All posts by Ben Yagoda

Singer-Songwriting Rockers 3: “Sweet Old World”

The supremely talented Lucinda Williams released “Sweet Old World” as the title song of a 1992 album. It was written in tribute to a lover of hers, the poet Frank Stanford, who had killed himself years earlier. Rolling Stone named it the 22nd saddest country song of all time.

I don’t know about that but it’s a beauty. Lyrically, it’s a list song, like “You’re the Top,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” In this case, the list is the things “you” have lost by not living, and it accumulates power as it proceeds:

The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone’s ring
Someone calling your name

The music, as well, is simple and haunting. Here’s a duet between Lucinda and Mary Chapin Carpenter; don’t miss Gurf Morlix’s very tasty guitar work.

On reflection, all I can say is if that’s the 22nd saddest song, I’m not sure I can take the first 21.

Singer-Songwriting Rockers 2: “Most of the Time”

The song opened up side two of Bob Dylan’s 1989 album “Oh Mercy” and, frankly, slipped under the radar of my attention. A bit more than a decade and a half later, I picked up a Dylan compilation with the ungainly title “The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs, Rare and Unreleased, 1989-2006.”  It included a version of “Most of the Time” consisting of Dylan’s clear voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. To paraphrase “Seinfeld,” it was real and it was spectacular.

The song is simple, in the best sense of the word. Lyrically, it is an ironic theme and variation, with a cumulatively devastating effect. One of the choruses gives the idea:

Most of the time
My head is on straight
Most of the time
I’m strong enough not to hate
I don’t build up illusion ’til it makes me sick
I ain’t afraid of confusion no matter how thick
I can smile in the face of mankind
Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine
Most of the time

The melody is simple, yes, but nuanced and flavorful enough to stand up to repeated listenings.

Betty Levette did a soulful cover on a Dylan tribute CD, but hey, you singers out there, we need more! In the meantime, give a listen to Bob.

Singer-Songwriting Rockers 1: “One Step Up”

Bruce Springsteen’s birthday (he’s 66 today–happy birthday, Boss!) inspires me to turn the spotlight on him and a couple of other rockers who have written first-rate songs over a remarkable span of time. In Springsteen’s case, we’re talking forty years: from “Blinded by the Night” in 1973 up through “We Take Care of Our Own” in 2012. That’s almost Richard Rodgers territory, which is high praise indeed. Even more remarkable, this trio (you might be able to guess who the others are) has crafted memorable and distinctive songs from a pretty limited harmonic palette, usually no more than four chords.

For the Boss, I’ll feature a searing tune from his excellent 1987 album Tunnel of Love, the ballad “One Step Up,” which Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh called “as miserable a cheating song as Nashville ever knew.”  Springsteen wrote it in the midst of his breakup with his first wife, Julianne Phillips, and in the words of the singer-songwriter we’ll be featuring next, there are blood on the tracks. Autobiographical or not, Springsteen’s lyric, tied to a haunting and deliberate melody, captures the bad taste of a relationship gone sour as well as any song I know:

It’s the same thing night on night
Who’s wrong baby who’s right
Another fight and I slam the door on
Another battle in our dirty little war

When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back

Here’s the music video Bruce put out; background vocals by Patti Scialfa.

“What’s Going On”

“(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” discussed previously, is a sort of fourth-generation protest song. The previous generations? First came Woody Guthrie/labor movement anthems, then Bob Dylan/Peter, Paul and Mary tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and then the subgenre I’ll consider now–the black consciousness song of the ’60s and ’70s. The three outstanding examples–Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going to Come,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” and Marvin Gaye’s 1971 “What’s Going On”–hitched political consciousness to soul music’s blend of gospel and rhythm and blues, brilliantly. “What’s Going On”–cowritten by Gaye, Renaldo Benson, and Al Cleveland–adds jazz instrumentation to the mix.

The song is on my mind because today’s New York Times’s obituary of former Detroit Lions running back Mel Farr recounts that Gaye invited Farr and another Lion, Lem Barney, to come into the studio for the recording session. Not only did they provide background vocals, but along with Gaye and Motown’s backing musician, the Funk Brothers, they kept up a line of chatter that Gaye ending up adding to the track as a sort of running barbershop commentary. Elgie Stover, who later served as a caterer for Bill Clinton and was then a Motown staffer, opened things up with the words, “Hey, man, what’s happening?” and later said, “Everything is everything.” It’s not clear who said (at least twice) my favorite line: “Hey man, what’s your name?”

The talk “set the record in a specifically black context,” wrote Steve Turner in his biography of Gaye, Trouble Man. “This was no longer just the ‘sound of young America,’ this was the sound of black America, and for the first time Marvin sounded as though he was speaking in his own voice.”

When the record came out in January 1971, it had the immediate feel of a classic, a feel the intervening decades hasn’t diminished. Rolling Stone lists it as the fourth greatest song of all time. The music and Gaye’s scatting vocals are as tight and soulful as ever, and the words are sadly just as relevant:

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying

Here’s the original version:

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”

This song is a prime example of the richness that just a few chords can hold. Nick Lowe wrote it in 1974 for the band he was in at the time, Brinsley Schwarz, but it didn’t take off until 1978, when Elvis Costello’s version climbed up the charts as a single and was subsequently added to the American version of his album “Armed Forces.”

