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.
What a week this has been, eh? After months of more or less ignoring what was happening overseas, the average American finally got the message that there’s a pandemic in the offing and began panic-hoarding toilet paper while public venues of all descriptions shuttered themselves. (I think it was probably the news that America’s Dad, Tom Hanks himself, tested positive for COVID-19 that tipped us over the edge.)
My own workplace had a scare yesterday when the mall that lies below our office tower shut down its food court for a thorough disinfecting, ostensibly because someone who shopped there three days ago had tested positive for the disease. Now today the office is mostly deserted, and a young graphic designer who sits near me keeps asking the people around her about COVID-19 and the Black Death, obsessively checking websites for the number of reported cases in Utah, and muttering under her breath, “We’re all going to die.”
I’ll confess that I’m wrestling with a certain level of anxiety myself. Deadly pandemics are a personal boogeyman of mine — let’s just say that The Stand is the one Stephen King novel I don’t see myself ever reading again — so I know what she’s feeling. But I feel bad that she’s so scared. So, like any man of a certain age who’s confronted with a scared lady who’s young enough to be his daughter, my protective impulses flared up and I tried to make her feel better. I told her she’s right to be concerned and to take precautions, but not to let it all drive her too crazy, because we Gen Xers have faced imminent doom any number of times, from our teenage certainty that we were all going to be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust before we could lose our virginity to the Harmonic Convergence of 1987, when the planets would align and magnify the usually balanced gravitational forces of the solar system, tearing everything to smithereens. Then there was Y2K; the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012; the Mad Cow Disease outbreak in the ’90s; a couple of near-miss asteroids… it seems like there was something in there about a comet, too, but I don’t recall any more. And of course a new plague every few years just to put the fear of the invisible into everyone. And yet, for all that… we’re still here. Most of us, anyhow. (I didn’t mention the AIDS epidemic to her, which really did wipe out a generation of gay men; I figured that one would not have helped her see the point I was trying to make.)
Ultimately, I don’t think my show of generational bravado helped her much. And I’m not sure it did much for my nerves either. But ever since, I’ve had a song running through my head that seems rather apropos for this particular moment in history: Blue Oyster Cult’s 1986 hit single “Dancin’ in the Ruins.” I’ve posted this one as a Friday Evening Video before, so I’ll just repeat what I said then:
The song’s generally upbeat sound overlaying its fatalistic lyrics seems to match my [current] emotions, which have been a weird rollercoaster between existential dread, weary resignation, and fuck-it-all euphoria.
And that’s really about all I’ve got to say right now. So just crank the volume and enjoy as we head into the weekend. Everything crumbles to dust in time, so we may as well have a party, right?
How’s that for GenX atttiude? Keep washing your hands, folks. And keep a close watch on your toilet paper…
For many years now, I’ve had it my head that I completely disengaged from popular music somewhere around 1991 (the year that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” brought everyone down), but that’s not really true. Yes, I was having more and more difficulty finding current music that I liked, as well as expanding my interests into other genres and time periods. But when I decided on a whim to build a Spotify playlist of ’90s songs that I remember liking back in the day, I very quickly piled up a little over eight hours’ worth of tunes. So obviously I wasn’t as oblivious to it all as I’ve imagined.
I haven’t done the research, but I have a hunch that a lot of my ’90s likes are probably clustered toward the end of the decade, when I was hooked for a time on an over-the-air music-video channel I discovered called The Box. It was a weird, fly-by-night sort of operation way down near the bottom of the UHF band (ask your parents, kids!). I want to say it was channel 58? Something like that. Down in the nether regions where reception was tenuous at best and a lot of the ghostly signals you managed to pull in were in Spanish. The Box had a primitive interactive model where you could call a phone number and request a video from a menu for a small fee, which occasionally led to crap like Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” playing multiple times in a single hour for days on end. But it also lent the channel a sort of organic, homemade feeling. You could see anything from hip-hop to German heavy metal to electronic dance music. I found that I liked a lot of the pop-punk acts that briefly flourished around that time, groups such as Lit, blink-182, even Smashmouth before they sold out and “Allstar” got played to death in movies and TV ads. I also liked a lot of artists that probably didn’t have much redeeming value just because they were easy on the eyes. There was Britney Spears, obviously, and her contemporary Christina Aguilera; the Spice Girls, of course; and even the tattooed cutie who sang lead for Aqua. Yes, I just confessed to kinda-sorta liking the song “Barbie Girl.” Don’t say a word.
