Song Series #10: Song Endings

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One of the most important parts of a song is its ending. There are many ways to end a song, and the ending matters. It gives something to the song; it is also really hard to do well. Many artists rely on the fade-out, which is fine for some songs, but lazy as a general approach–unless you truly believe that your songs shouldn’t end. Today I am going to bring up a few favorite song endings–all from songs by California musicians (or musicians who lived at some point in California), since I am watching the news of the terrible wildfires and thinking of friends and others who are suffering right now. I made a token donation to the Wildfire Relief Fund, but I wish I could do much more.

One way to end a song is simply to stop, maybe with a few percussion beats at the end, maybe without. A brilliant example of this is “Borders” by Granfaloon Bus (from their album Good Funeral Weather), which has to do with the borders of many kinds–inside people, between people, and in time, in the course of life. The refrain has a beautiful cadence that alternates between the “you” and the “I”: “You’re payin’, while I run, you’re still crying, well I’m all done.” The song ends with “done” and a few quiet drumbeats that come to a stop.

You can hear a similar kind of ending in a very different kind of song: 20 Minute Loop’s brooding, increasingly frantic “Everybody Out,” where the repeating chorus or culmination is “If it don’t stop, if it don’t stop,” and then it just stops with that! This video is from a 2008 performance at Bottom of the Hill.

Another way of ending is by going into a new mode, often instrumental, that comes to its own conclusion. A favorite example is from one of my favorite songs, “Green Glass” by Carrie Bradley, performed and recorded by her band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities. Watch the whole video–it begins with a historic mishap where the one string on Dan’s butterfly bass breaks. The song is intense with words–they go fast and urgently, leaving you chasing after the strands as they fly by: “In the belly of a bar, on a back street, there’s a couple of people I’d tell you about if I weren’t in the habit of just thinking out loud…” Wow. That’s just the beginning. “Small bar, back street, mostly residential, nothing to worry about, nothing much to do. A blue neon sign in the window says Burgies on Beacon, and the street lights brood. The blue light features bugs, floating around, like craters, like something in your eye, like astronauts, like black holes, like black stars….” A man and a woman meet, and they get each other’s jokes, there’s something there, and eventually the woman says, “Isn’t there something between talk and sex, is there a place between obsession and apathy?” and he says, “I know a place like that, it’s, uh, 216 Center Street, Apartment D12, it’s up to you,” and she says, “I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about green glass in a junkyard, I’m talking about faith, I’m talking about beauty, I’m talking about ordinary flies in a blue light,” and then the song lyrics end, “and he says, ‘I know that, it’s up to you,’ and he left.” So you have this moment where the thing that they both understand is hanging there in the air, about to happen, and the music takes it over.

Where even to go from here? How about Dieselhed’s silly, majestic, iconic “B A Band,” about how some day they won’t be a band? And indeed, they are no longer a band together; long ago continued on to other musical projects. At the shows, the lighters came out for that song–they waved in the air, like the phone lights last night in Budapest when Idea played “Sötét van.” This song–which features Jonathan Segel on violin–combines two kinds of endings: the crescendo (a common and effective way of ending a song: building up to a wild intensity and then–in some cases, but not here–crashing into the final note) and the coda, which in this case goes forward in time: “Now I’m just sitting here on my barstool / bragging to the barman about a show we once had in Fort Bragg / if my stories seem a little bit thin / I’ve got something brewin’ deep within.”

I haven’t even gotten to other kinds of endings, like returns to the beginning, or switches to a cappella singing (as in Platon Karataev’s “Elevator“), but this sure was fun. If you have favorite song endings, or ways of ending a song, please mention them in the comments. And let us hope the fires end soon.

For earlier posts in the song series, go here.

Song Series #9: Breaking Through Time

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It is common, when listening to a song or album that you haven’t heard in a long time, to find that it brings back an era of your life, maybe an era of history. It can be fun to listen to old favorites for this reason. But there are songs that also transcend their era (or the era when we first listened to them) while also capturing something of it. Over time, they show their newness, which does not go away.

What do such songs have in common? They are bold and beautiful at once, and there’s nothing quite like them. The boldness may be quiet or brash, but you can feel it. It becomes part of you as you listen.

An obvious example is “We Will Rock You” by Queen. It appeared on their 1977 album News of the World. It needs no explanation. The foot stomping and the a cappella voices, the anger and the promise, the irresistible melody and beat–all of this made it a song that I heard again and again without even owning the album. I probably heard it in high school first, without knowing what it was. In college it got played at parties and dances. Bands covered it. People started singing it out of the blue. Many years later, in 2008, when I was teaching at an elementary school way out in East New York, Brooklyn, my students struck up their own version of it on the bus ride back from a field trip. I can still hear them singing the chorus (which consisted of the name of one of the students, who was the fifth grade class president, I think, and who was well liked and respected).

