Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #23

George Jones – He Stopped Loving Her Today

Every time I see a photo of Johnny Cash, I think of my father. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. If I look at the right photo at the proper angle I can see a physical resemblance, but that isn’t it. No, I think of my father when I see Johnny Cash because of who Cash isn’t. It’s because he isn’t George Jones.

I grew up around country music because that’s what my parents mostly listened to. (My mother also played the shit out of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”, and her album collection included such pop-folk wonders as Dan Hill’s “Longer Fuse”.) I know there was some Cash in there, because how else would I have heard it, and there was Merle Haggard and Don Williams (I think that was my mother’s pick) and the Statler Brothers and lots of others. And there must have been some Jones, because I knew “The Race is On” and “She Thinks I Still Care”, though the latter at least is a song that my dad also played.

I loved my father and I believe he loved me, in his own fashion, but I don’t think he liked me, and most of the time I didn’t much care for him either. We were just two very different people who could never find much common ground. We both loved hockey when I was younger, but that only took us so far (and still managed to be a source of conflict between us most of the time). Other than being someone I didn’t wish to emulate, I can’t say he played much of a role in who I became. (My mother is a very different story.) If he was still here, he’d probably agree with that statement, and be okay with me saying it – he likely wouldn’t want people thinking I was too much like him either.

In the early 2000s, I bought my father a Johnny Cash songbook for Christmas. He was underwhelmed, which is how I learned that George Jones was his favourite singer. (Merle Haggard was right up there, too.) Me being wrong about Cash and Jones’ places in my dad’s musical hierarchy is just another measure of the closeness of our relationship.

“He Stopped Loving Her today” (yes, this piece is still about a song, smartass – but thank you for sticking around this far into my therapy session) came out in April 1980, and I am absolutely certain that soon-to-be 16-year-old me did not have the song on his radar. By then, I had been fully emancipated from my parents’ musical tyranny, and likely had Billy Joel’s “Glass Houses” on repeat that spring and summer, along with Elvis Costello’s “Get Happy” and Pete Townshend’s “Empty Glass”. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1990s that I became aware of the song. The hows and whys don’t matter – it’s the discovery that counts. Because I am completely in agreement with those who rank it the greatest country song ever.

For a song about a life-altering love, there is a surprising amount of dark humour. The opening line – “He said I’ll love you ‘til I die” – immediately alerts you in its answer to the title that this is not a love song in its traditional form. There is also the mention a bit further on of “First time I’d seen him smile in years”, that rictus grin being a gift from death itself. Gently strummed guitar is paired with chill-inducing harmonica and slide guitar, leading into the operatic chorus. Jones’ vocal is impassioned and heartfelt: it’s a song that only a mature voice can do justice to, a voice that is a tiny bit shaky but still holding most of its former abundance.

After someone is gone, you don’t get do-overs, and I’ve never wanted one when it came to my father: I think we could have lived a thousand lifetimes together and never bridged the gap between us. In this case, biology is destiny. But I do wish I had embraced country music sooner: it would have at least given us something to talk about that (probably) wouldn’t have us butting heads in mere minutes. As for what happened after he was gone, a different version of us both may have found a way to bond over a song like George Strait’s “Give It Away” when my life was falling apart and I turned to music again and again for sustenance. That was something that he understood very well, and it makes me sad that we missed out on that opportunity: I think it would have done us both a world of good.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #3

Randy Newman – Good Old Boys

There is nothing at stake here, so I can be brutally honest: this album is sort of boring.

There’s a difficulty at the heart of all of Randy Newman’s work: he writes (mostly) great songs that he then, unfor­tunately, chooses to perform himself, often with little more than his own piano-playing as an accompaniment. His observational lyrics (gently skewered by “Family Guy”) force you to pay attention, but rarely does the music part of the song do the same.

The early part of the album has a sluggish ragtime feel, as if each track should be playing over a sepia-toned title card in a black-and-white silent movie. It’s a fitting style, as much of the lyrical content deals with an ironic longing for the American south of the pre-civil rights era (with some pointed smartassery about northern hypocrisy), but ragtime itself has more variety than these tunes. There are odd moments of excitement that slip in – a country echo in “Birmingham”, the hint of a tropical feel in “Naked Man”, sneaky southern rock forays in bits of “Kingfish” and “Back on My Feet Again” – but these really just highlight the sameness of the rest. Even those clever lyrics become a problem: unless you already understand this going in, it can be challenging to get Newman’s point of view when almost everything is sung sarcastically.

