Sunday, June 1, 2014

To Live in This Town Must Be Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough!

By 1978, the Rolling Stones had more or less relocated themselves to New York City. After Keith Richards got through his legal troubles in Toronto, he moved to South Salem in suburban Westchester County. Mick Jagger had always been a citizen of the world, but he was increasingly haunting the city by the mid-1970s. Bianca - who was still Mrs. Jagger until May of 1978, when she got tired of hearing stories about Mick chasing Jerry Hall around Bryan Ferry's pool table - had more or less set up residence at Studio 54. In October of 1978, the Stones played an infamous set (and sort-of hosted) on the season opener of NBC's Saturday Night Live, at the time the most important television show on the air, and rather proudly a product of New York City.

So it's no surprise that their album Some Girls, released in June 1978, was so steeped in the city. New York in all its filthy glamour oozes from its bones - even though the record was recorded entirely in Paris. It was even written in Paris - as Keith noted in Life, the Stones came into the studio without anything prepared and worked it all out there. Keith doesn't say anything about how New Yorky that record was, but let's take a look at it track by track:

  • "Miss You": Mick wrote this under the sway of endless evenings at Studio 54, and he hammered that home by setting the song so thoroughly in the city: "I've been walking Central Park, singing after dark, people think I'm craa-zy." People are right. And where do you think all those Puerto Rican girls live, who are just dying to meet you?
  • "When the Whip Comes Down": Jagger wrote this from the perspective of a gay man trying to find a place for himself:  He goes to 53rd Street, where people spit in his face, and runs into truckers down by the East River. Rod Stewart's "The Killing of Georgie," about the murder of a gay hustler, also takes place on 53rd Street. I worked on 53rd Street in Manhattan for several years, but I cannot vouch for the veracity of any of this.
  • "Just My Imagination": On this cover of the old Temptations song, Mick changes "out of all the girls in the world" to "out of all the girls in New York." This one really gives the game away, since there's no other reason for Mick to alter that lyric except to keep the New York theme going.
  • "Some Girls": No direct reference to New York, but what other city has white girls and black girls, English girls and French girls and Chinese girls and Italian girls? It ain't Akron.
  • "Lies": Again no direct reference to New York - except that "Lies" is also the title of a big hit song by the Knickerbockers. Get it?
  • "Respectable": This tale of a woman who's now respected in society certainly seems to be set in New York, especially with the chugging punk guitars.
  • "Before They Make Me Run": No New York City content. "Before They Make Me Run" is a total Keith song, and as I noted, he doesn't seem to be aware that the Stones were making a NYC album.
  • "Beast of Burden":  No New York City content.
  • "Shattered": Arguably the New York Citiest song of all time, at least prior to "People Who Died." I can't give it away on Seventh Avenue.

Buck Owens: The antithesis of New York City
I left off "Far Away Eyes," which is the exception that proves the rule. It is the musical outlier on the album, a Buck Owens tribute explicitly set in Buck's hometown of Bakersfield. "Far Away Eyes" makes the rest of Some Girls seem that much more cosmopolitan by contrast.

There have been other albums steeped in one specific geographic area: the early Beach Boys records, for instance, and all those mid-period Kinks albums about English small-town living that no one actually listens to. And I'd throw in the outer-borough sensibility of Fountains of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers.

But all those groups were writing about their homes. The Stones weren't from New York; like Holly Golightly, they moved there from somewhere else but came to embody the city.  Like Holly, they had to adapt a little, trying on the disco boots of "Miss You," but New York likes that sort of thing. (This makes "Far Away Eyes" their Doc Golightly.) That theme of adapting is reflected on the infamous album cover, where the Stones are transformed into bouffanted advertising models whose hairstyles you can change by sliding out the inner sleeve. Fun for the kids!

The Rolling Stones bestrode the earth like a colossus in the late 1970s - "Miss You" would prove to be their last Number One hit, "Beast of Burden" went Top Ten, and even "Shattered" made the Top Forty, briefly sharing the charts with Ace Frehley's "New York Groove." They sauntered into New York City as if they owned the place, and for a while, they did. They came, they saw, they conquered.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Rhyme That Sprang From Me

Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs, which we've discussed in this space before, has a lot of fun with Neil Diamond's song "I Am... I Said," particularly the line in the chorus where Neil laments the inability of a chair to hear him. "What kind of line is that?" Barry writes. "Is Neil telling us that he's surprised the chair didn't hear him? Maybe he expected the chair to say, 'Whoa, I heard THAT."

Dave Barry is great, but he's way off-line on this one, for several different reasons. For one thing, it's pretty clear that Neil wrote the line that way to emphasize his solitude, to point up the fact that he was all alone with nothing to keep him company but the furniture, and frankly the furniture doesn't even sound all that nice. It may be a little awkward and prone to misreading, but on its own terms, it makes sense.

On top of that, there's the fact that if you're looking for lines in "I Am...  I Said" that make even less sense than that one, you don't have to look far. "I'm not a man who likes to swear, but I never cared for the sound of being alone," Neil avers. That's great, but where's the swear? Maybe "I'm not a man who likes to swear" is just a helpful signpost letting us know that there won't be any cusswords in the song.

Then there's "Did you ever hear about a frog who dreamed of being a king/And then became one." Well, no, Neil, now that you mention it, I haven't heard that story. I heard about a prince who was turned into a frog, and wanted to kiss a princess to break the spell, and I guess frog -> prince -> demise of father and/or older brother -> king would make a logical progression, but I always just thought that frog dreamed of kissing a girl. (By the way, Diamond likes this line so much he made a logo out of it, a frog wearing a crown.)

Even the title doesn't make much sense. An ellipsis is used to show where some words have been left out, so if the song went "I am hungry for spareribs, as I said to the butcher," "I Am... I Said" would be a logical title. As the phrase is used in the song, the title should be punctuated "'I Am,' I Said," although obviously that's ungainly too. Strangely enough, Neil's song "Cherry, Cherry" never uses that word consecutively, so it should have been called "Cherry... Cherry." I guess it's too late to flip the punctuation in these songs' two titles.

But the real thing Dave Barry gets wrong about "I Am... I Said" is that the record is awesome. Neil Diamond was the ultimate pop craftsman, and this song is so beautifully put together. Consider how the first two lines of each stanza - "L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most of the time" - stay put on one note, as if he's just reciting then. By the next two lines, Neil has roused himself into a simple melody - "L.A.'s fine, but it ain't home, New York's home but it ain't mine no more."

Then we reach the chorus, where Neil bellows the four syllables of the title on four notes nearly an octave apart. The effect is that the song started crawling slowly from the primordial ooze, but by the time he's ready to make his declaration of purpose, it explodes.

The dynamics of the song follow a similar progression, from the relative softness of the verses to the hammer of the chorus - which then slips quickly back into a quieter, more pensive phase ("Leavin' me lonely still"). Maybe this is where the Pixies got those loud-soft-loud ideas from. And the fact that the song moves from those lugubrious lyrics about a frog who dreamed of being a king to the simplest declaration possible - "I AM!" Neil screams on the outro - emphasizes the power and simplicity of the chorus.

Most of the time that people complain about bad pop songs, it's because of a ridiculous lyric, but what they don't notice is the reason the song became a hit in the first place. "I Am... I Said" is a powerful song, even if it's not quite powerful enough to be heard by the chair.  If it's a bad Neil Diamond song you're looking for, I suggest you give a listen to "Heart Light.