The next song, in a very different mood, is the Smiths’ “Half a Person.” Originally released in 1987 as the B-side of the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” it is also included on their compilation album Louder Than Bombs. I first heard it at the Daily Caffé in New Haven (where I heard a lot of music for the first time). I bought Louder Than Bombs and listened to it over and over–the song and the whole album. “Half a Person” is so beautifully melancholic and semi-young. It seems to be about a teenager’s confusion and wandering, but it feels older, probably because of the reminiscence in it. “Call me morbid, call me pale, I’ve spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail….” It’s perverse and poignant at the same time. And even today, when the narrator of the song would be quickly written off as a stalker, the song gives a glimpse of the person’s soul and circumstances. “That’s the story of my life….”

Since I seem to be proceeding decade-wise, I’ll continue with Beck, whose genius I didn’t appreciate at first. When “Loser” was all over the place, and then when Odelay came out, there was so much talk about Beck that I couldn’t listen to him. Later, with his Mutations and Sea Change, I started to listen, and now I am listening to those albums I missed early on, as well as later ones. What is it about Beck? It isn’t just his versatility, his ability to take different directions in his music. It isn’t only his craft either, though he knows how to compose a song that you will want to ride all the way through, anticipating each shift and break. There’s more to it than that, something I want to get to know.

His song “Where It’s At” (from Odelay) was all around me for years before I knew that Beck wrote it.  I think it was on many an mp3 playlist at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater–it got played there in intermissions, dance parties, etc. But that’s not the song I want to include here. The song I have chosen is “Girl,” from his 2005 album Guero, because it so messed up and perfect at once. I love how the first “Hey” comes a split second after the “try” of “nothing that I wouldn’t try.” I love the attitude of the song–downcast, dorky, disturbing, mischievously wry, and, towards the end, celebratory. The video stands out too, with its series of fold-in scenes, a tribute to MAD Magazine.

The last one I’ll mention today is Sonny Smith, whom I first heard in San Francisco in 2000 (when he had been around for a few years, putting out tapes). During the break, I ran up to Carrie Bradley, who was headlining the show that night, and said, “Sonny Smith was fantastic!” She motioned to her left; Sonny was sitting next to her and I hadn’t even noticed. I was so flustered that I couldn’t say anything. Later we became good acquaintances; I edited some of his stories, many of which I published in my literary journal, Si Señor; he played at two of the Si Señor celebrations. Over the years I got to listen to his music as he formed Sonny and the Sunsets, toured the world, put out album after album, wrote a musical (The Dangerous Stranger), pulled off the 100 Records project, started a record label (Rocks in Your Head Records), and did so much more that I lost track. What Sonny has in common with Beck is a relentlessness, a desire to try new things, and a knack for a darn good song. What’s different is all the difference between them (a lot). It is difficult to choose a song to feature here. But I’ll choose “Pretend You Love me” from Sonny and the Sunsets’ 2012 album Longtime Companion. Why? Because it’s so sad, yet it lifts up as it goes–in a way that is not tied to time and place, even though it brings back various memories at once. (For contrast, and for another Sonny great, listen to “Well but Strangely Hung Man.”)

That will be all for this post, since I soon head into Budapest to hear a Platon Karataev acoustic duo!

This is the ninth post in my Song Series. For other posts in this series, go here.

Song Series #8: Different Exiles

 

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Exile: by its usual definition, the state of being banned from your own country. But exile can be internal too. Or even a fact of life, a condition of the things you need to do. Music demands a kind of exile; while it brings people together (intensely), it also demands truth, and truth gets you in trouble, whether obviously or not.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Musical truth is different from what we know as “telling the truth.” The stories in music don’t have to match point for point with the facts of your own life, but the shape will be true, the rhythm will be true, and the words will speak to you even if you don’t know what they mean. When this happens, you’re already cast out–in the best of ways, since exile can be joyous too–and you can’t take it back. You go about your life like everyone else, but as soon as a certain song starts playing in your head, you suddenly unbelong to your surroundings. The world will not bend to the music or vice versa.

Every good song, in that sense, is a song of exile. But a few stand out for me in this way. I’ll leave out the obvious exile ballads, such as Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” or Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” They are among my favorite songs, but their place in the “exile canon” is already clear. Instead, I’ll include Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime,” Dávid Szesztay’s “2120,” Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira,” and Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” (I had included “The Diamond Sea” in my previous post in this series, but I switched it over here.)

Nick Drake’s songs come back to me over the years; they are bare and raw and so perfectly formed and played. “River Man” seems to have to do with a world that has come to be too much, and a “river man” who knows a different way, but a way that may not be open.  The music creates a picture of it: the lingering vocals, the synthesizer against the acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, you sense the river more and more.

