I should warn you: this is a bagpipe number. The Irish folk band who recorded “Hewlett” list the instrument as “Uilleann pipes,” no doubt exploiting the same regulatory and moral loophole that allows the restaurant industry to print the word “sweetbreads” on the menu instead of the far more accurate “testicles.”
Not that I blame them, of course. Which would you rather have jammed in your ears?
(OK, clearly, I’m referring to “Bagpipes or Uilleann Pipes?” there.)
(Maybe I should just press onward.)
There’s something about this track that makes me think “Christmas” despite the complete lack of any of the usual yuletide ID markers. It’s an instrumental, so we don’t get to hear about reindeer or red suits. No bells (jingle, tubular, or church) or any of the other instruments of the season. And yet, it makes me picture a room with a fireplace and a lighted tree (illuminated by electric lights, not by sparks thrown by the fire) and think about every positive experience I’ve had at this time of year throughout my life.
That makes “Hewlett” a very 2011-style Christmas Holiday song. December has undergone a thematic shift over the course of my generation. Extremists in the religious and anti-religious camps sense this shift and they’re inspired to interpret it as a “War on Christmas”; some even see it as a call to further action. We, the 99% see it as simply moving the December celebrations into a much larger tent. One where we can celebrate religion openly and those of us who don’t celebrate religion will choose to simply celebrate humanity. Together, everyone cheers the annual miracle that the entire country can all agree to try really hard not to act like dillweeds to each other for a couple of weeks at least.
Yes, if I were to rewrite “Adeste Fidelis” for a modern age, my first action would be to find someone who can translate “Let’s all tone it down a little, could we?” into Latin for me.
Although we’re not united by a common religion, we’re certainly united by common experiences, and non-religious music like this packs a punch for a wider swath of people. I don’t think music like this invites anybody to remember the bad times they’ve had during the holidays. Instead, it sifts out the good stuff. It makes us think of the taste of the candy cane that was used to stir our coffee and not the stickiness that the wrapper left on our hands. The fast and exciting ride down the hill, not the uphill slog we made to get the sled up there. Christmas vacation, not the midterm exams that purchased our release.
That’s to say: I don’t begrudge a community for having a manger scene in their town square. It’s only relevant and meaningful to a certain subset of the community, but it’s just one display in one corner of the park. What unifies us are the thousands of colored lights strung through all of the trees around it.
I hope all of you had a wonderful holiday.
And seriously, don’t listen to this song with those silicone “seal out all other sound” earbuds that you press deep inside the auditory canal. Remember: bagpipes.
I said “Merry Crimble” to everybody all through the holiday weekend, despite a unbroken streak of Not Saying That which began, I suppose, with my first exposure to air and daylight.
(Before that, there were no witnesses to anything I might or might not have said, and I refuse to ask you to accept unreliable single-sourced testimony.)
Yet all weekend long, I’d meet a friend or family member and return the good, time-proven Christian greeting with (yes) a “Merry Crimble.” It was all due to timing. My holiday meetup celebrations started almost immediately after I’d spent an hour on the UK-based Bagel Tech Mac podcast. The others were passing around Merry Crimbles. I tried it just to be sociable at first. I didn’t think I’d have a problem quitting, you know?
“Merry Crimble” comes from a Christmas record the Beatles made for their fan club. It beats out the two more famous holiday records recorded by the post-breakup Beatles. “Merry Christmas (War Is Over)” is a bringdown. You might as well add “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to the party mix, or even just rip the audio from one of those late night “Save The Children” commercials.
“Harsh words, Ihnatko!” you cluck. Well! Then watch the song’s official video, straight from YouTube’s John Lennon channel. I swear that I had not seen this video before I wrote the preceding paragraph. Warning: you might not want to watch this as it gets very disturbing early on and doesn’t let up. I bailed at around the 47 second mark, with the appearance of the third clip of someone cradling a dead child.
This is a holiday song with a message, and that message is “Fa-la-la-la-laaa la-la f*** you (if you spent any amount of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas feeling any kind of joy).”
Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” is appealingly simple in both melody and content. Yes, I mean that as a compliment. You must admit that holiday songs which can easily be sung by kids’ choruses have a Darwinian edge over the ones that want you to feeeellllll something.
Alas, McCartney overworks the thing. One marshmallow is a delightful confection. Fifty pounds of marshmallows packed inside a pillowcase and then dropped on your head gets a bit wearying.
Whereas! “Christmas Time Is Here Again” is what it is: the Beatles getting together to knock out a Christmas song that would be fun to play and hear, without giving much thought to its commercial appeal or how it would contribute to their cultural legacy.
Only I’ve just listened to it all the way through and they don’t say “Merry Crimble” at the end, as I remembered. Perhaps the official representative of Apple Corps who posted this completely legal video cut it off before a talky bit at the end?
That’s all academic, anyway, because there is Crimbling on a previous Beatles fan club record:
But (dammit) it’s a “Happy” Crimble, not a “Merry” one. Honestly, I don’t know how etymologists handle their jobs. They need to get unravel these sort of word-origin forensics day in and day out. Plus, slightly clueless friends are always sending them samples of bugs that they’ve caught in their kitchens and asking for advice on pesticides.
(There ought to be some sort of professional courtesy-matching service. It’d pair up two people with similar-sounding professional certifications. Every time the bug guy gets a question on proper English usage, he or she can forward it to the entomologist. Someone asks the entomologist about when to use “that” instead of “which,” he or she sends it to the word guy. Physiologists/Physiatrists, Cosmologists/Cosmetologists…even Plumbers/Pilots, if they have particularly stupid friends and family members, would benefit from this service.)
Well, the point is that the Beatles made “Merry Crimble” famous and it’s a Lovely Holiday Tune besides. Alas, it’s not available on either Amazon or iTunes.
(Oh, and the usual disclaimer applies: my Amazon Associates code is embedded in the link and anything you buy after clicking it results in my getting a small kickback. And the capital of Delaware is Dover.)
C-day Minus One. Time to focus on the Christmas-ey sort of tunes, no?
We can file this song in the same thematic category as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Both are first-person, unreliable-narrator accounts of a child who has left his bed late at night to investigate an unusual noise in the house, and witnesses a scene that was not meant for his eyes.
The impact of this simple libretto increases with the age and increased sophistication of the listener. A wee lad who has yet to develop a properly-skeptical mind is inclined to take the story at face value. A year or three later, a wiser and more worldy youth understands that the narrator’s Mommy was actually kissing his Daddy, who was wearing a Santa Claus costume at the time.
