Thursday, December 25, 2008

GMVW # 51: "Counter Culture Foundations"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 51: Counter Culture Foundations
Song: Love is Just a Four Letter Word by Bob Dylan
Covered Here By: Joan Baez
(Songwriter: Bob Dylan)       
December 25, 2008

Harvard Square
has seen its share of great places come and go. There was the dark, bordering on gloomy, two-floor Bavarian restaurant, the Wursthaus, a true bohemian hideout if there ever was one, which met its demise about 10 years ago.  Along with the Wursthaus, the wrecking ball took out the very tiny diner, The Tasty (I ate there twice > the night before my wedding and the night before Charlotte was born).  There was also a favorite restaurant of Nancy & I, Grendel’s Den, and the original House of Blues (where we once celebrated a boisterous Gospel music breakfast with Mom & Dad).  All these locations are nothing but a wide range of eclectic memories now. 

However, a number of long standing places still survive.  There’s the Globe Corner Book Store, where I have purchased many a globe, map and travel book (and still the best place to get USGS topographic maps).  There’s Shay’s Pub, the wine bar where Mac & I connect over a few glasses of port wine every Christmas season.  The Border Café still stands, where Amy and Paul treated Nancy and I to dinner the night of their engagement. There’s Leavitt & Pierce Tobacco, still a great place to buy cigars in bulk for a first-time Dad.  The Hong Kong remains the home of the best of all scorpion bowls (and numerous related memories).  There’s also Charlie’s Kitchen, The Brattle Theatre, Out of Town News, Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, The Harvard Coop, and The Harvard Museum of Natural History.  All continue to give
Harvard Square
that certain charm that can be found nowhere else.

There are some places that also give
Harvard Square
a secure place in American music history.  Club Passim ranks at the top of the list.  Passim, which has survived
Harvard Square
’s frequent overhauls, has for many years hosted the best that the folk scene has to offer.  Along with the Iron Horse in Northampton, it’s the perfect venue to see folk music (as was the long-gone Old Vienna Kaffeehaus in Westborough).  The musician who more than any other gave Passim its long-standing reputation is Joan Baez, who played there quite often in the 60’s.  This week’s Gem is a Baez cover of the Dylan song ‘Love is Just a Four Letter Word’.  I first heard her cover this song on the album ‘Any Day Now’, which is an entire album of Dylan songs covered by Baez.  Joan Baez has always been mesmerized by Bob Dylan’s talent (although a great songwriter in her own right), and it certainly is apparent in her delivery of his songs on that album and in this live version of ‘Love is Just a Four Letter Word’.

I have to credit good friend, Jeff Strause for opening my eyes to folk music.  One great thing about a folk show (solo or festival) is that the crowd really does bond in a way that is hard to replicate at larger and louder rock events.  There’s often a nice interchange between artist and audience.  A good folk musician feeds off the crowd and allows them to be part of the show.  Jeff should know.  He’s been to more folk shows than the musicians themselves. 

Below the Joan Baez Gem are links to a few other folk singers who have inspired Jeff (and I) over the years.  Below those links are the lyrics to ‘Love is Just a Four Letter Word’.

- Pete

Gem of the Week ‘Love is Just a Four Letter Word’

Utah Phillips ‘Banks of Marble’

Nancy Griffith and Carolyn Hester ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’

Shawn Colvin ‘Wichita Skyline’

Tom Rush ‘No Regrets’

The Nields ‘When I Let you into my Closet’

‘Love is Just a Four Letter Word’ lyrics

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Café
With a friend of a friend of mine
She sat with a baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
A phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rambling store-front window
Cats meowed 'til the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut,
To you I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn't think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed towards things in my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
After searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I could only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that's supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you, many years the tables turned
You'd probably not believe me if told you all I've learned
And it is very very weird, indeed
To hear words like "forever" plead
so ships run through my mind I cannot cheat
it's like looking in a teacher's face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word.

