Category Archives: Musical Stuff

Music of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

Romy and Michele's High School ReunionThis article is a compilation of seven articles that I wrote about songs features in the 1990s classic film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

The film itself is charming. It is quite funny, and the denouement is just perfect with Romy and Machele standing up for the value of their own lives. But it shows all the signs of needing a few more drafts. The whole dream sequence really muddiest the film and makes the rest of it (which is fairly unbelievable) hard to believe. Still, the film is quite enjoyable, the acting is wonderful, and its ultimate message about friendship is wonderful in our postmodern world.

Since the film represents the two women’s tenth-year reunion, it requires us to take a disturbing trip into 1980s pop. It was a time of twice destroyed music. First punk became “new wave” and then it just became pop. But it’s not always so bad. I’ve tried to pick the better material.

Time After Time

We start with the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time.”

Interestingly, the song was not on the soundtrack for the film. But it is the most important song in the film. It is featured when Romy is stood up by Billy Christensen, and then it is played again when Romy, Michele, and Sandy perform their their interpretive dance number before flying away in a helicopter.

When the song was playing on the radio, I liked it quite a lot. Now it sounds dated. I can’t make out a single acoustic instrument despite the fact that it really doesn’t need any electronics at all. The song is solid, even with the cliche hook. But the drum samples and synth sounds are really not that offensive. I think that producer Rick Chertoff gets a lot of credit for creating an overall sound for the album that doesn’t make my skin crawl.

The thing that I most dislike in “Time After Time” is something I was very fond of at the time: guitar flanging. But like anything that’s interesting in pop music, it was used to death and then for a few decades more. Flanging quickly became the go-to guitar sound when a producer had no idea what to do. But it worked on this song at that time, as I recall.

But you can’t make me sit through that any more than I already have, so here is a beautiful, almost acoustic version of the song live.

Just a Girl by No Doubt

Just a Girl - No DoubtRomy and Michele’s High School Reunion starts with a song that is not from the 1980s, because it is supposed to reflect their lives now. It’s a good song, “Just a Girl” by the band No Doubt. It isn’t great, like Trapped in a Box, but still.

What’s interesting about “Just a Girl” is that it is the perfect song for the film. Although it sounds light and pleasant, it is a highly political song. Slow it down and perform it with an acoustic guitar and you have a Natalie Merchant song. Although “Just a girl” is repeated more often, technically the refrain is, “I’ve had it up to here!” And that is, ultimately, what Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is all about.

“Just a Girl” starts with what was always a curious lyric to me, “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes.” Now it seems ridiculously obvious what that’s all about. The trappings of femininity are used to blind women from their subjugation. And the line is followed by a far more disturbing line, “I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise.” I see “exposed” as a synonym for “naked.” The song makes many references to the objectification of women. But it also indicates that regardless of the pink ribbons, women still know their situation on a more fundamental level.

Of course, “Just a Girl” is also exactly the kind of music that Romy and Michele would have been dancing to in the mid-1990s.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Get Close - Don't Get Me WrongIn a sense, this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion Morning Music week has been a bust. The idea was that we would have a lot of terrible music from the 1980s, but thus far, the music has been pretty good. Today does not help matters: “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by The Pretenders.

But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great song. But it works very well. The first part of it seems to be a very cheery celebration of being in love. The second part of it is about the volatility of love. The key line is, “Don’t get me wrong if I fall in the mode of passion.” The “mode of passion” is, put simply, lust. And the singer seems to be saying that she should be forgiven the ebb and flow of her love just as she forgives it of her lover.

Regardless of how you want to read the song, there is always something incredibly compelling about Chrissie Hynde when she’s singing something that is sweet as in perhaps my favorite Pretenders’ song, Kid. But today, it is the much more straightforward “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” It’s nice. Nothing that Elizabeth needs to be ashamed of liking. But I will search the film for something really awful. There is at least some material that is mediocre.

Oh, and regarding this video: I had never seen it before, so it’s interesting that I should have mentioned the British television series The Avengers in yesterday’s Odds and Ends post. Although I think the video matching is terrible in it. But it was doubtless state-of-the-art at the time.

Just What I Needed

The Cars - Just What I NeededI’m going to veer off the Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion soundtrack and go back almost a decade to present “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. But let’s face it: it would fit in fine in the film. And there is much to recommend it. The truth is that music hadn’t change over that period of time, although admittedly, this song sounded pretty new back in 1978.

I’ve long favored guitar focused pop music, unless you are going to do something as pretty as Breaking Us in Two (although Joe Jackson was rather good at doing guitar based songs as well). But that’s the great thing about 1978: it was still before the explosion of FM synthesizers. There’s no pretense! “Just What I Needed” is using something very much like the Minimoog. Blessed be the analog god! I also like the guitar work on it — well, the lead work, which gives me chills. The rhythm guitar is pretty standard pop-rock.

What’s problematic is the lyrics. They are entirely typical of everything Ric Ocasek would ever write. He gets a good idea and then takes it nowhere. The best example of that is My Best Friend’s Girl, an idea that is so rich with emotional potential that he mines for exactly nothing.

Similarly, “Just What I Needed” means, what? I never get the impression that Ocasek knows. I guess we are supposed to take “I needed someone to bleed” as meaningful. But all I can find in it is that the word “bleed” rhymes with “feed.” Does he mean suggest that he needed someone who loved him so much that she bled?

I’m more than willing to interpret songs. That is, after all, what the listener is supposed to do. But the songwriter has to do their part and provide something to work with. I know emotionally what’s going on here: it’s about the beginning of a relationship that is a bad idea. But none of that much matters, as it doesn’t matter in any of Ocasek’s songs, because his mastery of pop songwriting is perfect.

