Carefree Highway

Last year around New Years, my wife and I heard Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song For a Winter’s Night” and asked each other, on a lark, “I wonder of he’s still touring.” Within minutes we discovered he’d be playing in April in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, on our wedding anniversary, and couldn’t resist.

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Gord in Stroudsburg, PA in April. He’s had the same bass player, Rick Haynes, for 48 years.

On our way we wondered if he’d pay any tribute to Prince, who’d died a few days before – dedicate a song to him perhaps. (Springsteen played “Purple Rain” that same weekend.)

For the record, he did speak fondly of Prince, describing him as a “genius,” but didn’t play any song for him. Nor did he play the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” which disappointed me a bit. Months later I heard the WNYC interview with him and realized that this century he’s suffered both an aortic aneurysm (six weeks in a coma) and a minor stroke, and that he rehearses more than he ever did, because he has to! So you have to forgive him for skipping his hardest songs.

Today is my birthday, and I have too much to do to fall into a YouTube hole, but I’ve been known to spend hours watching singers. I even love seeing them try to lip sync to their own records during TV appearances. “Where are those strings coming from?” you wonder, “and was anyone really fooled by this?”

I also adore homespun attempts to sync up studio versions of songs with live footage, like the one below. I picture a guy with a Mac or at a cable access studio poring over the exact outpoint when the singer is obviously going “off script.”

I don’t know how you experience birthdays and anniversaries, but they’re starting to make me feel old. Like the pain in my feet and the extra second it takes to remember a coworker’s name is who I am. This year Gord was there, all 150 pounds of what used to be an imposing Northwoods frame, with a sweet smile and lovely manner, to say, “Don’t worry, you’re going to be cool old people.” He turned 78 a few weeks ago.

He started his set by playing about a half dozen of his recent songs – a classy maneuver – then played his 70s hits, starting with “Carefree Highway.”

The Who Sell Out

The Who Sell Out was released 48 years ago today, December 15, 1967. As a kid, it was the first or second great record from my brother’s collection to hook me into multiple listenings  – the other was Magical Mystery Tour, released the same month.

Something about the psychedelic era appeals to kids, I guess, but The Who Sell Out was distinct for its gag songs and fake ads, which were like nothing else before or since. Entire pop songs that are ads for imaginary deodorant or acne cream? It made sense to my 10-year-old mind, which was just as taken by the Python-esque radio jingles and creepy madrigal satires like “Silas Stingy”: “Money money money bags, there goes mingy Stingy,” we’d sing, sitting by the speakers on a Saturday morning.

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The greatest record of the psychedelic era?

It’s one of those records that gets an excessive amount of critical love in retrospect, urging us to compare it favorably to the other psychedelic landmarks like Sergeant Pepper (June of ’67), Piper at the Gates of Dawn (August), or Pet Sounds (May – wait! May of ’66!). And it does rock. The backbone of “Armenia City in the Sky,” “Our Love Was, Is” and “I Can See For Miles” stands up to any rock record of its era.

There is something sad about The Who, though. Who fans in my suburban neighborhood were always distinguished from average Beatles and Stones fans for the chips on their shoulders about how under-appreciated they felt Pete Townsend was. They had a defiance about them. The revolution of sex, drugs, and rock and roll left lots of people lonely and bewildered, and The Who spoke for them too.

You could tell, just a few episodes into Mad Men, that the series’ major through line was going to be reconciling the counter culture with commercialism. It’s still the great contradiction of the ‘60s, and The Who Sell Out is a testament to the ability of some people, who were enthusiastic participants at the time, to grasp those contradictions in real time.

Deeper than that, the melancholy in the record is the sadness of a closeted gay man with some kind of sexual revolution happening all around him. You can’t hear “I Can’t Reach You,” without thinking of Townsend’s lyrics in this light:

“Once I caught a glimpse/ Of your unguarded, untouched heart/ Our fingertips touched and then/ My mind tore us apart…”

Even more so, in the album’s most enduring masterpiece – the song I can’t wait to get to when I spin the record now, “Sunrise.”

 

“You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise/ You appear and the morning looks drab in my eyes/ And then again I’ll turn down love/ Having seen you again/ Once more you’ll disappear/ My morning put to shame./ You take away the breath I was keeping for sunrise.”

It’s poetry, and it’s sad as hell. It’s gay angst daring to speak for all teen angst, and it predates The Smiths by 15 years.

It’s wise to consumerism, and yet respectful of the musicianship of radio writers and jingle singers. I’m guessing it still sounds great in a hallucinogenic frenzy. It got my December 15th off to a great start, once again.

Locally-Sourced Cheese

“Last time I sang in Brooklyn was at my Bar Mitzvah!” Barry Manilow said early in his set last night.

If you had told me, as the Barclays Center basketball arena was being built, controversially, that the first thing I was to see there would be a Barry Manilow concert, I would have said, “No way.” In fact, if you had said ten years ago that I’d ever buy two tickets to see Manilow  anywhere, and spend a good part of the night with my arms in the air, cheering, I’d not have understood.

Brooklyn meets Vegas.

Brooklyn meets Vegas.

If any one thing opened my palate to Las Vegas style cheese since then, it was a nosy neighbor at my old apartment in Sunset Park, who saw me walking home with an LP under my arm one day, and offered me a stack of records from his basement. Most of them I had to politely smuggle off the block and donate to the Salvation Army, but five or so of them were the great, early records of Engelbert Humperdinck. Engelbert deserves a separate post, but the summer I kept spinning his versions of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Words,” it sunk in that a whole other Sixties had happened, that didn’t make it  on the Woodstock movie.

The “squares” were making some fascinating, and high quality, music too, and I was never again going to summarily draw a line in the vinyl sand and say, “I like this, but not this music.” I was willing to bet on my adventurous taste, $1.99 at a time. Not that I always won! Engelbert before ’75, can’t go wrong; after ’75, can’t go right. 101 Strings, Morton Gould, Hugo Montenegro, brilliant. Barbra Streisand, I just don’t get. I’d rather hear Barry’s worst album than Barbra’s best.

Reading who wrote the songs he recorded, you realize Barry was of a generation of mostly Jewish, mostly New York-born songwriters who were weaned on the golden period of Broadway by way of the Brill Building. There were lots of these songwriters around, but Barry was the one among them who could sing. They never bought into the Dylan revolution, the re-imagining of the rock star as visionary poet. When you heard a new song of theirs, you knew this was the newest release from the mill, not some new revelation from a poet’s vision quest.

Barry didn’t even write “I Write the Songs”! Nor did he write one of my favorites, “Ready To Take a Chance Again”: That was by Norman Gimbel, the lyricist who wrote, among others, the English version of “Girl From Ipanema,” and Charles Fox, whose masterful oeuvre includes the 1970s theme music to ABC’s Wide World of Sports:

Barry is the spawn of a Jewish mother and Irish truck driver father during Word War II in Williamsburg. He often says his grandparents, whom he talked about last night, exposed him to the music of the 1930s and 40s. He covered “Moonlight Serenade,” and showed great taste when it came to his own catalogue. Toward the end of the show, he said he would do the rest of his hits in a medley, adding, “So if you got dragged to the show then this next medley is going to be agony.”

Cheesy? Whatever. The years his hits were all over FM radio, I was a kid arguing about the merits of Geddie Lee versus Bad Company. I saw an American classic last night and had a blast the whole time.