In the wind

Peter Paul & Mary: In the WindIf you can believe it, I’m still playing my record collection in reverse chronological order. I should be done by now, but I’ve slowed way down. It has been fascinating to wander back through the 1960s, a time before I was collecting records or listening to Casey Kasem (who started in 1970), or making much of any musical memories of my own.

My older sister got her first 45s for Christmas 1968—”Hey Jude,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Little Arrows” and “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize” among them. Prior to that, the only records I recognized from the time were those my parents had. Though I haven’t asked, it seems clear they each had their style and bought their records separately. Mom liked Englebert Humperdinck (Tom Jones must have been too racy) and the Lennon Sisters, and before that, the Ray Conniff Singers and Andre Kostelanetz’s orchestra. Dad bought Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass—Herb, my first celebrity crush—and Peter, Paul & Mary. (Granted, Mom is a couple years older than Dad.)

Currently on the turntable: Peter, Paul & Mary’s In the Wind. I’m so moved by this album, and I’m only now realizing that this trio was my very first musical influence. A quick glance at the album cover shows three attractive, hip folk musicians running around the West Village and performing at the 1963 March on Washington. Bob Dylan wrote the liner notes and three of the songs, including the song that I’m now using to describe my last relationship, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right“; and, of course, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Civil rights and Vietnam were the subject of protests back then, a hopeful time when real change seemed possible, so I gather (I don’t remember much about it), just before the assassinations started. The songs are earnest in a way that might seem quaint to us now if they weren’t asking the kind of simple questions we are still asking today. Especially today, when the world seems completely out of control. And the answer is the same: Love each other.



The way you make me feel

Sylvester: Mighty RealAS I’M FOND OF pointing out, popular music pushes some crazy ideas into the minds of impressionable adolescents (and all the rest of us). The other day I was talking about how other people can’t make us feel bad or sad or guilty or mad…or glad, for that matter.

This is kind of basic, yet we forget: all of our feelings are self-generated. The good ones are. So are the bad ones. It’s no wonder we think otherwise, though. How many hit songs contain the words “you make me feel” in the title? I came up with these off the top of my head:

I’m sure there are others. I’m happy to see that these are all about being made to feel something positive, but it doesn’t change my point. Nobody can make you feel anything. They might be a catalyst, and we end up feeling something as a result of their actions, but that all happens in our own mind. We get to choose how we feel. Always.

Aretha Franklin: Natural WomanI like the expression “push my buttons,” as in, “That annoying co-worker really pushes my buttons,” because that kind of describes how it works: they initiate a chain of events that results in one’s reacting a certain way; but to say that person made you feel a certain way is like saying they made music come out of a radio speaker by switching it on. They didn’t do it. The radio did.

So, it would probably have been more accurate for Sylvester to have sung in his soaring falsetto, “You did something that caused me to generate a mighty real feeling.” But you can’t really dance to that, can you? This is a dilemma.

I heard the news today, oh boy

Prince: Purple RainTHIS IS A POST about those songs that use phrases you almost always associate with a different song. Like that purple rain song. Oh, you mean there’s another one? America famously sang about purple rain in “Ventura Highway” (1972) more than a decade before Prince even more famously capitalized on the phrase and all things purple with the song (covered by Tom Jones and David Gilmour below), album, and movie of the same name in 1984. (And Janet Jackson went on to sample the America song’s opening guitar riff for her groovy 2001 hit “Someone to Call My Lover,” but we’ll talk about sampling another day.)

Sometimes a phrase gets reused in a way that feels like homage — it’s a conscious reusing of someone else’s phrase, maybe altered slightly, as in the Beatles’ I read the news today, oh boy from “A Day in the Life,” which was recycled by David Bowie as I heard the news today, oh boy in 1975’s “Young Americans.”

There were a few of these instances of songs sharing unusual phrases in 1975 (the year being about more than just fandangos, apparently). ABBA recorded “Mamma Mia” that year only to compete with Queen’s famous mama mias in “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (As luck would have it, the two songs were consecutive #1 hits on the British charts, according to our friends at Wikipedia.)

That one feels like a coincidence, as does Freddy Fender’s crooning We may never pass this way again in “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” (also 1975, the only year Freddy Fender was popular); that line was, of course, sung repeatedly by Seals and Crofts in their 1973 hit of the same name. “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” always struck me as a very strange use of parenthesis in a song title.

