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random friday, 1976 edition: david bowie, “stay”

Last week I spent a lot of time quoting and analyzing lyrics, while gushing over one of my favorites, Patti Smith. That’s not happening this week. First off, while I am a fan of David Bowie, my fandom is minor … I’m not a super fan, and I don’t intend to come across as more knowledgeable than I am. Second, this week’s song, “Stay,” which is perhaps my favorite of all Bowie songs, includes lyrics that I find inscrutable. Third, I don’t care about that, because I don’t love the songs for the lyrics. I love it for the guitars.

When I saw that “Stay” had been coughed up by shuffle play, I was happy, because of those guitars, but then I realized I don’t know a whole lot about the part I love. On the Station to Station recording, and in many of the subsequent live performances, Earl Slick shreds his way through some mighty solos. But the opening riff, which is just as crucial to the song’s success? Hopefully someone will read this and clarify things for me, but to the best of my knowledge, it’s Carlos Alomar who came up with that irresistible beginning.

This post will be fairly unenlightening, because I don’t have anything brilliant to say about Bowie, and while I know what kind of guitar I like, I am no music theorist, so I don’t really know how to put into words what these guys are doing. So I’ll just note that apparently Bowie was so fucked up on drugs that he barely remembers making the album, and it doesn’t matter.

And I realize it’s a bit silly going on about guitar players when the topic is David Bowie … his career encompasses much more than what I’m talking about here. It’s as if I said Mick Ronson is what made Aladdin Sane great. That might be true for gee-tar freaks like me, but Bowie’s the artist here. But shuffle play gave us “Stay,” not something from Hunky Dory.

First, the original, for those who haven’t heard it or don’t remember it. You’ll hear that great opening (let’s just give credit to Alomar until someone tells us different), you’ll hear the booming bass at the bottom, you’ll hear the funky drumming … and yes, it’s kinda weird hearing the Thin White Duke performing funk, but hey, it works. Eventually, you’ll hear Earl Slick’s soloing.

Next, a 1976 TV appearance on … the Dinah Shore show!

From 1978 … Adrian Belew takes both guitar parts, is quite impressive, but somehow less interesting than Alomar/Slick:

In 2000, Slick is back:

more malcolm mclaren

Another friend offers up an intelligent, detailed response to the life and work of Malcolm McLaren:

The Meaning of Malcolm McLaren

It is safe to say that every single person for whom I have great respect, who has sounded off on McLaren since his death, has written positively about his work and influence. I haven’t felt this much out of the loop since Frank Zappa died and I expressed a hostile “good riddance.” I will say this: champions of McLaren make a far better case for the man than do Carpenters’ fans for the object of their affection. Although, now that I think of it, a lot of the people writing so eloquently about McLaren are also fans of the Carpenters. I feel like climbing in bed with an old record player, listening over and over again to a 45 of Charlie Feathers singing “One Hand Loose” and reminiscing about the good old days … although since I was only three years old when “One Hand Loose” was released, I’d be reminiscing about something I didn’t actually experience in its original state. Not for the first time, either.

damages season (series?) finale

Robin was away on vacation last week, so I’m a week behind on TV watching, which explains why this is late. Not sure anyone cares, since I don’t know anyone who watches Damages, but then, I’ve been saying that since it started. In fact, I’ve ended each season wondering if the show would be renewed, and this time the prospects are dim. The finale didn’t play like a series finale, although it wasn’t a bad way to go out.

The finale managed to explain most of the inscrutable plot shenanigans of the season, but outside of adding a dazzling sheen, the plot is not the point of Damages. It’s just an excuse to give us the scheming Patty Hewes, one of the great characters, with Glenn Close playing it just right, never quite chewing the scenery, but always suggesting complexity. Over the course of three seasons, we’ve learned time and again that Patty will go to great lengths to achieve her goals … that she is often fighting for the underprivileged is less important than that she is extremely ambitious and she gets what she wants, always at a great price to herself. This time, we learn that when she was leaving law school and preparing for her career, she had to decide between that career and the smalltown life she was looking at thanks to being pregnant and close to term. We don’t know just how intentional her actions were … we know that she feels guilt … her doctor tells her to spend the last weeks in bed, she instead goes on a long walk and miscarries. This is a woman who in essence killed her baby in order to have a career … and it’s not out of character for her as we’ve come to know her. Once she gets around to having a kid, she’s such a bad mother than her son tries to kill her, so it’s not like a good family life is in the cards for her. Still, in the last scene, when Ellen Parsons notes that Patty has accomplished everything she wanted and asks if it was worth it … Patty’s face is impassive, she hides behind her shades, and that’s how Damages ends. If she had said yes, it would have made sense … if she had said no, it would have made sense … that she said nothing made the most sense of all.

