing my heart

I can only speak my mind[6]

That’s very true.  We may dedicate our lives to attempting to sing our hearts and end up just speaking our minds over and over again.  Just speaking our minds all the time won’t be enough to make anything as meaningful and durable as a beautiful Beatles song.  And while we’re talking away, we might miss something really great being spoken in our midst.  In 1963, Bob Dylan heard “10,000 whispering and nobody listening.”[7]  Imagine how many whispering non-listeners he’s heard by today.   If we talk without really listening, we will only ever be able to whisper and never be able to speak with any kind of voice that carries.  The words and the songs are everywhere if we can find them, but we won’t find them talking.  If we ever hope to have something to say, it’s going to take some serious listening…

Up above my head I hear music in the air

And I really do believe there’s a heaven somewhere[8]

 It’s up there for us to hear, if we can remember to turn off the talk radios that are inside us and all around us sometimes.  The more we listen, the more we’ll hear and the better messengers we can be of what we hear.  The more we listen, the more we’ll be able to make out what our own words sound like.   If we listen with sharp ears, open minds and open hearts, we will find a vast expanse of garbage that stretches beyond the horizons all around us.   We’ll also find a vast wealth of wonderful things to listen to.  “There are heroes in the seaweed”[9] if we can find them.   I’m pretty sure all of the answers are still “blowing in the wind” to this day[10].  But who among us will ever cultivate the kind of listening ability it will take to make out anything the wind is saying?


[1] In a June 4, 2013 interview on CBC radio with Jian Ghomeshi, Joni Mitchell attributed two quotes on poets to Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Sarathustra:

1.”The poet is the vainest of the vain.  Even before the ugliest of water buffalo doth he fan his tail…I’ve looked among him for an honest man and all I’ve dredged up are old gods’ heads.”

2.”He muddies his waters that he might appear deep.”

[2] From the song “Come in from the Cold” by Joni Mitchell

[3] From the song “The Back Door Man”

[4] From the song “For All We Know”, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis

[5] From the song “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan

[6] From the song “Julia” by John Lennon & Paul McCartney

[7] From the song “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” by Bob Dylan

[8] From the song “Up Above My Head” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight, crica 1945

[9] from the song “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen

[10] from the song “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan

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Bob Dylan’s Writing

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When it comes to writing song lyrics in English, for me there’s Bob Dylan and then there’s everyone else.  Many, many songwriters and many, many, many songs have fascinated me and inspired me and continue to fascinate me and inspire me in my life.  None have inspired me or fascinated me quite so much as the songs of Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is one of the greatest poets I’ve ever come across in the English language. He’s one of those guys like Shakespeare.  A million fools will tell you he’s brilliant but they’re actually right.  And that’s not to take away from his music writing either.  Dylan’s words flow brilliantly over his music.  His melodies aren’t often complicated but they’re made with a catchy, seamless simplicity that’s incredibly hard to achieve even once, let alone hundreds and hundreds of times.

I got a copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits when I was fourteen.  As soon as I heard those songs I just wanted to learn and recite every line.  They opened up all kinds of feelings I had but couldn’t express; they stimulated my mind.  The words and the voice of the singer had so much anger, alienation, playfulness, love and sensitivity all at once.   It was overwhelming.  I hadn’t been so excited since I had first heard the Beatles as a small child.  I walked all around my little suburban town in the cold that winter singing those songs to myself.  At times I would bust out laughing with joy from just how great the writing was.  Pretty soon thereafter, I taped my brother’s copy of Bringing It All Back Home.  It was hard to believe that so many images and stories and lovely rhymes were poured into one album.  Dylan’s poetry became the gold standard for me, the great challenge.  I figured if lyrics could be this good, evoke such a vivid picture and tell such a moving story, why try for less?  I might never get close to as poetic myself but I could try.