One of my favorite songs from that era actually sounded like something of a throwback to the Awesome ’80s, at least to my ear. “Never Let You Go” by Third Eye Blind is built around catchy pop hooks and some weirdly melancholy lyrics that the band’s lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, claims are about the actress Charlize Theron, whom he dated for three years. But what really earns my affection for this one is the breakdown toward the end when we hear that crunchy guitar sound I’ve always loved, the same sort of thing you hear in “Jessie’s Girl” or one of my other favorite Rick Springfield songs, “Love Somebody.”
I don’t have any specific memories associated with the song, other than just liking the sound and one of the lyrics resonating with my mood at the time (I’d just turned 30 when this song came out, and I was struggling to find a career and make some big life choices and with depression, and true to form for me, I was spending a lot of time looking backward):
“I remember the stupid things, the mood rings, the bracelets and the beads/Nickels and dimes, yours and mine, did you cash in all your dreams?”
The imagery doesn’t specifically align with my own experiences — I haven’t had a mood ring since I was eight, for example — but it’s highly evocative to me, suggesting memories of your early twenties when you didn’t have much, but you didn’t have a lot of cares either, and now those times are gone, and how the hell did that happen? Those lyrics occurred to me earlier this week when I was struggling with something at work, and “Never Let You Go” has been running on an endless loop in my mind ever since.
This video isn’t terribly remarkable, aside from Stephan Jenkins being a nice-looking man — I always wanted hair like his when I was young, that thick, floppy, rockstar thing — and there are some hot ’90s babes in the background. But enjoy the song anyhow as we head into the weekend. Maybe you too remember a girl who was like a sunburn you would have liked to save…
Eddie Money died this morning at the not-very-old age of 70. Variety has the most comprehensive obituary I’ve found, if you’d like to know more about him… and I confess, I really didn’t know much.
The truth is, I’ve always sort of taken Eddie for granted. I’ve never owned an album of his, and the one time I saw him live — back around 2000 or thereabouts, along with Styx and REO Speedwagon in one of the first “triple threat” shows I attended — I dismissed him as the worst act of the evening. Looking back, I feel bad about being so snotty.
See, the thing about Eddie Money that I didn’t credit him for 20 years ago is that he was a journeyman entertainer. Not a virtuoso, not a genius, not really at home in the pantheon of flashy, strutting rock-and-roll gods… he was just a hardworking guy from New York who was easy to picture in his former career as a police officer. Dedicated to the job, out there every damn day without fanfare, like somebody in one of those golden-lighted all-American Ford commercials, doing the work to keep the country moving. I appreciate that sort of thing a lot more now than I did when I was younger.
He started logging hit singles in the ’70s, and it’s been startling today while reading the various tributes to him to realize just how many hits he had, and how many of them I’ve liked over the years. I remember singing “Take Me Home Tonight,” his 1986 song with Ronnie Spector of The Ronnettes, during after-school rehearsals for the one and only play I appeared in, and feeling pretty damn superior because I knew who Ronnie Spector was while my fellow castmates thought she was only a backup singer. However, my favorite Money song is from a couple years earlier. “Think I’m in Love” was the first single from Eddie’s 1982 album No Control, and it slams my personal sweetspot hard: guitar heavy; a catchy, propulsive sound; a certain sense of drama but an overall upbeat tone… this is the kind of song that makes me want to put the car windows down and drive faster than I ought to. The song went to 16 on the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was a staple of MTV’s early playlists.
