Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Andrew Combs: Tennessee Time

SONG Tennessee Time

WRITTEN BY Andrew Combs


APPEARS ON Tennessee Time (2010)

Exile and longing comprise one of country music's most enduring themes. While its Biblical roots resonate with the rural Christianity that formed country's original fan base, its popularity as a theme likely stems from the origins of radio and the diaspora of rural Americans that began with the Industrial Revolution and accelerated through the Great Depression and World War II. The Dust Bowl, the military draft, and the migration to high paying urban manufacturing jobs must have created a profound sense of dislocation for the young men and families suddenly far removed from everything they knew. Songs celebrating the simple, lost joys of rural life emerged, and, dispersed across radio waves, soon formed a vital part of the country music canon.

Newcomer Andrew Combs captures this sense of longing and belonging in "Tennessee Time," a sensation amplified in the wonderful video below. The first time I heard "Tennessee Time," I immediately thought that it would  make a great front porch song. The notion wasn't original; as it turned out, Combs thought so, too (see the wonderfully sweet video  below). In "Tennessee Time" the singer has returned home from a European tour that took him from Spain to Ireland, only to discover that "there ain’t nothing better/Than the Tennessee life."

Which is fine with him: The song is all about creating epiphanies that allow him to be "stuck in the moment of Tennessee time." Thus in the first verse, he gathers southern icons like sweet tea and a rocking chair, and repairs to the porch to sing "old country songs to the passerby." It's a moment where fast songs and sad lyrics make sense in the ineffable ambience of a Tennessee porch, and where a spiritual connection occurs in the "summers near the Cumberland Gap...stuck in a moment of Tennessee time."

Combs, who sounds like a fusion of Slaid Cleaves and Gram Parsons, names Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Hank Williams as influences. Estimable mentors all, but the trick lies in finding his own voice via the path they lay. He's off to an impressive start.

I bought myself a little old rocking chair
Got a cup of
sweet tea, gonna sit right here
Singing old country songs to the passerby
Just stuck in the moment of Tennessee time

Spring brings green and a love so sweet
My heart tends to flutter and skip a beat
Me and my baby, we’re out of our minds
Stuck in the moment of Tennessee time

I’ve been known to roam
I’ve been to Spain
I’ve been out in the Galway rain
I’ve come so close
To what I thought was right
But there ain’t nothing better
Than the Tennessee life

I play a little guitar in a rock n’ roll band
We sing sad songs and play as fast as we can
The drums are loud and the words don’t rhyme
But we’re keeping good rhythm to the Tennessee time

Now I spend my summers near the Cumberland Gap 

I sleep outside, with the grass at my back
Just roll cigarettes, drink whiskey from rye
Still stuck in the moment of Tennessee Time 

Thursday, June 24, 2010

John Prine: Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone

SONG Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone



APPEARS ON Bruised Orange (1978); Live (1988); Great Days: The John Prine Anthology (1993)

By the time John Prine wrote "Sabu" in 1978, he must have feared that, regardless of the quality of his future work, his eponymous first album would define his reputation. Prine needn't have worried. Although fans still want to hear him sing "Angel From Montgomery," they go to his concerts to see him perform for a body of work that spans a distinguished 40-year career. Early on, though, Prine found parallels between his own experience and that of an Indian child movie star.

In 1937, while shooting on location in India, famed documentary film maker Robert Flaherty cast a 13-year old boy named  Sabu Dastigir (or Selar Shaik Sabu or Sabu Francis) into a film called Elephant Boy. His name shortened to Sabu, the boy went on to a modest film career highlighted by starring roles in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and Jungle Book (1942). After becoming an American citizen in 1944, Sabu joined the Air Force and won a Distinguished Flying Cross for service as a tail gunner in the Pacific theater. After World War II, Sabu attempted to restart his film career, but met with only modest success. His last film, the Disney thriller A Tiger Walks, was released shortly after his death from a heart attack in 1963. Sabu made 22 movies between 1937 and 1964, including such forgettable titles as White Savage, Cobra Woman, Man-Eater of Kumaon, Savage Drums, and Jungle Hell.

In "Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone," John Prine reimagines the post-war days of Sabu's career as a parable of the the pitfalls of peaking too soon and hanging on too long. By dropping his Indian protagonist into St. Paul, Prine achieves a sense of dislocation that haunts the song. Faced with a dwindling audience and a disinterested producer, Sabu gamely makes his way through the midwest while a sympathetic manager hopes that the numbers on a phone will materialize into a better box office and contemplates the end of his client's career.