We Got the Beat

Beauty and the Beat - We Got the BeatI think there are a couple of songs by The Go-Go’s in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. But I picked “We Got the Beat” because I know it was in there and I don’t want to go back to the film and search around. Anyway, it’s an amazing, and maybe even great, song. Writing something that charmingly awkward is really hard. I can do the awkward, but certainly during the last 20 years, no one thinks what I write is charming — in fact, they can’t even bear it.

But I was wondering earlier if I considered The Go-Go’s a punk band. Being of limited skill is really not what punk is about. For example, Minutemen were amazing musicians. And overall, I don’t think The Go-Go’s were a punk band. But they definitely had those roots. You can definitely hear this on the original Stiff Records version of “We Got the Beat” from 1980. The music is raw; it reminds me of early Kinks. But more than that, it pays explicit tribute to the “girl groups” of decades previous. And that is very much one kind of punk music. I would say that is ultimately what makes Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers punk.

The later recording of We Got the Beat (the one in the film) is much more polished. It’s still arguably a great tune in the tradition of Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets. (According to Wikipedia, the song “evolved” from The Miracles’ “Going to a Go Go,” but I don’t especially hear it.) Regardless, it’s a fun song. But I think this earlier version is more fun because I can imagine them in Beehive hairdos. Just click “play” and close your eyes and imagine.

N-Trance’s Stayin’ Alive

Electronic Pleasure - Stayin' AliveContinuing our Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week, we have N-Trance’s remix, rap version of “Stayin’ Alive.” It isn’t an 80s song. It is playing at the club when Romy and Michele go out before even hearing about the reunion. But I thought I would highlight it because I hate the original song.

Look, it isn’t that I hate disco. The truth is, there was a lot of great disco. I just can’t stand that falsetto lead. It is quite a bit less annoying with the harmonies in the chorus. Also, the lyrics are ridiculous, although that’s at least true to form. The rap lyrics (by Ricardo da Force, who is also the rapper) are along the same lines, but quite a bit stronger. (Just to be clear, N-Trance is more of a music project, with two producers heading it and a floating, but dependable group of musicians helping out.)

I can’t say that I like this version of “Stayin’ Alive.” But I certainly don’t dislike it as much as I do the original. But the song works in the film, because when Romy initially has the idea that they will impress their classmates because of the cool lives they have, she isn’t wrong on the second part of that. Certainly Christie Masters-Christensen wouldn’t have been going out to clubs and listening to music that hip.

Watching a bit of the film again, I’m reminded that Mira Sorvino is so much better a dancer than Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow is amazingly stiff in all the dance numbers; she reminds me of myself! Or maybe it’s just great acting, because somehow it seems to fit her character.

Blood and Roses by The Smithereens

Especially for You - Blood and Roses - The SmithereensWe will finish off this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week with The Smithereens and probably their best known song, “Blood and Roses.” It’s what I think of as “power pop,” but most people wouldn’t classify it like that. It’s very pleasant, melody-driven music with a bit more heft to it than pop normally has (or had).

The song has a very nice bass riff. And there is something very compelling about Pat DiNizio’s voice. The verse is almost modal. The interesting thing about that is I was always obsessed with that when I was writing songs in my youth. But the truth is that as a listener, at least now, it is fairly boring. I suppose what I used to like about it was its hypnotic quality. But the song breaks into a more interesting chorus.

Lyrically, there isn’t much there. But interestingly, we are back to the image of blood. Still, it’s distinctly adolescent material, “I want to live but I don’t belong.” It reminds me of a stand-up comedian I saw decades ago. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I found this poem I wrote when I was 15, ‘The moon is high; the sea is calm; I hate my parents.” Obviously “Blood and Roses” is more thoughtful, but not by a whole lot.

Just the same, it’s quite an enjoyable tune. And I suppose we can all relate to the basic idea of the death of love. Now that I think about it, the song is kind of like American Music Club’s Firefly, but from a writer who didn’t drink himself to sleep each night. That may be why “Blood and Roses” was a hit, and “Firefly” was not. But it’s still the case that American Music Club is a better band. Feel free to disagree.

Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Brownie McGheeIn the past, I’ve written articles like, A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And while I love them, no one else seems to. I figure that is because most people don’t want to listen to different versions of the same song five times in a row. But it would make a very compelling series of articles.

Born and Livin’ With The Blues

So let’s do a week of Brownie McGhee. He was a practitioner of Piedmont blues. It is a special form of guitar playing that sounds a lot like ragtime played on a guitar. The best example of the art form is probably Blind Boy Fuller. It was very big in the 1920s. After World War II it fell out of favor. But in the late 1950s, it really came back thanks to the folk revival. They really liked it for what I think are pretty obvious reasons.

I’ll have more to say about McGhee throughout the week. For now let’s just listen to one of his better known songs, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Playing with him is harmonica player Sonny Terry. I’ll have more to say about him too.

Rainy Day

Rainy Day - Brownie McGheeI was first introduced to Brownie McGhee in one of my favorite films, Angel Heart. In it, he plays a voodoo worshiping blues musician, Toots Sweet. He gets one of the best lines in the film, “We ain’t all Baptists down here, sonny!” He’s great in the film. It amazed me to find out that he wasn’t some old character actor. But if singing the blues doesn’t make you an actor, I don’t know what does.

In the film, we get to hear him perform the end of one of his songs, “Rainy Day.” It is a beautiful song. It’s even in the script. Harry Angel comes up to him and say, “That’s some beautiful tune you was singing there, Mr Sweet.” I’m sure you will agree:

Red River Blues and Crow Jane

Brownie McGhee/Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-1974Sonny Terry was blinded early on in life, and without the ability to farm, he turned to music out of desperation. At some point, he hooked up with Blind Boy Fuller. That’s pretty much being at the top of the profession. Fuller was such a great guitar player. But he died in 1941, and so Terry hooked up with Brownie McGhee. The two of them played together pretty consistently for decades until Terry died in 1986. In fact, the two of were in The Jerk together. I didn’t much like that film. But now I’m going to have to track it down, just to see them.