Seals and Crofts: Diamond GirlThat was also the theme song to my junior prom. I never connected the two things until just now, but I went to my first real concert — seeing Peter, Paul & Mary as a child with with my dad doesn’t count — that same year: Seals and Crofts at the Providence Civic Center. It was 1976, and I went with with my prom date. I don’t think either of us was particularly obsessed with Seals and Crofts (really, was anyone?), and I don’t think I’d blame them for the relationship’s failure. There were plenty of other good reasons for that. No, it was just another of those crazy mid-1970s coincidences.

(As a side note, when I did a multiple-choice trivia contest about myself a few years back on Facebook, the question, What was my first concert?, was the only one not a single person got right.)

Where was I? Oh yes, those phrases you associate with one song but they show up in another. One is a lonely number in the Grass Roots’ “Two Divided by Love” (1971) was clearly inspired by Three Dog Night’s One is the loneliest number (1969). The two groups shared a record label and were a lot alike, so maybe they had worked out a deal.

“Da Doo Ron Ron” hit #1 in 2 different decades by 2 different artists, the Crystals (1963) and Shaun Cassidy (1977) — nothing so strange about that, since everyone was reviving something in those days. But, to get back to the theme of this post (which seems to keep slipping away from me), in another #1 hit, none other than Neil Sedaka, a recording artist famous for being popular during the time of both “Da Doo Ron Ron”s (or is the proper plural Da Doos Ron Ron?), but not for most of the time in-between, sings loads of da doo ron rons, or something very similar, along with Elton John in “Bad Blood” (also 1975).

Who would have thought back in 1963 we’d find those lyrics at the top of the charts again a generation later, much less twice again, much less in a brand new song by a recording artist we thought we’d heard the last from? (…and in the same old song by an aging teen idol’s half-brother who I swear sounds a lot like Boy George. Has there ever been a public sighting of Shaun Cassidy since Boy George came on the scene in 1982? Interesting. But I digress yet again.)

I’m sure there are many, many more instances of this phenomenon. I mean, not that exact phenomenon — I think it’s safe to say there are no other instances of what happened with “Da Doo Ron Ron” — but you know what I mean: unlikely phrases showing up in more than one song. What are your favorites? The more unlikely, the better!

Geographical Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell: Wichita LinemanTHE BEST OF Glen Campbell graced my turntable last week, and it struck me how many of his big hits name cities — Wichita, Phoenix, Galveston, Houston, LA. I discovered some of his smaller hits follow a similar pattern: Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Manhattan, Kansas, figure in the names on his 45s. One of his last hits was about Branson, fer god’s sake.

Do you notice a trend here? It’s striking how the places Glen likes are all located solidly in red-state territory. He mentions LA as a place to get away from (with his mind on Tennessee) and Albuquerque as a place to pass through without stopping. It’s no wonder he performed at the 1980 Republican National Convention.

His biggest hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” is an oddball. It seems to be about New York, though it never says, and there’s a little bit of a Midnight Cowboy vibe to it, to which Glen seems oblivious. It’s not quite clear whether the cowboy/hustler likes it there or not. One could argue that this ambiguity makes it interesting, but have you heard the song?

Perhaps the most vexing thing about a Glen Campbell hit, though, is the screwy time frame of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” The song supposedly takes place over the course of the day Glen left his lover and drove east. We don’t know where he started from — it doesn’t really matter — but by the time he gets to Phoenix, the story goes, she’ll be rising. She finds the note. When he reaches Albuquerque in verse two, she’ll be at work. Then she takes a lunch break and calls him. In the final verse, he’s made Oklahoma and she’s asleep and crying.

Dave X Robb and tumbleweed, Painted Desert, ArizonaWhat’s wrong with this picture? Unless this gal gets up before the chickens and takes a super-late lunch, there’s no way he can get from Phoenix to Albuquerque in the time it takes her to get ready for work, get there, and still not be on her lunch break. I don’t care how much time she spends doing her hair and makeup, I just don’t buy it. That’s a 7-hour drive. (Getting from Albuquerque to Oklahoma by the time she gets to bed would be easy.)

I thought long and hard about this. You know how I am. It finally occurred to me: He must have flown from Phoenix to Albuquerque then rented a car.

