I posted a version of this song — “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake — four years ago to this day, but if anything I think it’s even more appropriate this year.
It’s a melancholy song about the loss of innocence. But while the second verse may seem somewhat bitter about that loss, I don’t read the song overall as bitter or depressing. Not even cynical, really. Just… clear-eyed. And I actually find the final verse, with its earnest lyrics and swelling instrumentation, quite uplifting:
“I wish you a hopeful Christmas, I wish you a brave new year… All anguish, pain, and sadness Leave your heart and let your road be clear.”
There have been so many deaths in the past nine months, so many things lost that we took for granted… in many respects, our entire way of life was snatched away from us in literally moments with no guarantee that is ever coming back, and we’re all still grieving for it. And there’s been a lot of turmoil coming from other sources as well. Our country, our world is filled with sorrow and fear right now… and a tremendous amount of anger too. Once those negative energies are unleashed, they don’t dissipate quickly or easily. I’m not so naive as to think that the turn of a calendar page or the inauguration of a new president is going to instantly undo the Lost Year of 2020. But just as this song ends on a grain of optimism, I do see a glimmer of better days ahead. At least, I hope that’s what the glow on the far-off horizon turns out to be. I hope. How strange that I, of all people, would be saying that.
Merry Christmas to all those who observe it, and for anyone reading this who does not observe or who observes something else, I wish you peace. May we all find a brave new year and a road that is clear.
Well, the 30-Day Song Challenge is finally complete, and considering how long it took me to actually get through it — hey, nobody said it needed to be 30 consecutive days, right? — I thought I’d put together a recap for anyone who wants to review or who might have missed an entry.
In retrospect, I probably took the whole thing more seriously than I should have, and I also probably got too confessional a few times. That’s just who I am, though. And really the main goal of even doing this challenge was simply to prompt myself into writing something, and on that count it succeeded very well. It feels like I’ve written more regularly in the last six months than in the last couple of years, and that’s a nice feeling indeed. I’ve enjoyed this little project, even the entries that were difficult, and I’m genuinely sad that it’s over. I’m thinking I might next try a 30-day movie challenge I know of, assuming the country doesn’t fall into Civil War 2.0 in the next few weeks. We’ll see about that.
In the meantime, here’s the recap with hyperlinks back to the various posts. Bookmark it, kids, and refer to it often!
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 30: A Song That Reminds You of Yourself
It’s been over a month since my last entry in the 30-Day Song Challenge, and almost six months since I started it. Time at long last to put an end to this.
I’ve given the final category a lot of thought, trying to find just the right selection for the big finish, the most flat-out autobiographical item yet: a song that reminds me of myself. I considered Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69”; Mellencamp’s “Small Town”; Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”; Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” I thought about a relatively obscure song called “It’s Always Something” by my main man Rick Springfield. I even pondered a couple Jimmy Buffett tunes, even though I already used him earlier in this challenge. All of these possibilities seemed to capture aspects of myself, or particular memories or experiences, maybe a certain era of my life. But none of them felt quite right — or quite enough — to answer this final question.
I very nearly went with Eric Clapton’s “Rock and Roll Heart,” which has always felt like a sort of theme song for me. But in the end, I just kept coming back to an old Bob Seger tune. Well, technically two Seger tunes, although they’re best known in a medley form.
“Travelin’ Man” and “Beautiful Loser” both originated on a 1975 album recorded before Seger was widely known. The latter — the album’s title track — was released as a single, but it barely moved the needle, peaking at 103 on the Billboard chart. A year later, Seger and his Silver Bullet Band released one of the great concert recordings from the heyday of arena rock, Live Bullet; this album, along with Night Moves the same year, finally brought Seger to mainstream popularity. While Live Bullet didn’t generate any top-40 hits, a number of its tracks received heavy airplay on FM album-oriented rock stations, including the classic account of life on the road, “Turn the Page,” and the combined “Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser.”
I don’t remember when I first heard it… maybe in my early teens? I do recall that it was the first half of the medley that caught my fancy in those days. I liked the rhythm of it, the driving beat of the opening verses alternating with the quieter reflective bridge about memories. “Travelin’ Man” was aspirational for me, with its images of the open road and a rich, colorful romantic history. That was what teenage me wanted to be, a rogue and a footloose scoundrel with a girl in every port. If I’m being honest, I still have moments when that sounds pretty good. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that it’s the second half of the song that more accurately reflects the adult I became.