Aha! But when this same child grows into a cynical and sullen teen, they reflect on the horror of what the narrator is witnessing and how he must be processing the scene. The narrator’s still-developing mind has a limited ability to grasp abstract concepts. In addition, his sense of security is inextricably entwined with his definition of his mother and father as an unbreakable unit. And so, when this child witnesses his mother dissolving that unity and seeking comfort from another man — ie, Santa — he can only interpret this as the destruction of his entire universe.
The narrator may recover, with speedy and deft counseling. But how can we predict the long-term trauma? This child could grow to adulthood without the basic sense of trust that’s key to any longterm emotional connection to another person. He’s doomed to a lifetime of failed relationships and empty narcissism, all because his parents lacked the good sense to deadbolt the kid inside their room every night to prevent him from wandering around. Also from fleeing a house fire via the hallway and the front door. Again, I blame bad parenting: kicking out a bedroom window and jumping from the second floor teaches a kid self-reliance. Darwin makes the best babysitter.
How shall we interpret “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” once we’re past puberty and well into adulthood? Our robust, grownup sophistication allows the hidden message to become crystal-clear: Mommy definitely has a “type.”
What is it about this gentleman that forces her to ignore the wisdom of her better angels? Is it the beard? The belly that shakes like jelly? The leather boots and the faint scent of deer pheremones? Or is it simply the fact that Santa is, by his nature, a giver who enters a home — and by extension a relationship — without any expectation of receiving material or emotional support of any kind from his partner?
It’s probably wise to leave it there before you convince yourself that the couples in “Santa Looked A Lot Like Daddy” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” were two pairs of cosplay swingers who had found each other via Craigslist, and that they were engaging in an evening of wife-swapping.
I actually didn’t even know about this song until it appeared on my BFF’s annual holiday mix CD. He selected a version by the Reverend Horton Heat, in keeping with the Alternative Music theme of this year’s offering. I went and got the Buck Owens recording. I really like its “classic country” style. Plus…I mean, I already had the Good Reverend’s version.
Yesterday, I thrilled you all with an English paper I wrote during the second semester of my third Sophomore year in high school. I got a solid “B” on it and I’m real pleased with how it turned out. I think this essay heralded to my teachers and parents that I’d finally turned an intellectual corner and that I’d probably graduate sometime before I hit my 30’s, despite the premonitions of my guidance counselor and the unofficial motto of the school.
Listening to yesterday’s selection (Patrick Stewart’s one-man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”) is indeed one of my Most Cherished Holiday Traditions. Tonight’s edition of the Letterman show is another. They’ve never titled the last show before Christmas as “The Dave Letterman Christmas Special” but yeah, that’s clearly what it is.
You could even say that the Dave Letterman Christmas Special is more organic than any overtly-declared Christmas Special starring Andy Williams or He-Man And She-Ra. Every Dave Letterman Christmas Special consists of several reliable highlights:
Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home) accompanied by a chorus and enough additions to the CBS Orchestra to make the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater look like the final party scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life”;
Jay Thomas tells his Lone Ranger story;
The Holiday Quarterback Challenge, in which Dave and Jay (Thomas) take turns hurling footballs at the Late Show Christmas Tree until one of them knocks the giant calcified meatball off the top off the Empire State Building that serves as the tree’s angel for the week of the holiday;
Paul Shaffer does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night” during one of her Seventies TV specials.
Dave might also tell the story about the time a stagehand cursed out Tom Brokaw during a staff holiday party, though this seems to have become more of a “Christmas week” tradition. Like the appearance of a fresh-cut tree in the living room, Dave saying “Why don’t you go **** yourself?” in a gruff voice is a giddiness-inducing sign that Christmas is near.
The cursing is just another data point supporting the argument that the Dave Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special is more like a family holiday party than a network holiday show. A good family Holiday party where the rundown of elements grew over time through an eager unspoken mutual consent, as opposed to someone reading some damned article in some damned magazine fronted by some damned lady with her own talk show and then forcing the whole family to bend to this madwoman’s insane will.
Why, exactly, is it important to celebrate the season by knocking a softball-sized meatball from the top of a Christmas tree? Well, why was it important in our house that my Dad hang up an old “Happy Halloween” decoration with the word “Halloween” covered up with a bit of paper with “Christmas” scrawled on it? He did it for a laugh one year, then he did it again the next year…and then it became so closely-associated with this time of year that it came into its own. Dave and Jay knock the meatball off the tree because it’s the Christmas show. No further explanation is required.
The second reason why you could describe The Dave Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special as “organic” is because the term is so carelessly-defined and its usage is so sloppily-enforced by government regulators. It can be applied to just about anything, regardless of its content or how it’s produced.
Anyone would agree that “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” is the high point of the show and possibly the highlight of the whole year. Here’s a great behind-the-scenes video (made by Letterman staffers Jay Johnson and Walter Kim) of all the work and pride that goes into this part of the show:
The highlight of the video is a full presentation of the number, assembled as a seamless montage of annual performances. Take some time to look at the faces of the performers. Look for Paul Shaffer in particular, pounding away at the baby grand with an expression akin to a silent shriek of absolute glee.
When I say “Every year, I’m at the edge of my seat when the song starts and I have goosebumps by the end,” I’m telling the literal truth. When I say “Every year, there’s nothing that will keep me from being home from 11:35 to 12:35 to watch it as it airs,” ok, that’s kind of a lie because my DVR is exceptionally reliable and unlike dinner with friends, it’s just as good when you’re watching it on video instead of experiencing it at the same time as everybody else.
But it’s true that the Letterman Undeclared Christmas Special is a genuine beloved holiday tradition. It’s just a TV show and yet it’s not just a TV show. Watching it is part of a process that connects me to a mood and a spirit that I’ve enjoyed every year of my life at around this time. It’s a reminder that this species has an exceptionally good core, despite occasional discouragements to the contrary, and overall it leaves me quite favorably-inclined towards recommending to my superiors that we keep your planet around for at least another couple of dozen years.
Buy or try “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) on the Amazon MP3 Store. You don’t need to guess why I prefer this live version to the original recording. I’ve embedded my Amazon Associates ID in the link; anything you buy on Amazon after clicking it results in a small kickback to me in the form of store credits, which I will then spend on gloriously foolish things.