About the video: Austin City Limits show, not sure of the year (late 90’s?).  The band includes a 2nd guitarist and a bongo drummer.

Video Rating: 1

Best Feedback: Tom

Pete - you never cease to amaze me ... even on Christmas day you're sending the weekly out faithfully.  Hope yours was a good day, and that Charlotte and Peter both enjoyed their new gifts.  Thomas of course had a blast - his being very much into art drawing etc.  He also got a bunch of Spiderman and Batman stuff - with his love of superheroes too.  Will be up to see Steve and Tim this coming week.

Of your latest, I recall walking by the original House of Blues - having tried to get into a concert there once (I believe BB King, my having seen him and Johnny Lang in CT in mid-90's and loving it).  The Coop is a familiar stomping ground too, with lunch at John Harvard's with a couple of their brews.  But all these other mentioned places sound swell - will keep as a list of good places to eat etc in the future.

If I don't talk to you before - Happiest of New Year's to you, Nancy, Charlotte and Peter.


Also: Madeline

Thanks Pete! I feel like going to the Square right now!

Are you guys up to seeing your 'ol New Years friends this year???

Let us know!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

GMVW # 50: "Seasons Greetings"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 50: Seasons Greetings
Song: Father Christmas by The Kinks
(Songwriter: Ray Davies)
December 18, 2008

Season’s Greetings!

A few weeks ago, The Who were paid tribute to at the 31st Annual Kennedy Center Honors (the show will broadcast on CBS December 30th).  They were the first band to receive this prestigious award (several other recipients this year include Barbara Streisand and Morgan Freeman).  In an interview with the Washington Post prior to the event, Pete Townshend admitted that the prize was stirring up some complicated feelings:  “We’d never been heard,” he said, referring to his British working class roots.  “So we created our own language, which was rock ‘n’ roll.  And this honor is the establishment saying, ‘We hear you.’  And that’s a strange thing, because if they can hear us, maybe we don’t need to do this anymore.  It’s like somebody saying to Tupac Shakur, ‘Ah, I understand what you’re saying.’  Well, you’re not supposed to understand what he’s saying.  You’re supposed to be (expletive) scarred!”

OK….but since this week’s Gem is aimed at the spirit of the season, what does any of the above have to do with Christmas?

Well, despite many attempts, rock music has only produced a handful of great Christmas songs and Townshend’s recent comments pretty much explain the dilemma the genre has with writing them.  Sure rock singers can belt out a great cover version of an old standard: Elvis Presley singing ‘Blue Christmas’; Bob Seger’s version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’; Bruce Springsteen’s overplayed cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’; The Pretenders with ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’; or David Bowie singing ‘Silent Night’ with Bing Crosby.  Yet, when it comes to orchestrating original compositions many rock musicians struggle to connect with the core meaning of Christmas, and as a result most of their efforts fail to gain an enthusiastic audience.  I believe this is actually a struggle for musicians of all music genres, but where many of the other genres can get away with writing songs that celebrate the pomp and circumstance that surround Christmas, rock music cannot. Tradition and mainstream acceptance are simply not in its genes.  If a Christmas rock song is going to make it, it has to: 1) Break establishment norms 2) Stay honest and true to the spirit of Christmas and 3) Get to the point.  For such a long-standing Christian celebration, this can be hard to pull off.

