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Thursday, April 2, 2009

GMVW # 65: "The True Spice of Life"

Gem Music Video of the Week # 65:  The True Spice of Life
Song:  Sweet Thing by Van Morrison
(Songwriter: Van Morrison)
April 2, 2009

Love can cause bizarre behavior in those afflicted.  Ladies can find themselves tagging along at motocross events, bowling matches and George Thorogood concerts.  Gents may catch themselves singing in the rain, attending an opera, or enjoying Styx music (yow!).  John Lennon was enamored for certain, and his music got softer and softer as he got older.  Although critical of McCartney’s “silly love songs”, toward the end of his life it was getting harder to distinguish Lennon’s music from that of his former songwriting partner.  Closer to home, I believe I’ve seen and heard it all, and have had the opportunity to commiserate with fellow smitten friends and family over the years.  Few moments or conversations can be more memorable than those focused on the true spice of life.

I believe music has always had love as a core theme.  In the late 60’s, however, many rock musicians prided themselves in broadening the horizons for what songs could be about.  They saw musicians from earlier genres as composing songs that were lyrically shallow, rarely expanding beyond the bounds of simple love songs.  From their perspective, the music of the late 60’s tore those walls down.  Songs were written about practically anything, including the key words that define the era:  Peace, protest, and non-conformity. 

Yet through that tumultuous period and beyond, the love song endured in rock music.  It had to.  I can’t think of a single songwriter I respect who has not produced at least one great love song.  In fact, I’m not sure it’s possible to have much talent in music without a core understanding of the main driving force behind it all and the ability to express it in song.  A small sample of great love songs and the artists who penned them include: “Allison” (Elvis Costello), “Love Reign O’er Me” (The Who), “Memory Motel” (The Rolling Stones), “Angelina” (Bob Dylan), “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen) , “Jealous Guy” (John Lennon), “Blue Sky” (The Allman Brothers), “Everyday Clothes” (Jonathan Richman), “Romeo and Juliet” (Dire Straits), “Dreams” (The Cranberries), “Because the Night” (Patti Smith), “A Little is Enough” (Pete Townshend), and “Come In From the Cold” (Joni Mitchell).

One musician from that 60’s era, who has rarely deviated from the love song, is Van Morrison.  In his music you can hear all of the different subjects a love song can be about.  The most obvious, of course are songs where the subject is a significant other, but Morrison sings with equal intensity on other subjects including God, family, friends, home, country, and music.  He even makes a compelling case for his love of water (“It Stoned Me”).  In these ways, his music is very much tied to the traditional music of his home country, Ireland. 

Van the Man’s music has seeped into my life frequently over the years.  Besides catching several of his concerts, two memories bear mention.  The first was already discussed last year around this time, as part of the story line for Gem Video # 14 (Nick Lowe’s “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock n Roll”), so aside from a short intro below for the 2nd url link, I will leave it at that.  The second took place not long after Nancy gave birth to Charlotte.  I had to travel to Colorado for a week-long USGS meeting.  While out there, I took a sunset drive up to a natural amphitheater, Red Rocks, which is tucked in the foothills of the Rockies just west of Denver (this is the location of the famous live footage of U2 performing ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’). 

At the time, I was just getting into Morrison’s album, ‘Tupelo Honey’, and so I popped the cd into the rental car stereo.  A song came on half way through the album, ‘You’re My Woman’, which I had played several times before, but not yet really listened.  The song caught my ear this moment, however, in a big way.  I played it several more times on the way back out of the mountains that night and frequently over the following weeks.  ‘You’re My Woman’ is Van’s ode to his wife and also to all ‘our’ friends who ‘came through’ after his child’s birth.  It was right on in terms of how I experienced the big event.  Unfortunately, there is no video of this song (a limiting factor to Gem Videos), so those compelled can go out and track it down if they have not heard it before, or if you have the album ‘Tupelo Honey’ pop it on the stereo and forward to track 5.  Although primarily a song that brings Nancy to mind, it’s also a song that has me reflecting on all on this list, as everyone did indeed ‘come through’ the weeks after Charlotte’s birth.

