A Song That Makes You Sad

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 10: A Song That Makes You Sad

“The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” has quite a pedigree: It was written by Shel Silverstein, the poet known for the children’s books The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, and first recorded in 1974 by Dr Hook and the Medicine Show, who also cut popular songs like “The Cover of the ‘Rolling Stone'” and “Sexy Eyes.” But it’s the 1979 version by Marianne Faithfull — an icon of the 1960s British Invasion and a former girlfriend of Mick Jagger — that people are most likely to have heard.

I first encountered the song in the movie Thelma and Louise, where it’s used to score one of the most haunting scenes in the film. Deep into their fugitive run, the titular heroines are driving through Utah’s Monument Valley at night, with giant rock formations (unnaturally flood-lighted, but they look cool, so who cares) gliding silently past their open convertible. Thelma dozes off, leaving Louise alone with her thoughts and a bottle of Wild Turkey. The eerie throbbing keyboards and melancholy lyrics underscore the poignancy of their predicament and the growing possibility that they’re not going to come out of it alive.

I loved the song in the context of the movie. I’ve had night-time drives like that myself, and the scene is very visceral for me. Watching it, I can feel the crisp breeze flowing through the car and tugging at hair and sleeves, smell the exhaust — if Louise’s old T-Bird is anything like my Galaxie, it burns oil — and I can see the millions of stars glowing in the black velvet sky above. It’s one of those cinematic moments that really speaks to me… in no small part because the director chose that particular song.

I loved the song more when I bought the soundtrack album and finally heard it all the way through. I remember thinking it was a magnificent piece of storytelling, which, as a wannabe storyteller myself, was hugely important to me at the time. And those synths and Marianne Faithfull’s unusual voice just sounded cool.

But as the years have passed and I’ve crept into middle age myself, it’s become more and more difficult for me to listen to “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” The story of a woman facing the reality that her youthful dreams are never going to be fulfilled and all she has to fill her days are mundane chores…. well, it comes a little too close to the bone for me.

Don’t misunderstand, I still think it’s a great song. It’s just one that depresses the shit out of me.

Incidentally, Marianne Faithfull is a genuine rock-and-roll survivor who struggled with heroin addiction in the ’60s — the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is said to have been inspired by her — and homelessness and anorexia in the ’70s. And just in the past couple of months, she survived being hospitalized for COVID-19. Helluva lady.

[Edit: I learned earlier today that an old college friend died this morning. I’ll be writing more about that. But for now… I’d like to dedicate this to Jaren. He never got to ride through Paris in a sports car either. ]



A Song That Makes You Happy

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 9: A Song That Makes You Happy

The big booming bass drum at the start followed by an infectious rhythm, Susanna Hoffs’ little-girl growl, and mildly suggestive lyrics that recall the dizzying early days of a new romance… “In Your Room” by the Bangles is sexy, and sexy makes me happy.

The song comes from their album Everything; released in the fall of 1988, it was a top-5 hit in the US. It would be eclipsed somewhat by a later (and bigger) hit from the same album, “Eternal Flame,” but this is the one that puts a smile on face.

Yeah… I dig the Bangles.


A Song About Drugs or Alcohol

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 8: A Song About Drugs or Alcohol

The English band Chumbawumba first formed in 1982, but didn’t achieve mainstream recognition until the 1997 release of “Tubthumping,” which would become their biggest hit. Here in the US, it spent a total of 31 weeks in the Billboard Top 100, two of which were spent at slot number 6, the song’s highest point of success. All through the fall of that year, it was well-nigh inescapable.

Even so, it’s admittedly kind of a stupid song. There’s only a single verse and the chorus, repeated over and over. You can’t say it’s making any deep observations about the human condition. But it is weirdly evocative in its stripped-down simplicity. It so wonderfully captures a time and a place: a sweaty crowded pub, or in my case, since I didn’t get out to pubs all that often, house parties filled with horny twentysomethings trying to relax and to connect, the hormonal imperative to meet somebody and be with somebody just strong enough to overcome the insecurity, perhaps with a little help from the Jello shots. I hear this song and I think of candles flickering down deep into canyons of melted wax as the clock spins on into the wee hours and the living room grows quieter and the conversation gets weirder, the ashtrays overflowing and all the sticky-sweet mixer is gone so you’re just drinking the straight stuff now, and your free hand is around the shoulder of someone you want to take home, and someone is expounding on a book they read in college, so long ago, and someone else is staring sadly at the ember glowing at the end of their cigarette. I was 28 in the fall of 1997. Emotionally, I was probably closer to 20 than to 30, but I thought myself such a sophisticate, or at least I told myself I was. I fancied myself a Byronic hero, beaten up by the world, and yet somehow standing upright in the gale. “Tubthumping” evokes that, too… it’s not only a drinking song, it’s optimistic and encouraging, with its assertion that you’re going to get up again no matter what life throws at you.