But it can occur. A year or two ago, in a family email exchange, Jen asked everyone what their favorite rock Christmas song was (in hindsight it may have been the seed that got me started with these weekly rantings/gems).  Several songs came to mind.  There was obviously John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s passionate Christmas song, ‘Happy Xmas War is Over’.  The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Fairytale of New York’ is a fantastic song, as is Band Aid with ‘Feed the World’.  But for me, there was no dispute.  The one song (this week’s Gem) that has been on the top of my list for some time now is ‘Father Christmas’ by The Kinks.  It succeeds at all 3 of the qualifications listed above with ease.  Part of what makes it so alluring is that it has a drive-home message (second to last stanza near the end of the song), when all music fades out (including the jingle bells), and Ray Davies is left to sing without accompaniment.  When a song has a good drive home message, it can find a way to rise to another level.  Even the Fools song ‘Life Sucks (then you die)’ pulls that off at the end (“People say that life is good, Give thanks for what you have, When all you have is nothin’, Nothin’ makes you glad”).  Another great thing about this week’s gem is how Davies appears to be portraying the antagonistic gang of kids as believing in Santa despite the anger they direct at him.  Well done.

Unfortunately the video quality is pretty poor, but the audio is just right (although a bit out of synch).  Below the ‘Father Christmas’ link are several other Christmas inspired links.  Below those are the lyrics to ‘Father Christmas’. 

Have a very Merry Christmas!

- Pete (and Nancy)

The Kinks ‘Father Christmas’ (lyrics way below)

Here are 2 links to the Christmas Carol movie which starred Albert Finny as Scrooge.  Both are of same song, ‘Thank You Very Much’ but at different parts of the movie.  The first is when Scrooge is still in hot water with the 3rd Spirit.  In this version, Scrooge thinks the crowd is thanking him but not sure why.  He is oblivious to the fact that he has just died in the not-to-distant Christmas future (it’s his casket they dance on), but the reason the crowd is thanking him is because they all owed him money (with compound interest!).  Of course, the crowd does not see Scrooge in this first link.  The second link is at the end of the movie, when Scrooge absolves them all of their debt to him.  This song is a favorite of Mom, Dad, Charlotte, and I.

The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl ‘Fairytale of New York

John Lennon and Yoko Ono ‘Happy Xmas War is Over’

Bob Seger’s version of Little Drummer Boy

Lyrics to The Kinks ‘Father Christmas’

When I was small I believed in santa claus
Though I knew it was my dad
And I would hang up my stocking at christmas
Open my presents and Id be glad

But the last time I played father christmas
I stood outside a department store
A gang of kids came over and mugged me
And knocked my reindeer to the floor

They said:
Father christmas, give us some money
Dont mess around with those silly toys.
Well beat you up if you dont hand it over
We want your bread so dont make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Dont give my brother a steve austin outfit
Dont give my sister a cuddly toy
We dont want a jigsaw or monopoly money
We only want the real mccoy

Father christmas, give us some money
Well beat you up if you make us annoyed
Father christmas, give us some money
Dont mess around with those silly toys

But give my daddy a job cause he needs one
Hes got lots of mouths to feed
But if youve got one, Ill have a machine gun
So I can scare all the kids down the street

Father christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
Well beat you up if you dont hand it over
Give all the toys to the little rich boys

Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin
While youre drinkin down your wine

Father christmas, give us some money
We got no time for your silly toys
Well beat you up if you dont hand it over
We want your bread, so dont make us annoyed
Give all the toys to the little rich boys


About the Video: Made for MTV type video

Video Rating: 2 (if I great live version could ever be found)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

GMVW # 49: "Luck of the Draw?"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 49:  Luck of the Draw?
Song: If I Had a Million Dollars by Bare Naked Ladies
(Songwriter: Ed Robertson)
December 11, 2008

A number of years ago, Mom asked me if I thought the Beatles success was mostly luck.  Great question, as I have since pondered it quite often.  If the Beatles were lucky though, was Mozart?  Al Jolson?  Judy Garland?  Billy Halliday? Ted Williams? Andrew Carnegie? Albert Einstein?  Why do some hit the big time where many others who try do not?  Is it simply hard work, ambition, and talent, or is there something else at play, like being in the right place at the right time?  For musicians in particular, does staying grounded help?  Can this be done by somehow avoiding as long as possible the pitfalls of fortune and fame? (Pete Townshend did a pretty good job of staying in the red much longer than he should have by smashing his guitars and amps on a nightly basis).  Does the lap of luxury come with a price?  Is this why there are so many one-hit wonders?

