Hello my friends! December is here in New York City. Lots of people are frantically getting into the season, partaking in the hallowed old American tradition / religion of buying lots of stuff. I spent a good part of the week wandering around Manhattan watching them. I bought a few used books on St. Mark’s place, some music stand lights for my band mates and some warm socks for my relatives. That’s about as much American consumer team spirit as I’ve got in me. It was freezing cold and clear tonight. I had the very distinct pleasure of driving across the Williamsburg Bridge and up along the FDR drive. The skyline was extra glorious. My whole life I’ve been a huge fan of the giant Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, seen clearly from the East side of Manhattan. That sign shone with particular glory tonight. I guess my love for that giant neon commercial is similar to what a secular art collector feels for a piece old religious art from his/her country. I’m critical of the religion, but awed by the beauty of the relic.
Normally on this blog I essay on one particular topic that’s on my mind. Often I write about one artist’s work or one particular record that I’m digging. This time I think I’ll just write short little pieces about various musings that have come up in my recent wanderings.
In the blues there’s a punch line
“Some people say the green river blues ain’t bad
Some people say the green river blues ain’t bad
Then it must not be the green river blues I had”
-Charley Patton, “Green River Blues”
Did you ever notice how much humor there is in the blues? Too many people think of the blues as music about sadness. I know. Colloquially speaking, we’re sad when we “have the blues”. But to think of the blues as just sad music is really a very silly oversimplification. Like any other really good meaningful form of music or narrative, blues songs are just songs about the predicament of being a human being. “Songs about the predicament of being a human being” however, would be a truly awful name for a genre of music. “The blues” is way cooler. Listen to some classic blues songs by Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf or Robert Johnson and pay attention to the lyrics. They’re singing about all kinds of moments, happy, sad, sexy, angry, lonesome. Very often there’s a lot of joking going on. Even when the subject matter is something sad or serious, the lyrics often lead up to wise-ass rhyme.
I’ve got “I Sit Up All Night” by a guy called St. Louis Jimmy spinning right now. Jimmy sings about a lady friend with a drinking problem…
Pint of whiskey was one shot, chaser was a fifth of wine
Doctors tapped her for water, alcohol was all they could find
If you get to know the blues, you will learn that there are all kinds of variations and intricacies and different sub-styles within what we think of as the blues. But there is one particular blues structure that’s most familiar to most listeners. It’s often referred to as the I-IV-V blues structure, because of chords of the scale that you use to play it. So much of the most fundamental blues music from all periods and early rock and roll music is based around those three chords. So here’s how the most basic I-IV-V blues structure works:
1.You sing a line while playing the dominant I chord of any key of the major scale.
2.You repeat the same line while playing the dominant IV chord of the same scale.
3.You sing a different line that somehow answers the first line while playing the dominant V chord, followed by the dominat IV chord and you resolve on the I chord where you started .
“The Back Door Man” by Willie Dixon
I am the back door man
I am the back door man
D C G
The men don’t know but the little girls understand.
…Can you see how the third line is the punch line?
Willie Dixon was a master at these kind of dark jokes.
Another Willie Dixon favorite of mine, also from “Back Door Man”:
“I was accused of murder in the first degree
The Judge’s wife cried ‘Let the man go free!’”
Way before Dixon’s time, the very first of the pre-war bluesmen were cracking their hard luck jokes. In “Matchbox Blues” Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote…
“I’m sitting here wondering, would a matchbox hold my clothes
I ain’t got no matches but I sure got a long way to go.”
There’s humor in there. Times are tough, tough, tough and yet the lyric is playful. The guy is joking around. Just like Furry Lewis’s “I Will Turn Your Money Green” in which Lewis sings “I been down so long that it looks like up to me” or Albert King’s famous “Born Under a Bad Sign” (Written by Williams Bell & Booker T Jones)…
Born under a bad sign
Been Down since I could crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck
I wouldn’t have no luck at all
Dark humor has helped so many people get through this life and it’s many ups and downs and downs and downs. Tragicomedy as an intellectual concept was strange and abstract to people when Samuel Beckett called his “Waiting For Godot” a tragicomedy in 1953. Bluesmen were hip to the concept a long time before then even if they didn’t know they were. I could go on quoting blues lyrics but I invite you to just listen to some blues record you like and dig the comedy.
