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.



Shelter from the Storm

Barbra Streisand: PeopleWHERE DO WE GO for refuge? There is a Buddhist answer to that question, and it’s a good one—the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and though that ought to be enough for me, I find that I still rely on another source of refuge in my life.


What do I mean by refuge? For me, it’s about finding a place where I can feel supported, especially when I am not strong enough on my own. It’s a place where I can let my guard down, be exposed and vulnerable, and know I will be loved. Shelter from the storm: we all need that. I hope I can provide it for others, too.

This idea became clear to me recently when the three people in my life who I consider most important to my feeling grounded and loved happened to be, all at the same time, away or otherwise unavailable for a spell. Lucky for me, I have a lot of wonderful friends who contribute to making me happy, so I was not alone. I am also a whole lot better than I used to be at being on my own and knowing that I am always connected, so there was that, too. It was not a crisis, in other words.

But it was interesting. It was really striking to have that small support network of mine temporarily unavailable. It made me realize how much I rely on them, and how lucky I am. I wish everyone could be so lucky.

People want to be supported unconditionally. I guess that is one of the big attractions of marriage. I am skeptical of the notion that we can find one person to provide all that we need, forever. I’m not even sold on Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracksthe idea that we need anything from anyone—ideally, we wouldn’t, and I’d like to get to the point of experiencing the truth of that. But until I reach such an enlightened state, I am glad for my support system. It’s nice.

So many people in our culture make a fuss about finding that special one, what we used to call a “soulmate.” (Does anyone still use that word, or have they all been laughed off the dating websites?) One is the loneliest number. Who decided that one is enough? And does anyone honestly believe that there is only one person in the universe we are destined to find and stick with for life? Dating is challenging enough without the pressure to find the supposed one in 7,236,660,000 you could be happy with.

I was reading something recently about arranged marriages in India. I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, not by a long shot, and I know these things are fraught with problems—gender and economic inequities and so forth. Despite that, it got me thinking. We modern Americans tend to look down on the idea as limiting individual freedom (Gasp! The horror!), but looked at a certain way (theoretically, at least), there could also be a very nice element to arranged marriage: an attempt by society to match people up, to be sure no one ends up onKurt Vonnegut: Slapstick their own (unless they want to be). Yes, I know that’s not how it always works in practice. That said, I’ve read studies showing people in arranged marriages generally tend to be happier and are more likely to stay together. I’ll bet the lack of unreal expectations is a factor. Love the one you’re with.

So, maybe not marriage, but wouldn’t it be nice if everybody could count on having someone they could count on? It seems like human nature to seek refuge in each other. I remember long ago reading something along those lines by Kurt Vonnegut, some kind of scheme to match people up. Lonesome no more! And so it goes.


Fandango ’75

ZZ Top: Fandango!I’M THE FIRST TO admit it, sometimes I make the oddest observations while listening to my records. As most of you probably know by now, I’ve been playing my big record collection in reverse chronological order for the last couple of years, and now I’m in 1975. I’m fond of pinpointing the cultural phenom of the year in song: Cocaine records were big in 1977. In 1976 it was all about CB. 1972 had its spacemen and adultery, and ’71 brought us hot pants hits. Well, 1975 has a theme as well, and you’re hearing it here first: fandango.

It began dawning on me the other day when I heard “fandango” in an obscure Janis Ian song, “When the Party’s Over,” which opens Between the Lines (1975). I thought to myself, “Didn’t I just play another record that said ‘fandango’?” It might have been “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975), or it might have been something else. I wasn’t about to replay all those 1975 records to see if I had missed a fandango song, but I nonetheless felt like I was on to something.

Then tonight I played Bob Dylan’s Desire (1975), and guess what they were dancing in Durango? To quote Jerri Blank at her cheerleader tryout, “Fandango?”

Jerri BlankNeal’s Fandango” appears on the Doobie Brothers’ Stampede (1975). It doesn’t say the word “fandango” in it, but still. And to top it all off, there’s the famous ZZ Top album Fandango! that came out the same year. I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, but even if there aren’t, doesn’t 5 fandangos in one year of pop music seem like an awful lot?