In the following video, we get to see the two of them do two classic blues numbers. The first is a Peg Leg Howell tune, “Red River Blues.” I must admit to finding Howell extremely uneven. And his performance of this song leaves much to be desired. But it’s a great song and McGhee and Terry do well by it. They move from it seamlessly into Skip James’ “Crow Jane.” In the latter song, Sonny Terry does some great hollering (or whatever you want to call it). You can see in this video why these two were popular: they seem like they’re having a great time and it’s infectious. This video is from the DVD Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-1974.

Stranger Blues

Hometown BluesMoving on with our week of Brownie McGhee, we have another song with his longtime collaborator Sonny Terry. This one is an Elmore James song, “Stranger Blues.” Of course, it’s always hard to say who wrote what. It is an entirely standard 12-bar blues. What’s more interesting here is that it is clearly done on a television stage. It seems like someone may have had the idea of creating something like an African American Hee Haw. But actually good.

Musically, the song is interesting because of the vocal harmony during the refrain. This is the sort of thing that made people refer to McGhee and Terry as “country blues.” It works really well — gives the music that something extra. Of course, the two of them are so great, they hardly need it. I just love this stuff.

My Baby’s So Fine

I Couldn't Believe My EyesDoing these posts with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry are a great pleasure musically. But in terms of research, they are a real pain. I find that I spend a lot of time trying to track down just what songs they are doing. They don’t tend to do standards. Even the classics that they do are not widely known — at least to me. And then, like all great blues musicians, they make the songs their own — including by changing the lyrics.

In the following video, they do a song called, “My Baby’s So Fine.” It seems to come from an album that McGhee did with Earl Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s cousin), I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes. Although Sonny Terry’s name was not on the album, he was playing on the whole thing. And he wrote the song.

This video also includes a medley of “Poor Man” and “Fighting a Losing Battle but Having a Lot of Fun Trying to Win.” The first song I’m not sure about. The second song is written by Brownie McGhee. I suspect that the first one is too; it’s his style. Unfortunately, it gets cut off just a bit. Still, the whole video is worth listening too.

Cornbread and Peas

California Blues - Terry and McGheeHere is a song that I assume was written by Sonny Terry, “Cornbread, Peas, and Black Molasses,” off California Blues. I don’t know why. It just seems like a more standard blues — although not entirely. Anyway, it is a fun little song. But if you feel you must have more today, check out their version of Randy Newman’s song Sail Away off their album, Sonny & Brownie. It’s really great! I think Arlo Guthrie is doing background vocals on it.

This video has a brief introduction to the song. I didn’t know that Brownie McGhee had suffered from polio as a child. These two were quite the pair.

A Whole Set of Brownie and Sonny

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGheeLet’s end this Brownie McGhee week with a whole set by him and Sonny Terry. Why not? It’s the weekend. You have a half hour. This is from a 1974 BBC concert. It includes just one song that I featured earlier in the week — and how could it not feature that one. It’s interesting to see how they work the audience. Clearly, it is Terry who is the extroverted of the two. And he has a stage presence that is exactly what you would expect from a lifetime of working in front of folk audiences. There’s a good deal of “joke folk” in Sonny Terry.

What’s amazing with these guys is that once they get going, it seems like a whole lot more than just two guys. Part of it is just that McGhee is an amazing guitarist. Another part is that Terry manages to move back and forth from singing and playing without missing a beat — literally! He is also a much more varied harmonica player than I’m used to. And he’s great at playing backup when that’s called for, as with, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Enjoy!

Everything You Need to Know About Jim Croce

Jim CroceJim Croce was the great musician of my youth. He was born in 1943. It’s hard to believe, but he was only 30 years old when he died.

He looked, and still looks like he had been beaten up by life. He was a great storyteller and that came across in his songs. I was only 9 when he died, but it was terrible. I remember my older sister calling me to tell me the news. Another one of my projects (and perhaps the one that I am most excited about) is a one-man play, “Deconstructed.” It is simply a number of deconstructions of various things. One of them is a deconstruction of Croce’s song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”

It may surprise you, but I get ten minutes out of it. You see, I know every song off Croce’s three official albums by heart. I even know many of them on guitar. So I’ve thought about them in much more depth than any sane person should. And I have decided that he totally screwed up on that particular song. I’m not going to go into it. You will just have to wait until I start my tour. But if you listen to the song carefully — and I mean 100 times carefully — all will be revealed.

But see if you can find the many problems with the story that is told in the song.

That Time Jim Croce Made the First Issue of People (He Was Dead)

People WeeklyIn 1974, the first issue of People was released. It was then referred to as People Weekly. I know that issue very well. When my parents owned a 7-11 store, my father was in the habit of grabbing of the first issues of everything that came in. That included Hustler, as I recall. But the reason that I most remember People is because it had an article in it, “Jim Croce: Million Dollar Music Legacy.” This was about 6 months after Croce had died. And people were apparently still not tired of him, given that he was a whole lot more popular after he died than before.

But the cover featured Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 filmed version of The Great Gatsby — you know: the Robert Redford one. I remember seeing it on television later and being surprised at how much my 11-year-old self liked the film. I’ve seen it since. I missed a lot when I was a kid. I don’t much care for the look of the film. But I think the movie captures the book perfectly. And Farrow was perfect as Daisy.

People Weekly: It Was All About Sex

When I was having tea with my cousin yesterday, we discussed the nature of romance and how it was doomed. Well, that was my conclusion anyway. The problem is that two people who are really compatible don’t tend to generate that romantic spark (or let’s be real: sexual) that “love” requires. The kind of person who I could stand to live with would never be the kind of person who I would be attracted to in that way. Now, it would be easy enough to just write this off as my own neurotic nature. But I’ve seen it too much in others to think that I’m not representative of the vast majority of people.

