One night, I had a long conversation with Shanks O'Toole and one of the subjects we talked about was music. We were discussing the fact that way too many people settle for what the radio and the music industry hands them and go no deeper. They are surface dwellers, so to speak, people who never dive beneath the waters to discover the treasures lying on the sandy bottom and hidden in caverns.
We also shared glimpses into the gloomy side of things. I believe that most people, if they live any kind of a life, would know what I am talking about. Being somewhat depressed, like most other things in life, has a beneficial side in that it strips away the illusions that we use to soften the edges and cushion the blows. Being sad forces one to look at life as it really is and can make one stronger coming out of the shadows. I mention it here because it also helps shape your taste in things like movies, books, and music.
We were talking about the songs we hated because the radio just wore them out, wearing ruts in our brains in the process. I don't know how it is now, I don't listen to radio much, I suspect it's the same. Back then if the song had just come out and worked its way to the top of the playlist, they played it over and fucking over about five minutes apart at least a thousand times, to the point that you wouldn't listen to the song if they bought your mama a new house and filled it with big screen TVs. You grimaced whenever the song came home and cursed the artist who made it down to their third generation.
We mentioned a few of our least favorites, songs we hated with the passion of a thousand burning suns. Then we started bringing up exceptions to the rule. For example, I told him about how I listened to a mixtape of Al Stewart's music every single day while I drove to Fresno State and back.
So, there are exceptions, and to me those songs seem to be a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let's face it 95% of the music we've listened to will be buried in our graves, there are a few though which, somewhere down the line, someone will pick up out the heap, blow the dust off, play and say "This shit right here. This shit right here."
I started thinking about it and thought that it would be interesting to go in search of those songs and to see what other people thought.
These are a few of mine, in no particular order.
Year of the Cat - Al Stewart
This is Al Stewart's greatest, some might say, only hit. It is nowhere near his best. I love it though because, in my opinion, it is the most perfectly crafted pop song ever and an object of great beauty. The opening verse, that opening verse....
On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don't bother asking for explanations
She'll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat
Stewart is idolized by his fans mainly because of his cogent lyrics. However, his backing musicians were always first rate (Peter White, Peter Wood, Tim Renwick, Lawrence Juber ), and his musical ideas were often as interesting as his words. This song is the best example of the marriage of the two.
Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
I am not a huge jazz fan. Kind of Blue is the only jazz album I have ever owned. I believe it is also the greatest collection of music ever recorded. The kids in my class, who generally disliked everything not modern, liked Freddie Freeloader. Go figure.
There was a period after I was inflicted with tinnitus, my ex died, and Nurse Ratchet type people started telling what I could and couldn't teach when I couldn't listen to music with words. Most of what was passing for music then was blather that you could dance to and reminded me way too much of the staff meetings I was required to attend.
My ex's passing months after my dad's passing had made me all to aware that we never really talk about the truth. It hurts way too much to even know that it's there.
Discovering Miles Davis and Kind of Blue got me through the darkness. I don't know how. I really can't explain why. All I know is that I can still put the album on, and it will chase away the blather and the nonsense.
If You See Her, Say Hello - Bob Dylan
There are times that I have to shut this song off when I hear its opening notes. Dylan owns the rights to most of the music that I love. This is the one song that is most capable of penetrating past all my defenses and reducing me to a trembling fool. It is also the one most capable of putting me within earshot of God. Well, maybe just outside of a closed door, but close enough that I can hear him talking.
If you get close to her
Kiss her once for me
I always have respected her
For doin' what she did and gettin' free
Oh, whatever makes her happy
I won't stand in the way
Though the bitter taste still lingers on
From the night I tried to make her stay
The lyrics to this song reveals what some people have known all along, that Dylan is a shapeshifter, and one capable of entering into the dreams of sleeping people. He stole these words from me and from the inarticulate yearnings of every other broken heart. Listening to this song, I can visualize the whole progression of my relationship with my ex from the first shy kiss till now.
Run - Lindsay White
I'm not one of them fathers who run around saying that my daughter is the greatest songwriter who ever lived. She is one of my two favorite people, it goes without saying. The fact that I place her on a list which includes Dylan, Stewart, and Prine should tell her what she needs to know.
We are as different in our political outlooks as night and day, yet when I listen to her lyrics and her insightful metaphors, beautiful imagery and perfect similes, I know that she still sees the same world that I do although we sometimes disagree on what it means. And maybe that is how it should be.
how do i breathe now there's no air in my lungs
how do i climb down this ladder's out of rungs
how do i slow down when all i ever did was
all i ever did was run
I've often told her this is my favorite song of hers. It reminds me of my own anxieties and how much of my survival I owe to the flight part of the "fight or flight" scenario, a trait her mother hated. It also reminds me of the need to always make better efforts to be better. Something we do agree on.
Fish and Whistle - John Prine
To be honest, this has not always been my favorite John Prine song. It is right now though. That's the beauty of Prine. John Prine is a like a high dollar mood ring. He could pull a lyric out his ass on just about any emotion and thought. Makes it hard to choose a favorite, but works well when you need a song because you're feeling low, you need a laugh, or are just trying to make sense of something that's just out of reach of understanding.
However, there are two lines in this song that elevates it above most everything else he ever wrote.
Father forgive us for what we must do
You forgive us and we'll forgive you
We'll forgive each other 'til we both turn blue
And we'll whistle and go fishing in the heavens
Those two lines should rank among the most perfect encapsulation of truth every written. They trump most everything I've ever heard a man or woman of God say on the subject. It's mankind's perfect response to our situation, and one that I'm sure that God would listen to, ponder, and say, "Well, alright then. Let me get my pole."