Monday, January 31, 2011

The Long Way Home by Tom Waits/Norah Jones

Sometimes when I read a book or listen to a song it seems like I am reading a first draft. Other times I feel like I’m experiencing the fiftieth draft, a piece of art that has carefully and painstakingly crafted. That’s how I feel every time I listen to a song by Tom Waits.

Most people’s exposure to Tom Waits is limited to Rod Stewart's cover of “Downtown Train,” (which I discussed in this earlier post). In addition, the Eagles recorded “Ol’ 55” which was from Waits first album.

Then there’s Springsteen’s cover of Waits’ “Jersey Girl.”

The list goes on and on of famous artist who covered Waits work. Last week I discovered one more. Norah Jones’ cover of “The Long Way Home” on her second album Feels Like Home.

For the past three weeks I’ve been on a Tom Waits kick and when I typed his name up
in iTunes her version of “The Long Way Home” came up and I was simply mesmerized.

Usually Jones plays somewhere between Jazz and Blues so it was a surprise to hear her sing this relaxed country ballad with a guitar part straight out of early Johnny Cash.  Like every other recording I have of Jones, her smoky, subtle and beautiful voice makes everything else in the world disappear. Waits on the other hand voice has a completely different kind of smoky to his voice:

Waits sounds like something between Louis Armstrong and a drunk homeless guy, and even though it’s ugly at times there’s something genuine and real in his voice.

Waits beautifully constructs a song about commitments, giving and love. The first verse expresses a sense of loneliness while Waits sings about not having the hope in him to wait for the light to show him the way home. Instead, he stubbornly takes the long way home.

The third verse talks continues this idea as Waits sings he would rather be on the highway than be at home putting food on the table. He warns that “watch your back if I should tell you, loves the only thing I’ve ever known.”

The lyrics in the last verse finally relfect the hopeful and peaceful melody as Waits commits his love to her in a gentle and beautiful way.
You know I love you baby,
More than the whole wide world.
You are my woman,
I know you are my pearl.
Waits shares his doubts, flaws, fears and insecurities with his love. After all of that she is still there and he realizes that he really does love her.  If she’s still with him after hearing all of this, than maybe he can commit to be with her, they can take the long way home, together.

Man, this guy is good.  These lyrics are so well crafted. Every syllable is laced with meaning. Whether its Jones or Waits singing, this song is truly amazing.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Week 17: Making The Grade

Grades, evaluations, assessments, reports, whatever you want to call them are one of the most important parts of being a teacher and also one of the most difficult.

(I’m going to use the term reports for the purposes of this post)

I’m in the midst of writing semester reports. Teaching five different grades and almost two hundred students this quite an undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be. Some school have teachers fill out charts with numbers from 1 to 3, and other school add on pre-made teacher comments like “joy to have in class.” Then there’s teachers simply give all of their students high grades so there are no complaints from parents. My school is a little different.

For the lower grades, there is chart that has specific criteria coordinating with a rating from “needs improvement” to “excellent.” At the bottom of the chart is space for a narrative so teachers can write individual comments for each student. At the higher grades, there is simply space to write a comment and a letter grade.

What do I mean by comment? I’m not talking about, “needs to pay attention in class” I’m talking about:
During this semester, Nick has built off his previous band experience and developed his musical skills. His music reading has improved and his independence as a musician has grown steadily. While he was a bit timid in band at the beginning of the year, he is now quick to try things and not afraid to make mistakes. This is an important trait in band, as often the only way to play a part correctly is to play it wrong first and then correct the mistakes after hearing feedback. Nick’s attitude is fantastic, and I look forward to continuing to work with him this year.
Or for my non-band students:
It’s a pleasure to work with Amy. She comes to every class with a positive attitude that reflects her enjoyment of music class. Amy likes to interject jokes into class discussions sometimes. These comments are never mean-spirited but they come across as rude. Amy is quick to apologize whenever I stop her. She is beginning catch himself more often before she makes these comments but this is still an area of growth for her.
I look forward to being part of Amy’s continued growth as a musician next semester as we learn how to play the recorder and explore musical notation.
Does it take a lot of time to write these comments? Oh yeah, and these are samples from students who are doing really well. The ones in which I express concerns are even more time-consuming.  It’s a lot to take on and it’s easy to get dragged down by the shear amount of writing that is required to do this but the thing is that the parents and more importantly the deserve this.

Parents put their trust in us as teachers to educate their children. If you don’t know your students well enough to relate about how they are doing in your class then you’re not doing your job. And yes, the amount of time it takes to write these has required me to work long hours in and work at home as well. This is really tough (however I also get summer break, so there's really no reason to whine).