(In the spirit of the season, of course.)
(“In the spirit of the season” is yet another one of those poorly-regulated phrases that can be used almost anywhere.)
Boy, oh, boy. Patrick Stewart’s one-man dramatic reading defines “A Christmas Carol” for me. It gets straight to the heart of the original, as I see it. Scrooge isn’t healed by the Christmas spirit…he’s healed because he’s forced to evaluate the bad choices in his life and to confront the ugliness inside him. Christmas, and the Spirits, don’t do anything to him; at the end of the story, he’s a better man because he chooses to become one…and all of that requires effort and honesty.
Patrick Stewart’s performance as Scrooge makes it clear that we’re meant to cheer Scrooge on.
Could we even go so far as to describe Scrooge as the hero of “A Christmas Carol”?
Hmm. It depends on whether or not you think it’s heroic to rescue yourself, as opposed to saving, say, Lois Lane, Marion Ravenwood, or Christmas.
I say “yes.” Scrooge examines his own behavior and ultimately, he decides to move away from a position of safety and comfort (the purpose of self-delusion is generally to trick us into feeling safe and comfortable, after all). He veers off into something more dangerous and uncertain. That might not be heroic, exactly, but at the very least it’s brave. And that’s why, when this story is adapted and performed as well as it’s done by Patrick Stewart, we like Scrooge and want him to succeed.
“Rubbish!” you say. “Scrooge is no different at the end of the story than he was at the beginning! Marley showed Scrooge that he was ultimately going to be damned to wander the earth bound by iron chains! And the Ghost of Christmas Future showed him that he’s going to die next Christmas Day if he doesn’t change! Scrooge is just trying to save his own skin!”
“Hogwash,” I reply.
(Though I applaud both of us for not going for the cheap laugh, and saying “Humbug.” It shows a lot of restraint and class.)
Marley’s visitation scene makes Dickens’ intentions clear. Marley’s true burden isn’t the hundreds of pounds of chains and steel cashboxes he has to drag around everywhere: it’s his unrelenting remorse. Only after his death has Marley become aware of the depth of the suffering among the disadvantaged in the city. He’s eager to aid…but as a formless spirit, he’s powerless to interfere. All Marley can do is watch, and remember alllllll of the times during his life when he walked straight past the same kinds of people without paying them the slightest notice, and think about how he could have lifted them out of their desperate situations by applying the slightest effort. An eternity of compassion and remorse: that’s a tidy vision of hell.
“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! Such was I!”
As if to firmly dot that particular “i”, Dickens ends the scene with the view of the street from Scrooge’s window. The streets are filled with spirits, many of them known to Scrooge during their lives as fellow members of the 1%:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
We come to learn that Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t a baddie. He just made the mistake of responding to disappointments by growing more cynical and suspicious of other people as the years passed. Eventually, he grew suspicious of Humanity in general. Ultimately, he distanced himself so completely that he withdrew from the whole system. Time and time again, he angrily demands to be left alone. He doesn’t even attempt to interfere with the good works of others, and (to my recollection) doesn’t even act in a meanspirited way. A thoughtless one, yes, but is he ever actively hostile? He wants the men collecting for the poor to go away. He doesn’t want to be roped in to his nephew’s Christmas party. He wishes that the carolers would just leave him the hell alone.
In doing so, Scrooge failed to understand that you’re part of the human race whether you want to be or not. Therefore, the only choice any of us have in the matter is whether to play a positive role in human society or a selfish one.
By the time Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Future, he’s already realized the mistakes he’s made and the damage he’s done to himself and the people around him through his indifference and his total lack of empathy. And so, when he sees his name on the tombstone, he doesn’t plead with the Ghost because he’s desperate to save his skin. I think it’s clear that he was eager to finally use his resources (his money and his time on Earth) to become a positive part of society, and thought that the cup was being slapped away from his lips. He was like Marley in that moment: wanting to alleviate human suffering, but denied the ability.
I could move on to a long debate about whether or not a desire to help others is, in fact, a selfish desire. But I’ve just checked carefully and it turns out that this here is a blog post and not a page of dialogue for Dr. House.
Another win of this audiobook: it doesn’t shortchange us on the Christmas Day scenes. It wouldn’t be very satisfying if Scrooge woke up, undocked his iPhone from the nightstand charger, confirmed the date, PayPal-ed a bunch of money to some good causes, and then went back to sleep.
Patrick Stewart doesn’t hold anything back. There’s a smile on Scrooge’s face and a gleam in his eye that comes through even in audiobook form. And yet, he doesn’t go overboard and destroy the effect of all the hard work that preceded that scene. The word to describe Scrooge’s emotions would be “grateful” rather than “manic.” We should be grateful that we have the time and the means to do something positive.
This is a scene from the 1999 Hallmark made-for-TV movie. It’s a good’n; so good that it…no, no, surely not.
What the hell…it’s Christmas: it’s so good that I can even completely forgive Hallmark for bankrolling “Riding The Bus With My Sister.”
No matter how good Stewart’s movie is, though, I can’t prefer it to the audiobook. Stewart has been regularly performing his abridged “Christmas Carol” as a one-man show since 1991. He does every voice! I invite you to wonder, as I do, how he compresses his rich, impressive King Lear-esque baritone into a charming Tiny Tim. I can assure you that he does. And when he plays female parts, it’s about as far away from a Monty Python pepperpot lady as one can get without leaving this planet.
Oh, how I love this audiobook. I can’t possibly exaggerate how I feel about it. I first bought it on cassette at a salvage store. Since then, I’ve bought it on CD and on Audible. There’s no set date during the holiday season when I move it from my iTunes library and onto my iPhone. But it’s early. The Indianapolis 500 starts with a voice on a loudspeaker calling “Gentlemen, start your engines.” For me, the holiday season begins with Patrick Stewart intoning “Jacob Marley was dead…”
And when I hear those words, I feel pinpricks at the back of my neck and I am very, very happy. There have been years when I simply never got around to setting up the tree. Sending out holiday cards? I like to design those myself, which means that it only happen when I think of an idea early enough to have the cards made, and get the cards made early enough to address and mail them.
But there is never, ever a year when I don’t listen to Patrick Stewart’s dramatic adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” at least twice. Patrick Stewart’s career is filled with indispensable work and even so, I would quickly choose “A Christmas Carol” the least-dispensable thing Patrick thing he’s ever done.