The record is not without its moments. “Marie” is a delicate love song from an unworthy lover, and “Every Man A King” (co-written by Huey Long, the subject of “Kingfish”) is a snappy honkytonk ditty with a rich chorus from Eagles on a daycation. But in its entirety, the album left me with little compelling reason to listen to it again, since, unlike the very best music, I have no expectation of being surprised or brought to joy on any future play. Which is fine – there are lots of records that do that for me already.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #22

Dan Hartman – I Can Dream About You

There are a LOT of jobs in the music business. The glamour spots, of course, involve being a successful solo performer or front person in a band. But every song ever recorded didn’t get that way without the involvement of writers, other musicians and singers, engineers, producers and/or a host of other players who don’t make the liner notes other than as special thank you’s to the artist’s significant other, massage therapist, dealer or life coach. Which means that a lot of people who are famous for a few minutes then seem to disappear are probably still very much involved in making music: they just aren’t famous for it anymore. Which brings us to Dan Hartman.

I have loved “I Can Dream About You” since I first heard it in 1984 in connection with the film “Streets of Fire”. I was not alone: it became a Top 10 hit, and has over 58 million steams – presumably mostly from nostalgic boomers like myself – on Spotify. But there are some odd background notes about this song. For years I thought Hartman was Black, which he absolutely was not. I guess I never saw the video when the song was a hit, so when the movie showed up on television around a year later (shoutout to a young Willem Defoe as the villain, but I don’t remember much else about the film but this song and Diane Lane looking like, well, Diane Lane, and that was enough), what I saw was four Black guys performing it. Even that was a bit of a trick: the actor playing the lead singer was lip syncing to a recording by another guy who was not Dan Hartman. Ah, movie magic.

Despite loving the song, and being a total music trivia nerd, I never looked into Hartman to see what became of him post-fame. This morning, Spotify suggested I listen to The Edgar Winter Group’s 1973 album “They Only Come Out at Night”, which turned out to be a brilliant recommendation. I’m reading about who worked on the album, and there I see Dan Hartman’s name. As it turned out, he had a pretty impressive career as a performer, writer, engineer and producer. He wrote and sang “Free Ride” for the Winter band, and co-wrote (with the awesomely-named Charlie Midnight) James Brown’s “Living in America”. As an artist, he sandwiched the disco hit “Instant Replay” between his rock work with Winter and the synth soul of “I Can Dream About You”. He worked with a ton of notable artists (including Tina Turner, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker) and died way, way too fucking young from AIDS in 1994.

It sets the beat off the top, with a funk-lite edge and some thumping drums, followed by a sort-of scuzzy synth bass and faux piano, then Hartman starts singing, sounding like he was dropped onto the stage in front of a mic, as surprised as the audience is to see him there, and just decided to go for it. In a flash, we’re into the chorus, with smooth soul backing vocals acting as a layered echo to Hartman’s lead, and then it just sort of repeats the same motifs for the next round, before the tone alters slightly through said backup singers at just under the two-minute mark. Then we’re back to the initial setup, before the obligatory guitar solo as Hartman keeps on dreaming over and over and over until it fades out.

I can’t really rationalize my love for this song. The lyrics are meh, and the music is pretty much unvaried from beginning to end. But something about it picks me up and makes me want to strut. If I could dance, I could totally see myself swirling around a club floor, the star of my own “Saturday Night Fever” knockoff. (Check out the movie for what I see in my head. The outfits are pretty terrific, too.) That’s the ineffable magic of great pop music. It doesn’t comply with a logical analysis – it’s all about how it makes you feel. “I Can Dream About You” makes me happy, and it’s been doing so for 38 years and counting. Nothing else really matters, right?

Favourite “New” Music – August 2022

Yep, still here. I just paid for another year of this domain name, so I’m not going away just yet. Like all hobbies, writing a blog sometimes has to take a back seat to other things in life that need to be prioritised, or just going through periods where you need to step away to refresh. My paying gig is 90% reading and writing or talking about the things I’ve read/written or will read/write, and there are many days when writing for another hour – even something I enjoy as much as doing this blog – is the last thing I want to do. But I am back to pontificate some more.

