Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Robert Ward R.I.P.

Guitarist Robert Ward died on Christmas day. He's best known for leading The Ohio Untouchables, who backed Wilson Pickett and the Falcons on the original version of "I Found A Love." That, and his signature sound which was was aided and abetted by the vibrato from a Magnatone amplifier. That sound was later co-opted by none other than Lonnie Mack on his early recordings.


"Let's Kiss and Make Up" mp3
by The Falcons and the Ohio Untouchables, 1962.
Wilson Pickett - vocals
available on Hot Stuff

"What To Do" mp3
Benny McCain and the Falcons with the Ohio Untouchables, 1962.
available on Hot Stuff

"(I Will) Fear No Evil" mp3
by Robert Ward, 1967.
available on Hot Stuff

"I Found A Love" mp3
by The Falcons and The Ohio Untouchables, 1962.
Wilson Pickett - vocals
available on Hot Stuff


"Wham!" mp3
by Lonnie Mack, 1963.
available on The Wham of That Memphis Man!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Peace on Earth

Editors Note:

I'd like to thank all of the contributors for their thoughtful posts here this week at the Boogie Woogie Flu. As I sit here on the eve of the last night of Hanukkah, trying to write something about today's selections from the songbook of Gerry Goffin and Carole King, I am, perhaps at a loss for words, but more than likely, humbled by the quality of writing turned out by everyone's entries. I'm really floored, thank you. It's hard to keep this thing going, and to have such generous and talented friends and cohorts makes it much easier.

The idea for this week's Hanukkah posts was simple: first night - one song, second night - two songs, etc. Some of these were assigned, and some not. I tried to get everything up at sundown each night, and miraculously, like the oil in the temple - it all worked out.
All the writers and all the subjects are Jewish, but as Alex so poignantly pointed out in his post, we'd all be better off by a softening of these distinctions. Does it really matter what we are? We're humans, and from the look of things in the news right now, we don't treat each other very well. These very distinctions are the basis for most of the the hate and war we inflict on one another.

So, excuse me while I break free of format, and play one by a non-jew: Steve Earle, who introduces the following song every time he performs it by saying that he's "gonna keep on playing it until there's peace in the Middle East." I think it fitting that we listen to it today.

"Jerusalem" mp3
by Steve Earle, 2002
available on Jerusalem


And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming: Eight songs written by the Jewish songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Happy Hanukkah.

Spin your dradles and rock.


"Long Way To Be Happy" mp3
by Darlene Love, 1965.
available on Back to Mono (1958-1969)

"Don't Bring Me Down" mp3
by The Animals, 1966.
available on Animalisms

"Is This What I Get For Loving You" mp3
by Marianne Faithfull, 1967.
available on Marianne Faithfull's Greatest Hits

"Halfway To Paradise" mp3
by Nick Lowe, 1977.
available on Jesus of Cool

"Let Me Get Close To You" mp3
by Alex Chilton, 1987.
available on High Priest/Black List

"Goin' Back" mp3
by Nils Lofgren, 1975.
available on Nils Lofgren

"Wasn't Born to Follow" mp3
by The Byrds, 1968.
available on The Notorious Byrd Brothers

"I Can't Make It Alone" mp3
by The Continental Drifters, 1994.
available on Continental Drifters

dradle photo by Lincoln Barron © 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

They Showed You

by Scott Schinder

What with the Jews running Hollywood and all, it's somehow appropriate that the most subversive act of the '60s Southern California pop explosion would by fronted by a pair of pudgy Jewish misfits whose heavenly harmonies were balanced by a knack for absurdist satire and a playful experimental sensibility that would become increasingly prominent as their band's career progressed.

Between 1965 and 1969, the Turtles scored a series of sunny, harmony-laden hits—"It Ain't Me Babe," "Happy Together," "She'd Rather Be with Me," "She's My Girl," "Elenore," "You Showed Me"—that remain beloved staples of oldies radio and nostalgic movie soundtracks. But their persistent image as fluffy, upbeat popsters belies the richness and depth of the band's body of work. As transcendent as their familiar classics are, the Turtles' recorded oeuvre—six albums, 24 singles and various posthumously released collections incorporating rare and unreleased material—is bursting with underappreciated gems.

The Turtles evolved from the Crossfires, a teen instrumental surf outfit that was a popular attraction on its home turf, the L.A. suburb of Westchester. Howard Kaylan (nee Kaplan) and Mark Volman initially joined the Crossfires as sax players, but the popularity of the Beatles inspired the band to update its style and push Howard (who sang most of the leads) and Mark—who had performed alongside fellow Crossfires Al Nichol and Chuck Portz in the Westchester High School A Cappella Choir—to the front of the stage, where their prodigious vocal and comedic talents soon became apparent.

