Thursday, November 21, 2019

Judas Priest: This Is Spinal Tap

You guys know that Judas Priest was widely considered a joke, right? I mean, you don’t need me to tell you this, but when Beavis was singing “Breakin’ the LAW, breakin’ the LAW,” that was a Judas Priest song. That’s who the band was thought to appeal to: degenerate Arizona high-school truants.

Somebody must have liked them, because the Priest was allowed to release a dozen albums by the time Beavis and Butt-Head rolled around. Then in 1998 lead singer Rob Halford, a pioneer of the leather-and-studs look, came out, and rendered the entire band’s career retroactively more deserving of attention. Unfortunately, it didn’t make their music any better.

What Makes Them Different: Obviously, Halford’s sexuality is the most culturally impactful thing about the band at this point, and I don’t mean to downplay that. The band always had a streak of barely contained violence about it – their 1978 album Killing Machine was renamed Hell Bent for Leather in the U.S., which I suppose is a little better – which becomes much more interesting when you know the songs are being sung by a closeted gay man.

That violent streak got them noticed by Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Research Center in the mid-1980s, notably for the lyric “I’m gonna force you at gunpoint to eat me alive.” “In a uniquely British way,” guitarist K.K. Downing later explained, “Rob’s S&M lyrics were intended to be tongue in cheek.”

When he was preparing to make This Is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner went to a Judas Priest concert as part of his research.

By the Numbers: Four platinum albums, although they never had a Top Ten album in the U.S. until the inevitable sporadic reunion albums started coming out in the last few years. No Top Forty hits; the Priest’s biggest single, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” peaked at Number Four on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts in 1981.

Will They Go In? This is the Priest’s second nomination, but if they didn’t get in the first time, I don’t know what’s going to be different this time. If you like 1970s-style metal, there are better choices on the ballot.

Should They Go In? Judas Priest is extremely not my cup of tea, but even given that, I don’t see the case here. Being a poor man’s Black Sabbath is not something to write home about. Ordinarily, my top priority for a band is their cultural influence, and Halford has certainly made their career – and the fans they drew in through the late 1970s and 1980s -  more fascinating to think about. But he hasn’t made the music fun to listen to. If Judas Priest gets in, the door is wide open for Uriah Heep. I vote NO.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Soundgarden: In Disguises No One Knows

Soundgarden was arguably the first of the Seattle grunge bands that emerged into national prominence the early 1990s. The late Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil, the core members, were making music together as early as 1984, and put out their first recordings in 1986. They will be forever compared - unfavorably - to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but they predated both those bands. They were also the most metal-ish of the major grunge bands, once touring as the opening act for Skid Row.

Like most things grunge, Soundgarden didn’t show a lot of staying power. Their heyday consisted of five studio albums before the band combusted in 1997. Cornell, weirdly, blamed the fans: “You feel like fans have paid their money and they expect you to come out and play them your songs like the first time you ever played them,” he said. “That's the point where we hate touring.” As with every band ever, they did regroup for the inevitable sporadic reunion albums and tours, before disbanding for good following Cornell’s death in 2017.

What Makes Them Different: Soundgarden’s music was melodic enough that my son’s high school marching band once interpolated part of “Black Hole Sun” into their halftime show. Given that, it’s a little surprising that they didn’t have more success on the pop charts, but “Black Hole Sun” didn’t even make the Hot 100, although it was a No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart and No. 2 on the Alternative charts.

There’s a wonderful anecdote in Mark Yarm’s book Everybody Loves Our Town where Cornell talks about Susan Silver, who would later become his wife but who was at the time managing several of the bands on the Seattle scene. The guys in Soundgarden were acting like regular rock & roll louts, peeing against a wall in some rock club, when Silver admonished them that someone very much like the boys’ mother was eventually going to have to clean that up, so they should cut that right out. I read this a long time ago, so if I have some details wrong, please correct me, but this struck me as the grunge version of the famed Motown charm school. That should have been their motto: Soundgarden – we won’t pee on the wall.