And it’s catchy as hell.


A Song To Drive To

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 7: A Song to Drive to

A good driving song doesn’t have to be a high-energy hard rocker — for example, I have a very fond memory of the first time I heard Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” as it filtered through the static of a low-band radio station like a pensive ghost while I scooted around the eastern rim of the Salt Lake Valley in my old VW Rabbit. But there’s something about combining a ferocious guitar attack and the sensation of acceleration, of feeling your foot on the gas pedal and your hands on the wheel, the car like an extension of your body, and the rock-and-roll a primal release of everything you carry around inside: the frustrations of that day job, the joy of a sunny day with the top rolled down, the lust for living something more than a mundane workaday existence. Especially the lust.

It helps if traffic is light so you feel like you can go anywhere. And it helps if the lyrics are vaguely naughty… as they are in Van Halen’s “Panama,” a song that might be about a car, or it might be about a girl. Or it could be about… well, who the hell knows? David Lee Roth wrote the lyrics, after all.

“Panama” was the third single from the band’s smash album 1984, the last VH album that featured Diamond Dave on vocals. It was also the first VH album to feature keyboards. Both of those factoids pointed the way toward Van Halen’s future with Sammy Hagar, which purists still argue isn’t “true” Van Halen at all. But this isn’t the place to get into that. Although “Jump” was the big hit from 1984, “Panama” came in at a respectable peak of 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video below did pretty well also, and its three minutes and 42 seconds capture everything that was grand, grandiose, spectacular and ridiculous about the first incarnation of the band.

And now I want to go for a drive…


A Song That Makes You Want to Dance

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 6: A Song That Makes You Want to Dance

Yeah, today’s choice is another Journey song but this one comes with a story.

About a year and a half ago, Anne and I were in New Orleans, walking down Royal Street in the French Quarter one fine morning. The day was bright but a bit chilly, and even though it wasn’t particularly early, there weren’t many people around. It was a Sunday, you see, and I like to imagine that most folks were nursing hangovers or in church, or maybe both. The street was slowly beginning to come to life as we strolled: shop owners were opening the shutters over their windows, a man in an apron was spraying the sidewalk with a hose (I probably don’t want to know what he was hosing away), and a hulking garbage truck was creeping slowly down the narrow 18th-century cross streets.

At one particular corner, we encountered a street musician, a pretty Asian woman playing the violin with skill and passion. (I’ve since learned that her name is Tanya Huang, and she’s a regular fixture on that corner.) We stopped to listen and after a moment, I realized that I knew the song. It wasn’t a classical piece or jazz… it was Journey. And well, cheesy as it sounds, I was moved by the moment and the location and the music, moved to take Anne’s hand and spin her around, then close in for some cheek-to-cheek. I even sang a bit to her, one of the lines I was certain I knew:

“Lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be

Oh, girl, you stand by me…

I’m forever yours, faithfully… “

I gave her a little dip, then suddenly felt sheepish because I realized we had an audience. Tanya was smiling at us as she played, and looking around, I saw a black man leaning against a door frame. When I caught his eye, he flashed me a huge grin and a nod. I nodded back at him, and for just a moment, I felt like I really got New Orleans, and maybe I even belonged there. Like I caught the fleeting, flashing, silvery spirit of the place in my hand long enough to feel its heat before it flew away.

That’s the sort of memory I’m always hoping to make when I travel, the kind that comes to define a place for you. I’ll be honest, our NOLA trip was a little bumpy for various reasons. But when I think of the place, my mind always goes to the moment I danced with my Anne in the middle of Royal Street to the melody of “Faithfully.”

