Wednesday, April 05, 2006

All these people that you mention

Okay, to be honest, I'd planned to make that post two days ago the last in the Rock series. Except that then I realised that technically, technically, I'd only put up six posts in the series. And while I could always use the "On the seventh day He rested" argument, it felt like a seventh post was due. Plus looking back over the six posts I went into panic thinking of all the great songs that I'd missed out on [1].

So here's what I decided to do. I went through my iTunes, pulled out all the songs that I love but haven't mentioned so far and put them in a playlist. Then I sat down to write a post about them. No connection, no theme, just songs that at some point or the other have captivated me, songs that remain a part of the essential soundtrack of my life [2]:

1. Leonard Cohen: Suzanne

The first time I heard Suzanne it was on a tape of Joan Baez [3] songs that I'd inherited from someone. I was 14. It wasn't long before the tape broke / warped / generally became unplayable (as tapes are wont to do) and for the next ten years I didn't own a copy of Suzanne, never heard it even once. And yet the song stayed with me, the memory of it clear in my head, its visionary poetry hardwired into my head, so that the first time I read Plath's 'Full Fathom Five' (or, for that matter, the first time I read John:21) I found myself humming it, and even now it's hard for me to read a poem / book about sailing without "all men shall be sailors then / Until the sea shall free them" popping into my head.

2. Radiohead: Creep

Before I turned into an insufferable classical snob (and for a while afterwards), Creep was a secret anthem of mine. Secret because it was also the anthem of every other red-blooded teenage male in high school. How could you not love a song that expressed so well that sense of tortured alienation, that feeling of existing in a state of grace you didn't deserve. We knew instinctively, even then, that we weren't going to be gifted or lucky or goodlooking. That nobody was going give us special treatment, that women weren't going to like us, that even if, by some fluke, things started going well for us, we'd succeed in f***ing them up for ourselves. And Radiohead knew that with us. There's something about the sound of this song, one half of it sad and resigned, the other crying out in anguish (the way the guitar sputters once, twice, before it explodes) that makes it one of my favourite songs to be depressed to. Even today.

P.S. Not to be missed: this wonderful animated version of the song (hat tip: heh heh)

3. Chuck Berry: Johnny B Goode

I'd have a soft spot for Chuck Berry ever since I discovered that some of my favourite Beatles songs were originally Chuck Berry compositions. The way I see it, if Lennon and McCartney are picking your songs to do covers of, you've got to be pretty incredible. Johnny B Goode is one of those ubiquitous rock songs that you can't help but fall in love with. No matter how rock evolves in the years to come, you know that someone, somewhere will be "playing Johnny B Goode tonight."

4. The Cranberries: Dreams

There's something about the momentum of Dreams that is entirely addictive. Something about its rhythm that simply drives you, propels you. It's a quality that's common to much of the Cranberries music (I'm a huge fan, btw - in case you haven't figured that out yet) but Dreams was the first of their songs I ever heard and it simply took my breath away. Of course, that haunting, lilting, aria-like solo at the end probably has a lot to do with the way I feel about the song, but all in all, I've always thought of Dreams as the kind of song that you just let yourself fall into, the kind of song that just carries you along with it. Kind of like a dream.

5. David Bowie: Space Oddity

Every now and then, you'll come across a rock song that is as good as a movie. That packs in enough plot development, creates enough images in your head, to make the experience of listening to it positively cinematic. The best example of a song like that I can think of is Dylan's Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, but Bowie's Space Oddity is a pretty close second (It would be first, except I'm suspicous of how much of it's cinematic quality comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey). I love the flat, mechanical starting, the incredible sense of distance created by that first "Ground Control to Major Tom", the way the music then rises and rises, lifting into a stratosphere of sound ("the stars look very different TODAAAAAYYY"), the alteration of the cold metallic voice of Ground Control with Major Tom's more plainitive human tone, and the incredible poignancy of that final "Can you hear me Major Tom?".

6. Grateful Dead: Ripple

I'm not in general a huge Grateful Dead fan. There's a lot of their music that I like, but I've always had the sneaky suspicion that to truly appreciate the Dead you had to be there. The first time I heard American Beauty though, I spent two whole days listening to nothing but Ripple, falling in love with its exquisite gentleness, the way the music so vividly mimics the sensation of the slightest of tremors moving across the water's skin. "If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine / And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung". Exactly.