After signing with the fledgling White Whale label, the Crossfires were rechristened the Turtles and unveiled a retooled folk-rock sound on their debut single, an insistent reworking of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me, Babe" that became a Top 10 smash in late 1965. Despite subsequent memorable readings of the P.F. Sloan numbers "Let Me Be" and "I Get Out of Breath," the Turtles didn't stay on the folk-rock bandwagon for long. Instead, they embraced a more expansive pop approach that would yield the group's biggest commercial successes.

Their hits made the Turtles a familiar presence on teen-oriented television pop shows and prime-time variety hours, where band's happy-go-lucky attitude and clean-cut image presumably made them an attractive booking. As a child receiving my earliest exposure to rock 'n' roll via the family TV, I couldn't resist the infectious tunes. But I was equally attracted by how much these guys seemed to enjoy their jobs, and by their obvious grasp of the fundamental absurdity of the situation in which they'd found themselves.

The Turtles' hits were transcendent slices of AM bliss, with Kaylan emerging as one of the era's great pop voices. But the band's commercial misfires were equally thrilling, e.g. the gloriously bubblegummy "Can I Get to Know You Better," the bizarro goth-pop "Grim Reaper of Love" and the garage-punky Warren Zevon composition "Outside Chance."

As times changed and many of their contemporaries self-consciously struggled to stay fashionable, the Turtles effortlessly embraced the challenges of art-pop and psychedelia, blossoming as songwriters and making some of their most inventive and emotionally resonant music. Their classic 1968 concept LP The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands (on which they adopted the personae of a dozen fictional combos) and 1969's exquisite Ray Davies-produced Turtle Soup were all the more impressive in light of the group's increasingly adversarial relationship with their label, as well as a tortuously tangled management situation that kept soul-sapping litigation hanging constantly over the band's head for most of its career.

The Turtles continued to make first-rate music—like the Judee Sill-penned single "Lady-O" and the long-unreleased Shell Shock LP—up until the time they disbanded in 1970, amidst a hail of lawsuits with White Whale and various ex-managers. In the wake of the band's breakup, Kaylan and Volman found an appropriate outlet for their anarchic humor and residual frustrations when they (along with Turtles bassist Jim Pons) joined Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. With ongoing litigation preventing them from performing under their real names, they adopted the aliases of the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie, which was shortened to Flo and Eddie when they released a series of duo efforts that offered a deft blend of pop-culture satire and sterling songcraft. They also built a parallel career as a studio backup singers for the likes of T. Rex, the Ramones and Bruce Springsteen, hosted a fondly-remembered syndicated radio show, and did extended stints as DJs at album-rock stations in L.A. and New York.

In the '80s, Kaylan and Volman won back the rights to the Turtles name and ownership of the band's recordings. In the years since, the pair has thrived on the live oldies circuit, delivering the crowd-pleasing hits while maintaining the humorous theatrical elements that they perfected in the '70s. In 2006, Kaylan released his first-ever solo effort Dust Bunnies, a home-recorded labor of love on which he lends his iconic voice to a quirky selection of cover tunes.

The largely wonderful Dust Bunnies is available at www.howardkaylan.com. But, as of this writing, the Turtles' magnificent album catalogue is in an unfortunate state of disrepair. In the '90s, Sundazed Records (in the U.S.) and Repertoire (in Europe) both did a nice job with expanded CD editions of the original albums, and Rhino (which had extensively reissued the band's work in the vinyl era) released the excellent two-CD comp Solid Zinc in 2002. All of those discs are out of print as of this writing, leaving CD consumers to make do with a variety of skimpy greatest-hits collections. Fortunately, all six original Turtles albums (in expanded versions that correspond with the Sundazed reissues) are available on iTunes.

Since the Turtles were a frequent presence on TV in their heyday, many of their vintage performances are viewable on Youtube. But you might want to start with this hilarious and terrifying clip from the documentary Happy Together, in which Kaylan and Volman outline some of the band's convoluted business woes:


"I Get Out of Breath" mp3
by The Turtles, 1966.
available on Wooden Head

"Outside Chance" mp3
by The Turtles, 1966.
available on You Baby/Let Me Be

"Can I Get to Know You Better" mp3
by The Turtles, 1966.
available on You Baby/Let Me Be

"Sound Asleep" mp3
by The Turtles, 1968.
available on The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

"Somewhere Friday Night" mp3
by The Turtles, 1969.
available on Turtle Soup

"Love in the City" mp3
by The Turtles, 1969.
available on Turtle Soup

"We Ain't Gonna Party No More"
by The Turtles, 1969.
available on Wooden Head

Friday, December 26, 2008

Some Skunk Funk

Emily, Michael, and Randy Brecker being good Jews, circa 1950.

by Ben Greenberg

This is supposed to be a fun little piece to celebrate my two uncles, (not unlike My Two Dads), a pair of highly distinguished horn players, a toast to the holidays and to ring in the new year. Yet it’s almost impossible for me to write about The Brecker Brothers without soon being blindsided by a deep sadness and a pervasive emptiness that seems intent on blocking out the good old memories. It's a downer, I know. Michael, my mom’s brother, died about two years ago and it’s still just as raw. It just feels like it’s still happening, the moment frozen in time—like he’s still dying. That instant stomach flip whenever his name comes up or his face enters my mind. Every day I spend time trying to recreate the times that were, the bond we had, like piecing together a very old jigsaw puzzle—but as soon as some pieces lock, they disintegrate just as quickly. They say he lives on through the music, his legacy, but for me, that’s just something people say. The truth is, I loved him to death, he literally saved my life, and I can’t call him anymore.

