Morning Music: Sam Stone

John Prine

Since John Prine died, I figure I should spend a day with him. He created a lot of great music over the years. But I am still obsessed with his first self-titled album. I’ve purchased it numerous times and I never get tired of it. But there is one song on the album that misses for me. Not surprisingly, it is also the song that most people consider the album’s stand-out track: “Sam Stone.”

The song aims extremely high and it does manage to tell a tragic story and presents an unusually (for Prine) simplistic character. But it’s told in a weird and jarring way. The verses tell the story from an objective point of view while the chorus is told from the children’s. And given how evocative the refrain is (“there’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes”), I don’t know why he didn’t write the entire song from that perspective.

Sam Stone: One-Dimensional Junkie

The story also hasn’t aged well. When it was produced, there was major concern that soldiers were getting addicted to heroin in Vietnam and then coming home to become junkies. That turned out not to be generally true because drug us is contextual.

But the story does get something shockingly right — something that would become much bigger decades later: how pain poorly treated often leads to extra-medical use. But this is pushed to the side in the song to focus on stereotypes that are not true. For example, “Climbing walls while sitting in a chair.” Or “Sad songs never last too long on broken radios.” The implication is that Sam Stone’s real problem is that he can’t deal with the anxiety of life.

I think what most bugs me about it is that unlike most other people that John Prine sings about, Sam Stone is one-dimensional. He is just his addiction. And there’s even some dissonance in the song because of it. For example, somehow Stone manages to buy a house on the GI Bill but can’t manage to dress his kids. A far more interesting (and truthful) story would be about a man who works very hard to support his family while his addiction makes him distant and ultimately dead. That’s a far more tragic tale than the sad one Prine offers.

Don’t take this to mean that I think it’s a bad song. It was the first song that got my attention. And it works well enough. It’s better than anything I’ve ever written But when I’m listening to the album, I tend to skip it.


John Prine by Eric Frommer licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Morning Music: Mickey

Toni Basil - Word of Mouth

With the rise of The Go-Go’s, people in the music business figured there was a demand for lowest common denominator music. (That is not a complaint about The Go-Go’s, who I love.) They were right. In 1982, Toni Basil released a monster hit with “Mickey” off her first album Word of Mouth.

Based on what I’ve already said, you might think I’m not a fan. But that’s not exactly true. It is a catchy song that is well-produced. But mostly, I enjoy it for the joke that it is.

I especially love the organ riff that ends each chorus. It’s a simple arpeggio: I, III, V, I-8va. It’s so simple that I can’t hear it without thinking, “Those producers!” I’m sure Mike Chapman (who co-wrote the song and played keyboards on it) told them, “You want me to play what?!” The whole song features professional musicians playing with as little creativity as they can muster.

The song was originally performed by Racey as “Kitty.” It’s still features a very simple production. But not in-your-face simple. The crew that created “Mickey” really upped the game and produced a song destined to top the Billboard Hot 100.

So… Enjoy?


Toni Basil – Word of Mouth via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Morning Music: Locomotive Breath

Jethro Tull - Aqualung

I asked Will for a recommendation for a song and he mentioned Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath.” I’m deeply divided about the band. On the one hand, they’re like the best bar band ever, and Ian Anderson is great on the flute. On the other hand, they’re like the best bar band ever, and Ian Anderson is great on the flute.

They are still worth listening to now and then. But Anderson grates on me after a short while. And his songwriting doesn’t thrill me in my mid-50s, but I will admit that it did thrill me in my mid-teens.

After reading a bit about “Locomotive Breath,” I find I have a problem with it too. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. It’s exactly the kind of song that the band was meant to play. I could do without the stupid introduction but once it gets going, it’s great.

But I read that Anderson wrote it to express his concern about over-population. Really?! I don’t see how anyone was supposed to get that from the lyrics. I wish artists wouldn’t talk about their work. It always makes it worse.

But okay. It’s fine. “Gonna rock ya!”


Jethro Tull Aqualung cover via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Morning Music: Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus

Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus

I’m in a bit of a rush so I’m going with a classic, “Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus.” But I do have something to say: rock music is as fake as Donald Trump.

I like Bruce Springsteen. He’s a very talented guy and a hell of a songwriter. But the things that most people like about him embarrass me. It isn’t just watching the old man pretend his guitar is his dick (something that is horrible at any age). I don’t even like those songs of youthful hope.

“Thunder Road” especially annoys me. I can only bear it because I see “The River” lurking beneath it.