I’ve been trying to figure out if there was something going on in the culture that caused this rash of fandangos, but haven’t come up with a clue. Any ideas? Was there a fandango scene in Jaws? Did Gabe Kaplan teach the Sweathogs about fandangos in Welcome Back, Kotter? You can find almost anything on the Internet these days, but sometimes what you’re looking for just isn’t there. This is one of those times.

My guess is that all these recording artists got together at some drunken party after the 1974 Grammys and decided to do this just for fun, to see if anybody would notice. Well, I noticed.

Doobie Brothers StampedeThere had been fandango mentions earlier, but very few and far-between, Procol Harum’s brilliant “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (1967) being the most famous. Interestingly enough, that song and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” were cited by the BBC as the 2 most-played songs in the UK over the past 75 years (as of 2009). The 2 songs were also jointly named Best British Pop Single 1952–1977 at the Brit Awards, according to Wikipedia. Both say “fandango.” Coincidence? I swear, sometimes this stuff is downright eerie.

Greatest hits, volume 2

Chicago's Greatest Hits, Volume 2The lengths some recording artists will go to to scrape together a greatest hits album, even if they were a one- or two-hit wonder, can be remarkable. The lengths some will go to in coming up with a “greatest hits, volume 2” are even more entertaining.

The other day I put on Chicago’s Greatest Hits, Volume II, and was struck by the contrast: a few of the songs were good, but most were just pure commercial schmaltz. There’s a good reason for that: they started by including all the hits that had come out in the six years since their first greatest hits album — the likes of “Baby What a Big Surprise,” “No Tell Lover,” and their half-hearted attempt at disco-jazz fusion (or something), “Alive Again” — and, since they didn’t have quite enough new songs to fill the album, stuck in a couple of the smaller, earlier hits that didn’t make the cut first time around. “Questions 67 and 68” stands out here because it’s Chicago from when Chicago was pretty great. That would be 1969, for those of you keeping score (though, interestingly, that song didn’t hit the top 40 until released a second time in late 1971).

Elton John did the same thing. His Greatest Hits, Volume II, contains the earlier, brilliant “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” (also both from late 1971) alongside mediocre monster hits like “Philadelphia Freedom” and “Island Girl.” Enough said.

Then there are the artists who don’t even try to hide how much worse their second greatest hits album is compared to their first. Neil Diamond is a pretty dramatic example of this, though I have a soft spot for him since he’s a great songwriter, seems like a nice guy, and used to be pretty sexy. And I don’t think he ever got terrible, just old and less interesting.

I’d say Rod Stewart might qualify as well, but he even threw some crap into his Greatest Hits, Volume 1 (not to be confused with the earlier and much better Sing It Again, Rod, which could qualify as his first greatest hits album; he did so much repackaging of his material, it’s hard to even say what to compare in his case), so that makes the contrast less dramatic.

Olivia's Greatesst Hits, Volume 2I think the prize has to go to Olivia Newton-John. As much as we all love “Xanadu” (and Electric Light Orchestra) for its camp value, I have to say it’s pretty damn hard to listen to her Greatest Hits, Volume 2, from start to finish. Really. Try it sometime. No, don’t. Trust me. Even the album cover is creepy!

Has there been a case where someone’s second greatest hits album is better than their first? Bob Dylan’s GHV2 is quite good, but so is his first one. I think Bob might take the prize for the best Greatest Hits, Volume 3, incidentally…but then, there isn’t a lot of competition in that category. (You know how I feel about Elton John’s GHV3.)

ABBA's Greatest Hits Vol. 2I like Madonna’s GHV2 a little better than her Immaculate Collection. She got better with time. Then worse. Then better, briefly. Then…you get the idea. ABBA’s Greatest Hits came out a little too early, leaving a lot of hits for their slightly better Greatest Hits, Volume 2.

At the risk of sounding too stereotypically homosexual-of-a-certain-age, I’ve gotta say, Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2, is — let’s just pull out all the stops and use the word — fabulous! That “Laura Mars” song rocks. Her original Greatest Hits collection? Meh.

Hmm, maybe I’m not so gay after all.