Now, on to the Gem…. 

Well, as just explained, Gem’s of great songs can at times be hard to come by, particularly those of Van Morrison, because, as I discussed for an earlier Gem, he is constantly having his ‘gremlins’ removing his videos from the Web, claiming copyright infringement.  That’s ok, I guess….it fits his curmudgeon image (Morrison may write and sing great love songs, but his treatment of the media is another story, an artifact of his disdain for fame).  However, this past year, Van Morrison has been touring his best-ever album, 1968’s ‘Astral Weeks’.  Morrison has opened up a bit since he’s been on tour, and has allowed fans to view parts of his concerts on the web (the window may close soon, however, maybe even tonight).  Gem Video ‘Sweet Thing’ (the title refers to a feeling, not a person) is one of the best songs on the album, and a love song.  Morrison mumbles his way through half of it here (ala Bob Dylan’s approach to live singing in recent years), but the music is intense and includes several of the original musicians from the studio album.  To help translate, I’ve included a live Dylan version of the song… just kidding.  To help translate, I’ve included the lyrics to ‘Sweet Thing’, which can be found after the links.

The second link is also from the recent tour (though not on the ‘Astral Weeks’ album), “Have I Told You Lately?” which is about Morrison’s relationship with God and which was Nancy and my first dance song at our wedding.  I’ve shown this song before (the studio version in an original video), but this live version was hard to pass up.

With that, I wish Nancy a Very Happy Birthday (Saturday), which is what inspired this week’s Gem in the first place! 

-              Pete

Gem Music Video ‘Sweet Thing’ Live at the Hollywood Bowl

“Have I Told You Lately”

Lyrics to ‘Sweet Thing’. 

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst
And I shall watch the ferry-boats
And theyll get high
On a bluer ocean
Against tomorrows sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain

Oh sweet thing, sweet thing
My, my, my, my, my sweet thing
And I shall drive my chariot
Down your streets and cry
hey, its me, Im dynamite
And I dont know why
And you shall take me strongly
In your arms again
And I will not remember
That I even felt the pain.
We shall walk and talk
In gardens all misty and wet with rain
And I will never, never, never
Grow so old again.

Oh sweet thing, sweet thing
My, my, my, my, my sweet thing
And I will raise my hand up
Into the night time sky
And count the stars
Thats shining in your eye
Just to dig it all an not to wonder
Thats just fine
And Ill be satisfied
Not to read in between the lines
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain
And I will never, ever, ever, ever
Grow so old again.
Oh sweet thing, sweet thing
Sugar-baby with your champagne eyes
And your saint-like smile....

_____________________________________

About the video: Live show of Van Morrison performing the Astral Weeks album during a mini 2009 tour.  Likely, it was officially released by Van Morrison for viewing on YouTube.

Video Rating: 1
______________________________________

Best feedback:  Nancy

Hi Hon,
Just got a chance tonight to reach Gem #65.  I'm happy I was able to inspire you. Thanks again for all the birthday wishes. I LOVE all of our week-end (except barfing).  Love you!!
Nancy

______________________________

Also: Jen

A nice write-up, and a great Gem, Pete.

Jen

_____________________________

And: Tina
happy birthday, nancy. and pete, what a lovely gift.
celebrate well,
tina
_______________________________
And Jack
Hi Pete:

  XX       Songs were written about practically anything, including the key words that define the era:  Peace, protest, and non-conformity.
The first song that came to my mind when I read your statement above was "Piggies" by George on the White Album.  :-)  I suspect it was this type of genre that inspired songs like "Tin Soldiers" by Neil Young!

-Jack

________________________

Finally, an exchange between Tim Gilligan and I:

Tim # 1:

Thanks Tom  - good and interesting Gem write-up from Peter.  Just one further thing regarding the reference to Lennon's song style as time went on, with focus on his Beatles period....

