Some Writing I Wrote about Music
Charlie Daniels, Renegades, Rolling Stones, Lemon Pipers, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Ram Jam, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Neal Hefti, Joe Goldmark
So around about a month ago I woke up with a Charlie Daniels song in my head. I posted it on the social things. It was a Monday morning. Then I did it again with “Thirteen Women” the following week. A pattern emerged, and with it a new “feature” of my dumb little web presence that I started calling “A Song for Mon.” (Though I did it on a Thursday once as well.) Basically it’s just me posting a song I like and saying why.
Some of these entries developed into rather elaborate personal essays, which is the way these things go sometimes. And some perverse part of me, a part I’d probably not enjoy understanding too much about if I’m honest, feels the need preserve this stuff. Because if you don’t take steps to do so, such material blows away and is almost instantly forgotten and impossible to find again if you want to refer back to it. Unless you happen to have typed something that will one day be judged “problematic” of course — then someone will manage to find it and use it to torture and destroy you, along with your family and anyone who may have a name similar to yours. I think that’s the system, working as intended. I don’t know why people post things at all, knowing it is at best pointless, almost like it didn’t happen, and at worst catastrophic. But here I go again. It’s a sickness.
Anyway, at present, I have no other avenue open to me for this sick project of preservation than aggregating it here. So, the aggregate starts now.
1. Charlie Daniels — “Uneasy Rider”
It’s easy to forget how great those first three Charlie Daniels Kama Sutra records were. Woke up with “Funky Junky” in my head, but this here was a minor hit and possibly the ultimate “incident in a redneck bar” tune as well as a vivid depiction of the “country music generation gap”. It’s often dismissed as a “novelty song,” but most interesting songs are novelty songs really. 1973.
2. The Renegades — “Thirteen Women”
This has to be one of the greatest rock and roll recordings ever made and released, weirdly obscure, by a Birmingham, UK band similarly weirdly obscure, except in Finland, where, it is said, they weirdly became superstars.
The original jazz-R&B-dance song by Dickie Thompson entered the rock and roll universe when it was recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets, with those verse lyrics about the H-bomb added, as far as I can tell, by “Rock Around the Clock” writers Freedman/De Knight. (Incidentally, “Thirteen Women” was the original A-side of the Bill Haley single with the soon-to-become much more famous “Rock Around the Clock” as the B-side. Subsequent royalties were enough to set Dickie Thompson up for life, at least so I’ve heard, and if it’s true, it’s nice to know such things can happen.)
Dickie Thompson’s version:
The Bill Haley version:
I can’t say the rather stiff Bill Haley version grabs me, though I can see why you’d want to rocknroll-ize that great Dickie Thompson song. But inserting that apocalyptic H Bomb dream stuff introduced a surreal, darker element, and it’s one of those opening lines that really pulls you in. The Renegades took it and ran with it, blowing everything up with a wild guitar and re-injecting it with crazed teen libido embodied in that throat-tearing vocal.
Hard to believe how cool 1966 sounded, or at least how cool it’d have sounded if you were lucky enough to stumble on this record or, you know, lucky enough to be Finnish. A “barnburner”, I think it’s called.
3. The Rolling Stones — “Bitch”
This was the first song I ever successfully learned to play on the guitar that wasn’t just strumming. Well, I mean, sort of successfully. I spent loads and loads of time huddled by the family stereo cabinet thing lifting and lowering the needle to try to parse out the riff bit by bit on the copy of Sticky Fingers I checked out of the public library. Which must have been very annoying to everyone in the vicinity. Most of it was way too hard, though I came sort of close to “Cant You Hear Me Knockin’” and used to do what I thought was a passable rendition of “Brown Sugar” (bar chords plus “the thing”, basically, though I know now there are better ways.) At least I used to do this allegedly passable “Brown Sugar” till my mom bemusedly requested that I not do it in the living room because she didn’t want my sisters learning about oral sex that way.
(I also remember doing this needle lifting thing, far less successfully, with Marquee Moon, also from the library. Man, I must have really ruined those records, now that I think of it.)
But back to “Bitch.” That’s got to be one of the coolest guitar figures and grooviest drum feels in the entire rock and roll universe. I tried to steal it (the riff and the feel) for countless attempts at songs I was pretending to “write”. I don’t remember too much about those imaginary songs, but one of the “Bitch”-derived ones had the title “It Doesn’t Last Forever” and was a kind of list of ephemeral things. I was 12 ish and didn’t know how to do that sort of thing properly, needless to say.
As another aside: I was recently talking to our own Lauren Banjo, who is a guitar teacher, about the age when people usually pick up the guitar, those that do. The answer is usually around the onset of adolescence, as it was for me. I’ve long assumed it’s because the guitar can function as a sort of sex sublimation device at a time when many of us begin to start needing sex sublimation devices, and I’m sure there’s something in that. But Lauren had a simpler, more practical answer: that’s when your hands are big enough. I never thought of that before, but I’m sure that’s true.
And now back to “Bitch”: this rendition, from the famous Marquee Club shows, 1971, is just really, really great, and Jagger’s showmanship aside it’s just so impressive how this band could just casually slip into such a perfect “groove”. I love all the same things about it that I did at twelve years old, plus extra stuff that I appreciate only after having had the experience of trying to make that sort of thing happen for years and being only partially, occasionally successful.
Keith is playing that Dan Armstrong lucite guitar, a guitar I really wanted to own at the time I’m describing, then kind of stopped wanting to acquire soon thereafter, and now once again kind of would like. For every thing there is a season, a time to desire a Dan Armstrong lucite guitar and a time not to desire a Dan Armstrong lucite guitar, a time to desire once again a Dan Armstrong lucite guitar… turn turn turn….
