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Your Mother Should Know

Your Mother Should Know

I miss my mom. She died five years ago, and I’m still working through it. I have a lot of guilt about all the things I could’ve said and done before she was gone. But she had a very good life and seemed to be happy with the way things turned out for her, and I have to believe she understood and forgave my failings as a son

Let’s look at a few sons’ musical tributes to moms.

bb king

“Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” This little minute-and-a-half-long ditty opens Riley “B.B.” King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds album of 1970. It’s just B.B. on piano and vocals, and features the great one-liner “Nobody loves me but my mother and she might be jivin’ too.”

After that opener, B.B. is joined by a band that includes another King, a most unlikely one—Carole—on piano on several tracks. Leon Russell does the keyboarding on the ones Ms. King sits out on. It’s a nice album, B.B. King’s favorite of his works, and capitalizes on the bluesman’s newfound popularity following the surprise hit “The Thrill is Gone.” The album is named for King’s official hometown (his birth certificate is reproduced on the inside jacket), but King says in the recent documentary The Life of Riley that he was actually born on a plantation outside of Itta Bena.

B.B.’s mother may have been jivin’ after all, since she left young Riley to be raised by her mother.

Mr. Mingus

Mr. Mingus

“Exactly Like You” This Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song comes from the same 1930 musical, Lew Leslie’s International Review, that featured “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The singer proclaims of his mama that she “meant me for someone exactly like you.” Now, that’s an ideal: mom’s choice.

It’s been recorded by many artists, including Frank Sinatra, but, again, my favorite is an instrumental: Charles Mingus interpolates “Exactly Like You” with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” to perfection.

Dorothy Fields’ father Lew was an actor and theatrical producer, but her mother Rose was not enthusiastic about Dorothy going into show business, telling her and her siblings, “You children must be extra polite to strangers because your father’s an actor.”

“Your Mother Should Know” Paul McCartney’s light ‘n’ airy number that was included on the Magical Mystery Tour album is in the line of dance-hall nostalgia numbers that includes “When I’m 64” and “Honey Pie.”

Paul’s mother Mary died in 1956, when he was fourteen. It was a connection Paul had early on with John, whose mother died when he was seventeen.

magical

“Mother ” John Lennon’s opener for John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, his “primal album” from 1970, is anything but light ‘n’ airy. He’s mad at his mother, and wants to let it out. “Mother,” he wails, “you had me, but I never had you.” John and Yoko had spent some time in therapy with Mr. Primal Scream, Arthur Janov. The album is raw and emotional, a world away from The Beatles’ slick productions. The band comprised Ringo Starr on drums and one of the many “fifth Beatles,” Klaus Voorman, on bass.

Many of the song titles are single words: “Remember,” “Isolation,” “God,” “Love.” They’re loose but not lax, and it remains among my all-time favorite albums. It was Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s choice in 1970 as Album of the Year.

My wife Sweets grew up with parents who spent several years wallowing in Arthur Janov and his primal scream theories. There was a lot of confrontation and yelling in the household, and Sweets and her two sisters couldn’t wait to flee the coop. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is not one of my wife’s favorites.

n young

“New Mama” “New Mama’s got a son in her eyes.”

Neil Young’s equivalent to Lennon’s primal album is Tonight’s the Night,” the anti-Harvest. Neil, in this tribute to fallen junkie music associates, is rough, occasionally out-of-tune, tequila-soaked, and fearless. Even the most low-fi of these songs is darkly beautiful, from bleary, drug-saturated “Tired Eyes” to the acoustic trippiness of “Albuquerque” and “New Mama,” which both sound like late-night-long-after-the-show CSNY sing-alongs, hoarse and coarse and lovely. Tonight’s the Night is another all-time favorite album.

Neil lived with his mother after his father left her.

duke

“Reminiscing in Tempo” For years, I sang Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” thinking it was a song Duke, who was very close to his mother, had written for her in his grief following her death. I later learned that wasn’t true—he wrote “Solitude” shortly before she died. Ellington biographer Terry Teachout says that the song Duke wrote while grief-stricken over his mother was actually the extended form “Reminiscing in Tempo.” It has no lyrics, but its music was inspired by mother Daisy. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Duke wrote of “Reminiscing in Tempo” that “every page of that particular manuscript was dotted with smears and unshapely marks caused by tears that had fallen.” This is a man who missed his mother.

