Sunday, October 15, 2017

Listen: Do You Want to Know a Secret?

Sharon Clark: Do You Want to Know a Secret


The first word of this song is also our new theme: Listen. I can think of a number of great songs for this theme. Perhaps that is because songwriters feel a certain degree of insecurity. They come to a point where they feel they must ask us to listen to their work, regardless of how popular they may be at the time.

Certainly, The Beatles should not have had that problem. The whole world was listening, even in the early part of their career that this song comes from. On the other hand, ask any random group of people to make a list of Beatles songs, and Do You Want to Know a Secret will come pretty far down the list. The song is a fairly simple pop love song of the sort The Beatles once excelled at. Heard today, those “doo da doo” backing vocals sound pretty hokey. In part, however, that is because the later musical innovations of The Beatles made such devices all but obsolete. Indeed, I listened to many versions of this song to prepare for this post, and no one keeps the doo da doo’s.

Do You Know a Secret is not covered that often, and it seems to present a challenge to many who have tried. True, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas had a hit with it the same year the Beatles version debuted, but that early cover does not add much to the musical conversation. I listened to very unfortunate club, pop, jazz, and new wave versions that just completely lose track of the song. When I did find hints of where to take the song, it was in the world of jazz. Still, Sharon Clark, who is far more of a secret than she should be, is the only one who I heard who finds the way to make the song her own. Her small band Brazilian tinged version gives the song a sensual intimacy that is suggested by the lyrics. The doo da doo’s become a piano line that works perfectly with the song’s tropical groove. The vocal, if you are going to do the song this way, needs to be quiet but passionate, and Clark delivers beautifully.

Friday, October 13, 2017

True Stories: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

purchase [The Last Waltz]

Who was Virgil Caine? Quora notes that there is a town called Virgil in Caine county Ohio, but the leads to Mr Caine seem to peter out at about that point.

Robbie Robertson (song credits) appears to have gotten help from Levon Helm (from AR) with the historical data for the song. The events are certainly true: the desolation at the end of the Civil War, the Danville-Richmond train that provided the life-blood of the Southern effort... and more. General Stoneman's tearing up the train tracks contributed to the North's victory. From there on, you have to begin to take sides. Robertson likely would not have done so, being Canadian. That much may not be said for many others today who would still make something of an issue best left to historians.

Back when The Band recorded this song, no one was offended that they/Levon Helm sang his heart out about a story that (you can't sing like that if you don't feel it!) carried lots of meaning. I wish I knew what it is that has perverted our perceptions in the ensuing 45 years.

Forget rejoicing in historical fact (yes, it happened), and certainly put aside attempts to see the other side of the coin (or everyone seeing things your way). Heck, forget about letting your kid discover the next block over: you'll be hauled in for endangering your own kid by letting him walk alone to the park. Fuggetaboudit singing about something so divisive as the Civil War. Sheesh.

I side with none - lived in NC, but consider myself a Northernern for the most part  - that's Northerner as in WA. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't vote for something else if the [wo]man spoke wisdom. And it don't mean that I think  the South was wrong across the board.

Don't know if you were around then, but The Band - when they were high in the charts - were great - in the mid 70s. So great that Dylan toured with them as his band. (Not all that shabby). But the Band were also a powerhouse on their own. Their 2nd album <The Band> includes this song and was part of the <Americana> theme of the album, which included others such as Cripple Creek and Across the Great Divide

The audio mix is superb: harmonica as a weaker instrument sounds like it should, the piano hammers a loud, powerful accompaniment and the vocals soar above the rest. One of their best.

edited later to include the original:

