Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Times They Are A Changin’ by Bob Dylan

In 1964, a 23-year-old singer from Duluth Minnesota released his third studio album and called out to the world that change was here. Bob Dylan was able to encapsulate the feelings of urgency, unrest and frustration of a generation not with anger but with honesty.

“The Time They Are A Chagin’” from the album of the same name became an anthem for a generation. It pulled together the folk music movement of the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement. There is a long history of American folk music speaking about the struggles of people and artists like Joan Baez along with Dylan brought that tradition to the forefront of music in the 1960s, reminding America not only of the tradition of American folk music but the power of the genre to impact society.

Critics credit Dylan with many things. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan ranked number seven in their list of the 100 greatest singers. While, I don’t necessarily agree with this ranking, his influence on music is undeniable. In Rolling Stone’s list different artist wrote about why the singers were ranked as they were. Bono explained that without Dylan, we would not have singers who sung with a cracked voice including Kurt Cobain, Eddie Veder and Bruce Springsteen.

While the influence of Dylan’s singing is debatable, the voice of Dylan at 23-years-old is truly remarkable. Sam Cooke explained that because of Dylan, singing is “no longer going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.”

Artists create their work within limitations. Paintings have frames and films can’t reach out and physically touch the audience. Great artist acknowledge their limitations and work around and within them, which is the central to what it means to be creative. Dylan does not have an expansive range in his voice, nor does sing with a fantastic tone. However, the songs that Dylan writes that he sings don’t require either of those things.

The melody in “The Time They Are A Chagin’” is made up of a five notes in amajor scale. Most of the melody features repeated notes, with slight rises and drops. The rhythm is close the way most people would speak the lyrics. In some ways, this seems like easy way out and if you think of it compared to more expansive and dynamic melodies, “The Time They Are A Chagin’” seems silly and almost stupidly simple. However if you look at this melody in the tradition of great folk songs like “This Land is Your Land” the artistic choices Dylan makes become clear. Simple melodies are easier for people to sing. Rhythms that match the way people speak are easier to understand and a singer with a voice that sounds like a person you may actually see on the street as opposed to an opera start makes the song not only sound for relevant, but also more accessible.

He starts in the first verse calling out to the whole population talking about how change is an inevitable part of nature. Dylan says that change may not have a good effect on you (“drenched to the bone”) but it is coming and it needs to be recognized. This may seem like a pessimistic view of the future but he speaking more to people who by not acknowledging the coming change are setting themselves up for hardship.

In the second verse, Dylan is more specific calling out to people who write. He explains that their predictions may not necessarily be true. Dylan invalidates their jobs saying that they can no longer predict the future. These writings are out of touch because on a fundamental basis the world has changed beyond what these writers can understand.

Dylan gets political in the third verse and tells politicians how a war is coming. If they don’t change and start moving, they will get run over. Dylan talks about how change necessitates action. This may not seem like a big deal to call out politicians but in a time when it was rare for pop music to even acknowledging that politicians existed, criticizing them was a shocking and unheard of. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t thinking it, Dylan just helped people admit to themselves the truth of the situation.

I’ll always remember when I first listened to this song and heard the opening of the fourth verse, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land and don't criticize what you can't understand.” At first my jaw dropped, and then I celebrated in my mind thinking ”PREACH ON BROTHER!!!” As a teenager I felt I was misunderstood. I know that it’s human nature to criticize what you don’t understand but that doesn’t mean you should. At school, no one got how into music I was and people constantly seemed to criticize the choices I made in my life.

Dylan was right on that we shouldn’t criticize what we don’t understand. Wait a second, not “don’t understands” but “can’t understand.” No one can truly understand what you are feeling and no parent can completely understand what his or her child is going through. That doesn’t mean you can’t help make situations better but it does mean that we have to acknowledge the uniqueness of people’s feelings and situations which raises the level of relationships from a authoritative parental figure to a mentor who can truly help a child improve his or her life.

The last verse talks about what the result of all this change will bring. Slow will be fast, present will be past, and first will be last. The world will flip over and things that you assume to be true will be false. It is scary to think how correct Dylan. The changes in the past forty years are astounding and the world changed dramatically not only the way we view others but the way we view ourselves.

The power in protest music isn’t to change people’s minds. Do you think that a tyrannical parent is going to listen to “The Time They Are A Chagin’” and decide to give their child independence? Chances are, especially in the 1960s you couldn’t even get the parent to even listen to the song let alone be convinced by its message. What protest music does is validate people’s feeling and help them find others who feel the same way. In the 1960s, Dylan said what many were feeling but weren’t saying either because didn’t know how to articulate their feelings or because they were afraid to speak out.

Is “The Time They Are A Chagin’” still relevant today? Yes, because their will always be people who resist change. In America the change has been moving in the direction of a moral idea that lines up with the way that I view the world and one day it may move away from the way. At that time, should I just accept change? No, change is something that is inevitable but that doesn’t mean we are powerless. It is important to not only recognize change but to be vigilant by helping change move things into a better direction. We all are constantly changing and our society reflects those changes in a positive way if we work for it and in negative ways if we do nothing. Thomas Jefferson said it best when reflecting on government:

"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

Yesterday by the Beatles

In an episode of animated show South Park one of the characters takes on the persona of Professor Chaos to get back at those that he feels has shunned him. He has a partner named General Disarray and they go about planning their revenge. Professor Chaos comes up with different schemes and after he explains every one, General Disarray points out his plan was included in an episode of The Simpsons. This becomes a running gag through the show as it becomes clear how much that with a show like The Simpsons around, original plots and ideas are difficult to think of. Also because The Simpsons are have such a central part in our popular culture people are often unknowingly influenced by episodes that they may not have even watched.

The Beatles revolutionized the cultural landscape with their music and redefined what it meant to be a pop star. Anything that pop stars have done since the Beatles, the Beatles probably did it first. Appear in films, make music videos, influence fashion, appear on magazine covers, and sell merchandise, all of these things and more the Beatles did first.

It wasn’t only the business end, as artists they defined the language of pop music. So much of the Beatles music seems unremarkable because of how much what they did has become such an integral part of our modern day pop music. We don’t twice about utilizing a relative minor key in a bridge of a song, but when the Beatles first did this, it was shocking. It’s not a big deal to hear a rock band utilize orchestra instruments but it was revolutionary when the Beatles did this. Now it’s standard for a rock band or a pop singer to have a slow song on an album, but when the Beatles released “Yesterday,” Paul McCartney was embarrassed at the idea of his Beatles a “rock band” releasing such a slow and introspective song.

What makes “Yesterday” a great song doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that it was one of the first pop songs of its kind. There is a lot of art that is important and has a cultural impact but this doesn’t mean that the piece of art will have a lasting meaning effect or that it will continue to be culturally relevant. There was a photograph called "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano, which was a photo of a plastic crucifix in a jar of human urine. This was an incredibly controversial piece when Serran released it and forced American culture to reexamine the way that art is funded and the limits of freedom of expression. As important a piece of art this is historically the debate surrounding this work is what most people take away from the work, not a significant personal meaning.