The rock version of sex always reminds me of Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance,” which is about two sexually naive youths making a complete mess of the act. That strikes me as completely authentic because almost everyone I know has a “first-time” comedy-horror story.

Far worse in this regard is Bob Seger whose songs are a parade of pretense and inauthenticity. And I can say that about “Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus” too — at least when it comes to pretense. But it has a couple of advantages.

First, it’s cheeky. Everyone understands what the song is doing and it has a giggly charm to it. Second, it has some relationship to the way sex actually is — at least when it’s done right.

But most of all, “Je t’aime… Moi Non Plus” itself is sexy. When I hear the pounding beat of what is said to be sexy rock-n-roll, all I imagine is inexperienced young people rutting in the general vicinity of each other’s groins.

Previously Written (2015)

Perhaps it is too early in the day for it, but this is the Serge Gainsbourg song “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus,” which literally means, “I love you… me neither.” The lyrics are thinly disguised sexual references, such as, “Tu vas, tu vas, et tu viens,” which means, “You’re going, you’re going, and you come.” There are also lots of references to water and waves and islands and loins. But you don’t need to speak a word of French to know what the song is all about.

It was written for Brigitte Bardot, and she recorded it with Gainsbourg. But before it was released, he created another version with his English girlfriend, Jane Birkin. It is a far sexier version of the song. And it created a sensation throughout Europe. It was banned in many countries, but was nonetheless hugely successful. In America, it only made it to number 58 on the Hot 100. This is because Americans are boring, and the American ideal of masculinity is based on a deep fear that all American men are actually gay, and that this will become clear if they don’t constantly act like jerks.

This is an amazing song.


Image of Jane Birkin album cover via Amazon under Fair Use.

Morning Music: It’s Obvious

Au Pairs - Playing With a Different Sex

I had mentioned to Marc McDonald that I really liked Gang of Four and he said I should check out Au Pairs. I can see why! They sound a lot like Gang of Four mixed with X.

The first thing that stands out with Au Pairs is the rhythm section with often extremely jagged grooves. A good example of this is “The Love Song.” Most of it sounds a lot like Gang of Four’s “Anthrax.” But it moves far away from this with a romantic-sounding bridge while maintaining the same sarcastic cynical lyrics.

Where they most differ from Gang of Four is in lyrics and vocals. Lesley Woods is quite a good singer with a great breadth of style. She can be (is) as in-your-face as Gang of Four ever is. But more often, she’s focused on melody and presenting as much mood as content.

This goes along with lyrics that are pointed but not direct. And that’s where I hear Exene Cervenka, although I hate to even say it because I think sometimes, she’s just a mess.

Anyway, I’ll have to listen to them more to get a better sense of the band. But their first album, Playing with a Different Sex, is exceptional. Let’s listen to a distinctly Gang of Four sounding song (the last on the album), “It’s Obvious.”


Au Pairs Playing With a Different Sex album cover via Wikipedia via Fair use.

Morning Music: Mathilde

Jacques Brel

It’s Jacques Brel’s birthday today. He would have been 91. He has such a hold on me that he was the first person I thought of featuring when I decided to restart Morning Music. But I thought it better to look elsewhere. Then I noticed it was his birthday and I figured it was okay to talk about him.

Brel was quite a successful actor, starring in a number of films. And that’s what really sets him apart as a singer. His songs aren’t really better than those of his peers. But when he performs, it seems like you are living through the story with him. And this is why you don’t really need a translation to appreciate his work.

Mathilde

I am featuring the song that I most associate with Brel: Mathilde. This is probably because the song speaks to me and my history. It is about a man whose ex-lover returns to him. He knows it will turn out poorly but can’t help himself. The song implies that this is not a new thing. She has returned before and he took her back then.

Mathilde is not present for most of the song. Through most of the song, he talks to his mother, his friends, even himself. He works his way from vaguely asking for people to stop him to admitting there is no stopping him to finally welcoming Mathilde with joy.

The refrain is, “Mathilde est revenue.” It means roughly, “Mathilde is returned.” Also repeated is, “Maudite Mathilde, puisque te v’là.” Roughly: “Cursed Mathilde, since you are here.” The second line is sung very differently at the end of the song than it is at the beginning — indicative of the singer’s emotional journey through the song.

It’s all very familiar. And it shows the wisdom of embracing your mistakes if you know you will make them.


Cropped from Jacques Brel by Jack de Nijs / Anefo under CC0.

Morning Music: Yanqui Go Home!