Thursday, October 12, 2017


So here is a quandary for you, both the above are Tracey Thorn and both the above are the song entitled 'It's All True', so it must be. But which one is true for you?
OK, so this is a deceit, but one worth sharing, the two songs being so clearly one and the same and so clearly different. The first is, had you not gauged, the remix, by one Martin Buttrich, (no, me neither) actually came in the year ahead of the second, in 2006, the 2nd, Tracey's "own" version appearing on her 2007 solo record, 'Out of the Woods'. As a boomer from the last century I confess to not always getting the cult of re-mixes. Sure, yes I can enjoy them, as with this, but, as someone who likes to own my music, as shiny black plastic, or smaller silver discs, I can't keep up. With myriad versions and reinterpretations being pumped out willy-nilly, do I want to have them all? This particular song, according to the excellent trainspotter site Discogs, had 16 versions alone of the single, each or most with numerous and differing remixes.
I suspect I miss the point; music for me is a an immersive experience. For the dance floor it is probably a means to the end, for the dancing, for the experience, being even entirely ephemeral to and for the moment. So it is for streaming, for hearing and for disposing, not for listening. (The fact I listen to dance music in the car proves beyond doubt I am not the intended audience.)

Tracey Thorn was the singer, with her husband, Ben Watt, in the hugely accomplished 'Everything But The Girl', who emerged as bedsit jazz in 1984 to drum'n'bass melodicists 12 years later. The connection was always Tracey's honeyed vocal, making her latterly girl to go for any number of electronica projects, most notably Bristol's Massive Attack. She has retired from live music, by and large, to be, initially, carer to her ailing husband, then as mother to their children. (Incidentally, he is now much better, having recovered from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a very nasty auto-immune disease that nearly killed him, and now has a solo career as well, albeit with occasional live appearances.) As well as music, she has also written a couple of well-commended books, one her autobiography of performing, the second around the art of singing. (Should any of this sound familiar, yes, I have written about her before.)

Let's finish with some more truths, sung by Tracey, but written by Stephen Merritt, of  the Magnetic Fields, this time about love, possibly the most powerful truth we ever, any of us, if we are lucky, experience.

Music and Books, go get

True Stories: The Eton Rifles

The Jam: The Eton Rifles

I’ve never written about The Jam, which on one hand is surprising, because they are an amazing band, with great songs, who were on top of their game back in my WPRB days (and very shortly thereafter). On the other hand, though, they are a band that were much bigger in England than they ever were in the States, in part—if not mostly—because they often wrote about specific British issues and sensibilities that didn’t directly resonate here.

“The Eton Rifles” was written by Paul Weller in response to a news account about a street brawl that took place in Slough, in 1978 between “Right To Work” marchers and the upper class students who were members of the Eton College Combined Cadet Force, colloquially known as the Eton Rifles. The marchers were unemployed, and the march was sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, and they were being jeered by the Eton students. Apparently, the marchers took exception to the taunting from the rich kids, and wanted to teach them a lesson. But the students were in better shape, and routed the workers, leaving them beaten and bloody.

Weller, who was trying to write more political songs, seized upon this clear example of the entrenched class system’s oppression of the working class to write a powerful song that clearly was sympathetic to the workers and mocked the posh schoolboys to make a point about the worsening divide between rich and poor. Although the song was written about a specific time and place, its message about the class divide is sadly still resonant on both sides of the Atlantic.

I saw The Jam in May, 1982 at the Trenton War Memorial with a bunch of my WPRB friends. It was probably one of the last shows that I saw as an undergraduate. What I remember most about the show was that it was fucking loud. At that point, the band was moving away from its harder edged sound and incorporating more Northern Soul influences, but without abandoning the strong working class political message. Apparently, Weller’s insistence on changing the sound resulted in the band’s breakup later in 1982, and the other members of The Jam, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, didn’t speak with Weller for decades.

In 2008, the British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, an Etonian, somewhat inexplicably picked “The Eton Rifles” as a favorite song, stating, “I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. . . I don't see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs." Weller, a bit dumbfounded (gobsmacked?), responded: "Which part of the song didn't he get? Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? I don't know. He must have an idea what it's about, surely? It's a shame really that someone didn't listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead. I was a bit disappointed really." Of course, our country has examples of conservative politicians misunderstanding lyrics.