4. The Lemon Pipers — “Love Beads and Meditation”
Ed King died last week, which got me thinking. He was notable for being a founding member of the psych-pop-acid-sunshine-whatever Strawberry Alarm Clock, but also for joining Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972. This seems incongruous, and used to strike me as quite hilarious when I was a kid. The story is that the SAC and LS toured together in ’68 and that when the music biz’s psychsploitation moment was over, King joined LS to fill in on bass, then switched to guitar. And he wasn’t just a bit player: he co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” and several other important songs on those first three Skynyrd albums.
Can you imagine those shows, though? When I was a kid I pictured fey, floppy, flower children Bunthornes clashing with the gritty hard rock rednecks and the audience tearing each other apart. Of course, though, in ’68 everyone was a hippie. And that gleeful, sardonic, cynical attitude I had about everything has abated a bit in my old age. While when it comes to show business and the music biz’s meat grinder there may not be all that much difference between psychsploitation and southsploitation per se, there were still real people, real bands, real music underneath this all. This is the thing I tended to miss, in what now seem to me to be rather desperate efforts to feel amused, above, and distanced from everything. But that’s a matter to take up with my confessor and psychiatrist, if I ever get one.
Plus, at that time, I associated Lynyrd Skynyrd with scary people at school, the ones who were always low-level hassling me, at least in my perception. So I suppose I saw myself as a little strawberry alarm clock amid a pack of clock-eating wolves. Going on tour with the wolves, or playing bass with the wolves and writing a few hit songs for them here and there, seemed inconceivable. Much better to hide out in your room. There was quite enough space in my head for “Incense and Peppermints” and “Sweet Home Alabama” at the same time, but I wanted to be able to switch it on and off at will rather than have to negotiate treacherous social territory. Such was the seventh grade, for me. And vestiges of that dynamic remain, I’m not gonna lie to you.
So this made me think of Bill Bartlett. of the Lemon Pipers, who went on to do Ram Jam, of “Black Betty” fame, yet another bubblegum-psych to hard rock story and another thing that struck me as utterly, devastatingly hilarious when I first learned of it. But for many, many years before that I had both of these bands’ records in my collection without realizing. I bought the “Black Betty” single at Musicland at the Tanforan shopping center and listened to it approximately 1.3 million times. It was heavy. It was serious. It was, maybe, a little scary.
(Not sure if I’d have felt quite the same way with regard to them being heavy, serious, and scary had I seen this footage at the time. But maybe I would have. Everyone in rock bands was old and weird, and part of me wanted to join their denim bell bottom yard parties and have a stupid beard, while the rest of me was just quite sincerely terrified because of that whole Manson Family thing.)
The Lemon Pipers were… well, just a bit silly, quite funny really, with their flights of enraptured mysticism, songs about rice, songs about jelly. There’s that sardonic distance again. I loved it because I laughed at it, then laughed at myself for loving it, and then, eventually, simply admitted that I loved it.
Now, if I had to choose between the two, which was the sillier, Ram Jam or the Lemon Pipers, it wouldn’t be such an easy choice. Ram Jam would probably have the edge. And I still love both.
But, for better or worse, the Lemon Pipers started my journey into bubblegum and collecting Buddah Records, and to seeking out oddball stuff, once semi-famous now discarded, and turning it all into a quirky personal emblem. This is because I found Jungle Marmalade in a Salvation Army shop and bought it for a quarter just to see what it was like. As outlined above, my appreciation bordered on the sardonic, possibly even on the sarcastic, sputtering, giggling, saying “oh man” over and over, glorying in the absurdity. Then, I looked up, and, imperceptibly, it had become one of the greatest albums of all time.
In truth the Lemon Pipers were just a hard rock bar band forced into bubblegum mode by Neil Bogart and hating every moment of it. In the process, they achieved greatness. Such is life. I hope you enjoy “Love Beads and Meditation.”
5. Neal Hefti — The Odd Couple Soundtrack Suite
RIP Neil Simon. The brilliant soundtrack to the film version of his greatest work, The Odd Couple, was by Neal Hefti. It is one of the greatest film soundtrack albums of all time, and is its own discrete work of art that can be listened to as an album quite apart from the film. The seldom-heard lyrics to the theme song, by the great Sammy Cahn, can be heard at 7:10 here.
(It’s slightly funny, by the way, that in this world we’ve got now, you’ve got to game your search techniques to accommodate the effects of over-aggressive auto-correct. To wit, in this case, if you want full results for Neal Hefti, you have to remember to search also for “Neal Hefty” because inevitably someone will have been incorrectly autocorrected when entering the name without realizing it.)
6. Joe Goldmark — “The Night Before”
Song for Mon. (And happy Labor Day… if it is Labor Day. I always get it mixed up with the other one. It’s one of the Mondays off.)
This is from virtuoso steel guitar player Joe Goldmark, from his charming album of Beatles covers Steelin’ the Beatles. (He’s a Tuscon native, now a San Franciscan and one of the owners of Amoeba Records.) He overlaps just slightly with my/our dumb little corner of the music world because he’s the guy who played the pedal steel solo on my song “Hell of Dumb”:
He’s got lots and lots of recordings, but this one, “The Night Before”, really does it for me and never fails to bring a smile. It’s a fantastic sound and a great arrangement.
And we’ll see what happens in the future, but here we are right about now. Cheers.