Monthly Archives: September 2014

My Life in 33 Songs: #29: “Stairway to Heaven” – Led Zeppelin (The Song that Changed My Musical Perspective)

 

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I discovered Led Zeppelin as a teenager thanks in part to the Legends specials on Vh1. Those specials were visual textbooks on classic rock bands. The Led Zeppelin episode convinced me that they were the greatest band on earth. I was mystified by the band’s sonic power and tales of debauchery. This really was the stuff of legend.

It also helped that Zeppelin was one of the few bands that my mother outright forbid me to listen to. She didn’t know much about popular music other than what my siblings played for her, but she knew of Zeppelin’s reputation as sexual deviants and “Satanists”.

“I don’t want you listening to Led Zeppelin!” She yelled at me once when she discovered one of their tapes in my room. “Do you play Dungeons and Dragons too?” In her mind, the two were interlocked and I was heading down a dark, dark path.

My two best friends had also seen the Vh1 Special, so I wasn’t the only one who it had a profound affect on. While watching fireworks on the 4th of July with our families, the three of us would talk about the finer details of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on “Heartbreaker” or the sexual references found in “Black Dog”. We argued over which album was better: IV or Houses of the Holy.

The cream of the crop was “Stairway to Heaven” with its majestic intro and hard-rocking ending. To our teenage minds, it was the ultimate epic. It had everything: a soft beginning, mystical lyrics and the greatest guitar solo of all time.  I used to pull my headphones closely to my head so I could hear Bonham’s drum rolls during the solo.

“Stairway” made all the other bands I listened to all the time seem small and quaint. I could totally understand why it was the most requested song of all time on FM rock radio. There was just something about it that set it apart from others.

The fantastical lyrics directly aligned with The Lord of the Rings which I was reading at the time. It was the perfect soundtrack as I read about Frodo’s trip to throw the One Ring into the pit of Mt. Doom.

One afternoon while my parents were gone, my brother caught me playing Zeppelin on my family stereo. He shook his head in disgust. “Turn that shit off,” He growled. Before I could protest, he took out a tape and popped it in the stereo. An old blues recording filled the room. “This is Howlin’ Wolf,” My brother declared. “Your beloved Zep stole tons of riffs and lyrics from him and other blues artists.”

First he played Wolf’s “How Many More Years” and informed me that the lyrics for “How Many More Years” were in fact taken from this song. Then he played “No Place to Go” and I could tell that riff from Zeppelin’s “How Many More Years” was stolen from this song too.

Taking riffs and lyrical ideas is part of the blues tradition and it’s not unique to Zeppelin. Several artists I love and admire have done it. Bob Dylan has did it numerous times with his latest albums. “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” off of Modern Times which takes its title and melody from a Muddy Waters song of the same name. Jimi Hendrix did it with “Catfish Blues” – which turned into “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return”).  The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time” lifted its melody from a gospel song by the Staple Singers.

But my teenage mind didn’t know that. I wondered how they could get away with it and felt betrayed. Almost instantly, my love of Zeppelin vanished and my view of them completely changed. They were no longer thunderous gods. They suddenly became silly, bloated and excessive. I’m not sure my friends had the same revelation I did, but they also stopped listening to Zeppelin around the same time.

And with that, “Stairway” became the worst offender. What I had previously thought was a gorgeous epic became a trivial and bland piece of music. Page’s solo suddenly represented the worst of ’70s excess. Plant’s lyrics in “Stairway” with its references to pipers and may-queens seemed incredibly dorky and clunky.

There’s no shortage of people who view “Stairway to Heaven” as a cultural touchstone. It’s probably not hyperbole to suggest that “Stairway” had a huge affect on a generation’s musical tastes. But for me, it represented what type of  music I don’t want to listen to: masturbatory guitar solos, long suites in songs, drum solos, etc. Many of the artists from the ’70s I now love – like The Stooges, The Ramones, Joy Division, The Clash – are the exact opposite of Zeppelin. In other words, pretty much any stadium rock band from the ’70s that’s not The Who or The Rolling Stones is not for me. I just can’t do it.