Interestingly, the background vocals, credited to the “Eton Rifles Choir,” were a bunch of random people hanging around the studio. They were recorded in the same room that Phil Collins used to create the famous drum sound used in “In the Air Tonight.” Also, there’s a subtle swipe at The Clash in the lyrics, because Weller thought that they weren’t really as committed to the revolution as they claimed.

True Stories: The Way

How the time flies—October, already? For those of you living in normal climates, you are probably starting to see changing leaves and cooler temperatures. Hope so. I live in the desert now, so I wake each day to varying degrees of scorching hellishness. Luckily, I have music to ease me though the weather until the inevitable winter cool off. I listen to a lot of country now that I live in the desert, as the landscape—varying degrees of sandy browns and beiges—just seems to fit. 

Which, in a roundabout, trying to force a connection kind of way, brings us to my song choice for this week’s theme—true stories.  Here, then, is a desert song—a Texas band doing a Texas song with a vaguely Eastern cosmopolitan swing, that oscillates over a funky piano line set to a tin drum lifted from a scratchy 78” vinyl, that climbs up and down the scales, a wandering, ballad that hides a truly sad story beneath that finger-snap veneer. Fastball’s “The Way” was a mega-hit in the late ‘90s, a staple of alt-radio for years. It remains their only real hit, and can serve as an apt definition of the term ‘one-hit-wonder’: “Hey, who was that band that did that song, you know, the one that goes like…” 

I always thought "The Way" was an interesting song: musically, it was unique to the alt-explosion sound of the late 90s, most of that being Pearl Jam rip-offs like Creed and Stone Temple Pilots, or worse, pop-punk with the substance and energy of a rubber ball in a dwindling up down up down up down 3 minute shuffle. You remember 90s radio—it was full of do nothing bands, sandwiched between  the stalwart sounds that will always be “the 90s”. Fastball, on this track at least, sounded as if they were channeling a much earlier era, mono, AM radio scratch and pop, some slick haired crooner making blinky eyes at a starlet, as they both flit around in the herky-jerky sped up motion of an early “talkie.” The vocals start out in a strange mono, with an AM radio scratch and pop track starting the song, and the guitar is simultaneously spit-fire modern and married to nostalgic bygone pop hooks, winks included, but not for irony’s sake. 

“The Way” was a unique track, probably better than a lot of what was getting spun on alternative radio at the time, but it was easy to overlook that: like a lot of good songs, the less is more commandment was violated to a shake your head in shame degree and “The Way” went from fun and quirky to goddamn annoying. I'm talking about being overplayed: “This song again? Turn it!” Which is too bad—Fastball has a lot of really interesting music, but for the average mainstream listener, their knowledge of the band stops at “The Way”—me included. I started doing a deep listen to write this article and what struck me most was how bad radio can be for an artist. “The Way” was a massive crossover hit for the band, which was great for them, but it was their only one. Radio didn’t touch Fastball after 1998, yet here they are, still cranking out music. I suppose the death of radio, while drawn out and painful and pretty much unending, is sad, but it’s given way to musical libraries has enabled people to listen to music like researchers, in pursuit of deeper truth. Thank you, Spotify, for making my musical life such a richer, more fulfilling experience.