At first, the band was a real Rainbow Coalition: Thayil’s parents both emigrated from India, and original bassist Hiro Yamamoto was Japanese-American. Cornell was mostly a boring white guy, but at least he was half-Jewish.

By the Numbers: Three platinum albums, six Number One hits on the U.S. Alternative rock charts, two Grammys (for “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”)

Will They Go In? Without the cultural impact of Nirvana or the staying power of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden will always be a distant third in the grunge sweepstakes. I’m guessing they don’t go in, at least not yet.

Should They Go In? Their moment passed very quickly, and I haven’t felt a lot of reverberations from their legacy. They wouldn’t lower the standards of the Hall, but for the moment, I’m voting NO on Soundgarden.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Doobie Brothers: Ain't Got No Worries, Cuz I Ain't In No Hurry

Come on, admit it: You thought the Doobie Brothers were already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How could Chicago and the Steve Miller Band be in there and not the Doobies? Their own brand of 70s pop/classic rock has survived as strongly as those other bands, not to mention that of nonentities like Deep Purple and Kiss.

But the Doobies haven’t even been nominated before this year, which seems more like an oversight than anything else, not because they were so innovative or memorable but because they belong to a genre and generation that has been overly rewarded by the R&R HoF. So here, at last, they are.

What Makes Them Different: Maybe one reason the Doobies haven’t been recognized till now is that they were really two different bands, turning their personnel (and sound) almost entirely over between 1971’s Doobie Brothers, with its NorCal choogling boogie, and the yacht rock of 1980’s Minute by Minute (their last real album before the inevitable sporadic reunion records).  Ponytailed guitarist Patrick Simmons was the only connective tissue between the two. There aren’t a lot of bands that can survive turning over their frontman and lead songwriter, but the Doobies actually got stronger, at least in terms of the pop charts, when Michael McDonald took the helm.

McDonald, by the way, initially joined the band as a temporary touring member when original lead singer Tom Johnston took sick with an ulcer. McDonald was recommended by guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who had worked with him in Steely Dan. Baxter, of course, is the former chair of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense.

The most singular record in the Doobies’ career is Simmons’ “Black Water,” which went to Number One in 1974. With its use of wind chimes and viola as lead instruments, and an a cappellla bridge that producer Ted Templeman later claimed he stole from his old vocal group Harper’s Bizarre, “Black Water” didn’t sound like anything else on the radio in 1974. It still doesn't sound like anything else on the radio. The Doobies really didn’t know what to do with it: “Black Water” initially surfaced as the B-side to the lead single from What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits; after the album seemed to have stiffed, “Black Water” was the third single released, and the Doobies had their first Number One hit.

By the Numbers: Six platinum studio albums, including one Number One (Minute by Minute); 16 Top Forty hits, five top Tens, including two number Ones (“Black Water,”  “What a Fool Believes”)

Will They Get In? This is maybe the biggest no-brainer on the ballot. The Hall of Fame has been exceptionally kind to bands like the Doobie Brothers.

Should They Get In? Not a lot of bands encapsulate two little eras of rock music, but the Doobies were one of the best of the post-hippie bands of the early 1970s and one of the best of the yacht rock acts of the late 1970s. And “Black Water” still sounds like magic. What the heck, I’m in a good mood: I’ll vote YES for the Doobie Brothers.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Crazy for Trying

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century
"Crazy" (Willie Nelson, 1961)

On June 14, 1961, just as her single “I Fall to Pieces” was slowly climbing the charts, Patsy Cline and her brother Sam were in a car accident in Nashville. The impact threw Cline into the windshield, nearly killing her. When help arrived, Patsy insisted that the other car's driver be treated first, but ended up instead watching the other driver die. Cline spent a month in the hospital, with a broken wrist and dislocated hip, as well as a somewhat disfiguring cut across her forehead that required stitches.