When I was young, my family and Michael’s used to go to Long Beach Island, NJ together in the summers. We would rent houses across the street from each other, and all the kids would play around. Waterskiing, barbeques, movies, beach, stories, minigolf, fishing. I never thought about him as a musician. He was just Uncle Mike--funny, charming, sweet, caring and warm. He always thought that whatever you were doing was amazing. "Wow what an incredible sandcastle!" Even though it was quite ordinary. "What a great hole you dug!" Years later, I’d say I was an assistant at some company, answering phones and doing copies. "You’re really doing it!" He’d say it with such sincerity that is difficult to replicate without sounding like a complete asshole. This, coming from someone with more Grammys than fingers, I don’t know, but it made me feel good. I took up saxophone because of him when I was in the 6th grade, and soon enough he procured me a beautiful black laquer Dave Guardala tenor. I had hoped that it had some inherent power in it, and I could be really good just because of where it came from, but turns out you have to practice like everyone else. It’s in a closet at my parents’ house in Philly.

In college I was taking a jazz history course and figured I would interview Mike and Randy for a paper I was writing. I brought a dictaphone up to Thanksgiving at Michael’s (we had Thanksgiving there every year and still do) and started asking questions. I realized that I’d never really spoken to either of them about their musician lives before. I had been to their concerts, listened to their albums, gone backstage, and the like. What emerged from that interview were countless stories that seemed almost to be about other people, not the uncles that I’d known my whole life. It was kind of like discovering an oil well in your backyard--if you were writing a paper about oil. They told me about how when recording with Parliament/Funkadelic, George Clinton would walk around with a different science fiction hardcover book every day with coke piled on top. It had to be a science fiction book, no other genre would do. They told me stories about what it was like to tour with The Plastic Ono Band (from what I recall, not so enlightening). They dropped out of college to play in NYC with nothing but a hunger and immense talent. First they started the awesome fusion band Dreams, then went on to own and operate the legendary jazz club Seventh Avenue South. They played on Born To Run (on a side note, I was in a meeting with Clarence Clemons recently and when it came up that they were my uncles, he said in that quiet commanding voice of his, “Can I get their autographs?”), and played on studio sessions for numerous big pop and rock acts in the last 20-30 years including The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, James Brown, Steely Dan, James Taylor, and John Lennon. All this, while remaining highly respected and incredibly formidable jazz musicians as well. You usually can’t have it both ways. They did.

During that interview, when I heard this all at once, it almost seemed like they had lived a thousand lives. We went down to Michael’s studio in his basement where he had an immense record collection, and I asked him about some of his favorites. He started to talk about Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Wayne Shorter. At the time, I was listening to Albert Ayler. I asked Mike what he thought of him, and he replied, "I listened to him in High School." Who listens to Albert Ayler in High School? I wish I still had those interview tapes.

Here’s a few tracks that I’ve loved over the years. And here’s to the Brecker Brothers, and to Mike, and to imagining all the good times that could have been.


"15 Miles to Provo" mp3
by Dreams, 1970.
available on Dreams

"Do That Stuff" mp3
by Parliment, 1976.
available on The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein

"Gospel Feeling" mp3
by Weldon Irvine, 1976
available on Sinbad

"Think" mp3
by James Brown, 1973.
available on The CD of JB

"Tenth Avenue Freezeout" mp3
by Bruce Springsteen, 1975.
available on Born to Run

"Tumbleweed" mp3
by Michael Brecker, 2007.
available on Pilgrimage

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gospel Zone

by Jesse Jarnow

There is a story my uncle tells that might be apocryphal, but--knowing my uncle--probably isn't. Sometime in the late '60s, he walked into the MoMA store and saw a spherical white motorcycle helmet, on sale as an art object. He bought one. When he got it home, he says, he felt silly owning a motorcycle helmet without a motorcycle. So he bought a BMW bike.

After all, like Bob Dylan said, "we all like motorcycles to some degree."

I imagine this might have been the case for Dylan himself, when in 1978 he found himself with a full coterie of back-up singers and no gospel to sing. So he found Jesus.

And now it is the case with me, where--as a Dylan fan--I find myself at a stage of my listening where I have a stack of music from Dylan's Jesus years, but no Jesus to believe in. Perhaps that will come eventually. Who's to say? But I'm certainly not going to be saved by three albums and some smoking bootlegs. At least not this holiday season, no matter how many bottoms have fallen out.

