Last Friday was the official first day of summer, but it didn’t really feel like it, since temperatures here in the SLC were only in the 60s. By contrast, this afternoon is breezy and in the low 90s, with a completely empty steel-blue sky, so I think it’s safe to say now that we’ve arrived in summertime. Which means I’ve been thinking about summer-themed songs.
“Magic” isn’t strictly about summertime — it’s by The Cars, which means the lyrics are utterly opaque and could be about anything — but it does mention summer in the opening lines, and I always associate this song with hot days, cheap plastic sunglasses, sleeveless shirts, hanging at the mall, and dragging State in my old Galaxie. Released on May 7, 1984, just as I was finishing my freshman year of high school, the song failed to crack the top 10 — it only rose as high as 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — but it was seemingly ubiquitous all through the season that followed, and it’s always been a favorite of mine. (I much prefer it over the next single from the Heartbeat City album, “Drive,” and especially over the single that came after that, “Hello Again.” That’s the one with the nonsensical babbling thing in the middle. Not really a bad song, but weird. Just… weird.)
The Cars were an interesting band. They emerged from the same East Coast post-punk scene that also birthed Blondie and the New York Dolls, so they’re often categorized as New Wave. Certainly, the band looked more like Wavers than rockers, especially lead singer Ric Ocasek, whose oversized jackets draped on a too-thin frame and goofily awkward movements were about as far from rock-and-roll swagger as you could get. But The Cars’ musical style included enough crunchy guitar sounds — very evident on “Magic,” for example — that they weren’t out of place on hard-rock stations, while their pop sensibilities and knack for catchy hooks welcomed them into the top-40 format as well. In short, The Cars were chameleons who transcended rigid genre categories. Pretty much everyone I knew back in the day liked The Cars. I still do.
So here’s a little something to listen to as you step out into this balmy summertime evening. Hope you find some magic there…
So, my main man Rick Springfield has a new album out that I’ve really been enjoying for the past couple weeks. It’s called Orchestrating My Life, a collection of 10 hits, two beloved album cuts, and a new song Rick wrote when his mom passed away, all of them recorded with a symphony orchestra accompanying Rick’s band. The cynical might sniff that the symphony thing is just a gimmicky way to repackage the same old tunes, but I’m finding that the symphonic accompaniment lends a great deal of depth and freshness to some very familiar material.
Consider “Kristina,” for example, a cut from his 1982 album Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet. Although it was never released as a single, it’s become a fan favorite over the years and is always a highlight of Rick’s live performances. It’s one of my personal favorites as well, with its infectious guitar hook, a throbbing bass line that encourages you to nod your head and pump your fist, and lyrics that play with two of my favorite subjects, cars and sex. As much as I love it, though, it’s… well, it’s familiar. Adding the symphony takes a straight-ahead rocker of which I know every note and fills it with sheer unadulterated joy. This version of the song is just plain fun to listen to.
Turn it up loud, kids, and have a great holiday weekend…
(The original recording is here, if you want to compare.)
For her first 18 years as a recording artist, roots rocker Bonnie Raitt was essentially a cult act. The critics loved her but few people beyond a small circle of hardcore fans had even heard of her. That all changed with the release of her tenth album, Nick of Time, her first on the Capitol Records label and also the first that she made while sober (according to Bonnie herself).
Nick of Time would hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart within months of its release, and go on to sell some five million copies. It earned Bonnie Raitt four hit singles and four Grammy Awards, but more importantly, it rescued her flagging career. Nick of Time was my introduction to Bonnie, who became one of my favorite musicians of the ’90s, and its mixture of authentic, analog-style R&B, blues, pop and country pointed the way ahead for my musical interests when the pop music of the ’80s morphed into something that no longer spoke to me, and grunge emerged from the shadows to kill off rock and roll.
