30-Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song You Like with a Person’s Name in the Title
Steve Winwood first released the song “Valerie” in 1982, in a fairly simple form that he himself would later call “under-produced,” whereupon it failed to attract much attention at all. At the time, Winwood was 34 years old and had been a musician since he was just 14, when he and his older brother had joined The Spencer Davis Group. He’d subsequently been part of Traffic and Blind Faith (the Eric Clapton-led “supergroup” that released only a single, immensely successful album), as well as a session musician through most of the ’70s. He had a big solo hit in 1980 with “While You See a Chance,” but the relative flop of “Valerie” and the album it came from, as well as his reluctance to tour, left him thinking that maybe it was time to find something else to do with the rest of his life. Instead, he got himself a new manager, moved to New York, and found a coproducer (he’d done everything himself on his earlier solo work), resulting in the 1986 album Back in the High Life, five hit singles, three Grammy Awards, and a reinvigorated career.
The following year, he helped compile Chronicles, a greatest-hits collection that included a remix of “Valerie.” The polished, synth-heavy version shot to #9, validating Winwood’s faith in the song and paving the way to his next hit album, Roll With It. Not bad, considering he’d been on the verge of cashing in his chips only a short time before.
I don’t have any particular memories involving “Valerie,” but I do tend to associate it with my freshman year of college (the song was peaking on the charts in December of 1987, right between fall and winter quarters). My good friend Cheryl once remarked that Winwood’s music in general is “so damned optimistic.” So naturally it was a perfect complement for a time of my life when every single day seemed to offer some novel experience, and I thought I had infinite possibilities ahead of me. God, how I miss that feeling…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 20: A Song That Has Many Meanings to You
I have to be honest, this category was something of a challenge. Whether it reflects the type of music I enjoy or my own lack of sophistication, I simply could not think of a song with multiple meanings. Most everything I like tends to be… unambiguous. What you hear is what you get. I came close to just begging off on this one and moving to the next item… and then something popped into my head:
“Sister Christian” by Night Ranger.
Oh, don’t laugh. This one is as much a landmark of its era as anything by Prince, which is why you’ve heard it in movies and TV shows ranging from Family Guy to Boogie Nights, and on every cheap truckstop “Best of the ’80s” compilation CD you’ve ever seen. And as it happens, I have had a number of conversations with friends who were unsure of just what the heck it was actually about.
To my ear, it’s pretty obviously a coming-of-age tune in which a big brother expresses concern — but also gentle support — for his little sister growing up and becoming sexually active. No one ever disputes that; the debates I’ve had seem to turn on the chorus, specifically the repeated word “motoring,” which seems to throw many listeners. I translate that as “cruising,” as in the mostly obsolete practice of driving around looking for a, um, friend for the evening, which is evidently what the little sister in the song is doing. (If anyone reading this is too young to have ever done that, check out the films American Graffiti and/or Dazed and Confused. I myself participated in this quintessentially American activity a few times, but never with much success. Good thing I just like to drive.) The word also suggests speed to me, that the sister is moving toward her goal fast… maybe too fast, and that worries the singer. So, there you go: multiple interpretations. However, that little quibble about the chorus is not what prompted me to think of “Sister Christian” as “a song with many meanings.”
For me, this song is also indelibly associated with another rite of passage, high school graduation. But not my own, strangely enough. Way back in the spring of 1986, my junior year of high school, I worked for one class period each day as an aide in the media center — the library. Mostly I hung out in a little room filled with VCRs, TV sets, and overhead projectors, fiddling with a really cool stereo system in between checking out equipment to faculty members. I had a few interesting adventures in that room, which I might get around to talking about some day. And I also occasionally got pulled into jobs involving the stage crew; my “boss” in the media center was their advisor. One of those occasions was when I helped to assemble a slideshow and the accompanying music for the final senior assembly for the outgoing class of ’86, held in the last couple weeks of school before they graduated. The slides were all photos of their class from the past four years — dances, football games, that sort of thing — and the music had been deliberately selected for maximum nostalgic effect. I remember sitting in that assembly alongside the clicking slide projector, hot and bored. Hey, it was late May, the A/C wasn’t up to the job, and we weren’t looking at pictures of my class! But then the opening notes of “Sister Christian” began, that so-familiar little piano riff. And very soon after, I felt that something had changed in that auditorium. The energy was different. More open somehow…. more vulnerable. And then I started to hear sniffling… here… there… and I realized that quite a few of these big tough seniors, who only moments ago had been cracking jokes, shifting restlessly, cynical and ready to be done with Bingham High and off to whatever adult lives they had planned… were crying. “Sister Christian” had struck a chord within them, and for at least a moment, maybe they too felt like they were growing up too fast and wondering what was the price for achieving their flight. I know I did. I wondered about it all through my own senior year, wondered if my fellow classmates felt it too or would feel it if they heard the right song in our senior assembly. I’ll confess that it took me a long time to really grow up and to move beyond high school. In a lot of ways, I suppose I never have, considering I ended up in charge of my 30-year reunion a couple years ago. And I think my impulse to hang on might have started that day listening to Night Ranger in a stuffy auditorium.