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1950s rock lately, thanks to a playlist (prepared by someone with Job-level commitment) compiling the almost 150 hours of music referred to in Bob Stanley’s fantastic book “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé”, so naturally there was a good chunk dedicated to the works of Elvis Presley. It didn’t just stick to the 1950s, so the journey passed through the godawful low of “Yoga is as Yoga Does”. Elvis’ career in the 1960s was a series of bad movies with soundtracks that would have been even worse but for The King’s splendid instrument. “Yoga is as Yoga Does” fits the mould, coming from a 1967 film called “Easy Come, Easy Go”. Bonus points if you know it: the song is so obscure that the biggest Elvis fan I know had never heard of it. That obscurity is well-deserved.

The movies don’t get a lot of attention in Baz Luhrmann’s film “Elvis”, which strikes me as a better creative choice than Presley made in appearing in them. The film is both an indelible portrait of what made Elvis great, and a reminder of how often he failed to honour his prodigious talents. It does a great job of showing the force of nature that Elvis was at his peak. Those powers never went away, even when Elvis misused or abused them, and his fans somehow kept that idealised image in their heads, so that when he lifted himself out of the muck and gave the world art again in something like the 1968 television special, there was always a parched desert of believers eagerly waiting to drink. His career was an endless series of failures to be great, yet the highs are so powerful and the hits so unforgettable that he remained great in spite of making bad choice after worse choice.

That the film works is thanks to star Austin Butler, a Disney/Nickelodeon kid now grown up and kicking ass. (Next up: picking up (not literally, I hope) Sting’s codpiece for “Dune”.) Playing such an icon is a tall order, but if you don’t buy Butler as Presley, you didn’t see the same movie I saw. The film is cheesy and campy – it is a Baz Luhrmann film, after all – and a lot of fun until it isn’t. Tom Hanks is sort of over the top as Colonel Tom Parker, and other than the young fellow playing Little Richard and the Butler lookalike playing the juvenile Elvis, I barely remember the rest of the cast. But Butler makes it worth your time.

• • •

And now, to my favourite listens of August 2022.

  • The Ronettes – Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes featuring Veronica (1964)
  • Fred Neil – Fred Neil (1966)
  • Muddy Waters – Electric Mud (1968) (Blues purists hate this album. It’s that lack of purity that I love.)
  • Fleetwood Mac – Mystery to Me (1973) (I was never much of a Mac fan, and definitely didn’t pay attention to the pre Nicks/Buckingham incarnations. This album comes from when Bob Welch was the dominant creative force, and the poppy brilliance that later gave the world “Ebony Eyes” and “Sentimental Lady” is on display, along with Christine McVie’s prodigious talents. So good, I played most of it back-to-back.)
  • AC/DC – Back in Black (1980)
  • The dB’s – Like This (1984)
  • Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987) (These guys really were (are?) a significant cut above other hard rock bands of their time, weren’t they? (Of course, I had this same thought an hour later about “Back in Black” era AC/DC, so either (1) I’m an unaware hard rock fan or (2) I need to listen to more hard rock so I can actually develop a coherent opinion about this stuff before I make more such comments.))
  • Del the Funky Homosapien – I Wish My Brother George Was Here (1991) (Spotify claimed that my friends were listening to this. I must meet these “friends”.)
  • Kathy McCarty – Dead Dog’s Eyeball (1994)
  • The Jayhawks – Tomorrow the Green Grass (1995)
  • STRFKR – Vault Vol. 1 (2017)
  • Austin Jenckes – If You Grew Up Like I Did (2019)
  • Jeremy Ivey – Invisible Pictures (2022)
  • Flo Milli – You Still Here, Ho? (2022)
  • Maggie Rogers – Surrender (2022)
  • Megan Thee Stallion – Traumazine (2022)
  • Fireboy DML – Playboy (2022)
  • Horace Andy – Midnight Rocker (2022) (The search for reggae that I enjoy finds a place to land.)
  • Sun’s Signature – Sun’s Signature (2022) (If you’ve been missing Cocteau Twins, and assuming you’re a little less depressed now than you were from 1982 to 1996, this could be your new favourite band.)
  • Jeshi – Universal Credit (2022)

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #21A/B

John Travolta & Olivia Newton-John – Summer Nights/You’re the One that I Want

If you were a young boy – or girl, for that matter – who arrived on June 16, 1978 without having reached puberty, there’s a good chance your progress got a significant boost sometime that summer at the 1:41:38 mark of “Grease”. At that moment, after over 101 minutes of sexist jokes and bad acting but undeniably great music, Olivia Newton-John showed up all in black (save for those red shoes that angels so urgently desire) in a tight sweater and tighter pants (apparently, she did not simply slide into those pants but had to have them sewn onto her body), hair frizzed to its theoretical limits, and showed you the future, with all its potential delights and inevitable frustrations. And a glorious reveal it was.