You can trust Randy Newman because his first album is weird
I was opening a bunch of shows for Chris Smither last month. In addition to being a great songwriter and a formidable blues guitarist, Chris is also a great guy to talk music with. Somehow Randy Newman’s first album came up. When I was a kid (pre-internet) that album was long out of print and I had to look all over for it. I eventually tracked down a copy of the lp in a classical music record store in a Midtown Manhattan that I had read about in the paper. It sure was a weird record. It wasn’t like any of the other light rock of Newman’s 70’s contemporaries.
Randy’s debut includes some wonderfully weird compositions. The only really well known one is a song called “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today” that went on to became a hit for a bunch of different artists. The album features the composer’s own lush orchestrations, idiosyncratic vocals and intentionally odd harmonies. The subject matter of the lyrics is often intentionally circus-freakish and oddball as well. So many of Newman’s songs come off like show tunes from a bizarre show that never actually existed. I’m very impressed with that kid for how he chose to introduce himself to the world musically. I love how ambitious and unsteady his first record is. He doesn’t pull everything off exactly, but at least you know you can trust the guy. He goes for difficult-to-achieve things artistically and he’s obviously not afraid of the non-commerciality of his endeavors. It’s not that he wouldn’t be happy with a hit. He’d love one. But he can’t help but be weird and smart and have his own personality and sense of humor. The young Newman would follow his debut a year or two later with 12 Songs, a much more earthy, rootsy kind of affair (with plenty of screwy characters of it’s own). I recommend listening to all of Randy Newman’s albums. They haven’t let me down. The very early stuff is definitely worth it.
Folk singer is a cool job
A lot of the gigs I’ve played over the past 10 years have been in venues (theaters, clubs, concert series veneus and coffee houses) that make up part of the fading American “folk circuit”. The folk circuit was a big deal in the 50’s and 60’s. Many huge pop stars and perennial rock favorites came out of the folk scene (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, to name a few). Even back in the 60’s, the actual connection between the “folk” circuit and the passage of folklore was starting to come apart.
There aren’t many people that spend their lives learning old stories and songs and relaying them to the people for a living. It’s never been a particularly dependable way to make a buck, but I think being a folk singer would be a very nice way to spend one’s life. Folklore is a force of nature, of human history. People tell little stories to each other and pass them on. We always have. Folk tales are getting told all around us every day. They’re not necessarily being told by dudes with acoustic guitars and turtlenecks in coffee houses. But they’re out there if you want to hear them and learn them. We pass on our little stories around the campfire, in the pub, or in hit songs, blockbuster movies or youtube clips. It’s just something we do. We can’t help it.
I’d love to be a folk singer some day or a folk tale re-teller. Rather than trying to write something about my own daily experience or some hot topic of the moment, as a folk singer I’d learn stories that have existed for a while, stories about fictional characters. And each time I told someone else’s stories, I’d leave this week’s details behind. I’d find my way into moments outside of time, happenings that never really occurred and never really will and yet they’re somehow more real than any attempt we could make to capture the moment we’re living in. And if I was a folk singer, every time I’d deliver some story about a riverboat gambler or a Scottish lass or an Indian chief, I’d do something even more personal than telling my own story. I’d tell the human story. It’s a big deal, folk singing. Many of us laugh it and call it names…That’s because we’re silly.