But she had to go back to work.  On August 17, Cline stood on crutches and tried to negotiate a new song, “Crazy,” by Willie Nelson. Nelson had just moved to Nashville in 1960, but had already landed “Hello Walls” with Faron Young and “Night Life” with Ray Price. He had written those songs, as well as “Crazy,” in one two-week writing binge while he was still living in Houston.

Nelson had offered “Crazy” to a country singer named Billy Walker, who turned it down as too much of a “girl’s song.” Patsy’s husband, Charlie Dick, heard some of Willie’s songs on a jukebox, then requested a batch of Nelson's demos from his publishing company. He was excited enough about "Crazy" to get it to Patsy.

She hadn’t even head the song before the recording session, and hated it at first. “I had problems immediately with my song ‘Crazy’ because it had four or five chords in it,” Nelson later said. “Not that ‘Crazy’ is real complicated; it just wasn’t your basic three-chord country hillbilly song.”

Patsy also had a hard time reaching the high notes with her injured ribs. She spent four hours on “Crazy” that evening, and still wasn’t satisfied with it, although producer Owen Bradley saved the instrumental track they recorded that night. Patsy came back when her ribs were feeling better and nailed the vocal in one take.

“Crazy” became Patsy Cline’s biggest-ever pop hit, her only Top Ten there, although it stalled at Number Two on the country charts towards the end of 1961. “All my recent hits have come true in my life,” Cline said. “I had a hit out called 'Tra-La-La Triangle,' and people thought about me and Gerald and Charlie. I had another hit out called 'I Fall to Pieces,' and I was in a car wreck. Now I'm really worried because I have a new hit single out, and it's called 'Crazy'.”

Well, she didn’t go crazy, but she did die in a plane crash less than two years after the song’s release. Patsy Cline was 30 years old.

Nelson released his own version on his 1962 debut album, …And Then I Wrote, which really should have had the ellipsis on the other end. Linda Ronstadt’s version went to the Top Ten on the country charts in 1977, although it never made the pop charts. LeAnn Rimes cut it in 1999, and Julio Iglesias, Dottie West, and even Chaka Khan have put out their own versions. Chaka turns it into a jazz tune, and kills it, as you would expect.

The weirdest turn in the “Crazy” saga came when Ross Perot adopted it as his presidential campaign theme song in 1992. ''There are millions of 'crazy' people in this country,'' he said the day before the election. ''And I bet tomorrow will be a crazy day at the polls.'' It wasn’t, really. For most people, using “Crazy” as an election theme song would have been political suicide, but for Perot, it just reinforced his brand.

Willie says that Patsy Cline's version of "Crazy" is his favorite rendition of any of his songs. Here's Patsy:

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Spirits Rise and Their Dance Is Unrehearsed

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century
"Evergreen" (Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams, 1976)

Early on in the version of A Star Is Born that was uploaded to Netflix a few months ago, there's a scene in which Barbra Streisand shows a song to Kris Kristofferson, playing the rock star who has stumbled into Streisand's small-time nightclub act the night before. Streisand explains that she hasn't written words for it yet, but picks out the chords on an acoustic guitar as she signs the wordless melody. It's gorgeous, of course; it's "Evergreen."

When I watched this scene, there were a few things I didn't know about it. (It was the first time I had seen any of the iterations of A Star Is Born.) First of all, I didn't know that it had been cut from the theatrical release and had been restored for the Netflix version in what you might call the director's cut, if we're willing to admit that Streisand has always been the real director for all her pictures. 

“I can’t believe that I, as the person who had final cut of that movie, cut myself out of that scene because I was just looking at the pace," Streisand later said. "I didn’t realize what I was cutting out until much later." 

What I also didn't realize is that the scene was autobiographical. Streisand herself composed the music to the song, then went to Paul Williams, who was writing all the other music for the film, to help with the lyrics. 