One of the most powerful parts of “Yesterday” is its balanced and nuanced melody. When we think of great melodies they share beautiful contours that move the music forward to peaks that come to places of rest. The melody to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is a great example of a balanced melodic contour. The melody starts with a low note and gets to it’s highest note on “little” and then comes down slowly. The rising and falling in the phrase gives us a sense of stability and predictability and the nuances, the small ups and downs in the overall contour are what gives the melody interest.

The word “yesterday” drops down a note and holds before rising up to “far away.” The melody descends rising up slightly “here” before settling down. The placing of longer note value on “far” draws the listener while also providing a sense of anticipation. In the bridge, there is a similar contour with a different feeling. On the words “why she” McCartney’s delays the rise in contour by staying on the same note. This makes it even more moving when on the text “had to go” the melody rises up and falls down on “I don’t know.” There is a sense of stumbling, holding back tears with “I don’t know” because of the change in rhythm that brings more interest by slightly speeding up the descending arc of the contour.

George Martin, the producer for Beatles got his start recording classical music records and his skills with those instruments and his classical sensibility heavily influenced the Beatles’ records. The string quartet accompaniment to this song fills out the harmony when it first enters and develops interesting counter-melodies as the song goes on. In the second bridge right after the phrase “she wouldn’t say” the cello rises up with a remarkable line that is soulful and yearning. The string quartet is something that so effectively sets an intimate and mournful tone to the song that we don’t really think about it. It’s like great make-up in a film. It should be so believable that you are not ever yanked out of the story and think the person on screen is even wearing make-up. The string quartet in “Yesterday” is similar in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself but instead contributes to the emotional meaning of the song.

Paul McCartney is one of the great lyricists in popular music. His lyrics speak to emotions and not situations. We don’t know much about what this person is talking about besides the fact that a girl left him. We may not know his relationship to this girl but the emotional meaning is so genuine, the specific subject becomes irrelevant.

Different mediums of art are different ways of communication. Music is not a good way to communicate facts. The written word does a far better job at telling objective truths. What music does best is describe feeling with a sense of time and motion. Great popular musicians understand this and work to reach the heart more then the minds and it is that which makes music a essential in the our lives.

The line that always gets to me is “suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be, there’s a shadow hanging over me, oh, yesterday came suddenly.” The figurative language of being half a man and feeling a shadow is so direct and insightful. It is just that moment when things change and you don’t understand the world, when darkness that comes over us. It is scary and frightening and when I hear this line, I think of moments in my life like early my college years where I felt both alone and lost. The amazing thing about this song is that the melody and the simplicity in Paul McCartney’s voice reminds us that we are not alone in our sadness and that somehow that is enough to make us feel better.

This song is not about wishing that the past could last forever and that change would never come. Yes, there are things in my past that I wish could have back. There are feelings and moments that I hope I will never forget that not only sustain me through the trials of the day but comfort me in the night. This song reminds us that yes, yesterday may have been simpler and it’s okay to mourn that.

I believe that our future is meaningless without examining where we have come from. I believe that it is only through reflecting on what we’ve done that we can grow and make better choices in the future and I believe in yesterday.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

When we think of music that we love, we often think of specific events that our memories have intertwined with certain songs. The interesting thing is that often when we think of memories songs come to mind as well. Because music has the ability to capture feelings, tying music to memories helps preserve how moments feels which in some ways is more meaningful then what actually happened.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States is without a doubt a significant historical event. In some ways, the inauguration of all of our presidents are historical but for many people Obama’s inauguration is different.

There has been a lot said about the significance this event has on Civil Rights in America. It is clear whenever I hear African Americans who are passionate about Obama talk about the inauguration, that this is for them a deeply emotional moment in their lives

I don’t know anyone who marched in the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s. My parents came to America in 1978, after the Civil Rights act had been past. I’m not saying that when my parents came to America there weren’t Civil Rights issues, I agree that they are still present today, but it they my parents were not connected to the Civil Rights movement and did not suffer threw institutionalized segregation.

I do have some understanding of the issues that the African American community deal with as my parents have been discriminated against and stereotype but not to a degree that it has significantly affected their lives. My parents have a different perspective as they voluntarily immigrated to the United States while many African Americans were forced to come to American.

I’ve never faced open discrimination or been called racial slurs and I don’t ever feel that people truly judge me on my race. I understand that having an African-American president is historical and represents our development as a country but I don’t fully feel the power of this event in my heart.

In the same way, I will never understand why “A Change Is Gonna Come” is considered one of the most powerful and significant songs for the African-American community. Some have called it the “Black National Anthem” but all agree that it is one of the greatest songs by Sam Cooke, a pivotal and powerful force in popular music.

I came to know Sam Cooke through his earlier works, which were harmless, fun, soul music. The first song that I remember associating with Sam Cooke was “Wonderful World.” When I bought a collection of Sam Cooke’s songs on CD, most of the songs had this cleaned up shimmer to them. It was clear that Cooke had a beautiful voice that was effortless but still had weight and depth to it. Cooke didn’t so much sing the notes but dance around the melody. However, every once in a while at the end of a long note or towards the end of a song, you could hear a slight edge and a deeper emotion then the song portrayed. That soulfulness, the expression and passion that you could sense in his music came to the forefront with his last recorded song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and to a teenage Asian boy in Seattle Washington, soul music came alive.

You don’t have to listen very far into “A Change Is Gonna Come” to be struck with the impact of Cooke’s voice. The way that he floats up to “born” in the first line and grows through the note is perfect. It balances just right amount of clarity to hear the pitch and feel his dark tone with a gravel and edge in his voice to understand the desperation and pain in the retelling of his circumstances.

“Just like the river, I’ve been running ever sense” is one of my favorite lines in pop music. It gets to me every time. There is something so sad about comparing oneself to the never-ending motion of a river. Metaphors are somewhat strange in the way that by comparing two things that aren’t related, making unnatural comparisons, we make the meaning more clear. So often in music metaphors are clever, or finish a rhythm but rarely are they as powerful as in the first verse of “A Change is Gonna Come.”

The words “ a change gonna come” appears at the ends of the verses. They are not sung at the peak of phrases but at the last part of the phrase after the energy of the phrase has been settled. It feels that Cooke is more trying to convince himself that change will come than that he actually believes it.

There is no hope in the other lyrics in the song. Cooke doesn’t even find solace in the afterlife. He openly admits to not know what’s beyond the sky. This is not so much a commentary on not being Christian but rather Cooke being completely honest telling us what he actually believes and not what he wants to believe.

The background features a full orchestra, which not only provide a palette for Cooke’s emotions but also supports the text of the song. When Cooke sings about going to a movie the brass and the timpani have an almost marching like rhythm that comes to the foreground while transform into an angrier tone that represents the person who told him not to hang around.

Throughout the bridge, a single French horn responds to Cooke’s pleads illustrating the conversation his is having. At the end of the bridge, the strings illustrate Cooke fall to his bended knees starting on a high note and dropping to a low suddenly and dramatically. In the last verse, Sam Cooke sings about thinking that he can carry on. The instruments take over after he sings “change gonna to come” for the last time and the music rises to bright color like sunlight breaking through a cloud. These touches add an almost subliminal meaning to the music enriching the emotions that Cooke expresses.