If you look the last couple Beatles albums after the White Album ---- while keeping in mind Lennon's brilliance in writing fully half of the early and mid- Beatles' best melodic and/or innovative songs from '63 - '67 --- 1969/1970 was, in my opinion, the least creative Beatles period for Lennon especially (disintegration, really) possibly due to overuse of drugs affecting his work and possibly due to his not caring anymore (as he basically moved on by 1969).  The last couple albums (Abbey Road and Let It Be, if you want to call the second a real Beatles album) have very few Lennon gems, while in contrast most of 1964's "A Hard Day's Night" album was written by Lennon, including "If I Fell", "I'll Be Back", "I Should Have Known Better" - songs that, despite Lennon's media-manufactured reputation as a different kind of songwriter than McCartney, are hallmark early-Beatles melodies. Also, on Rubber Soul (1965) Lennon wrote a majority of the best songs .  After Rubber Soul, however, McCartney would pretty consistently write at least 50% of the best songs on any given album.

In any case, I think it's basically a media-calculated myth that Lennon wrote less melodic stuff but was more innovative than McCartney - if you look at the overall catalog of who wrote what below you have to say that the synthesis of McCartney and Lennon in the Beatles is unusual in songwriting history in that you had a truly non-lopsided songwriting partnership --- in most if not all other groups, one guy is clearly the better songwriter, but not so with Lennon-McCartney
They both had their own melodic styles to some degree, but both were phenomenal at writing simple beautiful melodies as well as complex innovative masterpieces:

http://www.geocities.com/clevebeat/whowrotethat.html

Later,
Tim
---
My reply # 1

Tim

Thanks for the feedback.  I would have to agree with most of the 'whowrotethat' comments.  No doubt, it's McCartney who penned some of the best material on the last 3 Beatles albums (White, Let It Be,

Abbey Road
).  Several of my favorite Beatles songs during this period are McCartney's:  'Martha My Dear', 'Oh Darling' and much of the side-2 'medley' on Abbey Road (an aside on 'Oh Darling':  McCartney wanted a rough vocal, and Lennon offered, but McCartney decided to do it, stretching out his vocal chords by singing ceaselessly for days > I used to think it was Lennon singing). 

However, this Beatles period ('68, '69) kind of fits my discussion of a Gem a few weeks ago about depth vs breadth (Gem = Dire Straits 'Skateaway').  McCartney needed Lennon more than the other way around.  Lennon added the depth to the Beatles (where McCartney supplied the breadth), and this took them into some strange territory.  But it is what made the Beatles fascinating.  If the Beatles were all hits in the late 60's, they would not have connected with the counter culture like they did.  Dylan, and to a lesser degree, The Who, The Stones and others would have left them in the dust. The article was right, however.  Lennon was souring on the Beatles in 1969 and took it out on them (bickering) and himself (drugs).  Immediately after the Beatles broke up, Lennon released 2 of his best ever albums, 'Plastic Ono Band' and 'Imagine'.  He was ready to move on.

This week's comments about Lennon for the Gem video, I was referring primarily to his last 2 albums ('Double Fantasy' and the posthumous 'Milk and Honey')

- Pete
---
Tim # 2

Hi Pete and Tom,

     My own comments, actually - glad you agree with most of it - I forgot that italics + reference usually means attribution to the reference source, while I wrote w/italics for effect only.

     The 'whowrotethat' link is decent, but has some oversimplifications in the list, like attributing A Day In the Life (the main melody/body of this song was [in this case obviously] Lennon's) to both Lennon and McCartney (McCartney having written middle bridge section).  I referenced that website link as I'd remembered seeing the list one time when searching for which Beatle wrote which song, and had found the site before - but as you'll see from other pages on the website, some of the guy's articles seem as though they were copy-pasted from papers for a grade school class.

     I agree with you on excellence of 'Martha My Dear' (one of the best of several great ones by all three major Beatles songwriters on the White Album) and on the excellence of McCartney's

Abbey Road
medley - the latter sounds in a sense like it's the Beatles' farewell.  Regarding Lennon's early and late solo work - while I don't know all of Lennon's '70's stuff, based on what I do know, your assessment of mood/style in his first solo albums vs. his last ones is right.  First time I actually got to hear much of Lennon's '70's work was on a CD at the library music center at the school where I did my Masters, I listened while I worked through some boring math problems and it kept things interesting. 