7. Janis Joplin: Me and My Bobby McGee

"Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." There's something prophetic and visionary in Joplin's Me and My Bobby McGee. Something that transcends the glorious epiphany of that voice, the purity of that moment where Janis starts from a simple ta-da-da-dada-da and lifts the song into pure frenzy. Something that reminds me of Kerouac, of Burroughs. I've always had the greatest admiration for Joplin's voice, but I can't help feeling that a lot of the time her music doesn't match up [4]. Here, though, it's all exactly right and you can HEAR the difference. Listening to Janis sing "Nothing, that's all that Bobby left me" while you're driving to the airport to spend another week or month or year away from home can leave you in tears. And that's good enough for me.

8. Dire Straits: Romeo and Juliet

The thing about Mark Knopfler is - you listen to the first line of his songs, and you know you're hooked. The first time I heard Romeo and Juliet was driving to college in a friend's car, and the minute Knopfler was done singing that bit in the first line about streets of serenade I knew this was a song I was going to spend a LOT of time listening to.

What I love about Romeo and Juliet is the way it gets the balance between humour and passion just right, counterpointing all that "You can fall for chains of silver / You can fall for chains of gold" stuff with "Romeo, ya, you know I used to have a scene with him". It's the way Knopfler and co manage to actually pull of the bathos that amazes me (in general, when it comes to Shakespeare I'm something of a purist - which makes it only more incredible that I don't outright want to murder them for writing the song). You would have to be deaf not to be charmed by this song - by its snappy rhythm, by the sheer fluidity of its wordplay, by the way the guitar comes rippling in to fill the silence after that last "Juliieeet" in the chorus.

9. Metallica: Nothing Else Matters

From the lighthearted to the obsessively dark. It's hard for me to pick a favourite Metallica song. Their music remains a revelation to me - it's unbelievable to me that anything can combine so effortlessly the sense of darkness gathering, of menace lurking in the shadows, with an almost crystalline purity of song. I used to be one of those people who thought Metal was just about noise. Metallica taught me that the opposite is true - it's about finding something real, something you can hold on to, in all that noise. Metallica's music is like the gleam of a metal chain catching the starlight on a moonless night, like the diffused glow of the moon lighting up the bleakness of a cloudbank. It's about finding beauty in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of depression. It's about beauty. And nothing else matters.

10. The Who: Baba O Riley

We all know how it starts. The tinny sound of the synthesisers beating out their little fugue. Then the guitar breaks in with its familiar tum-tumtum rhythm. Then the drums explode. And before you know it you're in the middle of a full-fledged rock song. Except the synths are still there, still rippling away in endless variation, like a tripping teenager off by himself in the middle of a really loud party. And then, just when you think you've got the song figured out, there's the shout of "They're all wasted" and suddenly it's a completely different song, one that builds into endless momentum, achieving at its peak, the kind of lyrical intensity you never expect to hear outside of L Subramaniam concerts. The last minute and half of Baba O Riley must be among the most ecstatic episodes in popular music (outside of every single Shakti album, of course). Incredible stuff.

11. Counting Crows: Round Here

"Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the difference of white on white". You hear a line like that, and you just know you're listening to Counting Crows. The thing with Counting Crows is, most of the time I have no idea what they're talking about (and I'm not sure they do either) but it's amazing how individual lines in their songs manage to sound just right, manage to connect. ("I dream I never know anyone at the part and I'm always the host"). Round Here just happens to be the song that does that more often than the others (though I was tempted to give the honour to A Long December instead). How can you not love a song about people who "roar just like lions / but are sacrificed just like lambs" a song whose most triumphant vision of adulthood is of a place where "we're never sent to bed early / nobody makes us wait / round here we stay up very very very very late"

12. Kula Shaker: Govinda

A morning scene. The cry of peacocks, the chirping of birds. A distinctly South Asian voice singing. A tabla. And lyrics that go: "Govinda jai jai / Gopala jai jai / Radha ramana hari / Govinda jai jai". Wait, this is a rock song?

It is. The first time I heard Kula Shaker singing Govinda, I almost fell over laughing. Then I discovered - to my horror - that the song simply wouldn't get out of my head. I found myself singing it under my breath, causing people to wonder if I were going through some sort of mystic religious experience. Just to explain to them (and myself) what the appeal of the song was, I had to listen to it again. And again. Until now it's ended up on my post as one of my favourite songs. If there is a god (especially a naughty little indigo one) he's probably laughing himself silly right about now.