Cooke was singing about the struggles of African Americans in American in the 1960s and for people who went through that struggle and heard this song when it first came out, I can understand how Barack Obama becoming president is that sunlight at the end of this masterpiece.

Understanding this song and relating our own life struggles brings us closer to what Sam Cooke is talking about in this song. It’s important that we try as we can to relate to each other while acknowledging that our understanding of each other’s feelings can be never be complete, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

If you weren’t crying when Obama won the election or when he was inaugurated that’s fine, but when something means so much to so many people I think we own it not to them but to ourselves to try to share in that feeling to get a better sense of our shared humanity

On the Saturday, before the inauguration Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi performed "A Chang Is Gonna Come" in front of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the We Are One concert. At the end of the song, they changed the last line to “I know a change has come.”

Whatever your political beliefs are, a change has come to America and it is for to see if this is the change Sam Cooke was hoping for. I hope that it is, not because I want to be validated in my support of Obama, but because I want to believe that our world can be a better place, not because of one man, but because all of us.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet

I have been to Margaritaville.

It is a magical place that teleports you to a tropical paradise. There is indeed a state of mind that you sense when you see not only half a pirate ship jutting out of the wall but also half of a small two-engine airplane hanging from the ceiling. There are indeed Margaritas at Margaritaville and the food captures the tropical culture with such dishes as buffalo wings, Caesar Salad, Chicken and Broccoli pasta and my choice for my visit, Steak Fajitas. There are ten different locations where Margaritaville lies and my adventure into this tropical state of mind was during my last visit to Las Vegas.

I cannot think of any other songs that have become a chain of restaurants except for maybe “Ruby Tuesday” (however, that restaurant does not have as strong a connection to the Rolling Stones as “Margaritaville” has to Jimmy Buffet). I enjoyed Margaritaville. It was a little gaudy but the food was a good value and I had a great time.

When I was researching songs that have alcohol as the subject “Margaritaville” showed up again and again on people lists of best song about drinking as well as lists of drinking songs. It’s hard to take seriously a song that is a restaurant chain and it’s a challenge to take seriously an artists whose second biggest hit behind “Margaritaville” is “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” I mean, seriously what’s next, “Side of fries in the Sand”?!?

I don’t judge the quality or worth of music on its popularity but if enough people love a song and it means a lot to them, I’m intrigued to find out why. “Margaritaville” is a song that seems to be merely a novelty song but has an interesting journey of self-realization linked directly to the way alcohol not only influences the way act, but the way we think.

There are three verses. The first sets the image of a tropical paradise, watching the sun on the back porch, playing guitar and watching tourist be silly. The second verse starts to paint a different picture. He doesn’t know why he’s been there all season and has nothing to show for being there except a tattoo he doesn’t remember getting. We get a funny drinking story but there is a slight edge of regret with getting a tattoo. The last verse is the end of the visit to paradise. He injures his foot when his flip-flop “blows out” and he has to go home, but what has to look forward to is alcohol, which he feels will comfort him. He gets no consolation in the memories of being in paradise or looking forward to coming back next year. He gets that from knowing that he can get drunk.

I’m not saying that going to a tropical place, getting drunk and having a good time is a bad thing, but I do agree with the song that having nothing to show for that experience except a tattoo that you don’t remember getting is a little sad. We do take vacations to escape, but if that escape is more in a bottle then in the actual environment that you are in, well then just do that at home and save some cash.

The three chorus have an interesting progression that mirrors the verses. The fist four lines of the choruses are the same each time.

Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame.

I picture a guy at bar, drunk crawling under a table looking for a shaker of salt that he thought he dropped that is actually on top of the table. Then he goes over to the bar tender and asks, “what am I doing here? How did I get to this point?” and bar tender tries to explain to this guy that there something that happened with a woman that drove him to this low in his life.

Each chorus ends differently:

End of 1st chorus: But I know its nobody fault.
End of 2nd chorus: Hell, it could be my fault.
End of 3rd chorus: And I know it’s my own damn fault.

He’s working through the stages of guilt. If you’ve ever tried to convince someone of something that you know is there fault at first they start not thinking it’s no one’s fault and hopefully, they get to admitting their role in the situation. It’s like he’s slowly sobering up throughout this song. His mind clears and we get a better sense of what is happening in his life.

Now if you look at this song that way, it’s really kind of depressing but if you watch that performance at the top of the page, Jimmy Buffet doesn’t look sad and NO ONE in the audience is experiences a deep introspect reflection of the role of alcohol in their lives. What comes across in this songs is “wastin’ away again in Margaritaville.” There is something comforting in this idea of being in this place where you can go and drink, a place like the bar in Cheers where everyone knows your name.

As sad as this story is, because melody is so optimistic it has a feeling of “well, bad things, happen, it’s probably my fault, but y’know life goes one and we should enjoy ourselves and have a good time.” That feeling of moving on through bad things happening and looking forward pass tragedy to something that brings hope connects to people. It’s not that strange that the thing that this guy looks forward to is booze because well, I admit I’ve had days where I’ve had a hard day at work and I can’t wait to get home and have a beer.

When you have a relaxing drink the world floats away and you go to wonderful place like Margaritaville, but only for a moment. What this song reminds us, is that even though booze can take us there, reality is waiting for you unchanged since you started drinking as soon as you sober up.

Escapism hopefully gives us time, perspective and a renewed strength to face our lives as we all continue to work to make Margaritaville more about a feeling of joy that we face our day with, than a drink in a blender.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Alcohol by Brad Paisley

"Alcohol" music video

I attended a friend’s wedding that was at a hotel in downtown Chicago. I got a room in that hotel with a couple friends so we wouldn’t have to worry about driving in the evening. My good friend was gracious enough to have an open bar at his wedding and as a guest I felt that I should help my friend get his money’s worth out of that open bar. After all, weddings are not cheap, if you can’t lower the price, then you might as well get the best value that you can.

I don’t remember how many Gin and Tonics I drunk, but it became clear later that I had too many. I vaguely remember getting into bed and then waking up the next morning thinking “y’know I feel fine, I need to go to the bathroom badly, but I feel ok, dodged another hangover, awesome.” Then the instant I got up out of bed, I felt the headache, nausea and general of feeling wanting to die that is a hangover. So hung-over were my friends and I that we just laid in our beds and watched Bring It On Again (otherwise known as Bring It On Again 2) and at the time it didn’t seem that bad, which really shows how out of I we were.

Then there was that other time with my brother in law (not the high school senior but the one who is a senior in college) when we decided to do a whiskey tasting at my place and use shots Jagermeister to cleanse our palettes between drinks. Yeah, that next morning was um. . . yeah, not a good time.

When I think about these experiences, I can’t help be embarrassed. It’s completely my fault and it’s idiotic, but it’s also kind of funny. Why are the stupid things that people do when they are drunk that they wouldn’t do when they are sober often funny? Partially because it’s something that a person normally wouldn’t do but in some ways we laugh at these things to make ourselves and each other feel better about our mistakes.

As much as the consequences of drinking is our fault, alcohol has got to take part of the blame and Brad Paisley shows us that alcohol not only acknowledges it’s effect on our lives but that it finds the things we do when we drink it hilarious.