Some more thoughts on performance, fame and rejection
Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound
I perform songs in public for a living. In many ways it’s a very strange way to go about interacting with the world. Rejection is a huge part of your life when you put your act out there. It’s an odd thing to sign up for, but I still like it better than any other job I could have. This morning I was listening to an old Terry Gross interview from the late 90’s with the aforementioned Randy Newman. At one point, Randy began to sing Terry one of his songs and he had to stop. He laughed at how embarrassed he felt to sing his song to someone who could see his eyes while he sang. He admitted that he was used to being blinded by the lights of a theater. I’m definitely thankful every time I get a chance to sing my songs blinded by theater lights. More often I’m able to see everyone around me in the room, reacting to my songs or not, eating their dinner, talking to each other or doing whatever they’re doing. In order to perform regularly in that circumstance, you have to learn to not take personally people’s reactions, their inattention or even their occasional disdain for what you do. But here’s the catch: In order to sing meaningful songs the best you can, you have to actually put your heart and your emotions into your performance every time you sing. So the balancing act of caring and yet not caring can be kinda tricky. I spend a fair amount of my time imagining that if I was famous and had millions of fans, this problem would vanish into thin air. I can’t really tell you how much truth there is in that as I’ve never been famous. I’m pretty sure that my fantasies are just the same old “grass is greener” bs we all engage in. I’ll have to get back to you on that.
…That’s another thing I try to not take personally. If I compare my own life to many of my heroes (which I do a lot more frequently than I’d like to), so many songwriters I admire were and are a million times more famous than I’ve ever been. When I got started writing songs and performing them, I don’t know if I expected to become famous, but I sure hoped I would. Now many years, songs, records and concerts later, I’m still largely unknown. There may be a few thousand people who have heard my songs. There maybe a few hundred that really like them. I don’t even know. I’m very grateful to all of the people that have listened to my songs, bought my recordings and come to my shows. When you’re trying to be an entertainer, it feels great to know that you’ve entertained. I wish millions of people knew my stuff and bought my records. But whether they have or not isn’t as meaningful as everyone (myself included) always tries to make it. When it’s time to make a good song, your reputation, your public stature and your life story won’t make it happen. Songs are wonderfully indifferent in that way.
A friend of mine recently sent me a book that offers some good perspective on the whole scenario. It’s called Finite and Infinite Games. The author, James P. Carse, divides up all of human endeavor into the two categories in the title. The pursuit of fame and fortune would be a perfect example of a finite game. It’s a game we either win or lose. We may be famous for a year or for a thousand years but fame and fortune have boundaries and limitations. The pursuit of art is rather an infinite game. We neither win nor lose and the goal is the game itself. I figure it like this: Win or lose we’re headed to the same place. What games we decide to engage ourselves in during this lifetime (when we don’t have to focus on mere survival) will be up to us.
Go if you’re able
and come if you can
Life’s very unstable
It’s built upon sand
The Song IS the Act: Irving Berlin
If you’ve read this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I write largely about records from 50-60 years ago, way before I was born. I’m completely out of step with what’s cool or what’s been cool for decades. Hopefully, I will remedy all of that now when I write about a songwriter born in 1888.
I’m always hoping to hear a great song. My whole world lights up when I hear a great song. I love a great act, whatever it is. A great singer, a great dancer, a comedian that makes me crack up. I love ‘em all. When a songwriter is truly great, the compositions themselves can be the act that entertains the audience. A good tune and some well-crafted lyrics are among the most wonderful things I know in this life. I’m not talking about heavy abstraction either. Just as comedy is often way harder to achieve than deep, dark drama, a good little tune with catchy, memorable lyrics is often the hardest kind of music to make. A great little ditty takes brains and heart and soul and taste and rhythm. I’m hoping I’ll hear a new song like that today. And I don’t care who wrote it or when they were born.