But that doesn't mean it's not useful. It's not like I don't believe in Bob Dylan's music. I probably believe in that more than ever, in the primacy of listening to John Wesley Harding when the branches are barest, or New Morning when things are right. Or Blood on the Tracks (or, more often, the New York acetate) when things aren't. Or humming "Moonlight" from "Love & Theft" when walking down an empty street. Or "Not Dark Yet" on a sleepless summer night. Sure, I believe in Bob Dylan, and--like the proverbial injun hunkering down for winter--I believe in using the whole Bob. So why not Jesus? Or, at least, Jesus-Bob?

One way to treat Bob Dylan's music from between 1979 and 1981 is simply as music with a form and a purpose. Like any other gospel music. But that's not really what I want. I want to feel it. The solution is the simplest thing in the world: just treat it like Bob Dylan. His lyrics have always been weird, filled with resonances both intentional and unexpected. The only real difference here is that, during the Christian period, Dylan--as author--offered an overt opinion about their meanings. Surely, as a songwriter, Dylan has always had some idea about what his songs meant to him. Given who he is, these personal, idiosyncratic explanations--maybe not even known to Dylan himself in anything other than the form of the songs themselves--are probably at least as weird as Christianity. If not weirder.

For the listener, the long sermons which proceeded "Solid Rock" in its live outings--see below--are misdirection. Leading the witness, as it were. But thats where Bob was. Ultimately, it's a sturdy f'n song about personal conviction, and that's useful. Sure, the phrase "solid rock" is obviously religious imagery, but that doesn't mean I don't have my own foundation as a modern secularist. If Dylan could leverage the civil rights movement to be a great songwriter, as he has sometimes has claimed, there's no reason why we can't, in return, appropriate his spiritual tunes for our own needs. It's sometimes good to know that you won't let go and can't let go. Best of all is Dylan's performance, both in the studio and live: desperate, raw.

"I Believe In You" scans similarly to me, though less desperate, and actually kinda tender. Really, how is "I believe in you when winter turn to summer/I believe in you when white turn to black" different than any devotional verse about a relationship-in-progress from "Girl From the North Country" or "Shelter From The Storm"? And then, of course, there's "Every Grain of Sand," its placement as literally the last song on the last proper Christian album, 1981's Shot of Love, just as strong as a statement as the song itself. Formally, it is nearly the complete opposite of its foil, "Gotta Serve Somebody," which kicked off 1979's Slow Train Coming with a binary insistence of being either pro-God or, I suppose, pro-Satan. "Every Grain of Sand"--especially in its demo form, with Little Feat's Fred Tackett on guitar--is pretty easy to accept as a Great Dylan Song, all world-weary doubt curled into softness.

There are just straight delightful musical curiosities form the period, too: a live cover of Dion's "Abraham, Martin, and John" (see below) that strips period gaudiness into pure harmony; a sit-in from Michael Bloomfield during Dylan's 12-night run at San Francisco's Warfield Theater in 1980, Bloomfield's spitfire Highway 61-era lines teleported into Dylan's then-new tunes (and Bloomfield only months away from his February 1981 overdose); the unreleased "City of Gold" (later covered by the Dixie Hummingbirds on the fantastic Larry Campbell-produced Diamond Jubilation).

And, on top of that, there's plenty of auxiliary material, too: Paul Williams' sympathetic and human Dylan--What Happened (now collected in Watching the River Flow), which Dylan himself ordered 114 copies of to give to friends to explain his conversion. There is Saved! The Gospel Speeches of Bob Dylan, a pocket-sized collection of Dylan's gospel sermons, edited by Clinton Heylin, published by Hanuman Press. And, for good measure, there's Dylan's appearance with Harry Dean Stanton on a 1989 Chabad telethon. But that's another bag of iconography altogether. In these weird times, it's better just to believe in Bob. And what better way to start?

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah


"Sermon/Intro" mp3
"Solid Rock" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Solid Rock

"I Believe In You" mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Solid Rock

"The Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar" mp3
(with Michael Bloomfield on guitar)
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Warfield Theater, San Francisco 11/15/1980

"Abraham, Martin, and John"
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
from Yonder Comes Sin

"Every Grain of Sand" (demo) mp3
by Bob Dylan, 1980.
available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3 : Rare And Unreleased, 1961-1991

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Minor Fall, The Major Lift

by Paul Abruzzo

A Jewish girl named Jules introduced me to the music of Leonard Cohen. She insisted I meet her father, a law professor, and I agreed because I desperately wanted to make love to her. We went to his apartment one night on the Upper West Side, where he lived alone. The hallways were vast and cold. He was very serious, and bald, and so was the apartment. He wore a large gray sweater that sagged low beneath the arms, like bat’s wings. We sat to dinner; the table was long. He put himself at its head, and Jules and me on one side together near the two long purple candles in the center, leaving the opposite side strangely vacant. The snow was high outside. We had wine. To reassure me—she sensed my nervousness—Jules kept squeezing my upper thigh under the table whenever the bat professor asked me a question.