One of my friends in college, the same girl who taught me how to take shots with Southern Comfort, loved Brad Paisley. If you really care about someone, exploring what they love is a great way to get to know them better. Paisley’s music in this case gave me an interesting perspective in the way my friend viewed the world and introduced me to one of the most astounding artist in popular music.

Brad Paisley composes some of the most clever, interesting and overall fun music in pop music today. The concepts in his songs are unique and entertaining. His lyrics are witty and insightful and his catchy melodies and well-crafted songs reflect his optimistic viewpoint on relationships and the world. Paisley sings with a conversational quality that is both un-pretentious and honest. He is an unassuming artists who is an gracious and engaging performer who also happens to be one of the finest guitar players in music today.

Country music has a long history of writing songs about alcohol. There are songs about almost every imaginable human experience with alcohol including alcohol induced amnesia and drinking whiskey as a post-modern reinterpretations of the feminist identity (oh and you thought Toby Keith wasn’t culturally relevant? Well, he’s not the most influential mind in modern music but he does reflect an “interesting” way of thinking).

Paisley takes a unique perspective on the effect of alcohol itself as if it was a living entity. When you first listen to this song, it is not explicitly clear that this is how this song is set up. You get the idea that this is some kind of magical and wonderful being that can change our lives, but Brad puts little kickers every couple lines to clue us into what this song is really about.

When this thing says it “can make anyone pretty,” that sounds alright. “I can make you believe anyone lie,” wait that’s not good at all. “I can make you pick a fight with someone twice your size,” oh dear. Wow, this thing can help me make new friends and get me fired from work? Alcohol is like the worst best friend on the planet. It’s that family member who trouble always seems to follow but you just can’t turn you back on them for one reason or another.

Paisley’s jokes and rhymes are smooth and subtle. There is an effortless quality in the way that the lyrics work together and naturally fit with the melody. In the last part of the second verse he starts talking about alcohol influencing world leaders and Hemmingway and then flips to betting that alcohol can make you put a lampshade on your head. Paisley is able to work around these lines with not only the way he constructs the lyrics but also the understated way he sings. He makes observations, which are partially true and describes them to us in a different light that points out the ridiculousness of our behavior.

If you listen closely to the about 3 minutes in and the second part of second verse you can hear what makes Brad Paisley’s guitar playing amazing. He fills in space between the phrases to add to the momentum of the music. His guitar playing always have direction and interesting musical ideas which is enabled by his incredible technique. Like his lyrics, Paisley often underplays his guitar playing not bringing attention to itself but utilizing it as another ingredient to add to the overall song. Having an amazing guitar solo is great and Paisley often does have them in his songs but if they don’t fit the song itself and serve a musical purpose it can seems gratuitous and out of place.

“Alcohol” helps us laugh at ourselves. It really is a funny state of affairs to think about the fact alcohol really does kind of help not only white people but also all of us to dance. Getting hangovers and all the stupid things that come from booze really are more about ourselves and our silliness which makes life that much more entertaining.

We should be having fun at alcohol’s expense and not the other way around. The funny entertaining drinking stories will keep coming and we will continue to laugh at the stupidity in life. What Brad Paisley does and alcohol should do is enrich our lives and help us to not take ourselves too seriously.

Hopefully, at the end of it all, it is us not alcohol who gets the last laugh.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Alcohol by the Barenaked Ladies

Have you ever tried to imagine the first people who discovered alcoholic drinks? There’s some guy in a village who makes a soup out of grains or fruit and then decides, “hey this taste pretty good, why don’t let it sit in a pot and see if it tastes better?” Then a little while later this guy taste his fermented concoction and thinks “man this taste a little weird, but it makes me feel good” and like a mouse pressing a button to get food pellets our oh so smart ancestor probably keep drinking until the momentous event known as the first human pass-out followed by the world’s first hangover. The crazy thing is once he got over his hangover, must have thought “wow, that was bad, but I think I can do better with my new beverage” and proceeded to develop this early type of alcohol through trial and error. (I say “guy” to ease the flow of the writing, I’m sure a girl could have been responsible for this early experimentation though it seems more likely that a guy would be dumb enough to keep at this kind of self-abuse).

My parent when I was growing up would drink wine and beer and I never remember my parents getting wasted, there were some times when they would get silly after drinking but it was never anything negative. I never drank alcohol with my high school friends. I wasn’t really in the social circle that did drink and the idea of having to be secret about it, just kind of seemed silly to me.

College is a time of self-discovery. We find out our strengths, our weaknesses, what we truly care about, what it means to be an adult and just what kind of drunk we really are. People are taught how to drink and my instructors were a couple upperclassmen girls who I met through marching band. Through these ladies who took my under their collective wing, I learned how to take a shot (which was Southern Comfort), got introduced to White Zinfindel as a gateway beverage into the world of wine, explored the world of beer and learned various techniques to fight off the scourge known as the hang-over.

That’s just the thing, there is a specter of darkness that is present whenever alcohol is served. It’s more then just barfing in the bathroom or getting a hangover. It’s losing control, it’s drunk driving and it’s a devastating disease called alcoholism. It seems like a weird joke that something that can make us feel so good can bring out the worst in us. There is no song that I know that captures this sense of irony like “Alcohol” by the Barenaked Ladies.

The Barenaked Ladies sound in some ways like a typical mid-1990s college band. The sound of their music is not necessarily adventurous but their ability to mix catchy well-crafted melodies with clever and insightful lyrics has set them apart from other bands. Their songs tell interesting stories often hold a deeper meaning then the subject of the song initially implies. One of my favorite songs is off their album Maroon titled “Tonight is the Night I fell Asleep at the Wheel” in which the narrator describes getting in a car accident which reveals itself as being an expression of how important a loved one is in his life .

In “Alcohol” the narrator sings to alcohol and as he describes the role alcoholic drinks have had in his life. “Alcohol, my permanent accessory” that’s kind of funny, but also kind of sad, and then when first ends with “Alcohol, alternative to feeling like yourself” it becomes clear that though this song may sound like a joyous celebration of the glory that is booze, but it has a tinge of rather dark self-awareness.

We get the full chorus after the second verse in which we get another view of this conflicted relationship with alcohol.

I love you more than I did the week before
I discovered alcohol
O Alcohol, would you please forgive me?
For while I cannot love myself
I'll use something else.

The way that “I love you” is sung, it can casually be interpreted as the singer saying how much he loves alcohol but then you listen carefully and realize that maybe that’s the booze speaking as he talks to someone he is with. Then the most interesting turn occurs in the song when he asks for forgiveness from alcohol. He describes how he can’t deal with his current situation and uses alcohol as a way to escape.

I’ve been there. Hard day at work, get together with some friends and drink some beers to forget the day and relax. Alcohol is not the only thing people do to get away from themselves. There’s films, television, food, shopping, and in some ways most of what we do in our free can be utilizes as escapism and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What bothers us when alcohol is used this way is that it is slippery slope. If watching television is what you do to escape, you may become a couch potato which is not nearly as frightening as become as becoming an alcoholic.