If you had “Olivia Newton-John becomes a sex symbol” on your 1978 bingo card, you were very much in the minority. She was certainly pretty enough for the gig, but her music – all heartfelt ballads and country twang – did not fit the pop vixen model. The first 101 minutes of “Grease” hewed to this image: the last 10 did not. Let’s set aside for now the problematic suggestion that a girl needs to become a tart in order to win over the man she loves. Sure, he claims he is prepared to clean up his act so that he might be worthy of said love. But let us also not forget how quickly his makeover is abandoned when he sees that she has come over to the dark side.

The movie is pretty awful, and amazingly conservative for being so sex obsessed (or maybe it’s sex obsessed because it’s conservative – there was a great “Daily Show” joke in connection with Mark Sanford’s hike along the Appalachian Trail which noted that a lot of conservative men had liberal penises.) The women fare much better than the men, especially Stockard Channing as Rizzo and, to my surprise, Olivia’s often understated work as Sandy. (As an aside, we really didn’t need to wait until Olivia’s makeover – Dinah Manoff was just standing there, looking gorgeous and waiting to be noticed.) Her co-star, John Travolta, almost never stops mugging, and only his star power enables him to overcome this in quieter moments. But the music is the real star anyway, from rock ‘n’ roll classics to songs from the original stage production to new songs like “Hopelessly Devoted to You”.

“Summer Nights” and “You’re the One that I Want” are a matched pair, the former a contradictory account of young love, the latter coming after the lovers have travelled their journey into each other’s arms again. “Summer Nights”, which was taken from the stage show, is a traditional theatrical song, in that the music – with a lot of quietly picked bass notes and even quieter snare taps – is far less important than the lyrics, since it needs to help push the narrative along. Travolta’s thin singing voice works well with Olivia’s angelic tone, helping to highlight the distinction between their characters’ – in his case, fake – perspectives on events of their shared recent past. It is even shot in contrast, with the camera largely aimed up at Travolta and company, and more frequently at eye level – and thus more intimate – when the women are singing. The song has an updated 1960s’ girl group feel (if you ignore the boys’ guttural “well-a, well-a, well-a, huh” contribution), like the Brill Building hit that Goffin and King never got around to writing.

You’re the One that I Want”, written specifically for the movie, is more modern, and maybe sounds a bit too much like “We Go Together”, which follows it in the film. It doesn’t have to carry any narrative weight, so it can be a simple declaration of – well, what, exactly, is it declaring? Attraction and desire, for sure, but not really love. And the way it is staged in the movie is just weird AF. The T-Birds and Pink Ladies, the Greek chorus of the film to that point, are barely seen after the song’s first minute, but a bunch of unnamed backup dancers, including three creepy guys doing weird hand motions and a woman whose dancing style I would characterise as drunk duck, get ample screen time. Plus, the choreography towards the end of the song includes a way-ahead-of-its-time and completely-wackadoodle-for-its-tonal-incongruity country line dancing takeoff. Like I said, weird AF.

I loved “Grease” when I was 14: the following Halloween, my friend Kirk Boutilier and I were paired T-Birds, with me learning in the process – following several hours of repeated washing – that the greasers of the film’s era were not using Johnson’s Baby Oil to achieve their look. But times change: Olivia is, sadly, now gone, as is Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie, and Travolta has probably never mattered less to the culture in the 50 years that he has been in the public eye. Nostalgia can only take you so far, and the movie will make you squirm at certain points (such as one male character committing what we would now characterize as sexual assault but was then just boys being boys, though certainly not for the girls involved). But the music – boisterous, joyful – hasn’t faded. Nostalgia is best served on your stereo, not your screen, in this case.

Pazz and Jop 1974 #2

Steely Dan – Pretzel Logic

The word that always comes to mind when I listen to Steely Dan is “lush”. The music is complex and perfectly played, the lyrics clever and insightful. Listening, you can’t help but feel a bit more elevated than with the usual pop, with all its messy emotion and histrionics. It can feel downright extravagant to allow yourself to wallow in these songs. It’s music for a concert hall, not a bar or repurposed hockey arena or ballpark.