Honorable Mention: Sonny Bono had the cheekiness to write a song for Cher to sing about their divorce. “Now how should I put this? I’ve got something to say / Your mother is staying, but I’m going away.” It worked! “You Better Sit Down, Kids” was a hit, and it’s the last Cher song I ever liked.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: On the other hand, there’s Helen Reddy’s song of mother-daughter solidarity, “You and Me Against the World.” I guess it’s not really too horrible a song, but Helen Reddy on the vocals pretty much automatically consigns it to the “no” pile.

Guilty

Guilty

I’m not Catholic, and I don’t believe I experience more bouts of guilt than the average imperfect being, but there are a few things I’ve done, or things I haven’t done, that will make me feel “guilty for the rest of my life,” as Randy Newman says.

My guilt tends to be over sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Oh yes, I have indulged in activities that hurt others and I have gone through subsequent periods of remorse and regret. The guilt that really lingers most, though, is over the things I didn’t do when I had the chance. As I’ve gotten older and lost my mom and dad, other relatives, and friends, a recurring feeling, along with the sorrow, is “Why didn’t I do more before they left?” I’m receiving this lesson more and more often, but, alas, I haven’t gotten much better at taking opportunities to be with those I love. The curse of introversion.

“Marie” Randy Newman’s masterpiece, Good Ol’ Boys, contains two of the best songs featuring guilt-ridden ne’er-do-wells ever written, “Guilty” and “Marie,” both delivered as only Randy Newman can (although Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, and several others have done splendid jobs on “Guilty”).

The poor sap who sings to Marie apologizes for being crazy, weak, lazy, and drunk, and allows “I’ve hurt you so.” But he’s trying to make things right, express his love, and be forgiven so that he may mend his ways.

"I'm weak and I'm lazy, and I've hurt you so"

“I’m weak and I’m lazy, and I’ve hurt you so”

“Guilty” The loser who sings “Guilty” is a bit farther down on the “forgivable” scale. He gets drunk, coked up, and stays out all hours getting into trouble. He doesn’t expect to improve: “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’ll be guilty the rest of my life.” Time to move on, sister. Charli, who runs the longtime jam circle I sing with occasionally, does this one even better than Joe, Bonnie, and Randy.

“I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” Randy Newman does a neat twist on guilt in this beautiful song. Haven’t we all felt that way before? We want our lost lover to feel guilty for leaving, and then we wind up wracked with guilt about feeling that way.

“Pretend It Never Happened” A cover band I played in during the seventies focused primarily on sixties pop rock stuff, with a lot of off-the-wall humor, thanks to our frustrated-standup drummer Loz. When we took on a fellow named Showbiz Bob, he added a bit of folkie flavor to the mix. His idol was John Stewart, who’d been a member of The Kingston Trio and in the eighties had a bit of the spotlight in a duet with Stevie Nicks on the song “Gold.”

The song “Pretend It Never Happened” was evidently something John Stewart performed live that Showbiz, who’d seen him many times, picked up. Despite its being a slow-tempo ballad, it was the only song Showbiz ever suggested we add that drummer Loz wholeheartedly endorsed. A sample verse: “I’m sorry I hit you with the car / I didn’t really mean for things to go that far / Pretend it never happened, go out on the town / You can’t let the little things get you down.”

neil y

“Down by the River” When I asked my wife if any songs that suited the topic of guilt came to mind, the first song she thought of was the Neil Young/Crazy Horse epic “Down by the River,” long a favorite of mine. I ran through the lyrics in my head for a few moments and then asked, “Is he feeling guilty?” She replied, “Well, he ought to be—he shot his baby.” That’s for sure—but instead, ol’ Neil seems to be talking someone else into fleeing the scene of the crime with him, while his old baby’s lying dead, down by the river.

monk lps

Monk on LP

“Don’t Blame Me” Thelonious Monk’s solo versions of this standard have crowded out any other versions of it for me—the vocal renditions as well as all other instrumental versions. It’s a perfect example, particularly for those who are familiar with the standard, of how the pianist Monkifies the work of others. His trademark dissonances add to the song’s beauty, and, sans accompaniment, he can indulge in rhythmic playfulness, inserting vaudevillian trills, cascading arpeggios, and pregnant pauses. Criss Cross has an excellent “Don’t Blame Me,” nestled between Monk’s compositions “Rhythm-a-ning” and “Think of One.”