In the 1980s I listened to Ferron’s “Shadows on a Dime” endlessly (and heard her play it once in concert); I loved and love its syncopations, the lovely raspy vocals, the guitar sound, and the connecting stories, all leading up to the last verse:

And now a tired conductor passes by
He takes my ticket with a sigh
I don’t think he meant to catch my eye
But he doesn’t turn away.
He says “I have a daughter as old as you
And there’s really nothing anyone else can do
Do you play guitar…well good for you
Me I play the violin”
I imagine him with his hair jet black
Does he hide his fiddle in the back?
He gauged his words as the train went slack:
The New York train stops here

But I don’t forget the factory
I don’t expect this ride to always be
Can I give them what they want to see
Let me do it twice —
The second time for me.

‘Cause these windows make a perfect frame
For New York buildings like upright trains
They hold me as I hold the rain
Fleeting shadows on a dime.

It is a song of exile because the narrator, the musician, is always on the road, as are others, like the train conductor who maybe “hides his fiddle in the back.”

Now for Dávid Szesztay‘s “2120,” one of my favorite songs on his album Dalok bentre. (I heard him play on Saturday night in Szeged; you can read my review here.) The video, directed by Pater Sparrow and starring Szesztay and his family, is brilliant, eerie, beautiful and sad, but I recommend listening to the song on its own first, since there are so many ways to hear and understand it. The refrain does so much and rhythmically with the simple words “Kinn meg fagy, kinn hagytak” (“Outside and freezing, they left you outside.”) And then, at the end, the repeated “mozogjál” (“get a move on,” “hurry up”) contains its opposite; it stays instead of moving on, or it does both at the same time; the word turns into something else, something beyond leaving and staying. I have been listening to this song and the whole album over and over.

I have included Joni Mitchell in this song series before–“Coyote,” from the same album as this–but it’s impossible to leave out “Hejira” here.

I know, no one’s going to show me everything
We all come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone

Now for Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” I love the changes it goes through, the way the music creates the diamond sea. I also love the matter-of-factness of the main melody, and the way the lyrics build. As for its exile, it’s the passage of time and the sight of the diamond sea that make you unable to come back. “Time takes its crazy toll.” The two go together; not only will you eventually see the diamond sea, over the course of time, but over time it will also have its effect on you. The music takes you through this.

And that concludes the eighth installment of the song series.

I took the photo on Saturday night in Szeged.

Song Series #7: Favorite Songs

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Twenty years ago, I could have named my ten favorite songs. They would probably have been songs of Granfaloon Bus, Hannah Marcus, Sonny Smith, Ed’s Redeeming Qualities (or maybe 100 Watt Smile), the Breeders, Dieselhed, 20 Minute Loop, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, and Kristin Hersh. Today I love those same songs–and others–but have a harder time naming favorites. Knowing this, I can enjoy the challenge. Maybe my choices will change over time. Maybe they’re narrow. Maybe they’re too far flung. But these are songs that I come back to again and again. For the sake of brevity, I will name not ten but four. Not in order of preference, but as they come to mind. I am not even sure that they are my favorite songs; many others circle around them.

The first is Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.” It’s gentle slowness gives each word, each note more than you will hear in them at one given time: this grief, this anger and forgiveness, and beyond that, the witnessing of damage done. “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life, and when she came back, she was nobody’s wife, well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth….” Many have debated what this song is about in Cohen’s own life, but to me that isn’t the real question; rather, the question is what happens within the song. The backing vocals–by Corlynn Hanney, Susan Mussman–have no words and drift slightly behind; they sound like memory itself. But it also makes the song sound like a reflection, as though Cohen were partly singing to himself. I used to play this song on guitar often. It was true to me, although I had never experienced the story in the lyrics.

The second is 1LIFE’s “Maradok ember.” I have written about the song, covered it on cello (in Szolnok and Dallas), heard it performed live, and returned to it again and again. When they played it in Törökszentmiklós in August, I realized how radical and raw it is. I hope that it will eventually be heard all over the world.

The third is Cesaria Evora’s “Petit Pays.” This song creates the feeling of an old memory. As though I could ride it into babyhood, into those first sensations of the world, and then forward again into age and knowledge. I love Cesaria Evora’s deep, caressing voice and the way the words dance against the rhythms.

The fourth is Bob Dylan’s majestic “One More Cup of Coffee”–with a voice that lilts and cries, a melody with a Jewish or Middle Eastern feel, a violin weaving in and out of sound, and gorgeous backing vocals by Emmylou Harris–not really “backing,” but side by side with Dylan’s. It’s understated; it ends before I know it, and I want to hear it again. There’s an imperfection to it, also, that I love; the violin slightly (and pleasantly) out of tune in places, Dylan and Harris sometimes blending together, sometimes sounding like two strong and separate souls.

