January 11, 2012: Before anything else, let me note that a magazine called Fray finally put their Issue #3 online, including the link to one of my essays -- http://fray.com/issue3/once-around-the-corpse.html -- for those of you who love my work, me, or just real-life stories about dead people and the examination of their innards, check it out … (And Yes, Space Case is still for sale … But for how long? Perhaps you’d better act fast! …)
Now to today’s Blah-ugh! …
A recent discussion plan with a friend of mine—at least I think he’s a friend; who really knows nowadays!—involved doing a list of our top 20 favorite songs. I’d been working hard at it, but then I thought, if I’m going to write all my reasoning out and share my innermost musical thoughts, why just share it with him? (After all, what’s he done for me lately?)
So here it is! My top 40! (Did I say it was 20? Yes. Yes, it was, but as I hashed and rehashed this eclectic selection of stuff I love, I couldn’t help but tag on the next 20 in line, for your information, and mine, and yours, too. (Did I mention you?) I should probably acknowledge the writers in many of these cases, but I’m too lazy and I’m sure most of you don’t care anyway, so let’s just pretend the singers themselves wrote most of them …
#40 “Maggie May” (Rod Stewart): Vintage Rod, and a lovely distinct arrangement. (I don’t care what those rumors were!)
#39 “Make Your Own Kind of Music” (Mama Cass Elliott): Beautiful, magical words, and the awesome voice of one of history great fatso’s.
#38 “Tell Mama” (Janis Joplin): I’m not sure what you call this—blues, speed jazz, or just rock—but it’s an amazing experience to listen to it. Janis just goes, with a beat that demands response. She is Mama!
#37 “Sleigh Ride” (various versions, but esp. The Ronettes): It just makes you wish you had a horse, or at least knew somebody with a horse who you knew wouldn’t be home one weekend when it snowed.
#36 “Hello Trouble” (Buck Owens): So many great Buck songs, but this epitomizes his innocent, carefree character and that beautiful Bakersfield beat. (Remember Hee-Haw BTW? What a shitty show!)
#35 “I’ll Come Running Back to You” (Sam Cooke): And as many Sam Cooke songs as I love, this one hypnotizes me across the board. Dig the smooth snare drum, and classic Inkspot-esque backing vocals. (Love those Inkspots!)
#34 “Fixing A Hole” (Beatles): Ah, Paul, you are a genius after all. It took me way too long to realize it. And I could have put “Live and Let Die” here, or “Hey Jude,” but I often find myself unable to stop singing this impulsive tune.
#33 “Neal & Jack & Me” (King Crimson): A beautiful homage to Kerouac and Cassidy, but even better as just an exciting piece of music by a band of truly brilliant musicians.
#32 “She Said, She Said” (Beatles): A lesser-known gem that will always mean the world to me—ironically, probably much more than it ever meant to the Beatles!
#31 “Heroes & Villains” (Beach Boys): Through this song I came to appreciate the genius of Brian Wilson and the brilliance of the Beach Boys’ music.
#30 “Best of Both Worlds” (Lulu): This song takes my breath away … but part of that may just be that I’m a neurotic.
#29 “Wasn’t Born to Follow” (The Byrds): Regular Blah-ugh! readers will recall my love of this tune, and the previously written explanation thereof. (See past Blah-ugh! … and buy Space Case at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.)
#28 “Norwegian Wood” (Beatles): The first chord, first two notes, and John’s voice are beyond description … If you’ve never appreciated the Beatles—I’m talking to you, you fool! —this would have to change your mind!
#27 “Find A River” (R.E.M.): And if you never liked R.E.M. because you suspected Michael Stipe was gay (and it turns out you were right), this song might change your outlook (about R.E.M., but not necessarily the homosexual).
#26 “Mr. Tambourine Man” (both Dylan’s and The Byrds’): So many reasons …
#25 “Surf’s Up” (Beach Boys): This had long been the song I wanted played at my funeral, assuming we could get the rights. Some of the vocal moments just captivate me, and Van Dyke Parks’ offbeat lyrics are a thing after my heart.
#24 “True Grit” (Glen Campbell): I adore Glen Campbell’s voice, as do I love the arrangements he profited by from Al DeLory. This song—short and sweet—has it all.
#23 “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time” (The Andrew Sisters): I must have served another life in the 1940s, where I walked safe and innocent springtime streets and heard music like this on the radio … I love the Andrew Sisters!
#22 “Shayla” (Blondie): Close to “Union City Blue,” and the “Eat to the Beat” album, this song just blows me away with an ability to create/capture a moment—some unexplainable feeling I know so well, linked with some memories that may not even be mine and yet are so familiar and important … which is what a great song—a work of art—should do. Chris Stein is an unsung hero.