Ironically, the only Zeppelin song I still listen to is “When the Levee Breaks” which is entirely ripped off an old blues song from the 1920’s.

My Life In 33 Songs: #30: “Sweet Soul Music” – Arthur Conley (Soul Music 101)

 

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Do you like good music?

It’s no secret that I love Soul Music. It’s one of my favorite musical genres and it always puts me in a good mood. It’s one of the few genres that almost everyone can agree on. No wedding is complete without a few Soul songs thrown in.

The odd thing is, I’m a relatively new-convert. I’ve always liked it, but for whatever reason I never bothered to truly explore it until recently. Once I did get into it, I became a full-fledged fan. All it took was one boxed set and a little help from help from Arthur Conley.

One Christmas I received a $50 Gift Card to a local record shop. About a day or so after Christmas when I returned to Baltimore from my parent’s house, I took a drive over to the record shop. Usually when I get a gift like this, I have a pretty good idea of what I want. Usually it means something special that I would not otherwise buy.

This time though, I had nothing particular in mind. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. The possibilities were endless and the chances of getting something new was high. On the flip side, there was also the potential to end up with some really shitty. Or even worse, I would just buy something because I had a gift card.

I wandered around the small store flipping through the discs for at least a half hour. Bob Dylan? Nope, I have everything I want by him and I’m certainly not going to buy one of his Christian albums. Lou Reed? I have Transformer and the only other one is Metal Machine Music so that’s a definite no. I suppose I could get the debut album from this new band, but they seemed to get crappy reviews.  

Feeling frustrated, I walked over to the boxed set area. Nothing there seemed to fit either. On a whim I pulled out a 4-disc set called Soul Spectacular – The Greatest Soul Hits of All Time. I was expecting it to be a third tier collection – one that has a lot of songs from a genre, but due to record licenses the most well-known songs are left off.

Upon further inspection, this set did indeed have a ton of great material on it: “Respect”, “Green Onions”, “Midnight Train to Georgia”, “What’d I Say” among numerous others. Now I knew that I had found my purchase.

As I drove home and listened to the first disc, I was surprised by how fresh and exciting all these songs felt. I felt cooler by the minute having James Brown, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas and Otis Redding blast from the speakers of my car. There were quite a few songs I knew, but the majority I didn’t. Clearly, I had to a lot to catch up on.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to do a lot of research just yet. It was provided for me in Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music”. “Sweet Soul Music” is like Soul Music 101 led by Professor Conley. If the answer is affirmative to the question, “do you like good music?” you know you’ve come to the right place. “Just as long as it’s swinging,” is the course description. Get your notebook ready, because in a quick two and a half minutes, Conley’s going to lead you through a quick and easy guide to Soul.

Spotlight on Lou Rawls.
Ah don’t he look tall y’all.
Singin’ loves a hurtin’ thing now.

I have to admit, I’d never heard of Lou Rawls before. Obviously he must be pretty important if he gets a shout-out. I glanced at the track listing for “Loves a Hurtin’ Thing” to see if it was included on the set. It was. I played the song and realized I had heard that song before and had no idea who sang it. Got it!  Thanks Professor Conley.

Spotlight on Sam and Dave now
Ah don’t they look boss y’all.
Singin’ hold on I’m comin.

Sam & Dave I knew. My first introduction to them was The Blues Brothers when I saw it on TV as as a kid. I was too young to fully appreciate the musical moments in that film. I brushed them off as Oldies. Which is a shame, because the musical scenes in The Blues Brothers were probably aimed at people like me – who had an ignorance in Soul Music. Sam & Dave have since become one of my favorite groups of Soul in part because of their famed call and response passages.

Spotlight on Wilson Pickett.
That wicked picket Pickett.
Singin Mustang Sally.