The album also became an unlikely soundtrack for one of the most pivotal years of my life. I was 19 going on 20 in the summer of 1989. I started my first real (and in many ways still my best) job, working at that infamous multiplex movie theater I’ve mentioned so many times. I was making new friends, I still believed in my dreams for my future… and I was in love. The first single from Nick of Time, “Thing Called Love,” was the background for these good times. And then later that year, when the weather grew cooler and the good times started to curdle, the plaintive sounds of the album’s second single “Have a Heart” articulated all too keenly what I was feeling. So keenly in fact, that I had to stop listening to Nick of Time for a while.
But let’s not dwell on that. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Nick of Time — good lord, how can it be 30 years since that summer?! — let’s instead listen to “Thing Called Love.” This was actually a cover of a John Hiatt song, but Bonnie takes full possession of it through her sassy delivery and slinky slide-guitar playing. It was her biggest hit to that point, peaking at number 11 on the rock charts. I imagine the video added a bit of lift, thanks to an unexpected appearance by Hollywood hunk Dennis Quaid and the joyful, flirtatious energy passing between him and Bonnie. God, how I loved this song. On the strength of this one song, I went to see Bonnie Raitt live that summer, when she opened for the Steve Miller Band at an outdoor show that was cut short by a torrential rainstorm. I didn’t buy the full album until after that, from what I recall.
One final observation: in the video, Quaid wears a t-shirt that sports the logo of Sun Records, which is of course the legendary Memphis recording studio that hosted Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others. Quaid would star as Jerry Lee Lewis in the biopic Great Balls of Fire later in that very same summer of 1989. Everything is connected, man…
If I’ve piqued your interest at all with my little rambling here, I recommend this oral history that’s all about how Nick of Time came to be… fascinating stuff for a true music lover!
After spending a good part of the preceding decade proving her acting chops in well-regarded films like Silkwood, Mask, and Moonstruck (for which she won an Academy Award), the legendary Cher came roaring back to the music world in 1987 with a self-titled album and a new sound that was more rock-oriented than what she’d been doing in the ’70s. (No doubt having Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora coproduce the album had something to do with that!) I liked the big single from that album, “I Found Someone.” But I loved the one that came from her follow-up Heart of Stone a year and a half later.
“If I Could Turn Back Time” was well-nigh inescapable during the summer and fall of 1989, peaking at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and coming in 35th on the year-end chart. If anything, “Time” was even more bombastic and dramatic than “I Found Someone,” and that was just perfect for where I was and what I was feeling around the time of my twentieth birthday. It was one of those songs that comes along at just the right moment and clicks into your life as if someone is programming your own personal soundtrack.
As much as I liked the song, though, I honestly hadn’t thought about it in a very long time. It’s not in rotation on the classic-rock radio stations I follow, and my iTunes hasn’t chosen to shuffle it up in, well, a very long time. Earlier this week, however, I ran across a clip from last month’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony at which Cher, along with country singer Reba McEntire, composer Philip Glass, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, were given the prestigious lifetime achievement award. Cher’s friend and fellow ’80s icon Cyndi Lauper performed the song to honor her, and I thought it was pretty awesome. So here it is to help you start your weekend:
And just for fun, here’s the original:
Cher strutting around the decks of the battleship Missouri in a little bit of nothing, with a bunch of sailors and their giant, erect… um… cannons… looming overhead… that was 1989 for you.
Incidentally, this video was hugely controversial at the time; MTV initially banned it, then relented but would only show it after 9 PM. Meanwhile, the US Navy caught quite a lot of flack and hasn’t allowed any music videos to be filmed aboard its ships since. Rock and roll!
Every now and again, something bubbles up out of the depths of my trusty iPod that I haven’t thought about in a very long time, and I’ll remember how much I used to like that song, and — with any luck — how much I still like it. The most recent example of this phenomenon is “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde (who, despite the title of her signature tune, is English, not American).