Incidentally, it is purely a coincidence that the official video for “Sister Christian” is themed around a high school graduation. I don’t remember seeing the video until long after I was out of high school, and in any event, I wasn’t the one who selected the song for that slideshow.
Now for the technical stuff: The song comes from Night Ranger’s second album, Midnight Madness, and it became the band’s biggest hit. Released in March 1984, it was on the charts for 24 weeks and would peak at number five in June. Midnight Madness sold over a million copies — one of which found its way into my Walkman — largely on the strength of “Sister Christian” and its follow-up “When You Close Your Eyes,” another exercise in wistful nostalgia. It probably won’t surprise anyone reading this to learn that both songs are favorites of mine.
On that note, why don’t we do some “motoring?” Sing it with me, kids:
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song That Makes You Think About Life
Whether it’s because of some quirk in my genetic makeup, an “old soul,” a karmic hangover from a past-life misdeed, or perhaps a long-forgotten childhood trauma, I think it’s safe to say that my default emotional state tends toward the melancholy. Not full-on depressive, although I’ve certainly flirted with the Black Dog a few times. And I do have moments of happiness and sometimes even completely good days from beginning to end. But life for me is almost always tinged with a bittersweet flavor, an undercurrent of something… well, sad. So when I was asked to name a song that “makes you think about life,” naturally I came up with one of the saddest ones I’ve ever heard.
“Taxi” was the first track released from singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s debut album Head & Tales, way back in 1972. Clocking in at slightly under seven minutes long, it was an unlikely hit in the days when radio stations were hesitant to play anything longer than three or four minutes. But Chapin had two strokes of luck with the song. First, he debuted it on The Tonight Show, where he was able to play it in its entirety to a massive television audience, as well as an appreciative Johnny Carson. (Supposedly the performance was so well-received that he was brought back the following night for an encore, but it’s possible that story is apocryphal. I can’t find any proof that it actually happened.) The other break was when a popular radio DJ named Jim Connors discovered the song and pushed for it to be aired despite the length. As a result of these twin boosts, the song spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #24.
I can’t remember when I first heard “Taxi.” It’s one of those songs that’s just always been there on my personal soundtrack, and it’s always had an effect on me, even when I was a young boy who couldn’t begin to understand what it was about. Now… well, now I know all too well what Chapin was talking about… that empty feeling you get in the wee hours of a rainy night when you realize just how far away from your dreams you’ve really drifted.
Harry Chapin would also explore the theme of middle-aged regret in his two other best-known works: “W.O.L.D.,” about an aging disc jockey who’s sacrificed his personal life for his career — another possibly apocryphal story has it that TV writer Hugh Wilson was inspired by this song to create WKRP in Cincinnati — and of course his timeless #1 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a tune that has been known to reduce grown men to helpless sobbing. For me, though, Chapin’s most poignant expression of that theme was in its first iteration, a story about a cab driver named Harry and a would-be actress called Sue.
The video clip of the song that I’ve found for my Loyal Readers is a curious artifact. It predates MTV by a good decade, and is described on YouTube as an “industrial film.” It ends with a lengthy spoken section by (I believe) Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, describing how he discovered and signed Chapin to his label. Aside from that little oddity, though, this photographic montage set to music is clearly something we Gen Xers would understand to be a “music video.” So what is it, really? Is it more accurate to call it a “proto-video?” And what were MTV videos if not “industrial films” intended to promote sales, as creative and bizarre as they often were? This has nothing to do with anything, I suppose, I just find it interesting when new information reframes something I’ve long understood in a certain context. And it demonstrates how sometimes phenomena that “come out of nowhere” have actually been around in one form or another for a very long time.