Regardless of how it happens, much of the reason for a musician’s long term success can be traced back to his/her roots.  Some of the best stories, photos or footage of great musicians, are the ones that precede fame.  This is where you can get insight into how the seeds were sown.   The stories can reveal lives filled with wanderlust, adversity and surely some luck, while the photos or footage can show a confidence or talent that is beginning to gel. The early years of the Beatles had its share of character-building struggles including:  Borderline poverty in Hamburg, Germany; deportation (Harrison); and death (Lennon’s Mom and the 5th Beatle, Stu Sutcliffe).  Neil Young left his home in North Ontario and landed in Los Angeles where one of his first acts was purchasing the only car he could afford:  A used hearse to port around his equipment (probably not that far out of place in mid-60’s L.A.).  Garth Hudson had to tell his mother he was a music instructor for the other members of the Hawks (later The Band) so he could leave home and school for a chance to make it in the blues-rich Deep South.  Johnny Cash lost his only brother. 

I’m not all that aware of the stories behind the original two guys that make up the Canadian band ‘Bare Naked Ladies’ (BNL for short):  Steven Page and Ed Robertson.  But I love this pre-fame video link (below), which shows them performing one of their first songs, this week’s Gem ‘If I Had a Million Dollars’, later to become a minor hit in the States.  In the years following the filming of this video, BNL would release a series of hit songs that would lead them to stardom. I was searching for this great song and found a number of big-stage live versions, but none compare to the spontaneity of this earliest of videos, which is a snippet from a talk show they appear on.  Part of what I like about this video is the ‘Wayne’s World’-like host.  He’s somewhat annoying (laughing at almost everything Page and Robertson say/sing), but he has that Mike Myers thing going for him… only in Canada!  One other thought on BNL: Were they aware of the implications of searching their full name on YouTube?

Back to Mom’s question:  Were the Beatles lucky?  I guess so, but I think there are degrees of luck for each individual member.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a mixture of skill and luck and 10 being pure luck:

John: 3
Paul: 4
George: 5
Ringo : 11 (actually, I change that to an ‘8’, now recalling Ringo shouting out “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” at the end of Helter Skelter (after the 18th and final take) ).

- Pete

Gem Music Video: If I Had a Million Dollars


About the Video:  Early video of BNL on a Canadian Show that reminds me of Wayne’s World

Video Rating: 1


Best Feedback:  Jen

Hi Pete,

Interesting write up. I like the part about Neil Young and his hearse, and I was curious to read what you'd rate Ringo on the luck scale...I took a guess at "9", before I scrolled down, to the 11. Funny. When my Joe was really little, like 1 or 2, he used to like to hear, "If I had a Million Dollars" come on the radio, in the car. I think he found it fun and easy to sing along to.


And: John

Good video find, Pedro.  That clip must be 18 years old, and it shows what a gifted musician Robertson really is.  I saw them 3 years ago, and they interact and improvise just like that on stage, still.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

GMVW # 48: "Role Playing"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 48:  Role Playing
Song: Lawyers Guns and Money by Warren Zevon
(Songwriter: Warren Zevon)
December 4, 2008

Last week’s Gem was about anger in music.  It’s one of many serious topics in songwriting that give great musicians a reputation.  However, if songwriters were constantly focused on serious topics, they might go stark raving mad!  Every so often, it’s good to let off some steam with a song that is humorous, laid back, fictitious, bizarre, or just plain fun.  If it’s a great song, than it works for everyone.  Several that come to mind include: ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’ (Dylan); ‘Happy Jack’ (The Who); ‘Old King’ (Neil Young); ‘Paranoia’ (The Kinks); ‘Martha My Dear’ (The Beatles); ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ (The Band); ‘Ice Cream for Crow’ (Captain Beefheart) and ‘Feeling Groovy’ (Simon and Garfunkel). 

