Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Life in Ten Songs

Inspired by a regular column in Rolling Stone magazine.

  A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
  Ol’ Man River – Valentine Pringle, Show Boat, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein III
  Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Beach Boys
  Your Song – Elton John
  Silver Wings – Merle Haggard
  London Homesick Blues – Jerry Jeff Walker
  Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen
  I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra (Live at the Sands)
  I’m Not Ready to Make Nice – Dixie Chicks
  Practical Arrangement - Sting

A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles

I was 11 years old in mid-January of 1964 when the Beatles stormed America behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” their first #1 hit here, and they didn’t just nudge aside Motown, Elvis, Bobby Vinton, Jackie Wilson, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore, and girl groups like the Chiffons and the Shirelles, they obliterated them. In an instance, the Beach Boys and “Surfin' Safari became about as hip as Kay Kyser and Old Buttermilk Sky.

Our parents were horrified. Our older siblings, accustomed to Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and all that earnest, four-chord folk crap — “If I Had a Hammer — looked down their noses at us and made fun of “yea, yea, yea,” and we didn't give a shit where the flowers and the husbands and the soldiers had gone. We knew where all the young girls had gone. They were glued to their televisions, watching the Ed Sullivan Show and screaming their lungs out.

Name any Beatle album. I can tell you how old I was, where I lived, who my friends were, what we were in to, and what we were trying to get in to when that album hit the shelves. Name any Beatle single released as a 45 rpm. Same thing. This list could easily consist of 10 Beatle songs. In fact, my original list contained three: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Yesterday,” and “Hey Jude,” although I bundled them as one. I know this violates the rules, but I’m old and entitled.

However, I’m going with “A Hard Day’s Night” because it was the first Beatle album I owned, and I saw the movie at the Arlene Theatre in downtown Longview, and the little old lady who ran the place tromped up one aisle and down the other, trying unsuccessfully to shush the hysteria. The opening chord of the title song is as ebullient a sound as rock and roll has produced. Plus, they were so damn cheeky. If you want to understand 1964, watch “A Hard Day’s Night.” It is to Beatlemania what the first 10 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” is to Omaha Beach.

As for the other three songs, they were contenders because:
• “I Want to Hold Your Hand” got the ball rolling.
• “Yesterday” certified their musical genius. Even my sixth-grade music teacher, Mrs. Barbara Coones, admitted that she'd been wrong about the Beatles. She went so far as to apologize. “I was wrong,” she said. We just sat there, stunned.
• “Hey Jude” helped me through a difficult time. Here’s the story: I heard it for the first time in August, 1968, out of a cheap, plastic portable radio propped in my aunt and uncle's milk barn in Muenster, Texas, where I was working most of the summer. The song astonished me. I couldn’t believe how long it was, and how great it was. Every morning and every evening, I sat and waited and waited for the Gainesville radio station to play it again until, finally, my mom and dad returned to retrieve me. Without my knowledge or consent, they decided to move us from Longview to teeny, tiny little White Oak — 10 miles west, though it might as well have been 10,000 miles — so I returned to a new 3-bedroom, 2-bath, cookie-cutter brick home, next door to one just like it, and across the road from an empty field that stretched all the way to Gilmer, I suppose. I was enrolled in a new school, in a new town where I didn't know a soul except for my two younger brothers and the son of one of my mother’s friends — a huge lug of a guy who, if memory serves me correctly, seemed addicted to fireworks and flatulence. But I made new friends because I played football and because "Hey Jude" remained #1 on the charts for nine weeks, and it was obvious what a huge fan I was, and that opened other doors for, even in little ol' White Oak, most kids spoke Beatle.

I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra

I always liked Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole and Bobby Darin. I even liked Johnny Mathis. But I despised Frank Sinatra, his ring-a-ding-ding sleazy shtick and his unctuous sidekicks, salivating over buxomly blondes in go-go boots and mini-skirts, sloshing their martinis on their tuxedos and flashing diamond pinky rings, like second-rate New Jersey goombas.