As for Harry Chapin, he met with a sad ending in 1981, killed in a car crash while on his way to a gig. He was only 38. A life cut short. Almost like something from one of his own songs.
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 18: A Song From the Year You Were Born
I can do one better than just a song from the year I was born. How about an old favorite that was in fact released the very month I was born?
“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival came into the world about the same time I did, in September of 1969, as the B-side to another of the band’s big hits, “Down on the Corner.” On its own, “Fortunate Son” would peak at #14 on the Billboard chart two months later. But then something interesting happened: Billboard changed its methodology for tracking double-sided hit records, i.e., 45-rpm singles that had a hit song on both sides, which wasn’t unusual at the time. (Creedence, in fact, released a number of these “twofer” records over the next couple of years.) That change meant that “Fortunate Son,” now in combination with “Down on the Corner,” continued to climb the charts, the two of them together finally reaching #3 on December 20, 1969. I was three months old.
The song is widely understood to have been a protest against the Vietnam War, as that’s the backdrop it was conceived and released in, and that impression has been reinforced over the decades by its use in Vietnam War-themed movies (Forrest Gump) and video games (Battlefield Vietnam), and even in politics (John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign appropriated the song to try to illuminate the difference between Kerry — who served in ‘Nam — and incumbent George W Bush, who did not). But “Fortunate Son” never actually mentions Vietnam; it’s really more of a primal scream about class and the way the wealthy play by different rules than people who work for a living, which is a far more universal — and sadly unchanging — theme. And that, I believe, explains why you still hear “Fortunate Son” five decades later and why it still feels relevant when you do. I mean… when was the last time you heard the “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish? The Creedence tune, on the other hand, is probably playing on your local classic-rock station right now, or at least it will be in the next 30 minutes or so.
Besides being just a great, catchy rock-n-roller, the song has special resonance for me. My career is far removed from my dad’s life as a diesel mechanic at an open-pit copper mine, but I still tend to identify with my blue-collar roots. And after some of the experiences I’ve had dealing with people who very obviously thought themselves to be my “betters,” I have a somewhat jaundiced view of what wealth does to a person’s character. The song’s refrain of “it ain’t me” could be my own personal motto… and it’s one I find myself wanting to shout from the rooftops more and more often these days.
But that’s beyond the scope of this particular post, so let’s just enjoy the song, shall we? The clip below is the official video released just last year for the song’s 50th anniversary, and as you can see, it’s less a protest against war or an indictment of the 1% than it is a celebration of salt-of-the-earth types of all descriptions. In the end, maybe that’s the strongest protest of all, just showing the real America — rural, urban, black, white, native, immigrant — all of us just doing the best we can, in spite of the guys at the top…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 17: A Song You’d Seen a Duet with Someone on Karaoke
Fun fact: I have never karaoke’d, as a duo or otherwise. And I’m not sure I ever would, at least not without copious amounts of liquid courage. But if it did somehow come down to that, I can think of no better dueting tune than Sonny and Cher’s immortal 1965 hit “I Got You Babe.” (Here’s another fun fact: When Cher first heard it, she reportedly thought it was a dumb song that would never go anywhere. She’s still performing it in concert half a century later.)
Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a cliche and can even induce eye-rolling under the wrong circumstances, especially after the movie Groundhog Day used it to such horrifying effect, but it’s a sweet song that’s in a key just about anyone can manage (let’s be honest, Sonny Bono wasn’t much of a singer), and to my ear, it perfectly captures the innocent optimism of young love. But it’s also somehow weirdly applicable to older love too; I can easily see it as a fond commentary on a couple that’s been down the road and back, and somehow, against the odds, is still together… weatherbeaten but happy with each other. Whether you hear it as an anthem to nineteen-year-olds or a reminder of your own lost youth or as a poignant declaration to your life partner of decades — hell, why not all three? — it’s one of those songs that just makes you happy to hear. At least it makes me happy.
I have no idea where this video clip comes from — obviously a vintage television program — but it’s a pretty poignant thing too. I first got to know Sonny and Cher on their weekly TV show in the early ’70s, which was largely built around the “joke” of Cher being mean to her hopelessly square husband. As I understand it, by that point in their relationship, her antipathy for him wasn’t an act. But here they’re both fresh and cute and visibly enamored of each other, before life and fame and god knows what ground whatever they had together into a pulp.