If you want to hear the lyrics, which are actually a declaration of love—not a guilty apology, Frank Sinatra is among many vocalists who’ve interpreted it well.

“Honey, I’ve Been a Bad Boy” Friend and music cohort Toby wrote the lyrics for this nice number for our four-part harmony group. “I’ve been out hanky-pankin’, now I’m fit for a spankin’ / Honey, I’ve been a bad boy—I’ve been an oh-so-naughty boy.”

Honorable Mentions: John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is a nice guilt-ridden apology from Imagine. The Dan Penn-Chips Moman country-soul ballad “At the Dark End of the Street” is one of the most evocative guilt songs ever written. Two cheating lovers remain in the shadows, knowing they’re doing wrong but unable to stop.

g greene

I’ve long been captivated by stories of guilt in literature. Writer Graham Greene masterfully explores good old Catholic guilt in much of his best work. Many of his protagonists are bedeviled by their consciences, some to the point of being overcome and even destroyed. Favorite Greene books of guilt include The Power and the Glory (featuring the Mexican “whiskey priest” who feels he never does enough to lift people up), The Heart of the Matter (whose Scobie is trapped in an unhappy marriage and dallies, never to get over it), and The End of the Affair (which involves guilty jealousy of God).

What’s Your Name? (part 3)

What’s Your Name? (part 3)

We continue our frolic through the alphabet with girl-name songs. The first two installments covered A through E (March 3 post) and F-J (March 14).

Kathy Paul Simon’s hitchhiking odyssey “America” was inspired by a cross-country trip he’d taken a few years earlier with girlfriend Kathy Chitty. “America” is one of several gems on the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel album Bookends. It is as much of its time as other louder, more flamboyant albums, but there is a bittersweet mood of disillusionment that hangs over “America” and most of the other songs.

Paul & Art

Paul & Art

It’s Simon at his best: “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping / ‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’.”

Lola Well, it’s a girl’s name, even though it ain’t about a girl. Ray Davies’ ode to the cross-dressing “Lola” is a most unusual top-10 hit, especially from 1970. The singer’s encounter is certainly not the typical radio love story, an encounter with someone who “walks like a woman but talks like a man.” The chorus is a lot of fun, for girls and boys and everyone in between, to sing along with. It comes from the cumbersomely-titled album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. Whew!

lola

Another Lola figures prominently in Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s Broadway musical Damn Yankees, in the delicious song “Whatever Lola Wants.” Gwen Verdon, as Lola, gained stardom playing an aide to the Devil, who tempts an aspiring New York Yankee ballplayer. My favorite recording of the song is Mel Torme’s.

A good ol' boy and his gal (Marie?)

A good ol’ boy and his gal (Marie?)

Marie Two of the most beautiful pop songs ever written appeared on Randy Newman’s masterpiece, Good Old Boys. The concept album of songs of the South is full of dark humor, satire, and twisted situations. But nestled among the Southern gothic gallows humor are the ethereal tale of the Mississippi River’s great flood, “Louisiana 1927” and the touching “Marie.” “Marie” is all the more remarkable for the poignant beauty it wrings out of a poor, drunk no-‘count’s serenade to the love of his life. It’s a love song so divine and pure I never tire of it.

c berry

Nadine One of Chuck Berry’s later jewels was his 1964 tale of the quest for “Nadine.” The pursuit and the song are relentless, as Chuck sings over the same chord for almost 90% of the song. He’s after Nadine, though he can’t understand her, and she’s so elusive he ends up “campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat / Nadine! Honey is that you?”