Wilson Pickett was another familiar name. I knew of “Land of 1,000 Dances”  thanks to the ending of The Great Outdoors. But “Mustang Sally?” Didn’t know that one.  Since then, I’ve grown to love Pickett for his raw energy and sexually charged vocal performances. And his cover of “Hey Jude” might actually be better than The Beatles’ version.

Spotlight on James Brown now.
He’s the king of them all.
He’s the king of them all.
Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Everyone knows James Brown. How can you not? His influence is vast and wide even beyond Soul. And Conley’s right for leaving him to be the last. Without James Brown, Funk might not exist and Mick Jagger wouldn’t have his famous dance moves.

The simplicity of the lyrics  in “Sweet Soul Music” is perfect. If there were any additional lines in the verses, it would be robbed of its power. It’s direct and catches your attention. In a way, it reminds a little bit of The Ramones: the lyrics are reduced to their essence and yet still serve a purpose. With this song, I gained some more knowledge of Soul that I might otherwise would have.

Do you like good music?
That sweet soul music.

Yes, I do. Thanks Professor Conley.

ww.youtube.com/watch?v=grE0lwTsSPg

My Life in 33 Songs: #31- “The Queen Is Dead”- The Smiths (A Childhood Favorite)

 

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My sister and I are separated by seventeen years. She’s the eldest of my four siblings. While she was in graduate school learning the finer points of poetry and writing, I was still learning to walk and talk. Despite our age difference, I always looked forward to seeing her come home during breaks.

All my siblings have had some sort of musical influence on me in some way or another, but my sister’s is probably the one that started the earliest. In the mid-80’s with College Rock in full bloom and she quickly introduced me to the then current acts who are now considered classics of the genre: The Smiths, R.E.M., The Waterboys and The Clash.  As a six year old, I definitely had the coolest taste in music.

One of my favorite possessions was a mix tape she gave me. Included on it was The Clash’s “London Calling”, The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” and The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” among a few others. I loved all the songs and would bounce on my bed to them (much to my parents chagrin, I’m sure.)  I felt like I was being let in on some big secret that only my sister was letting me in on.

In a way, I guess I was. The ’80s may been now seen as a sort golden age for Alternative Rock, but it was still underground. College and graduate students like my sister were listening to Alternative Rock, but the rest of the majority of the nation was. And kids my age certainly weren’t. I had no idea that the tapes and songs that my sister was giving me were cutting edge or part of some big cultural shift. They were just songs that she was sharing with me.

Of all the songs included on the tape, “The Queen Is Dead” was my favorite. With its thunderous drums, aggressive bass and slashing distorted guitar. Everything about seemed epic – from its intro sample of the Music Hall song “Take Back to Dear Old Blighty” to the false ending. The six minutes felt like an eternity to my six-year-old brain. I loved every minute of it as I jumped up and down to the song on my bed.

The nastiness of the lyrics went completely over my head. Half the time I couldn’t understand a thing Morrissey sang, which was probably just as well, considering the song’s take down of 1980’s England. But I still sang along to the lyrics all the same. It must have been pretty amusing for my sister to hear her kid brother belt out lines such as “and the church will snatch your money” without having an idea of their implication. I’m sure my English mother didn’t appreciate it, but perhaps she thought I was just babbling.  Oblivious to the politics of the song, I just figured that he was being funny when they declared, “the queen is dead, boys.”  Of course, she’s not dead! Silly singer!

An an adult, I fully understand Morrissey’s position of 1980’s England. Lyrically, it’s one of his best songs. He manages to be both scathing, self-deprecating and hilarious on the track, which is no easy feat. His trademark wit is just as razor-sharp as his take verbal take-downs. Take the scene where he breaks into the palace and has an audience with the Queen. Any other writer would have written it completely differently. But Morrissey’s version of the Queen not only recognizes him, but tell him he “cannot sing.”  His response? “Eh, that’s nothing. You should hear me play piano.”

The kid in me however, finds it hard to truly view the song as a piece of protest music. It’s tied too much to my childhood for me to really grasp onto it the way it is intended. Every time I hear the song I’m back to my bedroom, looking forward to my sister’s visits.  If I hadn’t been exposed to it as a kid, I might view it the same way I do “God Save the Queen” or any number of Billy Bragg songs.

