Thursday, August 27, 2009

Coax Me: Elvis Presley: "Don't"

Unlike the riotous previous song, this one is so quiet that at times the singer can only just be heard. It is a lullaby of persuasion, the girl being cajoled out of saying "don't" when he wants to kiss her (clearly there is no making of eyes here). She resists and says (we don't hear her, but it's implied) that he's not serious - he replies very quietly that "I ain't playin'." He is hers, put bluntly, and always will be, and it's cold and he needs to embrace and kiss her. The music gently rises and falls, swerving this way and that just as arms can bend and hold another; the Jordanaires aid and abet their leader admirably (even singing the title in three/four part harmony at one point). This is a tender song with just the right amount of longing and urgency, the girl and boy are together (where? anywhere, really) and with such "awfully nice" talk you might wonder why the girl is resisting at all - it's not like this is Pat Boone singing "Don't Forbid Me" after all (we will get back to him soon enough). This is Elvis with that fine subtlety in his voice, as fine and sure as Cupid's arrow itself; "on a night like this" sounds like a simple phrase, but he makes it sound as if there could be no other night, that time itself has ground to a halt and won't continue until she lets him hold and kiss her. Maybe she's afraid of what might happen after that? But the lulling warmth of the song makes it clear that that is all the singer wants, warmth on a cold night - a cozy moment. What may or may not happen after that is up to both of them.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Glad Eye: Johnny Otis and His Orchestra with Marie Adams: "Ma He's Making Eyes At Me"

When it comes to the senses in lyrics, the eyes have it: though hearing and touching are there too, the ability to see far outstrips them and for good reason; it is the first sense to register another person, the Other, and the one that can be responded to most directly. (That said, if you don't like how the Other smells on a regular basis, I would suggest you find another; chemistry has a lot to say about love via the nostrils.)

When a man looks at a woman in a song and falls for her instantly, that song (if it is good, that is) has a swooping, sweeping quality to it, the singer stunned and amazed and perhaps a bit in disbelief - but mainly there is a gratifying intensity to the whole thing, an OMG this is big and my whole life has changed and even if I try to deny it, it won't go away-ness that leads to...well, whatever comes next. Does the Other even know she is the object? Certainly by the end of the song she does, as his delirious love declaration cannot be ignored - not if he is sincere and eloquent enough. (Recent UK #1 "Number One" by Tinchy Stryder & N-Dubz is a fine example of this kind of song.)

But love isn't just words but gestures - and it starts with the eyes.

"Mama!" the singer cries out, "he's making EYES at me!!" This is responded to (yes) by a bunch of screaming girls - this is the first live #2, after all - and the singer (Marie Adams) goes on to sing such deathless lines as "Mercy! Let his conscience guide him!" and "Ma I'm meeting with resistance/I shall holler for assistance/Ma, he's kissing me!"

Now, no girl in the history of the universe ever actually says such things; they are thought. So what's here? Besides a riotous good time with your standard doo wop provided by the Johnny Otis, there's nothing less than the female interior becoming the near-screamed female experience, shared with lots of young women who are shrieking in recognition and response (though maybe some in the Orchestra are making eyes at them?) No wonder there's a call-and-response from the audience to Ms. Adams; no wonder a song that makes the implicit explicit got to #2 and stayed in the charts for a good while, only stopped by such luminaries as Harry Belafonte, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis from getting to the top spot. I can well imagine those who disapproved of the Everly Brothers' hit tut-tutting this as well; the freedom for a girl to scream in public with joy is rare indeed, and having what they feel being said aloud must have been liberating in a time when girls were not supposed to express themselves in such an explosive way. Screaming girls, I salute you - this song from 1921 has just been launched into the atomic age and thing are, as I said before, accelerating far faster than any censor could imagine.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Waking To A New World: The Everly Brothers: "Wake Up Little Susie"

Well no kidding your reputation is shot. Again? Again? Last thing you knew you were celebrating finally finishing your exams after weeks of late-night studying and worry, sweating your brains out as the phrase goes, gritting your teeth against the clock - and now here it is, four in the morning and yes it's with him again, you really like him but on the other hand you wish you could be stronger and get away. But when, how? He is a bit of a goof and you'll be grounded and maybe he will too...perhaps this is a good thing in a way?