I actually like writing these comments about my students.  I don’t like the time crunch and the pressure to get it done but I love the dialogue between teachers and parents.  I am fortunate to have the students that I have and I’m glad that my school requires these kinds of reports.  Writing these grades are an important experience, they keep my honest, hold me accountable and remind me about the crucial partnership I share with my students’ parents.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Round 3: Don McLean Vs. Madonna

Some people argue that "American Pie," released by Don McLean is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.  Inspired by the tragic death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, Mclean created this epic song is thick with musical symbolism.  


Praised by McLean himself as "a gift from a goddess," and "mystical and sensual," Madonna's version of this song released in 2000 become a worldwide hit.  Cutting out some, of the versus and transforming the background to a modern swirl of electronic wonder, Madonna's cover was a major departure from the original.

The Winner:

I have to confess that I don't love "American Pie."  While I find the symbolism interesting, it's more like playing a game of trivia trying to name the references.  All of the lines simply don't really add up to have a deep layer of emotional meaning.  Yes, this is great sing along song and the nostalgia is inspired but something about it seems pretentious.

Probably the biggest disconnect with McLean's version is that he singing about an event that few people have a deep emotional connection to.  What Madonna is singing about instead is our the love of "American Pie" the song and how it is part of the American musical tapestry.  In this way Madonna's version is more meaningful and relevant.   

I'm not saying the McLean's version is bad, it's just that through Madonna's version I feel more immediately what it means to be American. 

Next Week: Billy Idol Vs. Tommy James & The Shondells

Monday, January 24, 2011

I Touch Myself by The Divinyls

In 1991 out of Australia came the Divinyls with, "I Tough Myself."

Yeah. . . I don't think I'm going to relate this song to any personal anecdotes or feelings I've experiences in life.  Some music is just . . . eh. . . beyond critical analysis.

Here's a stripped down performance of this song which is interesting (great use of words there Tang):

Just one thought . . . If you're trying to convince someone of how much you want them in your life maybe this isn't quite the right song for that.  On that note: enjoy and have a great Monday.

Sometimes the less said the better.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Week 16: Why Teaching Is Important

 “This event is important not because of its potential for disaster but because of its potential for greatness.”

I told my principal this as I talked about the leading the school in singing “We Shall Overcome,” during a school assembly. One of my favorite memories of celebrating Martin Luther King Day was singing “We Shall Overcome” in a crowded church and I wanted to recreate this feeling for my school. 

If the students didn’t find this sing-along meaningful, it wouldn’t be a big deal. However, singing this song and thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. could change the way a some of the students feel about the world around them.

I’m lucky.  As a teacher, the worst that happens in my day is that a students doesn’t really learn anything during one of my lessons. There are people like doctor’s and policemen who on bad days deal with unthinkable tragedy. Those negative consequences bring into focus an understanding of why what they do is relevant to society and all of our lives.

What makes being a teacher important is our potential to serve our students in life-changing ways. It’s a shift in the way we value things focusing not on disaster but potential.  This is the same reasons why many things in our lives are important.

I have so many opportunities on a daily basis to make a positive impact on my students’ life. Whether it’s smiling at a students in the hallway or teaching an amazing lesson, I can have a lasting impact on students. Every one of us has memories of teachers in our lives who have made important and positive influences on our lives. It’s the opportunity we all have every day to makes those moments happen that make our interactions with each other matter.

There’s a lot of wasted moments and lost opportunities in teaching. Many teachers are complacent because they don’t have that suffer immediate negative consequences.  One of the solutions would is to impress on them how much potential they have be a positive force in someone’s life. If this doesn’t excite them, if this doesn’t motivate them, then maybe they should think about changing careers.

Did leading a sing-along of “We Shall Overcome” change any of my students’ lives? I’d like to think so, but I’ll never know and that’s one of the hardest parts about being a teacher.  However, that doesn’t keep me from trying every day to do the best I can.  Why?  Because in my mind I can't let go of the idea of how great I can make things for my students and it excites me.  

Let’s make our world a little brighter for the people around us. Tell someone in your life, someone at work or home about how their positivity makes effects you.  If we all do this we’ll find that we are all important to someone because of the meaning we bring to each others’ lives.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Round 2: Bob Dylan Vs. Jimi Hedrix

Bob Dylan recorded "All Along The Watchtower" in 1967. It has become one of his most famous and most frequently covered songs. With intriguing lyrics and a structure that some critics claim to be circular (some say the last verse is the beginning of the narrative), Dylan created a unique vision of reality.