And, as I’ve said in the past, it’s always worth noting: this woman was the central character in the show. There is a long history of anti-heroes in TV who are bad at the core, but who for whatever reason keep an audience riveted to the screen. They are usually men: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey come to mind. Patty Hewes claimed that ground for women, and I wonder if that explains why Damages was never very popular … maybe people don’t want women with balls. It’s also possible that the maze-like plots and jumbled structure of the show threw people off. Maybe people just didn’t want to watch a show where pretty much every character was troubled at best and, more often, just scummy. Me? When we started to whittle down all the shows on the DVR, I wanted to watch Damages first. I loved the show.

random friday, 1975 edition: patti smith, gloria

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

Prior to the release of her first album, Patti Smith released a single with “Hey Joe” as the A-side. Her version doesn’t age well … she imagines a revolutionary Patty Hearst in the title role … and the single is now best remembered for Smith’s first great song, the B-side, “Piss Factory.” But “Hey Joe” hinted at what was to come. Smith took a classic rock tune that had been recorded countless times, kept the basic theme, changed most of the words, added her own poetry, and grounded it all in equal parts of love for poems and rock & roll.

Van Morrison’s “Gloria” is a true rock classic, a fired-up piece of raunch with a great vocal, an irresistible sing-along chorus, and some “dirty” lyrics that sound extremely tame today (“and then she comes to my room”), but which admittedly sound pretty nasty when Van the Man sings them. (If you think I’m kidding about how lyrics were treated in those days, note that some stations wouldn’t play Them’s version of the song because of those seven words … when the Shadows of Knight knocked off an inferior version that replaced the part where she came to his room, it got played on the radio, no problem.)

So, what does Patti Smith do with this song of such elemental greatness? Starts with poetry, of course! A soft piano and bass open the track, and then Patti sings:

Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone
My sins my own
They belong to me, me

The guitar and drums join in, and a slow build up begins:

People say “beware!”
But I don't care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me

Now we’re getting chords from the guitar … the song is gradually getting louder. The tempo picks up, and we start getting a hint of the Morrison original:

I walk in a room, you know I look so proud
I'm movin' in this here atmosphere, where anything's allowed
And I go to this here party and I just get bored
Until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing
Humpin' on the parking meter, leanin' on the parking meter
Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling and then I'm gonna ah ah make her mine
Ooh I'll put my spell on her

Sometimes a woman will sing a song written by a man, without changing the gender of the pronouns, and people say “whoa, how transgressive, she’s singing to a woman!” Most of the time, at least in the days of classic rock, it was treated as the singer being true to the song … no one really thought she wanted the woman. But Patti Smith has taken over from Morrison, she’s changing the words, hell, she isn’t using his words at all yet, and damn, she wants to make that sweet young thing her own:

Here she comes
Walkin' down the street
Here she comes
Comin' through my door
Here she comes
Crawlin' up my stair
Here she comes
Waltzin' through the hall
In a pretty red dress
And oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks so fine
And I got this crazy feeling that I'm gonna ah ah make her mine

The intensity of the music increases to match the intensity in the lyrics and in Smith’s performance. She still hasn’t gotten around to Morrison’s actual lyrics, but is there any doubt what song this is? And Patti ain’t no Shadows of Knight … this woman is gonna come to her room:

And then I hear this knockin' on my door
Hear this knockin' on my door
And I look up into the big tower clock
And say, “oh my God here's midnight!”
And my baby is walkin' through the door
Leanin' on my couch she whispers to me and I take the big plunge
And oh, she was so good, oh, she was so fine
And I'm gonna tell the world that I just ah-ah made her mine

To be honest, by this point, I’m not sure Patti has “made her mine” … if anything, it’s the other way around. And at this point of expectation, as we wait to see what will happen next, as the band kicks it into the highest gear … it’s at this point that Patti finally calls on Morrison’s lyrics. It’s the time for release:

I said darling, tell me your name, she told me her name
She whispered to me, she told me her name
And her name is, and her name is, and her name is, and her name is

Patti and Gloria are one. When other women call out to Patti, she thinks only of the big tower clock chiming “DING DONG DING DONG!” and she’s back to taking the big plunge with Gloria. And then:

And the tower bells chime, “DING DONG!” they chime
They're singing, “Jesus died for somebody's sins … but not mine.”