So, I barely noticed and little cared when Sinatra died in May of 1998. But then, an odd thing happened. I was teaching a journalism workshop at the University of Oklahoma, and some kid had purchased an issue of People magazine devoted to his top 100 albums, and the kid was about to slice it up as part of some yearbook design assignment, and I stopped him and convinced him to cut up a Sports Illustrated instead. Out of curiosity, I bought “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and “Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years,”  and two months later, I tucked them in a carry-on bag, along with my Sony Walkman, on a flight to Budapest, where I was to teach what we called “fact-based journalism” to a group of 25 or 30 exceptionally bright high school students. Helen Smith of Boston and Shirley Yaskin of Miami and I took turns teaching Hungarian kids the difference between objective news and government propaganda. 

After a full day of teaching, we'd stroll down the Utsa Vaci for dinner and drinks,  then they would go to their hotel in Pest and I would amble toward my apartment in Buda across the Danube, and I’d stop midway across the Chain Bridge and watch the city lights flicker on, and listen to “Summer Wind” and “The Way You Look Tonight” and “All or Nothing at All," and suddenly, I got it. One of his many biographers, Michael Ventura, wrote, “The lyrics were trite, obvious, sentimental. Somehow, he made them true. The music was simple to the point of childishness. Somehow, he made it complex.”

From Budapest, we flew to Bucharest for a similar 10-day workshop, and there, I fell in love with eight or nine of the most perfect young people I’ve ever met. None before, and none after compare. Four or five days before the end of the workshop, I began each morning, sobbing in my tiny hotel shower, knowing my time with them was coming to its inevitable end. Of course, the experience changed me profoundly, and I returned to the U.S. a different person. It’s been 17 years since that workshop, but every time I hear Sinatra sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” it takes me back to Bucharest and  reminds me how difficult, how painful it was to leave those kids, it makes me want to find some dark, smoky bar where a paunchy bartender knows you need a whisky on the rocks without being told.

Ol’ Man River – Valentine Pringle, Show Boat

Around 1963, my mother purchased from Reader’s Digest a collection of 18 American operettas, among them Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and, most importantly, Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel into the most important play in American musical theatre history. It created a new genre — the musical play as opposed to the wispy musical revues of Florenz Ziegfeld, or anything starring Fanny Brice or Sophie Tucker or dancing boys in sailor uniforms. Show Boat’s songs grew out of dramatic situations involving abandonment, poverty, miscegenation, racial injustice and alcoholism. Despite these gloomy subjects, the music is radiant — some of the best ever written: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” “Bill,” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.”

At the heart of the play is “Ol’ Man River,” which is, in my opinion, the greatest American song of the 20th Century, especially when performed with primal conviction by a baritone the likes of Valentine Pringle. Everyone from Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Jerry Reed and Jeff Beck to Screaming Jay Hawkins has covered it, and the venerable Paul Robeson sang it in the original 1927 stage production, but Pringle — better known for his lead role in a British science fiction television series than for his Broadway performances — owns it.

For years, my late night boozy trips down memory lane would crescendo with Merle Haggard, the Beatles and "Ol' Man River." After I'd played it once or twice, the wife and kids would know I’d drained the last of whatever I'd been drinking and was finally headed to bed or couch.

Silver Wings – Merle Haggard

Speaking of Merle, “Silver Wings” nudges out “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which is my favorite country-western song ever, and why? Timing. It came out in 1969 but I discovered it in 1974, along with the rest of the Haggard catalogue, right about the time I was breaking up with and then getting back together with a girlfriend, who left Texas and a difficult family life to join her father in California. I drove her to Dallas in my 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and watched her fly out of Love Field to Los Angeles, then picked up a six pack of something and drove over to Bachman Lake Park and drank them all and listened to Silver Wings about 19 times in a row — and those were the 8-track tape days.

Three months or so later, I was between fall and spring semesters at UT, and I was working on a crew building a honky-tonk called Frontier City, a few miles south of Chandler, Texas, out in the middle of nowhere. We’d work all day building the cheesiest faux frontier city imaginable, but around 7, a damn fine local country band would take the stage, and the first or second song they sang every night was “Silver Wings.”