No matter: Sabu may be "sad, the whole tour stunk," but he "must tour or forever rest." No doubt this refers to Prine's own struggles as an up-and-coming musician and the eternal challenge of keeping an audience. Did Prine fear that his best work was already behind him, that he had a future filled with cobra women, man-eaters, and albums that weren't "really doing so hot"? Had his ambition driven him to a lonely, peripatetic life infuseed by a numbing indifference (the "wind chill factor")? Possibly. But with characteristic bravado, Prine can't resist a few wry, bitter jokes at his own expense:
the airlines lost the elephant's trunk
the roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
Sometimes, the only thing to do is laugh, hope for the best, and press on.
The movie wasn't really doing so hot
said the new producer to the old big shot
its dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south towards Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

His manager sat in the office alone
staring at the numbers on the telephone
wondering how a man could send a child actor
to visit in the land of the wind chill factor.
Sabu was sad the whole tour stunk
the airlines lost the elephant's trunk
the roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu
they was low on morale but they was high on.

"Angel From Montgomery," Prine's most beloved song, has been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Susan Tedeschi, and others:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Flaming Lips: "Waitin' For a Superman"

Song: "Waitin' For a Superman"

Written by: Wayne Coyne

Performed by: The Flaming Lips

Appears on: "The Soft Bulletin" (1999)

It was six years since their commercial breakthrough, "She Don't Use Jelly", off of "Transmissions From the Satellite Heart" (1993), and The Flaming Lips were on the ropes. In 1996, lead guitarist Ronald Jones departed the band, citing the onset of severe agoraphobia; in truth Jones left because of then-drummer Steven Drozd's rapidly escalating heroin addiction. Following Jones' departure, Drozd took over as lead guitarist in-studio, but nearly lost his arm to what he said was an infected spider bite that turned out to be an abscessed hypodermic puncture. Shortly thereafter, bassist Michael Ivins was almost killed when the wheel of another car flew off and struck his windshield, causing a high-speed crash. Ivins was trapped in his car for several hours while he waited for help to arrive. To top it all off, lead singer and primary songwriter Wayne Coyne's father died after a long battle with cancer, plunging Coyne into a deep depression. In the midst of successive tragedies The Flaming Lips entered middle age. They'd been on the road for sixteen years with only one hit single and little or no money to show for it. Fans and critics alike predicted the band would crumble under their terrible burden.

But then in 1999, a breakthrough. "The Soft Bulletin" came out in June of that year to universal critical acclaim. This album marks the genesis of The Flaming Lips' mature sound. They abandoned the abrasive acid-punk of their earlier records in favor of melodic space-pop. The entire group, and Coyne in particular, spent long hours in the studio producing layer upon layer of instrumental tracks, synthetic strings, booming percussion and triumphant vocals, the end result being what some have called the "Pet Sounds" of the nineteen-ninties. Conye's lyrics won high praise for their newfound philosophical depth and sincerity. His heartfelt ruminations on the disappointments of middle age, the inevitability of death and hope for the future were to become hallmarks of the fresh Flaming Lips sound.

"Waitin' For a Superman" is arguably the prime example of Coyne's present-day lyrical focus. Backed by a spar piano line and cymbal-laden drum beat, Coyne sings in his typically off-kilter Young-esque style about fears of inadequacy and the paralysis that such fears might breed. The song's central symbol is the absence of a real world Superman there to shoulder the burdens of daily life and right wrongs beyond human control. The piece is all at once sorrowful and optimistic. On one hand, the narrator admits there is no visible safety net to guard against man's fall, yet suggests simultaneously that we all, those waiting for Superman, might find strength and resilience in one another's arms, that salvation may live in love and understanding. It is this faith in the human spirit that continues to define Coyne as a lyricist and the Lips as a band.

"Waitin' For a Superman"

Asked you a question,
I didn't need you to reply,
Is it getting heavy?
But they'll realize,

Is it getting heavy?
Well, I thought it was
already as heavy
as can be,

Is it overwhelming
to use a crane to crush a fly?
It's a good time for Superman
to lift the sun into the sky,

'Cause it's getting heavy,
Well, I thought it was
already as heavy
as can be,

Tell everybody
waiting for Superman
that they should try to
hold on the best they can,
He hasn't dropped them,
forgot them,
or anything,
It's just too heavy
for Superman to lift,


Is it getting heavy?
Well, I thought it was
already as heavy
as can be,

Tell everybody
waiting for Superman
that they should try to
hold on the best they can,
He hasn't dropped them,
forgot them,
or anything,
It's just too heavy
for Superman to lift

Friday, June 11, 2010

Jorma Kaukonen: Genesis

SONG Genesis

WRITTEN BY Jorma Kaukonen

PERFORMED BY Jorma Kaukonen

APPEARS ON Quah (1974)

In 1965, Paul Kanter recruited his friend Jorma Kaukonen to play lead guitar for the Jefferson Airplane, a band Kanter was helping  form. Kaukonen thought of himself as an acoustic blues purist and expressed reluctance to join the new group. He changed his mind after considering the technical possibilities offered by the electric guitar; Kaukonen adapted his finger-picking style to the music of psychedelia and became a defining part of the Airplane's unique sound. By 1972, the Airplane had split into cliques, and Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady left the band in favor of Hot Tuna, a side project originally formed to play the music of the Reverend Gary Davis.