Stealing Fire - Bruce Cockburn

I remember the first time I saw Bruce Cockburn perform live. It was at the Cotati Cabaret and it was in support for his album, Stealing Fire. The album had been getting a lot of play on AOR stations and I bought it both because it was brilliant but also because I was very focused on the way that US policy was screwing up Central America.

That album featured two songs about this in particular. First, Nicaragua about the efforts to create a decent society by the Sandinista government despite American meddling. Second, If I Had a Rocket Launcher about the military-led Salvadoran government’s attacks on refugee camps.

For his encore, Cockburn said, “A friend asked me to perform this song.” He talked about how he didn’t really want to do it because he was a visitor to the US and he didn’t want to badmouth it. But the audience was fine with it. This was, after all, during the early years of the Reagan administration, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: Reagan was as vulgar and vile an aberration of the norm then as Trump is now.

America’s Reputation in the World

That song was “Yanqui Go Home.” It wasn’t on Stealing Fire but has since been added to the CD. I present it today because its picture of how America looks to the rest of the world hasn’t much changed: an arrogant and abusive drunk that needs to go sleep it off.

Sadly, I think that Cockburn is far too kind. I don’t see this country as fundamentally good but easily diverted from the path of righteousness. That’s the line we sell to the proles. The people in power in this country understand as well as O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four does: power for its own sake.

The main way that the myth is sold to the people is through the idea of American Exceptionalism. I’m not clear why this ever worked. Every group of people at every time thought they were exceptional. And even here in America, people don’t agree about what the term means. To conservatives, it apparently means that we should be able to act as boors and the rest of the world should roll over for us because of our greatness.

At the beginning of Gone With the Wind, Rhett Butler says to his rich southern friends, “Why, all we have is cotton and slaves and arrogance.” That sums up the way I think of America. We’ve got a lot of financial instruments and under-paid workers. But what we really have — in such excesses that we will never run low — is arrogance.

And for my life, I do not know why.


Stealing Fire album cover from Amazon under Fair Use.

Morning Music: David Denies

Til Tuesday Welcome Home

‘Til Tuesday accomplished something remarkable: they released three albums, each better and less successful than the previous.

Their first album, Voices Carry, was not that different from other things on the radio at that time. It was a good album with better songwriting than most New Wave. But it was also kind of generic with the production not matching the emotional core of the material. Plus Aimee Mann’s vocals on the album sounded somewhat artificial and very affected.

Welcome Home

Their second album, Welcome Home, went in a very different direction. it was more personal and less electronic. The songwriting was also greatly improved. In fact, I’d say the songwriting is as good as anything Mann has produced since.

The sorta title track, “Coming Up Close,” was a revelation. A repeated theme in Mann’s work is that it’s dangerous to let people know what you feel. This is what “Voices Carry” is about in its most pure form. But in “Coming Up Close,” she suggests that our emotions are all laid bare regardless and being concrete about them only makes our foolishness clear to the world.

Don’t you know that I could make a dream
That’s barely half-awake come true
I wanted to say
But anything I could have said
I felt somehow you already knew.

Everything’s Different Now

The third album, Everything’s Different Now, was intensely personal and sounds more like Mann’s first solo album even though she got a lot of songwriting help including the title track being written by Jules Shear and Matthew Sweet. Mostly, the album is very dark. By this point, Aimee Mann’s themes are pretty clear like the impossibility of wounded people to find happiness together. For example, in “Rip in Heaven” we get:

So long and sorry, darling
I was counting to forever
And never even got to ten.

David Denies

The song that most stays with me over all these years is “David Denies” off the second album. In it, the singer is reckoning with a lover who she knows is about to go back to his ex out of guilt. What I find most interesting about it is that the man will hurt one of the two women but doesn’t see that.

I’ve always thought the song would be more interesting sung by a man with David being bisexual because the song would be richer because of the anti-gay social pressures. But it works great as is.


Welcome Home album cover image via Amazon under Fair Use.

Morning Music: Rainy Day

Brownie McGhee

I’ve written before about Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. I particularly like the McGhee song “Rainy Day” (with Terry on harmonica). I’m really taken with its emotional feel, which is different from most songs.

Generally, a break-up song features very pure emotions: sadness, despair, anger. But in “Rainy Day,” there’s a mix of emotions. Certainly, the singer is sad. But he’s experiencing it from a distance. He’s feeling down because it’s raining and his true love left him on a rainy day.