There are at least twenty other songs I could have included here. Maybe even fifty. But there’s something to be said for choosing a few.

I made some changes to this piece after posting it; in particular, I changed the first and fourth selections.

Image: Bradford J. Salamon, KLH Turntable, oil. Featured in Southwest Art Magazine, March 2016.

To read all the posts in the Song Series, go here.

Song Series #6: American Epic Sadness

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Many American songwriters compose an epic song at some point. By “epic” I don’t just mean “long” or “momentous”; I draw on Louise Cowan’s definitions of epic: for instance, as something that “displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change, and yet, viewed from an omni-dimensional standpoint, in that very act transfigured and preserved.” (Louise Cowan, “The Epic as Cosmopoiesis,” introduction to The Epic Cosmos, p. 3.) Here I want to bring up not American epic in general, but American epic sadness in song. The examples–Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote,” Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos”–all give a sweeping sense of American loss.

How can a country famed for its prosperity be also a country of loss? Every country has its undersides and contradictions, and America (by which I mean the United States here–I use “America” because of its tones) may be foremost among them. The prosperity never came to everyone, and it always came at a cost. Moreover, those to whom it came were not necessarily happier; the very pressure to find happiness could make them miserable. But the songs also point to changing times–things rumbling underfoot that the characters cannot identify. If you know these songs, you understand something about the United States. It’s almost like visiting the country.

This time I won’t include the lyrics, except for a few quotes–since they’re long, and you can find them easily. But it’s better just to listen to the songs and let the lyrics come to you on their own. I’ll start with Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a longstanding hit and then a classic. When I was in college, people would play it on guitar at coffeehouses, and we would sing along in the chorus:

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

The chorus is always preceded by the phrase “the day the music died,” which at one level refers to the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. At another level, it refers to the end of an era. McLean said, “It was an indescribable photograph of America that I tried to capture in words and music.” Here’s the 1971 recording.

This song still gives me the shivers–not only the lyrics, but the piano touches, the changes of tempo, the way he explodes into rock in the second verse.

Joni Mitchell is most widely known for her gorgeous contemplative folk songs (like “Both Sides Now”), but her album Hejira changed my ideas about what a song could be. My friend Steve introduced me to it in college. He considered Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen songwriting geniuses; he would quote form their songs and then say, “Yeahh!!” (He did that with “Coyote,” in fact.) I came to know what he meant about the Hejira album. Jaco Pastorius’s bass, the dreamy guitar, the wandering voice all talk together about a relationship that cannot be, because of “different sets of circumstance” and long distance.

Here’s the first verse:

No regrets Coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studios
And you’re up early on your ranch
You’ll be brushing out a brood mare’s tail
While the sun is ascending
And I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
You’re not a hit and run driver, no, no
Racing away
You just picked up a hitcher
A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway

And the recording:

Now for Dylan’s “Hurricane“–the first song on his album Desire, which has a few of my Dylan favorites, including this. The song is about the imprisonment of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who in 1967 was accused of triple murder, wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to double murder. (Almost twenty years later, he was released.)

The song (recorded in 1975 and 1976) is so fresh that it must be playing right now on hundreds of guitars, recordplayers, CD players, computers, and phones around the world. Here’s the refrain:

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin’ that he never done
Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world

I am moving along rather quickly, since I think the songs speak for themselves. Here’s Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” from her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. Listen to the stories in these songs, the stories of women of color, and the refrain, “What do they call me?” then “My name is,” and then a name that tells a life. But just wait until the end; it tears open the whole song. Here’s the first verse:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah, Aunt Sarah

And now for the last song, Hannah Marcus’s “Hairdresser in Taos.” This is one of my favorites of her songs; like “American Pie,” but even more intensely, it goes through vast changes and takes you across the land. Just wait till you get to this part–and afterwards:

Just like all my dreams they’re all tossed and scattered.
Where it seems that I lost what mattered.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
Lord, if I could only find a road.
I’d take it.

By golly, I think this is one of the great American songs. It blew me away all over again. I will end here.

Image credit: Robin Hutton (1919-2017), North American desert landscape (pastel)

For the previous installments in the song series, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Song Series #5: Verging on Nonsense

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Two things to make clear right off the bat. First, I mean “nonsense” as a compliment; what is a good song without at least a touch of it? More about that in a minute. Second, I love this particular topic and have a hard time choosing just a few songs for this post. That said, here we go.