13. Joan Baez (Bob Dylan): Farewell Angelina

There are a lot of Dylan songs that Baez sings, IMHO, better than Dylan himself [5]. Farewell Angelina tops that list. Included on Dylan's Bootleg Series, Farewell Angelina is just one of many, many pleasant sounding songs that Dylan's written. It's only when Baez sings it, in that heartbreaking voice, that you realise the truth: Farewell Angelina is poetry incarnate - a glorious ballad that conjures up incredible images of a nation torn by war, a soldier's farewell that would have made the old bards proud.

14. Neil Diamond: I'm a believer.

Dad, this one's for you.

When I was a kid growing up, my Dad had this whole repertoire of songs that he remembered exactly one line of, and would burst into, completely out of the blue and usually off key, as his way of creating excitement. It was an endearing thing to do, but it ended up souring me on most of the songs he sang (I've never been able to stand Elvis' 'In the Ghetto' for instance, you only have to get to that first "cold and grey Chicago morning" line and I've tuned out). Plus which I never managed to share his passion for Neil Diamond.

So it was shock to me when, all those years later, I heard 'I'm a believer' on the Shrek soundtrack and realised that I actually liked the song. Liked it so much, in fact, that I went around for days humming it, shouting "Then I saw her face" in a sort of stacatto burst that seemed, when I thought about it, scarily familiar (though, of course, I was doing this strictly in the privacy of my own room).

There's something almost unbearably upbeat about I'm a believer. It's so cheerfully silly a song, so artlessly optimistic, that trying to critique it would be like kicking a puppy. Then before you know it you're singing along to it, revelling in the rhyming of 'face' and 'trace', the happy accident of 'leave her' coming so quickly after 'believer', playing air drums to the head over heels tumbling descent of the notes that come right after the chorus. And before you know it, you're a believer too.

15. Led Zeppelin: Misty Mountain Hop

Let me try and put this as simply as I can: Led Zeppelin is, for me, the quintessential sound of rock. If I had to define rock for someone who'd never heard it, I would just hand him or her that fabulous fourth album and leave it at that. It's the combination of the pounding, addictive beat, the soaring, electrifying guitar work, the screaming, breathtaking voice. People watch me listening to LZ on my headphones and think I'm nodding along to the music. But half the time what I'm really doing is thinking to myself: yes. That's precisely how rock is supposed to sound. Yes. Yes.

Misty Mountain Hop is just a random draw. I could have picked Stairway to Heaven, but that's a little too hackneyed, even for a post as blatantly nostalgic as this one. I could have picked Battle of Evermore, but then I'd have to get into the whole Tolkien thing. I could have picked Tangerine or Heartbreaker or Friends or...you get the idea. I picked Misty Mountain Hop because aside from the fact that it's a great song and as representative of Zeppelin's work as anything is ever going to be, it also features one of my all-time favourite moments in rock music, one of those moments that defines for me the essence of what Rock is about. It's the point where the song goes "Take a good look at your face and describe what you see" in a sort of dark chant and Plant comes back screaming "And tell me, tell me, tell me do you liiike it". What better note than that to end a week of rock posts on.

Notes

[1] One other song I realised I missed out on was in the post that talked about songs I connected with poems. The one I missed was Billy Joel's The Downeaster 'Alexa' which always reminds me of Robert Lowell's Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket.

[2] Of course, you have to understand that much of the soundtrack of my life is made up of people I've already blogged about this week: Dylan, Mitchell, S&G, the Beatles. These are just the ones I couldn't really get to, but can't not mention at all.

[3] I've never been able to decide whether I like the Baez version of this song or the Cohen version. They're both stunning though.

[4] To see what I mean, just listen to her singing Summertime. It's incredible that she can take a Gershwin song, lift it so out of context, and make it entirely her own. If you think about the other people who've sung Summertime - a veritable who's who of jazz greats - the fact that her version of it still comes pretty close to top of my list is saying a LOT.

[5] This is not, as some friends of mine seem to think, always true. There are a whole bunch of Dylan songs where I prefer the Dylan version: Forever Young, for instance, or I shall be released, or Blowin' in the Wind. And even with stuff like It's all over now Baby Blue it's a tough call (I'd put the Baez version of Simple Twist of Fate over the Dylan version, but only because of that glorious bit where Baez imitates Dylan - the most stunning musical mimicry I know of, after Ella's take on Armstrong on Basin Street Blues).


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15 comments:

venkat said...

