Morning Music: Georges Brassens

Georges Brassens

Georges Brassens was a French singer-songwriter from roughly 1950 until his death from cancer in 1981. He was incredibly prolific but almost never performed outside France. So he isn’t as well known here as Jacques Brel even though their careers overlap almost perfectly.

He has a beautiful voice. It reminds me of Roger Whittaker. But Brassens is not pretentious about it. In fact, you don’t get the impression that he even knows what a fine voice he has. Regardless, his focus is on the music and lyrics.

Brassens was diverse in terms of his subjects, so I’d like to highlight two songs.

Le Parapluie

“Le Parapluie” (The Umbrella) is a sweet song about a man who sees a women walking in the rain. He offers her his umbrella and they fool around a bit. But the narrator seems naive like the one in Brel’s “Madeleine.” So it’s easy to see him as deluded. Maybe he’s just thrilled to be anywhere close to a woman. Regardless, she goes on her way at the end.

Brave Margot

“Brave Margot” is one of Brassens’ best-known songs. It’s funny but ultimately heart-breaking and cynical. A shepherdess finds an abandoned kitten, which she breast-feeds. Eventually, all work in the town stops because the men have come to gawk at her.

The shepherdess is naive and thinks they are just looking at the kitten. Eventually, however, the women of the town get angry and burn the kitten to death. The shepherdess gets married in her heartbreak. But the old folk continue to tell the story to new generations.

As with all great art, I don’t think there is a single meaning to this song. It’s funny and sad the way that life is.

George Brassens by Roger Pic — Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain.

Morning Music: Sail Away

Sail Away - Randy Newman

One of the best things about Randy Newman is that his intent is always clear. When I was 17, I got his album Sail Away. I played it endlessly. It had many of the songs I still think are among his best like “Last Night I Had a Dream,” “Political Science,” “Burn On,” and most especially, “Lonely at the Top.”

That last one was written for Frank Sinatra, and I think he missed a great opportunity to make light of himself by recording it. He would have killed it! Sadly, Sinatra had as much of a sense of humor about himself as Donald Trump.

But arguably the greatest song on the album is the title track. Its conceit is that a typical salesman is making an argument for Africans to come to America for the great life — unstated to be as a slave.

As is typical for Newman, he sprinkles in racist references like “sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake.” And this is combined with weird ignorances like mentioning tigers, which don’t live in Africa.

The song is about more than literal slavery. It’s about the absurdity of the idea of being American. The idyllic life he describes is not just unavailable to the slaves who were kidnapped but also to the entire working class. All of these people labor so the rich can “sing about Jesus and drink wine all day.”

“It’s great to be an American.” And if we just define “American” narrowly enough, that’s true.

Sail Away Album Cover by Reprise Records under Fair use.

Morning Music: The Old Man’s Back Again

Scott 4 - Scott Walker

Over time, art loses its relevance. Today, people think of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as a nice romance. When it was published, everyone understood that it was a critique of inheritance laws and the status of women. Additionally, its razor-sharp satire of Romantic affectation has lost its edge to the point where few notice it as anything but a comment of the follies of youth.

The same is true of Scott Walker’s song “The Old Man’s Back Again.” I recently heard the song used in the first episode of the second season of Ash vs Evil Dead. There is nothing clever about its use. Ash goes back home to Elk Grove and we get, “The old man’s back again.” (In it’s defense, the scene is really well directed with the song playing on the car radio, then switching outside showing the city sign as the car passes by and music at full volume.)

The song is off Scott 4 and is “Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime.” It is a reference to the Prague Spring where the newly elected First Secretary of the Czechoslovak communist party, Alexander Dubček, began to reform the country. He and others in the government made a lot of progress in this effort even while maintaining what they thought were good relations with the other Warsaw Pact countries.

But they were wrong and on 20 August 1968, seven and a half months after it began, the Prague Spring ended. The old policies were gradually put back in place and Dubček was forced to resign a few months later. The “old man” Walker refers to is Stalin — or at least his authoritarian policies.