It is also kind of batshit insane. Which of course all the best early videos were.
Rest in peace, Eddie Money. I’m going to crank this up now and fill the crisp, early fall air with some good rock and roll…
Anne and I kicked off the long holiday weekend Friday night with one of those “triple-threat” concerts that have become so common in recent years, at least for the old, er, that is, ahem, the classic acts that I enjoy. The line-up was Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Elle King, a newer performer whose sassy, sexy, won’t-take-any-bullshit-from-a-man attitude fit right in with the other two acts.
We’ve seen Heart paired with Joan Jett before, only a few years ago — the other “threat” that time was Cheap Trick — but my impression is that last night’s performance for both acts was much, much better. In the case of Heart, that possibly could be due to Ann and Nancy Wilson’s reconciliation following a nasty family dispute. Or perhaps they were better acclimated to the altitude this time around (a lot of performers struggle in Salt Lake’s thinner — and let’s be honest, dirtier — air). Or maybe we just had better seats that gave us a more even sound mix. Whatever the reason, this 2019 show promises to be one that will stand out in my mind, and there was one moment in particular that I think will stay with me.
The Wilson sisters had just led a lovely sing-along version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and from there Nancy launched into an acoustic take on “These Dreams,” from the self-titled 1985 album that was my introduction to this band. It was just her and her guitar, the drummer gently shaking a maraca, and Ann — ostensibly the band’s lead singer — occasionally chiming in for the chorus or a counterpoint. This song has always had a wistful quality, of course, but this performance tapped into… something… the end of a summer that feels like it never really got started, my impending landmark birthday, the generally dismal state of the world today and the always uncertain future… something. A balmy breeze was floating across the audience, finally bringing some relief after a sweltering day. I could smell sweat and the crisp, slightly floral scent of beer and a much fainter whiff of acrid marijuana smoke. And right around the line “White skin in linen/Perfume on my wrist” — an image that has always been strongly evocative for me — I felt my eyes growing wet. Yes, kids, I was actually getting weepy during a live performance of a 33-year-old power ballad. And I’ll be damned if I can tell you why. Obviously it was hitting some button within me… perhaps something long buried since the time when I was a brooding would-be Romantic who fancied myself some sort of tragic James Dean figure. Or perhaps the emotion was coming from a place that’s only accessible to a man on the edge of 50 who still feels the restlessness of his younger self but is far less able to do anything about it. Maybe it was simply a heartfelt rendition of a pretty song that’s always been a favorite of mine.
Whatever was going on, it seemed as if I felt a click throughout my body just at that moment, and my vision darkened ever so briefly the way it does when I’m looking through a viewfinder as the shutter cycles. I think that moment has maybe become a snapshot in my memory that I’ll someday be able to pull out of a mental shoebox and peer at through layers of grain and sepia, and I’ll recall everything that was happening just then: the tears, the breeze, the beer-and-pot smell, Nancy’s high but somewhat gravely voice singing that line about perfume on her wrist. The moment was quite simply magical. The kind of magic I used to feel in my room late at night, crackling up from the grooves of some old record I’d just discovered… the magic of stumbling across an unexplored world and knowing that I was going to make it my own. A kind of magic I rarely experience any more.
Not a bad way to wind up a summer that never really got started on the cusp of my 50th birthday.
Here’s the video for “These Dreams.” It’s a lot of 1980s excess and nonsense, I’m afraid. Big hair and big pretensions. But I love the song anyhow. If you’ve been waiting for the trivia, this was the third single from the aforementioned album Heart, and the first number-one hit for the band, which had released its first album 10 years before. The song was written by Martin Page (who you may remember for his own hit single “In the House of Stone and Light“) and Elton John’s frequent collaborator Bernie Taupin. “These Dreams” peaked on March 22, 1986, and was later re-released in 1988. I was a junior in high school the first time around, and a college freshman the second…
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…