“Jules tells me you’re Jewish,” he said towards dessert, elbows up on the table.

“Oh, yes,” I responded, “I suppose I am, despite my last name, since my mother is Jewish.” I recalled the only Jewish moment that ever transpired between me and my mother: around the holidays one year she pulled me and my brother aside and said, “This is for Hanukah,” as opposed to the Christmas gifts we’d be getting in few days.

He smiled politely, and nodded. After dinner, he suggested we watch the documentary on the reunion of The Weavers, which concludes with a concert at Carnegie Hall. I’d never heard of The Weavers, but I didn’t want to seem ignorant (one of my great fears, particularly back then), and so when I said that I hadn’t as if I knew not only who The Weavers were, but also of the existence of the film, Jules put her hand to her heart and gasped like the French. The bat got up from the table to find the videotape while we did the dishes. In the living room Jules and I sat together in a deep beige couch as the professor stretched out in a leather recliner after carefully dimming the high hat lights. I of course recognized Pete Seeger, but not the others; I knew the famous Newport story, where he allegedly took an axe to the cables when Dylan came out with Butterfield Blues guys. At the time I was morbidly exclusive in my listening: limited, like a kind of monk, to Pre-Desire Dylan and, for some reason, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, a record I listened to alone in the dark, wallowing in the waves of heady yet sublimely calming emotions it brought on.

During the documentary, when they pushed one of the Weavers in a wheelchair out onto stage at Carnegie I heard some sniffling and looked over at the bald professor and noticed he was weeping. “This is all not really happening,” I said to myself, now keeping my eyes rigidly on the screen. I imagined he was suffering from some great loss or loneliness there in that bare apartment.

“That was really nice,” I lied to Jules on the way back to her place, though I did like the documentary. My head felt oddly cleansed by it. We talked about folk music. I knew some of the people her father had introduced her to, mostly because of my peripheral Dylan research. She was astonished when I mentioned Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton.

“You must love Leonard Cohen,” she said, stopping dead, in the way people do in their twenties while talking about art, again with her hand on the heart.

Somehow, I had a humble moment: “Who’s that?” I asked. She shrieked. Back at her apartment she put on Songs from a Room, the only Lenny record she had, his second, released in 1969. I liked “Bird on the Wire,” the lead track, but when “Story of Isaac” came on I went nuts, and made her play it again and again, listening intently, almost forgetting completely about trying to make love with her. I had just taken an introductory English class, and we’d read the parable of Abraham and Isaac, from Genesis, and I found it unnerving, the way Abraham takes Isaac, his only son, to the mountaintop for sacrifice.

Dylan, of course, parodied the story a few years before Cohen in the first verse of the song “Highway 61 Revisited,” mocking the parable’s depiction of the ease with which Abraham was willing to murder his only son. In Dylan’s wry jibe, Abe obeys God not out of faith, but rather to save his own ass. And Dylan’s God demands the location of the sacrificial altar to be the road running straight through the country:

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin' you better run"

Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"

God says, "Out on Highway 61."

Cohen humanizes both figures, removing them from the field of parable. First, he shifts the narration to Isaac, and then he adds tactile the details of shining blue eyes, and a cold voice.

The door it opened slowly,
my father he came in, I was nine years old.

And he stood so tall above me,

his blue eyes they were shining

and his voice was very cold

In a later verse Isaac turns prophetic. Is he addressing the architects of the Vietnam War? I’m very attached to the morality and psychology in the phrase, “A scheme is not a vision,” and the image evoked in “hatchets blunt and bloody.”

You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,

you must not do it anymore.

A scheme is not a vision

and you never have been tempted

by a demon or a god.

You who stand above them now,

your hatchets blunt and bloody,

you were not there before,

when I lay upon a mountain

and my father's hand was trembling

with the beauty of the word.

Later, I came upon the Wilfred Owen poem “The Parable of the Young Man and the Old,” in which he also retells the story. (Owen was British, killed young in the trenches of WWI; his family received word of his death about a week after the local church bells rang to announce the armistice.) In his version the altar is built of “parapets and trenches,” and when the angel appears to stop Abraham’s sacrificial hand, saying he should offer the ram instead of Isaac, the poem ends:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son
and half the seed of Europe, one by one.

I can't write about Leonard Cohen on a Jewish holiday without bringing up “Hallelujah,” which is about, among other things, the mysterious and spiritually nourishing power of music. Cohen’s reference in the first verse is to a tale from I Samuel [16:23]. The “evil spirit” here is depression, which is, interestingly, described as being God given.


And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.


Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don't really care for music, do you?

