Monthly Archives: July 2020

A Song That Makes You Think About Life

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song That Makes You Think About Life

Whether it’s because of some quirk in my genetic makeup, an “old soul,” a karmic hangover from a past-life misdeed, or perhaps a long-forgotten childhood trauma, I think it’s safe to say that my default emotional state tends toward the melancholy. Not full-on depressive, although I’ve certainly flirted with the Black Dog a few times. And I do have moments of happiness and sometimes even completely good days from beginning to end. But life for me is almost always tinged with a bittersweet flavor, an undercurrent of something… well, sad. So when I was asked to name a song that “makes you think about life,” naturally I came up with one of the saddest ones I’ve ever heard.

“Taxi” was the first track released from singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s debut album Head & Tales, way back in 1972. Clocking in at slightly under seven minutes long, it was an unlikely hit in the days when radio stations were hesitant to play anything longer than three or four minutes. But Chapin had two strokes of luck with the song. First, he debuted it on The Tonight Show, where he was able to play it in its entirety to a massive television audience, as well as an appreciative Johnny Carson. (Supposedly the performance was so well-received that he was brought back the following night for an encore, but it’s possible that story is apocryphal. I can’t find any proof that it actually happened.)¬† The other break was when a popular radio DJ named Jim Connors discovered the song and pushed for it to be aired despite the length. As a result of these twin boosts, the song spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #24.

I can’t remember when I first heard “Taxi.” It’s one of those songs that’s just always been there on my personal soundtrack, and it’s always had an effect on me, even when I was a young boy who couldn’t begin to understand what it was about. Now… well, now I know all too well what Chapin was talking about… that empty feeling you get in the wee hours of a rainy night when you realize just how far away from your dreams you’ve really drifted.

Harry Chapin would also explore the theme of middle-aged regret in his two other best-known works: “W.O.L.D.,” about an aging disc jockey who’s sacrificed his personal life for his career — another possibly apocryphal story has it that TV writer Hugh Wilson was inspired by this song to create WKRP in Cincinnati — and of course his timeless #1 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a tune that has been known to reduce grown men to helpless sobbing. For me, though, Chapin’s most poignant expression of that theme was in its first iteration, a story about a cab driver named Harry and a would-be actress called Sue.

The video clip of the song that I’ve found for my Loyal Readers is a curious artifact. It predates MTV by a good decade, and is described on YouTube as an “industrial film.” It ends with a lengthy spoken section by (I believe) Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, describing how he discovered and signed Chapin to his label. Aside from that little oddity, though, this photographic montage set to music is clearly something we Gen Xers would understand to be a “music video.” So what is it, really? Is it more accurate to call it a “proto-video?” And what were MTV videos if not “industrial films” intended to promote sales, as creative and bizarre as they often were? This has nothing to do with anything, I suppose, I just find it interesting when new information reframes something I’ve long understood in a certain context. And it demonstrates how sometimes phenomena that “come out of nowhere” have actually been around in one form or another for a very long time.

As for Harry Chapin, he met with a sad ending in 1981, killed in a car crash while on his way to a gig. He was only 38. A life cut short. Almost like something from one of his own songs.

 

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A Song From the Year You Were Born

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 18: A Song From the Year You Were Born

I can do one better than just a song from the year I was born. How about an old favorite that was in fact released the very month I was born?

“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival came into the world about the same time I did, in September of 1969, as the B-side to another of the band’s big hits, “Down on the Corner.” On its own, “Fortunate Son” would peak at #14 on the Billboard chart two months later. But then something interesting happened: Billboard changed its methodology for tracking double-sided hit records, i.e., 45-rpm singles that had a hit song on both sides, which wasn’t unusual at the time. (Creedence, in fact, released a number of these “twofer” records over the next couple of years.) That change meant that “Fortunate Son,” now in combination with “Down on the Corner,” continued to climb the charts, the two of them together finally reaching #3 on December 20, 1969. I was three months old.

The song is widely understood to have been a protest against the Vietnam War, as that’s the backdrop it was conceived and released in, and that impression has been reinforced over the decades by its use in Vietnam War-themed movies (Forrest Gump) and video games (Battlefield Vietnam), and even in politics (John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign appropriated the song to try to illuminate the difference between Kerry — who served in ‘Nam — and incumbent George W Bush, who did not). But “Fortunate Son” never actually mentions Vietnam; it’s really more of a primal scream about class and the way the wealthy play by different rules than people who work for a living, which is a far more universal — and sadly unchanging — theme. And that, I believe, explains why you still hear “Fortunate Son” five decades later and why it still feels relevant when you do. I mean… when was the last time you heard the “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish? The Creedence tune, on the other hand, is probably playing on your local classic-rock station right now, or at least it will be in the next 30 minutes or so.