"The first thing she did, she said, 'Can you use this?'" Williams said. "She picked up a guitar and I said, 'Oh my God, it's beautiful.' She was like a little kid. It's a side of her I'd never seen before. She was like, 'You really like it?' I said, 'Like it? It's our love theme.'" 

Williams wrote the lyrics in a day. "The only thing that the finished song had that was different from the way it is now is the first two lines were switched," he said. "I wrote 'Love, fresh as the morning air/ Love, soft as an easy chair.' That 'easy' doesn't sing good. I called her up, and said, 'How's that?' She said, 'Fine.' Click. I thought, 'You do go on, don't you?'" Those lyrics are awfully good:

Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed

They warm and excite us
Cuz we have the brightest

In the version of A Star Is Born that was released in 1976, "Evergreen" is finally seen onscreen when Streisand and Kristofferson sing it together in the studio, as their love affair has blossomed, and Streisand's joy in the singing of it, in the moment of them uniting, is palpable. "When I do sing the song with a lyric and it’s with Kris, the lyric is about him now," Streisand said later. "It adds more depth to their love affair.” 

Streisand insisted on singing it live in the studio, to present the most natural possible version of it. Kristofferson, who you would think would be more a of professional musician, was reluctant to perform it live. Frankly, he comes across as a bad singer, and kind of a pain in the ass. Nevertheless, it's a tremendous performance:

So the biggest question about this song is: Barbra Streisand wrote it? Really? I've seen speculation like this dismissed as sexism, which may be part of it, but more than that I think it's because Streisand hardly wrote any other songs. Throughout the 1970s, she would occasionally get a co-writing credit or two on her solo albums - but the one song anyone is aware of her writing is this gem? A song so good some people (i.e., yours truly) call it one of the Greatest Songs of the 20th Century? That seems far-fetched, but there's no evidence to the contrary that I can see.

I am reluctant to include any songs in this series that haven't been recorded, and ideally made into hits, by multiple artists. Although "Evergreen" has become a signature song for Streisand, it has been covered by lots of people, including Johnny Mathis, Luther Vandross, and Broadway's Marin Mazzie. I have heard an unreleased rendition by none other than the Chairman, Frank Sinatra, but his voice cracked on the last chorus, and he apparently never made another attempt at it.

One reason I like to hear multiple version of a song before I anoint it is so that I can be sure it's the song whose excellence I'm hearing, not just the performance. If "Evergreen" falls short of that standard, well, go make your own list. 

But really, no one is ever going to own this song besides Barbra Streisand. Wish she would write more.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

There's a Somebody I'm Longing to See

Greatest Songs of the 20th Century:
"Someone to Watch Over Me"
(George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, 1926)

It never fails to amaze me how young so many songwriters are when they create the works that have endured throughout the decades. George Gershwin composed and first performed “Rhapsody in Blue” when he was all of 25. After that landmark, George began teaming up with his older brother, lyricist Ira, to write Broadway shows, starting with Lady, Be Good, which was an instant hit in 1924, starring as it did Fred and Adele Astaire.

In 1926, the Gershwin brothers wrote Oh, Kay!, with its rapturous centerpiece, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” The song was originally written as an uptempo rhythm number, until George played it at a slower pace, and the brothers immediately knew that’s how it was meant to be. It was sung onstage by Gertrude Lawrence as she held a Raggedy Ann doll, a gift from the composer.

What’s most striking about “Someone to Watch Over Me” is the gorgeous melody of its choruses, the gently falling phrases that fairly swoon as the tune proceeds. If I knew anything about music, I would explain this to you, but I have found an essay by a musicologist named Allen Forte that describes “the pentatonic scale that ascends from E flat1 to E flat2 to arrive on apex pitch F2 ([on the word] “longing”) and the slow, sequential descent, each bar of which presents a descending third.” It sounds simple the way Forte describes it, but if it were that simple, someone else would have done it, and only George Gershwin actually did it.