It might be impossible to write a completely nonsensical song, because the music holds the words together and gives them some kind of sense. Also, songs always verge on wordlessness (that is, you can hum them). Songs with nonsense words, or semi-nonsensical words, come even closer to a hummed state; the words act as instruments, playing out their sounds and associations.

For the first example, I choose “Hell in a Handbasket” by 20 Minute Loop, a favorite and beloved band, and my friends moreover. I originally chose “Jubilation” (and considered a few others too, including “Cora May“) but then changed to this–since the recording is so glorious, and this is one of the first of their songs I ever heard. I heard it while Greg Giles was still working out the lyrics; we were playing music together then, and he would change the words a little each time. I remember cracking up over “Northern Northern.” Over time this song took on a meaning and moved a little away from nonsense; it could be about a suicide or disappearance, yet the eruptive phrases keep you from settling on a story. “Spun the mud like fabric,” “took the Northern Northern” keep me delightedly unsure of what this all is.

Here is the full recording (from the album Songs Praising the Mutant Race), with Greg Giles (vocals, guitar), Kelly Atkins (vocals, flute), Kevin Seal (piano, rhodes, vocals), and Darren Johnston (trumpet). Here is the teaser video; the lyrics appear below it.

Backed across that bastard,
Spun the mud like fabric,
Tires lifting dropping,
The shining river blinds me…

One false stitch is all it takes,
Just throw your fist across your face and split a lip.
What a thrill to hurt yourself without a thing to blame
for all the suffering.
Serves us right, the violent types,
a word is flipped inside your mind until it’s… shit.

Lost, all lost…

There’s no crazy crush when
The thought is lost in
All the confusion,
The current swept it off…

Back across the byway,
Took the Northern Northern,
Spinal cord and muscle,
I’m strong as hell, I’m open…

Hollow rock beside an estuary bank
of mud and slime where a boat sank.
Clothing stretched across a stone,
cold cigarettes and chicken bones are all he left.
Stinking tide reminds a rat of better times and all
the bread he left behind.
All of the crumbs and gristled fat
he threw at birds who nagged and snapped
and cursed his eyes.

The next song is “Velouria” by the Pixies (from their Bossanova album). Why this song, and not a different one? I don’t know; many songs could serve as an opening into their music, and this is one. The video here is about as anti-music-video as they come; throughout it, they’re walking across a quarry.

Hold my head, we’ll trampoline
Finally through the roof onto somewhere near and far in time
Velouria, her covering, traveling career
She can really move, oh, Velveteen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

Say to me, where have you been?
Finally through the roof
And how does lemur skin reflect the sea?
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the shine of the ever
We will wade in the tides of the summer, every summer
Every my Velouria, my Velouria

Forevergreen, I know she’s here in California
I can see the tears of Shasta sheen
My Velouria, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria
Even I’ll adore you, my Velouria

There’s something romantic about the song, and something nostalgic too, but beyond that, I don’t know what it means, and that does not bother me. What does lemur skin have to do with it all? Or Shasta sheen? According to some, these are references to the fabled lost land of Lemuria–but what this has to do with the adored Velouria, who can know? Those apparent non sequiturs keep this from being a typical love song. But you don’t even have to look that far; even the word “even” (“Even I’ll adore you”) raises questions. They don’t have to be answered; they just linger.

The next is Laurie Anderson’s “Monkey’s Paw” (from her Strange Angels album) all about dreams and limitations, but also about nothing, nothing at all, and glorious in its beats and sounds. I love the sliding beween singing and speech, the funny voice dipping and soaring and cooing, the playful intensity of it all.

Well I stopped in at the Body Shop
Said to the guy:
I want stereo FM installed in my teeth
And take this mole off my back
and put it on my cheek.
And uh… while I’m here, why don’t you give me
some of those high-heeled feet?
And he said: Listen there’s no guarantee
Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
but listen look out for the monkey’s paw
And I said: Whaaat? He said:

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s sayin: Haw haw!
It’s saying Gimme five!
It’s sayin: Bye bye!

I know a man he lost his head
He said: The way I feel I’d be better off dead.
He said: I got everything I ever wanted
Now I can’t give it up
It’s a trap, just my luck!

The gift of life it’s a leap of faith
It’s a roll of the die
It’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
You better Stop!
Look around!
Listen!

You- could- be- an- oca- rina- salesman-
going- from- door- to- door.
Or- would- you- like- to- swing- on- a- star-
and- carry- moon- beams- home?
Or- next- time- around- you- could- be-
a- small- bug-
Or- would- you- like- to- be- a- fish?

The gift of life it’s a twist of fate
It’s a roll of the die
it’s a free lunch A free ride
The gift of life it’s a shot in the dark
It’s the call of the wild
It’s the big wheel The big ride
But Nature’s got rules and Nature’s got laws
And if you cross her look out!
It’s the monkey’s paw
It’s singin’: Gimme Five!
It’s singin’: Bye Bye!

