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Saturday, June 28, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song That Reminds You of Your Boyfriend/Girlfriend (if you don't have one, make one up)

The official prompt for today asks for "a song that reminds you of your boyfriend/girlfriend" but also hilariously includes the parenthetical stipulation "(if you don't have one, make one up)".  Let's all just take a second to guffaw out loud at that one.

I don't currently have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but I've had both many times and for various durations in the past, which (curiously enough) doesn't make it any harder or easier to imagine the right song selection for today.  My guess is that today's prompt would be equally difficult for the committed and the uncommitted.  That is to say, if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, then you're obligated to choose a song that reminds you of him or her as they actually are, warts and all, which could make for a very delicate selection.  And if you don't have a girlfriend/boyfriend, then you're likely inclined to choose a song that might remind you of some perfect person to whom you imagine yourself committed, but who is probably impossible to realize in a real person, as fantasies always are, making your selection either moot or childishly naive. So, the best that I am able, I'm going to try to walk the tightrope of that divide with my choice today.

Full disclosure: I chose this song for Day 5 ("A Song That Reminds You of Someone") in the first round of the 30 Day Song Challenge that I did in 2011.  You can read my whole account of that story here, but the long and short of it is that I said this song reminds me of the way my father is reminded of my mother.  I won't recount the whole thing again; I'll just say that I don't think this is the most traditionally "romantic" or ideal or fantastical song to capture whatever it is that love feels (or ought to feel) like, but I do think it's real, and really poignant, and really honest, and a whole host of other things that, for better or worse, I'd hope reminded me of the person I loved n real life.

My song pick for today is Billy Joel's "She's Always A Woman," performed live here:



Never before in the three years that I've been doing the 30 Day Song Challenge have I reprinted the lyrics to one of my song selections in their entirety... but for today, I will, and I will have nothing else to add.

She can kill with a smile / She can wound with her eyes 
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies 
And she only reveals what she wants you to see 
She hides like a child / but she's always a woman to me 

She can lead you to love / She can take you or leave you 
She can ask for the truth / But she'll never believe you
And she'll take what you give her as long as it's free 
Yeah, she steals like a thief / but she's always a woman to me 

Oh, she takes care of herself 
She can wait if she wants / She's ahead of her time 
Oh, and she never gives out / And she never gives in 
She just changes her mind 

She will promise you more than the Garden of Eden 
Then she'll carelessly cut you and laugh while you're bleedin' 
But she'll bring out the best and the worst you can be 
Blame it all on yourself  'cause she's always a woman to me 

Oh, she takes care of herself 
She can wait if she wants / She's ahead of her time 
Oh, and she never gives out / And she never gives in 
She just changes her mind 

She is frequently kind / And she's suddenly cruel 
She can do as she pleases / She's nobody's fool 
But she can't be convicted / She's earned her degree 
And the most she will do Is throw shadows at you 
But she's always a woman to me

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Friday, June 27, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song You Make Fun Of

I'm just going to go ahead and concede that I am also guilty of all the things I make fun of in this post.

My pick for today is the song that everyone loves to ridicule while also acting ridiculous.  I don't know if there is an official organization for professional wedding/reunion/conference DJ's-- if not, there should be, 'cause y'all have nothing to lose but your chains, yo!-- but if there is such an organization, I am 100% confident that one of its by-laws must include a requirement that all members play that funky music at every event.  And I'm not talking about any old funky music, of course.  I'm talking about THAT funky music.

You know what I'm talking about, white boy.

If you've ever been to a wedding, a reunion, a conference reception, a dance party-- hell, if you've ever stuck around to hear a dive-bar band play past midnight-- you have most certainly heard the one-hit wonder by the (otherwise faded-into-obscurity) American funk-rock band Wild Cherry, "Play That Funky Music."  Among its many, even if highly questionable, virtues is that "Play That Funky Music" was released near the tail-end of the Disco Era in 1976 and (at least according to Wikipedia) represents one of the last impassioned cries by bell-bottomed, tassel-vested, funk-loving people that we DO NOT LET DISCO DIE.  The 80's came and went, of course, and in the course of that decade disco took a pretty mean beating by punk and hard rock and new wave... but disco didn't die.  Thankfully.  That's due in large part to the feisty resilience of disco's constitutive parts-- funk, soul, Latin and psychadelic music--  none of which have ever laid down for nobody, but more so due to the fact that disco is and has always been about dancing, about night life and club life, not to mention also about sin and sex and drugs and loving to love you, baby.

It's hard not to make fun of "Play That Funky Music" when you hear it, even as you wallow in the pleasure of it like a pig in shit.  Just go ahead and try not to dig this shit:



I'm not gonna even pretend that it isn't the case that one of the things I love most about this song is that, when played live, it somehow convinces every single white boy, regardless of how little rhythm or groove he has, to lay down and boogie when he hears this song.  C'mon really, is there anything more satisfying to make fun of than a white boy who isn't funky, but who is FEELING IT and, what is more, who is being called to feel it in the very lyrics of the song?!  There's something adorably pathetic about that whole spectacle, kind of like the audition rounds on American Idol, that just makes you point and laugh and at the same time say "awww, poor baby, you go on and GO with your bad self."

So, in the future, just when it hits you, when somebody turns around and says play that funky music, white boy!, remember that you can ridicule all you want, we all do it... just as long as you also lay down and boogie and play that funky music so disco never dies.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song By Your Favorite Band

My choice for a favorite band will come as no surprise to readers of this blog.  I'm an unapologetic, unrepentant, unreserved and incorrigible Rolling Stones fan, through and through.  I wrote a longish post here on this blog a few years ago about my love for the Stones (for a contest sponsored by No Depression magazine) entitled "Why Exile On Main Street Gets My Rocks Off."  And in the two previous years that I've done this 30 Day Song Challenge, the Rolling Stones have showed a number of times, including for the categories of my favorite song, for a song from my favorite band and for a song you want played at your funeral.   With some slight modifications in the prompts, I could easily do a 30 Day Song Challenge just using songs by the Rolling Stones.  (For the record, I think I could also do 30 days of Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Emmylou HarrisJohnny Cash, Aretha Franklin and maybe also Etta James.) I won't rehearse again here all that I've said about the Stones before, but suffice it to say that they are about as close to a perfect band that I know.  They are the loud and messy roux-- that thickening combination of country, blues, folk and gospel-- that makes rock n' roll taste so sinfully delicious.