Anyway, I doubt that I’ve opened another copy of People since that first one. The only magazines I open these days have either recipes or Sudoku puzzles inside. Yes, I suppose I’m old.

Croce’s Number 1: Maury Muehleisen

Maury MuehleisenMaury Muehleisen is best known as Jim Croce’s lead guitarist. In fact, Croce always toured as a duo with Muehleisen. Before that, Croce was playing guitar for Muehleisen, but after the poor sales of his first album, Gingerbreadd, that changed. Most important, Muehleisen was a huge influence on Croce’s writing. Until he started working with Muehleisen, Croce wrote pretty standard, three chord, folk songs. Muehleisen taught him a more sophisticated approach to composition — with leading tones and jazz chords. The results are striking. Just check out the album, The Faces I’ve Been. Compare the writing before and after Muehleisen showed up on the scene.

Here are a couple of Muehleisen songs. The first is “I Remember Mary,” which was the first song of his I had ever heard him sing. (I had, of course, heard Jim Croce’s performance of Muehleisen’s song “Salon and Saloon” — still one of my favorites.) It’s quite good:

And here is another off Gingerbreadd, “Free To Love You”:

Muehleisen, of course, died with Jim Croce in that plane crash at the age of 24. It’s very sad. He certainly would have gone on to do great work.

Jim Croce’s Music

I used to do a morning music feature on this blog and I featured Jim Croce on a number of times. I’ve put them all together here.

Old Man River

The Faces I've Been - Jim CroceFor no good reason, I thought that I would spend the week listening to Jim Croce singing songs that he didn’t write. This is probably because I’ve had “Old Man River” going through my head all day. I first heard it on the album The Faces I’ve Been — a reference to his song “The Hard Way Every Time.” It was released after his death (like pretty much everything else). It was kind of a biography of him.

According to the extensive liner notes, they had Croce record “Old Man River” to show to the record companies that he could perform other people’s music. And it’s very true. Croce had an amazing ability to make whatever song he sang his own. Or at least that was true in the later years. Sadly, The Faces I’ve Been has never been released on CD. But you can get it on 8-track!

For those interested, the entire album, The Faces I’ve Been, is on YouTube.

I Got a Name

I Got a NameJim Croce was a singer-songwriter during that period when that was the thing to be on Top 40 radio. And he was a great songwriter — especially so because he was a great storyteller. If you’ve listened to him perform live, you know that he easily spent more time telling stories than singing. But one thing that often surprises people is that Croce’s hit song “I Got a Name” was not written by him. It was written by two movie theme hacks (great hacks, but hacks nonetheless) Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox for the film The Last American Hero.

Because Croce did almost exclusively his own music, people don’t appreciate his amazing ability to make other people’s writing his own. This is quite apparent on Old Man River and the Maury Muehleisen song Salon and Saloon. But here he is performing “I Got a Name” live with Muehleisen on lead guitar and producer Tommy West on piano:

Working at the Car Wash Blues

I Got a Name -Working at the Car Wash BluesAs my sister was getting ready for work today, she mentioned one of my favorite Jim Croce tunes, “Working at the Car Wash Blues.” It was off his last album, I Got a Name. It’s a very funny song — very much in the tradition of Roger Miller. The singer is talking about his new job working at a car wash after having been released from jail for “non-support” (not paying child support). In one way, it’s a very nasty song because the singer does not come off well.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to love the guy. He’s just gotten out of jail — basically for not having any money — but, as Croce says in the introduction to the song, he “thinks he should be ruling the universe.” I have a certain love for these kinds of people because I think I’m kind of the opposite. Yes, I have a lot of skills, but I probably should be working at the car wash.

And especially in this country, can we say that the man is wrong? I’ve met lots of rich people in my life and very few of them are worthy of their wealth. The film Trading Places had it right. Some old meth addict could well be running a Fortune 500 company while some superstar executive in an air conditioned office with a swivel chair might be more correctly working at the car wash.

Ball of Kerrymuir

Jim Croce: the Final TourIn 1989, Jim Croce Live: The Final Tour was released. It was very exciting, because I had never seen Croce live (he died when I was 9 years old) or even heard anything live except one song on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The amazing thing about the disc is that roughly half of it is Croce telling stories. He was a great storyteller, which is hardly surprising given his many great story songs.

Today, we listen to “Ball of Kerrymuir.” It is a humorous song. Croce had quite a good sense of humor. An early song from his folk days was “Pig Song.” But also many of Croce’s own songs were funny like “Speedball Tucker” — with the line, “95 was the route you were on, it was not the speed limit sign.” In fact, on this live album, Croce introduces the two minute song with a seven minute story.

According to Croce, “Ball of Kerrymuir” was written down by Robert Burns. I think this is a common belief, but it isn’t true. Regardless, it is an old and very bawdy song:

Thursday

I Got a NameOn Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, there was a song “Thursday” by this mysterious guy named Sal Joseph. It turns out that Joseph (real name: Joe Salviuolo) was a college friend of Jim Croce’s. He was later a communications professor at Glassboro State College, where he taught Maury Muehleisen. So Joseph introduced Muehleisen and Croce. You can read all about it at Sound Click, where you can also hear a number of Joseph’s songs including “Groundless,” which appears to be about Jim Croce’s death.

“Thursday” is very much a Jim Croce kind of song. It’s a man’s lament that he loves a woman more than she loves him. There’s also a fair amount of bitterness — similar to Croce’s own songs “Lover’s Cross” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.” But the refrain is nicely understanding, “I was looking for a lifetime lover, and you were looking for a friend.” It’s good when people can see that truth.

Chain Gang Medley

The Faces I've Been - Jim CroceWe have another song off the album The Faces I’ve Been. Or rather, it is a medley of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Butler, Carter, and Mayfield’s “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and Leiber and Stoller’s “Searchin’.”