REM may have taken things a bit too far with ‘Shiny Happy People’.

Only one serious musician I know of pulled this off with an entire album. The musician was Warren Zevon and the album was ‘Excitable Boy’.  Warren Zevon (who died of cancer in 2003) was a musician’s musician, which can be a nice way of saying he appealed more to his peers than he did the general public.  However, his music was diverse and deep, and most anyone who had a chance to see him at a nightclub came away impressed.  Several of his best contributions to rock music include the albums ‘Warren Zevon’ (1976) and ‘Sentimental Hygiene’ (1987), and songs ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ and ‘The Envoy’, but the album ‘Excitable Boy’ was his one real commercial success.  It includes such classics as ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’, ‘Werewolves of London’, ‘Johnny Strikes up the Band’, ‘Excitable Boy’, and this week’s Gem ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’.

‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’ is a great song about the perils of being on the wrong side of the law in a foreign land.  The line ‘the shit has hit the fan’ may be one of the best one-liners in rock history, in this case succinctly summing up the gravity of the character’s situation.  The song is clearly fictional and over-the-top, which gives it a great story-tellers context.  However, the undertones resonate with desperation, allowing anyone who has been in a seemingly improbable situation to connect with the song/story. 

It’s pretty evident that when you are in another country, you try to take that extra step to avoid controversy.  When Bob and I traveled Europe in 1986, our trip came on the heels of several bombings overseas, most notably a Libyan affiliated bombing at a disco tech in Berlin.  The resort areas in Europe that year were devoid of Americans.  Most backpackers wore the flags of their countries (particularly Canadians) to signify they were not from the USA (which I resented).  On a sleeping train heading to Morocco thru Spain, we had a frightful midnight encounter with a Libyan who took offense with my nationality and refused to let us stay in the only cabin with sleeping space remaining on the train.  A red light went off in my head when the situation got heated (I would have had to take a bunk right above the guy and visions of the ‘Friday the 13th’ bunk bed scene danced in my head) so we headed to the end of the train and rolled our sleeping bags out in the hallway.  Another time, we were in the La Grand-Place in Brussels when the Belgians won a World Cup semifinal soccer match, advancing to the final four for the first time in many years.  Belgian hooligans hit the streets and I found myself next to a tipped over car with revelers on top.  Again, the red light went off and I shuffled away. 

Several years later, Nancy and I were entering pre-partitioned Yugoslavia through Trieste Italy, where heavily armed guards were checking passports at the border.  We were unaware that things were already heating up between ethnic groups there, which would soon break the country up into Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Skopje.  These guys were intense when they asked for our passports, but when they saw that we were from Boston one of them smiled and said ‘Larry Bird’.  In this hoop centric part of the world, basketball beat out high anxiety, and they nodded us on our way (the same thing happened at a tunnel thru a mountain pass later in the trip). 

OK, not quite Jean Roche’s escapades in Sub-Saharan Africa or Bob’s likely experiences everywhere in the world (I believe Bob’s been to every country but Outer Mongolia), but intriguing nonetheless (these also pale in comparison to my own experiences in Mobile Alabama, but that’s a story for another time).

The Gem video is an acoustic version of ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’ performed by Warren Zevon.  Below that is a still shot video put together by a fan with the original studio recording of the song.  Below that link are the lyrics to the ‘Lawyers Guns and Money’.

- Pete

Gem Music Video: Lawyers, Guns and Money

Well, I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians, too

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this

I'm the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock and the hard place
And I'm down on my luck
And I'm down on my luck
And I'm down on my luck

Now I'm hiding in Honduras
I'm a desperate man
Send lawyers, guns and money
The shit has hit the fan

Send lawyers, guns and money...


About the Video: Warren Zevon on ‘Words and Music’ BBC 1994

Video Rating: 2


Best Feed back: Dad