“Kids in America” was released in the U.S. in 1982 (it had already been out for about a year in Europe at that point), whereupon it became a solid but not a tremendous hit in the States, peaking at number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, the song’s accompanying video got a fair amount of airplay on MTV, and I’d daresay the song became something like a theme for a certain slice of Generation X. The idea that that particular cohort is closing in on the half-century mark — and that Wilde herself is now 57 — is difficult to wrap my head around. Because in my heart, we’re still the Kids in America, searching for the beat in this dirty town. I imagine we’ll still be searching when we’re in our nursing homes.
Anyhow, that’s it. No special occasion, no particular associations… just I song I remember liking back in the day. And as it happens, I still like it. Hope you enjoy it too, as we head into the weekend…
I honestly can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Rick Springfield in concert.
What started off as a lark — “Hey, let’s go see that guy I loved as a kid and find out if he can still sing!” — and then evolved into something of a running gag — “Hey, let’s go see Rick again!” — has finally become a comfortable, reliably entertaining event that Anne and I look forward to more or less annually. Which isn’t to suggest that a Rick Springfield concert is the same old thing, year after year. While there are a lot of ’80s nostalgia acts who do essentially the same show every time — I’m thinking of Def Leppard in particular; they’re good, but if you’ve seen them once, you’ve seen them — I’ve personally had a wide range of experiences with Rick, everything from an arena-style state-fair show to a Las Vegas stage spectacular to an intimate performance in a small rehearsal space. We’re going to see him again tonight, this time performing under the stars with the Utah Symphony Orchestra. So that ought to be interesting.
I’d love to take all my Loyal Readers along with me, but since that’s not possible, I’ll leave you with a video instead.
“Voodoo House” is the second single from Rick’s latest album The Snake King, and the blues influence is even more obvious on this one than in the first release, “In the Land of the Blind.” Filmed on location in the bayous around New Orleans, an authentically grimy road house, and in the historic Dew Drop Jazz and Social Hall — reportedly the oldest rural jazz hall in the country — the video is dripping with humid atmosphere, redolent of sweat, sex, and the dark ancient forces that whisper to men and women alike when the sun drops low in the west. It’s cool stuff. Hope you dig it as much as I do.
Huey Lewis himself may have mocked the idea in the song “Hip to Be Square,” but for a couple years in the mid-1980s, he really was cool. I always thought so, at least. He and his band, The News, had a style and attitude that was entirely their own. They weren’t fey preppies like so many of the New Wave guys, or trying to look dangerous like the rockers. They didn’t have weird hair or an aggressive “screw it all” attitude like the punks. They just were who they were, without pretense. And to an insecure kid like me, that air of self-assuredness seemed, well, pretty damn cool. Cool enough that The News is one of the few music acts that was allowed to take up valuable real estate on my bedroom walls when I was a teen (my taste in cheap posters from Spencer’s ran more toward pin-up girls than rock bands). In fact, this is the very poster that hung over my bed:
Tell me that red suit isn’t cool. Seriously, I’ve never been a suit-wearer — I’ve always tended to dress more like Johnny Colla, the shorter guy to Huey’s right — but I’d totally rock that red-suit-black-t-shirt combination.
Anyhow, these days, it seems like the only Huey songs that still get much air play are the cutesy pop tunes “Stuck with You” and “If This Is It,” and of course the Back to the Future theme, “The Power of Love.” However, my favorite News tunes were always the rowdier, more rock-oriented pieces — naturally — and The News never rocked harder than it did with “I Want a New Drug,” the second single from the band’s breakthrough album, Sports. Here’s the video:
“I Want a New Drug” was released in January 1984 and went to number six on the Billboard chart. A dance remix hit number one in April, while the original single finished out the year in 55th place overall, so the song was pretty much inescapable throughout the year. Bizarrely, it became the center of a lawsuit when Lewis claimed that Ray Parker Jr. ripped off the melody for his 1984 hit, “Ghostbusters,” which Lewis had supposedly been approached about writing for Columbia Pictures but had to turn down because of his involvement with Back to the Future. The suit was settled out of court. Meanwhile, the video stands as a classic of the early MTV era and is one of my favorites. I love the bit where Huey plunges his hungover face into a sink filled with ice water, a gag I’m pretty sure he stole from Paul Newman. (Newman did the ice-water trick in at least two movies that I know of, a 1966 detective film called Harper and in The Sting, from 1973.) In a fun bit of continuity, the blond girl in this video — a model named Signy Coleman — was also seen in Huey’s previous video, “Heart and Soul”; there’s a fun interview with her here, which includes a more recent photo, if anyone is curious. And of course, the video features that infamous red suit. I still wouldn’t mind owning one of those.