Ophelia The only musical O girl name I can come up with is Ophelia. Fortunately, The Band’s “Ophelia” is an excellent song, from their sixth album, Northern Lights—Southern Cross. The Band also performed it in their farewell concert, captured by Martin Scorsese on film in The Last Waltz.

rust

Pocahontas Neil Young’s cracked and yet perfect culture-clash history lesson uses the story of the Native American icon to represent American imperialism, commercialism, and the downsides of progress. It tops the many contenders for Best Neil Young Song in my book. The performance included on Rust Never Sleeps is a standout on an exceptionally good album.

Roxanne I had the great fortune to stumble on The Police in a small Dallas venue just as their star was beginning to rise. I got there late and missed most of their show, but I was inspired to check out Outlandos d’Amour, and I fell in love with “Roxanne.” When Sting belts out the name, especially following the musical pauses, it’s the best two sung syllables in pop music history.

Honorable Mentions: Kathy Paul Simon named another song after Ms. Chitty, “Kathy’s Song,” from Sounds of Silence.

Layla Eric Clapton’s finest moment.

nightfly

Maxine When our four-part harmony group went to see our four-part-harmony idols, The Four Freshmen, live, it was a dark and stormy night. There was only a small audience there to see the Frosh—two original members and two replacements—going through their classics. We relished every moment, but I was thrilled when they did a song that, at that time, was recent, Donald Fagen’s “Maxine.” When I first heard that song on Fagen’s debut solo effort, The Nightfly, I’d thought: The Four Freshmen!

Naima John Coltrane wrote this gorgeous ballad, and his instrumental first recording was the only version I’d ever heard until I was rehearsing with a group and the drummer suggested we do it. He sang it through and it was a revelation: I learned the song had lyrics and I learned the drummer could sing.

Ophelia Natalie Merchant’s “Ophelia,” from her 1998 album of the same name, is a fine tribute to rebellious, heroic women throughout history.

Prudence & Pam John Lennon wrote two songs about ladies whose names started with a P. A friend of mine once posed the question: “If the white album were a single album, which songs would make the cut?” Tough one, but “Dear Prudence” would have to make the A Team. “Polythene Pam” is a nice throwaway, an essential piece of the Abbey Road side-two showcase.

Ruby There are so many Rubys in pop music history, and so many Ruby songs I love: Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” Dion’s (and Donald Fagen’s, on The Nightfly) “Ruby Baby,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Ruby” (from Ruby Gentry), and Kenny Rogers’ wanton hussy in “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” A compilation of Ruby songs seems to be in order!

Dream Jukebox: “Lola,” “Nadine,” and any number of Rubys could hang out together on the jukebox.

Good Morning, Good Morning

Good Morning, Good Morning

Ray Charles was a melting pot of music—blues, jazz, country, soul, R&B, show tunes, standards—and a television piece on him back in the eighties used the song “Oh, What Beautiful Morning” to illustrate the multitude of genres Bro Ray could mix into one number like nobody else. It was sung by Gordon McRae in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! back in 1943. It’s a fine, sturdy song from a groundbreaking stage work, but I can hear it that way no longer after Ray Charles had his way with it. He added gospel-blues-jazz piano and rhythms, put some soul/R&B here and some C&W there, in the inflections and phrasing, and made it his own, like he did every song he got ahold of. It was an unlikely choice that worked, like his “Georgia on My Mind,” “Ruby,” and so many others. He just almost couldn’t go wrong. (A recording of his version of “America the Beautiful” should replace every live rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at every event across the country forevermore. Is that too much to hope for?)

ray chas

On a family trip to New Orleans shortly after Sgt. Pepper came out, John Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” went from being one of my least favorite songs on the album to my favorite. I was a 14-year-old hippie wanna-be, and from our hotel room one morning I heard the song. I looked down to the street and saw a group of real-live hippies—the first I’d ever seen in person—carrying a giant peace-symbol banner and singing, over and over, “Good morning, good morning, good!” I’m not sure why they chose that particular song, other than the fact that it was morning, but it suddenly took on a counterculture cachet. I wanted to join those hippie freaks and help them carry that banner wherever they were headed. Instead, I headed with the family to Big Boy for breakfast buffet.