Yet, for all the richness, it somehow manages to be understated at the same time. Donald Fagen never once seems caught up in what he’s singing about – he is simply the reporter of others’ misadventures, calmly giving you the details. Is it wrong to want something else from them? I know Steely Dan isn’t that kind of band – and I love them for it – but can anything so absent of danger properly be considered rock ‘n’ roll? They seem more of a jazz ensemble playing within the pop idiom, which sounds great, but without the unpredictability that can make jazz so exciting to listen to, there is nothing here to get the heart racing.

To an untrained ear, which definitely includes my pair, it all sort of sounds the same – other than the hits, with their built-in goodwill, very little jumps out and makes you take notice. The band definitely play with genre – the mild salsa feel early in “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”, the funky guitar of “Night by Night”, the bluesy beat of “Pretzel Logic”, the rollicking hillbilly vibe of “With A Gun” (my favourite song on the record) – but it almost always ends up sublimated to the Steely Dan sound. The one strong exception is the goofy old timey feel of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo”, which would benefit from being a bit ragged – perfectly played, it has a sort of pointless wonderment to it.

In the end, for all its beauty, I felt unmoved by the seemingly effortless cool of “Pretzel Logic”. It is high end background music, the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon spent doing the laundry, or for when you’re stuck waiting to see a doctor and the magazines are all out of date. Certainly not what the band was aiming for, but worthy nonetheless – we all have unavoidable tasks to get through and they are made more palatable by a pleasing soundtrack.

Favourite “New” Music – July 2022

On a recent evening, I selected “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” by The Waitresses for my drive-home aural accompaniment. I had owned it on vinyl in the ’80s, but never went beyond playing a few favoured tracks. It seemed like a fun way to navigate rush hour traffic, with Patty Donahue’s droll delivery guiding me home. (Also, what was the deal with Akron in the 1950s? How did Donahue and Chrissie Hynde both come out of there?) As the album played, and each familiar tune was followed by another familiar tune, I soon realised that I had played the whole thing before, and probably a few times. How could I have forgotten that? I love The Waitresses: they’re even on my Christmas playlist. I have spontaneously sung the chorus to the title track (“What’s a girl to do? / Scream and screw? (No!) Pretty victories”) in the presence of my then-young children (maybe not the best decision). I was befuddled.

The next morning, I selected “Vivid” by Living Colour (shoutout to Americans for following the Anglicised spelling) to accompany my rituals of cat feeding, dishwasher emptying, lunch preparing and generally getting ready for the day ahead. I had also owned this album (this time on cassette), which had been a critics’ darling in 1988, though much of the coverage had been in the back-handed and highly racist nature of “Can you believe that Black guys can play hard rock?” I was fairly certain this time that I had listened to the entire album, but after the opener “Cult of Personality”, I became less confident with each track, and certain I never had by the end.

I rather enjoyed the surprise that came with both experiences. Mixing the familiar with the unexpected is part of my love for cover versions. A few days ago, I played “Tomorrow the Green Grass” by The Jayhawks. I’d never listened to any of their records, but knew “Blue”, the opener, from its inclusion on Spotify Americana and alt-country playlists. At roughly the midpoint of the album, “Bad Time” started playing, and I almost immediately recognized it. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and saw it was written by Mark Farner, a name I knew but couldn’t place. A few clicks later, I knew it was a 1975 hit for Farner’s band Grand Funk, another group I have never consciously listened to, off an album whose cover photo I remember from album racks of that era. My enjoyment of The Jayhawks’ version had been enhanced by a bunch of things I either didn’t know or knew only subconsciously. Such are the wonders of music.

And so, we come to my list of favourite listens of the month past, including Living Colour in the slot where I expected to find The Waitresses.

