Showing posts with label marriage vows. Show all posts
Showing posts with label marriage vows. Show all posts

Monday, March 26, 2012

Time To Say Goodbye: Peter, Paul & Mary: "Leavin' On A Jet Plane"

And so we step from swirling drama to plainspoken fact. The 70s are almost upon us and it is time to leave; even if we enjoyed it, it is over and the future is coldly blank, empty, as empty as a departure lounge once a plane has left; as empty as a life feels without that other person to share it.

What genre of music has been there, lurking in the background, the whole decade, ready to step up for this moment of separation and brave steps into the unknown? Why, folk of course.

And what is folk? That is something I have been pondering, and it’s a tougher question than I expected. It’s far easier to say what it isn’t; it’s not multiple costume changes, strobe lights and elaborate sets; it’s not a category on The X Factor/American Idol; it’s not exactly enamored of show business.

Folk music is of the people, for the people and by the people, hence its name. It celebrates and laments ordinary life, life as lived by the person(s) singing it, whether the story being told is personal , historical or observational. The great songwriting teams dutifully pounding away through the 60s at Motown, the Brill Building or elsewhere had not much to do with folk, though they certainly observed it – all the social struggles of the 60s had a voice in folk, indeed folk led the way (I am counting Bob Dylan as folk, for all intents and purposes here). The early 60s folkies got into rock simply as a way to (literally) amplify their message, and once that had been accomplished, reverted back to their folk/roots/country sounds by the end of the decade. Others just kept strumming and didn’t go rock at all, as it simply wasn’t for them; by far the most famous was Peter, Paul & Mary, who had a lovely hit (amongst many) with their self-deprecating “I Dig Rock And Roll Music” which wasn’t rock at all.

This song was recorded in 1967 (written in 1966 at the airport in Toronto by one John Denver*) and released in 1969, perhaps as a fond farewell of sorts to the decade; no doubt they had been performing it - both Peter, Paul & Mary and The Chad Mitchell Trio (Denver standing in for Mitchell). The song is direct and simple in its way, Mary taking the lead and giving the story - she's sad, she wants forgiveness and unity, but has to go, against her will. Anyone who has had to leave someone at an airport - Toronto or otherwise - will know the sad acceptance here, the longing, the necessary is a hushed song, an uneasy one, but Peter, Paul & Mary had been around since 1961; before the psychedelic paisley freak-outs, before the go-go boots and paper dresses, before the British Invasion, even. They were the ones who helped to make Bob Dylan famous, and they are here to help say farewell to the decade (this was a #1 in the US, sitting neatly between two other songs of promised reunions, "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye**" and "Someday We'll Be Together"). After the agonies of "Ruby" and "Suspicious Minds" - country and rock - comes the actual departure with folk.

All music is folk music as Lester Bangs says, but I've always thought of it as music that is open, direct, perhaps a bit mysterious and poetical at times, but more than anything, immediate and public, earnest and funny at turns. Folk was there to wake people up, protest, empower, encourage and console; it was only right, at the end of a troubled decade, for it to come back and acknowledge the loneliness and longing at the end, when there was no choice (the 70s being that taxi honking its horn) but to leave. The future is calling, the past is gone, perhaps to be resolved in the future. But for now, a kiss and hug, quiet words, and then distance, the plane taking off into nothingness.

Whether people wanted it to end or not, the 60s were gone, but as we will see, that doesn't mean they will be forgotten; far from it. 1967 in particular haunts and reminds, popping up and flashing back when least expected. One time cannot help but grow and progress from the seeds of another, and folk continues on, true to itself, even if it's not getting into the charts as it once did***. What is left? For many, it's the only option left: the blues. Boogie is up next, but it's boogie with a purpose.

* I can only wonder if he had heard Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" and wanted to write something like it.

** A personal aside: I always find myself crying at the end of this, even though it's not a sad song, really. The fact that it's sung by fans at the end of games kind of makes it a folk song, in that people are singing it for their own purpose (as opposed to team songs, which are kind of like unofficial anthems).

*** That said, Bruce Springsteen's latest album Wrecking Ball is most certainly folk; as he first was an aspiring folk singer himself back in the mid-60s, this is no surprise.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Happiness Is Not At Home: The Tremeloes: "Call Me (Number One)"

We are now at the end; as the 60s become the 70s things are starting to unravel, new threads are opening up for the next decade. If the most of the 60s is dominated by The Beatles - who by this time only really exist in name - then this is but a small fragment of what they were taken to stand for at this time, just as psychedelia flourished when they released "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever."