Kaukonen recorded his initial solo album in 1974, the well-received Quah. "Genesis," Quah's first track, remains his best song and is a staple of his live act. Exquisitely gentle (one can imagine it as one side of a conversation occurring in bed), "Genesis" tells of a man promising to overcome his vulnerabilities if the woman he loves will share a future with him. In the first verse, he implores her to remember the good things about them:
Time has come for us to pause
And think of living as it was
while admitting that it's not enough ("into the future we must cross"). He admits that a hard shell surrounds him ("...I'm hard than a wall/A marble shaft...), but claims that it is not as important as her love and beseeches her not to break up with him.

Next comes the wonderful, touching third verse in which he acknowledges that life with him won't be easy ("Skies of blue had turned to gray"), but will be honest and true ("I never looked away"). The man drives home the point by telling the truth of things: She'll always be with him, but they can't shut out life:
And though I'm feeling you inside
My life is rolling with the tide
They can make it better, though, by remaining staying together and remaining true to each other ("I'd like to see it be an open ride/Along with you"). He reminds her that time, which doesn't belong to them, passes rapidly, then argues the whatever they are going through now will make them stronger, and closes by restating her incredible importance to him:
And when we came out into view
And there I found myself with you
When breathing felt like something new, new
Is "Genesis" an apology? Partly. But mostly it seems like the testimony of a man about to lose someone he loves because he has been holding himself back. By repeatedly telling her how much she means to him and by recognizing the validity of her feelings, he hopes to give himself and them and second chance. The song concludes uncertainly, without an answer to his plea. But for us, that's for the best: It's never a bad thing to remember that our offers can be too little, too late. In this sense, "Genesis" is a cautionary account that we can all take to heart.
Time has come for us to pause
And think of living as it was
Into the future we must cross, must cross
I'd like to go with you
And I'd like to go with you

You say I'm harder than a wall
A marble shaft about to fall
I love you dearer than them all, them all
So let me stay with you
So let me stay with you

And as we walked into the day
Skies of blue had turned to grey
I might have not been clear to say, to say
I never looked away
I never looked away

And though I'm feeling you inside
My life is rolling with the tide
I'd like to see it be an open ride
Along with you
Going along with you

The time we borrowed from ourselves
Can't stay within a vaulted well
And living turns into a lender's will
So let me come with you
And let me come with you

And when we came out into view
And there I found myself with you
When breathing felt like something new, new
Along with you
Going along with you

Live circa 1990:

The original 1974 version (very cool montage):

From 2003, with Hot Tuna:

This 1969 Jefferson Airplance performance, from Woodstock, of "3/5's Of A Mile In Ten Seconds" shows off Kaukonen's prowess on the electric guitar and demonstrates his importance to their sound:

Widespread Panic covers "Genesis" (2002):

Kaukonen and Widespread Panic's John Bell:

Monday, June 7, 2010

Frank Zappa: "Muffin Man"

Song: "Muffin Man"

Written by: Frank Zappa

Performed by: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Appears on: "Bongo Fury" (1975); "Strictly Commercial: The Best of Frank Zappa" (1995); several other collections and live albums

In the Spring of 1975 Frank Zappa and his famed Mothers went on tour with long-time collaborator Captain Beefheart. The "mostly live" Bongo Fury came out in October of the same year. The album concludes with a bit of Zappa absurdity that would become a concert favorite in years to come.

Muffin Man consists of three separate segments, a studio-recorded preamble and a live chorus followed by an extended guitar solo. In it Zappa tells of the Muffin Man, more a muffin scientist than an ordinary muffin enthusiast, who takes a break from his important work at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen to expound of the glories of his most beloved pastry. Of course Muffin Man's real greatness comes not from the amusing story, but from Zappa's transcendent guitar.

Zappa was a legendarily talented and prolific artist who willed himself to the outer limits of popular music. He is remembered for his humorous, crude and confrontational lyrics, dedication to the rights of free speech, and contempt for the musical mainstream, but is sometimes overlooked as a guitar player. With a devilish Gibson SG, he produced some of the most frantically explosive guitar work ever committed to vinyl. "Muffin Man" stands as the greatest testament to his virtuosity.