     Agree with you also on the depth/breadth comparison - for example, I don't think anyone but Lennon could have written the essence of the last song to the Sgt. Pepper's album, a song that makes the album not merely a great collection of songs but rather a complete masterpiece. The song 'Rain' is another innovative mid-Beatles Lennon song (though melodically simple when compared to even many of his early songs) - but then, the songs 'Rain' and 'Paperback Writer' are Lennon and McCartney respectively but in fact are actually extremely similar songs, really --- which makes one wonder if the two writers wrote the songs as contrasting styles for the same basic melody just for experimentation.  They even sing the song 'Frere Jacques' in the background on Paperback Writer, perhaps a musical joke by them that these two songs are actually based on that.

Years ago, I received as a Christmas present a book called The Beatles Recording Sessions - The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes by a guy named Mark Lewisohn (who, I think, is considered the authority on the Beatles) -the book has day-by-day recording session notes/descriptions of what went on (it's a cool rainy-Saturday afternoon book).  It has 1962-1970 session listings of songs worked on, along with which takes of which songs took place each day, and it gives a pretty thorough attribution for who wrote what.  Reading this was a revelation as I didn't grow up in an era that emphasized the Beatles other than superficially, and as a result I had always heard the whole 'Lennon wrote Strawberry Fields, McCartney wrote Yesterday' typecast of them, so I was pretty surprised when I read Lewisohn's work and saw the variety of songs written by both/either Lennon and/or McCartney (with fair regard to Harrison as well of course (in reference to your latest mails)  Lennon himself said that Harrison's 'Something' was the best single song on Abbey Road).  Also read about how much pioneering studio engineering the Beatles, George Martin and their engineers did at - of course - none other than
Abbey Road
Studios itself.

Later,
Tim
---
My reply # 2:

Tim

Very nice.  I like these thoughts, particularly the idea of the
Abbey Road
medley sounding like a Beatles farewell.  It certainly does sound that way, and it goes far beyond the closing lyrics (" and in the end.....").  Everything from "Because" to the closing notes sounds like a goodbye, and done in an amazingly classy way.

Funny, I think that some of Lennon's best songs near the end of the Beatles were on singles that did not make albums: "All You Need is Love", "Ballad of John and Yoko", "Baby You're a Rich Man" (the last of which can truly be attributed to both Lennon and McCartney).  As for the late albums, my fav Lennon songs are 'I'm so Tired', 'Dear Prudence', and 'Across the Universe'.

Lewishon's book sounds intriguing.  My favorite Beatles read is the Anthology book.  One comment, by George about John, has always stuck with me.  Fair or not (to Paul), he discusses the post-acid trip period ('67) thusly:

"John and I had a very interesting relationship.  That I was younger or I was smaller was no longer any embarrassment with John.  Paul still says 'I suppose we looked down on George because he was younger', That is an illusion people are under.  It's nothing to do with how many years old you are or how big your body is.  It's down to what your greater consciousness is and if you can live in harmony with what's going on in creation.  John and I spent a lot of time together from then on and I felt closer to him than all the other, right through until his death.  As Yoko came into the picture, I lost a lot of personal contact with John, but on the odd occasion I did see him, just by the look in his eyes I felt we were connected."

-       Pete
---
Tom interjecting his thoughts:

Very interesting exchanges guys - I enjoyed them a lot, and must admit that while other groups just copied sounds from eachother John, Paul & George marched to unique drummers that trailblazed Rock and Melody music into whole new paths leading up to what we have today.  Jeff Beck just got inducted into the R&RHofFame this weekend, and his good friend Jimmy Page was there to tell of his tremendous influence on millions who now understand so much better, thanks to Jeff, what an electric guitar can do.  So those trailblazers are few and far between - and there will likely never be another band with so much creative talent together again, as The Beatles ... for sure.

Back to cold again - brrrrr ....

Tom
---
My reply # 3 ** after a few disconnected exchnges **

Tim

Don't get the Anthology book.... you can borrow mine for as long as you like.  I will get it to you somehow.