Since I've picked Stones' songs so many times before on this blog, I thought I'd go for one of their more obscure and under-appreciated tracks for today's selection.  It's a track off of my favorite Stones album, Beggar's Banquet-- also, and not un-coincidentally, the most Memphis-sounding of their albums-- recorded in 1968 at Olympic Studios.  This is a winning album from start to finish, but I have a particular fondness for Track 3, "Dear Doctor," a hilarious account by a fully-soused and reluctant groom, attempting his best to leave his bride-to-be (who he describes as a "four-legged sow") at the altar.  Be ye not afraid, though, it all works out in the end:



Just two quick things that I particularly love about this song.  First, the opening line: Oh help me, please Doctor, I'm damaged / There's a pain where there once was a heart.  Such a great lyric, made even more fantastic when one discovers the utter INsincerity with which it is being delivered.  And, second, the fact that the song ends, musically, on an unresolved chord, just as it does lyrically.

Genius.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 25: An Acoustic Song You Love

At this point in my life, I've been playing guitar for about twenty years.  I never had a lesson and I'm not what you would call a very good guitarist, but my skills have been passable-enough to make do in several bar bands and around many a campfire over the years. I got my first guitar at age 19 in a trade for rent money from one of my roommates.  There were nine people living in our large and largely-unkempt house in Boston then, in the early-90's, five of whom were members of a local band, no kidding, called "Bob." So, when one of the guys couldn't make rent one month and offered to give me his old acoustic guitar if I'd cover his part, it seemed as good an opportunity as I'd ever have to try to learn an instrument.  I used to take my guitar down into our basement, where Bob practiced, and just watch them play for hours... then, I'd climb back up the stairs, sit in my room, try to mimic what I saw the guys doing, and (in the words of Bryan Adams) play until my fingers bled.  I only lived in that house with Bob for about a year, but that was enough time for me to learn the 6 or 7 chords necessary to play country, blues and rock n' roll.

Without a doubt, that was the best $85 I spent in my entire life.

It wasn't until many years later that I began writing songs myself and, more generally, feeling comfortable taking some creative liberties with the songs I played.  That's when playing the guitar became really fun, not to mention also therapeutic, and when I probably developed the most as a player.  Still, as anyone who plays an instrument knows, there are also times that one's skill-level kind of plateaus, when you find yourself just playing what you know over and over and over.  Those can be long-lasting and frustrating intervals, when you feel like you're in a rut, like there's nothing new or interesting about your instrument anymore.  And that is a miserable feeling.

About six years ago, I was in one of those ruts when Beyonce Knowles' B'Day album came out. One of the hit singles off of that album was "Irreplaceable," and everybody everywhere was letting you know the box you own was "to the left, to the left."  Anyway, I found myself sitting around in the living room with some of guitar-playing friends and "Irreplaceable" came on the stereo and I thought to myself: that's a pretty straightforward song, and it begins with a guitar strum... I wonder if I could play it?  So, I did. And, in doing so, I climbed out of my miserable guitar-playing rut.

Since then, I've discovered that one of my favorite things to do with a guitar is to play acoustic versions of whatever is on the radio.  The less "acoustic" the original song, the more I like to do it acoustically.  As it turns out, Queen Bey herself also thought that "Irreplaceable" was a pretty good contender for acoustic performance.  Here she is, irreplaceable and unplugged:



For the record, my second favorite non-acoustic song to play acoustically is Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."  I kill that one, f'real.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 24: A Cover Song

As anyone who has ever played in a band knows, performing cover songs can be a very tricky business.  Most of the time, you want your performance of a cover song to stick close enough to the original that it remains recognizable to your audience-- I mean, that's why you chose to play it, presumably because it's a great song that people want to hear-- but you don't want to play so close to the original that you appear to be copycatting.  Departing from the original in small or large ways, although necessary, is really a sink-or-swim venture.  If you sink, the audience will turn their noses up and huff and think that you "ruined" a classic.  If you swim, they'll be reminded again of why they love that song on the radio and think how great it is to hear live.  But if you really nail it, you just might capture the Holy Grail of cover song performance, i.e., you just might achieve the Better Than The Original (henceforth, BTTO) designation.

The BTTO category is occupied by very few cover versions of great songs, in my opinion, and the contenders for inclusion in that category are passionately argued for and against by music lovers everywhere.  I've heard really good, though ultimately unconvincing, cases made for the White Stripes' "Jolene" (originally a Dolly Parton song), Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" (originally a Leonard Cohen song), Grace Potter & the Nocturnals' "White Rabbit" (originally a Jefferson Airplane song), Bon Iver's "I Can't Make You Love Me" (orginally a Bonnie Raitt song), Nirvana's "The Man Who Sold the World" (originally a David Bowie song) and, of course, the two covers widely considered to be noncontroversial inclusions in the BTTO category:  Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" (originally Dolly Parton) and Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" (orginally Bob Dylan).

I had a hard time making my pick for today.  It basically came down to two contenders.  The one I didn't choose was Three Dog Night's version of "Try A Little Tenderness", mostly because it would take me too long to make the case for any Otis Redding cover being BTTO.  (I still think Three Dog Night managed to pull it off, though!)  Instead, I'm going with Johnny Cash's cover of Three Inch Nails' song "Hurt."  You can listen to the original here, and below is JC's version:



"Hurt" was one of Johnny Cash's last recordings before he died, and you can hear the wear and tear of many years of hard living on this track.  He's an old and lonely man, his body and his voice are failing him, but there's an undeniably rich fount of wisdom in his weakness.  Perhaps that has something to do with my affection for this song, but no more than the absolutely brilliants orchestration and performance by The Man in Black.  One of the markers of a great cover is when the performer can make the song sound as if he or she wrote it originally.  In Cash's many covers of gospel tunes, I've always thought he was a genius at doing that, making them sound like the words were his.  His version of "Hurt" sounds exactly like that, too.  

I recognize that it's more than a little ironic that my pick for my favorite cover song today is a song by Johnny Cash, probably one of the most frequently covered musicians in the history of country and rock n' roll.  But that seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of Johnny Cash and the relationship he had to "roots" music, the music of folk, of poor people and suffering people and people looking for some beauty in this world.  All our songs are variations on pain and triumph, love and heartache, sin and glory.  We humans are just the mouthpieces for those stories.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Monday, June 23, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 23: A Song That Makes You Angry

If you judged only by the tone of our public discourse, you'd have good reason to conclude that we're a very angry country.  According to a recent study by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine, America is feeling much more pluribus than unum these days.  A different study (by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press) confirmed the same, claiming that "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines-- and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive-- than at any point in the last two decades."  There are many causes to which one could point in explaining this deep and extensive antipathy, some of them known, some of them unknown, many of them occupying the curious Rumsfeldian categories of "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns."  People are angry for different, often opposing, reasons, but what they seem to hold in common is a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.  If it's true that misery loves company, America may be the easiest country in the world to find a companion right now.