I believe that the musicians on the song are — at least in part — Tommy West and Terry Cashman who produced all his albums and were a well known songwriting team. I’ll point out Tommy West later in the week. In general, when you hear a piano in a Croce tune, it is West.

Salon and Saloon

I Got a NameOn Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, he performed three songs by other writers. The best of them was “Salon and Saloon” by his lead guitarist and friend Maury Muehleisen. It’s totally unlike any other song that Croce ever performed. Even though he was much younger, Muehleisen had a profound impact on Croce’s song writing. He taught Croce basic music theory. Up to that point, Croce’s music had all been very much in the folk tradition of of I-IV-V chords.

The song is harmonically complex, with lots of dominant, minor, and even major sevenths. But it is also interesting in how it plays with time signatures. When I was ten years old, I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t hear it. But when I rediscovered it in my mid-teens, it blew me away. It’s such a beautiful song.

Jim’s Son: Adrian James Croce

Operator single - Jim CroceNot surprisingly, Jim Croce had a son who is an incredibly talented musician. (It isn’t just jim; his wife Ingrid is also a talented musician.) He does rather different music from his father, and almost never does his father’s songs. Below, we get a real treat: Jim and Ingrid’s son performing one of Jim Croce’s big hits: “Operator.”

His name is Adrian James Croce (usually known as AJ Croce) on the 40th anniversary of its release. (Well, that’s what he says. The performance is on 8 June 2012 and according to Wikipedia, the song was released on 23 August 1972. Maybe he means it was recorded that day. Or first performed. Or maybe it means AJ is just wrong, given that he was less than a year old.)

AJ Croce as His Own Man

AJ Croce is a great musician. I heard a whole concert of his many years ago and I was very impressed. I especially remember his cover of Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot.” Anyway, AJ Croce has stayed very much away from riding on his father’s shirttails. For example, he does not sing like him and doesn’t write the same kind of material. Actually, I think he’s a much greater musical talent than his father — but obviously, he had many advantages.

Operator: The Story

AJ CroceLike a good fraction of Croce tunes, “Operator” tells a story. In this case, it tells the story of a man trying to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend who ran off with his best friend. But as the song continues on, it is clear that the singer does not wish to reconnect; he only wishes for someone to talk to. It’s like in the the Janis Ian song “In the Winter” where she sings, “And for a dime I can talk to God.” In Croce’s case, it is the operator.

The song is outdated. Not only is a payphone call a lot more than a dime, you can hardly find a payphone anymore. What’s more, there are no longer human operators. Hell, there are very few human anythings. Soon, you’ll have to hire a prostitute just to have someone to talk to. And yet, I think that “Operator” works as well today as it did 40 years ago. It all comes down to the story, which is eternal, and Croce’s performance, which sounds like he’s lived it.

But here is Jim’s only son singing his father’s hit. And it is well worth a listen.

So Long, Chuck Berry

Chuck BerryThe rock and roll legend Chuck Berry died yesterday at the age of 90. When I a kid, I thought of him as just a great guitarist — certainly the most recognizable and most copied lead guitar player ever. And he was certainly that. But I tend to downplay it now. Sad as it is to say, he is the only lead guitar player who I can play like — basically, I’ve never gotten past the surfer bands of the 1960s, and they didn’t know a thing they didn’t learn from listening to Chuck Berry.

It was only later that I realized that he is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. And I’m not just talking about rock and roll. He is as good as Rodgers and Hart, for example. And I can’t really give a songwriter any greater compliment. There is lots to say about Berry’s life, but I prefer to let the music speak for itself. So let’s listen to a few of his hits.

First there is the classic, and possibly the greatest rock and roll song ever (but not my favorite), “Johnny B Goode”:

Second is one of my favorites, “You Never Can Tell”:

Beyond Teen Music

One thing I especially like about Berry’s work is that by and large it isn’t adolescent. That doesn’t take away from it’s fun. But I love the multiple generations of “You Never Can Tell” — rather a more adult take on marriage than The Beach Boys’ anemic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

In “Memphis, Tennessee” he wrote about trying to get in touch with his daughter following a break-up. It’s poignant:

New National Anthem?

As many of you know, I’m not fond of our national anthem. Not only does it have a questionable history, it isn’t a pleasant tune and it brings out the worst in our modern day screechers. But Chuck Berry wrote a song that would make a great national anthem, “Back in the USA.” It is the most patriotic song I know of, and without a hint of jingoism. Maybe it’s time to finally change:

What can I say? Chuck Berry gave more than he took. I guess I’ll just take a hint from Douglas Adams…

So long, and thanks for all the songs, Chuck Berry!

Transubstantiation of Elvis

Elvis PresleyIn 1992, I went to Hong Kong for the first time. I was sitting in the back of a little Irish pub. And I was pretty drunk. And in walks a Chinese Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit studded to the ridiculous extreme that we are all accustom to. Holding an acoustic guitar, he performs “Hound Dog,” collects tips and leaves. You got all that, right? Hong Kong, Irish pub, Elvis. The next day I wasn’t sure myself. I had to ask my colleagues, and they confirmed it: I did in fact see a Chinese Elvis do “Hound Dog” in an Irish pub in Hong Kong. Many people go their entire lives without ever experiencing something as magical.

I love Elvis and even more, I love Elvis Culture. In a sense, Elvis is America: a drug addict who wanted Nixon to make him an undercover DEA agent; a white guy who made millions off the work of poor blacks; and a country rube who somehow connects to a universal audience. In addition to all of this, the music is just fantastic. But it’s the Vegas act silliness that drives the culture. Although I do not particularly like watching Elvis at that stage of his career, I do like what it has spawned. I never would have gone to see one of those shows, but I’d thrill to see Elvis impersonators.