So you should definitely get yourself a copy of this. If your holiday weekend plans involve driving all over creation making merry, you can choose no better car audio than this.
Me? I bought and ripped the CD. That’s the highest tribute I can pay to any commercial audio. If an album’s good, I’ll buy a track or three. If it’s very good, I’ll buy the whole thing.
If it’s as good as “A Christmas Carol,” though, I want the CD. I want the recording at its highest, uncompressed quality. I want it in an unlocked format that I can rip and then install on any playback device I own now or will ever own in the future.
Buy “A Christmas Carol” from Amazon. As usual, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link and any purchases you make on Amazon after clicking it results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits…which I will spend on delightful foolishness.
Last time, I talked about novelty versions of pop songs. I believe (checks notes) ah! Yes, as I suspected: I said critical, sweeping things about an entire genre, and dismissed it out of hand mostly because I, personally, have no taste for it.
This statement is by no means invalidated by my lifelong appreciation for the work of Sir Alfred Yankovic (I know the New Year’s Honours List won’t be announced for another week yet, but look, who are we trying to kid?). I honestly think he’s the present-day successor to Gilbert & Sullivan. Like W.S. Gilbert, he’s a deft lyricist who often composes songs that point out the foibles of current society. Like Arthur Sullivan, he freely, but not exclusively, bases his music on familiar tunes.
“Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” works great at face value. It’s every frank conversation you’ve ever wanted to have with That Guy in your address book after his forwards have finally exhausted your last scrap of patience. But do take a moment to really listen to it as a piece of music. Appreciate the agility of the lyrics and don’t ignore that it’s been set to a lovely little tune with a graceful structure.
I’d pegged this song as a wAG original. But no less an authority than Wikipedia informs me that it’s an style parody of the music of Jim Steinman, who (ibid) is a songwriter best known for passionate first-person anthems like “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” and most of the music from Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell.” I suppose the common thread to Steinman’s most familiar songs is that they’re being sung by characters who really, really want you to know how much they’re feeling what they’re singing.
Sir Al made a shrewd choice in singing “Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me” with more of a plaintive tone than an aggressive one. Think of the context: as with many of Steinman’s signature songs, the singer is speaking directly to one person. As with none of them, however, the singer knows he has the option of just creating a new filter that automatically routes everything from that address to the Junk folder.
It’s been noted that Lord Al’s career has far, far exceeded those of the performers he’s parodied. It’s easy to see why: by definition, he’s always learning new styles of music. Thus, his act has never atrophied, grown stale and irrelevant, or resigned itself to the dustbin of nostalgia and PBS concert specials.
Plus, it forces him to keep working at it. Over the course of three decades he’s gone from figuring out the chords to “Another One Bites The Dust” to acquiring a vast portfolio of skills as a performer, composer, and arranger. I would be very, very interested in seeing a musical or a movie with an original Yankovic score. I can’t imagine it being anything less than good.
I have a very low tolerance for precious novelty interpretations of pop hits. I don’t really understand the concept.
Let’s take “Achy-Breaky Heart” as a case study. My problems with this song are as follows: repetitive melody; not particularly catchy melody; uninspired lyrics; Billy Ray Cyrus’ mullet.
None of these shortcomings are in any way corrected by an Alvin And The Chipmunks version of that song. So why, then, would I like that version, either? If anything, the song’s last problem is compounded when the song is being sung by vole-like creatures. At least Cyrus’ hairstyle ended at his neck. The Chipmunks sport full-body mullets…and there are three of them.
So a band doesn’t automatically get a free pass when they do a cover version of a hit song using alternative instruments or an unconventional musical arrangement. Wendy Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” remains a classic for her thoughtful electronic re-interpretation of classical music. Through her synthesizers, she reveals new truths and beauty in the Brandenburg Concertos. You can’t, you know, duplicate that highly-satisfying result by dragging a MIDI file into a Casio keyboard. Not even if you go all-out and use Tone #062, aka “Space Meow.”
“Hard To Handle” was originally written and recorded by Otis Redding and I swear to God I knew that before I happened to Google for the name of the band that made it into a big hit in the 90’s, which I already knew was The Black Crowes but I thought it’d be good form just to double-check that.
I consider The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain to be among the best five all-ukulele orchestras in the European Union and I’m willing to fight any man or woman who challenges me on that point. I happened to be in London while they were performing at the Barbican Centre, and happened to buy the very last seat available just a few hours before the show. I was very pleased to be the specific person responsible for that moment when the group’s manager leaned his head into the dressing room, pulled the cigar out of his mouth, and congratulating the UOoGB on having sold out the venue.
The tune’s a cover magnet. The melody and the lyrics are impeccably high-quality raw ingredients for a band and a singer to work with. It seems like there’s only one possible mistake to be made, and it’s an understandable one: the band and the singer can’t each be working so hard to sell the song that they wind up fighting each other. For sure, you can’t have a scenario in which they’re fighting and one side is clearly winning. I think that’s why the Crowes’ version isn’t my favorite, even though I like it lots.
The Ukulele Orchestra doesn’t make their whole playlist out of ukulele arrangements of hit songs, though they do great things with that line. I first heard about them via their version of “Psycho Killer”:
I love the fact that there’s a distinctly inverse relationship between how seriously they take themselves and how seriously they take their music. Admittedly such an inverse relationship is by no means unique among musicians but the Ukes have chosen put the bigger number on the “how good do they sound?” side of the equation. As demonstrated by this, their version of “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly”:
Their cover of “Hard To Handle” is true to the song’s origins. It manages to inject the right amount of aggression, soul, and glee that belongs in any proper version of this tune. This track’s been a mainstay of my playlists for so long that whenever I think “Hard To Handle” I instinctively hear the Ukes’ version and not one of the more blockbuster-ey ones.
Yup, I’m a fan. The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain isn’t a comedy act and it isn’t a novelty act. It’s a musical act. I hope they make their way to New England some time. Their live show was tops and I’d love to see them again.
Try or buy “Hard To Handle” on the Amazon MP3 Store. As usual, that link is embedded with my Amazon associates code and anything you buy there after clicking the link results in my getting a few store credits…which, I promise you, I shall spend on foolish and wonderful things.
It’s (oh, right) Christmastime, so let’s close this one off with the Ukes’ version of “Blue Christmas.”
You shouldn’t look things up on the Internet when you know that the answer can’t possibly do you any good.