  • The Clash – The Clash (1977) (Never listened to a Clash album before. Not sure what was wrong with me for 45 years, but at least I finally got it fixed.)
  • The Kinks – State of Confusion (1983) (Every album I dip into is a fresh revelation with these under appreciated masters.)
  • David & David – Boomtown (1986) (Simply one of the greatest one-album bands ever.)
  • Living Colour – Vivid (1988)
  • N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988) (Easy-E is not mentioned often enough when the best rappers of his era are discussed.)
  • Cub – Betti-Cola (1993) (Further evidence that Canadian content rules failed us: did radio stations really need to play another Bryan Adams or Celine Dion song when this delightful cuddlecore band from BC was waiting for our attention?)
  • Freedy Johnston – This Perfect World (1994)
  • Poi Dog Pondering – Pomegranate (1995) (If there is a genre that they miss on this delightful record, I don’t know what it is. Spotify has much that is wrong about it from the artists’ perspective, but it allows musical nomads like me to discover bands like this, which applies to both the previous name on this list and the next one.)
  • Blake Babies – God Bless the Blake Babies (2001)
  • Mayday Parade – A Lesson in Romantics (2007) (Nothing says you’re in an emo band like titling one of your songs “If You Wanted a Song Written About You, All You Had to Do Was Ask”.)
  • Tyminski – Southern Gothic (2017) (A masterful bluegrass-tinged country-rock album from Alison Krauss’ long-time band mate.)
  • Taylor Swift – folklore (2020) (I am slowly accepting that I need to let go of Swift’s public persona – which may be out of date in any event – and just enjoy her resplendent art.)
  • The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (2020)
  • Leo Nocentelli – Another Side (2021) (It is no slight to say that the story behind this record is even more amazing than the album itself.)
  • Myriam Gendron – Ma délire / Songs of Love, Lost and Found (2021) (This and the next record from a pair of Montrealers made for a magnificent soundtrack to a walk along the beach.)
  • Allison Russell – Outside Child (2021)
  • Leikeli47 – Shape Up (2022)
  • Hollie Cook – Happy Hour (2022) (Maybe the path for me to enjoy reggae is the artist’s own characterization of her sound as “tropical pop”. As a bonus, her dad was a Sex Pistol.)
  • Beach Bunny – Emotional Creature (2022)
  • Tank and the Bangas – Red Balloon (2022)

Pazz and Jop 1974 #1

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark

It’s not a good time to be saying anything less than glowing about Joni Mitchell, with her recent triumphant return to the stage. A lot of people love her music. I am not one of those people. The ones who love her are right to do so. And the rest of us are right not to.

Of course, it’s not allowed to be that simple. We struggle to understand why people don’t share our values and opinions. Is there something wrong with them? Or am I the problem? We are highly irrational about the things we love, and no better about the things we don’t. 

Somewhere, there’s a Rammstein fan asking herself why she should give a shit about some old lady. I’m not quite there, but I can’t fake caring about Joni Mitchell’s music. Oh, it isn’t absolute – there are things on “Court and Spark” that I quite like, as there were on “Blue” (“A Case of You” still gives me chills) and the less-heralded “For the Roses” and “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”. But, for the most part, I have resisted the mighty weight of the Joni Mitchell Critical Complex.

When you read or talk about music, you will run into lots of people telling you that you’re wrong about something like this. They will explain patiently, as if speaking to a well-behaved child, why you are wrong: her intimate confessional lyrics, her melodies, her novel vocal style, her experiments with jazz. None of this is incorrect, but it misses the point. I don’t care how “great” she is, because I don’t care about the sounds she’s making. And if you don’t get enjoyment from what you’re listening to, why are you even listening to it? For all her greatness, give me something I enjoy. This isn’t broccoli, or cardio, or meditation, or any other thing I do (haphazardly) because it’s good for me. Give me cuddlecore, bedroom pop, emo. Give me my 50th play of “Welcome Interstate Managers”, my 100th play of “The Stranger”, my 250th of “My Aim is True”. But also give me artists that I had never even heard of until this very month: give me Cub, Freedy Johnston, Blake Babies, Leo Nocentelli, Leikeli 47, Hollie Cook. I hope you’ll check them out, but I won’t argue if they don’t do it for you. Just don’t tell me why I’m wrong to not love Joni.

Even some of the reasons given for why she is great don’t sit right with me. Does the personal nature of her lyrics make them better than less personal work? “My Sweet Annette” by Drive-By Truckers never fails to move me (pedal steel guitar is one of the most mournful instruments ever invented, and if you pair it with fiddle, I am pretty much done for), and that story absolutely did not happen to the writer. Artists make the personal universal and the universal personal: neither is intrinsically better than the other.