Back to “The Way.” Disguised behind that rich piano march and sunny-sounding disposition, is a true story, one that is a mysterious tragedy. The song does what fictional re-creations do best: takes a story with few details, and imagines what led to the one part of the plot that we know: the end. Frustratingly clueless as to the who, the why, the what, the denouement can be haunting if we can’t connect the exposition to the rising action and follow it all along the plot arc. This story in particular is a tragic one: Lela and Raymond Howard were an elderly couple from Saldano, Texas who disappeared June 29, 1997 after leaving their home bound for a festival a mere 15 miles away. They were found two weeks later, in Arkansas, over 500 miles from their original destination, both dead in their car, at the bottom of a ravine. The original article chronicling their disappearance appeared in the Austin Statesman and while the story is tragic, Fastball’s Tony Scalzo turned the tale into a sort of mystic fairy tale of two people hitting the road and finding happiness by leaving all they know behind. In the song, the couple doesn’t die, but ends up in a kind of ethereal, other world happiness, having discovered that freedom that comes with enlightenment, or stumbling on a path to a place where nothing real is real anymore.  It speaks most directly to the fantasy of just ditching the keys and walking off into a metaphorical sunset. Sadly, those kind of wandering off to nowhere stories, in real life, never end well. The real life protagonists of this story were elderly and ill: Lela was suffering from Alzheimer’s and Raymond was recovering from recent brain surgery. Worse yet, they were stopped twice by police on their odyssey—once for driving without their headlights on, once for driving with the high beams on, but neither police officer knew they had been reported missing and sent the couple on their way. 

The search for the Howards stretched out over much of the southwest and included 11 states. The story went from local to national and was featured on the big network morning shows . In their home, it was reported that the couple had laid out clothing, as if to pack, and unplugged the television. However, they had left everything behind, including their cat, who was named “Happy”. The author of the original article stated that: “The Howards were in their 80s and both had been exhibiting cognitive impairments, so the scene in the house didn't seem to bode well. When I found out the cat they left behind was named 'Happy,' the melancholy spoke for itself.”  What made things worse as they were sighted multiple times in that first day, not just by the police, but by a coffee shop attendant and someone at their local Walmart. It seemed, they were lost, but they weren't really lost. It is sad to think that perhaps they were wandering, perhaps they weren't lost, in that traditional, panicked sense of not knowing where you are, but worse, not knowing where to go. Maybe that singular sense of desperation hadn't kicked in and they were on their own adventure? 

When the Howards were finally found, as I said, it was at the bottom of a ravine, where Lela had driven the car off a cliff, but the wreckage was obscured by vegetation. Raymond was still in the car; Lela had made it out of the crash, taken her purse and gone over to Raymond, and apparently tried to remove him from the car. She then walked away from the wreck and made it a short distance before succumbing.The crash had occurred on that first night on the road, which strikes me as even sadder. All that time, missing, but already gone.  And the song’s refrain, “Where were they going without ever knowing the way”, while cheery and happy go lucky when set to a tune, takes on an entirely different sense when you look at it as question that can’t really be answered in real-life. Where were the Howards going? How had they been allowed to keep going? And what were those last moments like? Were they happy, out there on the road, feeling a little of that giddy freedom that comes from being on the road, on the move; or were they lost and driving endlessly on to the hope of being found, that awful sense of panic that we get when we don't know where we are, tugging at their already frail constitutions? Part of me thinks: I'm glad they were together. I hope they knew that and were happy, and that they never really knew they were lost. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

True Stories: The Death of Silas Deane

Pinataland: The Death of Silas Deane


Pinataland is a musical project headed by songwriter Dave Wechsler. Wechsler seeks out historical curiosities for his song subjects. The Death of Silas Deane is a fine example. Silas Deane is a largely forgotten figure in the history of the American Revolution. That is probably not fair in light of what he accomplished. Deane was sent by the Continental Congress on a secret mission to France, to obtain supplies and funding for the revolutionary cause. Officially, he was sent as a private merchant, because France could not openly deal with a nation that did not exist yet. So you could call Deane a spy in that sense. He was successful, and the support he obtained was vital to the victory in the battle of Ticonderoga. Along the way, however, Deane befriended Benedict Arnold before he turned traitor, and Deane also acquired a powerful enemy named Arthur Lee. Eventually, Lee was able to exploit the connection to Benedict Arnold and the secrecy of Deane’s dealings to ruin Deane’s reputation. By the time Deane embarked for the last time for his home in the United States, he was in failing health, and he died on board the ship not long after it departed.