Many years later, I was in Philadelphia on a winter’s night to open a show for a master singer/songwriter/guitarist named Chris Smither.  We had some time backstage before the show and we just started talking about Dylan songs and Dylan records. Eventually, we pulled out our guitars played each other some of our favorites.  Smither played a great version of “Visions of Johanna” in ¾ time.  I had fallen in love with “Visions” when someone had given me Blonde on Blonde as a holiday gift nearly 20 years ago.  Smither himself had been digging the song since it came out in ’66 and he was still as delighted with it as I was, going on 50 years later.  He had been there in the 60’s when everyone was freaking out on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and songs from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  A whole generation of artists had and tried to create their own continuation of the American folk tradition.  Bob Dylan was able to seamlessly incorporate so much of the wealth of that history, tradition and lore better than anyone else, and he did it with a narrative voice more individual, more evocative and more innovative than anyone from that time or since then.  His writing went far beyond that folk revival of the 60’s, in album after album that followed his first few.  And though he wrote all different types of narratives in a number of styles he managed never to lose a profound connection to his roots.  To my ear, no one has come near him.

I don’t really have anything to say about Bob Dylan as a person.  I don’t know Bob Dylan or anyone who does.  I’ve read some stories and seen some movies like everyone else.  I’ve been to a bunch of his concerts, but I was pretty late to that party.  I do recall a summer evening show at an Amphitheater outside of Chicago in the later 90’s that was pretty darn impressive.  As much as I’ve enjoyed catching him in concert and  learning about his life, I think the records and the songs are inspirational enough by themselves.  If you’re looking for where to start with Bob Dylan’s catalog, it’s daunting.  There’s just so much.   I’ll give you 10 albums filled with what are for me the most “Holy Sh_t!” moments of Dylan poetry.  Please note:  Some of my favorite individual Dylan songs aren’t even on these albums.  These are just a more than adequate starting point.

1.The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan 1963

2.The Times They Are A’ Changin’ 1964

3.Another Side of Bob Dylan 1964

4.Bringing it All Back Home 1965

5.Highway 61 Revisted 1965

6.Blonde on Blonde 1966

7.John Wesley Harding 1967

8.Blood On The Tracks 1975

9.Oh Mercy 1989

10.Time Out Of Mind 1997

Appendix:

Here a few other English language lyric writers whose work I love:

Paul Simon

Chuck Berry

Leonard Cohen

Hank Williams

Willie Dixon

Irving Berlin

Randy Newman

David Byrne

Hal David

Joni Mitchell

Cole Porter

Lennon/McCartney

George Harrison

Hoagie Carmichael

Donovan

David Bowie

Robert Hunter

Mark Knopfler

…I think Bob Dylan is better than all of them.

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Early 70’s Mac Attack

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Do you want to listen to something good?  Put on Fleetwood Mac’s Kiln House from 1970.  It sounds great on an I-pod but I would advise cranking it on a car stereo for maximum righteousness if you can.  It’s a great sounding album and a wonderful piece of Mac history.  Fleetwood Mac was at a pivotal point in their career when they made Kiln House.  Their leader and founder Peter Green had just quit the band.   Green formed Fleetwood Mac in 1967 as an electric blues band.  A couple of years later he was gone. Between Peter Green’s original blues band and their eventual multi-mega-hit, arena rock explosion with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac soldiered on through years of albums, tours and line-up changes.  Kiln House marks the beginning of that journey.

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The original Fleetwood Mac in 1967, Left to Right: Mick Fleetwood, Peter Green, John McVie and Jeremy Spencer

It turns out Peter Green was somewhat of a visionary.  In 1966, he had been playing lead guitar in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, backed by drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie (Fleetwood was only in Mayall’s band for about six weeks).  Green decided to break off from Mayall and form his own band.  He admired his rhythm section so much that he named his new band Fleetwood Mac, from their names.  At first, he couldn’t even get both namesakes to join his new outfit.  McVie wasn’t up for leaving his steady gig with Mayall.  But Peter Green still went ahead and named his band Fleetwood Mac anyway.  Eventually, McVie did join the group and he never left.  In fact, decades after Peter Green was long gone, the rhythm section of Fleetwood and McVie remain the only consistent part of the Fleetwood Mac line-up on every single record.  The group’s sound evolved and evolved through many different songwriters and singers, but that groovy old rhythm section just kept on trucking, anchoring the band through it all.