Flight, Rail, and Drive Times from Scottsdale, Arizona

Drowning in samsara’s ocean

Las Vegas landscapeDios mio, Las Vegas. I had been there several times before, but always on the way to or from somewhere else, somewhere in nature, which always made the city even stranger than it might normally be. I never had the urge to just go there. This was my first proper trip to Las Vegas: 4 days, 3 nights, just Vegas.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It’s almost too easy a target, too easy to figure out and explain away, which I guess is part of why I find it not so interesting a destination. That said, I had a wonderful time! Cartoon samsara, a friend called it, and the description fits. Here, just below the shiny surface, all of life’s sad sufferings and addictions are on proud, tawdry display. Its excesses are legendary. They’re what make Vegas, Vegas.

Welcome to Las VegasPretend you’re rich. Try that on and see what it feels like. (Isn’t that why poor people vote for the likes of Mitt Romney?) Pretend you’re a high-roller. Pretend you’re a whore.

All this pretending is fine, amusing even, just so long as nobody gets hurt. In few other places is the people-watching so much fun. Ask a shopkeeper to break a hundred to buy a pack of gum, flash it so we all notice, act all peeved if she can’t change it. Light up a shit-smelling cigar and pollute the whole 8-pool Garden of the Gods. Loudly school the spa shop worker on the awesomeness of botox. Load up your plate again at the buffet. You waited in a long enough line, you deserve it!

And the drinking, my god! Order another 32-ounce slushy drink with the $5 extra shot, by all means. Yes, you can carry it around outside, and when you plant yourself face-first drunk on the pedestrian bridge (as happens way more often than you’d imagine), you won’t break the “glass” because it’s plastic. Everything’s plastic, spray-painted gold.

Temple outside Caesar's PalaceAnd yet, people love it. You notice as soon as you get to the departure gate in your home city airport. Everyone is so excited to be going to Vegas, to live out their fantasies, try their luck at becoming a millionaire, shop for things they can’t afford, and most of all, be a little naughty.

The tourist board knew what they were doing with that tacky “what happens in Vegas” line. (Imagine, a whole huge ad campaign built around adultery, or maybe they want you to try out that gay thing.) I don’t know if they’re still running the ad campaign, but it doesn’t matter — it lives on.

There’s a great Japanese movie, After Life (1998). In it, those who die are interviewed before going to heaven, and they have to choose their happiest memory, which then becomes their eternity. All the young girls choose Disneyland, and the interviewers gently try to talk them out of it, with mixed success. I suspect an American version of that film might have a lot of adults choosing Las Vegas.

Nike swoosh in the Roman Forum ShopsIt’s a fantasy land, but I’m guessing the draw for a lot of people is not even so exotic as living out some wild sex fantasy, despite all the effort put in by the tourism folks encouraging them to do so. No, it’s just about their getting away from a monotonous existence, the tedious cycle of their unfulfilling lives, if only for a long weekend, trading one samsara for a flashier ’nother.

It was interesting talking to people who actually live and work in Las Vegas — they seemed happier to me, or at least more balanced, than most of the tourists…I guess because they weren’t on vacation, trying too hard to have fun or win or be someone they’re not. I wonder where Vegas people go on vacation. I’d like to think they spend time in nature, tired of the glitz and the hustle, but they might not.

The newer casinos are really trying to shed the ’60s and ’70s image — think Petula Clark and Viva Las Vegas — and cater to something more current and sophisticated, and the restaurants and shows — Blink-182 versus Donny and Marie, for example — reflect that. There’s a palpable class system separating the Bellagio’s upscale patrons from the down-at-the-heels Flamingo’s, but it’s all about chasing the same escapist dream.

Flamingo signIt can be fun to goof on the craziness of it all — that sustained me for the first half of my trip; that and the fact that I am now the perfect, late-Boomer, Vegas-visitor-with-some-money target age, so I get to hear the Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Bob Seger hits I grew up with piped in wherever I go.

The strangeness of it all, like the extreme desert heat, hits you right away. On the shuttle in from the airport, I could see Egypt, New York, and Paris all at once. (Take that, Sarah Palin!) Stopped at a light, excited old folks oohed and aahed, pointing out the Chrysler Building and the Statue of Liberty. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they weren’t the real thing.

I’m joking. They know it’s not real. But, most people seem to have an easier time than I do suspending disbelief, with or without a drink or ten. I kind of envy them. Pretend you’re in Rome, in Paris, in Venice! I kept squinting and trying to imagine it, but all I could see was Vegas.

It was the third of September

CB radioJust started on the 1976 records, and not yet anywhere near ready to sum up the year, but I will say if 1977 was the year of cocaine, 1976 was surely the year of CB. While listening to “Convoy” the other day, I noted that the mighty convoy of lore got underway on the sixth of June, prompting me to want to plot on a calendar all of the dates mentioned in popular songs.