This is where it gets interesting. Most historical accounts cite Deane’s failing health as the cause of his death, but it was also the subject of what may have been an early American conspiracy theory, which alleges that Deane was poisoned. Pinataland take the uncertainty over the cause of death as the starting point for their song. Wechsler imagines a dying Deane wondering what may be killing him. The lyrics also reference the fact that Deane accomplished his mission without knowing a word of French. The whole thing is given a musical setting that I would call carnival Americana. A mostly acoustic rock foundation is decorated with occasional bursts of gypsy jazz and even klezmer. It sounds like it should be chaotic, but the band not only makes it into a coherent whole, but they also succeed in making it work emotionally. The song honors the seriousness of its subject, but it never musically succumbs to despair.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


True Stories inevitably conjures up, at least to me, the wide and wonderful world of trad.arr., of broadsheet ballads and bards, distributing the events of the day in song, all the news that's fit to sing. OK, I accept that veracity may on occasion be debatable, particularly if the spirit world is involved, maidens becoming ravens and back again, fairies chasing fleeing horsemen, all of that, but a lot are based on the received wisdom of the day.

Brian McNeill I have mentioned the once, seemingly his only appearance in these pages, one-time fiddle (and other stringed instrumentation) powerhouse of Scotland's mercurial Battlefield Band. During and since his time with said band: he left in 1990, he has been far from idle, writing a couple of detective novels, putting out 12 largely solo records, as well as a handful with and as a member of fiddle supergroup, Feast of Fiddles. O, and lest I forget, the short-lived Clan Alba, the 2 drummer, 2 (bag)piper, 2 harps, bass, fiddle and guitar behemoth, set up by Dick Gaughan and doomed to near obscurity, courtesy the odd behaviour of their distribution company, the story of which would make a song in itself.

Back o' the North Wind was McNeill's 4th solo project, and the 1st after leaving Battlefield. It is a song cycle based on telling the true tales of those scots who elected to seek their way across the atlantic, seldom by choice. In his own sleeve notes he writes:
     "Over the centuries they (the scottish people) seem to have been prey
      to a perpetual outward force, pushing them to all parts of the globe.
      If it's a wind, then it's one that has many names, some harsh -
      poverty and persecution - and some hopeful- betterment, restlessness,
      a desire to know what's over the next hill, the next ocean."
And thus, in a variety of styles are portrayed the true stories of the celebrated and those not, from  Bonnie Prince Charlie's saviour, Flora McDonald to McNeill's Uncle Jim, from John Muir, conservationist and founder of Yosemite, to Andrew Carnegie. Here's the song about John Muir:

I remember thinking this a wonderful album when it came out, in 1991, thinking it would make a great show. I was thus both delighted (and disappointed) to learn that it had become such, an audio-visual show, of which I had been earlier unaware.

McNeill is still out there and on the road. He has for some years curated saturday afternoons at the venerable Cambridge Folk Festival, in a showcase for new scottish artists and any other of the performers passing by at that time. I recall a phenomenal set in which he played alongside Larry Campbell and David Bromberg, trading acoustic licks at 100mph. He is unimposing figure, greying now, his noteworthy girth barely contained by his trademark  braces, just, I think, visible in this clip, which shows his gentler side and the mastery of one of his many instruments.

For a more detailed background to this hero of mine, here's a an excellent documentary/showcase in the From the Artists Studio series.

Get Back O' The North Wind here


Friday, October 6, 2017

True Stories: Mississippi Goddam

Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddam

When I decided to write about this song, I had no idea that a couple of days later, Nina Simone would be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Simone is one of those prodigiously talented artists who is widely influential, but has, I think, sort of fallen out of the conversation because of the course of her career, and her long illness and death back in 2003. I’ll admit that I was one of those who had heard her name, was familiar with a few songs, but really new very little about her until I watched the 2015 documentary about her, What Happened, Miss Simone?