I suspect I’m babbling a bit more than usual in this entry, for which I apologize. I’m reeling a bit from this afternoon’s announcement that Huey Lewis has had to cancel all his scheduled 2018 concert performances, including a date here in Salt Lake that was just announced a couple days ago, because he has suffered a sudden, catastrophic hearing loss. His statement on the band’s Facebook page is hopeful, but from the sound of it — forgive the pun — this may be a permanent condition. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Huey and the News three times over the years, once back in ’86 or thereabouts, and twice more in the past decade. Even though I wasn’t planning to see him this summer, it’s shocking and depressing to think that maybe I won’t ever have the opportunity again. I can only imagine it’s even more depressing for him; if this is the end of his career, what a sad and abrupt brick wall at the end of a long ride.
Lately, it seems like more and more of my heroes are coming to the end of their rides in one way or another, and I really haven’t figured out how to cope with that yet.
Here is Huey’s statement:
Huey Lewis and The News cancel all 2018 performances
Two and a half months ago, just before a show in Dallas, I lost most of my hearing. Although I can still hear a little, one on one, and on the phone, I can’t hear music well enough to sing. The lower frequencies distort violently making it impossible to ﬁnd pitch. I’ve been to the House Ear Institute, the Stanford Ear Institute, and the Mayo Clinic, hoping to ﬁnd an answer. The doctors believe I have Meniere’s disease and have agreed that I can’t perform until I improve. Therefore the only prudent thing to do is to cancel all future shows. Needless to say, I feel horrible about this, and wish to sincerely apologize to all the fans who’ve already bought tickets and were planning to come see us. I’m going to concentrate on getting better, and hope that one day soon I’ll be able to perform again.
If there was ever a song that seems custom-tailored for my basic preoccupations, it would have to be “Glory Days,” the fifth of seven hit singles from Bruce Springsteen’s smash album Born in the USA. Like so many Springsteen tunes, I liked this one back in the day simply because I liked its sound: the aggressive guitar opener, the calliope tone of the synth, the rise and fall and rise again into a big climax and a definitive ending instead of the more usual fadeout. But as I’ve grown older, nearing and then surpassing the age Springsteen actually was when he recorded it — he was 34 in 1984, and I’m 48 now — the song has come to have real resonance for me. Not merely because it reminds me of the time when it was popular, but because I now relate to the lyrics. Time really does pass in the wink of a young girl’s eye, and when you settle into that middle-age rut of commuting and working for The Man, it’s very hard not to look back at your youth and wonder if your best days are behind you. Well, it’s hard for me, anyhow. Your mileage may vary.
The great thing about “Glory Days,” though, is that it’s not a maudlin or depressing song. It approaches its subject with a sense of humor and an upbeat tone. It doesn’t say, “Life is over and doesn’t that suck?” It’s more like a gentle nudge in the ribs as a friend says, “Hey, remember all that stupid shit we used to do? Good times, huh?” There’s a hint of melancholy under there, but it’s quickly washed away with a swig of beer and a good laugh. This song makes me feel good about knowing what Bruce is singing about.
“Glory Days” was a sizable hit in the summer of 1985, when I was 15-going-on-16. It peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Top 100, becoming the second highest-charting single from Born in the USA (“Dancing in the Dark” was the highest; it reached number 2). Oh, and one more bit of trivia for those who are interested: the video was directed by John Sayles, the writer and director of well-regarded indie films like The Return of the Secaucus 7, Matewan, Passion Fish, and Eight Men Out, about the notorious Black Sox baseball scandal of 1919. No wonder he seemed to latch onto the verse about playing baseball for the video’s concept…
And now I’m going to drift out into my Friday night. This morning’s rain showers have blown over, and out my office window I can see blue skies and puffy white clouds… happy weekend, everybody!