Just a day later, I was reminded by a friend that it was the third of September, that day I’ll always remember, yes I will, as the day that Temptation’s no-good, rolling stone daddy died. And so began my quest to fill in the calendar. I found that it wasn’t so easy — the songs that mention specific dates (as opposed to just days of the week or months or years or holidays) are somewhat few and far between.

A couple other easy ones came immediately to mind: “Saturday in the Park” by Chicago — and a slew of other songs — mention the fourth of July, the only holiday that most often goes by the name of the calendar date (Who says Independence Day anymore?). That got me thinking, should it count if they mention a holiday that falls on the same day every year?

I could see maybe counting “New Year’s Day” by U2 as January 1, and any number of songs that mention Valentine’s Day or Christmas, but would not count something that mentions those floating holidays like Thanksgiving or Sadie Hawkins Day.

June 3 famously figures in “Ode to Billy Joe” and also “Desiree.” I wonder if Neil Diamond took that into account when he wrote his song, which came later. This song about Neil’s most memorable one-night stand gets double credit since it mentions June 4 as well. (I wonder what happened June 5.)

U2: WarBob Dylan married Isis on the fifth day of May, James Taylor was heading down the turnpike December 1 in “Sweet Baby James,” Earth Wind and Fire remember the twenty-first night of September, and by May tenth, Richmond had fell — we’ll overlook the grammatical issue for now; chalk it up to dialect — in the Band’s (but not Joan Baez’s, interestingly enough) version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

A few other historical dates crop up: Martin Luther King’s assassination April 4 is referenced in “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2, John Kennedy’s assassination November 23 figures in Jefferson Airplane’s obscure “Hijack” (which also anticipated the group’s later Starship incarnation), and “April 29, 1992” by Sublime — named for the day the Rodney King riots began in LA — mistakenly names April 26 in the actual song (though they got it right in the title).

Others? There must be some obvious songs I’m forgetting, but still, I have a feeling I’ll never fill in all 366 days unless I commission some of the songs…and that would be cheating, kind of, wouldn’t it?

Love hurts?

Foreigner by Cat StevensI’m always pointing out the fallacy of adages — a watched pot does boil, for example, and you can judge a book by its cover. (I do it all the time.) Pop music tends to spread a lot of faulty “truths” around as well, most of them having to do with love. As I’ve said before, this matters.

As impressionable teens being schooled in love by pop music (because, god knows, our parents weren’t talking to us about it), we got some bad advice and learned some bad lessons. It’s remarkable how durable some of those lessons can be. Love is blind, higher than a mountain, thicker than water, alive, a rose, like a heatwave, like oxygen, the drug… Perhaps the worst love lesson we get: “Love Hurts.”

It was first recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1960, then Roy Orbison, but people around my age all know it as the top 10 hit by Nazareth. “Love Hurts” is a great song. The drama! Apparently, it was the biggest hit ever in Norway. (Oh, the things you learn on Wikipedia!) I and countless other teens coming of age around the time of the Bicentennial ached to have a love so grand that it hurt.

So many people I know still cling to this idea, a corollary to that other maddening maxim, “relationships are really hard work”: if there’s no pain, if it doesn’t break your heart, it isn’t (or wasn’t) love. I felt the same way for a long time. I’ve cried 96 tears. But guess what? If it hurts, it’s not love.

What is it, then, you ask? Good question. It’s self-cherishing attachment, that grasping we do…which is pretty much the opposite of love. I didn’t come up with that myself; it was pointed out in a great talk I went to last week. So simple and so profound, it bears repeating: attachment is the opposite of love.

Think about the last time you felt hurt by love. What hurt? The fact that you weren’t going to be getting something from the other person anymore, right? Yes, that hurts. But it ain’t love. That, my friend, in a nutshell, is attachment.

Love is...all aroundIf you love someone, set them free,” we started hearing at the dawn of the 1970s (around the time of Love Story and Love is… cartoons), and Sting sang a decade and a half later. Corny as it sounds, that aphorism comes a lot closer to the truth. Love is wanting the other person to be happy. Period.

Usually, when we’re “in love,” we’re doing some combination of grasping and really loving; it’s rarely 100% one or the other. At least that’s what I’ve been doing. I still catch myself doing it. I’ve loved, sure, but I can’t say I’ve ever truly loved all the way, selflessly. How do I know? It always hurts when it ends. Maybe the next one won’t.