So when I noticed that the film Almost Elvis was available on Netflix, I had to watch it. It isn’t a great film, but it is fascinating. It follows a group of Elvis Impersonators as they compete for the “Images of Elvis” prize for the best Elvis impersonator in the world. It focuses on Irv Cass, a professional from Michigan. Little did I know it, but there is a network of Elvis impersonators throughout the world. If you want one, you call up EEN (Elvis Entertainment Network) and they will send one out. Cass is one them, and seems to make a decent living doing it:

Cass is very free with his opinions of the competition. Since he was one of the most established people in the field at that time, he knows them all. He’s rather good at talking about their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, he nicely systematizes what it is to be an Elvis impersonator. And this brings up probably the most interesting part of the film: race. One of the top people in the field is Robert Washington, who is a black man. Mostly everyone is very respectful of him. But they also admit that he doesn’t look like Elvis because of his race.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think that any of the impersonators looks like Elvis the man. If you take away the hair and the sideburns and the outfits, they just look like random white guys. So really, when we are talking about Elvis, we aren’t really talking about his face. Elvis isn’t a person anymore; he’s an archetype. So to me, it is all about getting up on stage with “the look” (hair, burns, suit) and moving and sounding like Elvis. What’s more, in Washington’s case, he isn’t all that black. Until people started talking about it, I just thought he was really tanned.

All the people said the same thing: I question whether Washington will ever win the title, not because I don’t like him, but because of the judges being, well, racist. This is typical: people generally think their neighbors are more racist than they actually are. At the end of the film, Washington came in second. The good news is he later won the event. Check him out; he’s great:

An academic interviewed for the film referred to the “transubstantiation of Elvis” to explain why people want more than just the music. The music is enough for me. But he’s right: these guys do become The King. And that’s pretty great.

Morning Music: Françoise Hardy

Françoise HardySince I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)

But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.

Morning Music: Hurt

The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch NailsI’ve known the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” for a very time. But I seldom pay attention to lyrics of a song that I hear casually. Today, I looked them up. It’s pretty good. I like the connection of self-mutilation (“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”) and heroin use (“The needle tears a hole… Try to kill it all away”). I’m not so fond of the externalization of the self (“What have I become, my sweetest friend”). But that’s a choice, and very typical of the genre.

The wonderful thing about a song like this is that everyone can related. You don’t have to be self-mutilator or a junkie. Even 14 year old kids feel like they’ve experienced it. When Trent Reznor wrote the song, he was only 29. And his greatest period of depression and despair came years after writing the song.

Depression Is Not Absolute

In the 12 Step mythology, one must reach “rock bottom” before one can “recover.” But the truth is that there is no rock bottom. As bad as you feel, it almost certainly will get worse. All that happens is that you get better at dealing with it. Depression and despair become decoupled.

I remember one of Vincent van Gogh’s last letters to Theo where he noted that he could get some canvases and paint and do some work, but comments what would be the point. I’ve misinterpreted that comment however, thinking that it came right before van Gogh’s suicide. But it didn’t. After writing that, he did get some canvases and paints and did continue on. In fact, he appears to have shot himself while painting.

Anyway, we continue on. Artists whine for us because it is certainly true that no one is interested in hearing us whine. Everybody’s got their troubles. And everybody thinks theirs are as bad as they get. Don’t make that mistake.

Afterword

I couldn’t find a good copy of the album version. The change of “I wear this crown of shit” to “I wear this crown of thorns” is pretty much unforgivable. It trivializes everything else in the song. Sorry about that.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Slaves - Nobody Knows the Trouble I've SeenYesterday I was feeling kind of sorry for myself and started singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Now, I feel kind of bad about that. After all, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of trouble, but it’s almost entirely my own damned fault. Just the same, relative suffering is worse than absolute suffering. Think of Richard Wilkinson’s work on inequality and how relative inequality is the killer. So I think I can be allowed my meta-grumbles.

I hardly have a good voice for “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen.” So I went on YouTube to find some performances of it. The song itself dates back to at least the middle of the 19th century — and could be much older than that. It does seem a natural song to come out of slavery.

Marian Anderson

By the early 20th century, the song had been co-opted by classical musicians of the time. And this resulted in Marian Anderson having the first really successful version of it. That was in 1924 when she was 27 years old. And she would live almost 70 years afterward.

It’s a very restrained performance, focused on the music. What’s probably most interesting is that I always think of it as a song sung by a man. But that isn’t at all the case, as this version, and many others attest.

Paul Robeson

Two years later, Paul Robeson recorded the song. His deep bass voice is irresistible. Still, his performance is very similar to Anderson’s. It’s hardly surprising, however. Slavery was still a living memory. And it isn’t like life was that great for blacks then either.

Here is a later recording where his performance is more emotional and free:

Harry James

In 1941, trumpeter and bandleader Harry James recorded an instrumental version of the song. It’s good, but it is performed just as a tune. It’s very much in the style of Glenn Miller. One can almost imagine it accompanying a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Louis Armstrong

By the 1950s, the song seemed to be something different for everyone. Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1958. It’s kind of hard to know what to make of it. Armstrong was so idiosyncratic and so talented that he transcends everything. I’m not keen on the arrangement. And his spoken word segments would embarrass me if they were done by anyone else. But it’s just wonderful — joyous without losing the weariness of the song.

Sam Cooke

A couple of years later, Sam Cooke recorded the song in his own inimitable way. It is both rocking and sad. I don’t know. Cooke was such an amazing talent that it really is pointless to talk about. Just listen:

Mahalia Jackson

Let’s finish off with a real gospel version of the song by Mahalia Jackson. She recorded the song a few times. This version was (like much of her work) not released during her lifetime. But I figure it was recorded in the late 1960s or early 1970s (she died in 1972). It’s the kind of performance that makes me feel like I’m missing out by not being a Christian:

Nobody Knows

So that’s all. This isn’t really a history of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But it does give you a good idea of how the musicians have changed in their thinking of it. In the 1950s, things get very postmodern in the sense of everyone just doing their own thing. But there are times when those very serious early versions are preferable.