The last one I’d like to include today is Virgil Shaw’s (and Dieselhed’s) “Carving Soap.” It isn’t nonsense at all, but it pushes again and again toward nothing, and it has been one of my favorite songs for over twenty years. Here’s the recording from his solo album Quad Cities (the song also appears on the Dieselhed album Shallow Water Blackout).

I pull that knife towards my thumb
in the most delicate demeanor
the blade kisses my thumb
but it does not bleed ‘er
flecks fell to my feet
where I stood there on the street
and strips they fell away
in the most usual way, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

Every time I carve the soap
I try to make out something
Every time I carve the soap
well I always end up with nothing
sometimes I’m a sailor
and I’m engraving scrimshaw on the sea
and sometimes I’m a hunter
and I’m carving a big hunk of ivory, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

I fold that knife towards my palm
in the most delicate demeanor
it’s been three weeks
since I last felt cleaner
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away
I put that knife away
and I’m whittling my life away, uh huh

It feels good, just like chopping wood
it’s finger food, it feels good
just like carving soap should

The song is full of sadness and whimsy; one can easily say that it’s about wasting your life in some way, maybe–but the subtleties tell a different story, maybe about art and its hidden emptiness. Every piece of art risks being nothing, it risks being flecks of soap, as the imagined carving disappears before the eyes. Any artist risks being the one on the street, carving and carving away. But there’s also an addiction of sorts; “it feels good, just like chopping wood.” There’s some waste and loss here, and some beauty too, and something that cannot be told, except through song itself.

That concludes the fifth installment of the series. About nonsense I have said nothing at all, but I hope these songs have said something, or nothing, or a mixture of the two.

Photo credit: Back in 2016, I took the photo in the Northern Boulevard station (in Queens) and adjusted it later to say “Northern Northern,” in honor of 20 Minute Loop.

I revised this post substantially; for the 20 Minute Loop selection, I first chose “Jubilation,” then began to switch to “Cora May” (and posted an in-between draft by mistake) and then finally landed on (or in) “Hell in a Handbasket.” I made other revisions and additions as well.

For the earlier posts in the song series, go here, here, here, and here.

Song Series #4: What Is a Song?

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What is a song? It’s sung, and it often has a recognizable structure (verse-chorus, for instance). It’s memorable; something about it makes you want to sing along. But there’s more still; in a song, the music affects the lyrics and vice versa. Words and wordlessness interplay. Here are four classic examples.

In “Canción del árbol del olvido,” by Alberto Ginastera and Fernán Silva Valdés, performed by Víctor Jara, the lyrics are brief and haunting, ending in a reversal (forgetting to forget). The guitar tones and arpeggios carry the words languorously along, slowing down to stillness and then resuming; the song feels like it falls asleep and wakes up, again and again.

These are the lyrics:

En mi pago hay un árbol
que del olvido se llama
donde van a consolarse
vidalita, los moribundos del alma.

Para no pensar en vos
en el árbol del olvido
me acosté una nochecita
vidalita, y me quedé bien dormido.

Al despertar de aquel sueño
pensaba en vos otra vez
pues me olvidé de olvidarte
vidalita, en cuantito me acosté.

For the next song, I have to name “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. It’s an incredible example of how the music transforms the lyrics. On the page, they look like nothing, but in the music, they become a ring of fire itself; the repeated words (“down, down, down, down,” etc.) are flames leaping up. I love the off-kilter, varying measure counts, often found in Carter Family songs. Here’s the original version, sung by Anita Carter; after that and the lyrics, I’ll include the Johnny Cash version (1963), for which he brought in trumpets (an unusual choice for him). It was the Cash version that made the song famous, but I love the Carter version more.

Love is a burning thing
And it makes a fiery ring
Bringing her to the heart’s desire
I fell in to a ring of fire

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

The taste of love is sweet
When two fiery hearts meet
I believed you like a child
Oh, but the fire went wild

I fell into into the burning ring of fire
I fell down, down, down down
Into the deepest mire
And it burns, burns, burns burns
The ring of fire
The ring of fire

I wasn’t sure what to choose for the third. I had a few songs in mind, but they seemed remote from the first two; I will bring them up some other time. Then I had a dream about Ecclesiastes in the form of a song, and remembered–or maybe learned–that such a song exists: Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!.” covered by The Byrds, Nina Simone, and many others. The music gives the lyrics a mood different from what I would expect: something sparkling and thoughtful at once. Almost the entire song consists of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  Only a few words (“Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”) are Seeger’s own. Yet the music and those lyrical additions turn the Biblical passage into a dreamy yet grounded song.