Jimi Hendrix.

In 1968, Hendrix took Dylan's song, and doubled it's length, painting the emotions and story of the with his unforgettable guitar playing. Jimi's singing is fearful and other-worldly as  thick cloud of distortion permeates the song.   

The Winner:
Dylan after hearing Hendix's version said, "It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn't think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using. I took license with the song from his version, actually, and continue to do it to this day."  Yes, Dylan's original is interesting and intimate.  However, Hendrix takes all of the emotions that Dylan implies and expresses them opening and forcefully.  You only need to hear the first 10 seconds of Hendix's version to know what this song is all bout.     

Next week: Madonna Vs. Don McLean

Monday, January 17, 2011

Don't Stop Me Now by Queen

“I Gotta Feeling” by The Black Eyed Peas was one the most popular songs of the last couple years. Oprah featured this song on her show, it has become a staple at wedding receptions and WAY too many school groups have performed this song in concert.

. . . ugh. . .  This song is awful.  Maybe it’s the fact that Fergie isn’t the lead vocalist, or the fact that it’s extremely repetitive and lacks musical creativity.  Listing off the days of the week in a song is about as creative as reciting the alphabet.  I’ve had difficulty justifying my feeling about this song until recently. What I realized is that this song fails at a fundamental level to expressive in a meaningful the emotions described in this song and I came to this conclusion after rediscovering a song that does, “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.

Queen is so much more than “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This British rock group created music that ranged from the tongue-in-cheek (“Killer Queen”) to the breathtakingly beautiful (“Who Wants To Live Forever”). In 1978, they released the ultimate, “I’m revved up and ready to have an amazing out night on the town song.”

Starting with a slow piano accompanied reflection, Freddie Mercury glides up to his shining falsetto as he describes how he is ready to have a great time and pleads to us not get in his way. Mercury gently asks for us to not stop him with soft gentle hits. When he tells us the reason why, the music speed up and whisks us away.

Like racing down the street in a convertible on a warm summer night there is adventure and excitement in the groove of the drums, piano and bass. Mercury goes on to describe himself as a tiger, a racing car ready to “go, go, go!” With hilarious lyrics like “that’s why they call me Mr. Fahrenheit,” we can’t help but get pumped up. I mean, looks, he’s a rocket ship AND a satellite and a “machine” ready to reload. . . that’s um . . .yeah . . .anyways, these lyrics are pure fun.

Brian May, Queen’s amazing guitarist plays his first notes after the vocal break perfectly describing the sheer joy and glee that Mercury is singing about going on to accompany Mercury’s voice.

Queen bookends the song with Mercury crooning over the piano part that was featured in the intro. With freedom and grace, his voice soars like a dream up into the night sky. It’s my favorite moment of the song as he sings with pure unbridled freedom and joy.

“Don’t’ Stop Me Now,” is injected with so much personality and craft.  This isn't some manufactured attempt to get people dancing, this is an expression of emotion, this is art.  With a variety of sections and musical variation, Queen outdoes the Black Eyed Peas creating not only a song, but an everlasting moment.

Queen's conviction and determination to keep having a good time trumps any feelings the Black Eyed Peas get Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Always Be My Baby by Mariah Carey

I was watching television with my father-in-law the other day when news of Mariah Carey’s pregnancy came on he commented that he understood the appeal and vocal prowess of Beyonce but he wasn’t sure about Mariah. At first, I was surprised to hear this, I mean this is the girl with that ridiculous garage door-opening, making dogs run away super-high whistle tone (remember “Emotions”?).

After I thought about it a second I understood. Mariah isn’t the pop dynamo that she used to be. Once upon a time she was at the pinnacle of pop superstardom but now artists like Lady Gaga have taken her place. She has tried to reinvent herself to more modern sensibilities but she has failed to recapture her past glory.

None of this changes the impact she had and how she influenced mainstream popular culture. In the 1990s, Carey crossed R & B music into popular culture with soulful music.  Along with immediate and accessible lyrics, Carey creating music that was had universal appeal without being cheesy. Yes, it may not have effected social change but it was music you weren’t uncomfortable to listen to with your parents and sometimes that’s not such a bad thing. No song captures this quite as well as her eleventh number 1 hit, “Always Be My Baby.”

This song feels like a Coca Cola commercial in the best way possible. The opening “dududu, hum” rises softly and settles in a relaxed and smooth way as this mid-tempo song unfolds. There is a level of Beach Boys-like innocence in the music that reflected in the lyrics about a girl telling a boy who’s leaving her that he will always be hers.