In the bridge, the Barenaked Ladies explain it perfectly. I used to think that drinking just to get drunk was stupid, but there’s a time and a place for that. Within that activity as is explained in the song we walk a “fine line between self-control and self-abuse.” As the bridge starts, the music becomes a drunken haze. The tempo slows down, people scream in the background, and weird sounds whirl like circus music. Then the music locks back in with the words “self-abuse.”

This captures the joyous parts of drinking alcohol, that feeling of freedom but it also describes that fear inside of us about of what drinking really says about who we are. Drinking is self-abuse. If done responsibility drinking doesn’t really hurt us all that much but it does put our bodies under stress and it’s important that we really think about what alcohol means to us.

I love alcohol but I also fear it. I don’t know how much of this is propaganda and how much of it is based on reality. Would life be simpler (and well cheaper) if I never drank again? Yes, but I’ve had some crazy good times that involved booze and nothing really bad has happened because of my drinking.

Well, nothing really bad has happened . . . yet.

I’ll probably continue drinking in some capacity for the rest of my life but no matter what I do or how much I drink will I ever be free of the fear of what the darkness alcohol can bring. I don’t think that’s a bad thing and it’s a complicated feeling. If we don’t admit this to ourselves and deal with these feelings, we may end of it all begging for forgiveness like at the end of “Alcohol” not from alcohol itself, but from our friends and families, but mostly ourselves.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hot N Cold by Katy Perry

My 17 year-old brother-in-law, Matt, loves “Hot N Cold.” He told me that he is totally into this song regardless of the how rocking out to this song may reflect on his masculinity and the fact that it’s a girly pop song. The first time I heard it in the car when he was driving me a couple weeks ago, I noted the catchy nature of the song but did not understand why he liked this song so much. After he dropped me off at my place, I went on, found the video, watched it, and was even more baffled the appeal of the song to a senior guy in high school.

I didn’t think much about Katy Perry for a couple weeks and a few days ago, Matt recommended that I do a post on “Hot N Cold.” So, I gave this song another chance, and after listening to it for the past 4 days and I got to admit, this is a fun song. I mean, it’s not something that is changing my perspective on art or life, but I find myself singing this song as I’m walking around and like a really good joke I can’t help but smile when I think about this song.

The awesome thing about Katy Perry is that her stage persona is exactly the same as the personality that you sense listening to “Hot N Cold.” Here is this cute, quirky, sarcastic and fun song and when you see pictures of her and watch her videos, you realize that there is no one who is having as much with this music as she is. She’s like a typical Generation X girl who has gotten over herself and decided to have some fun with life. I don't understand her fascination with watermelons but I got to admit it's pretty entertaining.

The first two lines are insults that a guy would to describe a girlfriend that he is annoyed with, “You change your mind, Like a girl changes clothes. Yeah you, PMS like a b****, I would know.” I grew up in the 1990s and I know that comparing someone to girl as an insult is sexist and stereotypes woman. Saying that someone “throws like a girl” implies that girls are inferior in strength and reinforces the stereotype that men are better then woman at sports. I know better having witnessed incredible physical and mental strength in the woman in my life and the fact is that most people, girls or boys can throw a ball better then me proving this stereotype false.

Ok, I’ll admit that when I’m hanging out with a bunch of guys sometimes these kinds of insults still come out, “Oh you enjoyed High School Music 3? Oh I didn’t realize that you were pre-teen girl and by the way, how’s that training bra working out for.” It’s different because it’s said in jest and I can make stupid jokes like that in the confidence of my friends because they know me well enough to know that I don’t make a habit of objectifying woman and that I’m not a chauvinistic pig. I know there are still men and woman out there who believe strong negative stereotypes about the opposite sex but the thing is, with people in my circle making these kinds of comments is more an exercise in ridiculousness rather then a reflection of true feelings.

Is Katy Perry propagating sexist ideas by utilizing sexist insults? No, c’mon, seriously, all she is asking the guy to do is to stop acting like a false stereotype of a woman It’s funny and effective because she’s using language that a guy would use to describe such annoyances. The first line “You change your mind, like a girl changes clothes” can easily pictured with a group of guys and maybe if some guy is being a pain, maybe another guy would ask if he is PMS’ing. The hilarious part of the opening is that Katy says “I would know” when talking about PMS’ing reminding us that she knows first hand what it’s like to PMS, acknowledging that it causes her to not be the best partner in the relationship and more to the point, she’s telling the guy to cut it out.

She ends the first verse, talking about how he over thinks things and speaks cryptically. Now all of you have relationships with woman and I’m sure you’ve encountered passive-aggressive behavior. It’s asking your wife if she needs help with the dishes and she says no, but the way she says it, you know that she wants your help. This can get annoying and we think "if you she wants help, why doesn’t she asks for it?" Well, she wants you to do it without her having to tell you. There is a level of care and initiative that she wants you to express but ladies, seriously, if that's what you want just ask for it.

Now, in my experience, guys (including me) do not pick up on hints very well, and much frustration will ensue from both parties if this kind of passive behavior is the basis for the communication in the relationship. The above situation is just an example and in no ways do I believe that all women have passive-aggressive tendencies and there are plenty of guys who display passive-aggressive behavior as well.

Katy is being the exact opposite of passive-aggressive in this song. She is telling her boyfriend exactly how she feels and what annoys her about this guy. For some guys, who have had the misfortune of being in relationships with girls who are passive-aggressive, this is a fantasy: a girl telling what is actually on her mind.

The song utilizes synthesized songs that harkens back to the electronic experimentation of the 1980s. This sense of nostalgia brings a sense of comfort and the modern way that the music is put together gives us something we are familiar with in a way that we don’t expect. “Hot N Cold” feels like a breath a fresh air, both comforting and exhilarating.

I think I get what is awesome about this song. It speaks with a language that appeals to both guys and girls. Her singing is more focused on expressing her attitude rather than artful signing which may be off-putting for some but for me makes the music more accessible and interesting.

Sometimes I wish I could always have a witty comment or an interesting observation like people do in sit-coms on television. If you have hung out with me, you know that I try, often unsuccessfully. I wish I could express myself as Katy does in this song with a level of sarcasm, using old insults in new ways, and in the end, helping people understand their mistakes and not to take themselves too seriously.

Will this song stand the test of time? I don’t know, but it’s always going to stay with me because really, who could possibly forget a 17 year-old guy rocking out to this song in sheer delight? Is this really that weird? Well, maybe not, but this is coming from a 26 year-old guy who just spent has been rocking out to this song for the past four days and loving every second of it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What Becomes of the Broken Hearted by Joan Osborne and the Funk Brothers

You never know when you’re going to find a song that you fall in love with. Sometimes it’s when you’re watching television, sometimes it’s over the radio and there even have been times when I’ve been in the mall and heard a song being used as Muzak that caught my attention.

I was thrilled when I first saw the trailer for the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The film is a documentary about the Funk Brothers who were the house band for Motown records during the late 1950s and 1960s. The tag line in the trailer is, “The Funk Brothers were the biggest hit machine in the history of music with more #1 hits than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley . . . combined.” This remarkable group of musicians created the Motown sounds, catapulted great artists like the Temptations and Stevie Wonder while creating timeless music that is some of the most influential music in American history.