Buffalo Rider, Guy on a Buffalo, and Idiosyncratic Art

Buffalo RiderThis morning, I discovered an amazing film from 1978, Buffalo Rider. In a refreshing bit of honest advertising, it is about a guy who rides a buffalo. It is a classic exploitation film. By that I mean that the producers found this guy (Rick Guinn) who rode a buffalo and thought, “Well there’s a movie in that!” After all, it was only in 1974 that the low budget The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams became a blockbuster. And Adams doesn’t ride around on Ben in the film. So Buffalo Rider certainly must have seemed like independent film gold.

If I had to pick a film that Buffalo Rider is most like, it would be Death Bed: the Bed that Eats. But George Barry’s masterpiece is so much more. It’s the work of a truly warped mind without consideration for what an audience might think. It is also a purely amateur production. Buffalo Rider is a professional production and it is interested in one thing above all: money.

The Real Buffalo Jones

Supposedly, it is based on the life of Charles “Buffalo” Jones. The real Buffalo Jones did not, as far as I can tell, ever ride a buffalo. He is remembered as a conservationist, although what the term meant in the late 19th century is a little different from what it means today. While he did save a lot of buffalo, it was mostly to sell to zoos and such. And before that, he was best known as a killer of buffalo. Like the makers of Buffalo Rider, Buffalo Jones was mostly interested in making money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. We all gotta eat.

Buffalo Rider seems to be based on a film the same group made two years earlier, The Life and Legend of Buffalo Jones. But I can’t find out anything about it except what commenter Nokose Fixico at CasCity wrote, “Only thing I really remember of the plot was this man Jones catching and breaking a buffalo and doing some riding and shooting.” He might be remembering Buffalo Rider.

A Most Bizarre Film

The film is part nature documentary and part revenge comedy. Forty minutes into it, the film sidetracks for ten minutes on the story of a raccoon. It really has nothing to do with the rest of the film. But then, very little in this film has anything to do with anything else. Why would it need to? There’s a guy who rides buffalo! And clearly, they had an animal trainer. “Oh look, a scene with some wolves! Hey, a black bear! Some grizzly bears fighting!” It’s all good.

It reminded me very much of the octopus in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. Why’s it there? Wood apparently got his hands on some stock footage of an octopus. You know the old saying, “Don’t let a good thing go to waste”? For the exploitation filmmaker, it’s a little different: don’t let anything go to waste. Hence: The Terror. And don’t get me wrong: I think it’s awesome. Did I mention Buffalo Rider has a guy riding around on a buffalo?

Buffalo Rider Plot Summary

Anyway, the story, so much as there is one, is this: there’s this hippy living the life in the old west. He comes upon a young buffalo being attacked by two wolves. Jones saves the poor creature. Eventually, he tames it and breaks it, allowing it to be ridden. Other than the wolves part, this appears to be exactly what Rick Guinn himself did. Then, three bad guy buffalo hunters shoot Jones so they can kill his buffalo. But Jones and his buffalo are saved by Sam Robinson. Robinson and his wife bring Jones back to health.

Now Jones is bent on revenge. He’s going to get those men. It’s all good because Mrs Robinson’s brother and his family are coming for a visit. As the brother is on his way, he is spotted by the three bad guys who really need his horses. So they kill him and his wife, but not before she cleverly hides the baby. Shortly thereafter, Buffalo Jones happens upon the baby. He determines (1) that the dead man is Mrs Robinson’s brother and (2) this terrible act was done by the same bad guys.

He rushes back to the Robinson’s place to say, “Sorry about your brother, but here: have a baby!” Then he goes after the bad guys. They have broken up so that there can been two cool revenge scenes. The first involves him riding his buffalo (Who would have thought?!) into a bar, tearing up the place, and then shooting the two bad guys. Then he kills the final bad guy who was on a mule.

Why the Film Failed to Attract and Audience

It could have all worked rather well. But it has a few problems. One is that it is almost all shot MOS, so the whole thing is narrated excessively. The narrator, C Lindsay Workman, is very good. But the subtext of everything he says is, “The filmmakers weren’t good enough to make this clear, so I’m tellin’ y’all!”

Even that might have been okay and made for a financially successful film. But there is one problem that you cannot get around. As cool as it is that this guy can actually ride a buffalo, he looks ridiculous doing it. It just doesn’t matter what a badass he is. And so Buffalo Rider has a very dorky feel to it. I loved it! But I can well see why people weren’t swarming the movie theaters looking for it.

Guy on a Buffalo

In 2011, Buffalo Rider found a new audience in four short videos, Guy on a Buffalo. They were created by the band Jomo & the Possum Posse, who refer to themselves as, “The Greatest Band in the World. Possibly Ever.”

They describe their music as a “blend of cynicism, dead-eyed soul, and anti-machismo honky-tonk.” I really like all the music of theirs that I’ve heard. (The lead guitar on High Grounds Coffee Shop reminds me a lot of Maury Muehleisen.) But they are a good deal too interesting to be stars. They have an album out this year, Local Motive. It sounds good and I would buy it, but you know I’m old and must have something I can hold. On the other hand, for $8.99, maybe it’s worth finally trying to download some music.

Anyway, Jomo & the Possum Posse do right by Buffalo Rider. But these videos only give you a small taste of the eclectic band. Regardless, what they did is a great act of creative collaboration. These videos are even more funny after you watch the film. Ultimately, they aren’t satirizing the “guy on a buffalo,” but the narration that describes everything that is happening. Doing it musically is brilliant — and one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Of course, now I’ll have that song stuck in my head for days.