“Faithfully” was released in the spring of 1983, just as I was finishing eighth grade. At the time, I thought it was pretty boring, just a sappy ballad; I much preferred the angry rocking sounds of “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” the single that had preceded “Faithfully” by a couple of months. But the song made it to number 12 on the Billboard charts in spite of my disdain, and I gradually came around on it. It’s become one of the band’s signature tunes and always leads to a sing-along and a lot of affectionate cuddling and swaying when they perform it live.

The video is something of a classic as well, the first documentary-style “life on the road” clip, which was later imitated by bands ranging from Bon Jovi to Richard Marx. It’s become something a cliche now — oh, another band singing about how tough it is to be out touring — but this song and this video still work. It worked in New Orleans, anyhow…


Salt Lake’s Best Rock

Oh my hell…  in the previous entry, I mentioned remembering a TV ad for a Salt Lake radio station that used the opening drums from Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” right? So guess what I just just ran across on YouTube? The stuff you can find out there on the interwebz never fails to amaze me…

Incidentally, if you’re interested, I also found this brief history of the station as I was wandering cyberspace trying to confirm my fading memory, written by a dude named Paul Wilson in 2005:


In 1947, Salt Lake City had only two commercial FM stations…at 100.3 (Bonneville’s KSL-FM) and 98.7 (what is now KBEE-FM).  In the early 1970s, KCPX-FM (at 98.7) was known as “Stereo X” and was the home of a wide-ranging free-form album rock format…but under the direction of KCPX Program Director Gary Waldron, by the end of the 70’s the station had evolved into “Real Rock 99 FM”.  The playlist was short (only a couple hundred songs) and it quickly became the market’s top-rated station, combining the laid-back presentation of album rock with tight top 40 rotations a decade before Pirate Radio spawned the term “Rock 40”.  As the 80’s began, the station hired a full staff of announcers and “99FM” continued to dominate the market.  I was fortunate enough to hold the 7-midnight shift for nearly four years, until the musical pendulum swung back toward pop music and the station evolved again.  By 1984 there was a new crew of jocks, the format was CHR and “Hitradio 99” again dominated the market.  Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures had owned the KCPX stations (AM, FM and TV) for a number of years but sold the TV station in the mid 70s.  In the mid 80s they sold the radio stations to John Price, a Salt Lake based contractor best known for building massive shopping malls.  Under Price, the station evolved into “Power 99” and finally to AC as KVRY (Variety 98.7).  The historic KCPX letters were parked on a small AM station in Centerville for about twenty years (more on that later).  Price eventually sold the stations to Citadel; the format remained AC but the call letters were changed to KBEE (B98.7), which is how the station is known today.

Incidentally, it’s been 15 years since that was written, but KBEE B98.7 is still around, now owned by Cumulus Media and playing an adult contemporary format, i.e., mainstream soft rock. I rarely listen to it.


A Song That Needs to Be Played Loud

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 5: A Song That Needs to Be Played Loud

“Rock and Roll.” Led Zeppelin. ‘Nuff said.

Oh, okay, fine, you know me better than that. I’ve almost always got more to say…

“Rock and Roll” comes from Zeppelin’s fourth studio album, commonly known as Led Zeppelin IV or ZoSo (owing to one of the arcane symbols on the record’s label; it’s a long story), although the LP was technically untitled. That’s the album with “Stairway to Heaven,” the one most likely to be owned by people who kinda-sorta like Zeppelin but haven’t gone into full-blown fandom. The song is a tribute to the early days of the rock genre: It opens with a speeded-up version of the drumline from the Little Richard oldie “Keep A-Knockin'” (fans of the movie Christine ought to know that one!) followed by a guitar riff that was supposedly an homage to Chuck Berry, and then nostalgic lyrics that speak of (among other things) “The Stroll,” a 1958 dance tune, and “Book of Love,” a hit record for The Monotones, also from 1958. While it was never formally released as a single for consumer sales, the song was distributed in the US as a promotional single, meaning it was was sent to radio stations for airplay, and it quickly became a staple in that venue. (I remember a local Salt Lake station, Rock 99, used the opening of the song for its television commercials; I was familiar with that ferocious drumbeat long before I ever heard the complete tune, or for that matter, had even heard of the band!)