"Muffin Man"

Narrator: The Muffin Man is seated at the table in the laboratory of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. Reaching for an oversized chrome spoon, he gathers an intimate quantity of dried muffin remnants and, brushing his scapular aside, proceeds to dump these inside of his shirt.

He turns to us and speaks:

Muffin Man: "Some people like cupcakes better. I for one care less for them."

Narrator: Arrogantly twisting the sterile canvas snoot of a fully charged icing anointment utensil, he puts forth a quarter-ounce green rosette near the summit of a dense but radiant muffin of his own design.

Later he says:

Muffin Man: "Some people, some people like cupcakes exclusively, while myself I say there is naught, nor ought there be, nothing so exalted on the face of God's gray Earth as that prince of foods...the muffin!"

Girl, you thought he was a man,
but he was a muffin,
He hung around till you found
that he didn't know nothin',

Girl, you thought he was a man,
but he only was a muffin,
No cries is heard in the night
as a result of him stuffin'


Girl, you thought he was a man,
but he was a muffin,
No cries is heard in the night
as a result of him stuffin'

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Robert Mitchum: Ballad of Thunder Road

SONG Ballad of Thunder Road

WRITTEN BY Robert Mitchum, Don Raye

PERFORMED BY Robert Mitchum

APPEARS ON Calypso Is Like So (1957); That Man, Robert Mitchum, Sings (1967); many hot rod songs anthologies

NOTE 1 A poster of the film inspired Bruce Springsteen to write his great song "Thunder Road," which -- besides the title -- is unrelated to the movie. NOTE 2 Raquelle of the blog Out of the Past explains the movie's back story here.

He saw acting as more a profession than an art, and was invariably prepared for every scene he appeared in. Famously unparticular about his roles, Robert Mitchum once said, "I don't care what I play. I'll play Polish gays, women, midgets, anything.'' Jailed for six weeks in 1948 after an arrest for possession of marijuana, he told curious reporters that prison was "like Palm Springs, but without the riff-raff." He modestly ascribed his famed heavy-lidded eyes to chronic insomnia.

The man who romanced Jane Russell three times on screen remained married to his high school sweetheart for 57 years. A repellent villain in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, Mitchum played a mild schoolmaster in Ryan's Daughter and a hapless small-time hood in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The leading man for David Lean and Fred Zinneman also starred in cult classics like His Kind of Woman, Pursued, and Thunder Road, which he produced and co-wrote, not to mention writing and singing the film's theme song, "Ballad of Thunder Road."

The song recaps the narrative of the film, which is the story of a Korean War veteran who makes daring deliveries of moonshine in a souped up '51 Ford. As pressure from revenooers and a rival bootlegger mounts, Mitchum attempts to steer his younger brother clear of the family business while romancing night club singer Keely Smith (who graces the film with a couple of songs; check out the husky voiced chanteuse here). After deciding to lay low for a time, Mitchum finds himself forced to make one last run. With revenooers in hot pursuit, he blasts through a road block and, well, "he left the road at ninety, that's all there is to say..."

"The Ballad of Thunder Road" tells its story without nuance, establishing the small-time stakes of bootlegging by contrasting the hamlets and roads of a hillbilly locale with the exotic big cities of Memphis and Knoxville. Pursued by the law and the lure of death ("the devil got him first"), the "mountain boy" is pressured by his father to make a final run (although the father covers his bets by telling his son to be careful). Despite taking dangerous back roads and shooting gaps at high speed, though, the desperate mountain boy finally cannot outrun the forces of law, family, and the supernatural -- another rebel destroyed by convention.
Now let me tell the story, I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol
His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load
When his engine roared,
They called the highway thunder road.
Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn't run him down
Each time they thought they had him,
His engine would explode
He'd go by like they were standin' still on Thunder Road.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst
The law they swore they'd get him, but the devil got him first.

On the first of April, Nineteen Fifty-Four
A federal man sent word he'd better make his run no more
He said two hundred agents were coverin' the state
Whichever road he tried to take, they'd get him sure as fate.
Son, his daddy told him, make this run your last
Your tank is filled with hundred-proof,
You're all tuned up and gassed
Now, don't take any chances, if you can't get through
I'd rather have you back again than all that mountain dew

Roarin' out of Harlan, revving' up his mill
He shot the gap at Cumberland,
And screamed by Maynordsville
With G-men on his taillights, roadblocks up ahead
The mountain boy took roads that even angels feared to tread.
Blazing' right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike
Then right outside of Beardon, there they made the fatal strike
He left the road at ninety, that's all there is to say
The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day