There are three titles associated with this song and two of them are wonderful. “Southern Culture On The Skids” is a fantastic name for a band — or a book, or a line of gift jams and jellies, or just about anything else that isn’t specifically related to a surgical procedure — and “Dirt Track Date” is a pleasantly evocative phrase.
It’s the title of the song itself that worries me. If you’ve heard the song, you will undoubtedly agree that “Camel Walk” is a good fit. It’s a lopey, drawling, lurchy sort of rock (mostly) instrumental that compels you to walk as though you have some sort of inner ear disorder that doesn’t effect your lateral, side-to-side balance but which knocks away your ability to maintain your front-to-back equilibrium. The overall effect on your gait is to create the impression that you’re on a treadmill, and the deck is made of a waterbed mattress rolled into a tube.
You really should have scrolled up or down and bought this track by now. That’s really a hell of a description and an emphatic endorsement of any song. Just don’t listen to this song while carrying a hot bowl of soup, and you’ll be fine.
But does “Camel Walk” have any other meanings?
After you’ve reached your 30th birthday, you learn that the cartload of Modern Slang that you’ve been happily pulling behind you all your life is nowhere to be seen in your rearview mirror. It got unhitched at some point during your journey through life and you’ll never find it again. Congratulations: you’re part of the Grownup Culture, who doesn’t understand how or why “sneakers” became “kicks.”
The larger problem is that the youth of today…well, I’m not saying that they’re coming up with acts to perform upon and with each other that had never occurred to any prevous generation of humans. I’m just saying that during a simpler and more innocent time, if two people spent an hour pleasuring each other by flossing between their partners’ toes with strips of raw pork tenderloin, there would be an agreement to never speak of that incident again. Whereas it seems like the modern reaction is “Let’s talk about this to all of our friends and post about it everywhere we can. Plus, if we define this new thing as ‘Feeding The Squirrels’ then there’s an excellent chance that we can make the grownups look foolish.”
Fast forward a month, to a high-school English class. The teacher offhandedly mentions how he kept running out the squirrel feeder all weekend,. He smiles at the immediate and explosive reaction this generated from his students, but has no idea why the whole class is hyperventilating.
See, I’m just a little bit suspicious. The singer says “Baby! [owoooooo-whee!] Yew make me wanna walk…like a camel!”
I don’t think I’m completely wrong to wonder. In certain parts of the South, is “walking like a camel” what happens when a man gets his whatsis stuck inside a dealie, and the only way to get it out is to leave immediately for the emergency room? Like, he has to support the weight of the dealie with his hands, forcing him to walk slightly like a camel as he clumsily tries to balance the weight and avoid tearing his thingamabob clean off.
I know the URL for the Urban Dictionary.
I think I’m just going to choose not to visit it.
Yeah. Sounds wise. Nothing good can come of that.
Try or buy “Camel Walk” on the Amazon MP3 Store. As always, the link is embedded with my Amazon associates code and anything you buy there after clicking it results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of store credits. I promise to spend it on wonderful and foolish things.
As I write this, I’m watching a nice little special on Turner Classic Movies about holiday films. Famous people (Chevy Chase, Chazz Palminteri), once-famous people (the guy who played the mean kid in “A Christmas Story,” the woman who played Zuzu in “It’s A Wonderful Life), and a bunch of writers (here as a livelier alternative to just cutting to a screenshot of a relevant Wikipedia page when some facts need to be presented) share stories about their favorite flicks.
Many of these stories begin with cozy remembrances of the first times they saw “Miracle On 34th Street” or “Holiday Inn,” and how closely they associate those movies with childhood Christmases with the family, etc.
Lovely. And it makes me wonder how we’ll be telling these tales in the future.
“So I’m on a usenet newsgroup and someone is talking about this amazingly funny cartoon where Jesus fights Santa. It was such a long thread that I upgraded to the latest version of Netscape, downloaded the right video codec, shut down my Mac LC and restarted it, and then, at 2 or 3 AM when I knew that server load would be low and I’d have plenty of downstream bandwidth, I dialed my SLIP server, typed the right address into the client, and watched ‘The Spirit Of Christmas’ by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
“My browser kept locking up partway through, and I had to restart three or four times and keep playing with Conflict Catcher before I figured out what was making the plugin unhappy. And I think I was getting barely any throughput, so even when it worked, it was pretty blocky. But I posted a question to the Comics and Animation forum on Compuserve and somebody was able to tell me how the last thirty seconds ended.
“It was the best Christmas ever. Right from the moment when Jesus called Santa a ‘****ing pussy’.”
I look forward to telling that story into a camera some day when I’m in my Sixties.
You might not like “South Park” — even I get grossed-out and offended by some episodes — but man, you can’t deny Parker & Stone’s talent and work ethic. By the time I heard that they were about to open a Broadway musical, I thought “Sure. Why the hell not?”
In fact, nothing they ever wrote into any episode — not even the one where Wendy gets breast implants — offended and hurt me as much as their unconscionable decision to write a show that’s brilliantly funny, put one of the best numbers from the whole show into the Tony Awards telecast, regularly sell the endlessly-playable cast album for next to nothing…and ensure that tickets would be unaffordable and completely unobtainable.
Oh, for cripes’ sake. I’ve been sitting here and sulking for almost a whole minute! You’re supposed to, you know, assure me that I’m totally right and praise me for being so brave in the face of adversity and then offer me a Drumstick frozen iced treat. Instead, you’re just look away awkwardly.
(sigh) Thanks, nice of you to make the belated effort, but pointing out how many people are involved in staging a musical like “Book Of Mormon” and reminding me that it’s only fair that they be paid a wage commensurate with their value isn’t helping.
I guess I should just soldier on.
Well, the nice thing about tickets I can’t get that are priced above what I can afford is that I needn’t protect myself from spoilers. I bought the album after seeing the Tonys, and then read the libretto so I could actually understand what the songs were about. It’s clear that the producers deserve their success. It’s creative, it’s massively-funny, it doesn’t care about offending people, and yet it hasn’t the slightest intention to offend anybody. They’ve pulled off a great trick: they’ve created a musical that’s critical of certain elements of religion while praising, in a real sense, other elements.
All the while, it has a bright center and a good heart. For $150, I want to leave the theater feeling happy, not as though all is lost, existence is futile, and happiness is a veneer that can only be obtained by the vain, selfish, cynical, and corrupt.