Besides being just a great, catchy rock-n-roller, the song has special resonance for me. My career is far removed from my dad’s life as a diesel mechanic at an open-pit copper mine, but I still tend to identify with my blue-collar roots. And after some of the experiences I’ve had dealing with people who very obviously thought themselves to be my “betters,” I have a somewhat jaundiced view of what wealth does to a person’s character. The song’s refrain of “it ain’t me” could be my own personal motto… and it’s one I find myself wanting to shout from the rooftops more and more often these days.

But that’s beyond the scope of this particular post, so let’s just enjoy the song, shall we? The clip below is the official video released just last year for the song’s 50th anniversary, and as you can see, it’s less a protest against war or an indictment of the 1% than it is a celebration of salt-of-the-earth types of all descriptions. In the end, maybe that’s the strongest protest¬† of all, just showing the real America — rural, urban, black, white, native, immigrant — all of us just doing the best we can, in spite of the guys at the top…

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A Song You’d Sing a Duet with Someone on Karaoke

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 17: A Song You’d Seen a Duet with Someone on Karaoke

Fun fact: I have never karaoke’d, as a duo or otherwise. And I’m not sure I ever would, at least not without copious amounts of liquid courage. But if it did somehow come down to that, I can think of no better dueting tune than Sonny and Cher’s immortal 1965 hit “I Got You Babe.” (Here’s another fun fact: When Cher first heard it, she reportedly thought it was a dumb song that would never go anywhere. She’s still performing it in concert half a century later.)

Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a cliche and can even induce eye-rolling under the wrong circumstances, especially after the movie Groundhog Day used it to such horrifying effect, but it’s a sweet song that’s in a key just about anyone can manage (let’s be honest, Sonny Bono wasn’t much of a singer), and to my ear, it perfectly captures the innocent optimism of young love. But it’s also somehow weirdly applicable to older love too; I can easily see it as a fond commentary on a couple that’s been down the road and back, and somehow, against the odds, is still together… weatherbeaten but happy with each other. Whether you hear it as an anthem to nineteen-year-olds or a reminder of your own lost youth or as a poignant declaration to your life partner of decades — hell, why not all three? — it’s one of those songs that just makes you happy to hear. At least it makes me happy.

I have no idea where this video clip comes from — obviously a vintage television program — but it’s a pretty poignant thing too. I first got to know Sonny and Cher on their weekly TV show in the early ’70s, which was largely built around the “joke” of Cher being mean to her hopelessly square husband. As I understand it, by that point in their relationship, her antipathy for him wasn’t an act. But here they’re both fresh and cute and visibly enamored of each other, before life and fame and god knows what ground whatever they had together into a pulp.

Anyhow, that’s really all I’ve got to say about this one. Short and sweet this time. Enjoy!

 

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A Song That’s a Classic Favorite

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 16: A Song That’s a Classic Favorite

The wording of this one seemed a little odd to me, so I had to spend some time parsing it to be certain of what it was asking for. I finally decided it should more properly be read as “a classic song that’s a favorite.”

As it happens, I like a lot of so-called classic songs. Of course, the definition of “classic” varies through time; these days, the oldies station is playing stuff that was popular when I was in college. Oy. For me, however, “classic”¬† is my parents’ music, the early days of rock and roll. It’s mom’s scratchy old 45s played back on a supposedly “portable” record player the size of a large suitcase, the one that needed to have a penny taped to the tone arm to keep it from skipping across the platter. It’s Chuck Berry drifting in and out of the static on a tube-driven AM car radio. It’s the soundtrack to American Graffiti, and the cherry Coke you drank at sunset with a hot summer breeze in your hair, and it’s the music that mom and dad’s DJ friend pumps out across the parking lot at their classic-car cruise night events.

Boiled down to a single tune, “classic” is Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” It’s probably one of the most recognizable songs of the early rock era, and it’s one of my favorites from any era. The song was a tremendous hit for Del in 1961, sitting at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and coming in at number 5 for the year. It became a hit for him again in 1987, when Del re-recorded it (with somewhat different lyrics) for the producers of the television series Crime Story, which could be described as Miami Vice set in the early ’60s. Every week for two seasons, “Runaway” played over the opening-credits montage of Dennis Farina in a trenchcoat, neon signs, and tail fins. I barely remember the show itself, but those credits still play through my minds-eye from time to time.

However, it’s the earlier, decidedly more innocent version of the song that I’m going to place here. Obviously, it was recorded long before music videos, but I did manage to find a vintage clip from one of those teenage dance shows that were popular in the day. I’m not sure which show, exactly — I don’t think it’s American Bandstand, the sets don’t look right to me — but of course the point is for y’all to hear the song… so, enjoy. And let it take you back to those days when your relationship with your car was at least as important as the one you had with your best girl, and likely it was a more solid one at that…

 

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