It’s a very sad song. Each of the verses (except the last) is about the hope of the reformers for “socialism with a human face.” Dubček and his policies were hugely popular. And then it all came crashing down:

I seen a hand
I seen a vision
It was reaching through the clouds
To risk a dream
A shadow cross the sky
And it crushed into the ground
Just like a beast
The old man’s back again.

The last verse is told from the perspective of one of the invading soldiers, which I assume is meant to be Russian because the song specifically says he is “Ivan.” (There may be some other significance of this; if so, please let me know!)

But Walker still paints a sympathetic portrait of a young man who is confused and longing:

Devoured by his pain
Bewildered by the faces
Who pass him by.

Scott Walker’s gorgeous voice and the lush production hide just how painful a song this is. But I think that understanding the song in context makes it all the more beautiful.

Sadly, Walker died just over a year ago of cancer at the age of 76.

Scott 4 Album Cover via Wikipedia uder Fair use.

Morning Music: Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser

Joseph Haydn

Let me start with a sad but beautiful story from classical music lore. Last night, I decided to tell it on Twitter.

Joseph Haydn was the father Mozart never had. You know: the father who wasn’t a total prick.

Haydn was 24 years older than the younger composer. Mozart was very protective of Haydn. When Haydn was preparing for a trip to England in 1791, Mozart begged him not to go

He was afraid the older man (58 years old!) would get ill and die. But Haydn went anyway. Mozart died while Haydn was in England.

Haydn lived almost 2 decades longer, dying in 1809 at the age of 77.


With Haydn on my mind, I started listening to a playlist of his work. And I came upon “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.” But I knew it as a different song: “Deutschlandlied” with the beginning lyrics, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles.” I had no idea!

This shouldn’t come as a shock, however. People do this all the time. “The Star-Spangled Banner” uses the tune of John Stafford Smith’s “The Anacreontic Song.”

Indeed, “Deutschlandlied” has been the German national anthem from 1922, but they only use the third stanza, which is about unity, justice, and freedom. Supposedly, the song was never intended to be about Germany conquering other countries but rather the desire for German unification.

It is a great tune. It annoys me the US has a third-rate national anthem while countries like Germany and Russia and France have such great ones.


It’s a little weird to think that Joseph Haydn wrote the German national anthem when he was Austrian. But do you know who else was Austrian? Right. So it’s all good.

Here is Haydn’s “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser”:

Note that I did not hear “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.” Haydn uses the melody as the basis of of the second movement of his string quartet Opus 76 No 3.

Image cropped from the John Hoppner portrait of Haydn in England in 1791. It is in the public domain.

Morning Music: Kill the Poor by Dead Kennedys

Dead Kennedys

It is often the case that something I see the government do causes me to think of “Kill the Poor” off Dead Kennedys’ debut Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. It’s sad. At least to me, it shows how often policies are proposed and enacted with the clear intent to harm the poor.

This is certainly true of the recent efforts to cut back food stamp (SNAP) funding. And that’s very telling. The original idea of supporting food for the poor was because of government price floors on food. Since the government was making food more expensive, the least it could do was to help poor people struggling to afford it.

Today, we have conservatives who are all for continuing to enrich farmers (who are increasingly just large farming corporations) while hurting the poor. The justification conservatives use is the same as we recently heard from Ron Johnson about why he was against relief for people affected by Covid-19: it will make workers lazy.

Kill the Poor!

But that’s just their cover. They actually want to kill the poor and that brings us back to Dead Kennedys. You see, the truth is that “Kill the Poor” is not actually about this kind of thing. In the grand tradition of Jello Biafra, it’s much more concrete. It’s about the neutron bomb.

For those who don’t know, the neutron bomb is basically what our country termed a “dirty bomb” when it was speculated that terrorists might use it. It’s a bomb that has a low explosive yield and instead creates a bunch of neutron radiation, thus killing people but leaving structures mostly intact.