Not to oversimplify things, but I think there are basically two types of angry Americans: (1) the type represented by and in Toby Keith's song "The Angry American" and (2) the type who are angered by the type represented in (1).  You can count me among the folks in Category 2.  This song was written shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, released a few months later in May 2002, and it definitely captured a particular variety of American anger that resonated with a lot of people attempting to deal with the new-- unpredictable, precarious and perilous-- world we found ourselves in post-9/11.  According to Keith, the song was meant to memorialize his recently-passed father's patriotism and to lift the morale of American military troops.  It was immediately controversial and continues, I think, to represent a characteristic divide in American political sensibilities.

The official title of the song is "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."  Unfortunately, the "courtesy" in the title refers to, among other aggressions, getting "a boot in your ass, the American way."  Here's the song:



This song makes me angry as an American, because what it represents is exactly the opposite of what I think should be celebrated about our country.  It's hostile, militaristic, imperialist, unsympathetic, naively nationalistic, full of hubris and blind to the consequences of its aggression.  It makes me angry to hear it and it makes me angry to think that my fellow citizens would concede to being represented that way.

I'm with the Dixie Chicks on this matter, whose response to Toby Keith and his song expressed an anger that I can call my own.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song That Would Be The Theme Song To A TV Show About Your Life

That painting to your left is probably my favorite piece of 20thC art.  It's "Sugar Shack" by African-American painter (and former NFL defensive tackle) Ernie Barnes. Barnes once described this painting in an interview as illustrating how dance "utilizes rhythm as a way of resolving physical tension."  I've always appreciated that description of dance, and I've always thought the elongated forms and implied movement of his painting captured it perfectly.  In 1976, Marvin Gaye asked Barnes if he could use the painting as the cover for his album I Want You, lending the painting and Barnes international exposure.

Interestingly, "Sugar Shack" was also featured in the credits of the 1970's television series Good Times, which is how I came to first know the painting.  Good Times, like most 70's sitcoms, had an excellent theme song, which I also happen to use as the ringtone for my wake-up alarm.  Whatever happened to all the good television theme songs, anyway?  Maybe everyone thinks this, but I think a very good case can me made for my childhood years (the 70's and 80's) being the Golden Age for great TV theme songs.  Remember The Greatest American Hero, The Jeffersons, The Facts of Life, Cheers, Diff'rent Strokes, Gimme A Break, The Brady Bunch?  Theme songs had been around since the beginning of television, of course, but they were really perfected in the television of those two decades.  Then, it seems like people just gave up on theme songs sometime in the late 80's.  Weird.

Anyway, if I had to pick a song to be the theme song to a TV show about my life, it would be the theme song from Good Times.  Here it is:



Not getting hassled.  Not getting hustled.  Keeping your head above water.  Making a wave when you can.

Yeah, that about sums it up.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song You Want To Dance To At Your Wedding

I’m not married, I've never been married, and I have no plans to ever be married. That said, I am a female born and raised in the American South, so to pretend as if I've never imagined what song I’d like to dance to at my wedding would be thoroughly disingenuous. Girls in the South are raised to devote as much time and energy thinking about their weddings as our cavewomen forbears devoted to thinking about the procurement of food and shelter. Funny, now that I think about it, I probably have more in common with the cavewomen than I do with my fellow Southern belles. I mean, I legitimately have spent way more time in my life thinking about the procurement of food and shelter than I have thinking about my (NEVAHGONNAHAPPEN) wedding.

I've mentioned a few times before on this blog the many and varied problems I have with the institution of marriage. To sum up: I have no problem whatsoever with people falling in love with whatever other consenting adult they fall in love with, nor do I have any problem whatsoever with those people ceremoniously sanctifying or celebrating that love in front of their friends, family, God, the Justice of the Peace or anyone else, and eating expensive cake and collecting a bounty of gifts and employing under-talented but earnest and hardworking DJ’s or wedding bands in the process. And I’m no libertarian, but if people want/need a piece of paper that more or less legally obliges them to be faithful, and they’re willing to pony up half of their earnings to get it, that’s fine with me, too.

 Oh, and I also genuinely do believe in true love.

My problem, as I've said many times before, is only with the institution of marriage—sanctioned, supported and endorsed by the State-- which accords more than a thousand unearned political, social and economic privileges to married couples that it denies to single people and unmarried couples. According to the last U.S. Census, more than half of taxpaying adults in this country are not married. Just for the record, the last time we realized that we were unjustifiably denying rights and benefits to that large a segment of the population, we amended the Constitution.

[Stepping down offa the soapbox now.]

Here’s the song I’d love to dance to at my wedding: “I’ll Take Care of You.”  It was written and first recorded by J.D. Souther, then made popular when the  Dixie Chicks covered it and included it on their hit album Wide Open Spaces.  Both versions are beautiful, but I'm including Souther's version today, because it has a sweetness to it that I think gets lost a little in the Dixie Chicks' rendition.



There’s something fundamentally raw and honest and real about this song that I've always loved, but also that I've always associated with “real” love (s’ily en a). Should I ever get married—again, for the record, NEVAHGONNAHAPPEN—the thing I’d want to know most from my partner is that he or she will take care of me when times are hard, when people talk about us or call us funny things, when I might not see him or her, when I rise with crying eyes, when the laughter dies away. And then there's that line by Souther: I don’t care as long as you know I love you, and you know I do. That’s all two people who love each other should ever need or want to hear.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Friday, June 20, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 20: A Song From A New Album You Are Waiting For To Come Out

I promise that I copied today's completely bizarro prompt word for word from the 30 Day Song Challenge list. Putting aside for the moment the absolutely horrendous grammar ("you are waiting for to come out"?), I still can't make heads or tails of this prompt. I suppose I could name not-yet-released albums that I am looking forward to being released, or individual songs from artists who I'd like to see release another album, but how am I supposed to name a song from an album that hasn't come out yet?

See: Nick Cage, left.

So, I'm taking today as a "free" day.and just picking whatever song I want.  That's lucky for you, readers, because today's pick combines not only one of my most favorite Heartbreaker Songs of all time and two of the baddest women ever to pour their souls out into a microphone, but also a pretty decent movie recommendation as well.  (It's a four-fer!)  But first, a question: have you ever seen anything so awful, so gut-wrenching, so unbearably painful to watch that it would compel you to say "I'd rather go blind than to see that again"?  I'm not talking about that Creed video or when Marco Rubio literally choked his SOTU response or whatever you want to call this.  Yes, those are hard to watch, but not so hard that you'd give up a chance to lay eyes on the beauty of sunrises and sunsets, the wonder of a baby's first smile, the awe-inspiring immensity of the Universe sent back in images from the Hubble Telescope.  Sight is a magnificent sense.  You wouldn't give it up for just any old thing.

