Sometime last year, when we were all hunkered down in our bunkers made of hoarded toilet paper and existential dread was creeping through the streets like the green-mist curse of Egypt in The Ten Commandments, I discovered a gentleman called Patrick Dexter. He’s a cellist who lives in a bucolic cottage somewhere in the west of Ireland. Every few days throughout the long, dark Lost Year of the Plague, he posted a video to social media of himself, sitting outside in the clean sunshine, playing for us while the Irish breeze ruffled the grass and his dog roamed the grounds behind him. His musical selections cover the gamut from traditional Irish songs to classical pieces to covers of popular hits, and just last week he released his first original composition, written for his niece who was born during the height of the pandemic. I’ve enjoyed all of his videos — as I tweeted to him at some point, they’re refreshing moments of grace in a dark world, affirmations of life and beauty that came along just when I needed them most. But there’s one in particular that I keep going back to. I’ve listened to it a number of times over the past few days…
An affirmation of life and beauty… just when I need it. It’s been a hell of a week.
Did anyone think I wouldn’t post this video soon after that Tawny Kitaen entry? I never claimed I wasn’t predictable.
Anyhow, Whitesnake is a British hard-rock band centered around lead singer David Coverdale, who had formerly been a member of Deep Purple. They formed in 1978 and did pretty well in Europe and Japan, but failed to make any significant in-roads in North America. As a result, Coverdale was ready by the mid-80s to call it a day and dissolve the band. But a new deal with Geffen Records and a collaboration with guitarist Jim Sykes (formerly of Thin Lizzy) convinced Coverdale to give it one more shot. The result was the self-titled 1987 album Whitesnake. While some longtime fans lamented the band’s revamped sound and image, accusing Coverdale of “Americanization” (i.e., selling out), the makeover did the trick: Whitesnake was a smash success in the United States, where it peaked at number two on the Billboard chart and remained at or near that spot for an incredible seven months. (It would be occasionally eclipsed by three other monster albums from that year — Whitney Houston’s Whitney; Michael Jackson’s Bad; and The Joshua Tree by U2 — but it always seemed to drift back into position.) Whitesnake became the band’s biggest selling album globally and was so successful that it boosted sales of their previous effort, Slide It In, as well as spawning four singles: “Give Me All of Your Love,” “Still of the Night,” “Is This Love,” and “Here I Go Again.”
The biggest of these was “Here I Go Again,” which was actually a reworking of a song the band had recorded five years earlier. “Here I Go Again ’87,” as it was officially titled, was a number-one Billboard hit and finished out the year in the number-seven slot; it has since gone on to be listed on several retrospective lists, including VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of the ’80s” and Rolling Stone‘s reader-selected “Best Hair Metal Songs of All Time.” It should be noted that there are two variants of the song: a radio edit that starts off with the electric guitars and the album version, with a longer, more introspective opening. This longer version is what was used in the video, and curiously it’s the one that appears on most of the compilations of ’80s music that are floating around out there. For years, I thought I must’ve imagined the other edit until the internet came along to help me track it down. (It’s not that I prefer the radio edit, per se, I just needed to know my memory wasn’t completely scrambled.)
The video, which prominently features Coverdale’s then-girlfriend Tawny Kitaen, is often credited for the song’s incredible success — Tawny herself wasn’t shy about making that claim — but as I said the other day, the song was out there and climbing the charts before the video debuted, and I think it probably would’ve been a hit with or without her. It’s simply a damn good tune with some evocative lyrics. Still, her gymnastic stunts and general sprawling across a pair of Jaguar XJs (one of which was Coverdale’s, the other director Marty Callner’s) is one of the more indelible images of the era. The New York Times has called this clip one of the “15 Essential Hair-Metal Videos”:
Tawny also appeared in the videos for “Still of the Night” and “Is This Love,” but neither of them impacted on the public consciousness the way this one did. One of those mysteries of the ages, I guess. Something about Tawny and those damned Jags just clicked with the public. She would marry David Coverdale two years later, in 1989, and they divorced two years after that. She later said in interviews that he couldn’t handle sharing the spotlight with her or knowing that she’d had a hand in the band’s success. Whether there’s any truth to that is open for debate; in the golden era of MTV, image often counted for more than substance, so she might not have been wrong about her contribution. However, I also think both of them had sizable egos, which couldn’t have made for the smoothest relationship. Whoever was right about the importance of those videos, though, it is true that Whitesnake never again reached the heights they experienced in 1987. Of course, that could have been because Coverdale had a falling out with Jim Sykes, who cowrote much of the album, and fired him from the band before the album even came out. The followup, Slip of the Tongue, was created with a completely different lineup than had appeared on Whitesnake, and these things do make a difference.
I will say this for David Coverdale: Ego or not, he’s one of the hardest working guys in rock and roll. Before COVID hit, he and the current iteration of Whitesnake were still out there touring, and in fact, I had tickets to see them — along with Sammy Hagar — last fall. The show was cancelled when the plague hit. I hope I get another chance.
Just for fun, here’s the earlier version of “Here I Go Again,” as heard on the 1982 album Saints & Sinners. It’s a pretty different animal, much more simply produced, much more of a ballad, even a bit soulful with an electric organ featuring prominently. And yes, that really is David Coverdale with dark hair; part of his “Americanization” makeover was bleaching it. I almost always tend to prefer originals to covers, and this one’s not bad. But I thought of the ’87 version as my personal theme song for far too long for this one to grab my heart. And I really prefer the slight change of lyrics from “hobo” to “drifter.” See what you think…
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…