“The Queen is Dead” makes me happy and reminds me of my youth in a way that would enrage Morrissey, I’m sure. Here’s hoping he does it with some of the wit found in “The Queen is Dead”.

 

 

My Life in 33 Songs: #32 – “Poker Face” (My Not So Secret Guilty Pleasure)

 

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Nearly five years after she arrived on the music scene, it can be easy to forget how wild and revolutionary (in Pop music anyway) Lady Gaga was. You could argue that she’s become tiresome or over worn her welcome. With the exception of her hard-core fans and Tony Bennett, it seems that the rest of America has moved on.

But in 2009 “Poker Face” was everywhere and America ate Lady Gaga up. At the time, I was working in a job I hated. It was not my thing and I was feeling pretty low about it.  To make matters worse, pop music was always in the background. Hearing these awful songs did not improve my mood.

But “Poker Face” was different. It was catchy, a little bit edgy and extremely melodic. As much as I tried, I couldn’t resist it. Hearing that song lightened my mood, if only for four minutes.

I tried to convince myself it was a guilty pleasure. I can’t like pop music, I told myself. But oh, guilty pleasures – they’re such bullshit. We use them as masks to wash our hands of something we know we shouldn’t like but do anyway. It’s a way of admitting we might like something without truly admitting that we do.

By defining Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” as a guilty pleasure for myself, it made easier for me to enjoy a pop song. Even if I wasn’t willing to come to terms with the fact that it was a good song. At least not yet.

The more I listened to it, the more I broke down. It became the one thing I looked forward to at work. But I still tried to come up with “legitimate” reasons for enjoying it.  “It’s weird, that’s why I like it,” I told myself.  “Gaga’s a mix of David Bowie and Madonna – that must be why I find her kind of cool.” It couldn’t be the fact that I found the song pleasurable for its own merits. No, I have to like “Poker Face” ironically.

But “Poker Face” is a good song. As far as pop goes, it’s pretty great. The chorus is such an ear-warm and easy to sing along to. And it is weird.  The Techno/industrial beat may seem quaint now, but it came out of left-field in 2009. The “ma ma ma” that opens the song and repeats throughout? Who the hell came up with that idea? And “bluffin’ with my muffin?” That’s an extremely idiotic lyric, but somehow within the context of the song it works.

I’m not sure I would be as attached to it if it weren’t for my work situation. Music has the power to lift your spirits and in an odd way, “Poker Face” did that for me. For a few brief moments when I heard that song I was fairly happy at work.

Guilty pleasure?  Nah.

New Music: Jensen Reed & Taryn Southern Cover Tove Lo’s “Habits (Stay High)”

By now, you’ve most likely heard Tove Lo’s single “Habits”.  Alt/pop artist Jensen Reed recently put his on spin on the song with some assistance from Taryn Southern.

The original is melodic and catchy. Musically at least, it only hints at the desperation and loneliness found in the lyrics.  Reed’s cover is sonically darker with sparse beats and haunting vocals from Southern. Slowing the pace down of the song down is key to Reed’s cover.  It reveals the problems of the narrator even more than before and perhaps make you think of “Habits” differently.

 

My Life in 33 Songs: #33: “Three Little Birds” (Or How I Survived French Class)

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Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

Bob Marley is almost like a Patron Saint of college students.  His image  has adorned many walls and doorways in college dorms.  You could blame some of it on his love for weed – but if that were the only appeal you’d also see Willie Nelson’s face everywhere.

I think part of the reason Marley appeals to college students is because of his idealism. He set out to change the world with music and bring everyone together. It’s a very lofty and noble goal, but not quite realistic unfortunately.  It’s very easy for a college student to think it’ll all work out and “everything little thing’s gonna be alright.”