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When Kiln House was made, Fleetwood Mac was a four-piece band.  With Peter Green’s blues revivalism and brooding narratives suddenly gone from the act, guitarists Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer were responsible for singing and writing all the songs.  John McVie had just married the former Christine Perfect, singer and keyboardist from a band called Chicken Shack.  Christine wasn’t officially in Fleetwood Mac yet, but she drew the album’s artwork and played some keyboards uncredited.  You can hear her guest harmonies clearly on the song “Station Man”.  She had yet to step into her duties as the band’s principle songwriter and singer.  The songwriting of Spencer and Kirwan isn’t much to write home aboutSpencer goofs around with a fair amount of bogus English Americana on Kiln House.  There’s some 50’s rock nostalgia and faux-country mixed in to his folk-rock. Kirwan’s songs are more straight-ahead hippy blues-rock, sung with his sweet little angelic voice.  The jamming and riffing of the Peter Green Mac is still integral to several songs on Kiln House, most notably Station Man, Jewel-Eyed Judy and Tell Me.  But there’s a light heartedness to the heavy jams of the album.  Somehow, the whole informal mix of stuff just works.  At least it worked for the duration of the Kiln House album.  A few months after the record came out, Jeremy Spencer would step off of a Fleetwood Mac tour in Los Angeles and join a cult, never to return.  Danny Kirwan lasted for two more years in Fleetwood Mac before getting the boot.

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One thing I really love about Kiln House is that its whole conception follows a model that no longer exists in the music industry and only really existed briefly:  You’ve got a band with no flashy front person and no hit singles on them.  They’ve got a following because they tour their butts off and they’re super-tight from playing a million shows.  So the record company pays for a bunch of hippies to hole up in a house in the country for a month or two and get an album together.  One of the guy’s girlfriends draws some loving, hopeful, hand-drawn hippy art for the cover.  The record comes out and the band goes back on tour.  The album doesn’t go gold, but the label doesn’t drop them.  You pick up the album somewhere, put in on, float away and listen to those hippies rock out.  Maybe you catch the band the next time they come through town and when the next record comes out you check it out and see if you like that one too.  It seems like that was a pretty good way to develop some really big talent for a while.

The Mac made five more albums for Warner/Reprise without a hit and moved to Los Angeles before busting out big with their 1975 self-titled album featuring “Rhiannon”, “Landslide” and “You Say You Love Me.”  All five of those early 70’s records are uneven, but they all have their moments and the groovy bass and drumming are the yellow brick road that runs right through it all.  Once Christine McVie’s singing and songwriting is added to the mix, you’re assured at least one or two gems per record and I enjoy listening to the evolution evident in the other stuff too.  Of those albums I recommend Penguin and Mystery to Me most of all, though I like songs on all of them.  I think Kiln House stands out as a little more special than those other transition records.  It’s feels fresh and free of the big league slickness that would follow.  Not that I don’t love mega-hit Mac.  Their famous records feature some of the greatest pop songwriting and recording craft I know of and the singing and playing on all of them is exquisite.  Rumours was my introduction to the Mac and I still listen to it all the time and marvel at its perfection.  Kiln House isn’t that kind of pop perfection experience.  It’s just a damn good sounding record by a damn good band, pretty early in their career.

In fact, Kiln House was just one in a slew of wonderful sounding records by damn good acts that Warner/Reprise released around the turn of the 70’s.  I’ve been meaning to ask a producer or an engineer what they think accounts for the amazingly clear and warm sound of so many of those albums.  They weren’t all made in the same studios or with the same musicians or engineers but they’re all great and they came out over the course of just a few years.  I’ll give you a few examples:

Joni Mitchell Blue

Van Morrison Moondance

The Kinks Lola Vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part One

The Faces Long Player

The Grateful Dead American Beauty

Bonnie Raitt Takin’ My Time

James Taylor Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town

Neil Young Harvest

Randy Newman Sail Away

Ry Cooder Boomer’s Story

…They all sound really wonderful…and there are so many more…

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