The Beatles play on the roof of the Apple building in early '69, as if to prove they still exist*, and here we have the Tremeloes playing in Trafalgar Square, mostly to tourists and a few passers-by and local office workers. Hey! they seem to be saying with their long hair, beards and plain clothing, we are hip to the whole back to the basics thing now, we wrote this song and everything! And there is a stomp-stomp simplicity to this that makes this a product of a near Venn diagram intersection of proto-stompy rock, European appeal (they stayed popular in Europe long after having lost favor in the UK) and bubblegum catchiness. The song is all about wanting to be on the road, despite knowing that she is miserable at home (rain, as ever, is shorthand for misery here) and wanting to bring her out with him on the road, where he is happy and presumably the sun always shines. They will be happy and she will be happier with him than without him.

Whether this reflected the lives of the band members I don't know, but the tug-of-war lyrically reflects that late 60s/early 70s trope of home vs. the road, with some resolving to make the road their home, only to find they then really have no home. (The rather uneasy can of worms here is what bands get up to when they are on the road, which I will get to in the fullness of time.) The sing-a-long (lead by Dave Munden, on drums) is cheery and a bit laddish and it sounds to me as if sure, they miss their wives/girlfriends, wouldn't it be cool to bring them along, but can you imagine the reaction any of these women would have to the idea? Why can't they call their guy number one as it is?

I almost feel as if I am making too much of a simple song, but there is a tension here that Alan Blakely and Chip Hawkes have revealed about musicians' lives once they have families and obligations, and that is that the gang comes first. Maybe a romance is being rekindled here, but why is he afraid to go home? And if she is miserable there, can't he go home and fix it there? Nope; he's on the road, and if she wants him, she can just go and meet up with him there, at the hotel/inn/motel wherever the band is staying. Can she do this happily? Will she enjoy being on the road? Hmmm...

This is a jaunty song that has many awkward sides to it, revealing just how little has changed in the 60s; how profoundly masculine the music business was (and, some might say, still is), for instance...and the video shows how straight-laced the public was in general, compared to the band, who look almost immediately suspect, as if they have been photoshopped in at a later time**.

The 70s, whether we like it or not, are upon us; next up is a goodbye to what once was, as the pastels turn to hues and people try to grapple with the new realities once more. That it's sung by someone who will be huge in the 70s makes it all the more complicated...

*Nearly two decades later U2 do the same sort of thing, also to prove they are 'real'; "Call Me (Number One)" is at #2 behind a completely unreal group, The Archies, which leads me to wonder who the Archies of 1988 were.

**They look, quite frankly, like they could be extras for this classic video.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Two Are Better Than One: Val Doonican: "What Would I Be"

"I don't ponder because I don't even see the world without it. It's too big, or buried too deep, with edges that thin out to nothingness, binding itself to everything else."

Julie Powell, Cleaving

Suddenly we are out of the club and have ended up in one of the country variety, or perhaps in a waiting room somewhere. This may be called "easy listening" by some, but any song which has "angry voices raised in vain" and "unspoken thoughts we both regret" could only be called easy by someone who is going through a very tough patch indeed. Jackie Trent wrote this song and while I can't say if it was autobiographical or not (I hope not - she was falling in love with Tony Hatch at this time) it has the ring of authenticity. It is as if the man in the Manfred Mann song is speaking up - the other one - and describing what marriage is really like. There may be irritating things but they are far outweighed by the irresistible ones, the ones that make despair or dismay evaporate, the ones that make thinking of life without the Other impossible. What would he be, he wonders - and he will never know. It is one of those unknowable things, unthinkable, because it is literally beyond the bounds of perception. This is what Powell is saying here, and Doonican as well - that the minor troubles they go through are in reality nothing compared to the much bigger alternative. Adolescents and young folks may sulk after a fight or a bad day, but adults know that there will always be the rough with the smooth and that the balance between the two is what counts; a relationship that lasts takes this well into account and even, so to speak, banks on it. It is a mature song, realistic, perhaps a little sad (Doonican always sounds a bit sad to me, but perhaps that's his Irish accent).

Marriage is a complex thing that requires a lot of attention and care (I am presuming this is a song about marriage, though it could stand for any long-term relationship) and it has always been a fringe subject in pop, since so much music is about crushes, flirting, searching, maybe finding, being dumped, etc. There are songs that celebrate weddings, too, but beyond that, it's up to "easy listening" crooners and the odd star like Kurt Cobain or Biggie Smalls to sing about marriage, as if it was a fringe state and something that happens every day. I am aware that "easy listening" is almost presupposed to be for those who are married, older, who don't go to clubs but don't want to listen to their parents' music all day, either. There is a substantial bloc of listeners in the 60s who like this kind of music and they don't have any interest in pop music unless it speaks to them: and this is exactly what does.