It quickly became a rock standard and in the 80s and 90s, as a musician friend of mine commented, “very few young bands didn’t cover the song.” Its iconic status was helped by the scene in “Lost in Translation” (2003) when the Bill Murray character sings a karaoke version. The following year, writes Wikipedia, it was “regularly performed as an all-star jam on the Vote for Change tour, which featured a rotating cast of headliners. The 11 October concert at the MCI Centre in Washington DC was broadcast live on the Sundance Channel and on radio. This version of the song featured Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Dixie Chicks, Eddie Vedder, Dave Matthews, and John Fogerty with Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo’, and Jackson Browne.”

There’s something about this song. I posted on Facebook that if I had to pick one song I don’t get tired of, no matter how many times I hear it, this is the first one that comes to mind. And–amazingly!–the first several people to comment on the post actually agreed with me.

What accounts for the appeal? As noted, the harmony while sturdy, is pretty simple: four chords or five at the most. I’ve got to think Lowe’s lyrics are key. They begin:

As I walk on through this wicked world,
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity,
I ask myself, Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain, and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know,
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?,

It feels like a latter-day Pilgrim’s Progress–an account of a journey through a dark moral forest, “searching for light.” What makes it work, in part, is the contrast between the sentiments, which can and should be read absolutely sincerely, and the palpable hipster irony Lowe and Costello wear on their sleeve. You can see what I’m talking about in this clip where Costello “introduces” himself, heavy on the irony, and then performs the song with absolute conviction.


Thursday was Paul McCartney’s 73rd birthday. To commemorate the occasion, a local radio station here in Philadelphia, WXPN, played group of a Beatles songs composed and sung by Sir Paul: “We Can Work It Out,” “Blackbird,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “She’s Leaving Home,” “For No One,” “You Won’t See Me,” “When I’m 64,” and “Hey Jude.” The set reminded me of McCartney’s remarkable talent as a melodist: those few songs alone display such a huge variety, from the lush Hollywood strings and emotional crescendos of “Long and Winding Road,” the joyous bump-a-dump rhythm of “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the folk-rock of “We Can Work It Out,” and so on. And that’s not even mentioning his most-covered tunes, “Michelle” and “Yesterday.”

Those last two bring up an unavoidable fact about McCartney: anyone responsible for such lines as “These are words that go together well,” and “Now it looks as though they’re here to stay”–not to mention “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy”–can’t really be considered a world-class lyricist. There are a few of his songs, however, where the words match the music, and one of them is “Blackbird.”

Just the day after his birthday, McCartney performed at a music festival in Delaware, and according to music writer Dan DeLuca of the Philadelphia Inquirer, he

 made mention of the nine victims of a massacre in a historic black church in South Carolina in dedicating “The Long and Winding Road” to “the people of Charleston. While we’re all here, we need to pray for peace and harmony.” Later, he sang a lovely solo acoustic version of “Blackbird,” which he reminded listeners was inspired by  the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.
McCartey has said that his lovely finger-picking on the song was inspired by Bach’s Bourrée in E minor, for lute. That original track, from the White Album, doesn’t sound a bit dated forty-seven years later. Indeed, Paul’s guitar can’t really be improved on (which hasn’t stopped a million college kids from trying), so here’s a deeply soulful piano version by Alicia Keys.

“Days of Wine and Roses”

Henry Mancini was born in 1924 and Johnny Mandel the following year. They both joined big bands just as the big-band era was ending–Mancini as a pianist and arranger and Mandel as a trumpet player, trombonist, and arranger. Their paths diverged in the ’50s, as Mancini went to Hollywood and began scoring films, while Mandel stayed with jazz, doing the charts for, among lots of others, Frank SInatra’s Ring-a-Ding-Ding! LP. But he, too, ultimately answered Hollywood’s call. and he’s been out there since the ’60s, not making much music anymore, but providing immense help to scholars and writers and anyone who’s lucky enough, as I was while researching The B-Side, to talk to him. (Mancini died in 1994.)

Mancini and Mandel were among the last composers to write the sort of song referred to as “jazz standards”–songs like (the earlier) “I Got Rhythm” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “There Will Never Be Another You.” I’ll eventually get  to writing a post on Mandel’s “The Shadow of Your Smile” (1966), but today’s Mancini’s day and, in keeping with the jazz idea, instead of “Moon River,” “Charade,” or the underrated “Two for the Road,” the spotlight is on another movie theme, “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962).

It’s a strange song. Johnny Mercer (also lyricist for “Moon River”) was deep in his surrealistic phase. Other than the word “wine,” his lyric not only doesn’t have anything to do with the movie–a melodrama about alcoholism starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick–it’s hard to know what it has to do with. The entire song is just two sentences:

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away, like a child at play,
Through the meadow land toward a closing door,
A door marked “nevermore” that wasn’t there before.
The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze, filled with memories,
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you.
But it works, as does Mancini’s melody, which stands up to the tens of thousands of solos jazz musicians have played on it over the years. The clip I’ve chosen features the wonderful Bill Evans on piano, Toots Thielemans on harmonica, and Larry Schneider on sax. It doesn’t get any better.