But Ira’s lyrics almost match his brother’s melody with their beauty. “Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed” is a lovely, unexpected turn. (When I first heard this song, I assumed that's the way people spoke in 1926, but they didn't.) “He may not be the man some/Girls think of as handsome” is even more spectacular, illustrating the old notion that men fall in love with women they find attractive, while women find attractive the men that they fall in love with. It's also a sly, somewhat self-deprecating commentary a la “My Funny Valentine,” plus a rhyme scheme worthy of Neil Diamond.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” was considered the standout song from Oh, Kay! right from the beginning. One source I’ve found says that Gertrude Lawrence’s original recording peaked at Number Two on the charts in early 1926, although it’s not clear to me which charts this refers to. George Gershwin’s own version made the same charts that year as well, as did an upbeat rendition by George Olsen and His Orchestra.

It became a jazz standard, being recorded by both Coleman Hawkins and Artie Shaw in 1945. In the 1950s the song was done by the real heavyweights of the American songbook, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, as well as Blossom Dearie in what has become the consensus best version of the song, which also gives me the opportunity to remind you once again that Blossom Dearie was indeed her real name. In more recent times, "Someone to Watch Over Me" has been covered by Willie Nelson, Amy Winehouse and Sting. Wait, Sting?

It's a good thing George Gershwin did all that composing at such a young age, because at the age of 38, he began suffering blinding headaches and hallucinations. He went to the hospital, which sent him home with a diagnosis of "likely hysteria." Three weeks later, he was dead from a brain tumor. Ira temporarily retired from lyric-writing for three years, before re-emerging to work with the likes of Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen. Ira died in 1986, 28 days before Amy Winehouse was born.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ballot Roundup

Every year I embark on this project with every intention of writing up a well-researched, insightful essay on each of the nominees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Every year I fall short of getting the full slate completed, and am happy if I am able to cough up one well-researched essay and another one that’s insightful.

Ballots were due today, and I assume the results will be announced tomorrow, which means there’s not much point in carrying on. But at least I got an entry done for each of the new nominees, which means that I have set forth my thoughts on all 15 candidates at some point over the past couple of years. For the ones who didn’t get new essays this year, here’s where you can find my thoughts, such as they are, on each of them:

Let’s wrap this up by making it like the Academy Awards, where they’ve stopped saying “The winner is…” and started saying “The Oscar goes to…” because there are no losers here, except possibly those dorks in Devo. This year, my choices for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were:
  • The Cure
  • Janet Jackson
  • Kraftwerk
  • Radiohead
  • Rufus and Chaka Khan

  • Thanks for reading. See you next year, everybody.

    Todd Rundgren: We Can't Play This Game Anymore

    Todd Rundgren was always meant to be a producer. He knocked around in the Nazz as a very young man, releasing Nazz and Nazz Nazz on SGC Records but leaving the band at the age of 20. Dissatisfied with the production of the Nazz albums, he moved to New York and signed on with Albert Grossman as kind of a staff producer for his short-lived Ampex Records. He worked on some sessions with Janis Joplin for what became Pearl, then engineered the Band’s Stage Fright in 1970.  

    At that point, Rundgren emerged as one of the most important producers in rock. He helmed Badfinger’s classic Straight Up, from 1971, still just 23 years old. In 1973, he produced the New York Dolls self-titled debut and Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band, at opposite ends of the critical spectrum.

    In 1977, he handled Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, one of the most significant records of that year, although not necessarily in the good way, then produced the last Patti Smith Group album, Wave. His power-pop rep was well-suited for the New Wave acts that began coming up, like the Psychedelic Furs and XTC, whose Skylarking would soon be acclaimed as one of the best albums of the 1980s (and I’m not just saying that to get a retweet from JHB).

    But of course, there’s also the solo work. After leaving the Nazz (and while I usually see it referred to as "Nazz," I also see quotes where Rundgren calls it "the Nazz," so that's what I'm going with) Rundgren founded a band called Runt with future Tin Machiners Hunt and Tony Sales. He ended up being mostly a one-man band there, and their second album was called Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. “We Gotta Get You a Woman” was on the first one, and reached Number 20 on the charts in 1970.