Now, I agree that this song also works if you take it from a “crazy-girlfriend who refuses to let go” perspective. I mean it’s kind of a like the letter you keep getting from an ex right before you get a restraining order: “don’t you know you can’t escape me.”

Then there’s the use of the 5-syllable word, “indefinitely.” I’ve never found another instance of a 5-syllable word in a song ever. I’m not sure if this is a over-the-top or the greatest thing ever but somehow it works within the context of this song.

What really sticks with you in the optimism and hope in the face of a break up. This song is an expression of strength and self-confidence, “If you’re determined to leave boy, I will not stand in you way, but inevitable you’ll be back again.”

What makes all of this work is Mariah’s vocals. She effortless dips low into her range gliding up to higher vocals blending the tone of her voice like a master painter. Like a great soul singer she embellishes her long notes but never overdoes it like many amateur singers.

Pop music is a lot of thing but at its core, it's an expression of joy and this is exactly what "Always Be My Baby" is all about.  Mariah Carey may not be the biggest pop star out right now but for a period of time she was and what she left us is some of the best pop music you will ever hear.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Round 1: John Mellencamp Vs. Jessica Simpson

Welcome to the first “Versus” post on this blog. On my Wednesday posts I’m going to compare two versions of a song and then conclude which version I find more meaningful.
Round 1: “Jack And Diane” by John Cougar Mellencamp Vs. “I Think I’m In Love With You” by Jessica Simpson

Mellencamp’s 1982 number one hit tells the story of two people growing up in America’s heartland. The famous chorus reminds us that life goes on even when the “thrill of living is gone.”


From Jessica Simpson’s debut album in 1999, “I Think I’m In Love With You” features a direct sample from “Jack And Diane.” This song tells of a girl who realizes that her actions and thoughts are a result of falling in love.

The Winner:
I gotta give this one to Jessica Simpson. “Jack And Diane” fails to make any significant reflections on childhood. The statement of the chorus really isn’t that poignant. Yes, life goes on even when we’re bored. . . okay so what? Mellencamp has reveled that “Jack And Diane” was originally about an interracial couple and maybe that would have made this song mean something more but as is, it really doesn’t.

“I Think I’m In Love” takes the music from Mellencamp and injects the pure glee and teenage joy of being in love that lacks in “Jack And Diane.” Yes, it’s bubblegum pop but it’s exuberance is exactly how young people feel when they are first in love (which is why this style of music continues to appeal to young teens).

Next week: Bob Dylan Vs. Jimi Hendrix

Monday, January 10, 2011

Week 15: What Do We Say About Tucson?

Everyday at school, I explain things to my students in a way that they can understand. I love this challenge because it forces me to distill concepts and events to their core and help my students find meaning in the world around them.  While I usually revel in this challenge, right now I feel completely lost.

I have no idea how to explain the shooting in Tucson, Arizona resulting in wounding of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords along with thirteen others and the death of six others including a 9-year-old girl who was born on September 11, 2001.

I know that we want to find out who’s to blame. The thing is though, that knowing isn’t going to change what happened. And the most important thing I learned from my first boss was that in a time of crisis the single most important thing is to figure out how to move forward and only when there is a clear path forward through a tragedy should be look back and begin to examine who should be held responsible.

Right now, pointing fingers and placing blame is not going to help us move forward. All we can do is make sure that we are doing the best we can to be the best people that we can be in our jobs, in our communities and in our personal lives.

Is this a turning point that will steer us away from the negative political rhetoric that I’ve complained about that is coming from all political sides? I don’t know, but I hope so. What I do is that if we get hung up on pointing fingers nothing will change. We cannot let that happen.

So what do I say when one of my students ask me about what happened? Well, I guess all I can be honest about how I feel and hopefully that's enough:
There's a feeling I've experienced only a couple times in my life. I first felt it when my maternal grandfather died, I felt it again after the attacks on September 11, 2001 and I felt two more times when my paternal grandparents died. Last Saturday I felt it again reading about the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. It's a feeling of hollowness and confusion. It's like someone took away part of yourself that you didn't even know was there. At these times we're reminding that we are connected as human race and that the pain of even one person in a world filled with billions effects every single one of us.
I know you want to know why this happened and who's to blame but like most tragedies, we never will.  That's frustrating but like Elton John sang “The hows and whys aren't important now, all that matters is they came around and brightened up our lives.”
At these times in our lives we need to move forward and live our lives to their fullest, going out and doing what we planned to do, what we are born to do as if this tragedy never happened. Because that is what the people effected by this tragedy would want. I don’t know the reason why those people aren’t here anymore to share life with us but what I do know is that you are here, alive.  So live, really live.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Week 14: The Art Of Plate Spinning

One of my mentor teachers described being a teacher as doing one of those Plate Spinning acts.