It goes like this

The fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The lyrics track and describe the musical changes occurring in the song itself. First, the “secret chord” phrase is delivered right on the introduction of the always-moving A-minor, which is “secret” because of its uncanny emotional effect, how its blueness paradoxically offers us relief from sadness through identification—as in the Bible when “Saul was refreshed.”

Then the chords change exactly with the lyrics describing those very chord changes: “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.” That device is reminiscent, perhaps consciously so on Cohen’s part, of Cole Porter’s great lyric/chord-change correspondence from “Every Time we Say Goodbye,” where the chords change from major to minor with the lyric, on the beat after the word “change."

But how strange the change
From major to minor
Every time we say goodbye

The “strange change” in Porter is not only about the emotional shift itself, but also the inscrutable nature of music’s effects on the emotions, so uncanny that we may as well just use musical description to name the emotions. Relate that to the king’s bafflement in Cohen, to the mystery of music banishing the evil spirit from Saul in the Bible.

A central theme running through this and other Cohen songs, is the faith/sex connection. It's almost as if Cohen is asking, why is it that even atheists invoke God' name during orgasm?

“Night Comes On,” also from 1984’s Various Positions, is a song that is a reassuring chant against fear, with the beautiful refrain, “go back to the world.” Each verse is sort of free-standing, hinging on the power of a few images. The phrasing is subtly packed with feeling: listen, for instance, to the slightly drawn out annunciation in the single word “die” in the following verse.

We were fighting in Egypt
When they signed this agreement

That nobody else had to die

There is great moral simplicity in these lines. War is about people dying. A treaty is signed, and people stop dying. The use of the anonymous ‘they,’ indicates the interchangeability of figures of authority, no matter their ideology or goals.

The last verse is my favorite, for me it evokes a whole way of life.

Now the crickets are singing
The vesper bells ringing

The cat's curled asleep in his chair

I'll go down to Bill's Bar

I can make it that far

And I'll see if my friends are still there

A few years after my brief encounter with Jules, I met a girl named Linda and we fell in love. I was at the time a drowning mess and Linda pulled me out of the water and I came to live with her in her little Village apartment. The sun spread across the floor in the afternoons. She was beautiful and kind and I loved her and I had not been in love for a long time. In the first months we introduced each other to our music. She brought me Al Green, whom I’d of course heard, but hadn’t registered, particularly “Let’s Stay Together,” and “Still in Love with You.”

Linda didn’t deal well with mornings. I’d get up and make the coffee and bring it to her in a large bowl, and kiss her adorable face to wake her up. She’d smile, yet keep her eyes shut against the day, and sit up slowly, like a little flower unfolding. I’d bring her cigarettes and her big fancy glass ash tray shaped like a shell. Her black mutt would jump up on the bed, lie on his side, beckoning for a scratches. She’d smoke, comb her fingers over the dog, and take hits from the coffee.

I’d put on Lenny’s first record, Songs, take the dog out, and then sit on the bed drinking coffee with her. Probably our favorite was “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.” I felt LC was talking in my voice with the line “Your hair upon the pillow / Like a sleepy golden storm,” since Linda’s hair was long, reddish blonde. She fell in love with that record, and I re-fell in love with it. I always think of “The Stranger Song,” though, when I remember those days, about a woman who takes in a drug addict, a man “reaching for the sky just to surrender.” I think the smoke metaphor is genius in the description of her discovery of the track marks on the junkie’s neck.

And while he talks his dreams to sleep
you notice there's a highway

that is curling up like smoke above his shoulder

But the lines that really hit home as I sat on the bed with her were in the chorus:

And then leaning on your window sill
he'll say one day you caused his will

to weaken with your love and warmth and shelter

And then taking from his wallet

an old schedule of trains, he'll say

I told you when I came I was a stranger

I was grateful to be there in her apartment, a home, so unlike the places I’d been living in, but I felt also we weren’t right for each other, that I’d be leaving. Maybe that was just terror: I don’t know. Whatever it was, I knew I was being dishonest in not talking about it, and that is why I avoided looking at Linda during the chorus, as if she might intuit what I was thinking.

The evenings were reserved for Al Green.

One night, in the beginning, Linda and I were on the Upper West Side, in a restaurant, and we ran into a couple she worked for in LA, film people. The introductions went around. We left. She said as we walked down Broadway that I’d really like the guy, the husband, if I got to know him.

“Really?” I asked, “why?”

“Oh, he’s done work on interesting films, films you’d like.”

“Really?” I asked, “like what?”

“Well…,” she said, “he did sound or directed that Weavers documentary. You ever see that?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I did,” keeping the coincidence to myself, remembering the night with Jules and her father in the apartment not far from where we were then walking, “I loved it.”

I left Linda ten Hanukahs ago. On our last fight she sat on the couch, cross-legged, crying. “I’m miserable,” she said. I went to stay with my parents on Long Island for a month or so, until I got on my feet, commuting on the Long Island Railroad—proving, after all, the truth of the old schedule of trains in my wallet.