There’s also an implied final scene in the kitchen where “she had two cups of coffee.” That always reminds me of the George Jones’ song “A Good Year for the Roses,” with the lines:

And a lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn’t drink
But at least you thought you wanted it, that’s so much more than I can say for me

But enough of that. The song speaks for itself. And it is perfect for a rainy Saturday morning.


Image cropped from Brownie McGhee by Michael Bennetts from Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry (broken link: http://www.nambassa.com) via Wikipedia.

Morning Music: If I Only Had a Brain

Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow

If you go by how often it comes into my mind, my favorite song is “If I Only Had a Brain.” It haunts me so much that I broke down and taught it to myself — first on piano and then on guitar. It’s a pretty song with clever lyrics.

Domini Forster

The performance in The Wizard of Oz isn’t that great, however. Of course, I’ve never been a big fan of the film. As a kid, I did not enjoy watching it each year. The witch terrified me and the wizard annoyed me. (Why was the witch real but the wizard a fake?!) And I really didn’t like that whole “it was only a dream” ending. But I did like that dog!

While researching this article, I came upon a very nice version of the song by an Australian singer-songwriter Domini Forster. Her 2017 debut album Raven reminds me a great deal of Jane Siberry’s self-titled debut album.

This is a solo performance of “If I Only Had a Brain” with Forster on ukulele.

Livingston Taylor

One thing you notice with Forster’s version is that she repeats a lot of it. And it is still short. Done straight through, it clocks in at about one minute and 20 seconds.

I figure that is what Livingston Taylor was thinking when he came up with his idea of creating matching songs for the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. It was released on his album Good Friends.

He does an excellent job of matching the lyrics with clever bits like “I’d be friends with the sparrows; and the guy who shoots the arrows; if I only had a heart.”

What’s more, he’s made the music quite a bit more complex with a smooth jazz sound. I’m very impressed with it, but I actually prefer to listen to Forster’s simple version. I just wish she was doing the extra lyrics.

Regardless, this is a great version.


Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow is in the Public Domain. It is unclear as to whether the press-materials were distributed by a personal publicity agency representing the subject, or if they were distributed by an agency employed to publicize the film, or the first CBS television broadcast of the film, which aired on 3 November 1956.

Morning Music: Iswegh Attay

Tinariwen Tassili

Tinariwen is a band from northern Mali in the Sahara Desert. They’ve gained a huge following around the world including in the US. In 2012, they won the Grammy for Best World Music Album. To be honest, I don’t even know what “world music” is. It sounds like something I should hate. But I always enjoy Tinariwen’s music. They can produce a groove as well as any group in the world.

The song I’m featuring is “Iswegh Attay.” It is off their Grammy-winning album Tassili. I assume the title refers to Tassili n’Ajjer, a huge national part in Algeria — in Tinariwen’s neck of the woods (or desert).

Joining the group on guitar and vocals is American musician Kyp Malone. The song is written by Mali musician Sanou Ag Ahmed.

Song Meaning

The lyrics to the song are curious but I’m not sure if that isn’t just due to a bad translation. It repeats the line, “I drank a glass of tea that scorched my heart.” So the singer seems to be wounded, emotionally.

But he also expresses regret that he can’t open up to the outside world. And the song ends with a telling comparison:

The lion is intrepid and the frog is vulnerable
But the latter is better at finding the path to water.

He seems to be saying that one needs to risk harm in order to get what they need to survive. It’s striking. I know well the feeling that I must change to make my life better but being completely incapable of it.


Tinariwen Tassili via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Morning Music: Sweet Home Chicago

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings

Like most things about him, Robert Johnson’s song “Sweet Home Chicago” is a package of controversy. The song has many sources, most especially Scrapper Blackwell’s “Kokomo Blues.”

But John changed the refrain to, “Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.” And he repeats it several times. He clearly does not mean, “Back to the land of California or to my sweet home Chicago.” This problem is so big that people normally change the lyrics to get rid of all references to California.

The most obvious explanation for this is that Robert Johnson was confused about American geography. But this seems unlikely. His songs indicate that he was a smart and knowledgeable guy. What’s more, Johnson traveled widely — including to Chicago and New York. So even if he didn’t know where California was, he certainly would have known where it was not.

Some have suggested that the narrator is simply meant to be ignorant. That seems a little far-fetched given that Johnson’s songs didn’t seem to go to such extremes of character.

I like to think he just means “anywhere the hell out of the south!” But who knows? He recorded the song in Texas. And I know that whenever I’ve been in Texas, I’ve wanted to be anywhere else.


Image of Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings via Amazon under Fair Use.