Looking forward to the watching the film, I expected to hear some interesting stories from these musicians, get some musical insights and see some interesting performance footage from their reunion concert. I remember not really thinking too much of the reunion concert that was part of the film because it featured current singers performing old Motown songs instead of the singers who originally sang the songs in the 1960s.

I went to see this film with my dad who had grown up with this music. It wasn’t playing in a multiplex but rather a small art house theater. I remember sitting there as watching the film, loving every minute of it and seeing a scene where Joan Osborne is talking about how much Motown music meant to her.

Wait, Joan Osborne? The curly-haired, nose-ring girl from the 1990s who had that song "One Of Us."

What business did she have being in this film? Wait, she’s talking about “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” That song is amazing and what is the “What if God was one of us”-girl going to do to this song? I remember thinking all of that and dreading her performance. My expectations were completely wrong and as I watched Joan Osborne sing “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” I realized I was witnessing something truly remarkable.

Jimmy Ruffin originally recorded and released “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” in 1966 (check out his awesome collar). The narrator of the song questions what happens to people who have had their heart broken. He is questioning this as much for other people as well as himself. This song combines sad lyrics with a lush and hopeful melody and instrumentation. The melody rises up through the verse arriving at a sense of understanding with the words “What becomes of broken hearted?” Through the pain there is determination, “I know I’ve got to find, some kind of peace of mind” and much as the narrator has experienced grief he is not giving up on his search for love. Their search is difficult, treacherous and opens up the possibility of being hurt again but it is a journey that must be taken.

Jimmy Ruffin is the older brother of David Ruffin, one of the lead singers of the Temptations who sang lead on “My Girl.” They both shared a similar rasp to the voice. David had a melodramatic extroverted passion in his voice while Jimmy’s performance on “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” reflects an internal torment through a more subtle performance. Though Jimmy’s voice is what most people relate to this song, numerous artists including Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker and Vonda Shepard have covered it.

Joan Osborne’s voice has a slight raspy edge but that doesn’t stop her from flowing through the melody with a effortless elegance. It’s like this song was written just for her and you feel like she is singing it just for you. There is a dramatic flair to her voice but it always seems genuine. It’s not so much that she is singing the song but that she is re-experiencing the feelings behind the song.

The song follows the form of the original recording until the part where Jimmy Ruffin’s song fades out and Osborne takes it to a whole different level (2:50 into the song). The band drops, letting Osborn’s voice carry the line accenting “tell me” bringing forth the desire and desperation in the song. Like a master orator, she repeats herself building up to two more powerful explanations of “tell me.” Then she pulls it down and starts one final time building up to three impassioned repetitions of “tell me” arriving at a raw and soulful held not which soars over the band and back-up singers.

You believe at last section of the song that Joan Osborne is giving all that she has. Everything has seen, everything she has felt and everything that she hopes for comes out as she pushes her voice to its limit. There are few times in my life when I’ve heard a song and was left stunned and speechless. It’s a feeling of being emotionally drained. It’s going through something so powerful and transformative that it demands a moments of reflection. It’s witnessing something that makes you feel an indescribable mix of emotions that can only be experienced through that one unique way.

There are things parts of the human condition that only certain art forms can express. It’s not so much that music is better then other art forms but it can do things that a painting for example can’t and the reverse is true as well. Leaving that theater after watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown, I knew that this was something special. This song has stayed with me over the years as reminder of how wrong are my expectations can be, how amazing it feels to experience something magical for the first time and how amazing music can make us feel.

Look closely at Joan Osborne in the introduction of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" You see her just grooving to the music with a look of pure bliss and utter contentment as she experiences all of the magic that is going on behind her?

That's exactly how this song makes me feel and that's why I love this song.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield

When I was in college I was in marching band and each instrument section bonded as a family as we not only spent a lot of time working together but we also had a down time during the seasons where we would get to know each other. One game we used to play was “Never, Never Have I Ever.” We would sit in a circle and everyone would open up their hand using his or her five fingers as counters. People would take a turn around the circle. When it was your turn, you would think of something that you had never done and say it: “never, never have I ever went skinning-dipping.” Then all the people in the circle who had done it would put down a finger. The goal was either to be the first one with all their fingers down or the last, depending on how you viewed the game. The way we played it was that if you got all of your fingers down, you had to explain the stories behind the activities that got your fingers down. Depending on the people you played the game with, the statements could be as innocent as “not eaten lobster” or descriptions of sexual and/or drug-related activities. With people of the appropriate age, this also works as a great drinking game. Here’s a demo of how this game is played.

Whenever we would play this game, there would always be that one person that we would never imagine as having done anything bad, naughty, or inappropriate. This was that person who always seemed together, never made off-color or sexual jokes and was a quiet but effective member of the section. We’d sit down and play this game and someone would say they have never something outrageous that no one else even thought of doing and then this quiet person would slowly put down their finger trying not to make a big deal out of it and shock us all.

“Son of a Preacher Man” is that finger going down. This song revealed the naughty, sexual and soulful side of the British pop queen, Dusty Springfield. After four albums, she wanted to make a change. Springfield had recorded lush orchestrated pop songs like "I Only Want To Be With You."

While other singers skirts seemed to crawl further north of the knee, Springfield maintained a Donna Reed like image, singing songs of love and female devotion. There no nothing hint of sexuality behind the idealized version of teenage love that permitted 1960s popular music.

I’m not saying that Dusty’s earlier albums are bad, no, they are fantastic. They featured great melodies within well-crafted songs. Dusty’s voice uniquely combines her clear energetic tone with a slight depth and belt that gave it richness. You can hear slight soul tendencies, as she plays around behind the beat and when she opens up her sound, you realize that this British girl had a little gospel in her.

Springfield admired American soul singers like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Picket and she took chance deciding to record a southern soul album. Rarely do artist cross genres in this way, so Dusty hired Jerry Wexler, who had produced the soul music she had loved and agreed to record in Memphis.

Wexler chose eighty gospel and soul songs and Dusty rejected every single one. A couple months later, she came around and chose fifteen. When they went to the studio, it was completely different from what Dusty was used to. She usually recorded in big professional studios with full orchestras, what she found in Memphis was a stripped down, bare-bones studio with a small house band. She felt so intimidated by the idea of even singing in the same studio as her soul heroes Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin that she refused to sing during the sessions in Memphis.

They moved the recording sessions back to Manhattan after recording most of the instrumental tracks. Springfield insisted that they turn up the backing tracks that she listened to when she recorded to a ridiculously loud volume while she recorded and out of her insecurities came some of the most remarkable recordings in pop music.

I enjoy when art works on different levels. Not only is “Son of a Preacher Man” a revealing look at a Dusty’s sexual side but the song itself is about a the son of a preacher man, who people expect to be moral and upright pushing the boundaries of sexuality with the narrator of the song. No worries, he isn’t doing anything that she is not yearning for which becomes clear when she sings “being good isn’t always easy” and you can hear a devilish smile in her voice.

The background instruments almost seem like they in the foreground. Many times the way that singers make themselves be heard over instruments is by singing out with a full tone but what Dusty does instead is sing with almost a whisper to her voice which draws us in like she’s sharing a dirty little secret. When the verse builds to “my surprise” she opens up and floats over the notes like a person softly sighing maintaining her soft focus and ease when the notes get higher.