Sgt Peppeb's Loney Hearps Club Band (overseas bootleg)

Sgt Peppeb’s Loney Hearps Club Band (overseas bootleg)

Harry Nilsson, as we know, went through a few years of debauchery and drink with Mr. Lennon. On the cover of his classic Nilsson Schmilsson album, he stands in his bathrobe, looking pretty hungover. It looks like morning—and not a welcome morning.

schmilsson

I’m just wild about Harry, and this breakout record is more consistently great than any of his that followed (and about as good as any that preceded it). Side two starts off with two songs, “Without You” and “The Coconut Song,” that I believe I got my lifetime quota of decades ago.  But side one I’ve always thought of as a sort-of “wee hours” suite, from “Gotta Get Up” and “Driving Along” through “Early in the Morning” and the ethereal “The Moonbeam Song.”  “Down” caps it off with a sense of the other end of the wee hours—reckless late-night barroom despair. It joins side two of Abbey Road as one of the all-time great album sides—and it’s pretty great to wake up to.

“Good Day Sunshine” (by another associate of Lennon’s) is not an LSD song. That’s the persistent rumor, but the boring fact is that it’s about the positive effects of experiencing a little shiny, acid-free morning sun. I’ve always enjoyed the song, particularly the quickly-faded coda. Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie (more conveniently known as Lulu) recorded the song in 1970 with help from The Dixie Flyers, and it’s pleasant, but it’s another Lulu song with morning connections, “Morning Dew” (1968), that is my favorite Lulu recording. I have no idea what it’s actually about, but she sounds great on it, and the insistent marimbas (great band name) add to its mystery.

lulu

I quit buying Chicago records around Chicago III or Chicago IV (what are they up to now—LXXXVIII ? LXXXIX?) It’s a song from their second album that is my enduring favorite: “Wake Up, Sunshine.” It’s so bright and cheerful: The horn section glides over the pulsing piano, the singers happily trade vocal lines. It has always seemed to me to be the perfect morning song. And I’m a morning person, so I should know.

I rise and sometimes even shine at an ever earlier hour as I age. I quit using an alarm clock years ago. I was always awake before it went off at 6:30. Now I’m usually up in the five-o’clock hour. (I’ve always had a tendency to wake up early, even in the seventies, when I was playing clubs five nights a week until 2:00 a.m. I would catch up, when I got the chance, with a four-o’clock nap.) My wife, who sleeps through most of the morning, is wide awake at 10:30 at night, when I am in shutdown mode. I will be asleep by eleven, leaving her to her late-night productivity.

 

The Eagles were so often played on seventies radio and have been so ubiquitous on oldies radio ever since that I just can hardly listen to them anymore. One exception I make is for the lovely “Tequila Sunrise,” the first single from the album Desperado. (OK, I’ll make an exception for this whole album—“Twenty-One,” “Saturday Night,” and, yes, “Desperado” are songs that break away from the Sound of the Seventies and seem like they’d fit better in the eighteen-seventies.) “Tequila Sunrise” is a very nice song. I experienced many a tequila sunrise around that time, but was more likely to have been listening to The Doors’ Morrison Hotel on 8-track.

Honorable Mentions: Composer Igor Stravinsky said that “too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Neil Young’s “Till the Morning Comes” consists of only fourteen words, and over half of those are repeats, but it is just right, and it’s such a nice touch on the 1970 After the Goldrush album. The album would have been poorer if its minute-seventeen were left off. Also, I tend to think of Goldrush as a weekend morning album.

Neil: Goldrush

Neil: Goldrush

The Grateful Dead put their own “Till the Morning Comes” on American Beauty three months after Goldrush. It is longer and wordier than Neil’s, but isn’t over-long like so many songs of the Dead.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: I’m sure there was a period back in the early ‘70s when I happily sang along with Oliver: “Song song song sing, sing sing sing song,” but I can’t hear it now without cringing a little. Hair gave the world some really great songs, but I don’t think this was one of them.

Autumn Almanac

Autumn Almanac

I like to announce, over softly picked minor chords, that my group is about to sing a beautiful song for all the lovers out there called (and I over-exaggerate bad French) “‘Luh fweel mohrt,’ or, in English, ‘The Dead Leaves.’”