I saw Merle in concert at Austin’s old Palmer Auditorium in the spring of ’75, I believe. Barbara Mandrell opened for him, and she was amazing. But Merle and his band, The Strangers, tore up the place. Merle sang every song he knew, and then he wrote and performed a couple mid-stream. I’ve seen him twice since: once at Stubbs, which was great, and the other time at the Riverbend Church on Lake Austin, not far from the Pennybacker Bridge. He’d somehow staved off lung cancer and looked and sounded frail, and it wasn’t much of a show, especially since neither beer nor wine were sold, and no one dared sneak in a flask or a joint inasmuch as Jesus was surely watching and taking notes.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Beach Boys

I was 14, a girl-crazy eighth grader, and I had a huge crush on a girl who lived down the block, and more than anything, I wanted to sleep with her — but only that, just sleep. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to just lie in a bed close enough to smell her hair, and sleep.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” perfectly captures that moment, that innocence. Today, I’m still in awe of Brian Wilson’s brilliant melody and its execution by the Wrecking Crew, particularly drummer Hal Blaine. It’s my favorite Beach Boy song.

Your Song – Elton John

In April, 1970, Paul McCartney quit the Beatles. I still have a newspaper clipping from the Longview newspaper. We all saw it coming. It was like watching our parents fight night after night. A divorce is inevitable, if they don’t kill each other first. The break-up of the Beatles left a void that neither Lennon nor McCartney could fill as single artists, and though there remained a lot of excellent music out there — Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel — something was missing.

And then, Elton John arrived, ironically enough, in April, 1970, with the release of his eponymous album, Elton John. The album was not an immediate success, but its popularity grew, driven by one song: “Your Song.” I remember the first time I heard it. I was walking out the kitchen door on my way to pick up my date for the 1971 high school football banquet, and Elton was performing the song on some television variety show. I paused, turned back, listened to the rest of the song, and thought, “That was not bad.”

What an understatement. Over the next five years, he and Bernie Taupin recorded seven remarkable albums, particularly Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The string ended with “Rock of the Westies,” and the next album “Blue Moves” would have been equally disappointing had it not been for two songs: “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” and “Idol,” Elton’s haunting homage to Elvis Presley.

London Homesick Blues – Jerry Jeff Walker

I attended the University of Texas in the 1970s, the heyday of the Cosmic Cowboy and Redneck Hippy, of the Armadillo World Headquarters and Willie Nelson. But the soundtrack of those years was Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band. It was recorded live in Luckenbach, which then consisted of a post office, a dance hall and a parking lot. Now, it’s a shrine. Mecca for aging hippies, who even now want to swill a dozen or so Shiners and belt out, “Up against the wall, redneck mother.” Back then, we drank Lone Star, but no one does that anymore except tourists and dorky college kids.

But the best song on the album isn’t “Redneck Mother,” and it’s not “Desperados Waiting on a Train.” It’s “London Homesick Blues.” After graduation from UT in 1975, I followed that off-and-on girlfriend I mentioned earlier to Southern California, even though we had a tortured relationship. She was younger and full of silly ideas like chastity because, she told me, she had promised Jesus she would save the good stuff for marriage. She didn’t, but we broke up not long after I arrived anyway. I bounced around Anaheim, Fullerton and Huntington Beach long enough to truly appreciate this lyric:

And I’ll substantiate the rumor
that the English sense of humor
is drier than the Texas sand.
You can put up your dukes
and you can bet your boots
But I’m leaving just as fast as I can.

Then, I said my goodbyes to the girlfriend and her family and to some really dear friends I’d made — including a married woman with whom I’d had a dalliance — and I drove my '73 moss green Chevrolet Monty Carlo 1,500 miles back home to East Texas. I doubt I arrived with more five dollars to my name.

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen played the Armadillo World Headquarters five times in 1974, but I never saw him because at the time he was playing small venues like AWH, I had no idea who he was. A year later, with the release of his album, “Born to Run,” everyone knew who he was. It helped that he made the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week, and no rock star had ever managed to do that.

“Born to Run” is one of my favorite albums. On any given day, it ranks as high as fifth, as low as tenth.  The title song is pure adrenaline, but Thunder Road is more musical, more lyrical, more visceral, more magical. “The skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.” How do anyone write a line like that?