If you haven’t heard, my main man Rick Springfield dropped a new album recently. It’s called The Snake King, and while it isn’t exactly the blues record I’ve long hoped he would someday do — you won’t find any covers of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters here — the DNA of rock’s mother genre is threaded all through this collection of 13 tracks. The album’s thematic preoccupation with God, the devil, and sex is, of course, primal blues territory, and the blues sound rises and falls from song to song, meshing surprisingly well with Rick’s pop-rock sensibilities. It’s a far more natural fit for him than his flirtation with country on his previous album. Not that Rocket Science was a bad album; it’s just that…. this is better. Rick’s playing and songwriting both feel invigorated in a way that they haven’t for a while. In short, The Snake King is a great listen, probably my favorite release of his since shock/denial/anger/acceptance way back in 2004.
Rick evidently thinks so too, because he’s been doing quite a lot of publicity for it, making the rounds of various TV talk shows and giving a lot of interviews. And he’s even done a conceptual music video (as opposed to a performance clip), which is, as far as I know, his first such video since he was fighting to liberate humanity from its alien overlords with the help of a young David Fincher. [Edit: Turns out I’m wrong about that; he did a video for the song “Down” from his last album in 2016, I just missed that one somehow.] Without further ado, here’s “In the Land of the Blind,” which happens to be one of my favorite cuts from The Snake King and a really nice sound to start your weekend…
Incidentally, Anne and I attended the launch party for The Snake King out in Los Angeles and even spent a couple minutes chatting with my main man… but that’s a story for another time…
Man, if you’d told me 20 years ago that I’d someday be nostalgic for the 1990s… well, let’s just say I would’ve found that highly improbable. But then, the idea that the ’90s were 20 years ago seems pretty damn improbable to me as well.
I was in my twenties during that decade and, at the time, things didn’t seem to be going so well for Mrs. Bennion’s golden child. I’d graduated from college without the slightest idea of what to do next. I didn’t know how to search for quote-unquote grown-up jobs, or even what sort of job I wanted, and so I spent more years than I should have working low-paying, demoralizing temp gigs. While my friends were out there beginning careers and starting their lives, I was feeling stuck and beginning to have my first real battles with depression. In addition, I was feeling increasingly alienated from the one thing by which I’d always defined myself, popular culture. I’d also become politically aware just in time for our politics to begin their devolution into nasty, scorched-earth-style partisanship. And my love life was a source of never-ending angst, naturally. Basically, my twenties were pretty shitty. At least… they seemed that way at the time.
But time is a tricksy devil. It has a way of knocking off the rough edges and sanding the surface smooth. When I look back now on the decade of my twenties and the crazy era they occupied, I don’t see all the anxiety and self-loathing. Well, not much of it, anyhow. What I see now is a moment I wish I could recapture, honestly. I see a lot less responsibility and a lot more free time than I have now. I see energy and possibilities in quantities I wish I still had. I see the excitement of new love and of early travels, the joy of discovering things — discovering everything, really — and the confidence that comes from not yet knowing how hard the world can really be. I see a world that was curiously naive compared to the morass that surrounds us now. I see golden-hour sunlight and open roads, and I feel soft breezes in my face that are rarely so balmy now. Mostly, I just see myself young, more handsome than I believed myself to be and stronger than I knew.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that era the past few days, so here’s a song from back then that I liked. No particular reason, no specific associations. I just liked this one. I still do.
“Can’t Cry Anymore” was the sixth single from Sheryl Crow’s smash debut album, Tuesday Night Music Club, which was one of my favorites back in the day. The song was released in May of 1995, nearly a year after the album itself, and although it only rose to number 36 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was Crow’s third top-40 hit.