Yes, that’s the direct translation of the French name of the standard we know as “Autumn Leaves.” It is an international song. Hungarian Joseph Kosma composed “Les feuilles mortes” in 1946 for a French film. Frenchman Jacques Prevert wrote French lyrics for it. Then in 1951, along came American Johnny Mercer, who wrote English lyrics and got his most profitable song ever out of the deal. Our group does the Mercer lyrics, not the Prevert, and after the slow intro, we ramp up the tempo in a Latin-beat. Maybe we need Spanish lyrics.

The biggest hit version was sans lyrics: Roger Williams’ EZ-listening piano treatment, full of cascades representing all those falling leaves that drift by the window. It is the epitome of elevator music, and reached number 1 in 1955. Five other artists had a hit with “Autumn Leaves” in ’55. Rog had another stab at it ten years later, as “Autumn Leaves—1965.” That time he only got to #92 on the chart.

cannon

My favorite version is an instrumental featuring the saxophone of Cannonball Adderley. It’s on Cannon’s 1958 album Somethin’ Else, which like most Cannonball Adderley, is somethin’ else. Miles Davis joins Adderley on the album, which preceded their collaboration on Kind of Blue. Hank Jones contributes fine piano work.

There are not nearly as many autumn songs as there are winter, spring, or, especially, summer songs. But there is another great standard of autumn, Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York.” It continues, a year later, the theme Duke started with “April in Paris” in 1933. Frank Sinatra was the first singer I heard do the song. His 1949 hit lodged it in the American popular songbook, after it had languished for fifteen years, but the version I had was recorded by Frank ten years after that, for the album Come Fly with Me. It’s masterfully sung, of course. Billie Holiday is among the many fine vocalists who followed Sinatra’s lead and recorded the song. (Sinatra also recorded a nice “Autumn Leaves.”)

sinatra fly

Above all recordings of the song, I like the 1957 session in which Ella Fitzgerald meets up with Louis Armstrong. We get Ella first, singing through it with her pure voice. Louis is up next, and I am reminded of just how effective he could be singing sensitive ballads. (“That Lucky Old Sun,” anyone?) Louis follows his vocalized verses with some trumpet, and then we hear Ella again, this time backed by some subtle asides from Louis. It’s a real treat to hear these two together.

And, in honor of singer-actress Polly Bergen, who recently died, I should point out that she also recorded a nice, smooth version of “Autumn in New York.”

Sinatra did another great autumnal song, “Indian Summer,” fronting Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. It’s nicely done, but an instrumental version featuring the wonderful clarinet of Sidney Bechet is my preferred version; in fact, Bechet’s “Indian Summer” is probably only topped by his take on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Sidney Bechet Autobiography

Sidney Bechet Autobiography

Years ago, using The Jazz and Blues Lovers’ Guide to the U.S., my wife and I located the childhood home of Bechet in New Orleans’ 7th Ward. We pulled up in front and I got out to take a picture. I was instantly surrounded by a group of boys on bicycles demanding payment from me, saying they knew I was from some magazine. I got back in the car, drove around the neighborhood a few times and then swooped back by and got the shot from my car window. That historic house has since been demolished by the city as part of the post-Katrina clean-up.

The Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac” made it to #3 in the UK in 1967, but it didn’t even dent the charts here in the U.S. Silly Americans! It’s a whirlwind of a little pop number, maybe too much for American radio. It has a steady, up-tempo beat. It has sing-along parts—some “la-la-la” sections and a rousing “Yes, yes, yes, it’s my autumn almanac!” chorus. It’s got verses sung by Ray Davies in his sweet, old English gentleman voice. “Tea and toasted, buttered currants can’t compensate for lack of sun / Because the summer’s all gone.” And it’s got a fade-out in 6/4 that’s yet another sing-along section. Shoulda been a stateside hit, too!

"Autumn Almanac" is one of The Kink Kronikles

“Autumn Almanac” is one of The Kink Kronikles

Neil Young’s 1992 song “Harvest Moon” figures into one of my dearest performing memories. It was the favorite song of a good friend’s bride-to-be. As a proposal setting, my friend arranged with another friend to get the cavernous Union Station Ballroom for an hour or so one early evening. A wedding had taken place earlier in the day, and there were deflated balloons, empty plastic flute glasses, and confetti everywhere. In a little nook in a far corner of the room, my friend had placed a small table and two chairs, and an ice bucket containing a chilling bottle of wine.