Val Doonican himself was an colorful-sweater and rocking chair-friendly Irish singing star who had his own television show, where he had a regular cast and many guest stars, including American singer-songwriters such as Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne and Laura Nyro, whose first album comes out around this time...and actually born around this time is Sinead O'Connor, who grew up with Val Doonican records and learned to sing "Scarlet Ribbons" - Doonican himself admires her version.

Yes, we are far from the sweaty club, and by the time we get back, things will be far more complex than they were before.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Man and Wife: Manfred Mann: "Semi-Detached Suburban Mr. James"

And so the 60s sit, perched, as it seems from here, to break into two not-so-clean pieces - the one that, raunchy as it is, still wears matching suits (as we have seen) and the more rebellious types who wear whatever they want and have more ambivalent feelings about what 'normal' people do. This song stands clearly on that side, the one that asks, effectively (decades before Lloyd Cole) "Are you ready to be heartbroken?" Not in the dumped way, but in the way that cozy security and regular routines can fetter those free spirits who aren't quite ready for domesticity. Is the woman here, newly engaged, able to see her future? Does she know what awaits her, out there in the new town? There are two possible answers: yes, and no. This song wouldn't have much point if it's the first answer, because then the Manfreds would be patronizing, right?

Or maybe...not. Even those with something of a clue of what is ahead cannot see everything which is to come; but the subtleties of that are more for the introspective 70s, not now. Clearly this is about a girl who is about to see her life change and probably not for the better. "Semi-detached" refers to a kind of house, but you can imagine Mr. James is a lawyer or physician or someone who works in The City and will not have much time for his Gidget-type girl, who will become - so the singer believes - something of a bored drudge, listening to pirate radio* (maybe) to keep whatever is still vital and sparkling from being smothered completely. The 60s were the 60s, but there was still an expectation that women - no matter how wildly they danced or how short their skirts or radical their views - would eventually settle down (both connotations apply here). Is the girl in this jaunty song ready to do this? Can she do it without becoming depressed, numb or just bored? Manfred Mann don't think so, and the next year will see them proved right.

The chart at this time is ablaze with many emotions, from joy to loneliness, desperation to liberation; whimsy, even. That better-have-a-drink-before-I-sing-this schlock was in the mix was fine, too; but the divide is about to become greater as the year comes to a close, though the swinging 60s aren't going to disappear once the church bells start ringing. Those who want to conform and be "square" and those who marry into that life will sit and be - annoyed, bemused or baffled - by those who refuse to join in. Now seems like the last time the two sides will even talk to each other, let alone contemplate marriage.

*Pirate stations only employed men as they were supposed to be substitutes for husbands for any wives listening. I may have mentioned this before, but I still think it's worth noting.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

We Two Are One: Peter and Gordon: "True Love Ways"

Another facet of the British Invasion - quite apart from the groups only pirate radio could fully embrace, such as Them or The Kinks - were nice earnest young men with longish hair who made dreamy music with sometimes extreme lyrics. (The lyrics to "A World Without Love" are sung sweetly, but there is menace in them, too.) Peter* and Gordon met at Westminster School** and found they sounded pretty good together; there was more luck in that Peter's sister Jane was going out with...Paul McCartney, who in turn gave the duo a few songs that he felt would suit them. Whether McCartney suggested they record this Buddy Holly song I don't know; it could be they were Holly fans already, and so needed no urging.

The original was a song Holly wrote for his wife as a wedding gift; their relationship was a brief but intense one (he asked her to marry him on their first date). It was recorded two months later, just months again before he died. The figure of Holly hangs heavy over music in the Sixties, sparkling and twangling in a pure way that marks it out as something to strive for, and a modest hand always works best in this endeavor. Peter and Gordon don't have a saxophone or harp on hand - the extra decorative touches of the Fifties are discarded - it's the more standard piano and drums, with some strings to keep the sweetness of the original. It is a poignant song - even without knowing Holly's fate - and a reminder as to how important and popular Holly was, years after his death. The possible mush of the song is undercut by Peter and Gordon's voices, Gordon's slight Scots accent coming through to give gravity to what could have been, in other hands, something bland or dull. I can imagine this being a last dance song, the sort of song that gets dedicated to others on the radio - a fine antidote to the new-barriers-being-broken-every-day hustle of Sixties pop.

This is the part of the British Invasion that tends to be forgotten - the side that didn't hit people upside the head, but rather ruled the heart and made people want to make music in the first place - for the beauty of the thing. Next there is another duo who no doubt inspired Peter and Gordon to begin with, as '65 goes ever-so-slightly backwards.

*Once Peter and Gordon ended Peter Asher went on to produce Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor; Linda had a hit with "You're No Good" which was written by the same man who wrote "Game of Love." It is a small world.

**You might be surprised at the number of musicians who went there; everyone from Thomas Dolby to Mika, Shane McGowan to Dido.