So I feel weird using it more generally to express how I feel. But I shouldn’t! It’s all the same psychopathy and xenophobia. Ron Johnson would be all for dropping a neutron bomb on San Francisco. But frankly, he probably doesn’t know they exist. He’s known to be something of a dimwit. And evil.

But you could say that about most American conservatives these days. Do you think the Senate would be seriously considering a relief bill if Hillary Clinton were president? There’s just no way.

Dead Kennedys by Zvargas16 licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Morning Music: Perfect Blue Buildings by Counting Crows

August and Everything After - Counting Crows

I listen to a wide variety of music, but there are particular artists who speak to me. The most obvious is American Music Club. But another is Counting Crows, who I’m sure a lot of people now hate simply because they were so popular. But I am never disappointed when I go back to them.

The song of their’s that most stood out to me was “Perfect Blue Buildings” off August and Everything After. It’s depressing even by the standards of Adam Duritz.

To me, it’s always been a junkie song. Just in the first verse we have “I stay at home with my disease” and “Help me stay awake, I’m falling.” There are other lines. Hell, almost every other line speaks about despair and death.

Obviously, it doesn’t have to be heroin — or any drug for that matter. In fact, it would be kind of a stereotype of heroin addiction, which normally gives junkies plenty of meaning, even if it is pretty thin.

But people do all kinds of things to keep themselves away from themselves. And the connection with the song is emotional. I think that the fear of a life out of control is universal.

This is an excellent live version of the song:

Image of August and Everything After via Amazon under Fair Use.

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.


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.

Morning Music: I Felt Like a Gringo

I Felt Like a GringoThe Fourth of July always makes me think of the Minutemen’s song “I Felt Like a Gringo.” It tells the (true) story of the band taking a day trip down to Mexico on 4 July 1982. It ends with the line, “Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?”

I guess that’s why I don’t much go in for this holiday. I feel like an outsider. I think that’s a lot of my desire to live in Mexico: if I must feel like an outsider, I might as well be one.

Anyway, “I Felt Like a Gringo” was first released on the EP, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. It was the first Minutemen album I bought. Less than three years later, D Boon would be dead in a tragic car accident, and one of the best bands ever was finished.

Happy Fourth of July, everyone!

Got a ton of white boy guilt, that’s my problem,
Obstacle of joy, one reason to use some drugs.
Slept on a Mexican beach — slept in trash
American trash — thinking too much can ruin a good time.

I asked a Mexican who ran a bar for Americans
“Who won,” I said, “The election?”
He laughed, I felt like a gringo.
They played a song and they had some fun with us.

Why can’t you buy a good time?
Why are there soldiers in the street?

Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?

Morning Music: The Greatest Taste Around

Dispepsi - The Greatest Taste AroundToday, we end this week of Negativland, in observance of the death of Richard Lyons. I’m going to jump ahead to their 1997 album, Dispepsi. I want to end with it because when I asked my boss if she knew the band, she said, “Pepsi?” She is the hippest person I’ve ever known. Of course, Negativland doesn’t have a song called “Pepsi”; I’m sure she’s referring to “The Greatest Taste Around,” which is the song we are going to listen to today.

The funny thing about the album is that the band was apparently afraid of being sued by Pepsi. This was not unreasonable, because as a band that made heavy use of sampling, pushing the bounds of IP law was kind of the norm. So the album cover does not have the word “Dispepsi” on it. It does have all the letters on it in various combinations. The album’s song list is done as a food nutrition label with the headline “Ideppiss Facts.” But Pepsi, wisely I think, had no intention of suing. Such acts are usually self-defeating. So the band started calling it “Dispepsi.”

Although “The Greatest Taste Around” is about Pepsi most prominently, the whole album is about Pepsi, Coke, the soda industry, and the idea of having to advertise products people wouldn’t normally want. The song “Hyper Real” is about the selling of New Coke. “Aluminum Or Glass: The Memo” does seem to feature an actual advertising memo. The whole album is brilliant in this way. It sounds great, but it is also great political and social satire: and it is all on YouTube.