Not that I think of myself as a loser, necessarily, at least not on the good days. But the couplets illustrating the contradictory desires of the song’s protagonist strike pretty close to home:
He wants to dream like a young man With the wisdom of an old man He wants his home and security He wants to live like a sailor at sea
That’s me in a nutshell. Pulled in so many different directions, wanting so many different things, all at the same time. My inability to just pick one and go for it is probably my greatest failure. I’ve always feared making the wrong choice and finding myself unable to back out of it, so I tried to avoid making the choice at all. And now I’m 51 years old, and I struggle nearly every day not to feel completely disappointed in myself.
What’s that,? This post is depressing, you say? Yeah, maybe it is. But I’m just being honest. This is who I am and where I am at this point of my life. At least I’ve got a good rock-and-roll song to underscore it.
There is no video per se for this tune. There are a lot of clips of Seger performing it live, but they were evidently all recorded on smartphones, so the sound is dodgy at best. As it seems to me that the whole point of this Song Challenge thing is to actually share the music, I’m opting to go with a clip that doesn’t have much happening visually but which captures the original experience of hearing the music in all its analog glory. Here it is, taken directly from the Live Bullet LP. Enjoy…
For over 20 years, the rock star Sammy Hagar has celebrated his birthday with an annual concert and party for fans at his nightclub in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic made the usual festivities impossible, so Sammy came up with an alternative that was arguably better: a pay-per-view performance that anyone could see, not just the lucky few who could make the trip to Cabo. The actual performance was recorded on October 8 on Catalina Island, with Sammy, his current band The Circle, and a couple special guests (Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon and my main man, Rick Springfield) playing on the beach to a socially distanced audience of boaters anchored in the harbor, and then the event was streamed online a week later.
As fate would have it, Sammy’s former bandmate, Eddie Van Halen, passed away two days before the birthday bash concert. Eddie was acknowledged during the show with a moment of silence followed by the Van Halen hit “Right Now.” It was a fitting tribute… but for my money, the better one took place during the rehearsal the night before with a song that didn’t make the final playlist.
“Eagles Fly” was the third single from Sammy’s 1987 solo album I Never Said Goodbye, which was cut in just ten days to fulfill a contractual obligation after he’d already joined Van Halen. Ironically, considering the circumstances of its recording, the album became his highest-charting solo effort, no doubt boosted by the popularity of “Van Hagar” at the time. The big singles from it, “Give to Live” and “Eagles Fly,” both had a similar sound to Sammy’s work with VH and would be integrated into Van Halen’s live shows during the years he spent with them. It also finally came out in 2015 that Eddie had, in fact, played on the studio version of “Eagles.” But even without all those Eddie connections, the overall tone of the song is just perfect for a eulogy: spiritual, yearning, a bit melancholy but also hopeful. I’ve always liked this one. It came out during my freshman year of college, another of those songs I remember from the hours I spent in the student union watching MTV on the big projection TV and also one that resonated with personal issues I was experiencing at the time. All of that history came flooding back as I watched this clip, and I’m not ashamed to admit I got a little teary. Of course, it probably didn’t help that Michael Anthony — the former bassist for Van Halen who now plays with The Circle — was visibly fighting to hold it together.
Ladies and gentlemen, raise your glasses and flick your Bics (take it old-school, none of that new-fangled smartphone lighting!)… for Eddie…
What I’m about to say might shock my three Loyal Readers, but I’m afraid it’s true: I’ve always been more of a casual Van Halen fan than a true devotee. A “greatest hits” kind of fan, if you take my meaning. I don’t even have a particular preference for the Diamond Dave or Van Hagar eras of the band. I like ’em both. I guess what I’m saying is that, while I always liked Van Halen, I wasn’t deeply invested in them like many of my peers. Even so, hearing this afternoon that Eddie Van Halen, the virtuoso guitar wizard who (along with his brother Alex) was the band’s namesake, had died of throat cancer was like a kick in the gut.