The song was also a favorite during live performances starting from around the time of IV‘s release in 1971 until the band’s breakup in 1980. Having become one of Zeppelin’s signature tunes, it was naturally part of their brief reunion set at Live Aid in 1985 and again at the reunion shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. The video clip I’m posting here is from their performance at Madison Square Garden in 1973, when the band was at the peak of its powers. (It appears in the concert film The Song Remains the Same.)

Personally, I tend to run hot and cold on Zeppelin. I really love some of their stuff, and I’m really put off (and sometimes even bored) by other things. But from my early teens, this has been a song I truly love. Its energy is undeniable — I can’t resist shaking my head to it even nowadays when serious headbanging gives me a headache — and I love its reverence toward the genre’s childhood, even as it twists and warps the sound into something Little Richard probably never could have imagined. Come to think of it, though, that was Zeppelin’s whole thing, really… they were essentially playing the blues, just really loud and distorted blues.

One final thought before the video: The song has been covered many times by artists ranging from Heart (their version is intense… Ann Wilson is possibly the only woman in rock whose voice matches the soaring power of Zeppelin’s Robert Plant) to Great White, Van Halen, John Waite, Stevie Nicks, the Foo Fighters, and, most improbably, Alvin and the Chipmunks. I’m really trying to wrap my head around that one.

And now… turn it to 11, kids!




Gerrold on Gehry

From a Facebook post by David Gerrold, science-fiction writer of some note and resident of Los Angeles:

If there is one architect I dislike more than Frank Lloyd Wright, it is Frank Gehry, the designer of the Walt Disney Concert Hall and other curlicued atrocities.

The man doesn’t care about how his buildings will fit into the space, how they will relate to their surroundings — which is why the concave mirrors on the Disney Hall had to be toned down because they were focusing the sun’s rays on surrounding buildings and causing serious heating problems.

His buildings make no sense to the eye. They’re like a dropped pile of saucepan covers. And once inside the Disney Hall, it’s a beautiful maze. It’s too easy to get lost and forget which exit will get you to where you parked your car. You can’t find the exit and you always come out on the wrong side of the maze.

The first priority of a concert all is to have great sound. After that you design around that space.

A building should be more than a monument to the architect.

The jibe at Frank Lloyd Wright aside — I quite like Wright’s work myself, although I recognize that a place like Fallingwater is very impractical for the way most people actually live — Gerrold perfectly articulates my own feelings about Gehry. His work offends me in some deep, admittedly irrational way. I’m so glad that Gehry project proposed for just a few miles down the road from my house appears to have fallen through…


Better Government in Charity than Indifference

“Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

— President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (one of my personal heroes) in a speech accepting renomination for the presidency, June 27, 1936


A Song That Reminds You of Someone You’d Rather Forget

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 4: A Song That Reminds You of Someone You’d Rather Forget

This is a difficult category for me because… there really isn’t anyone that I’d rather forget. Seriously, no one. Not an old girlfriend, not a bully, not an authority figure I clashed with or anyone who done me wrong or hurt my feelings. Not that those  things never happened to me. But, as Captain Kirk declares in Star Trek V, I need my painful memories as much as my happy ones. (Well, that was the gist of what he said, if not a direct quote… Star Trek V is one of my painful memories, you see, and I haven’t seen it in a very long time… ) The point is, we are the sum total of our experiences, good and bad. I could forget some people, but then I’d very likely be losing some component of myself too. And I don’t know if it’s worth the tradeoff. Not for me anyhow.

So… the best I can offer for this category is a song that reminds me of someone who hurt me once, and this song was… a memorable feature of the weeks that followed. But I haven’t forgotten that person, nor do I want to.

“I Don’t Care Anymore” comes from Phil Collins’ second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going, and it can be seen as something of a companion piece to his first big hit, “In the Air Tonight.” It has a similar sound to “Air,” and like that one, it was prominently featured in a first-season episode of Miami Vice, helping to set the overall tone and style of that breakthrough television series. That episode of Vice wouldn’t air until a year after the song’s release, though, too late to provide much of a sales boost. “Don’t Care” barely cracked the top 40, peaking out at number 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the last week of March 1983. It’s a great song, though, especially if you’re pissed at someone and want to wallow in that feeling for a time. Just sayin’.