“The Greatest Taste Around” is such an upbeat song that it’s easy enough to miss how scathing it is. “Tractors plowing down the hills: Pepsi! Ghastly stench of puppy mills: Pepsi!” All to a I-IV-V chord progression. Brilliant!

Morning Music: Helter Stupid

Helter StupidYesterday, I featured Negativland’s song “Christianity Is Stupid.” And I discussed how the song was used as the basis for a fake press release that claimed that the song had inspired David Brom to kill his family. The fact that so much of the media fell for the fake story seems to have delighted the band. Well, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they were outraged. Regardless, it inspired them. The first side of their next album, Helter Stupid, is dedicated to it.

There was always a little of The Firesign Theatre in Negativland’s work, and it really comes to the fore here. The following album side is composed of two songs. First is “Prologue.” This is made up mostly of a story that KPIX did on the fake story. And then we move directly into “Helter Stupid.” The basis of it is, I think, a sped up sample from Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” On top of it is an amazing sound collage with bits from the original song, more of minister Estus Pirkle, Charles Manson, and lots of media reporting on the fake story. And then there is lots of laughing.

We also get a commercial for “Al’s House of Meat (on the sirloin strip).” Then the people in the studio notice when they rewind it has evil messages. For example, “This child, is a child of evil.” And, “Last night he murdered his parents; tonight his target is his aunt and uncle.” Finally, they have some fun with the trailer of Death Wish II. You don’t have to be analytical to figure out what they are saying.

When I was a teen, this idea that rock songs had evil things recorded backwards on them was very big. As I recall, “Stairway to Heaven” had “Sweet Savior Satan” or something. But even when I was young, the idea that people would somehow pick up on something said backwards was ridiculous. But isn’t it just like Americans to look for something so fantastical to explain our violent culture when Death Wish II is given an MPAA rating of R mostly because of the sex?

Anyway, this is 22 minutes of brilliance. Really, listen to this. It is probably the greatest thing that Negativland ever did. (This is the whole album. The rest of it is interesting and funny, but not as great.)

Morning Music: Christianity Is Stupid

Richard Lyons - Christianity Is StupidProbably the best known song from Escape from Noise is “Christianity Is Stupid.” I think I said yesterday that Negativland could do any kind of music they wanted, and we hear that with this song too. It would be compelling, even without the lyrics. But the lyrics are what everyone remembers. And the lyrics are, “Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!” Over and over. It’s got a very Nineteen Eighty-Four feel to it.

Apparently, the band took a sermon from Baptist minister Estus Pirkle. They grabbed seven words from it and rearranged it. Pirkle was known for his films like The Burning Hell (directed by Ron Ormond). Now, I think these of great bits of idiosyncratic art. But you can also tell that Estus Pirkle was a fire and brimstone preacher — and definitely an anti-communist. So it’s great fun that Negativland managed to take his words and say something that he would find revolting.

Escape From Noise was the first Negativland album on SST Records — you know Greg Ginn’s company created to put out Black Flag albums but also put out all of the Minutemen albums, as well as albums by a number of other great bands. So Negativland had found a home. And Escape From Noise was a surprisingly successful album. So they were expected to go on a tour. But SST had no money for it. What’s more, Negativland wasn’t really a live band. What to do?

Bandmember Richard Lyons came up with an idea to get the band out of having to tour. You will remember that Richard Lyons died last week, and he is the reason that we are listening to Negativland this week. He put out a press release that stated that mass murderer David Brom was inspired by the song “Christianity Is Stupid” to kill his parents and siblings. It stated the FBI had told the band not to leave town. Many news outlets picked up on the hoax press release and ran with it. And why not? Everyone always thinks that pop music creates murderers.

The following recording of “Christianity Is Stupid” goes along with scenes from Metropolis, which I still can’t believe wasn’t a hit when it first came out. And if you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Here is a beautiful print of it for free: Metropolis.