Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Endless Quest: Charlie Rich: "The Most Beautiful Girl"

This is one of those songs that takes me back to a time – very roughly, when it was a big hit, a time I don’t recall that well, but this song crossed all kinds of boundaries on the radio, so the song’s easy for me to remember – and a more recent time, the 90s, when I was socially active with a bunch of good folks whose interests and obsessions and completist tendencies had almost nothing to do with mine.  I don’t talk about the Serial Diners much in my writing about music as I didn’t have a lot of experience with them that had a musical focus; they were collectively bound by a dining in a different restaurant every Friday night at 6 or so, and beyond that it was up to the group as to what would happen next.  A movie?  A games night?  A night where we’d just wander around, not up to much?  It all depended, but no two people’s musical tastes were really the same, so going to a concert was never on the agenda, not at even a small, affordable club on Queen St. West.  Why pay for fun when we could convene with a tape recorder and microphone and bell and do improv comedy at someone’s house? 

And so, within the group my own musical epiphanies and enthusiasms were mostly bottled up.  I had a Walkman and listened to CFNY by day and the easy-listening classical station at night to help me get to sleep, but found myself really isolated within the group, forever trying and failing to find common ground with anyone besides one person…and there were a lot of people in the Diners back then, men and women, older and younger than me.  I found myself at a loss once in being asked by one main member what made Jimi Hendrix so special; again at a loss when another one (who was courting me at the time, or about to) didn’t know who Al Green was; and long before I pretty much stopped attending the Diners on an even semi-regular basis (c. 1999) I was disheartened by an event that I will write about in the fullness of time*. 
This song I remember mentioning to yet another Diner and she didn’t know it and I attempted to sing it – my voice certainly isn’t like Rich’s – and she still didn’t know it.  I was a little puzzled**, since the song hits the bullseye for American music in so many ways – and it was a #1 hit in the US and Canada, obviously a number two in the UK, too – I remember hearing it on a jazz station at the time.  Rich’s ‘countrypolitan’ music finally saw him succeed in the charts after two decades in the business. . 

Rich was a jazz and r&b guy who wasn’t considered ‘bad’ enough for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, so he worked there as a session musician and songwriter, instead of being one of the Big Five – Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins  and Johnny Cash.  He had the odd hit here and there on one label and another, including at Phillips (“Lonely Weekends”) and at another with “Mohair Sam.”  He considered himself a jazz pianist at heart and wasn’t really getting anywhere*** until producer Billy Sherrill (who helped Rich to write this, along with Rory Michael Bourke and Norris Wilson) turned him into a country crooner, a man with clear experience in his voice, a man who’d been there and back and didn’t need a damn souvenir.  His success came when, as “The Silver Fox” this (and other songs, notably “Behind Closed Doors”) were hits not just in the world of country music but in pop charts, too.

The story is just about the oldest one in pop; he said something he shouldn't have, she leaves, he wakes up in the dawn to the knowledge he's wrong and is looking for her, his "sun" - the one thing he has worth having in the world.  His casualness (starting a song with "Hey") isn't far from The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her" though you get the idea that Rich isn't about to go asking anyone who hasn't had the same experience themselves.  He's not about to talk to kids in the park about her; this is one guy speaking to another in a bar, a truckstop, the laundromat.  He asks if she's crying (not because she misses him too, but because he caused her such pain - this narrator knows he's in the wrong) - and that if she has been spotted, this intermediary should go and tell her that he needs her.  That's it, but the solemnity and maturity back it up, and I can imagine many a man hearing this song and maybe realizing, before it's too late, just how brutal and cold being alone is, that this song is one long exercise in hopeful hopelessness, that being without her is much, much worse than being with her.

As a girl when I heard this I didn't really understand how someone could be the "most" beautiful; someone either was beautiful or she wasn't.  How could he ever find her if there are so many beautiful women, I thought, this man is on a long, long quest.  And knowing now that beauty is also in the eye of the beholder, his quest seems even more hapless, that short of being like The Bee Gees and having a literal picture of her to show to others, or phoning the cops, he's never going to find her.  But the real story is the terrible gulf between the cold morning of his loss and the warmth she brings, as if there were no spring or fall in his life, just summer or winter.  And for his sins, he'll spend the rest of time asking for her, trying to describe the indescribable...

Next up:  the return of Glam Slam, football and the Fog.  


*It wasn’t the night I couldn’t go to the 8th  anniversary of the Diners as the guy who didn’t know about Al Green and I had an arrangement wherein I’d miss the dinner but get to hang out afterwards.  I did show up, feeling…odd, and when I asked the Diners if anyone knew anything about Stereolab, no one did.  It was 1997, and I’d just discovered them via a tv commercial for the new VW Bug, so it wasn’t like I was all that hip.  But it was alienating, nevertheless.  Something  much, much worse, however,  had already happened years before…and I will get to it on Then Play Long

 **There were plenty of times I'm sure she was puzzled by my musical knowledge (or lack of it) too.

***His exhaustion at being an outsider for so long can be heard in the b-side of this single, "I Feel Like Goin' Home"; this is the demo version.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Nothing/Nothing Paradox: The Hollies: "The Air That I Breathe"

It is a delicate thing, what this song talks about; it talks about a certain moment, a moment of fulfillment and privacy; something ordinarily not something to discuss or even sing about, but this did not stop Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood from baring their souls, so to speak.  This song was originally done by Hammond on his album from '72, and then by Phil Everly on his the next year, and since the Hollies were Everly Brothers fans they came across it and decided to record it themselves.  This is as much as I can figure; the Hollies needed a hit, and Allan Clarke was back in the band and able to handle the soaring chorus. 