    Then came Something/Anything? in 1972, a true solo album with hits rolling off of it, including “I Saw the Light” and “Hello It’s Me,” a leftover from the Nazz days. Then the Rundgren train ran out of steam, with a series of albums getting more and more ignored aside from the 1978 Top 30 hit “Can We Still Be Friends.” He returned with a new band, Utopia, that had just enough success not to be forgotten completely. “Bang the Drum All Day,” from 1982’s The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, ended up as the American “Rock & Roll Part II,” not even charting when it was first released but turning into an arena anthem.

    Rundgren keeps releasing albums, but none of them since Tortured Artist has even made the Billboard Hot 100.

    The Matched Set Chic had a nice run as a chart act, with four Top Ten hits from 1977 to 1979, but what really made their legacy was Nile Rodgers’ subsequent work as a producer. They’ve been nominated nearly a dozen times but have never been selected for the Hall of Fame.

    The Verdict I really like Todd Rundgren’s music a lot. The more I researched his case, the more I realized that his dossier is pretty thin. He’s put out an awful lot of music, but very little of it has made an impact. His producing career, on the other hand, is more impressive than I thought at first glance, but not enough to garner my vote. I vote No on Todd Rundgren.

    Saturday, December 8, 2018

    Roxy Music: There Is Nothing More Than This

    Bryan Ferry, one of the most sophisticated dudes in the history of rock & roll, was the son of a man who tended pit ponies, the small horses that worked in the coal mines of County Durham, in far northeastern England. He went to art school at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, then began teaching ceramics at a girls school in London. I found this description (from, I believe, Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera) of what happened next: “Bryan's association with both the girls and their school is unceremoniously terminated when it appears he is more interested in broadening their musical minds than expounding on the finer points of pottery.” “Broadening their musical minds,” heh heh.

    By this time he had begun associating with members of what would become Roxy Music. Ferry initially auditioned for King Crimson, who turned him down but helped him get a record deal for his fledgling band. Saxman Andy Mackay signed on, bringing with him a fellow named Brian Eno, who described himself as a “non-musician.” That is of course a very coy self-assessment, although bands have had other non-musicians in them, from Fred Schneider to Flavor Flav.

    What Eno really was, from the beginning, was a producer; on the first Roxy Music album, he treated Andy Mackay’s sax solo from “2HB” with tape effects, creating an ethereal sound like no other around at that time. He also played the synthesizer. Roxy’s first single, “Virginia Plain,” from 1972, is clearly a song written by Ferry, but produced by Eno – it would fit perfectly on Eno’s subsequent solo album Here Come the Warm Jets, with atonal squiggles crammed in every corner.

    I’m getting ahead of the story a bit here, but Eno left Roxy Music after their second album, For Your Pleasure, and embarked on one of the most innovative and strange careers in music. He composed the startup sound for Windows 95, which is the kind of thing that if you were Bill Gates, Eno would be your only choice to do that. He’s also known as the inventor of ambient music, but his more pop-oriented stuff is just astonishingly good. If you haven’t listened to Here Come the Warm Jets, you owe it to yourself.

    After Eno left Roxy Music, their sound become sleeker, more streamlined, almost appallingly sophisticated. I don’t quite understand why songs like “Dance Away” and “Over You” didn’t become U.S. hits, but their only chart success in America was “Love Is the Drug,” which went to Number 20 in 1975. They put many more singles on the charts in the U.K., where a cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” from 1981, was the only Number One hit.

    By the time of their eighth and final studio album, 1982’s Avalon, they were starting to get some notice on MTV, particularly with the gorgeous title track. Despite an oft-rumored reunion album, that would be the end of their output, and really, it’s just as well. They had pushed their brand of lush black-tie pop about as far as it was going to go, while going out on a high note: “Avalon” and “More Than This” were as good as anything they had recorded, and that was quite good indeed.