He instructed me to wait, hidden behind a column, at the top of the grand marble stairway that led up to the ballroom. When I saw Friend and Lady-Friend enter, I started playing and singing “Harvest Moon,” as instructed. The pair ascended the stairs and walked arm-in-arm through the remains of the earlier celebration to the table set-up, with their troubadour following, strumming and singing. It was quite a magic moment.

She accepted, and they’re still married, fifteen years later.

An earlier song of the harvest moon was written by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. “Shine On, Harvest Moon” has endured as a great sing-along for more than 100 years. When I do it at the senior centers, everyone always knows all of the words. I let the audience sing “since January, February, June, or July” without me. Since the last words of the song are “For me and my gal,” I slide right into the song of that name, another sing-along standard just under the century mark. It was written by Edgar Leslie, Ray Goetz, and George W. Meyer for the musical Here and There. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly sang it together on film in the movie For Me and My Gal, in 1942. It was Gene’s film debut and was directed by Busby Berkeley. “Everybody’s been knowing, to a wedding we’re going.”

smiley

Honorable Mention: “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” (also known as “The Woody Woodpecker Symphony”) is an oddity even among its off-the-wall companions on The Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile. It has a Volga-boatmen quality to it, or maybe of the entrance song of the Winged Monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

Dream Jukebox: After listening again to The Kinks’ “Autumn Almanac,” I know it deserves a place on the Dream Box, aside “Sunny Afternoon,” “Waterloo Sunset,” and “Dead End Street.”

 

Any songs of autumn help you make the seasonal transition?

Drive My Car

Drive My Car

I am a car idiot. For years, I relied on my friend Mark to keep my crap cars running, and I was always grateful that he didn’t mock me too much when the car just needed a switch flipped or a nut tightened. Mechanical and electrical intelligence are not something I ever had, and it was my association with my dear buddy Mark that made me appreciate that not only was my book learnin’ not superior to his specialized knowledge—it was inferior as a source of income or other usefulness.

chuck b

Although songs about cars, like cars themselves, were never something I cultivated, I’ve enjoyed quite a few hit car songs in the pop-rock world, including several by Chuck Berry, King of the Car Song. Some highlights:

  • 1955—In his first hit (#5 Billboard), Chuck chases “Maybellene” in a Ford V-8; she’s driving a Cadillac Coupe DeVille.
  • 1956—Now he’s got the DeVille, a “souped-up jitney,” in “You Can’t Catch Me.”
  • 1957—Next, in “No Money Down,” he’s back in a Ford, this time a “broken-down, raggedy one,” and wheeling and dealing to get a Caddy—a “yellow, convertible, 4-door DeVille.”
  • 1960—In “Jaguar and Thunderbird,” two cars are in a street race, with a cop car hot in pursuit.
  • 1964—Now Chuck’s chasing “Nadine,” as she heads toward a “coffee-colored Cadillac.” She ends up in a Yellow cab, so he gets in one, too, but, at song’s end, he still hasn’t caught up with her. That same year, Chuck drives around in a “calaboose” with “No Particular Place to Go.”
  • 1965—He pleads with his “Dear Dad” for a Cadillac because, once again, he’s stuck with an old, broken-down Ford.
"Low Rider" on 12"

“Low Rider” on 12″

There are a few other car songs that especially affected me. War’s “Low Rider,” from 1975, is one. I have long fantasized about having my own jukebox. I am convinced that there is something about the sound of a 45 rpm record that cannot be replicated on any other format, including the LP. If I ever obtain my Dream Jukebox, one of the first 45s I will load into it will be “Low Rider.” The crisp bass lead vocal of Charles Miller; the sax/harmonica riff; the timbales—magic!

