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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Forever Young # 16: "You Can't Be Serious"

Song:  Motorcycle Mama
Album:  Comes a Time
Released:  October, 1978

Some of the great albums of the classic rock era have simple, quirky anomalies on them; songs that don’t quite fit the tone and seriousness of the other tracks that surround these odd ducks.  Yellow Submarine off of ‘Revolver’ is a perfect example, blowing to smithereens any notion that this album has a core concept (regardless, it does little to diminish ‘Revolver’s lofty reputation).  Another one is Squeeze Box off ‘The Who By Numbers’, which nonetheless retains a core concept by the sheer intensity of all the other cuts (a bit more on this below).  There’s also Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream from ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ (an aside: whoever cracks up near the beginning of that song - after the false start - reveals an uncanny laugh-style resemblance to one Jeff Brady), as well as Star Star off of the Stones ‘Goats Head Soup’ (the song – the entire album for that matter – is repetitive and offensive, but somehow very listenable) , and You Can Leave Your Hat On off Randy Newman’s ’12 Songs’ (I admit, this one’s a stretch because the song is so good, but it’s still an anomaly on an otherwise very satirical album).

In all these cases, the tunes are lighthearted and simple, which would be fine and dandy if they fit their surroundings.  But they do not, and so my initial reaction with most of these anomalies was one of annoyance.  I mean for goodness sake,  the masterful ‘Who By Numbers’ is loaded with weighty subject matter depicting thoughts of ageing and isolation…. and then Townshend and friends throw in Squeeze Box?  It’s like inviting a barbershop quartet to sing at a funeral (hmmm…not a bad idea, actually). 

Surprisingly though, many of these songs can leave an indelible mark; even more so than the killer songs from the same albums.  Let’s face it, simple can be catchy, and serious musicians realize they can’t survive on dread alone.  Toss in a top-40 hit (i.e. the Beatles Yellow Submarine or Octopus Garden) or newsmaker (i.e. the Rolling Stones Star Star or Some Girls) and you’ve got the potential to draw in a broader audience.  You live to fight another day.  Even Pink Floyd knew this, as evidenced by their ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ hit Money and their ‘The Wall’ hit Another Brick in the Wall.  The Grateful Dead figured it out eventually with Touch of Grey off ‘In the Dark’ as did Lou Reed with Walk on the Wild Side off of ‘Transformer’.  Not quite ‘odd ducks’ in the way Yellow Submarine and Squeeze Box are… but putting these songs in the context of the artists who penned them, they do stand out.  Yes, there comes a time, I suppose, when a musician’s gotta put some tinsel on the tree – no matter how strong their ideals. 

Neil Young is the king of the anomaly.  With few exceptions, there’s something that can be plucked from virtually every one of his albums that shouts “misfit!”: Off the top of my head, there’s  Farmer John (from  ‘Ragged Glory’); Old King (‘Harvest Moon’); Roll Another Number (‘Tonight’s the Night’); F*!#n’Up (‘Ragged Glory’ again); Piece of Crap (‘Sleeps With Angels’); Dirty Old Man (‘Chrome Dreams II’) Welfare Mothers (‘Rust Never Sleeps’); Too Far Gone (‘Freedom’) and most extreme of them all, T-Bone (off ‘Re-Ac-Tor’)  ** this last one is a doozy, with the repeating mantra “Got Mashed Potatoes; Ain’t Got No T-Bone” sung for an astonishing 9 minutes!

I’ve actually grown accustomed to most of these outliers (even T-Bone, which pulls off the amazing feat of being both hilarious and painful at the same time), and so this week’s entry, Motorcycle Mama (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXy3qIPywDU ) is an ode to all of them.   Why Motorcycle Mama?  Well, first off, it’s fun to sing, which left the door wide open for me to do just that back in 1994; Nancy seven months pregnant, puttering around Block Island on a moped rental with Charlotte in belly-tow.  Secondly, Nicolette Larson’s support vocals are superb on the studio version (playing the role of the protagonist).  Thirdly, the lyrics are just obscure enough to require repeat listening for this reason alone. 

Most important, however, is the thought which hits me with every listen, that being that no matter the album or the circumstances when produced, Neil Young has always found a way to not take himself too seriously.  Motorcycle Mama is a prime example of this.  It reveals something about Young’s character, and may help explain his longevity.  To resist burnout, you have to have fun on occasion.  Not only that, but your band has to have fun as well.  Most of the songs I mention above were done with Crazy Horse.  After hours of brooding music during a live set, I’m sure it can be a relief for Messrs. Talbot, Sampedro, Molina, and Young to let their hair down with something like Motorcycle Mama.   When I’ve seen this song – or any of the songs mentioned above – performed live, it seems to reinvigorate the band.  Same goes for the crowd, as I believe most of us bring the attitude “‘you can toss us heavy concepts, which is what we came here for…. but its ok to chill out a bit too”. 

Other quality bands with longevity have done this to. The Who have a history of taking a break from the weight of their overall material.  After all, Boris the Spider was the most requested song on Who tours when John Entwistle was alive, and the request was quite often granted:  Memories of Pete Townshend stomping on a super-sized spider are equally as etched in my mind as the footage of his earth-shattering guitar work on Sparks at Woodstock or his spellbinding piano playing on I’m One (which I’ve seen live on numerous occasions).  The Stones have done a pretty good job of mixing it up with lighthearted numbers; a giant phallic symbol rolled out for the aforementioned Star Star in the mid-70s, or the giant inflatable ladies-of-the-night hovering over their performance of Honky Tonk Women while on their Steel Wheels tour in ’89.

A little flavor can go a long way.  For Neil Young, it can take the form of immense, exaggerated speakers (symbolizing the world from a child’s perspective – I am a Child - and possibly to also symbolize the enormity of Woodstock – “No More Rain!”); small hooded jawas (“road eyes”) scurrying about the stage; or an angry Dad with a pitchfork chasing the band around the stage during a performance of Farmer John (“I’m in love with your daughter…. Whoa!”).

Or, as in the case of Motorcycle Mama, the flavor can weave its way in purely through the music.  There can be a strange sort of beauty in simplicity, repetition and fun.  Easy-access, upbeat lyrics can materialize out of thin air in a spontaneous personal moment far more readily than the heady stuff.  When I attend a concert and hear a rendition of a song like Motorcycle Mama, I can almost see the communal memories of the crowd rising to the rafters, be they of an old friend, a favorite car, a classic road trip….

…. or an expectant mom-to-be riding a moped.

-          Pete

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