Parting Words

For most people, “Guy on a Buffalo” is about as close as you will want to get to Buffalo Rider. I thought the film was wonderful. I like things that are different, even when they are technically “bad.” Skill is a great help to art. But in a society that wants commodity, it is normally used in the service of the banal. The unskilled often provide us with moments of genius we can’t find elsewhere.

It probably helps that I know just how hard it is to get anything on film. I imagine someone coming to me today and saying, “I got a camera, some old film stock, and a guy who can ride a giraffe. Can you write a screenplay for us by next weekend?” Are you kidding?! I’d have a first draft done tonight. Although rather than “Giraffe Rider,” I’m thinking more along the lines of, “The Man Who Loved Giraffes.”

Jane Siberry’s This Girl I Know and the Bechdel Test

Jane Siberry - This Girl I Know - Bechdel TestLet’s get the hard part out of the way first: the Bechdel Test. It consists of three criteria for a work of fiction: it contains at least two female characters; they talk to each other at least once; and what they talk about is not a man. Now you would think that most fictional works would pass the Bechdel Test. But it is surprisingly rare. My first novel, for example, did not pass it.

I think of the Bechdel Test in a broader sense. I don’t think it should be limited to talking about “a man.” I think a conversation about men — how they suck, how they are seduced, whatever — should count. With this broader interpretation (because one could certainly see this as being implied), the situation is even worse.

The truth is, when I learned of the Bechdel Test, I was embarrassed. It’s not that I’m unaware that I have limitations when creating female characters. As much as I like woman, I’m pretty much a gnostic toward them. Certainly, from the age of 5 onward, I’ve felt that women knew things about the universe that I never will. (I still think it’s true and I think it is evolutionary and has to do with childbirth. Women create universes.) So women in my fiction tend to be dark and mysterious. I’m working on this, however.

“This Girl I Know”

But I was listening to Jane Siberry. I love the album, but I must admit to not paying attention to lyrics very much. That is until I pay a great deal of attention to them. The second song on the album is “This Girl I know.” It’s a conversation between two women. One of them says she is sick of being fat and that eventually she will do something about it. And the other is asking her why she doesn’t just do it now.

(There is also a typically Siberry touch of the other woman having a fight with people at another table. “Mind your own business, no, I don’t mean you; it’s the table over there; I think they think I’m being rude; I’m not being rude, I just want to know.”)

I thought it was interesting as I listened to it because it passed the Bechdel Test! But then we get to the bridge, and it all falls apart, “I’ll get some new clothes, I’ll change my style; I’ll cut my hair, I’ll meet a lot of men; I’ll have a lot of dates, I’ll discriminate.” Oh my, Bechdel Test fail!

It’s Not All Bechdel Test

But not everything is about the Bechdel Test. I do think it is a great tool for looking at how we think about women in our society. Obviously, women are better at transcending these prejudices than men. My friend Kristen McHenry’s first (thus far unpublished) novel, “Day Job Blues,” passes the test with such aggressiveness that one could be forgiven for thinking that was her intent. (It wasn’t.)

Although “This Girl I Know” fails the Bechdel Test in an almost classic way, it is still at core, a feminist song. Because the first woman does answer the question: she says she wouldn’t know what to do if a man thought she was “sexy or something.” And when we hear, “Am I supposed to throw away my career and hop into bed?”

Work and Sex

I think that does sum up a fundamental problem for women. For men, sexual politics work because men are seen as dominant on the issue of sex. So a corporate man who is attractive and “fit” has nothing to fear. But an attractive and “fit” woman seems nubile: someone you marry, not someone you promote. And as much as things have changed, that basic dynamic is still very much alive.

So the Bechdel Test isn’t all. One can critique sexual politics, even while failing it. And Jane Siberry does that in “This Girl I Know.”

Pal Shazar’s People Talk

Pal Shazar - The Morning After - People TalkPal Shazar and Jules Shear have been married for something like three decade. But I’ve never heard a song of hers that struck me as much influenced by Shear. True: they have compatible styles. And they are both great at the craft of songwriting. But this morning, I heard “People Talk” and it struck me how much it sounded like a Jules Shear melody — most especially the chorus.

Of course, the truth is, it might be a Jules Shear song. Or more likely a collaboration, because the verses seem more typical of Pal Shazar’s writing. I can’t say because the information just isn’t available online, and I don’t own the album, The Morning After, where I would hope to find the information.

But I like the idea of it being a Pal Shazar original. I like the idea of couples growing closer and closer as they age. It’s probably because I’m such a loner. There’s a clarity in that. But I actually hate it. I feel in my soul that I am a collaborator. Maybe it’s just that I’m weird. No one says to me anymore, “You just can’t do that!” But they let me know in more subtle ways. And it doubtless pushes them away. There is no meeting of minds or souls or whatever it is you want to call it.

Regardless, “People Talk” is beautiful song.

It’s a Great Puzzle — If You Like Games

The Great Puzzle - Jules ShearI don’t have a lot to say. I wrote Jason Iverson Is Dead yesterday and so I’ve had a couple of days to think about it. It will surprise no one that I think his death is not a bad thing for him. But it sucks for the world. And it is heartbreaking for Angela and his mother.

I’ve been to many funerals in my life, and most of the people in attendance believe in heaven. Yet no one takes a death as a temporary separation. Sure, you will here platitudes about how he is with God now. And that soon we will all be together in heaven. But even to the true believers, it must sound like a crock. The loved one is gone. Maybe you will see them again, but you know they are gone now. That is concrete.

The whole thing has me thinking of Jules Shear’s song “The Great Puzzle.” It does have some appropriate lines such as, “Like a candle that’s been recently blown out; I can still smell the smoke.” But mostly, it speaks to my feelings. It is a great puzzle, and I do like games. Just not this one.