Unless, that is, you had to watch your love walk away from you.

That's the story of the song "I'd Rather Go Blind," co-written and recorded by Etta James.  In James' autobiography Rage to Survive, she says she first heard an unfinished version of the song by her friend Ellington Jordan when she visited him in prison.  She later wrote the rest of the song with Jordan, but for tax reasons gave her songwriting credit to her partner at the time, Billy Foster. This song really is about nothing but cold, raw, unrelenting heartbreak, and it's made all the more poignant by James' recounting of the mise-en-scène in which she is suffering it:  I was just sitting here thinking of your kiss and your warm embrace / When the reflection in the glass that I held to my lips / Revealed the tears that was on my face. Anyone who's ever had a drink alone and who, in that moment, was given reason to recall the reason why she was drinking alone, knows how gut-wrenching a moment like that can be.  Here's Etta James' version of the song:



A few years ago, one of my dreams came true on the big screen when Beyoncé Knowles was cast to play Etta James in the movie Cadillac Records, which tells the story of the Chicago-based music label Chess Records and the artists that label made into stars. I'll go ahead and admit that the movie isn't great, but it's got great music and it's got Queen Bey and it's about one of the more important music labels (next to Motown and Stax) in the history of R&B, so you should watch it.  One of the best scenes in the film was the one in which Beyoncé sings "I'd Rather Go Blind."  Hers is exactly the right sort of balance that a cover song should have, enough like the original to pay the appropriate homage, but not a flat-out impersonation.  Beyoncé adds just enough Beyoncé to make her rendition my second-most-favorite recorded versions of this song.  Here it is:



I guess I should say #sorrynotsorry for the rule-break today, but I really didn't know what to do with the prompt.  I'll get back in side the box tomorrow, I promise.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song You're Currently Obsessed With

Fair warning: there's a LONG and semi-complicated backstory to my current obsession with today's song selection, so I need to beg your forbearance in advance, dear readers.  For fans of Memphis music, I can promise you won't be disappointed, as this may be one of the most interesting music stories you've heard in a while.  For the rest of you... well, first, WHO ARE YOU?!...  and, second, my general life-advice is that you should enroll yourself in the category "Fans of Memphis Music" post haste (then go back and read the previous sentence).  If you're unwilling to do that, you should probably just scroll down to the video and skip the rest of this.

First things first: my song selection for today is the R&B classic "Mustang Sally." It was originally recorded by (the truly, criminally under-appreciated) Sir Mack Rice in 1965 and made popular by Wilson Pickett when Pickett released it as a single and included it on his album The Wicked Pickett a year later.  "Mustang Sally" is a staple song for most bar-bands everywhere in the United States, but it's practically a requirement for bar-bands in Memphis and the surrounding Delta.  I think you'd be hard-pressed south of the Mason-Dixon line, and most places north and west of it,  to find anyone who doesn't know the song and, what is more, doesn't also know how and when to sing along to the audience-response part that makes it an enduring favorite: Riiiiide, Sally, Ride.  (Random, unrelated, awesome anecdote that I couldn't figure out any other way to incorporate except as a parenthetical statement here: the first and only time I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, I jumped with a skydiving-cameraman.  After I landed safely on the ground and they asked me what music I wanted for the soundtrack to the video of my jump, I chose "Mustang Sally.")  According to Rolling Stone, Pickett's version of "Mustang Sally" almost literally ended up on the studio floor. As the legend goes, after Pickett finished his final take of the song at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, the tape flew off the reel unexpectedly and broke into pieces on the floor.  Pickett's session engineer, the genius Tom Dowd, cleared the room and told everyone to come back in half an hour.  In that time, Dowd managed to piece the tape back together and saved what became one of the most famous recordings of the 60's.

And that story of Pickett and Dowd is not even the interesting backstory I want to tell you about "Mustang Sally."

As a lover of music, a musician and also a Memphian, I'd make a ballpark-guess that I've heard "Mustang Sally" more than 5,000 times in my life.  (My first draft of this post said "10,000 times" but a friend suggested that I might be exaggerating.  Fwiw, I don't think so.) Several years ago, I noticed that the way the song is played live in Memphis, that is, by Memphis musicians, is noticeably different than the way it is played anywhere else I've heard it played live and, what is perhaps even more peculiar, noticeably different than any recorded version of the song.  Just for the record, I didn't have any kind of eureka! moment when I realized this.  Rather, it was a slowly, steadily-accumulating set of aggregate experiences, of hearing this song over and over and over, played by countless different bands in a multitude of different locations and in many different cities-- Nashville, Boston, Lexington, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, State College, Chicago, Eugene, Little Rock, New Orleans, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Houston, New York City, Miami, etc. (a non-exhaustive list of all the places that I've actually heard "Mustang Sally" played live)-- that eventually coalesced into something that might generically resemble a "realization."

In fact, the very first time I said out loud what I had been long suspecting was only last summer.  I was participating as a faculty member in the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies, a summer research program at Rhodes College, during which the first week is spent giving student Research Fellows a week-long, 8-hours-a-day "crash-course" in Memphis history and culture.  I had the very good fortune that year of having Charles Hughes (a bona fide expert in Memphis and Delta music, as well as country, soul and R&B) and Hamlett Dobbins (a native Memphian, Rome Prize-winning artist and music-lover) as my colleagues.  One day, in the van with Charles and Hamlett on our way to take the students to the Stax Museum, I somewhat off-handedly mentioned to them my (still-unrefined) hypothesis that Memphis musicians have a unique version of "Mustang Sally" that is different than the way that song is played anywhere else.  Not having a live Memphis band right there with me in the van to serve as confirmation, I basically had to resort to singing/humming/vocally-approximating for my colleagues what I saw as the difference between "Mustang Sally" as everyone knows it and "Mustang Sally" as it's played in Memphis.  I could tell that they were suspicious of my speculation at first but, thankfully, my (yeah, I'm going to call it) expert performance of the difference was immediately recognizable to them, and they acknowledged straightaway the difference to which I was referring. Charles Hughes, who knows more about Memphis and Delta music than anyone I've ever met in my life, had a few impromptu speculations about my intuition, but asked me if I knew why it was the case that there was a uniquely "Memphis" version of "Mustang Sally"...  and I was like, HIIK bro, I was kinda hoping you knew.

Before I go on any further, here is Pickett's version of the song.  This video is not the official "recorded" version of the song; it's a live performance (which is awesome and which you should watch because Pickett was a consummate performer). You'll see that his live version doesn't depart in any fundamentally structural way from the recorded version that we all know.  It's a hair faster in tempo, but otherwise unaltered from the studio.  We'll use this as our "control" case in the following:



But that is not how "Mustang Sally" sounds in Memphis.