#21 “Help!” (Beatles): If you’ve never watched the first four minutes of the film “Help!” you really have to, for the classic black-and-white cut of the Beatles doing this makes the song even that much better …
#20—“O Holy Night” (Celine Dion version): The sounds this woman makes singing this song could almost turn me from a mild sinner into a veritable saint. She holds the powerful notes at the end so long, I lose touch that it’s a human voice and not some instrument being played. This is what Christmas should be about—awesome sincere sentimental music (and scented candles and fires and eggnog … ) not all this mumbo-jumbo about Jesus!
#19—“Girl Don’t Tell Me” (Beach Boys): God, I love this song. It’s so simple and somehow feels absolutely “male” to me. Carl Wilson’s voice is just so special in this—that grand California accent, and the casual, sad resolve of these particular vocals—his voice starting so low in the first lines—almost disappearing … My god, the first 5 seconds of this song—the first line—is as special to me as anything ever recorded! Add to this the chorus-affected chords of the lead guitar in the second bridge (which I think were actually played by Glen Campbell in the studio), and the raining, panting drive of the acoustic rhythm guitar throughout … And bells, of all things, toning intermittently … Thank heaven for the Beach Boys and the Wilson brothers.
#18—“Won’t You Try Saturday Afternoon” (Jefferson Airplane): O to be in Frisco … This song takes me right back to those righteous sunlit afternoons in Golden Gate Park circa ’66, and I wasn’t even there! But this is like a rare photograph or historic document, despite the natural spontaneous sloppiness – my God, Paul Kantner even indicates this was practically an outtake in the middle of the song when he says, “Keep going.” I’m so glad they did!
#17—“Peace Frog / Blue Sunday” (The Doors): I had to put in something from my 3rd favorite group of all time. This tune is masterful from the get-go—guitar, bass organ, drums … And those lovely lyrics, coupled with everything else, invoke the holy magic of Jim Morrison and his L.A. On the L.P. (Morrison Hotel) the song drops into “Blue Sunday,” and that’s a magnificent holy sedative to the manic buzz of the former.
#16—“Gentle On My Mind” (John Hartford): This is a quintessential “standard,” and though John’s no singer, his will always be the best version. What a feeling this song has—that country movement; while the Bakersfield sound might make you feel like you’re riding on a train, this is like speeding along in a car down a country road.
#15—“That’s the Way” (Led Zeppelin): Man, this song just wrenches my heart about with its sad, bluesy lyrics and tired, almost struggling, rhythm guitar. Again, a song that not only evokes moods and memories for me, but somehow implants them, like that company in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Total Recall.” This demonstrates why Zeppelin was so much more than just a hard rock band, and how authentic they were compared to the thousand faux bands that tried to follow them.
#14—“See Emily Play” (Pink Floyd): O so wonderful, so off and so different. This feels like—captures—the kind of hallucinogenic experiences I used to have in my younger and more dilapidated days. I can’t even analyze it all. I’m just grateful it exists, and that Syd Barrett managed to get some incredible things together before he dissipated. Wow!
#13—“God Only Knows” (Beach Boys): Everyone who knows this song is probably wondering why it isn’t higher still. I believe I’ve written about it in this Blah-ugh! before in detail, highlighting the end round, the clip-clop & sleigh bell percussion, the French horn … Oh, I could go on. I think Brian said it best when I saw him in concert years ago, and he said in that half-retarded voice of his, “God wrote this song!”
#12—“Midnight Rider” (Allman Brothers): Again, regular Blah-ugh! readers (meaning you, E.J.) will know my feelings here … And as I’ve already gone on for thousands of words (too few of which have referenced buying my new ebook Space Case), I’ll let you go back and figure it out for yourself … The way E.J. had to!
#11—“Lodi” (Creedence Clearwater Revival, a.k.a. John Fogerty): The many hours of joy CCR has given me can’t even begin to be reported here, but this song easily tops them all. The melancholy lyrics—and, Boy, do I love my melancholy music! (if you haven’t noticed up til now)—and John’s sweet, sad country gospel voice … And when the whole key goes up a step for the last verse, it’s just perfect. John also manages to put his Gretsch guitar through the exactly right pedal and amp to make that unique magical CCR sound. As my friend Kristine Newman once said about this song, “It just says it all.”
#10—“Moonlight Serenade” (Glenn Miller): I’ve always adored Big Band music, but this one just takes me out among the stars. I pity anyone who can’t listen to a song like this and just be melted by the clarinets and muted brass. What a ridiculously evocative sound, and just the sweetest moving tune … Beyond that, I have some lovely associations with this song—a retro-band playing it by request for my baby son on the Fairfield village green one summer evening … Just the purest magic! …
#9—“Sitting Still” (R.E.M.): I have to put this here, for all that R.E.M. means to me, especially this very early ditty, which captures their awesome jangly brand of country rock. One of the most all-encompassing musical association experiences I’ve ever had was my friend Tom H. and I driving south some spring in the late 80s (including a night in Athens, Georgia), and listening to the “Murmur” and “Reckoning” albums over and over again on cassette tape (having never even heard R.E.M. before this trip) and simply forming a mysterious, deep connection between those songs and the south itself.