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late!

And how different and gorgeous the Nina Simone version:

Well, this brought me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” beloved around the world. The melody, instruments, and intonations bring out the song’s complex tones. I love Leonard Cohen’s original more than any cover, but as far as covers go, I am drawn to Regina Spektor’s, especially this performance with cello.

That is all for this installment of the song series. The next one will focus on songs with a sense of the absurd.

I took the photo in Central Park on Friday, August 2.

To see the first three installments of the song series, go here, here, and here.

Song Series #3: Songs from Childhood

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Which songs do we love in childhood, and why (if a reason can even be found)? Which of these do we remember years later? Almost all children are drawn to songs; songs, from the lullaby to the playground chants, come up every day, even many times a day, in a child’s life. At least partly through songs, children start to learn to speak; even now, I find that songs help me learn languages. Songs give you phrases and melodies that you can take with you everywhere. You can play around with them, changing the words here and there, speeding them up, slowing them down. Songs also open up new experiences; they show you the world in a new way. That is true of the four songs I chose to include here. I heard all of them before the age of eleven.

The first is a lullaby. My mom sang it to me, and I heard it many times in my childhood, from infancy onward. I discovered only now that the text is part of Tennyson’s poem “The Princess.” It is known as “Sweet and Low.”

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother’s breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

I knew as a small child that the song was sad. I think it made me sob once or twice. But I loved imagining the “Silver sails all out of the west / Under the silver moon.” That was my favorite part of the melody too. Here is a recording by Bette Midler.

The second song, “Ah, Lovely Meadows”(an English translation of a Czech folksong), comes with a distinct memory. I was five or six; I know this because we still lived in Amherst. A few girls had come over; they were a year or two older than me. They sang this song, and I was amazed at how they could sing the fast words of the chorus so clearly, so precisely. I wanted to be able to sing fast like that. In retrospect, it wasn’t particularly fast, but it seemed rapid then. The rendition by the Friedell Middle School Choir sounds almost exactly like my memory of the song.

Now I skip from age five to nine. I was in fifth grade, and somehow a classmate and I (I think her name was Susie, though I could be imagining this because of the song) discovered that we could listen to records in the school library (together, with headphones on). That’s what we did. I remember how delighted we were with “Crocodile Rock” (written by Elton John and Ernie Taupin; performed by Elton John). I had never heard a song like that before; I didn’t know they existed. It had just come out that year. All this time, I have had the wrong lyrics in my head in several places. In other places I couldn’t tell what the lyrics were (and it didn’t matter at the time).

When I learned the fourth song (in Holland, at age 10, during a musical event involving the Nederlandse Pijpersgilde, the bamboo flute players’ guild), I was enchanted by the lyrics, which I didn’t fully understand or learn correctly. Somehow, in my mind, “Charlie will come again” turned into “Nature will try again.” Written by Sir Harold Boulton, the “Skye Boat Song” begins:

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing
Onward! the sailors cry
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye

Here is a recording by Alastair McDonald:

Putting this post together, I came to understand how a song can appeal to a child’s–or anyone’s–curiosity. You hear it and want to learn it and learn more about it. You might try to track down the lyrics, or learn the melody, or figure out what it means, or listen to it again and again, but beyond all that, you know that something happened to you when you heard it, and years later you remember those few minutes, even the faces in the room, the colors, the record spinning and shining on the turntable, the glance of glee.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál last night.

Here are the links to the first and second posts in the song series.

Song Series #2: Presser/Csík, Art of Flying, Waits

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On this blog I recently started a song series, in which I intend to present songs I have introduced in class, am planning to introduce, or wish to include for any reason. My main purpose is to draw attention to songs themselves and what they can hold and do–but purposes aside, this is fun. The first post focused on songs that I had brought to various classes and that we had sung along with cello.

This time, I will introduce three songs that remind me of each other in some way, whether musically, lyrically, or otherwise. All three are tremendous (they come up to you slowly and then shake something up in you); all have to do with love in a broken and transitory world. They all convey hope in some way without sidestepping loss and sadness. The Gábor Presser and Art of Flying songs remind me of each other melodically and rhythmically (in the chorus); the Presser and Tom Waits, lyrically. The Art of Flying lyrics stand apart. The similarities between these songs compelled me to consider them together; their differences are even more interesting than what they share.

The song “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” (“You will take my hand and take me home”), written by Presser, has to do with two people staying together even after everything and everyone else leaves them–youth, money, comfort, health, family, friends. Here are two different renditions; each one brings something different out of the song. It was Marcell Bajnai’s cover that introduced me to the song; I then heard it in a concert by the band Csík (this past Saturday night). Although I love the instrumental parts of the Csík version (and the way they transform the song), Marcell’s cover brings out the lyrics and gives them room. The mood of his rendition is different too: more reflective or matter-of-fact than exuberant.