I mean, you’re stepping out of the theater and into Times Square. New York City has already got that stuff covered, you know?
The album is full of great tracks. “I Believe” comes in that pivotal second act moment when our hero, who was thoroughly beaten-down and discouraged and ready to give up, reconnects to his passion and resolve. Yes, he’s singing about utter nonsense, but it’s a bit like watching a little kid twirling and twirling in circles. “It’s pointless,” you think, “but dear God, he does look happier than I’ve felt all year.”
“Wake Up!” was one of my favorite buys of 2011. A pal recommended “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” to me and after I gave this version of it a listen, I had to slap myself twice. First, because the album had been out for a year and I’d never heard of it, and then because the song itself was first released back in 1972 and I’d spent all 39 of those years not listening to the original version, either.
Granted, I had other priorities in the early Seventies (I was kind of a child-development geek back then…totally obsessed with it, you could say) but the free pass ends in the Eighties.
“I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is an anti-war song in which a Vietnam vet dictates a simple letter that he can’t write himself because of his battlefield injury. That’s it. But it gets right to the point: that the human cost of war is enormous, and that the perspectives of someone who’s actually seen combat are very, very different from those of someone who hasn’t. Even those of a soldier who hasn’t been to war yet.
Here’s what separates a good anti-war song from a poor one. The focus is on the people who have been directly affected. It’s not on the singer, and how angry and offended he, personally is. For some reason I’m suddenly thinking of the moment when Starr Jones made that bold career choice to switch from Tolerable to Insufferable Twit. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 150,000 people. Starr’s method of relating to the disaster was the fact that she’d honeymooned in that area a month before the disaster, and had felt like she’d been blessed by God.
It’s kind of a cautionary tale. Selfishness is self-limiting at best and self-destructive at worst. It’s such a potent toxin because it’s so easy not to see it in your own behavior. Was Jones trying to deliberately swing the spotlight towards her and off of the dead, injured, displaced, and bereaved? Or was she simply trying to find a way to connect to a disaster that happened halfway across the world, and which did so much damage that the numbers almost defy comprehension?
The lesson is that it’s usually not important that you work out your own feelings about these things. That’s a luxury, at a time when so many are in such dire circumstances. The Vietnam War produced protest songs by the psychedelic busload. How many of them were particularly thoughtful? How many were just selfishly angry?
I wasn’t around back then so I don’t have either that experience nor the full context. I really can’t judge. I’m happy that in our current environment, despite the fact that we need tactile and repeated reminders of just how many of our citizen soldiers are out there risking everything, there seems to be a reliable partition between our feelings (pro and con) about the use of American military forces, and our feelings for those out there on the line.
This particular track is a new cover recorded by John Legend and The Roots. The 1972 original had Bill Withers describing an experience he had with a recently-returned vet, and the story that the encounter inspired. This version has John Legend describing the song in which Bill Withers told the story that inspired the song. It’s a little bit recursive but hey, it works.
The shift in context between the two versions is interesting. It’s a potent song so long as anybody is fighting anywhere in uniform. But the original was written during the days of the Draft. Today, we have an all-volunteer army. I suspect that means something, and it nags me that I can’t figure out what that is.
There are categories of vocations where the common thread is “service.” The military, law enforcement, firefighting, teaching, certain articulations of the ministry, community organizing, even politics: on some level, they’re impossible, undoable jobs in which everyone who signs up pretty much knows that they’ll be paid far less than the benefits that they create for Society.
And yet, there are people who go out and do those jobs. Yes, of course: not always for altruistic reasons. But even if you became a firefighter because of the great pension program, or you became a soldier in part because the Army was hiring and everybody else in the state wasn’t, that doesn’t change the basic fact. There are people who run out of a burning building to save themselves and then there are the people who run in to save the lives of strangers. If you watched that orientation video and you still signed the contract, you’re not getting paid enough.
I read an essay by a decorated soldier who tried to explain the disconnect in perceptions between soldiers and non-soldiers. In explaining his actions and even his mere presence in a war zone, he just said “It’s the job I signed up for.” That’s the key. I know I’ll never understand it fully but I know the truth is right there. It seems remarkable to anybody else that taking those kinds of risks and making those kind of sacrifices could be simply part of a job description.
Back to the original question: how does this song change when the vet in the song fought in the Middle East instead of Southeast Asia? When the soldier made a choice and volunteered, versus (in effect) being hit by a big truck as an act of God and had no choice in the matter?
And of course, it’s a stupid, selfish question. He’s can’t write left-handed any more and he doesn’t think he’ll be around much longer. Why the compulsion to pull one’s thoughts away from that for one moment?
Okay, let’s get back to cheerier topics: music. I own both the Legend/Roots album and the version of the song recorded by Bill Withers, recorded live at a Carnegie Hall concert. I gravitate towards the newer edition. It has more momentum; there’s something about the additional repetition of the song that builds to a kind of prayer, and the more conventional R&B/soul arrangement suits the song better than the more intimate 1972 performance. But Your Taste May Vary.
Bing Crosby: A Centennial Anthology Of His Decca Recordings
This week’s episode of my podcast was a particularly fun one. It was a holiday special in which I explained, in terms so plain as to guarantee their assent, that “White Christmas” is a terrible, terrible movie. You might not even be aware that in America, I am the sole registrar and authority regarding the list of Classic Movies. The fact that you’re not aware of this underscores the care and caution with which I wield that power. This podcast episode will remain as my public statement of record as to my findings regarding this particular and peculiar movie, and why its Classic status is, and forever shall be, revoked.
Part of my argument is the fact that this movie had such wonderful vocal talent on the payroll and yet it made such poor use of them. The film’s songs were all taken from the Irving Berlin songbook — no shortage of fab tunes there — but I think Paramount decided to save some money and pick up a few end-trims and seconds from the Irving Berlin Factory Outlet Store out by the municipal airport. They’re not what you’d call…well, “good.”
Rosemary Clooney gets a great solo number. But what about Bing Crosby? Nuh-uh. He’s always either paired up, and never with the one real singer. He and Clooney get barely one verse of one song together.
Many of you have seen “White Christmas” this year. It pains me to imagine that you haven’t been Binged good and properly so here’s one of the best recordings he ever made. “Stardust” helped put Crosby on the map and it defined him as A Lad Who Had Figured Out Something New. Have you ever watched musicals from the Thirties and wondered why so many of the leading men sang in this weird style and tone that nobody else uses? So did I. Then someone explained to me that this was, in fact, a style of popular singing that was going out of date even then.