Then, something very odd happened at the end of last summer. I went to visit my uncle in Buffalo and pictures came out. My cousin had one of Linda, and one of me and Linda. I had no pictures of her myself: five years living together and not one picture. I asked to have them. When I got back to the guest room I took them out, entranced. I put them on the night table, and turned the light on and off twice to look at them after I got into bed, each time feeling like I was looking at a bit of life that could only possibly have been mine. “Who was this woman?” I thought, and “Who was I?” and “Whatever happened?” When I came home to New York I put the pictures away, but then, like a drug addict unable to have just a bit, took them out again and looked and looked, going over bits and pieces of the relationship. Lenny in the morning, Al Green at night. I also ran over in my mind all the time I spent trying to get her back, obsessing over her, long after I’d left.

That day I got back from Buffalo I called my girlfriend, Stefanie. We’d been together for about three months. It was the first time I was having strong feelings for a woman since Linda. I met Stefanie and we had a picnic on the west side, on the river. We played Scrabble, which Linda loved too, a game I find unpleasant due to the feelings which accompany the possibility that I’m not seeing or thinking of something that’s obvious. The relationship hadn’t been going well—we could both feel it—and I was tired from my trip, and cranky. When we got up to go, and started walking on the esplanade, out of nowhere she started singing the Al Green song, “Let’s Stay Together.” Stefanie never sang out loud like that—she’s not the type—and she’d never once mentioned Al Green. I didn’t make any connections, but a déjà vu kind of feeling shot through me.

Then it got spooky, I realized only in retrospect, when she said, after I looked over at her, “I don’t know why I’m singing that.”

That was our last time together. It didn’t strike me until later, after we broke up, just what song she’d been singing, the weirdness of it, in light of my just having pored over the pictures of Linda, and thinking so much about her. It was as if Stefanie had become a conduit for a communiqué from God, like the baffled king. Not that I can pretend to know what the message was exactly (a coy, ironic reminder not to hold on?). All I know is how utterly enchanted I was by the strange mystery of the whole thing.

Lifted, like Saul. Refreshed.


"Story of Issac" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1969.
available on Songs from a Room

"Hallelujah" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1984.
available on Various Positions

"Night Comes On" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1984.
available on Various Positions

"Stranger Song" mp3
by Leonard Cohen, 1967.
available on Songs of Leonard Cohen


"Hallelujah" mp3
by Jeff Buckley, 1994.
available on Grace

"Hallelujah" mp3
by John Cale, 1992.
available on Fragments of a Rainy Season

Painting: Saul and David, 1655-60 by Rembrandt.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Hey! Juden

by Ben Greenman

What do you call a fact that you know but constantly forget? There are facts like this. It's almost as though they are covered with a substance that makes it impossible to hold on to them, some kind of epistemological no-stick coating. Each person probably has facts that function this way on an individual basis: maybe it's your mother's birthday or where your niece is going to college or the actual job title your sister has now, after her promotion from whatever her job title used to be. Universal Teflon Facts are rarer, but there is at least one: there are Jewish Beatle kids.

To be more precise, there are four Jewish Beatle kids. Their names are Heather, Mary, Stella, and James. They are Jewish, by Jewish law, because Paul McCartney, the blood father of Mary, Stella, and James – and the adoptive father of Heather – married Linda Louise Eastman. Linda was Jewish. This very short sentence may require repeated applications, not because it is so outlandish, but because Linda's Jewishness seems to have been almost entirely overlooked in most accounts of the Beatles. Linda was not especially religious, but she was especially Jewish. Her father, the entertainment lawyer Lee Eastman, was born Leopold Epstein. Her mother, Louise Sara Lindner Eastman, was an heiress to the Lindner department store fortune. Paul McCartney married a Jewish woman. Paul McCartney's children are Jewish. Read it again. While plenty of members of the Beatles circle were Jewish—Brian Epstein and Sid Bernstein, for starters—none of them was married to a Beatle. The relatively narrow document "Jews and the Beatles" mentions Linda, but only briefly. Stella McCartney, who is now a famous clothing designer, has discussed her religion: "My Mum was Jewish. Maybe I'm a really bad Jew because I'm always so excited to say that I am , but I don't live and breathe the religion." The other McCartneys have not, at least publicly.

Linda was not just a Jewish woman, of course. She was a devoted mother and a loving (and beloved) partner. She was also a recording artist of rare distinction. Her recorded legacy, collected on the 1992 album Wild Prairie, is one of the most powerful monuments of romantic love, right up there with the Taj Mahal. Listen to it for a minute and you'll hear why: without love, there's simply no way these recordings would exist. They would have been erased and then erased again, just to be sure that they were gone. Calling them terrible is an insult to terrible things. Listening to Linda proceed tunelessly through "Endless Days" (she "sings" the "song" the way that Ken Lay "protected employees" or Ryan Leaf "quarterbacked") is an experience to be treasured, if by treasured you mean buried in a chest by pirates. She makes the Shaggs look like Mozart, each and every one of them. She records the Coasters' immortal "Poison Ivy" and, well, let's just say it's not immortal anymore.