What does teaching have to do with running around like a maniac trying to keep plates spinning? For example, I was helping with the middle school and high school choral concert last month while at the same time planning the elementary school Holiday concert.  I kept having to check in on both events and do work for both of them to make sure that the “plates kept spinning.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about this subject to get sympathy.  Many other jobs require you to keep multiple projects in development at the same time. What I’m considering is how you maintain your sanity while keeping plates spinning, because you do not want to look like the guy running around like a maniac in your office while you try to keep things going. Because at my first teaching job I was that maniac and I wasn’t very successful in that case keeping the plates up in the air.

One answer is to multi-task. Well, the most recent psychological research shows that multi-tasking is an illusion and is really just switching between tasks quickly doing a mediocre job at each task. Let’s give that one up.  What I keep going back to is something my mom told me growing up, “do one thing at a time.” She’s right because that’s all you can do.

Maybe spinning plates isn’t the best analogy because here’s the thing: the worst thing that can go wrong in my day isn't that bad.  No one will get hurt if a student doesn’t learn as much as he or she should because I’m not effectively teaching them. It’s not a doctor who on a bad day loses a patient. Even when things do badly for me plates don’t really crash on the ground.

Yes, I have to keep a lot of things going as a teacher and sometimes it seems overwhelming but with a healthy does of perspective, camaraderie from fellow teachers and the energy we get from students sanity can prevail even in the craziest of times.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Just Like A Pill by Pink

When Pink released her second album in 2002 she got personal. Instead of producing contrived dance like her previous album she composed music that expressed a deeper level of emotion.

"Just Like A Pill" is a victorious break-up song.  A statement of strength in the realization of one's worth and beauty.  I never thought I would say this but this girl named Pink really can inspire. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

It’s My Party by Leslie Gore/Quincy Jones & Amy Whinehouse

As Diana danced around the room with Buffy in her arms singing “It’s My Party,” changing the lyrics to “It’s My Buffy,” I smiled at this cute display of affection not really thinking much about the song.

“It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore is one of those 1960s pop songs that everyone knows. It’s so deeply embedded into our pop culture that we don’t really think about it. Like a single tree in a forest, what makes this song unique and special gets lost in the larger view.

Then I read in Rolling Stone that Amy Whinehouse teamed up with Mark Ronson to record this song on a tribute album to Quincy Jones. Now I absolutely love Ronson’s work with Whinehouse. Ronson’s signature as a producer is to record 1960s style background instrumentals with live instruments mixed with an dark modern sensibility. With songs like “Rehab” he created grooves that were so undeniably infectious that you can’t help but take notice.

I immediately downloaded this song from iTunes and listened to it in awe.

I personally love Amy Whinehouse’s voice. It’s a beautiful soulful disaster and I understand why her voice sounds to some as incomprehensible warbling, but it works for me. Regardless of how you feel about the vocals you got to give credit to Ronson’s brilliant production. It’s groovy, dark and mysterious.

Now you may be wondering as I was, what “It’s My Party” has to do with Quincy Jones. Well, Jones who has produced some of the most important music in popular culture (everything from Count Basie to Michael Jackson’s Thriller) started his career with “It’s My Party” as the first single he produced.

If you take a listen to Leslie Gore’s version carefully with fresh ear you realize how astounding this song is.

Quincy Jones' instrumental arrangements are impossibly intricate and tight (check out the brass hits right before Gore starts singing). The bass and drums lock in like a drum machine but groove like only live musicians can.

In front of all of this is Leslie Gore’s vocals.  Somehow  Jones pushes her voice into the foreground in the recording so her voice is right in your face. It’s impossible to ignore her voice in a texture of instruments that she could have easily gotten drowned out if not for Jones production.

Then there’s the odd but brilliantly powerfully lyrics about a girl who’s heart is being broken at her own party but exclaims that since it’s her party she can do whatever she wants, even cry.  This is a powerful embrace of emotion and through this statement, there is independence and a whole lot of soul. When she sings “you would cry to, if it happen to you” you realize she’s right.

Sometimes we take for granted for things that are always around and when you take a look a closer look at something with a fresh perspective you never know what you can find.