While the band had formed in 1972 and hit the big time in 1978, I was only vaguely aware of them until their biggest single “Jump” reached the charts in early 1984. I was fourteen. I remember seeing the “Jump” clip on Friday Night Videos — it seems like it played on the show every week for months and months — and thinking that Eddie looked like a cocky punk with that smirk of his, while Alex didn’t make much impression at all. David Lee Roth was entertaining in his outrageousness, but honestly the one I was most drawn to was Michael Anthony, the bassist. His style was the closest to my own, and he just struck me as a good guy, someone you’d enjoy hanging out with (in as much as you can tell from a music video). These guys just weren’t cool to me the way somebody like, say, ZZ Top was. I loved the song, though, and its follow-up “I’ll Wait,” and its follow-up “Panama.” I loved them so much that when I finally got the album these songs were coming from, 1984, it was something of a disappointment, as it turned out that I hated half the songs on it as much as I loved the other half. I had that experience again and again as I explored Van Halen’s catalog, both their older work and then the post-1984 era when Sammy Hagar — who I knew from his solo record Three Lock Box — replaced Roth as the band’s lead singer. As it happened, the stuff I didn’t like was almost always the songs where Eddie indulged himself with long solos that I understood were technically impressive, but just tended to irritate me. I much preferred the more radio-friendly tunes where melody dominated over show-off shredding.
However, given enough time, it’s not unusual for things that formerly annoyed you to become familiar, then comfortable, and then sometimes even beloved, and that’s what happened with me and Eddie Van Halen. His music and his sound were so ubiquitous during my coming-of-age years, such an enormous part of the soundtrack of my youth, that I gradually found myself warming to them, coming to understand what he was doing and why it mattered. (I underwent a similar process with Prince, another GenX icon I just didn’t “get” when he was in his prime.)
And then one day, five years ago, I found myself at an outdoor concert venue on a sticky summer night, clapping and screaming along with everyone else as Eddie and Diamond Dave stalked each other on an enormous stage during one of their occasional reunion tours. If I remember correctly, they didn’t finish that tour; tensions between Eddie and Dave tore them apart before the end, just as they had all those years before. I think my city was one of their last stops before it all went south. But whatever happened after they played Salt Lake, the motors were ticking along like clockwork that night at Usana Amphitheater. Eddie was 60 years old at the time. He looked trim and healthy. He looked happy, a handsome man in a plain white shirt whose youthful arrogance and pretension and rock-star bullshit had long ago been burned away by experience. He was an elder statesman in full control of his skills and his instrument, his fingers moving across the strings and frets seemingly without effort, simply a joy to behold.
I’m glad I got the chance to see him at that stage of his life. The band itself may have been past its prime, but it felt like Eddie Van Halen was just coming into his. I’m sorry he’s gone only five years later.
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song You Remember From Your Childhood
“Sundown” is the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s fifth album on the Warner Bros/Reprise label (his tenth album, overall). It was a number-one hit in the summer of 1974. I was just under five years old at the time, so it’s unlikely I have any real memories of the song in the context of that year. And yet somehow it’s become associated in my mind with a series of impressions that add up to a scene that very likely did occur around that time… so maybe I actually do remember it. Memory is such a weird, slippery thing, especially when you’re looking back across four and a half decades. But whether I’m experiencing a genuine memory when I hear “Sundown” or just something I’ve manufactured for myself that uses the song as accompaniment, it always conjures up a vision of riding alongside my pretty young mother in her 1956 Ford pickup truck, the one with rust-red primer on the fenders and an eight-track deck welded into the dashboard. A long bar of sunshine-polygons pivots across the curving sides of the windshield and the truck shimmies and squeaks as old cars do, like living things with a touch of arthritis in their joints. The sweet, floral smell of just-cut alfalfa flows through the open wing-window. Dad has a swather machine and picks up a few extra bucks on the weekends cutting and baling hay for the local farmers. We’re on our way to meet him with a midday snack, a box of his favorite raspberry Zingers on the bench seat between us, a styrofoam cooler on the floor between us loaded with cans of Fanta Red Cream Soda and Coke in tall glass bottles. I’m drowsy in the heat, and the world seems very large and uncrowded.
This memory is a safe place, a happy place that I find myself retreating to more and more often as I get old and current events become more grim and frustrating. Strange that it would be so tangled up with a song about a “hard-headed woman that’s got me feeling mean.” But like I said… memory is weird…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song By An Artist Whose Voice You Love
An artist whose voice I love? Well, let’s see… I already used the Bangles way back at Song Number 9, so Susanna Hoffs is out. How about…
Mary Chapin Carpenter.