“Thunder Road” was Jeff Nardone’s favorite Springsteen song too, and his family chose it to close his funeral service, and I can’t hear it now without choking up, just a little.

Not Ready to Make Nice — The Dixie Chicks

In 2002, I didn't know a thing about the Dixie Chicks until Natalie Maines made her infamous comment about George W. Bush, thus triggering the Fox News backlash and the Nashville boycott and, worst of all, Toby Keith's despicable "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,"  his little love ditty to the throngs of angry American idiots who thought Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks and just wanted to put a boot in some Arab's ass. So, I bought a copy of "Home" to protest the protest, and could not believe how great it was — the best start-to-finish album I had heard in years.

And we became huge fans, and not for political reasons — for artistic reasons. They wrote and sang great songs — original, creative, intelligent songs instead of the schlock that passes for C&W these days. Of course, we also admired and respected how these three young women stood together and held their ground in the face of relentless and senseless attacks. Their 2003 inteview with Barbara Walters was inspiring, heroic, entirely noble. 

Three years later, they released a defiant, new album, "Taking the Long Way," which, of course, Clear Channel and the local 'Bama and Bubba disc jockeys boycotted, even though it's brilliant, almost Beatlesque. As for "Not Ready to Make Nice," it still sends a chill up my spine. I don't even have to hear it. I only have to think about it. 

Jeez, I wish these girls would get back in the studio. 

Practical Arrangement — Sting

I'm often assured there's a lot of good music out there. “You just have to look for it,” I’m told. "It's there. Just look."

How sad is that? I must search for it, like it’s an original Napoleonic tunic, or a prehistoric cockroach caught in amber. What if we applied this standard to food, or film, or football? What if we applied it to diapers or detergent? What if we applied it to anything?

“There are a lot of great coffee out there, pal. You just have to look for it.” People would freak out. They want great coffee, and they want it now. They don’t want to spend hours excavating websites and visiting chat rooms and exploring Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and Starbucks and ending up at a mom-and-pop trailer where the beans come from an organic farm in Guatemala. People would riot.

But music? People eat whatever the music industry wardens flop on a plate, and there’s a reason for this: People are cheap. Music today is a disposable commodity — like a razor, a jar of jelly, a pair of socks - only better. It's free. Why buy music when you can rip it off YouTube? 

And so, music is worth what the market is willing to pay, which is nothing - and that explains Drake and Katy Perry and Justin Bieber and and all those bands that crank out the same song  with the same riffs and the same vocal gimmicks over and over and over. How many times have you heard, "Oh, uh oh. Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh?"

I concede that there are talented musicians out there. Avett Brothers. Decemberists. Adele. And Beyoncé has voice as stunning as her body, but the music she chooses to sing sucks. It's written for 10-year-old girls and performed for 13-year-old boys. It has a shorter shelf-life than raw milk.

So, it's shocking and thrilling to stumble upon a beautifully crafted song - a song Paul Simon or Burt Bacharach or Jim Webb or Carole King might have written. It just doesn’t happen often. Sturgill Simpson seems to me to be the real deal. His “Long White Line” has been compared to Waylon Jennings but his twang reminds me of George Jones.

Amy Winehouse might have been a trainwreck as person, but her “Back to Black” album blew me away, particularly “Lose is a Losing Game.” As far as this list is concerned, it’s 10-B.

10-A is Sting’s “Practical Arrangement” from his amazing album, “The Last Ship.” The gorgeous melody can be performed high or low, a capella or fully loaded. It’s about an older man saying to a younger woman to consider the possibility of a practical idea: “Sure, it may not be the romance you had in mind, but let’s live together for a while, get to know one another and, in time, you might come to love me.”

I'm not promising the moon,
I'm not promising a rainbow,
Just a practical solution,
To a solitary life.
I'd be a father to your boy,
A shoulder you could lean on,
How bad could it be,
To be my wife?

It’s sumptuous music for intelligent adults, and it gives me hope that I haven’t been introduced to my last fabulous song, that it’s possible I might one day revise this list and include one or two songs as yet unwritten. But I’m not holding my breath.