#8—“To Sir, With Love” (Lulu): I want to say that if you’ve heard it, you have to already get it (but I’m not sure I can entirely trust you!) … It’s all Lulu, of course, but she did several versions in 1967, and they get better and better. The movie versions are the ultimate, and I have one from the soundtrack that includes all three verses and opens with the timpani & rimshots, which is penultimate. Of course, the single version offers those incredible violins, which seem to somehow operate at another gut-wrenching tempo, yet still keep it together … And above all, I can’t separate this from the movie, which is among my top 10 favorite films.
#7—“Going To California” (Led Zeppelin): Containing my second all-time favorite song lyric—“Trying to find a woman who’s never, never, never been born”—this tribute to Joni Mitchell is amazing. (In fact, it’s so amazing I won’t try to tell you … in part because you never believe anything I say anyway!) Again, what a grand group!
#6—“Strawberry Fields” (The Beatles): The opening mellotron is, for me, really the best bit of instrumental music EVER RECORDED. And the mysterious world they created—a bit removed from Pink Floyd, but no less important, inviting and magical … Just too wonderful for words … And ironically, I really don’t like the classic ending with the return, with the train sound; I think they should have ended it, and we wouldn’t have had all that silliness about the “I buried Paul” line … (and I don’t care how often they’ve denied it—He f***ing said it and meant it!)
#5—“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” (The Beach Boys, a.k.a. Brian Wilson): This song is especially special to me because I do want it played at my funeral (sometime waaaay in the future). I so completely identify with the lyrics, and while it’s got a portion of self-pity and, perhaps, over-self-importance, I don’t care—it’s one of those amazing works of art that makes me feel understood. The three-part vocal blending as the chorus comes to a close is ingenious, as is the rest of it. Once again Brian is masterful …
#4—“Nowhere Man” (The Beatles): Harmony-a-gogo, led by John’s (heck, they’re ALL John, triple-tracked) nasal magic. In fact, this whole song is completely worth its weight just to hear him sing the word “command” at the end of the first bridge. Also, Paul’s bass is utterly amazing—actually two separate recorded bass lines, I now believe—really moving the rhythm, while simultaneously keeping it rooted. (My god, listen to me! Am I a frustrated music critic or what?!) The chord changes are also wonderful, especially the F#m to the Am … and how about falling off the cliff of the first bridge into that soaring solo … Ah, The Beatles!
#3—“Dreary Days & Nights” (performed by Lulu, written by the great Don Black): The U.K. melancholia of this song simply wrenches my soul. (Yes, my soul again, as if you weren’t sick of hearing about it!) This song typifies everything my imagination has ever mustered about ‘60s London, coupled with my personal wintertime visions of England. The minor key, simple guitar-heavy instrumentation (especially the opening oft-repeated line … and of course the hard strength of Lulu’s raspy voice… O, what a voice! This one just takes me to another world. I can rarely hear this song once without repeating it three or four times.
#2—“Ticket to Ride” (The Beatles): At the end of the day, all combined, this is the best Beatles’ tune there is. The haunting guitar riff, the heavenly echo and steady and yet somehow dragging tempo, Ringo’s effortless drumming, replete with subtle rimshots and flawless rolls, John’s amazing ever-somber, ever-nasal circa-’65 voice … But above it all, that McCartney enthusiasm of Paul’s almost-shouted harmonies just give me chills. This is the one! … And follow how, after the bridge, first the lead guitar solos, then the rhythm guitar follows, then the tambourine accelerates it before the drum roll … Finally, there is NOTHING like John’s heady, throwaway “aw” before the last chorus … Merely brilliant!
#1—“D.C.B.A.-25” (by Paul Kantner & Jefferson Airplane): Wow! Two of my three favorite song lines in this one tune, which for me creates the whole picture of 60s San Francisco, and all the amazing, wonderful feelings and fantasies I’ve ever projected onto it. “Too many days I’ve left unstoned,” is just a great, identifiable line, and nothing can ever beat my all-time favorite, “I can but dance behind your smile.” Again, the echoing tone of this song just draws me into a breath-taking expanse of mental pictures. The lead guitar is great, particularly for the effect used, and the solid drumming is highlighted by the most lovely splash cymbal I’ve ever heard. Grace Slick & Paul Kantner mix that perfect, careless out-of-sync J.A. harmony, the bass bubbles and even the tambourine brings it a step above the rest … And in the end, it’s such a startlingly simple song!
Well, there y’go! And if you’ve read this far, you’ll want to read SPACE CASE, available at … Oh, you get it!
Goodnight E.J. and Nancy!