And that, dear producers of Glee, is how to do a cover version.

Here’s the song, no video, if you missed it somehow back in 1975:

Here’s a rather druggy version from 1979, that manages to go on for ten minutes while leaving out an entire verse:

A 2007 version … she’s 60 years old in this one, folks. As one YouTube commentator said, “Can I have her for my grandmother?”

Here she is, being interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1978:

And, last but not least, here she is in 1979, singing “You Light Up My Life” on a kids’ TV show with the composer, Joseph Brooks. I saw her sing this in the 70s … no Joe Brooks at that one, though:

(I don’t usually quote so many lyrics in these posts, but this is Patti Smith we’re talking about. Just in case it’s not obvious, the above lyrics are copyright Patti Smith.)

glee, madonna, and me

I’ll try to make this my last Glee post. I know I’m irritating the show’s fans, and I know in the end the main problem is that it’s just not a show for me, but it has enough going for it that I’ve stuck it out even though I probably shouldn’t bother.

I’ll cut to the chase, the performance of “Like a Prayer” that closed the show (and that apparently went unwatched by many DVR users after American Idol ran over and pushed Glee forward a few minutes in the process). I should admit upfront that “Like a Prayer” is my favorite Madonna song, and, as I argued awhile back, the more I like a song, the less I like hearing it on Glee. There are a lot of versions of “Like a Prayer” by Madonna … I’m partial to those that begin with her plaintive query, “God?”, sounding not just like someone about to pray, but also like someone on a first-name basis with the deity. The video of “Like a Prayer” is, to my mind, one of the greatest music videos ever, although my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt, because I’m old and for the most part I don’t “get” videos. But don’t take my word for it … it won the Viewer’s Choice Award at the ‘89 MTV VMAs.

More to the point, the video is just as confrontational as its reputation. The Catholic imagery, burning crosses, primal American race fantasies, and the mixture of sex and religion is still startling. In 2005, MTV listed “100 Videos That Broke the Rules” … “Like a Prayer” was #1. The next year, MTV viewers voted it the “Most Groundbreaking Video of All Time.”

The Madonna episode of Glee spent a lot of time talking about how the spirit of Madonna’s art was so powerful, it changed people’s lives. But the episode just rode on Madonna’s coattails … it was, in the end, a sadly conservative presentation. “Like a Prayer” was devoid of pretty much everything that makes it great in the first place. If you didn’t see it, trust me, there was no rule breaking, no groundbreaking, nothing confrontational or transgressive about Glee’s version of the song. It was presented just like most of the songs on Glee, in, to state the obvious, a Glee Club version. This is why in the end, this show isn’t for me. Simply put, I do not believe every popular song ever written is best presented in a Glee Club format. Glee’s “Like a Prayer” wasn’t any closer to the core of the song than if it had been performed by a barbershop quartet. To say nothing of the way they chopped the song in half, turning a six-minute epic into a three-minute commercial for positivity.

I suspect this will be the last time I watch Glee.

a fine anecdote

Robert Elisberg passes this along, in a tribute to the greatness that is Ron Santo, the should-be-a-Hall-of-Famer who announces Cubs games with Pat Hughes:

Ron Santo is a force of nature. One night in Milwaukee, Santo saw an opposing pitcher and was reminded of another player. For 10 bewildering, frustrating minutes, he kept trying to think of the name, getting more maddened by each agonizing minute. Finally, he realized who it was the pitcher reminded him. It was – the pitcher himself! Pat Hughes politely chimed in, “Proving once again, folks, that we do this live.”

cause the bible tells me so

Sometimes, it isn’t enough to express disgust on Twitter or Facebook. You’ve got to go to the blog. And so …

The Dodgers beat the Giants today on a Manny Ramirez home run. Among the spectators was Brian Wilson, the Giants’ best relief pitcher, who was watching from the bullpen.

You see, Giants manager Bruce Bochy didn’t bring in Wilson, opting instead for Sergio Romo, because … and I haven’t heard Bochy say this, but we all know it’s true, and lots of other people are saying it in his support … he used Romo because it was the 8th inning and Romo’s an 8th-inning pitcher. He didn’t use Wilson because Wilson is a 9th-inning pitcher. With the game on the line, Bochy had his best pitcher for the occasion watching from the bullpen, because that’s what the book tells him to do.

If you don’t use your best relief pitcher at the most crucial point of the game, when will you use him?