This clip from an MGM is a pleasant little clip but behind the scenes, it was a true Mortal Kombat-style head to head battle between a young, up-and-coming “old-style” singer and a young, up-and-coming “jazz-style” singer.
According to a documentary I once saw, MGM executives were using this short as a data point to help them figure out where to lead the music department. The winner was the jazz singer on the left. First prize was ten years of child slavery, a massive pill addiction, and profoundly-embedded attachment issues.
Bing is often credited with being the one who pushed popular singing into the Jazz style. He’s usually cited as the most influential voice of his generation. “Stardust” shows why. After you’ve listened to this recording, wouldn’t you want to sound this cool?
The song itself is positively enchanting.
It’s a song about remembering a song, a construction that predates “Inception” by more than three quarters of a century. That’s kind of the right way to think of it: this song presents itself to me as a puzzle. There’s a fragile beauty to it and an elegant structure. That’s plain to hear. But what is that structure?
It’s not your basic Verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/verse kind of song. The vocalist seems to piece the song together like a bird building a nest. It’s clear what it’s up to, and the shape presents itself early, but it’s coming in from all kinds of places with all kinds of things.
I keep trying to figure it out, and failing. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. No matter how often I play it, it keeps engaging me.
It’s profoundly a “stop what you’re doing and listen” song. It’s the song of the faraway look, of the memory that lingered in the back storeroom for years before suddenly dropping back into your awareness, of the smile for which the explanation “Oh, this awesome song just came up on Shuffle Play” seems weak and unconvincing and so you find yourself claiming to have been reflecting on a particularly jocund fart joke from this week’s “Family Guy.”
In a nutshell: this is not a song that should be on any playlist you intend to listen to while driving.
The time I spent on Amazon looking for the version I had in my iTunes library taught me something else: there’s a certain alchemy about this song. It’s the perfect performance matched to the perfect arrangement. A lesser producer — even a Sinatra producer — sees the word “Stardust,” grabs the Yellow Pages, and immediately turns to the “C”s.
“Hello, is this ‘Crapload Of Strings’? Hi, yes, I need a whole crapload of strings to play on this record I’m recording tomorrow…oh, great. While I have you on the line, do you have the number for ‘Holy Mother Of God, Do We Have A Lot Of String Players’ handy? Because I’m not sure that the 80 violinists you have are going to be quite enough…”
Not even all of the Bing Crosby recordings are winners. “Stardust” is a delicate balance. But this Decca recording from a 2003 Centennial Collection is the real winner of the bunch.
Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection: The Greatest Novelty Records of All Time
Genre: Books & Spoken
“Existential Blues” will be familiar to any kid who spent Sunday nights listening to The Dr. Demento Show. It was one of perhaps 18 tracks that were perennial staples, a collection of tunes that were played so often, and which were so well-loved, that the more frequently Dr. Demento played them, the more frequently people would write and phone in to hear them again.
(It’s kind of uncanny. The show lasted for about twenty or thirty years, and the good Dr. worked hard until the end. But he could have played the same four Weird Al Yankovic songs, plus “Last Will And Temperament,” “Fish Heads,” “Existential Blues,” and those few others nonstop and he’d still made at least 60% of his audience very, very happy.)
It’s only just now occurred to me that this show was a unique lifeline for songs like this one. “Everybody has at least one novel in them,” the saying goes. The same is probably true for songs. The Dr. Demento Show was a safe haven and a nurturing incubator for thousands of people who recorded exactly one awesome song. Just one wonderful and twisted tune that could only have come about through precisely the right alchemy of life experience, musical ability (or disability), and chemical interference. Most of these songs were like the metal in Captain America’s shield: they were the residue of a holy accident that could never be reproduced with the same success.
(Yes, I’m talking about the same environment that curated and promoted songs like “My Baby’s Got Rabies.” Work with me, people.)
What other show would have provided a forum for such niche tunes? Radio and commercial music distribution couldn’t have helped these people. As the chairman of GM once said, regarding their initial lack of interest in building electric cars, they’re in the business of making and selling things in the millions, not in the tens of thousands.
It all points to the 21st century as some kind of creative renaissance. Each one of us has powerful discovery tools that make radio and other forms of conventional marketing far less important. It’s still not easy for an artist to sell a million records to the entire market of potential listeners. And Lord knows there are very few recording artists who wouldn’t like to have the sort of success and security (and homes and cars and drugs) that a string of serious hits can create. But if you don’t create that kind of music, it’s easier than it once was to sell records to just those 10,000 people who love, not like, that same kind of music. And because these independents are getting (in effect) an 88% royalty on each sale instead of 15%…well, it’s pretty easy to see the Win of having started your musical career after 2008 instead of before.
That said…no self-supporting artist wouldn’t be absolutely thrilled if just one of their songs were used in a TV show or a movie. But…well, “Glee” is watched by just so damned many people, you know? An artist can still rail about your independence after they’ve bought a reliable car and a year’s worth of health insurance.
Don’t you dare call “Existential Blues” a “novelty song.” Today — just as when I first heard this song back in junior high school — I’m impressed by the agility of the playing and the composition. It’s as though Steve Martin and Arlo Guthrie collaborated on an uptempo number. It has Steve’s methodically-dadaist construction. No, goddamnit, that isn’t a contradiction in terms; it refers to the ability to put weird, incongruous, stream-of-consciousness thoughts together and then take a step back and rationally decide if they function together to create a sort of harmony. And it has Arlo’s solid tunesmithing and his askance perspective.
It almost has an operetta feel to it. There’s a flow and a complexity, and it contains multiple themes that support each other. I wonder if producing this with a full band would open up the song even more, or if it’d make the whole thing collapse.
“If you’re going to go to the trouble of walking up to a bell, don’t just tap the bell. Ring the bell.”
That’s the money quote from an interview with Mel Brooks I read a while back. It sort of defines his whole approach to comedy, doesn’t it? There’s never anything subtle or wry about it. A joke in a Mel Brooks production is a big splattery pie in the face. But wouldn’t it be funnier if it were delivered to the crotch instead? Sure, why not.
It’s a sound principle and it’s the reason why cheap jokes can work so well. It’s all about having the guts to go all the way. What if, while the person is all hunched over and cleaning the pie from his trousers, someone kicks him in the ass and sends him flying into a mucky pond?