If you think sexuality in music is a creation of artist from the 1990s, then listen carefully to the bridge of “Son of a Preacher Man.” Many artists have described sex in their songs using explicit lyrics and artists continue to feature moans meant to emulate sounds that people make sex. However, back in 1968 Dusty Springfield showed us how an orgasm felt in the bridge of “Son of a Preacher Man.”

She starts with “How well I remember” and the pace of the lyrics begin to build. Dusty in accompanied by louder and more aggressive backgrounds, which push her slowly with a sense of strength. When Dusty gets “Taking time to make time, telling me that he’s all mine,” she doesn’t so much sing the words “time” and “mine” but moans them sensuously. She climaxes in ecstasy when she opens up and sings, “looking to see how much we’ve grown.” The feeling of relief and joy at the last verse is like that feeling when you can’t help but smile when you are overcome with warmth throughout your entire body having just experienced something truly amazing.

This song celebrates what is real and great about sexuality. It’s a little naughty, abut it’s not profane, it doesn’t objectify or trivialize the action, instead it celebrates the truly beautiful feelings that only sex can bring people.

Never, ever have I ever felt the sexual awakening of girl in a song.

Y’all can now put one finger down.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

In the past 29 posts, I've discussed the meaning in music and I believe that the songs I chose are meaningful because they hold personal meaning to me. We can never truly articulate why a song means what it does but by gaining a deeper understanding of the work like getting to know a great friend, that meaning becomes more powerful. Sometimes, with people in our lives that meaning runs so close to our hearts that it is something that can't be articulated, it is something that can be only felt and that's why those people are so special.

There is one artists, whose music I've not discussed which may come to a surprise to anyone who knows me. If you’re know me well, you know that my favorite rock group is the Beatles, I never get tired of listening to Motown music and the artist that means the most to me, the singer who has not only changed the way I listen to music but also the way I define an artist: Bruce Springsteen.

I’m not going to argue that Springsteen is the greatest artist in popular music or that “Born To Run” is the single most important song in the history of rock. First off, trying to decide the quality of song in comparison to each other may be a fun discussion but is at best only partially an objective discussion. Therefore, any discussion ranking artists and their art is inconclusive. Don’t get me wrong, I use the lists the Rolling Stone makes all the time as way to gauge the general feeling of critics and the trends in our culture but as a ranking it’s a flawed exercise at best.

Being told that a film is great or that a piece of art is historically important does not make a piece of art personally meaningful. Art is not important in our lives because we are told it’s great or because it’s on a list. We hold art close to us because it somehow speaks to us in a way that makes us feel connected to the human race. I would love for everyone to feel that every day and the best way that I can help make music more meaningful to you is to explain why it means so much to me.

The first time I Bruce Springsteen spoke to me was with the song he performed for the film Philadelphia, “Streets of Philadelphia.” I still remember watching this music video for the first time when I was 11 years old and simply being astounding at how sad and hopeless the song sounded. I bought the soundtrack album to Philadelphia and I thought it was a great song and I didn’t think that Springsteen had much more to him beyond the somber image of him walking through the streets in the music video.

A couple years later Springsteen did another song for a film, and this time it was “Secret Garden” for the Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. This song had some lighter colors to it and it was included in CD of Springsteen’s hits so I picked that up and skipped right to that song and that was about as deep as I delved into his catalogue until I got to college five years later.

Then there was the concert. Shaun, a friend of mine, invited me to go to a Springsteen concert with him, and I agreed to go. When the day came around I almost backed out because I wasn’t really excited about the idea of going to a baseball stadium to listen to a Rock concert. I had never been to a Rock concert. My whole my parents took my brother and I to classical music concerts all the time when I was growing up which I loved and somehow the idea of a Rock concert seemed below me.

I studied classical music all my life, violin from age 6, piano from age 8 and by 10 years old I was actively composing classical music. I enjoyed popular music but it didn’t seem to mean as much or be as deep as classical music. I had seen the greats artist like Yo-Yo Ma and Itzak Perlman and I felt seen the pinnacle of musicianship and experienced all that music had to offer. I could not have been more wrong.

There is no feeling like the ecstasy of being in a crowd with tens of thousands of people singing along with a band on stage. Feeling that many people with that much positive energy focused on a band singing together, and sharing a musical experience is something that changes you. When I saw Bruce that warm summer night, I saw a band on stage work harder for the crowd than any other musician I had seen or have seen sense. It was not the audience having the privilege to witness a great artist at work. It was a musician understanding that people paid their hard-earned cash to see them and the musicians working as hard as they could to give the people the experience of a lifetime. After Bruce Springsteen and the E Street played for three hours and forty minutes, it all started to mean something important and very personal.

We hear about artist selling a million copies of their album and it almost doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore, but when you’re in a stadium full of people who are all passionate about the same music, you realize how amazing that a small group of people have touched so many people’s lives. During the concert people sang along to songs and Rocked out throughout the concert but when the beginning to “Born To Run” started the crowd went crazy and you could a rush of energy flow through the crowd and I couldn’t help but be caught up in the enthusiasm.

What is it about “Born To Run?” This song speaks to the hope we all have as we work through the struggles in our lives. It elevates Rock music in the way it expresses emotions that we share in a raw and revealing way. “Born To Run” is symphonic and epic in it’s form but there is no sense of pretension. As much as this song was crafted in the studio, there is a sense of that raw energy that you can only get in a live performance. Each instruments has strength and a sense of convection expressing of what is real and right about our feelings and the way we love the people around us.

When I listen “Born To Run” it is almost too much to handle. I think of when I saw Springsteen live. I’m reminded of the comfort that I get when I’m with my friends knowing that I don’t have to hide anything. I experience the hope of knowing that as hard as life is that I can overcome anything. I see the love in my wife’s eyes, but most of all I feel alive.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

You Shook Me All Night Long by AC/DC

Once upon a time, Rock 'n Roll could simply be explained as a song that utilized a blues progression with sped up boogie-woogie bass line. In that form, pioneers like Little Richard showed us the attitude and the feel of rock. Then the electric guitar became a lead instrument with artists like Chuck Berry in the 1950s. The 1960s were a time of exploration and growth of rock utilizing classical instrument, expanding the form of songs and drawing from different genres to innovate the Rock genre of music.

As art evolves and becomes more complicated there are always artist who react to this by focusing on the core of the genre. After bands like the Beatles raised the bar of Rock music to high art, some musicians decided to get back to the basics. These groups went back to the original components of what rock was. They focused on feel instead of complexity, riffs instead of form and anthems instead of monologues. Rock had redefined itself and AC/DC was there to remind the world of the definition of Rock.

If you take Rock music and distill it down to its purest form, you are left with is AC/DC. You have the instrumentation defined by the Beatles with a drum set, bass guitar, two electric guitars (rhythm and lead) and the vocalist, nothing more, nothing less. There are no effects besides some distortion in the guitars, no additional instruments and no fancy studio tricks. Every instrument can clearly heard when it is plays throughout the song, while working together to create one of the finest examples of a Rock groove.