Yes, Jeff Beck was also inducted as a member of the Yardbirds.  A number of musicians have gotten in twice, including the 3 key songwriting Beatles (with the group and as solo artists).  I'm still waiting for Pete Townshend to get in as a solo artist.  He deserves it.  I plan on doing a Gem on the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, as I have a (hopefully) interesting take on it.  Tom, the 3rd member of Cream was Jack Bruce, bassist and primary singer.

Yes, the mid-period Beatles surely rival the late-period Beatles.  Revolver was the first album I really enjoyed as an album and not just a collection of songs.

Back to the White Album.  I just did a quick wiki on it and clicked on the link to what I thought was the most underrated song on the album, Harrison's 'Long, Long, Long'.  I thought I was alone in this thought, but I was amazed what I read:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long,_Long,_Long

- Pete
---
Tim # 3

Thanks Peter - would love to see Anthology book some time, maybe summer, no rush.

On the Rock Hall of Fame - isn't that the institution that won't give an award to Hall & Oates? Even if it's not one's favorite music - this seems odd.

Like Long, Long, Long --- as with

Abbey Road
, George Harrison ended up being on a par with others in producing excellent songs for the last couple of albums (not counting Let It Be, again though it has excellent songs).  They say timing was a lot - All Things Must Pass was hailed as a great album as Harrison's first solo effort, some say the best first solo effort of the four Beatles.  In the case of McCartney, he actually could have released the Abbey Road Medley as part of his own first album McCartney and thus been the solo artist frontrunner for sure, but he didn't.  Also could have taken some beautiful songs he wrote for other groups and artists like Mary Hopkins and done them as part of his first solo album.
---
My reply # 4

Tim
 
I'm not sure about McCartney releasing something like the  medley on his own.  I think it's a lot more complicated than assuming he was creatively independent in the medley
endeavor.  If that was the case, why did he never release anything as good in all his solo efforts?  John,
George and Ringo were still brining out the best in him, and the guitars and backing vocals were absolutely essential to the elite album status of

Abbey Road


George on the other hand, proved he was being creatively restrained in the Beatles when he released 'All Things Must Pass'.  John just wanted out.  He was creatively restrained in a different way, which he proved with the albums 'Plastic Ono Band' and 'Imagine'.
 
 Paul did release a great solo album effort out of the gate as well, 'Ram'. It's not in the same league with the
Abbey Road
medley (or John & George's first solo efforts), but it's darn good. 
 
As for Hall & Oates, I can't go there.
 
 - Pete
---
Tim # 4
 Hi Pete,

This brings up a great point that is one of the central ones for songs & music - what is the source of creativity?  In an interview just after the Beatles, Lennon says the Beatles were a place where he just lost himself to some degree, that he knew he was a genius when he was very young, that he used to 'alpha-out' all the time when he was young, and why wasn't it recognized in school, something to that effect.  I certainly don't think that the source of musical creativity is just musical competence - there are plenty of musicians in local community orchestras with better playing abilities than all of the Beatles - but they will not [and probably can't] write an Abbey Road, a Rubber Soul, a Revolver, a White Album, a Schumann song, a Beethoven, Moody Blues or Mozart piece.  Why didn't McCartney while solo write a 'For No One' again, or an 'Eleanor Rigby' again? 'Another Day' from his solo time is more his Beatles style than most of his later hits though - and I don't know all of his songs to say if I'm completely right on this. Then again, why didn't Lennon write more songs like 'No Reply', 'Girl', or  'Nowhere Man'?  'Watching the Wheels' is definitely a Beatles-level Lennon song though.  Maybe it was just because of what he and they chose to focus on.  Maybe the Beatles were simply best being around each other with George Martin as a sort of father bringing it all together.  A great approximate quote-of-a-quote from George Martin in the studio book I mentioned:
 
 'There will be one Beatle there, fine.  Two Beatles, great.  Three Beatles, fantastic.  But the minute the four of them are there that is when the inexplicable charismatic thing happens, the special magic no one has been able to explain.  It will be very friendly between you and them but you'll be aware of this inexplicable presence.'....[the engineer quoting George Martin also said] "I've never felt it in any other circumstances, it was the special chemistry of the four of them which nobody since has ever had."
     