What happened was a sad combination of being an outspoken, black civil rights activist a few years before it wasn’t a career killer, mental illness, spousal abuse and poor advice, which resulted in Simone leaving the public eye for years, just when her music and message would probably have been successful. And it is likely that “Mississippi Goddam” was the turning point in her career, for better and for worse. I recommend reading her bio somewhere, or seeing the movie (or one of the other movies about her that are out there).

The song was written by Simone, reportedly in an hour, as a reaction to both the killing of Medgar Evers in Jackson and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, both in Mississippi, about three months apart in 1963.

Evers, a World War II veteran, became a leading civil rights activist, ultimately becoming the NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, where he led efforts to desegregate schools, beaches, parks, buses and the state fair, while also leading voter registration drives. He became a particular target of the White Citizen’s Council, and Evers survived two assassination attempts in May and June 1963 before being gunned down in his driveway. He was taken to a white hospital, where he became the first African American patient admitted to an all-white hospital in Mississippi, but he died within an hour of admission.

Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizen’s Council, and later on, the KKK, was arrested and charged with the murder, but all-white juries would not convict the piece of crap. It was not until 1994 that he was convicted and imprisoned, and he died behind bars in 2001, at the age of 80.

Evers has become a member of the pantheon of civil rights martyrs, and in addition to Simone, songwriters such as Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs have written songs about him (one of which, I featured in the second piece I ever wrote for this blog). He has a college named after him, statues of him have been erected, and stories, books and films have chronicled his life and death.

A few months after Evers’ shooting, some KKK cowards dynamited a black church in Birmingham, killing four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11) (a friend of Condolezza Rice), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) and injuring 20 more. The death of these four young girls has been credited with opening the eyes of many to the need for change. That being said, although the FBI had identified suspects, J. Edgar Hoover blocked any prosecutions at that time. Three of the four murderers were convicted much later, one in 1977, one in 2001 and one in 2002. The fourth escaped prosecution by dying in 1994. Not surprisingly, this incident has been memorialized in song, writing, sculpture and film.

Simone’s song was first released in a live version, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1964. While the music is jaunty, its lyrics are not, and the performance includes a few pointed asides from Simone. Although the song became an anthem for the civil rights movement, Simone believed that it damaged her career, and that the music industry turned against her. It isn’t one of those songs that singers trot out anymore when they want to hearken back to the civil rights era, maybe because it isn’t a great sing along, and that’s too bad.

I heard “Missisippi Goddam” on the radio the other day in the car, and I was struck by how Simone married what sounds like happy music with such angry lyrics. It wasn’t the impetus for this theme, but when I realized that it fit, I had to write about it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

True Stories: Frankie and Albert


purchase [the Taj version]

Back when I was first learning how to play on stage, one night a friend of mine showed up with a friend of his and they played an impromptu version of Frankie and Albert. My guitar playing friend was good enough to manage on a one-man show. His friend, no less - he covered the rhythm section on a book - beating on the cover with a pencil and slapping it closed from time to time.
This is that kind of a song - so down to the "roots" that that all it needs to get its message across is the basics, and the story itself.

The provenance of the song appears to be muddy: credited to Bill Dooley and then Hughie Cannon and then made famous by Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly and [phew] ... go check the excellent and extensive link from planetslade below.

It's been covered all over the place - maybe best by Taj Mahal.

But is it a True Story? What is it's historical basis?
The song goes back to the early days of the blues, so I always assumed it must be based on some true account. The story is too elemental not to be so: the story of how he done her wrong ...

The panetslade site seems to have a pretty complete coverage of the history. They sez that the song about Frankie and Albert and the song Stagger Lee have tended to get mixed together - both based on <True Stories>. Do see the site by clicking the link above for their informative and entertaining details. It's extensive.

Some alternative versions

Jim Kweskin and Frank Muldaur above

Mr Harold Allen below