You might remember her from a string of hits on the country charts back in the early ’90s that included “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “Passionate Kisses,” “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances,” and her biggest seller, the number-one favorite “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”
Despite these successes, though, mainstream country was never a great fit for Chapin — I call her Chapin; I have no idea if anyone else does or if she would be cool with it — especially at that particular moment when her contemporaries tended to be glammed-up dollies like Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. By contrast, Chapin has always seemed to be most comfortable in a flannel shirt and a ponytail, and neither her speaking nor singing voice has the slightest trace of a twang. She took five years off in the late ’90s, but since the turn of the century — man, that still sounds weird! — she’s been recording and releasing new music that has moved farther and farther away from the country genre, both in sound and subject matter. Today, it’s probably best to describe her simply as a singer-songwriter whose work comprises literate meditations on aging, politics, and contemporary events. Sounds pretentious, but her music always had an intellectual edge, which is partly why I like her. Her lyrics are smart and often include striking imagery, as well as unexpected flashes of humor, even when the subject matter seems heavy. She’s a storyteller, which isn’t that unusual among singer-songwriters or country musicians, but the way in which she tells her stories are uniquely her own, and as a wannabe storyteller myself, I admire that.
As to her voice, it can be sexy on the right song, but mostly it’s warm and smooth. The cliche’d description would be “like honey,” but cliche or not, that’s what it reminds me of. Especially on the song I’ve selected for this post, which is the introspective title track from her 1994 album Stones in the Road, the same one that yielded the playful “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” This one refers to historical events that would have more resonance for Baby Boomers than my own age demographic, but I still relate to the overall mood and themes, and I love the final verse about what becomes of those innocent children when they hit working age.
“Stones” was not released as a single, so there’s no official video for it. There are some live performances on YouTube, but I really like the sound in the studio version you’ll hear here. Chapin didn’t do many videos in any case; much like the glamorous hair and dresses, she never seemed comfortable doing them. It’s probably for the best anyhow. Just close your eyes and pay attention to the words she uses…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song That Breaks Your Heart
Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a beautiful ballad, as insightful and emotionally truthful as any I’ve ever heard… so truthful that for a very long time, I couldn’t stand to listen to it.
This was partly an accident of timing. The song was released in October of 1991, and while I was on the mend by then from the romantic trauma I mentioned in the previous entry, “on the mend” is a long way from “100% recovered.” It didn’t take much in those days to rip the scab off and this song was just… too much. It stung me like a physical slap every time I heard it. So naturally it was a big hit that I couldn’t seem to avoid hearing all through the fall and winter months of that year. The universe has a sick sense of humor sometimes. Even if it hadn’t come out right then, though, I think I might have struggled with this song anyhow. It really is very sad.
Watch the video closely… the man you see playing the piano at the end is none other than Bruce Hornsby, who’d just had several hits of his own in the late ’80s with Bruce Hornsby and the Range. He also played piano on Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” around this same time. He was evidently the go-to guy for melancholy…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song That Makes You Want to Fall in Love
In the summer of 1991, I was 21 years old and finally beginning to move on from a heartbreak I’d experienced the previous year. In retrospect, I never should have allowed myself to sulk for so long about that situation, which really couldn’t have turned out any other way except the way that it did. But that’s the somewhat wiser perspective of a 51-year-old whose scars (and hormones) have faded. Back then, when it was all fresh and red and oozing, and I was still more of a boy than any kind of functional adult… well, back then I fancied myself some kind of Byronic hero, a tragic figure swathed in melancholy, wounded by love as no one in the history of humankind had ever been wounded before, existing in the shadows and clinging to the bright pain that gives life meaning. (“Call me... Darkman…”)
Christ, no wonder I had such a hard time getting a date!
Seriously, though, now that I think about it, this awful period was probably my first encounter with the Black Dog of depression, and I probably could’ve used some professional help instead of muddling through it on my own. I’m more than a little embarrassed about my behavior and thinking during that time. But as I said, by the summer of ’91, I was starting to pull myself out of the funk. And in spite of the aforementioned difficulty, I was starting to land the occasional date, too. For example, there was the afternoon I escorted an old friend to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the theater where I worked.