Obviously, you've got to hear the Memphis-version of "Mustang Sally" to really get why I'm obsessed with this song, so I've got a few examples.  The difference is subtle and it comes at the transition from the chorus back into the verse.  In this first example below, performed by my very good friend Chris McDaniel, the part that you need to listen for (and which distinguishes "Memphis Mustang Sally" from the regular version) happens for the first time at 0:40-0:48, then again at 1:24-1:32, and so on.



Here's the "Memphis" version again, this time by the Beale Street All-Star Band, fronted by one of the hardest working musicians in town, the inimitable Carl Jones.



If one time is an accident, two times is a coincidence.  But three or more times is definitely a pattern.  So, here's one more for good measure, this time from The Juke Joint All Stars.



In sum, the difference you're hearing is something like this:  in the transition from the chorus back to the verse, the "Memphis version" has two staccato punch-chords (often further-punctuated with horns, or the keyboard version of horns), followed by a walk-up back to the C.  If you're from Memphis, like me, and you're accustomed to hearing the song played this way, like I am, then hearing the traditional version sounds strange.  I've often caught myself off-beat when I hear the song in other cities, having been thrown off my groove by the missing transition.  But the craziest part of all of this is that I have never, NOT ONCE, heard the Memphis version played anywhere else... and the only time I hear the traditional version in Memphis is when it is being played by bands who are not Memphis bands.

I've got a few working theories about how the "Memphis version" was put together.  My guess is that it's mostly a sped-up rendition of the Pickett version, with the idiosyncratic chorus-to-verse transition being a sort of mash-up of The Rascals' recording and Buddy Guy's recording.  The horns are clearly borrowed from Buddy Guy, but the "punchiness" of the Memphis version sounds like it was at least in part borrowed from The Rascals (who copied it from the original Mack Rice recording).  Neither The Rascals nor Buddy Guy do the walk-up back to the verse, nor does Rice or Pickett, but that seems like a natural move for musicians to do and, at any rate, it's very characteristic of the Memphis sound.  So, my instinct tells me that what we now hear when we hear the Memphis "Mustang Sally" was more of an organic creation that grew out of an attempt to combine elements of the several recorded versions, with the rough edges being subsequently smoothed out live by Memphis musicians.  That is, I don't think anyone composed it this way or played it first this way.... but, of course, I may be wrong.

My obsession with "Mustang Sally" basically comes down to this (so-far unsolved) mystery:  who originated the "Memphis Mustang Sally"?  I'd really love to know who, if anyone, played it first this way, and when.  Or, alternatively, I'd love to know for sure that it was never really done that way "first," which I strongly suspect is the real story of  "(Memphis) Mustang Sally."   I suspect the version that Memphis musicians know and play has been passed down over the last couple of generations like a recipe for Thanksgiving dressing. Somebody added a few horns, somebody added a pinch of a guitar-lick, somebody thought more organ would be nice, somebody decided the dressing pan wasn't the right size and restructured the whole thing to fit a new rhythm-section, and eventually what came out in the mix was something that resembled Momma's original recipe for delicious Thanksgiving dressing, only updated to accommodate the taste of the people who were actually going to be sitting down at the Thanksgiving table.

In other words, I suspect it was made exactly the same way all the rest of Memphis music was made.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 18: A Song You Have As Your Ringtone

Like a lot of people, I hardly ever actually "talk" on the phone, preferring text messages instead, and unless the incoming call is something I'm expecting or the person calling is a member of my family, I almost never answer my phone when it rings.  The way I figure it, most people who I want to talk to will text me (or email me, or Facebook me, or Tweet me).  If someone isn't texting me, I assume that either (1) it's bad news, (2) it's really important, or (3) it's someone I don't know or who doesn't know me very well.  In the case of (1) or (2), I might answer (again, only if the caller is family or a close friend) but in the case of (3) it's definitely going straight to voicemail.

I'm of the generation that spans not only the pre-smartphone/post-smartphone divide, but also the pre-cellphone/post-cellphone divide. I really can't remember when I got my first cellphone, but I'm guessing it was in the very-late-90's, maybe even as late as the early-aughts.  For me, that means that before I got my first cellphone I had already graduated high school, spent a couple of years in college, dropped out of college, stupidly run away to Boston for a year to chase my first (terribly ill-fated) love, returned to Memphis and re-enrolled in college, played in a handful of different bands, eventually and against all odds graduated college and a million other things in the interim that kids today (OMG DID I JUST WRITE "KIDS TODAY"?!) quite simply could not imagine doing without the help of a cellphone.  I remember-- though vaguely now-- having a much more affectionate disposition toward the telephone call when I was much younger.  In junior high and high school, getting the opportunity to gabgabgab on the telephone was not only a privilege, but an exclusive one.  No one else could talk on the phone, no one else was even "reachable," if you were the one on the phone in your house. I remember the kind of generic anticipatory excitement that one felt when the telephone rang.  Maybe it's for me!  All that joy in actually talking on the phone is pretty much ancient history now.  Despite my general displeasure in using it as it was originally intended to be used, my phone is an absolutely indispensable tool in my life now. I'm almost as dependent upon it as I am upon food and water.

Nah, not "almost."  They say that humans can survive up to three weeks without food and water.  When my iPhone runs out of battery or I accidentally leave home without it, those few hours feel like I might not survive them.

I don't change the ringtone on my phone frequently.  If I had to guess, I'd say I change it once every six months or so.  But when I do change my ringtone, these days, it's because I've gotten to the point where I've started dreading the song because I associate it with needing to answer the phone.  Such a strange and dramatic change, really, to experience just in the course of one lifetime.

The last time I changed my ringtone was almost six months ago now-- for a long time it was "Beast of Burden" by The Rolling Stones-- and I'm very nearing the point where I'll need to change it again.  I know that time is coming because I was at Earnestine and Hazel's a couple of weeks ago and heard my ringtone-song played on the jukebox and my first thought was "ah, crap, that's my phone."  Still, I do love this song.  Here's my current ringtone, Etta James' "Tell Mama":



Might as well use this post for crowdsourcing:  anybody got an idea what I should use as my next ringtone?  Suggestions are welcome and encouraged in the comments below!

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 17: A Song That Annoys You

I'll go ahead and concede, right here at the beginning, that I'm probably being more than a little unfair to my song-pick for today.  For the most part, I actually think it's a good song: catchy, peppy, eminently danceable, and with a winning hook. And yet, alas, it annoys the ever-living crap out of me.