All this is being thought as she yawns in the now-paling darkness under a very late moon like a slice of cantaloupe. She's not going to make herself look better because there is no reason - it's Saturday morning and she just hopes no one is at home waiting up, though when she gets there sure enough Mom is sleeping in her chair in the kitchen, Dad's in bed. How can they explain themselves to anyone? Sure the milkshake and extra fries at the drive-in were maybe a mistake, but they were hungry at the time. And usually she likes movies like those - because her favorite actor is in them - but yes this one was boring and she needed sleep...and so did he, the lunk. In a year she will get out of state to that college where she can take courses and be...well something more than a waitress, which is what she is now. He will inherit his dad's sporting goods store for sure in a decade or so; he's not going anywhere.

The Everly Brothers took their time waiting for a song after "Bye Bye Love" and this was their choice - composed in a car by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (hmm) and probably learned on the spot, their marmalade-sharp voices cajole and seem bemused at their plight more than anything else; but there is still the knowledge that there will be consequences for their hapless snooze beyond what should be allowed. This is the 50s; reputation and appearances count for all, small-town American morality still being the norm, even in bigger cities (it was banned in Boston - ah, God love you, Boston). We are back in Appalachia here, probably not far from Johnny Duncan - there's that same fearless grin in their voices - but unlike Duncan we will be hearing from the brothers again, as they teach (inadvertently) many young men how to harmonize in a new way, not to mention get *that* into a song with good cheer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whoops, I've Fallen Into The Pool: Jim Dale: "Be My Girl"

And now we come to a bellwether, a notable moment, a stopping place: this is the first #2 of the rock 'n' roll/pop era by someone from the UK. And how...appropriate that it be almost a perfect template of its time (semi-yelping big-eyed-puppy longing) and a past-is-prologue to everything that is to come. The high-pitched tinkly piano comes from Winifred Atwell and is still alive with Lily Allen; the backing singers are a little too polished to be the Jordanaires and thus may as well be the Mike Sammes Singers, minus the girls. The whole thing has the air of being well-rehearsed and yet just casually put together in that adorable slackerly way most (not all!) UK musicians have. Dale was going to be a pop idol but then found out that "his entry into the UK singles chart came about more by accident than design, for his ability to fall over without sustaining injury far outweighed his vocal skills" - and so the first time I ever saw him (looking like Davy Jones' uncle) was in Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World and not in a record collection of any of my friends' moms. Music turning to comedy; comedy informing and enriching music; this is the unlikely yet inevitable precursor to just about everything to come, either directly or inadvertently. (That he is the straight, loyal guy to the butterfly-like girl in the song only underlines all this, in case you were wondering about the narrative details, as such.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Shake N Bake: Elvis Presley: "Party"

While it's not really in fashion anymore, bibliomancy used to be the thing when you were stumped for an answer to a question - just pick up a sacred book, open it (eyes closed) and put your finger where you like and open your eyes and read your answer (and then decipher it, of course). If there was a book of Elvis lyrics (certainly would qualify as a sacred tome to some), what would you make of this?

"I've never kissed a bear
I've never kissed a goon
But I can shake a chicken
In the middle of the room"

Sung with utterly amazing oomph and conviction by Elvis and the Jordanaires, "Party" is eighty-six seconds of get-up-and-go IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII'M COMING UP SO LET'S GET THIS PARTY STARRRRTTED energy which makes having a party sound like the ideal way of living; and when you run out of something, you just go to the store and get some more. What philosopher could argue with these words?