This doesn't mean that Linda was a bad person, of course. By all accounts she was a wonderful one. It doesn't even mean she was a cosseted billionaire: the recordings weren't released during her lifetime, and putting them out after her death was hardly the most irrational thing that Paul McCartney did in his attempt to deal with his bottomless grief (cf. marrying Heather Effing Mills). It just means that she was an abysmally bad singer with no real sense of melody and rhythm, no pleasing tone, no nothing. Lots of us are horrendous singers. And yet, on an album full of abysmal songs, one stands out as even more preposterous than the rest. In 1973, Paul and Linda found themselves in Lagos, Nigeria, working on the new Wings new album. The sessions were highly collaborative and communal. James Coburn dropped by! Linda brought a song named "Oriental Nightfish." She sang lead and played piano. Paul added guitar, bass, drums, and Mellotron. The always-helpful Denny Lane pitched in on flute.

"Oriental Nightfish" is not much to speak of. It's a trifle, and a trifle odd, one of those songs that people say is "ahead of its time" because five or six years later better musicians and better singers would attempt better things that sound vaguely similar if you don't pay attention. In fact, it is behind its time, because it--like the rest of this record--would have been better served by a world without recording equipment. The plot involves Linda's glimpsing of a wonderfully strange creature. There are lyrics that she recites more than sings (this is what is known as a small favor) and I have reprinted them below in their entirety:

It was a Thursday night
I was working late
When I first caught sight
Of the Oriental nightfish

The colors were swirling
The room was getting hotter
I couldn't see anything

Emerald, blue, purple, red
I was working late
It was a Thursday night
When I first caught sight
Of the Oriental nightfish fish fish fish fish
Nightfish (fish fish fish fish)

Linda's husband, who was in the Beatles for a time, wrote some pretty senseless lyrics in his time, from "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" to "Spies Like Us" "Biker Like an Icon." Still, it is not possible that he saw any merit in "Oriental Nightfish." Despite that, Paul and Linda, along with the animator Ian Emes, even made a highly trippy short film based on the song in 1978 (it is available on YouTube and has about as much merit as the recording, though with just enough animated nudity to keep viewers awake). Some people have suggested that it's a savage swipe at Yoko Ono. Those people are giving it too much credit. In light of Linda's heritage, in light of Hanukah, I give you, the world, a special gift in the form of permission to retitle this song in your minds. From henceforth it shall be known as "Oriental Whitefish."


"Oriental Nightfish" mp3
by Linda McCartney, 1973.
available on Wide Prairie

"Poison Ivy" mp3
by Linda McCartney, 1973.
available on Wide Prairie

"Endless Days" mp3
by Linda McCartney, 1973.
available on Wide Prairie

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Dictators

by Andy Schwartz

Twenty-eight years after their debut album Go Girl Crazy! (with its gleeful confession that "We knocked 'em dead in Dallas/They didn't know we were Jews!") and twenty-two years after their initial breakup, the Dictators made the Number One record of 2001.

Correction: The Number One record of 2001 in my mind.

Because the first time I played this Norton seven-incher and every single time thereafter (i.e. a great many times -- just ask my wife), "Who Will Save Rock & Roll" has never failed to deliver the hair-raising, flag-waving, Charge-of-the-Rock-Brigade thrill of real-life Number One records from "Hound Dog" and "La Bamba" to "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit." In this 2:59 epic, 'Taters tunesmith Andy "Adny" Shernoff simultaneously mourns the r&r past ("I saw the Stooges, covered with bruises," "Murray the K is not here today," etc.) and yanks it back to joyous, vivid life. His proudly, hilariously retrograde message is embodied by one of Handsome Dick Manitoba's most tuneful and expressive vocals on wax, the rolling thunder of drummer J.P. Patterson, and a Ross The Boss guitar solo that trash-compacts entire eras of electric axe heroism into two choruses.

The follow-up single, "Down on Avenue A" (Norton, 2001), wasn't quite the same maximum thrill machine. With a tip o' the hat to Dictators guitarist Scott "Top Ten" Kempner, think of it as a Top Ten entry rather than an undeniable Number One. On this minor-key Shernoff song, the mood shifts from defiance to poignance as the narrative rides successive waves of East Village counter-culture until crashing, finally, upon the unforgiving rocks of gentrification: "Yeah, it's all over when you see a Range Rover/And to my bodega, I say hasta luega/It's not what you do, it's what you say/And it's not who you know, it's who you pay/Down on Avenue A..."

Adny, mein lantzman, you're a genius.
Dictators Forever -- Forever Dictators!


"Who Will Save Rock & Roll" mp3
by The Dictators, 2001.
available on D.F.F.D.

"Down on Avenue A" mp3
by The Dictators, 2001.
available on D.F.F.D.