Unless you've been stuck in cave for the last year, you've most certainly heard Pharrell Williams' "Happy," originally recorded for the soundtrack of Despicable Me 2.  (To be honest, I doubt that even if you were stuck in a cave for the last year you'd  have been able to escape it.)  It's been played ad nauseum on the radio and everywhere else, lip-synced all over the world on YouTube, blessed by Saint Oprah herself.  Every Christmas, some friends and I play this game called the Little Drummer Boy Challenge in which, starting on Thanksgiving Day, players compete with each other to see who can go the longest before hearing the Christmas carol "Little Drummer Boy."  Now, if you're careful, you have a realistic chance of going a couple of weeks or more before some random pah-rum-pum-pum-pum knocks you out of that game.  Not so with "Happy."  If there was a "Happy" Challenge right now, I'd be shocked if anyone could get through a single day.  It's that ubiquitous.

My annoyance with this song comes down to one single line in the chorus:  Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.  I'll admit that there's really no defensible reason for me to get as worked up as I do about this, but I simply cannot abide "a room without a roof" as a metaphor for happiness.  IT. DRIVES. ME. CUH-RAZY.  If Pharrell re-recorded the exact same song and only excised those five little words "a room without a roof," I'd be completely on board with this song.  As it is now, hearing that line registers in my ears like nails on a chalkboard.  Every single time.



SINCE TIME IMMEMORIAL (a phrase with which no sentence should ever begin), the idea of having "a roof over one's head" has represented safety, security, shelter, certainty, protection and, as a consequence of all those, also happiness.  You know what happens when you find yourself in a room without a roof?  You're exposed to the elements-- snow, sleet, wind, rain, scorching sun, not to mention bird-droppings and, god forbid you find yourself in some kind of GoT conflict, arrows!  You can't protect yourself, there's no chance of climate control, and you might as well forget about ever sleeping in.  In sum, this is NOT a happy space.

One last complaint: the next line in the song is: Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.  Now, I might be more forgiving if Pharrell were forced to rhyme with something really difficult, like "orange" or "purple" or "month" or "film."  But, c'mon now, truth?!  Even if the only word he could think of to rhyme with truth was roof, why choose a line that REMOVES the roof, something that is all by itself a pretty good metaphor for happiness?

In related news, somebody needs to invent an "annoyed" emoticon.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Monday, June 16, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 16: A Song That Holds A Lot Of Meaning For You

A few years ago, I had the very good fortune to see Lucinda Williams play a show at the New Daisy Theater here in Memphis.  She was on tour for her album Blessed and I had for the first (and only) time in my life actually won tickets to the show.  (I was Caller #10 in one of our local radio station contests!)  The New Daisy is a small-ish, intimate venue with a large open space in front of the stage, so I got to see the whole concert literally feet from Lucinda herself.  This was also near the beginning of the Occupy Movement-- no one really knew what it was or what it would become in the coming months-- but Lucinda gave a shout-out to all the OWS folks during one of the breaks in her set, making me love her even more than I already did.  It was a spectacular show and a spectacular night and when she finished her finale encore, I was starstruck.

But the story doesn't end there.

As it turns out, this was also around the time that I was working on my American Values Project, an experiment in documentary photography.  I had been collecting photographs of people holding signs naming something that they value for AVP and, before leaving for the concert that night, I noticed that the album cover for Williams' Blessed looked a lot like the sorts of pictures I had been collecting. So, I devised a plan to wait near the stage after the show and see if I could get someone to ask Lucinda Williams if she'd be willing to contribute a photograph for my project.  I expected that the chances of this plan being successful were slim to none, but I was determined to ask anyway.  As my grandfather used to tell me, the worst that can happen is that someone says no.

After the show was over and Williams' band was packing up their gear, I inched my way up to the stage and asked some guy who looked like his job was to keep people from going backstage if I could, well, go backstage.   Of course, he said no.  So I immediately started in with the whole story of my American Values Project and its connection to Williams' album cover and basically just refused to stop talking until he relented.  After several minutes, he said "wait here, let me see what I can do."  He disappeared for a while and then, unbelievably, came back and said, "ok follow me."

He took me back behind the stage and I waited outside of her tour bus for what seemed like forever.  Just as I was about to give up, some guy stuck his head out of the tour bus door and waved me on. Yes, that's right, I was ON LUCINDA WILLIAMS' TOUR BUS.  I met and hung out with Williams and her whole band, and it was all so casual and cool that I thought I was dreaming.  I told Williams' about my American Value Project and she loved the idea of it.  Not only did she agree to take a photo to add to the collection, but she insisted that all her bandmates on the bus do the same!  Having not really expected that my plan for the night would be successful, I was grossly under-prepared-- no camera, no paper or pens, no permission forms.  Lucinda shrugged all of that off and said we'd find a way to make do. As it turned out, the only thing we could find in the tour bus to write on was a stack of paper plates-- Williams' and the band just had pizza delivered-- so everyone took a picture with his or her value scrawled on those paper plates.  I also got a photo with Lucinda and myself, (pictured above), and her contribution to the American Values Project is to your left.  Williams' paper plate reads: "Peace, Love & Revolution."  (I decided to just let my "choose one value only" rule slide that night.)  She was funny and friendly and unpretentious and just exactly like what you'd expect someone who writes songs like hers to be.

Anyway, my pick for today is Lucinda Williams' "Concrete and Barbed Wire," from one of her earlier albums Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.  Here's a live version:



It's strange how the simplest songs can hold a lot of meaning for you, and this is definitely an example of one that does for me.  This wall divides us / We're on two different sides / But this wall is not real / How can it be real? / It's only made of concrete and barbed wire.  It's a good reminder that the things we take to be impregnable or insurmountable barriers can be looked at another way, as "only" a combination of material, just like us.  I suppose one could hear that "only" as more than little Pollyanna-ish, but I've never heard it that way.  Rather, I like to think that Williams is trying to say that it's not concrete and barbed wire that make walls that divide, we do.  We make the walls and we make them divisive.

As Williams sings in the last verse: There's a wall between us, but it's not what it seems / It's only made of concrete and barbed wire.  If walls aren't what they seem, aren't impregnable or insurmountable, if they're "only" made of materials that could be transformed, refashioned and repurposed-- materials that will, like all material things, deteriorate-- then perhaps there is much more we can do to diminish the divides between us than we thought.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 15: A Song People Wouldn't Expect You To Like

Hands down, today's prompt is the hardest of the whole month.  I've written so much about music on this blog over the years that I really don't know what people wouldn't expect me to like anymore, except the things that I actually don't like.  When I first did this Challenge back in 2011, I chose 50 Cent's "CandyShop" for Day 14 (A Song No One Would Expect You To Love)... but, since then, I think I've professed my affection for rap and hip-hop enough that it doesn't surprise anyone any longer.  My friends (and readers of this blog) know that I'm a fan of country, blues, rock n' roll, gospel, R&B, some jazz, most of the top-40 pop music that gets played on the radio, even Broadway tunes.  So, I don't know.  This is a tough one.