Or how about he crashes into an open latrine and is covered in crap and pee?
No, no, that’s way too far. A mucky pond. Here we see the difference between Mel Brooks and Mike Myers. Mel Brooks hits the bell hard enough to produce a loud, pure, sustaining tone. Mike Myers hits it so hard he breaks it in half.
(Mmm, no, if this really is a scene in a Mike Myers movie, he hits it so hard that it flies off of its mounting cradle and gets wedged up someone’s butt. Then the character makes clanging noises throughout the rest of the film.)
You certainly understand the “ring the bell” concept when you listen to “Keep It Gay,” which is Mel Brooks at his best. When he adapted “The Producers” as a stage musical he actually improved on the movie. It’s much more consistent and ten times funnier. If a touring production comes through your town, for cripes’ sake, go see it. This number alone justified what I paid for my ticket…and there was still “Springtime For Hitler” to come!
I don’t suppose that this YouTube clip makes the point very well. But I’m so surprised and delighted to see a high school production of The Producers that I cannot fail to embed it:
I feel old. This would not have gone over well at my high school. Not with the administration, certainly not with members of the varsity sports teams. What steps forward our culture has made since then.
In the Broadway production, the song just kept raising the stakes and raising the stakes throughout. By the end, the production has punched the buttons of gay stereotypes so frequently and so hard that they’ve worn the lettering off them. By the time they got around to working out the staging for the last bit of it, someone suggested “Well, hell…at this point, why don’t we just have four of the Village People march across the stage and start dancing?” It must have seemed to Brooks and the rest of the crew like a very small step indeed.
I wonder how the gay community feels about this number. I suppose it’s the same as how folks like me (half-Italian, thankyew) regard “The Godfather.” Yes, it reinforces useless and offensive stereotypes…but it’s just been done so well.
Try or buy “Keep It Gay” from the Amazon MP3 Store. The link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code and anything you buy from Amazon after clicking that link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of spendable credits. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
No? Me, neither. I blame the fact that we all grew up eating regular, nutritious meals; we were guaranteed an education through age 18; there were laws prohibiting the use of child labor; there was general (though not universal) consensus that bigots and racists were all ignorant ***holes; and though there were wars going on here and there, they weren’t happening on US soil and none of us were likely to be forced by the government to go out and fight them, unless we’d explicitly chosen that sort of thing as a career path.
Things were different in the Twenties. I suppose this is why they needed tunes like this one. Yup, that’s the Helen Kane, better known as the “Boop-Boop-A-Boop Girl,” singing. Her popularity inspired the Betty Boop character.
(How much cooler are today’s artists than Cab Calloway was in the Thirties? I’ve done a complex calculation and come up with the answer: None. Exactly zero point zero more cool.)
“Inspired” is, of course, is a very special word, children. It’s an eight-stroke keyboard macro that usually saves you the trouble of typing out “Well, yes, of course this idea was stolen lock, stock and barrel from this other person…but thanks to a lack of funds for legal counsel on the part of the plaitiff and the lack of shame on the part of the defendant, it was the final legal opinion of the presiding judge that he was tired of hearing testimony and wanted to go home so he dismissed the case.”
“Is There Anything Wrong With That?” tells the touching story of a flapper girl who repeatedly and cold-heartedly leads wealthy men on, enticing them to give her jewels, furs, and other expensive gifts in the empty promise of favors of an intimate nature. But it’s the Twenties, so it’s OK, I guess.
One day, this lady will have learned that looks are fleeting and that wealthy suitors are a non-renewable resource. There must come a time when she has to grow up and start making more responsible choices, such as committing an unspeakable act of emotional blackmail to secure a quickie wedding without benefit of a prenup, or (if the suitor is famous enough) figure out how to parlay the relationship into a reality TV show.
This is just a goddamn beautiful song. Why bury the lede?
It’s a pure, simple love song, with an uncluttered melody and uncomplicated arrangement that bespeaks a certain confidence. And the instrumental part has just enough rattle and edge to it.
Last week’s post about Billy Joel’s “Big Man On Mulberry Street” got me thinking about songwriters and how that particular part of a performer’s talent portfolio has taken one step into the background. It’s not as though star musicians aren’t writing their own stuff any more, of course. It’s just that Paul Simon was almost always identified as a “Singer-songwriter,” and songwriting was such an integral part of Elton John’s public identity that everybody knew the name of his lyricist.
Maybe today’s state of affairs has to do with how we now perceive a track. If Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel are reading this, please don’t take the following as any kind of a slight against your wonderful original recording but: when I picture “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” in my head I hear Elvis’ version, not yours. The song and the performers click together like a couple of Lego bricks. It’s easy to unclick them and click another artist to the song.
Maybe today we tend regard the song and the performance as a complete package. The other day I searched for a recording of Jonathan Coulton’s “Want You Gone.” Yes, I see you nodding your head knowingly: Coulton wrote “Still Alive” as the end-credits music for the first “Portal” game and “Want You Gone” is the one he wrote for Portal 2.
My brain rejects this recording utterly. It’s like a dude in a Wonder Woman costume. The song has to be sung by GlaDOS’ synthetically-processed voice and the musical arrangement has to be electronic, as though the song only exists inside a box of electronics.
When it’s performed in the real world, and by a man — even an obviously talented performer like Coulton — no, it’s just not That Song any more. Not to me, anyway. I can’t unlink the song from the performance.
John Doe, (like Warren Zevon or Leonard Cohen or Nick Lowe), writes the kind of songs that seem like new pages in the world songbook. “Lucky Penny” has the sort of melody, and the sort of potent lyrics, that so many other performers can spin into personal interpretations and brand-new magic.
Put me in your pocket Hold me there for keeps Squeeze me like I’m your last dime Hold on to me Because I’ll be good For a long, long time
Isn’t that an amazing lyric? And so perfectly-balanced by the tune. It’s the sort of thing you say to the person you love when you’re enjoying a lazy Sunday together on the sofa. You’re a little surprised that you’ve gone and said something so nakedly sentimental, and the person you’re with is a little surprised that the words affected them so deeply. The words would become cloying if they were pressed just a little bit harder. “Lucky Penny” would have been just another dopey love song that people laugh at and then forget about completely.
Whereas, I suspect that a significantly nonzero number of you have made a mental note to include this in a future “I Love You” mix tape, perhaps for a woman or a man to be named later.