 The 'alpha-out' thing Lennon mentioned happens to many --- you can just sit down at the piano, zone out and play a melody that just came to you out of nowhere.  McCartney said he really wrote the song 'Martha My Dear' to his muse, 'the voice in his head telling him what words and music to write'.   Also, people can write differently, when deliberately writing a song, depending on what instrument they use - McCartney said this himself about when he's trying to write a song with piano vs. guitar.  I think the creativity part is spiritually linked to some degree, otherwise numerous too-mathematical musical types would be writing many great Beatles-level songs today (they're clearly not if there's any connection with what's on the radio).
 
It may also be a question of one's mood and how time is spent.  Maybe the process of actually showing up at the studio or other places with Lennon and bouncing off song ideas is not to be underestimated.
 
 Later,
Tim
---
My reply # 5
Tim

Now that's what I call a Gem reply!  Great stuff, Tim.  A few thoughts:
 Spiritual link, yes.  Certainly George. At the very least, a different set of priorities. Recall, the Beatles invested their fortunes in the new Apple label in the mid-late 60's.  They were all on board with this, and lost their shirts supporting new talent (including James Taylor) and an Apple Productions payroll that was bloated beyond belief (hangers on).  They were not thinking about the money until the split.  Brian Epstein had a role along with George Martin as a father type.  Lennon has commented that once Epstein died (in '67?) it was the beginning of the end.
After discussing George, John, and Paul's solo debut's it occurred to me that in each case, the debut album may have been the best from each of them.  Certainly Harrison never release another 'All Things Must Pass' level of album.  Interesting, particularly after reading some of what you say below. I'm thinking part of it had to do with connecting with their own eccentricities.  They had already established themselves, so they had nothing to prove after the release of their first set of solo albums.

You zeroed in on Watching the Wheels.  I can tell you have a good taste in Beatles/post Beatles music after these exchanges.
 I like your comment on the local community orchestas... well put.

This all started as a reply to Gem # 65.  I recommend you get the Van Morrison 'Astral Weeks' album.  I believe you will like it.

Happy Easter

- Pete
----
Tim # 5

Hi Pete,

Thanks for the compliment!  Reading your articles is great too, and whereI have knowledge I enjoy commenting where I can.  I will definitely check out Astral Weeks....Van Morrison is truly a guy in the pantheon of modern songwriters.  He's an internationally renowned musician's musician/writer, which is probably why the oft superficial radio failed to play a lot more than just his (hit classic) most famous songs when I was growing up - just like they pretty much never played the Beatles songs I really like the most and which I only heard much later.

Now to your points - a) agreed, George was clearly the most spiritual of the Beatles, and he seemed to have an inner peace about him that related to this - which most other famous musicians certainly didn't seem to have.  Re: creativity and Beatles vs. post Beatles, I think you're right, priorities changed, which is all that needs to happen for these guys to get in a different vein of thinking and therefore songwriting.

b) I read that Lennon called Epstein the fifth Beatle - this may very well have been the case, that maybe their success on many levels owed a great deal to him.  Regardless of the Beatles' individual talents, one has to say that they were at a minimum luckier than average to have such highly intelligent managers and producers working with them, people who could perhaps as easily have worked with Rodgers and Hammerstein as the Beatles.

c) I think you may be right about debuts if you include 'Ram' as a debut - and I'm sure they all felt the need to move on with other life priorities, that the Beatles was in a sense like a suspended adolescence for them in that they probably never had to wake up in the morning and think about what tasks they needed to get done - other than music it was probably pretty much taken care of for them.

d) and e) Thanks - I've gleaned your good taste in theirs and others' music from the emails as well -  also I'll have to listen to more of Harrison's and the others' stuff to hear some of the things I haven't and be able to form a better opinion about their 70's work.  As for the community orchestras comment - I think what I said is correct insofar as sightreading and stuff like that is concerned (virtuoso-type stuff) , but for playing and on-the-spot song creation, unique style of playing, improvisation and just enjoyable sound maybe I stretched it a little, probably not many as good as the four Beatles together - thanks for generosity in not noting that.

Later,
Tim

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