The basic rock drum beat has the bass drum on beat 1, followed by a snare drum hit on beat 2, two more bass drum hits on beat 3 followed by another snare drum hit on beat 4.,. What Phil Rudd, the drummer of AC/DC understands is that playing that pattern alone is not enough to drive the groove. Like a melody, each beat needs to lead somewhere and the drums in this song work towards beat 4. Rudd, drops the first bass drum hit on beat 3 which throws more momentum into beat 4, creating a feeling of motion. The extra weight on beat 4 is like a jump off of a diving board bringing energy into beat 1.

The drum’s emphasis on beat 4 brings out the most interesting rhythmic part of the guitar riff. The guitar riff plays every other measure but it starts after beat 4, right before beat 1. The drum hit on beat 4 that highlights this offbeat. The drums are steady and uncompromising while the guitar riff somehow feels relaxed This tension is exactly what creates the feel of this song The guitar riff and the drums create an attitude in the beginning, which through its simplicity somehow captures a sense of cool, filled with attitude, a slight snarl and a feeling of celebration.

When AC/DC’s lead singer Bon Scot died of alcohol poisoning many worried that AC/DC would never find a replacement. They hired Brian Johnson song and recorded Back In Black the album that featured “You Shook Me All Night Long” as a tribute to Scot. Johnson has ability to sing high with raspy and energetic tone. It’s not a pretty voice but it’s a very real voice. It’s how most guys sound after a little too much beer combined screaming at a football game for five hours, except Johnson manages to make that sound musical and meaningful. This voice is not meant to sing a long with, but rather scream along with, masculine, rugged, raw and unapologetic. A unique voice in Rock, Johnson’s voice is the perfect compliment to the hard-edge groove created by the drums and the guitars.

“You Shook Me All Night Long” is about the power of a woman’s sexuality as being almost too much for the narrator to handle. This is as much a teenage fantasy as a reflection on an actually experience. The metaphors are not especially deep reflecting a general feeling of masculinity and bravado more than a true reflection of a woman. What is interesting is that this song is not chauvinistic and it doesn’t objective the woman. Instead, but rather it is a celebration of the woman’s sexual prowess with a sense of thanksgiving and reverence.

The verses are organized with an AABA rhyming scheme and though the lyrics are not all entirely clear (what the heck are “sightless eyes” and how is that appealing?) the ends of the phrases slow down the accentuated certain lyrics. This brings out such fragments as:

-American thighs
- already there
-mine all mine
-come back for more
-take another swing

You may not know all of the lyrics but I’m sure you can make out those parts of the song giving you plenty to sing along. The best part is that these lines provide the basic meaning of the song.

My favorite memory of “You Shook Me All Night Long” is rocking out to this song during my junior year of college rocking out to this song at my fraternity’s formal dance. Rocking out is not much dancing, but head-banging, grooving, air guitar playing and screaming along with the lyrics. It’s about that feeling of being in a crowd and getting lost in the ecstasy of the music.

Though we may not find time in our lives to party ev-er-y day, it’s important for us to find moments to Rock ‘n Roll all night or at least once a day, maybe while driving to work.

Rock on.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Day After Day by Badfinger

The story of Badfinger is one of triumph, change, conflict and tragedy. Badfinger started as the Panthers, a band playing in clubs in South Wales. They hit the London circuit, known as the Iveys and became known for their fantastic covers of Motown and Beatles songs. Mal Evans an employee of Apple Records, the Beatles’ newly formed record label heard the band and thought the band had potential. He introduced Badfinger to the Beatles and they became the first band the Beatles signed to their label in 1968.

Badfinger worked with other Apple artist, recording “Come And Get It” a Paul McCartney composition for the soundtrack to the film, The Magic Christian and playing on George Harrison’s solo albums. Badfinger had success with their first two albums with Apple and toured American with great reviews though. In 1971, they began work on their third album Straight Up. This album featured Badfinger’s most well-known song “Day After Day” which included George Harrison as not only the producer but as a featured guitar soloist.

Badfinger eventually left Apple Records and internal conflict within the band started to tear the group apart. In 1975, Peter Ham committed suicide and stating in his suicide note that his fellow band member “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” Unable to resolve conflicts within the band, during the 1980s two bands both called Badfinger toured. These bands were headed up by Tom Evans and Joey Molland both members of the band when they were singed with Apple records. These tours caused legal conflict and further strife between the original members of the group. In November of 1983, Tom Evans and Joey Molland engaged in an intense argument over finances of income from Badfinger’s music over the phone. After the argument, which was left unresolved, Evans committed suicide in his home.

“Day After Day” stand by itself as a work of art separate from the tragic story of Badfinger, however knowing he story behind the musicians that created the art adds a layer of meaning to the song. Some people believe strongly in separating the art from the artists while others find them interconnected. Music does live on its own merit but the humanistic nature of the emotions described in music, it can’t help but be an expression of the artist who created it and therefore in studying art we are studying the artist.

The slide guitar throughout the song played by George Harrison combines the soaring melody with the harsh and mournful tone of the guitar. The sound becomes constant reminder throughout this is a song of longing and regret.

The first verse is reflects feelings of solitude as the narrator sings about how he thinks about a girl day after day in his lonely room. The chorus lightens up the sound of the song and when the verse ends on “to you” the combinations of the harmony, piano, and solo voice brings of happiness as the narrator not only recalls his devotion to the girl but the love that she brings to him. In a different context, this line could have meant something very different, but because it’s preceded by a longing musical landscape it becomes something poignant, revealing and sad.

In the second verse, the narrator reminisces about holding his girl while they slept and says that he is empathetic to her pain feeling the tears that she is crying. Instead of looking out from his room, he states that he is looking out from his lonely gloom, a emotion space as opposed to a physical space. This brings to the mind how the sadness and depressions sometimes feels like a cage.

The third verse uses the same lyrics as the first verse but with different instrumentation. In the first verse the bass, drums and piano play together at the beginning and end of each phrase. These instrument toll like a bell with a lot of weight providing harmony and suspense while staying out of the way of the vocals. This allows us to focus in on the melody and the lyrics to gain a general meaning of the song early on. During the second verse the bass, drums and piano play more consistently creating not only a groove but also a steadier feeling less dramatic feeling as the singer provides more details about the relationship.

Badfinger varies the third verse featuring back-ups singers, who previously only sang in the choruses, harmonizing the melody and the slide guitar filling in the space between the phrases. The change in texture in the third verse provides variety in the song but give the verse a feeling of strength and resolves.

I listened to “Day After Day” casually when I heard it on the local oldies station when my dad drove me to school. Last weekend, my brother suggested use this song for my blog and what struck me about this song is the moment at the end of the chorus on the words “to me.” Every time this part of the song appears it focuses the meaning of this song.

At the end of the day, it is not what we have gotten from the world but what we have given. That is what lasts in our hearts and our feelings. I don’t think that the idea that giving is better then receiving is some ploy to make kids less bratty around the holiday season, I believe it’s true. “Day After Day” is something that a group of people gave to the world. It’s not the most important piece of art in the world and but it’s something that has brought enjoying to generations.

Music is a gift that people share with the world and it’s sad to think that situations that stemmed from the creation of music led to two unfortunate suicides. At the end of the story there is the music that stays with us day after day that brings us some meaning to the tragedy and a deeper understanding of what is truly important in our lives.