But as usual, I have to wonder, what is this song about?  I mean, it's obviously about post-coital bliss, but what that is borders on non-existence.  "No light, no sound, nothing to eat, no books to read*" - if he could make a wish, it would to be in this state of non-wanting, to get away from the physical world altogether.  His body is weak; his mind is at rest.  He wants for nothing but to breathe, to be separate but together (he, rather bossily, tells his Other to sleep, but what if she feels the same way - pleasantly weak and wanting nothing more)?

To bring something so common but, well, intimate to a song is tricky, as it requires a noble forthrightness and honesty, which can seem a bit cloying or cheesy, and I can't say that the Hollies avoid that altogether - it has always struck me as ironic that songs that are about being happy and quiet and contented can be so, well, loud - and this does also have the hapless early 70s stigma of the whole Love Is... cartoon thing about it, as well.  Open, honest, sensitive - I can't help but applaud Albert and Mike for this, for mentioning this moment and its glory - a glory that the production makes into a kind of king-for-a-day moment, an escape from the turmoil-of-1974. 

The 70s were a time when people shared thoughts and feelings with each other, maybe overshared - though there is the inverse of the tough man who says nothing but nevertheless has feelings, dammit, and this song speaks to him, there in his privacy, reaffirming that what he feels is worth a song, a one of dips and gliding arches, rising and falling like a bird in flight.  It's not a sexy song, per se, but of peace, of stillness, of a soul at rest.  Which is nice, but...and I know I can't be the only one of my Gen X crowd who felt a little uneasy hearing this as a kid...what is this song really about?  Nothing, in essence - a falling away - a lack of self, which in Boomer logic means it must be given a big production.       

The legacy of this song is a little strange - it's kind of a mall-psychedelic-mellow-out-man song muscially; all about the ultimate moment of forgetfulness and detachment, save from the Other.  And yet there it is, reworked a bit as "Creep" by Radiohead (how many heard this song and were influenced by it?  Come on down, Richard "HEEEEEEyyyyyyyAAAAAAAAHHHHHEEEEEEYYYYYYYYYY" Ashcroft) which is the ultimate song about someone who most certainly isn't at peace, doesn't fit in, has a want and wants to be special, noticed, loved - but nope, no luck, he doesn't belong "here" - where he does belong, he's not sure, but it's not with the Others he encounters, hates and yet longs to be.  (I wonder if these Others are the posh kids going to Oxford, cool scenesters, or what.)  Radiohead were sued and gave credit where it was due for taking this song and making it their own, an angry, implacable jab at a world full of mindless bliss, oblivious to anything and anyone else.  And "Creep" has more resonance now than this song - as everyone wants to feel special, more than they want some near-death lack of want.  Or at least that's how it looks to me, these days. 

Next up:  a man who's lost without his love.

*I can't imagine another song like this that mentions books, if there are any other songs about this specific situation.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Met A Man Who Wasn't There: Lulu: "The Man Who Sold The World"

Or, the power of Bowie in the age of crisis.  Lulu attended one of Bowie's concerts, he invited her backstage and said he wanted to do a single with her; and so this happened (b-side is "Watch That Man").  Lulu had been through a lot by this time, including her Eurovision hit (a number two, as you'll recall) and an early and rather poignant marriage to Maurice Gibb, which was over by the time this was released.  So she is at something of a loose end - she has by this time also gone and done an album at the new studio Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, New Routes (following dutifully in the footsteps of La Springfield) and another called Melody Fair -  in Europe she was more or less a hit more in Germany than in the UK, where she was the pantomime star in Peter Pan.  Neither of her albums charted, but I can imagine Bowie wishing she would do something a bit more modern, and since at this time Bowie was the thing (Lulu thought he was "ubercool" herself), a cover version was obvious.

But this song?  Nothing about it is obvious.  Lulu herself didn't understand it but sang it anyway with a kind of toughness and raw quality that acts as a natural bridge between Bowie's version and the justifiably definitive one by Nirvana.  In this version, she is staring, masculine, unamused; this creep on the stair is making her nervous, sure, but her "gazely stare" is expectant, defiant, even.  The man (and she is dressed as a man) has sold the world, she laughs and shakes his hand, but then roams...someone died, didn't they?  Did millions die?  Death is part of life, and yet here death seems to become this man, somehow.  Or is this a kind of death-in-life?  "We never lost control" the song says, not ever saying who "we" are.  Lulu's controlled voice brings the song to life in a way that makes it sound as if the man really did sell the world, and now she is looking in the mirror somehow and seeing herself in that figure on the stair; as if a hidden part of herself has confronted her, and her assertions of control are all she has against this uncanny double.

 We die, we live, and yet do we know who we are?  Lulu's flat "Who knows?  Not me" are a solid wall here, and Bowie's saxophone lends it a kind of creepiness that makes this slightly reggaefied cover unnerving, which is presumably what Bowie wanted.  The pauses and echoes of the original are gone, all is centered on Lulu's voice - and does it alter the song, hearing a woman sing it?  Is this a woman meeting her male self, her repressed side?  Or is The Man here really The Man, content to let you think he's your friend, even though you've never really met him before?  There are puzzles within puzzles here, but Lulu was smart enough to let the song stand for itself, and it was a #2 hit on the Radio Luxembourg chart, where the loucheness of the song altogether was indeed welcome and modern.

Lulu is still an underrated singer and it would be most welcome if she could record a new album a la Petula Clark's Lost In You*; from what I could tell from the Commonwealth Games, she is still full of the genial toughness and eagerness to break new ground, even if all they wanted was her to sing "Shout" one more time.

Next up:  the (partial) invention of Radiohead. 

*It would be almost asking her too much to do this, wouldn't it?  And yet, I think it could work....