Anyhow, that’s really all I’ve got to say about this one. Short and sweet this time. Enjoy!
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 16: A Song That’s a Classic Favorite
The wording of this one seemed a little odd to me, so I had to spend some time parsing it to be certain of what it was asking for. I finally decided it should more properly be read as “a classic song that’s a favorite.”
As it happens, I like a lot of so-called classic songs. Of course, the definition of “classic” varies through time; these days, the oldies station is playing stuff that was popular when I was in college. Oy. For me, however, “classic” is my parents’ music, the early days of rock and roll. It’s mom’s scratchy old 45s played back on a supposedly “portable” record player the size of a large suitcase, the one that needed to have a penny taped to the tone arm to keep it from skipping across the platter. It’s Chuck Berry drifting in and out of the static on a tube-driven AM car radio. It’s the soundtrack to American Graffiti, and the cherry Coke you drank at sunset with a hot summer breeze in your hair, and it’s the music that mom and dad’s DJ friend pumps out across the parking lot at their classic-car cruise night events.
Boiled down to a single tune, “classic” is Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” It’s probably one of the most recognizable songs of the early rock era, and it’s one of my favorites from any era. The song was a tremendous hit for Del in 1961, sitting at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks and coming in at number 5 for the year. It became a hit for him again in 1987, when Del re-recorded it (with somewhat different lyrics) for the producers of the television series Crime Story, which could be described as Miami Vice set in the early ’60s. Every week for two seasons, “Runaway” played over the opening-credits montage of Dennis Farina in a trenchcoat, neon signs, and tail fins. I barely remember the show itself, but those credits still play through my minds-eye from time to time.
However, it’s the earlier, decidedly more innocent version of the song that I’m going to place here. Obviously, it was recorded long before music videos, but I did manage to find a vintage clip from one of those teenage dance shows that were popular in the day. I’m not sure which show, exactly — I don’t think it’s American Bandstand, the sets don’t look right to me — but of course the point is for y’all to hear the song… so, enjoy. And let it take you back to those days when your relationship with your car was at least as important as the one you had with your best girl, and likely it was a more solid one at that…
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 15: A Song You Like That’s a Cover by Another Artist
I took a break from these song challenge posts for a while because, in light of everything going on in the country and the world, they seemed frivolous, if not outright disrespectful to those whose lives have been upended by — say it with me — “these unprecedented times.” But honestly I’ve been missing them. Missing the escape from thinking about current events and my job and all the rest of it. I’ve missed writing. Writing has become a luxury I rarely get to indulge, and even though these entries aren’t anything much… they’re something. I enjoy doing them, and I enjoy talking about music even though I’m basically just an uninformed loudmouth sitting at the end of the cafeteria with his friends, blathering about whatever cassette they ripped off from the 7-11 last night.
Not that I have any knowledge of what that would feel like. No, sir, not me.
I also just want to finish something. This challenge was supposed to generate 30 entries, and I’m only halfway through. So, let’s get back to it, shall we?
Stevie Nicks’ fifth solo album, Street Angel, was released in 1994. That was an unhappy period in Stevie’s life as she’d been battling an addiction to painkillers, and the album turned out to be a big disappointment for her. It was the least successful of her efforts away from Fleetwood Mac, with poor sales and no top-40 hits. Both the critics and Stevie herself have criticized the album’s production, and Stevie has also said she should have gone back and redone the vocals before it was released.
But you know… in my usual contrarian fashion, I quite like this album. It has a pared-down quality compared to her work in the ’80s (no doubt due to the production she doesn’t like) and a world-weariness that suited my general mood at the time it came out. This is an album for listening to in the middle of the night, when you’ve gotten off the late shift and the heat of the day is still bleeding out of the asphalt as you drive home with the windows down, and you’re trying figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do with your life because it sure as shit isn’t what you’ve been doing.
Not that I would know how that feels either.