So, it only seems natural (and perhaps even a bit cliché) that I should “discover” Bob Marley when I headed into college.  The week before I left, I spent hours trying to figure out which CDs I should take with me. I wanted my musical collection to be a conversation starter.  To define a part of me.  I left behind various albums which I deemed “uncool”.  In an attempt to make my collection seem cooler than it actually was, I rummaged through my brother’s old room and took a bunch of CDs he had left behind at my parents house.  One of them was Bob Marley’s Legend.   Marley didn’t really appeal to me at the time, but I figured it might be good to have for hanging out.

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

Like many students, I had a tough time adjusting to college life. Before I left, I told by many that “college isn’t exactly what you think it is.” My teachers in high school loved to say that the workload would be far greater than anything we had previously experienced.  Still, nothing could have prepared for me for my French Class.

As an English Major, I was required to take two semesters of a foreign language.  I chose French, because I had taken 4 years of it in high school. I wasn’t the best student, but I thought I had a pretty good handle on it and would do fairly well.

Right from the first class, I knew I was wrong.  It didn’t help that the class was scheduled at 8:15 AM.  The professor was very gruff and clearly had his favorites.  We weren’t required to speak French in class (which I was very glad of) but the professor always seemed to make students feel stupid if they didn’t know an answer or conjugated a very incorrectly. More often than not, he singled me out. From the very start, I knew that he didn’t like me.

Each morning started with a review of the homework.  We went around the room with each student taking a turn writing down their answers to a question on the chalkboard.  Each day, I dreaded the moment when I would go up to write out my answers. When it was my turn, I nervously scrawled my answer with a piece of chalk, knowing that I was going to be made an example of.

When I was half-way through, the professor stopped to ridicule of my handwriting. I’ve never had the best handwriting, but it wasn’t like all the other students had immaculate handwriting either.  As the students laughed, he then asked why I conjugated a verb a particular way.  I didn’t have a good answer – I had thought it was right . He seized the opportunity, loud enough for everyone to hear:  “I thought you said you had taken 4 years of French?”

It wasn’t like I didn’t study or put the time in.  I was, but whatever I was doing wasn’t enough. I was never going to be fluent in French, that much I knew. I wasn’t going to let my professor bully me either. I became determined to do well in French and show him that I was actually smart.

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

I’ve never been someone who can study in silence. I need music. It helps pass the time.  Back in my dorm room, I searched for the perfect soundtrack for studying.  Nothing seemed to fit.  After what was probably 20 minutes, I decided I would finally give that Legend Cd I had taken from my brother a try.

As I wrote down French vocabulary words desperately trying to memorize them, I was surprised by how soothing Marley’s music was.  It was easy listening for sure, but didn’t drift into dreaded adult contemporary territory.  Plus, the easy rhythms and feel good vibes relaxed me and kept me from becoming too stressed out.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics, but “Three Little Birds” caught my attention immediately with its laid-back groove and uplifting message that “every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

As I thought about it, Marley’s message seemed a little too optimistic. Even for a Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds” is almost too much.  There’s no way someone could possibly be that happy.  Still, the music and melody was undeniable.  It’s almost impossible to be cynical when that song comes  on.

Then I remembered that Marley was nearly killed in his home by a gunman about six months before Exodus (on which “Three Little Birds” originally appeared) was released.  If he could feel happy after that, what right did I have to be stressed out over French class and a jerk of a professor?

Don’t worry about a thing,
’cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.

If I had Legend on Vinyl, I’m sure I would have worn it thin that semester.  It was constantly on repeat as I spent many long nights memorizing vocabulary words and conjugations.

As the semester wore on I became more confident with my homework and tests and the results showed.  But naturally, the professor still bullied me in other ways.  Most of the time, all he really come up with was how tired I looked or how I needed coffee to function.

At the end of the semester, I was shocked to see that I had received an A minus in French. I’m pretty sure that I never received that high of a mark in high school. “I guess you are pretty good at French after all,” My dad said when he saw my grades.  Little did he know.

Maybe Marley was right.  Everything did turn out alright.  Especially since I had a different professor for the next semester of French.