"Some people like to rock
Some people like to roll
But movin' and a groovin'
Gonna satisfy my soul"

None, if they're smart about it. (If anything, those lyrics remind me of the immortal US tv ad for Almond Joy/Mounds candy bars - "Sometimes you feel like a nut/Sometimes, you don't.") As we round the corner ('57 is almost done) rock 'n' roll is most definitely here to stay, shaking chickens and grooving and maybe stopping to eat the hot bread and meat in the kitchen before too long. Satisfying indeed.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Love As Force of Nature: Debbie Reynolds: "Tammy"

The day was sunny and quiet; it was early afternoon. I was almost home after yet another trip to the library to report that the mail he had sent weeks ago still hadn't arrived. We were both anxious, as there was not just a letter involved, but mix tapes as well.

As I walked down the crescent, just before the turn of the curve, I saw a bird, a robin I think. He was sitting on a branch, calling out and very obviously listening to see if there were any responses. Birds do this a lot in the course of their lives, but I was almost at eye level with the robin and could see its singular concentration...I got home, saw an odd parcel was stuffed in the mailbox; I let out a happy cry that bounced and echoed into the still air. HERE!

Could the bird have understood my joy? I don't know; the gratifications of a bird's life don't include transatlantic mail, the internet or music. And yet birds travel long distances, sing (certainly robins have a lot of variations in their standard 'song') and they court too. The robin is the bird of spring and hope; there is something uniquely determined about them (not to mention, loud).

In "Tammy" the narrator is in nature; the whippoorwill and breezes alike somehow know she is in love and say to her "Tammy, Tammy, Tammy's in love." The cold rational mind will scoff at this of course, but anyone who has fallen in love will know what she means. Suddenly, everything becomes significant - trees, birds, the wind, all of nature seems to comprehend and understand. It is a self-centered thing to hear your name, of course; but it could well be thast the narrator's falling in love is the first really important thing she has ever experienced; and it could be (even) that it is not something she expected to experience. (She lives on a Mississippi houseboat and is seventeen; I rest my case.) Her own wonderment and dazed happiness are in part because she is in love and also because she is, well, different. That her Other seems to be the only person who doesn't know she's in love with him doesn't bother her (as it would bother, say, a girl group); the song isn't about them, it's about her. It is, for all its calling out to nature, ultimately about the experience of being in love and knowing you are in love - existing and observing yourself, in short. (It's far more A Lover's Discourse than The Art of Love, for instance.)

The movie this song is from is called Tammy and the Bachelor which pretty much guarantees that there will be obstacles and they will be overcome; a young Leslie Nielsen plays the bachelor in question - the first Canadian involved with this blog but certainly not the last (Nielsen's later efforts may make this movie seem even more...funny now; it is too bad he and Reynolds haven't got back together for a comedy).

There is another odd strand out of this song that I cannot ignore - coming out of the phrase 'easy listening.' This term was coined around the time of this song (I have a hunch about this). And of course it describes "Tammy" perfectly - easy listening means sweet-stringed songs of love with gentle balladic highs and lows, songs with stars in their eyes, romantic songs in short that have nothing to do with the brash, vulgar and overtly sexual world of rock 'n' roll. These two genres existed side-by-side all through the late 50s and 60s on the charts and then began to merge in all sorts of ways, the most common being the 'easy rock' radio station (there's one in Toronto called EZ-Rock) aka 'adult contemporary' format. It is exactly what you hear in dentists' offices and such the world over. If it's balladic or mid-tempo or briskly cheery, you will hear it; but at the outer edge of this sits a man who was a young protege of Debbie Reynolds' husband, Eddie Fisher. (Not too long after "Tammy" was a hit, Elizabeth Taylor and Fisher had an affair and got married; it was the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie story of the day.) The protege's name: Noel Scott Engel. Yes, that's right - the young Scott Walker lurks at the back of this song, then tentatively makes his way to Los Angeles and thence to London, singing covers at first and then writing his own songs and indeed hosting his own show, just as Fisher introduced young Mr. Engel on his own.

By now, Walker has turned 'easy listening' on its head and then some; I like to think that he picked something up from "Tammy" - its patience and slowness, its odd sense of the person in nature being seen and private, known and unknown. It is a song with more to it than first meets the ear, a dimension where the self and nature become one, just as the bird sits and sings and then flies away.