Stevie mostly writes her own stuff, but one of my favorite tracks on this album is actually a cover of a Bob Dylan song. I have mixed feelings about Dylan… I think he’s hugely overrated, to be honest. His lyrics are more opaque to me than poetic, and his singing voice… well, I’m no doubt revealing myself as the uneducated philistine that I am, but he’s always sounded to me like Eddie Murphy’s impression of Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. In the hands — or voice — of someone else, though, his songs can be… magical. Like this one. At least to me. Listening to Stevie NIcks’ rendition of “Just Like a Woman,” I hear her singing about herself… or about a daughter she never had… or about a girl I might have known in my early twenties, when we all feel impossibly old and jaded as well as unbearably fragile and clueless.That’s how I remember feeling, anyway. Your mileage may vary.
I love this song.
There was no video made for this one, so just enjoy listening and gazing at the album cover for four minutes.
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 14: A Song You’d Love to Be Played at Your Wedding
For this category, there really was only one possible choice. It’s a beautiful little ditty, one of the most incisive and tender expressions of the human romantic experience I’ve ever heard, a jukebox favorite that dates all the way back to 1973. It’s a love song… from a different point of view:
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 12: A Song From Your Preteen Years
As much as it pains some of my friends to admit this, country music is woven deeply into the DNA of rock and roll — when rock first emerged as a distinct genre in the early 1950s, it was essentially a fusion of rhythm and blues with country, along with a sprinkling of gospel — and that country gene has often expressed itself in the body of rock over the years. One such moment was the so-called “crossover” phenomenon of the early ’80s, when a number of country artists were regularly posting hits on the pop charts. The late Kenny Rogers was the king of the crossover period, but you can make a good case that Juice Newton (real name Judy) was the queen, at least for the brief two-year moment from 1981-82, during which she scored seven top-40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The video for the first of these hits, her cover of a 1968 tune called “Angel of the Morning,” was the first country-music clip to be played on MTV, on the very first day that the music network launched. (Juice herself was the third female solo artist to be played on MTV behind Pat Benatar and Carly Simon.)
Her next pop hit — and her biggest — was “Queen of Hearts,” released in June of 1981. I was eleven years old that summer. I’d be twelve by the time “Queen of Hearts” reached Billboard’s number-two spot in September, and I loved this song almost as much as “Jessie’s Girl,” which was out around the same time. Hearing it these days instantly conjures memories of riding my red Schwinn with the banana seat on a hot summer afternoon, the sky impossibly high overhead and shining like polished aluminum, and a little black AM/FM transistor radio dangling from the handlebars, expanding my universe one awesome tune at a time as I pedaled my way past the tired old brick buildings and hay fields that were my home town. All of those things, from the Schwinn to the fields, are gone now. But “Queen of Hearts” is still a cool song.
30-Day Song Challenge, Day 11: A Song You Never Get Tired Of
Let’s see if I can recapture the thread on this little exercise, shall we? A song I never get tired of… let’s see…
I’ll bet you thought I was going to post something by Rick Springfield, didn’t you? Well, believe it or not, even I need the occasional break from “Jessie’s Girl.” But there is a tune I don’t ever grow weary of. It’s from the infancy of rock and roll and it radiates such a youthful exuberance that it always lifts me up when I hear it. It’s just so… joyful… from the irresistible drum beat to the cool guitar breakdown in the middle to the goofy, playful way the lyrics are enunciated. I’m speaking, of course, of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” which was a number-three hit on the Billboard Hot 100 way back in 1957. It was Buddy’s second hit after “That’ll Be the Day,” and unlike so much else from the early rock era, I think it sounds as timeless today as it did when it was released. My mom has a scratchy 45 of it that I discovered when I first started to take an interest in music around the age of 12 or so; I put a few hundred more spins on that old platter before I acquired my first Buddy cassette. It’s also one of a small handful of songs I know of that got a sequel, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” a demo Buddy recorded two months before his untimely death in February 1959. It was released posthumously.
Obviously, this all took place long before the era of music videos, so I had intended to simply post the song. But as I was poking around, I came across this clip, which I believe comes from Buddy’s appearance with his band The Crickets on The Ed Sullivan Show in December of 1957. The audio might not be the original; it’s been heavily processed if it is. But take a look and enjoy the sound. Buddy is one of my favorites, and one of my favorite “What ifs?” I truly think that if his life hadn’t been cut so short, he would be revered today as one of the true innovators, right up there with the Beatles.
Incidentally, the real-life Peggy Sue was not Buddy’s girlfriend, as is commonly believed. Peggy Sue Gerron was in fact the girlfriend (and later wife) of Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets and cowriter of this song.