Hey! I didn't know this "Battle of Evermore"-Tolkien connection...googled it up and found a bunch of stuff. always find that mandolin track in BOE hypnotic...

neha vish said...

Ah - That Goddess called Janis Joplin. I wish I had been born just thirty years before so I could see her sing live. Me and Bobby McGee, while in no way her finest song - is perhaps one that I associate with her the most. At one point in time - with all my post-teenage arrogance I used to go over to inter-univ competitions singing this song.

My biggest shock came when I discovered that the origing Me and Bobby McGee had been written by the much tamer Kris Kristofferson. An interesting piece on Janis and Kris found here.

Growing up - there were so few rock idols for a girl. Janis Joplin slided into that place just so fine and easy. Btw, any thoughts on Proud Mary by CCR?

J. Alfred Prufrock said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Maybe this should be in a mail, but since I don't have your e-mail, a commment will have to do.

See, there are times I read your blog and I think, this guy's far too intell, he uses big words, reads more than I can ever hope to. (Which is why my mental picture of you closely resembles Jai Arjun a.k.a. Jabberwock)

Then you come up with a series like this and I'm hooked. There are at least three separate strands there that I want to comment upon. I'll be back later.

J.A.P.

babitha said...

Lovely week of posts, i must say. and this last one is almost the best, so many of my fave ones in the list, and u described romeo and juliet and the led zep sound in a manner i would really want to use myself.

am reorganising my ipod, so all this is really top of mind.

ozymandiaz said...

Did you know that Radioheads "Creep" was a throw away song to them? It was spoof, a filler, which subsequently turned in to their biggest hit. I heard an interview where they said they HATED that song. The rest of us obviously do not concur.

Crp said...

Kula Shaker ??? Boy you really are a hippy at heart.

If I were to recommend one rock band that hasn't appeared in your lists so far it would have to be Steely Dan -- musically the most sophisticated band I've heard. Aja is my favourite rock album.

wildflower seed said...

Have been reading your rock-series with much interest. Second CRP's recommendation about Steely Dan, although I would have to add that aside from the compositional aspect of their music, Dan is not the same entity over the years, because they have different jazz musicians guesting on their albums (Wayne Shorter and Lee Ritenour on Aja for instance). Re. the Grateful Dead, you haven't really started exploring their music until you have heard their live output, which is a whole musical universe in itself. Start with Live Dead, Europe 72 or Without a Net, if you will. Finally, Falstaff, not a single mention of Van Morrison? My lord, man, go get Astral Weeks.....TODAY!!!

Wild Reeds said...

Cool.
I love Janis Joplin.

Falstaff said...

venkat: You're welcome, though I would have thought that link was pretty explicit. I mean the lyrics talk about 'ringwraiths riding black'. Just in case: BoE is not the only direct Tolkien reference in LZ's music either. There's also the bit in Ramble On about 'the darkest depths of Mordor'. Plus I've never been able to hear Misty Mountain Hop without thinking of the Hobbit.

Neha: Good to know. On female rock voices, did you ever read this:

http://2x3x7.blogspot.com/2005/12/can-i-drive-your-car-please-please.html

JAP: ha! so I finally suckered you into commenting. Good. Thanks for the kind words, though I'm not sure whether you're complimenting Jai or insulting him. Look forward to your comments.

Incidentally, if you want my e-mail it's on my blogger profile, though I'd rather you just put comments on the post itself.

babitha: thanks. Though you had something to do with it. "But wait, but wait, give credit where it's due; a lot of the glory goes to you"

Oz: Hmmm...didn't know that. Talk about irony.

crp / ventilator blues: Aaargghhh! I leave out one or two bands I like, thinking, it's okay, I can't put in everything and you have to go pick on them. Gah! Have listened to and like both Steely Dan and Van Morrison (though admittedly I need to listen to more of both).

VB: Agree with you about listening to Dead live (heh!) - which is what I meant by having to be there - whatever live recordings of theirs I have heard (though thanks for your suggestions) have definitely been more exciting than the studio recordings.

Wild reeds: Thanks

Crp said...

Didn't mean to sound too critical. I must say it's a great list ... on the whole :) Hey, we've all got our guilty pleasures.

Re: Steely Dan, In case you haven't heard them already, I would recommend (apart from Aja), Two Against Nature, The Royal Scam and Countdown to Ecstasy.

shakester said...

sort of agree with what JAP says- not so much the comparison, but the rest.
I wonder why I had the cheap thrill of noticing I have all except a few of those songs with me, and i knew them. love these posts

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