Or her voice. Yes, it’s distinctive, and you would know it anywhere. But what are you to do if you find it so displeasing that it distracts you from the song? This is sometimes what I experience with her work.

Often what I like in her music are the things that seem less like what I expected to hear. The shambling southern rock feel of much of the guitar work in “Free Man in Paris” (which I have been spontaneously singing over the past week). The boogie-woogie rhythms of “Raised on Robbery”. The minimalist funk of “Trouble Child”. The madcap silliness of “Twisted”. There are pleasant smooth jazz-adjacent moments throughout the record, and from what I know of her subsequent career, it turned out to be a sandbox that she quite enjoyed playing in.

“Court and Spark” is a perfectly fine pop record: I just don’t hear whatever it was that made critics decide it was the best album of its year, and I could listen to it one hundred times and probably never hear it. Luckily, I don’t have to: there’s always another play of “Purple Rain” waiting for me if I run out of ideas about what to put on next.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #20A/B

David Lee Roth – California Girls and Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody

The first time I really noticed Van Halen was in 1983. What got my attention was that the band was paid $1.5 million dollars to perform at the Us Festival, and the press about this made it clear that getting one-quarter of a Steve Austin was a very significant payday. At this point, Van Halen had one decent-sized hit in Canada – a not very interesting cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” – and as a dedicated listener to Top 40 radio, this amount made no sense at all to me. Why would they be paid so much when they had so few hits?

That, of course, changed the following year, with “1984” the album and a little song called “Jump”. Now, “Jump” is an awesome song that I am always happy to hear. But what came next was a lot more fun.

Eddie Van Halen may have been the heart and soul of the band, but frontman David Lee Roth was its genitals, and in rock and roll, that’s really what matters most. Outside of the music, everything interesting about the band starts and ends with Roth. Eddie was an amazing guitar player, but other than the axe nerds, we were all watching Crazy Dave to see what would come next. Roth was a consummate showman who would have fit in any era of music, and he proved it in 1985.

You can’t separate the songs from the videos, and it was those visuals that made him, ever so briefly, a solo superstar. “California Girls” casts Dave as a wacky – Dave is always wacky – tour guide. The subject of the tour is a collection of beautiful women, who Dave displays to his charges. It’s horr­ibly sexist – most of the women are little more than props, although it is clear at the end that everyone knows that’s what’s happening. Between the faux Rod Serling intro and outro, and Roth suggestively peeling an ear of corn and generally bringing an energy that at one point reminded me of Heath Ledger as The Joker, the whole thing is completely nutbar. Meanwhile, “Just A Gigolo” pokes fun at his competition, with Dave electrocuting Billy Idol, getting put in a wrestling hold by Cyndi Lauper, dancing with Michael Jackson, and being pawed at by Boy George. Both videos break the fourth wall, showing what happens behind the scenes in a sort of heightened madness. Throughout, Dave is the campy ringleader.

And the songs are just crazy fun to listen to. As covers, they don’t reinvent the wheel – they just add a healthy dose of Daveness to a few classics. There are howls, yelps, falsettos. “Just A Gigolo” is a knowing wink at his persona, which, in case you missed it, is made clear with the line change to “people know the part Dave’s playing”. Roth is just out there having fun, but he also knows he’s a product, and there’s a psychic price to that. It’s all fun and games until no one cares anymore, and there’s a world weariness to his delivery that brings this home.

But let’s not get too serious. In the end, this is just a very rich man at the top of his game screwing around because he’s playing with house money. No one was saying “no” to David Lee Roth in 1985, and he cashed in with a pair of delightful camp classics.

“California Girls” is easily the better of the two songs, and is for my money superior to the Beach Boys’ original (blasphemy!). The Beach Boys’ version is sluggish when put up against Roth’s, and just not nearly as much fun to listen to. It’s also more rock and roll with Dave. While the Beach Boys looked so conservative in their short hair and collared shirts, the kind of boys who would give their letterman jacket and school pin to Barbara Ann, David had other ideas for what he could get up to with those midwest farmers’ daughters.

Roth and Eddie Van Halen had an often tempestuous relationship, but everything seemed to be okay between them when Eddie passed in October 2020. Roth is only 67, but he claims he is retired. I have a hard time believing that – he always seemed like a guy who would die in the saddle (an appropriate turn of phrase if you’ve ever listened to the band’s album “Diver Down”). Roth may prove to be the musical version of the answer to the question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If David Lee Roth isn’t entertaining someone somewhere, does he still exist? I hope so, but I’d love it if he gave us another “California Girls” before he rode off into the sunset.

Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #19

Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods – Billy, Don’t Be A Hero

I haven’t completed my empirical study on this issue – I’m still waiting on my Canada Council for the Arts funding to come through – but my preliminary findings would indicate that the 1970s were the Golden Age of musical cheese. A quick look at the Billboard charts will steer you towards enough product for the largest fondue party of all-time, with chart-toppers like Ray Stevens’ “Everything is Beautiful”, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life”, Mary McGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers”, Morris Albert’s “Feelings”, Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”, and, of course, Paul Anka and Odia Coates’ “(You’re) Having My Baby” all making fine contributions. But none can match the all-encompassing melted Gruyere mastery of Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods when they put “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” on tape.

I was aware of the band through the pages of “Tiger Beat”, though the amount of coverage seemed to far outweigh their cultural import. (This was a common issue with the magazine: for example, see De Franco, Tony or Eure, Wesley or Sherman, Bobby.) I certainly was very familiar with “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero”, but can’t say I knew at the time who was singing it: when looking up the song recently, I was sure it was Paper Lace’s slightly earlier version that was the Canadian hit, but in fact Bo and company topped both the RPM and Billboard charts while Paper Lace (which made its own important contribution to musical Emmental with “The Night Chicago Died”, reaching number one that same glorious summer of 1974) barely made a dent in either country with the song. I usually have a pretty good memory about such things, which says a lot about how much I’ve thought about this song in the past 48 years.

But, my god, why would I have thought about it? Rolling Stone readers voted it the 8th worst song of the 1970s, and with no disrespect intended to list-topper Rick Dees, who knew that “Disco Duck” was awful (and that awfulness was part of its charm), or the other un-notables in spots two through seven, I really think the Golden Toilet (yes, I invented that award, but it’s apropos) should have gone to “Billy” in a walkaway.

Sometimes, I revisit these songs with a measure of trepidation, thinking time will have dimmed my ardour. With “Billy” it was the opposite: would it, like a fine wine, have improved with time? I need not have concerned myself. “Billy” is, in fact, like a whine: something that gets worse the longer it goes on. I don’t blame the band: they were just trying to make a living, and this certainly helped draw those crowds to Mott’s Berry Farm (a mythical place that played an outsized part in my musical imagination thanks to “Tiger Beat”). When it comes to reading the musical zeitgeist, they couldn’t have made a better choice.

Considering the subject matter – Billy heads off to war and gets himself killed by doing the one thing his girl told him not to do (a mistake men have been making in endless contexts since the first caveman made note of a well-turned ankle) – it’s an amazingly cheery-sounding song, all jaunty Civil War-era marching band snare drum and toot-toot whistles. I’m sure it came off better live, because on record it gives the impression that no actual instruments were played; rather, it sounds like it came out of a late-night GarageBand session that ended when someone said, “Fuck it, I’m putting it up on my Soundcloud.” Some unidentified perv is close enough so that, while he’s eyeballing Billy’s “young and lovely fiance”, he hears her instructing the young soldier to let his fellow warriors take the fall rather than put his own life on the line. Really, if that was going to be the plan, Billy would have been doing everyone a favour by just staying at home. But he goes, tosses his lady’s advice in the dumpster, and gets taken down by some eagle-eyed (or lucky) Johnny Reb. And after Billy saved her from the Confederates, the ungrateful young lady, rather than carrying her virginity to the grave, drops the letter from Edwin Stanton into the garbage, and, maybe (I’m speculating here), goes looking for the narrator, who for some reason did not sign up for duty in the Union army and thus may have been the one un-maimed man of marrying age left in their town in 1865.

Anyway, that was a lot of reading between the lines.

Look, it’s not a good song (I need to be careful here with my “there is no bad music” ethos), but I don’t hate it, and I get why it was a hit. At that moment in time, bubblegum sounds ruled. Pop music often got too smart for its own good in the 1960s, and there was a lot of reactionary dumbing down in the first few years of the 1970s. Radio was painful to listen to a lot of the time, but the young people who rejected what they were being fed went out and started bands of their own to change this. So, yes, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” can take some of the credit (just go with me on this) for “God Save the Queen” and ”I Wanna Be Sedated”.

Thank you, Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods, for your service.