I might have wasted a good pick earlier in this Challenge on Day 7 ("A Song That Is Your Guilty Pleasure") when I chose a song with highly-questionable lyrical content.  Since I can't think of any better criteria to use, though, I'm going with a song that people wouldn't expect me to like for the same reasons that I chose "CandyShop" and "The Dumber They Come," that is, because the content is offensive.  I'm not going to add to the wealth of literature that's already out there explaining everything that is wrong, wrong, wrong about the message of this song.  I will, however, remind you that the music is pretty much a straight-up ripoff of Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up," which may be some small consolation to those of us who know we should hate it, but can't.



I don't expect this selection comes as a real surprise to anyone.  Whatever.  Let's just move along with the Challenge, folks.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 14: A Song You Like Hearing Live

Today is the first day in the 30 Day Song Challenge that I think I'm going to register a semi-controversial pick.  I know a lot of people who would rather be dragged out behind the shed, rode hard and hung up wet than hear this song live or recorded. It's cheesy, it's corny, it encourages the very worst of Drunk People Being Loud behavior you can encounter in a bar and, what is more, it rewards the same.

But first, a little backstory on why I love this song so much.

When I was a kid, I remember my dad driving me to school in a car that still had an 8-track tape player.  I'm sure my memory has faded over the years, so this might not an entirely accurate account, but the way I remember it is that there were only two 8-track tapes in Dad's car: James Taylor's Greatest Hits and Neil Diamond's Greatest Hits.  If there were others, they certainly didn't get enough play to register in my memory, anyway.  At any rate, as a consequence of hearing them over and over on the way to school, I know literally every word to every song on both of those records.  Those records hold the kind of special place in my formation as a music-lover that all albums of one's early-adolescence do, the albums that worm their ways into your subconscious and stay there because you heard them first when you were just starting to really listen to music.  It doesn't hurt that Taylor and Diamond are both excellent songwriters, but I'm sure that the privileged place their music holds in my mind is attributable more to when and where I first encountered them than it is to their talent.

Anyway, my pick for today is Neil Diamond's classic "Sweet Caroline."  It's a great song all on it's own, but it wasn't until I was older and first heard it played live in a bar that I experienced the whole communal-sing-along status that has since made it iconic.  It's a little strange to post the video for today, since the recorded version by definition cannot capture what is so great about hearing this song live, but here it is anyway:



If you actually just listened to it, I know what you did.  You did what every red-blooded American does when he or she hears "Sweet Caroline": you waited for Neil to pitch the "Sweeeeeet Caroliiine" to you so you could knock it out of the part with BAH, BAH, BAAAAHHH!!! And then you sat back, waited for good ol' Neil to tell you that good times never felt so good, so you could enthusiastically echo him: SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!  

It's okay, don't feel embarrassed.  We all do it.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Friday, June 13, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 13: A Song You Sing In The Shower

I've gotten a few days behind on this month's 30 Day Song Challenge, so today's entry is going to be semi-brief, partly because I'm trying to catch up but in larger part because there's really no reason for any of us to spend too much time thinking about what I do in the shower.

For those of us who sing, the bathroom is a very special place, an acoustic heaven.  I guess it's something about the tiles and the confined space and the way sound bounces and echoes just right that makes for a perfect little home studio.  It's even better in the even-tighter confines of the shower, because in addition to all the normal sonic excellence of the bathroom, you also have the added benefit of privacy in the shower.  There are many good reasons, I suppose, not to sing in public: maybe you're one of those people who can't carry a tune in a bucket, maybe you're scared of performing in front of other people, maybe you don't want to disturb the peace.  But there's really no reason not to sing in the shower, as far as I'm concerned.  Then again, I live alone, so there's no one to protest anyway.

I regularly sing in the shower.  (To be honest, I regularly sing everywhere else in my apartment, too.)  So, it's a little difficult to pick a single song that I sing in the shower, since I'm fairly sure that almost every song I know has been sung in my little porcelain songbooth at one point or another.  Today I'm picking a song that I frequently sing in the shower, a gospel tune originaly based on a mid-18thC hymn by English clergymen Philip Doddridge, which was itself originally based on a Biblical passage (Acts 8:35) in which Philip the Apostle catches the Holy Spirit and is moved to say so.  The contemporary gospel tune "Oh Happy Day" was recorded in 1969 by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and has been a staple of church music ever since.  Here it is:



If you don't sing in the shower, you should.  If you're looking for something to sing, I'll just say that there are many worse ways to start off your morning than with "Oh Happy Day."

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 12: A Song That Reminds You Of Your Best Friend

That couch-full of awesome to your left is my best friend, Dr. Adriel Trott, mugging like a boss at one of my favorite local nightlife hangouts Mollie Fontaine's. I met her for the first time more than a decade ago in March 2001, when I visited Villanova University as a prospective graduate student.  Due in part to her excellent impression, I accepted the offer from 'Nova and moved back to Philly in August of that same year, into a quaint little row-house on Taney Street as Trott's new roommate. We've been friends ever since.

It may seem hard to believe, but Trott and I have never had a real fight in our entire almost-15-years of friendship.  Now, just to be clear, that is NOT to say we haven't "argued."  In fact, the very best part of our friendship has always been our ability to argue-- nay, our absolute, unbridled delight in arguing-- intensely, passionately and very, very loudly with one another.  (I could name at least a hundred people who could testify to that fact, and there are probably a thousand other unknown innocent bystanders who would testify to the same.)  I think Trott and I were cut from the same cloth in that sense; we both love a good fight and we're constitutionally disinclined to pull punches.  But we're also constitutionally committed to fair fights, either the kind that take place between what Nietzsche would call "worthy opponents" or the kind that are governed by the fundamentally liberal laws of war. In either case, we do not abide supplementing a victor's victory with any superadded moral credit, nor do we abide disallowing the vanquished a graceful exit from the field of battle.

You'd be surprised how many people hate that about us.

Anyway, my pick for today (a song that reminds me of Trott) is more or less an anthemic tribute to exactly the kind of spirit that has animated our friendship for all these years.  It's Katy Perry's "Roar."