Now, that movie is what it is and this isn’t the place to debate its merits or lack thereof. And whatever intentions (hopes? wishes?) I may have had toward that friend didn’t pan out. We had a nice afternoon at the movies, but that was all. Perhaps I wasn’t as ready to move on as I thought as I was, or maybe too much time had passed to rekindle anything with that particular girl. Maybe I never actually had any intentions at all and I just wanted to see a movie with a friend. I don’t recall for sure anymore. But whatever the ultimate outcome, there was a moment during the movie’s closing credits when I suddenly felt… well, something between us. It might have been wishful thinking, it might just have been the mood generated by the movie’s romantic ending, but it was there, and it did me a world of good to feel that way, if only for a moment. To know that I still could feel that way. For that reason alone, I’ve never been able to join in when everybody else starts ragging on that movie.
Music is, of course, a huge component of how a movie affects the viewer, and I have no doubt that the song that played over the end credits of Prince of Thieves was as responsible for how I felt in that moment as anything. “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was Bryan Adams’ first foray into movie music and it proved to be a good career move for him, as the song became a number-one hit in 16 different countries and remains Adams’ biggest-selling song. It also led to him writing and recording a slew of other movie songs, both for himself and for other performers, including a couple of power ballads that were very similar to “(Everything I Do)” in sound and mood: “All for Love,” a collaboration with Rod Stewart and Sting for the 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” from the Johnny Depp vehicle Don Juan DeMarco. For my money, though, “(Everything I Do)” is the best of these, as well as one of the best love songs of the last several decades. Because while love songs are a dime a dozen, especially in pop and rock circles, I’ve never heard one that captures the feeling of tenderness in such an honest, true-to-life way. At least to my ear. Your mileage may vary.
This song isn’t about the early infatuation stage of a relationship or about physical lust, as intoxicating as those things are; this song is more mature than that. It’s a promise. It’s a knight pledging himself to a lady.
And one day back in 1991, it really did make me want to fall in love again
A final note about the video: I know there was one that incorporated clips from the movie along with Adams in a long black coat walking along a stony English-looking beach, but for some reason, I couldn’t find that one. Probably something to do with licensing, I would guess, because of the movie footage. Here’s another version that’s not nearly as good… but we’re here to listen to the music anyhow, right?
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 25: A Song You Like by an Artist No Longer Living
I heard a lot of Elvis’ music when I was a kid. My mother is a longtime fan and, while she was never one of those extremists who built a shrine in the living room following his death, it seems like there was always one of his records playing on our massive old hi-fi console when I got home from school. Unlike most kids who probably just rolled their eyes at whatever their parents liked to listen to, I actually enjoyed it. Most of it, anyhow.
I’ve gone back and forth over the years about which era of Elvis I prefer. Generally speaking, he was at his most exciting in the early days, the late 1950s, before his stint in the army and that long string of Hollywood movies that seemed to drain away all the mojo that had been so threatening to whitebread America when he first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. However, I also have a real soft spot for his work from the early ’70s, the records that Mom was listening to most often in my memories of that time. “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Burning Love” are great songs, as iconic in their way as anything he did when he was young.
However, for a plain old crank-it-loud, get-the-heart-pumping rock-and-roll experience, I always dial up “Promised Land.” Originally a Chuck Berry tune from 1965, Elvis recorded it in 1973, and released it as a single in the fall of ’74. It peaked on the charts at number 14 and became the title track of an LP the following year. I was five at the time.
The video I found appears to be fan-made, using footage from the film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which documented a string of live appearances at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (now known as the Westgate Las Vegas) in August 1970. Promoted as the “Elvis Summer Festival,” this was essentially the same sort of residency that has now become de rigueur for aging rockstars. People tend to sneer at “Vegas Elvis,” but he was pioneering something we now take for granted, and as cheesy as the jumpsuits and karate moves might now appear to be, I’m sure they were electrifying at the time. There has to be a reason why the man sold out 837 of those Vegas performances.
One final thought: You might remember this one from the first Men In Black movie, when Tommy Lee Jones is driving on the ceiling of the Queens Midtown Tunnel while blasting his favorite eight-track. (“Elvis is not dead, he just went home.”)