Irving Berlin was born in Russia in 1888 and grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, pretty close to penniless. He had very limited formal education. He didn’t read music and first entered show business as a singing waiter in a downtown saloon. He eventually wrote and published over 1,000 songs, words and music, just banging out tunes that he made up in his head on a few keys of a piano. Sit and listen to any versions of any of his songs sometime. There are thousands of readily available recordings of Irving Berlin songs by scads of super famous singers. You will hear simple songs, brilliant songs, funny and heartbreaking songs with catchy little melodies and immediately understandable yet never predictable rhyming lyrics. I don’t know where to start with the guy. He was a poet with the gift of song and a way with words like just about no one else. He was the granddaddy of them all in 20th Century popular song. Nearly all of those that followed in his footsteps did so as part of a collaborative team with a music or lyrics partner. Irving Berlin was a one man song machine. I don’t have to tell you why his songs are good. Just listen to them. A few of my favorites by the master:
Cheek to Cheek
He Ain’t Got Rhythm
How Deep is the Ocean
Lady of the Evening
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
Let Yourself Go
A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody
Say It Isn’t So
There’s No Business Like Showbusiness
They Say It’s Wonderful
This Year’s Kisses
Top Hat, White Tie and Tails
What’ll I do
RIP The great Ian McLagan
Just before Thanksgiving I got a call about opening up for Ian McLagan, famed British keyboardist at a club that I love in New Haven, CT. I believe my answer was “Hell Yes”. Ian McLagan was most famously a member of the band the Small Faces, which later morphed into the Faces with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood. The Small or otherwise Faces were 60’s and 70’s rock and roll animals that made many wonderful pop records and kicked a lot of butt. McLagan himself was a super groovy, ass kicking player. I love those Faces records and his playing on them. I spin them all the time. McLagan ended up playing with all kinds of people, the Rolling Stones among others. That night in New Haven I was glad to shake his hand and see him cheerily playing to a full house. He was a rock star, getting on towards 70 years old, a veteran of stadiums and theaters, playing in a small pub for 40 or 50 people. Still, he gave everyone in that room all he had. I was impressed. McLagan was all set to go on tour with my hero Nick Lowe’s holiday review this month. Unfortunately, he had a stroke and died on the first day of the Nick Lowe tour. I didn’t really know the guy, but I was glad to have met him. I loved his playing and his “show must go on” spirit. They don’t make many like him these days.
I am a Rock …who happens to be like a Rolling Stone
Do me a favor and play Bob Dylan’s original recording of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited when you can. Immediately after you’re done listening to that, put on Simon & Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock”. The Simon & Garfunkel record came out a year after the Dylan record and has remarkably similar instrumentation (organ, electric guitar, drum sound). It was produced by Bob Johnston, the same guy who produced the Highway 61 Album (though not the “Like a Rolling Stone” single). Paul Simon first released “I Am a Rock” on a solo record that came out in England a month after the Dylan single came out. Even if he wasn’t consciously trying to, I think it’s very possible that the young songwriter was caught up in the ‘rolling stone’ vibe when he came up with “I Am a Rock”. The songs aren’t melodically similar. But just the angry lyrical use of someone being a rock or a stone sounds connected. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Bob Johnston just heard the potential similarity himself or someone involved in the session just thought it would be hip to get a band track like Dylan’s going for that song. I don’t know. I just love when stuff like that happens. In the early 70’s, an American group called King Harvest had a hit with a Van Morrison-esque song called “Dancing in the Moonlight”. Morrison’s “Moondance” had of course been a big FM hit a couple of years earlier. “King Harvest” was itself the title of a song by the Band, who were at their peak of popularity at that time.
…This is the kind of stuff I think about a lot.
Happy Holidays, my friends!
Hang around with people you love.
Be nice to people.
…And when January comes around…
…keep doing the same.
Milty’s Holiday Listening Picks:
John Fahey’s Christmas Album – always a super classic, shown to me first by the great Julia Joseph circa 2010. Thanks Julia!
Mozart Bassoon Concerto in Bb
Jean Francaix Concerto for Bassoon and 11 strings
I don’t know why, but a good bassoon goes a long way at Holiday time.
The Faces First Step
A lesser known but no less wonderful Faces record in honor of the late great Ian McLagan
Bobby Womack The Facts of Life
Purchased while hanging with my man Dan Nachimson and having one of our semi-annual Brooklyn record spins. Muscle Schoals cats backing Bobby. Sweet 70’s Soul grooves.
Nick Lowe’s Quality Street
A nice, cheeky listen with masterful singing and playing. The cover looks like a movie poster for a Wes Anderson film.
George Harrison All Things Must Pass (preferably on lp on a cheap stereo)
One of the best cozy winter’s day spins of them all.