    The Matched Set Joy Division/New Order landed a series of singles near the top of the British charts while remaining more or less a rumor in the United States, but for the American kids whose lives they permeated, they were the real deal. New Order also had a lone Top Forty American hit, “True Faith” from 1987 – I don’t want to live in a world where “Bizarre Love Triangle” isn’t a hit, but here we bloody well are.

    Neither New Order nor Joy Division has ever been nominated.

    The Verdict Roxy Music was, I believe, the last act I cut from my ballot of five. This stuff holds up really well; it’s diverse, distinctive and debonair. “More Than This” should have been a huge hit in the U.S., but it wasn’t, and we have to deal with that. (It made the Top Forty for the post-Natalie Merchant 10,000 Maniacs, bizarrely enough.) Reluctantly, I vote No for Roxy Music.

    Tuesday, December 4, 2018

    John Prine: Make Me an Angel

    Like me, John Prine was born and raised in the middle-class suburbs of Chicago. Chicago had a big presence in the folk revival of the 1960s – Llewyn Davis going to the Gate of Horn was based on a real incident – and Prine got his start singing on open-mic nights at a club called the Fifth Peg. One night in 1970, when he opened with “Sam Stone” and “Hello in There,” Roger Ebert happened to be in the audience. Given those songs, Ebert’s review in the Sun-Times was obviously a rave, and Prine’s career was launched.

    John Prine was released in 1971, containing most of what people still know about John Prine: the above two songs plus “Angel From Montgomery” and “Illegal Smile.” Prine found himself at a party in New York City with Dylan shortly before the record was released, and when Prine sang some of it, Dylan sang along with him – he knew the album from a preview copy before it even came out. Hey, let’s listen to Dylan for a minute: 

    "Prine's stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. 'Sam Stone,' featuring the wonderfully evocative line, 'There’s a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose.' All that stuff about "Sam Stone," the soldier junkie daddy, and "Donald and Lydia," where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.”

    If he had had a couple more John Prines in him, he’d be up there with Dylan and Paul Simon among the absolute best contemporary songwriters. Although Prine continued to churn out great songs now and then over the next couple of decades – “Dear Abby,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” the incredible “In Spite of Ourselves” – he never put out another record with four stone-cold classics. But who could? 

    With his tiny little voice, Prine never had what you might call hits – I’m not sure he ever had what you might call “singles.” But his songs very quickly began to get covered, like Bonnie Raitt with “Angel From Montgomery” in 1974. Hey, let’s listen to Bonnie for a minute:

    "I think 'Angel from Montgomery' probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song, and it will historically be considered one of the most important ones I've ever recorded. It's just such a tender way of expressing that sentiment of longing. It's a perfect expression from [a] wonderful genius.” 

    Johnny Cash covered “Sam Stone,” although he changed the unbelievably tough lyric "Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose" to "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose.” The real keeper that you want here is Swamp Dogg’s cover.

    The Matched Set Prine’s friend Steve Goodman, who had hit it big when Arlo Guthrie did his “City of New Orleans,” brought Kris Kristofferson to hear Prine in Chicago one night. Kristofferson was so impressed he took Prine to New York to play an industry showcase at the Bitter End, which landed him a contract with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. 

    Like Prine, Kristofferson was a brilliant songwriter, folding bleak imagery into proto-folkie songs, and although some of Kristofferson’s songs became genuine hits – “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” – they are the same basic model, if “genius” can be considered a model. Prine’s a better singer than Kristofferson, but shoot, I’m a better singer than Kristofferson. Hey, let’s listen to Kristofferson:

    “People give me credit for ‘discovering’ John Prine. That’s like saying Columbus discovered America. It was already here.”

    Kristofferson’s never even been nominated. 

    The Verdict I have nothing bad to say about John Prine, but it’s really hard for me to see him elevated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a performer. For one thing, he’s not really rock & roll. Put him in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, absolutely, but for this ballot, I’m voting No.