“Long May You Run” (The Stills-Young Band, 1976) is a sentimental favorite, because it was a favorite of my aforementioned pal Mark, a generous and loving fellow who died too young, following a ten-year migraine the doctors couldn’t help him with. Mark loved Neil Young and he loved cars, so it’s a perfect tribute song that I imagine him singing along with every time I hear it. (“Maybe the Beach Boys have got you now / With those waves singin’ ‘Caroline.’”) Mark loved to sing and always wanted to be up on stage with the bands he mixed sound for, but, as much as he fought it, his true métier was cars. I have a fond memory of watching a B-movie on HBO in the late seventies with Mark. A bad guy hops into a Chevy and cranks it up. Mark turns to me, shaking his head, and says, “They dubbed in a Chrysler starter.”

And so, the car songs of the Beach Boys. Not my favorites, generally—“409,” “This Car of Mine,” “Shut Down.” But a couple that involved automobile rites of passage are among the very best, and were the flip sides of a two-sided hit. The A-side, “I Get Around,” was the first Beach Boys song to hit #1 on Billboard, and it manages, as much as any of their songs or anyone else’s, to mix a good rockin’ beat with ethereal harmonies. (Decades later Mike Love sued and got royalties for coming up with “Round, round, git around…”) The B-side was the gorgeous “Don’t Worry, Baby,” surely the most beautiful song ever written about drag-racing. Brian Wilson wrote it as an homage to his favorite pop single, The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” The Ronettes later covered “Don’t Worry, Baby,” so now everybody’s happy.

beach b

I had stopped keeping up with the Beach Boys in the early seventies, when one evening I joined a friend I’d known in high school choir and a few other collegians for a woodsy. We chanted “Cowabunga-fa-fa! Cowabunga-fu-fu!” around a raging fire and beat on bongos and rattled shakers and drank lots of cheap beer and Boone’s Farm. But we also sang some Beach Boys songs because my friend had not forgotten them. I’m sure we tried “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” plus several others that were not car songs. The next day, after my hangover cleared up, I had Beach Boys songs going around and around in my head. I wound up becoming curious about what Brian and the boys had been up to since their run of hits, and I devoured their post-Pet Sounds albums Friends, Sunflower, Smiley Smile, Holland, and the rest. Not a car song to be found. Brian had long left the drag strips, and the beach and, really, the Boys behind. I’ve kept some of these later LPs, especially Friends, in the rotation ever since, and a highlight of my concert-going experiences was a performance I saw in the mid-‘00s of the reconstituted Smile album. Glorious, with Brian in the middle of it all, a little bewildered but well-supported by Wondermints, Van Dyke Parks, and Brian sound-alike Jeff Foskett. A masterpiece, I think. A long way from surfboards and souped-up machines.

Years ago, I went into Collector Records in search of the Domingo Modugno hit “Volare,” which I had to learn for a high school class reunion gig. It was the song of their graduation year, 1958. I told the guy at the counter, a local character named Bucks, why I needed a copy. He slammed his hands down on the counter. “You’re going to learn ‘Volare’ for a gig? My band, The Volares, is having a CD release party next month! Will you sing it there?” Bucks’ band was not named for the song; it was named after the Plymouth Volare. I learned “Volare,” Italian lyrics and all, and sang it at both gigs, and it has never left my repertoire since.

Found at Collector Records

Found at Collector Records

They are saying young folk nowadays aren’t as car-crazy as my generation was, so I guess the age of the great car song is long past. Here’s to car songs of yore that we’ll never forget, and to my good friend Mark!

Honorable Mention: Yes, most car songs were written and performed by men. But two of the very best were by women: “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams.

Jackie Brenston’s #1 R&B hit from 1951, “Rocket 88,” is now considered to be one of the candidates for first rock & roll record.

Great Song Titles: “Dodge Veg-O-Matic” is a classic Jonathan Richman gem, from Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers. I can actually picture Jonathan drivin’ it proudly.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Car Crazy Cutie” is a Beach Boys car song that is pretty dang stupid, about a girl who has “axle grease imbedded ‘neath her fingernails.” Nice.

Dream Jukebox Candidates: “Low Rider” by War is one of the best singles ever. The 1983 Prince hit “Little Red Corvette” is another one for the Dream Jukebox. It’s more about sex than cars, but you can say that about so many car songs. Even the surfer-shirted, white-pantsed Beach Boys were using their vehicles to reel in the babes. “Nadine,” and almost any other single by Chuck Berry, would also be welcome.

 

So, which car songs get you all charged up?

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