Both Trott and I have found ourselves in a discipline, professional Philosophy, that is-- and this is not a hyperbole-- viciously unkind to strong, opinionated, smart and [insert whatever the antonym of demure is here] women.  I could not be more grateful that whoever orders the Universe (and who, in his or her highly-questionable wisdom, found it appropriate make to philosophers out of Trott and me) put us in the same orbit of influence.  Trott has been nothing short of a life- and sanity-saver for me on many occasions, and hers is the very first counsel I seek when I suspect, as I frequently do, that something is awry in the Order of Things.

Trott and I made a promise to one another, many years ago now, that whenever the going got rough for one of us, the other would offer the reminder: "you are brilliant and beautiful."  We've said that a lot to each other in the past 15 years and I'm confident in saying that, at least from my end, it's been true every time.  Trott is an Aristotle scholar, so I hope she'll appreciate that when I think of her I am often reminded of Aristotle's insight in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII: "when people are friends, they have no need of justice, but when they are just, they need friendship in addition."

I'm very glad to need her most when I am just, and never when I am avoiding justice.  She'd only read me the riot act in the latter case, anyway.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 11: A Song That Reminds You Of Summer

I tried-- and I mean I REALLY TRIED-- not to pick a Beach Boys song today, but all my efforts were for naught.  Asking people to associate a song with "summer" and expecting them not to pick a Beach Boys song is like asking them what they associate with shooting a man in Reno and expecting them not to pick a Johnny Cash song.  Or asking them what they associate with the dock of the bay and expecting them not to pick an Otis Redding song.   I mean, as we say in my profession, Q.E.freakin'D already.

I actually love the Beach Boys for many of the same reasons that I love The (early) Beatles, namely, for their mathematically perfect command of the pop music form.  I'd rank Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound, with a level of genius equal or exceeding that of the 20th century's musical greats: Prince, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Smokey Robinson, John Philip SousaMiles Davis, Elvis Presley, Ira and George GershwinStevie Wonder. In fact, I'd put Brian Wilson's genius alongside the non-musical geniuses of the 20th century.  Yeah Wilson ranks right up there with Einstein, Roosevelt, Turing, Mandela, Salk, Foucault and Derrida in my book.

Anyway, here's my pick for THE song that reminds me of summer, the Beach Boys' "I Get Around":



Just for the record, I never really paid much attention to the lyrics before, but now that I have I'm pretty positive that this needs to be reorchestrated and covered by Kanye or Lil' Wayne or TI or somebody.  Case in point:
I get around
From town to town
I'm a real cool head
I'm makin' real good bread.

Some messages are timeless, really.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song That Makes You Cry

My pick today, perhaps not surprisingly, is a song sung by one of the most heartwrenchingly beautiful female voices in the history of song.  Unless you're a diehard fan of early-90's alt-country music, you've probably never heard of Maria McKee (or her tragically under-rated and under-appreciated band Lone Justice), which is a damn shame.  I used to say that McKee's voice is fashioned out of grit, heartbreak and broken angel wings, but even that description sells her short.  She made my list on Day 21 of last year's 30 Day Song Challenge, where I picked her (and Lone Justice) as the band/artist that never achieved the level of fame they deserved.  To be fair, they did achieve a fleeting moment of fame when my song pick for today was included on the soundtrack for the film Pulp Fiction, but even that was too little and too late.

Many years ago, when I was still playing with my alt-country band Red Hip & the Boys, we used to play this song at our shows.  (Just an aside: my old Red Hip & the Boys bandmate, John Murry, has gone on to make a really great music career for himself.  Check out John's new album!)  This is one of those songs that was always as heartbreaking to sing as it was to hear, in my experience.  So, I apologize to everyone who experienced that heartbreak with me back in the day.

Here it is, Maria McKee's "If Love Is A Red Dress," a bona fide tearjerker of a song if ever there was one.  I hate the super-cheese-corniness of this video, which really turns the desperate down-and-out rawness of it into some kind of pulp-romance YA farce...  but, alas, this is the only video I could find with quality sound, and it does include the lyrics, which are important:



I played it on the table.  You help something back.

If love is aces, then give me the Jack.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.

Monday, June 09, 2014

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 9: A Song That Makes You Want To Dance

There aren't many Michael Jackson songs that don't make me want to dance. But I'm a sucker for the "Little Michael" songs in particular, before he was "MJ" or "The King of Pop" or the tabloid-dubbed "Wacko Jacko."  Give me the way-back-when, pint-sized wunderkind of The Jackson 5, strutting and mugging and hamming it up in his smart little duds in front of psychedelic 1960's television backdrops. That kid had a voice like an angel and an innate groove that was twice as divine.

Michael Jackson's songs, over the course of his lifetime, offer a practically unparalleled embarrassment of riches for anyone looking for a song to dance to.  Think about it: have you ever been to a wedding reception or a party or any other function with a serviceable dance-floor where the DJ didn't play Michael Jackson?  (If your answer is yes, I recommend you find better parties to attend.  Or fire your DJ. Not necessarily in that order.)  Even if you narrow Jackson's body of work down to his childhood and young-adult years, there is still just too much dance-worthy music there to make an indisputable selection.

Bring on the disputations if you dare, but I'm picking the 1969 Motown classic "I Want You Back" for a song that not only makes me want to dance, but also a song that makes everyone want to dance.  Here it is, performed live in 1971 on the Jackson 5's Goin' Back to Indiana TV special :



I may be wrong about this (I'm not), but I don't remember ever seeing anyone who didn't start moving or shaking or foot-tapping or head-bobbing, even if only a little bit (as is all that some unfortunate souls are capable), once they heard the first few bars of this song.  And when Little Michael gets to that shouting/squealing part during the break?   All I want. All I need. All I want. All I NEEEED!!

Well, all bets are off at that point. If you're not up and dancing by then, somebody needs to check your pulse.

There's something both adorable and especially poignant about an 10-12 year old worrying that "now it's much to late for [him] to take a second look."  Of course, we grown-ups know that there's so much more to come, so many more second and third (and etc) chances, so little that has been lost in the grand scheme of things... but the urgency of young love does not abide such consolations. It wants what it lost, and it wants it back immediately and desperately.  Aside from being an eminently dance-able song, "I Want You Back" reminds us what unabashed, unafraid and uncompromising youthful insistence sounds like: starry-eyed, idealistic, committed, perhaps impractical, but ready to go to the mat anyway.  That kind of devotion, which aims to correct the error of a love lost no matter what it takes, is why I think this song continues to register so deeply with the rest of us old, jaded farts.

We should all be so bold as Little Michael when he sings Oh baby, give me one more chance / Won't you please let me back in your heart? because, go ahead and admit it, you've probably been so blind as to let something go that you shouldn't have.  And you want it back.

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Here's your quick-access link to the entire 30 Day Song Challenge 2014 prompt-list and my picks for each day.