Now listen to Art of Flying’s “Tomorrow” (one of my favorite songs in the world, on their wonderful album “Garden of Earthly Delights“); you will hear how the two choruses remind me of each other. As far as I know, there’s no video of the song; the recording is up on their Bandcamp site, where you can listen to all of their albums. I am proud to have played cello on one of their songs. Here, by following the link below (in an image of the record cover), you can listen to “Tomorrow” and read the lyrics, which begin:

I leaned my back against an oak
I thought it was a trusty tree
& first it bent & then it broke
my true love had forsaken me
my dream of peace could not come true
the wind had swept our hearts away
& so I sing this song to you
tomorrow blows us all away

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These lyrics, like many Art of Flying lyrics, hold a range of times; they are ancient and modern, immediate and evocative at once. The vocal harmonies go so gently along that you hardly realize what is happening to you until the song is over and you think, wait, what? How did that song get into my bones?

Finally, here is Tom Waits’s “Time.” The similarity between these and Presser’s lyrics lies not just in the theme, but in the relation between verse and chorus; in both, the verses (mostly) hold the brokenness, and the choruses the simple affirmation. Also, both speak of the future in some way; although Csík refers to physical action (taking a person’s hand and bringing the person home) and Waits to some metaphysical state (of it being “time” for something), they both speak of something that will endure or come into being. It was the Presser/Csík song that reminded me of the Waits song and how great it is.

That wraps it up for the second installment of the song series. Next time, unless some other ideas occur in the meantime, I intend to present a few songs that have had special importance to me over the decades, songs that have stood out as favorites over time.

I took the photo by the Zagyva river on Sunday night.

Update: After writing this post, I realized (on my own) that I had made an error: “Te majd kézenfogsz és hazavezetsz” is written by Gábor Presser; this is stated in Marcell Bajnai’s video credits, but I mistakenly thought he was a member of Csík. The Csík version is a cover; in the video, Presser performs it with them. I adjusted the post and title accordingly (and made some other edits too, while I was at it). Here is Presser’s own recording of the song. This adds to the correspondences; his voice and Waits’s have a similar texture.

Song Series # 1: Dylan, Waits, Sparks/Denver, ERQ

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Since birth, more or less, I have had songs in my life, whether through hearing them, singing them, playing them, dancing to them, teaching them, writing about them, writing them, trying to remember them, seeking them out at record stores, or carrying them in my mind. Songs are some of the first things we hear in the world. So why start a song series on my blog?

When teaching certain songs in English and Civilization classes, I have realized that students really take to them (flopped lessons aside) and often haven’t heard them before. I want to keep track of a few of the songs I teach (or hope to teach) and give students a way to find them again. For each song, I will post a video or recording and the lyrics. Your comments are welcome!

Here are four songs that I taught to several classes this week (we sang them, and I played cello accompaniment): “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan; “Today” by Randy Sparks, sung by John Denver and others; “Come On Up to the House” by Tom Waits (I include both his recording and Sarah Jarosz’s cover); and “More Bad Times” by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.

Here’s a 1963 live performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Here is Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House” (first his own recording, and then a wonderful cover by Sarah Jarosz):

Well, the moon is broken, and the sky is cracked.
Come on up to the house.
The only things that you can see is all that you lack.
Come on up to the house.

All your cryin’ don’t do no good.
Come on up to the house.
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.
You gotta come on up to the house.

Come on up to the house.
Come on up to the house.
The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
You got to come on up to the house.

There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire.
Come on up to the house.
And your singin’ lead soprano in a junkman’s choir.
You got to come on up to the house.

Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish, and short.
Come on up to the house.
The seas are stormy, and you can’t find no port.
Gotta come on up to the house, yeah.

And now for “Today,” as sung live by John Denver:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what the morrow shall bring

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing
Today….

And finally (for today), a beloved song by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, “More Bad Times,” as performed at the Rat in Boston. (The lyrics vary a little from version to version.)

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never had rabies
You never gained weight
You never came home with a scar
You never drank poison
You watched what you ate
You never so much as put a scratch on my car.

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never got measles
You never had gout
You never threw up at parades
You never got dizzy
You never fell out
You never picked up any live hand grenades

So many things did go wrong
But the list is not long enough
Not enough bad things to fill up a song

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never lost contacts
You never leaked oil
You never fell to sticks and stones
You never drank cleanser
You never ate foil
You never choked on any big chicken bones

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

And that wraps it up for the first installment of the song series. More to come, over time!

Image credit: House on the Hill (1902) by Pablo Picasso, courtesy of http://www.PabloPicasso.org.