52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWELVE

Week 12: Rock and Roll is Here to Stay

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life? Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Thirteen”

Big Star

Album: Number 1 Record

Ardent Records

1972


“They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?

I’m in love with that song.’”

“Alex Chilton”by The Replacements

 

Martin Scorsese’s masterful documentary, “No Direction Home,” chronicling Bob Dylan’s ascentfrom his early Minnesota roots to his electric rebirth in the late 60s, gives fans of Dylan a rare glimpse into the music that Dylan was influenced by. Combined with Dylan’s own personal memoir of the time, “Chronicles: Volume One” shows the musical cartography of how Dylan’s sound was born.

 

It’s comforting to hear a musician talk about his or her idols. It takes them down to the listener’s level, reminding us that they, too, were once and are avid fans of music. Discovering the musical influences of truly inspired musicians is one of the many joys of carefully listening to music. Art imitates art. Some musicians seem reluctant to trumpet their idols, others come right out and say it. It’s one thing to be turned on to a band or artist by a friend, it’s entirely more satisfying for a song to accomplish this feat.

 

When I first discovered The Replacements, through a completely fulfilling survey of its trifecta of masterpieces–Let It Be, Tim, and Please to Meet Me–one song caught my attention for its unapologetic hailing of one of lead singer Paul Westerberg’s musical heroes, Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton.

Please to Meet Me’s second track, simply titled “Alex Chilton,” explodes into action with crisp snare drum notes and barroom guitar riffs. What follows is more than a simple ode or homage to Chilton, it’s a sermon of praise for an artist that before hearing this song I was completely unaware of.

 

Well, this is not entirely true.

 

During one verse of “Alex Chilton” Westerberg describes Chilton as an, “invisible man who can sing in a visible voice,” a fitting and painfully truthful description of one of rock and roll’s most unsung voices.

 

Big Star was ironically never a big band. It released only three major records in its 1970s heyday,none of which made much of a splash. It managed to maintain a cult-driven legacy since then, elevated recently by Chilton’s untimely death last March.

 

The band’s song “In the Street” found a second life when power pop band Cheap Trick covered it and it was eventually was used for the opening credits of Fox’s television sitcom “That 70’s Show.” Beyond that, it’s safe to say that most people don’t know Big Star.

 

Thanks to Paul Westerberg I can happily add Big Star to my growing list of the essential pioneers of rock and roll.

 

It’s fitting that Westerberg, a gifted lyricist with a penchant for writing songs that bring to mind the joys of youth, was drawn to Big Star at a young age. Alex Chilton and band also excel at writing great rock and roll for rock and roll’s sake. It crafts classic love songs that never tread on being overly sentimental but rather feel nostalgic of the times when the word love and the grasp of how big life is, in general, was thought to be understood but not always fully.

 

Take Number 1 Record, It opens with “Feel,” a rip-roaring plea to a girlfriend who is toying with its character’s emotions. On “The India Song” Chilton fantasizes about escaping the mundane for love, luxury and endless gin and tonics in a mystically portrayed India. “Give Me Another Chance” plays out out like an apology, or rather a plea to be forgiven and taken back for actions that may or may not be unforgivable. Chilton and band mate Chris Bell write innocent love ballads that hearken back to the days of drive-in-movie dates, school dances and the pursuit of meaningful but often naive love.

 

Number 1 Record’s “Thirteen” is widely considered one of Chilton’s best songs by fans and for good reason. The song has been gorgeously covered by the likes of Elliott Smith and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, singers who, like Chilton, reserve chillingly soft-toned vocals for the song.

 

The aforementioned innocence of youth is at the forefront on “Thirteen.” The song brings to mind the nervousness of having a crush and the downright fear that comes when it’s time to ask for a date (subtly emphasized with the music’s gradual increase in tempo throughout the song’s duration and Chilton’s slightly reluctant delivery of its last verse).

Won’t you let me walk you home from school?

Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?

Maybe Friday I can

Get tickets for the dance

And I’ll take you.

Won’t you tell your dad, “Get off my back”?

Tell him what we said about “Paint it, Black”.

Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay

Come inside where it’s okay

And I’ll shake you.

Won’t you tell me what you’re thinking of?

Would you be an outlaw for my love?

If it’s so, well, let me know

If it’s “no,” well, I can go

I won’t make you.

 

Lyrics aside (and make no mistake, these are some of the best lyrics ever written–simple, to the point and utterly unforgettable), “Thirteen” is a lasting effort thanks to Chilton’s beautiful vocal performance and his gentle acoustic guitar picking.

 

It name-checks The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” not so much as an homage to a specific idol but rather as homage to rock and roll’s early days when the music presented teenagers an escape.A song like “Paint it Black” must have brought a level of fear to parents or people who hadn’t yet jumped on the rock and roll bandwagon. For those who enjoyed its dark undertones it was something new and unique to rebel to.

 

“Thirteen’s” most impressive feat is that it has the ability to make the listener yearn for these days, back to a time that was much simpler.

 

On The Replacements’ “Alex Chilton,” Westerberg sings:

I never travel far, without a little Big Star

 

Big Star’s music can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere. It’s perfectly crafted rock and roll. You can fall in love with its songs like you fall in love with sentimental cuts from The Beatles’ canon or say Simon and Garfunkel. Since I was fortunate enough to discover it I regularly return to its records. “Thirteen” is a song that makes you pause and remember; to recollect the past.

Why The Stones Still Matter

ImageMartin Scorsese has always been a bit of a rock and roll film director. He uses pop music and good old-fashioned rock and roll with the same care and finesse as most filmmakers do with their actors. For Marty what you hear has always been as important as what you see. Fans of his films will know that one of his favorite musical muses is without a doubt The Rolling Stones, with “Gimme Shelter” serving as his own unofficial personal trademark. This past week marked the opening of Scorsese’s newest film, Shine a Light, an admirable ode, if nothing else, to the band he has always loved and reminder of why the band is still important. 

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega if he’s a Beatles Man or an Elvis Man? There is a large population out there who would answer this question with a third response: Stones Man.

The Rolling Stones have long been considered one of the best rock and roll groups in the history of, well, rock and roll. Sure it’s music is pop at times but at its core the Stones is a true rock and roll band in the pure sense of the term. Its music has always been rooted in rhythm and blues, propelled by hard hitting guitar riffs, powerful yet concise drumming, and a lead singer’s on stage theatrics that, no matter how ridiculous they may seem, never fail to capture the groove of the music.

The Stones have had their share of critical highs and lows–for every masterpiece in the repertoire (and there are quite a few) there is undoubtedly a dud filler album, primarily from the early 80s to present day. In the past decade or so the vocals have been hindered by their age (and in the case of Keith a lifetime of cigarettes and all things bad for you) but all these grievances aside the Stones still know how to rock. On stage, as a whole entity their sound still remains unprecedented.

Shine a Light is by no means the greatest concert film ever made nor was this Scorsese’s goal for the film (one could argue that the director mastered this feat with the immortal classic, The Last Waltz). The film is not a historical documentary of one of the biggest bands in the world nor does it chronicle any specific part of its career similar to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction HomeShine a Light sets out to do one thing–showcasing a band doing what they’ve always done best. 

The concert at the Beacon Theater in New York, which Scorsese captures in the film, is hardly unique or as truly memorable as say the Altamont disaster, that tragic show that was dissected in the must-see Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme ShelterShine a Light was filmed over a two-night performance during the bands Bigger Bang Tour, backing the less than memorable recent record of the same name. 

Sure the Presidential Clinton family was present for the final night’s gala. The show featured three successful guest performances from Jack White (“Loving Cup”), Buddy Guy (the heavy Muddy Waters cover, “Champagne and Reefer”) and a surprisingly soulful Christina Aguilera (seriously if you ignore her pointless pop albums and celebrity stardom this singer actually has some stellar pipes on her. Then again she was born during one of the Stones’ many dull periods) lending her talent to the Let it Bleed classic “Live With Me.” These moments seem like nothing more than added bonuses when really the concert plays out as nothing more than a document of a band that has been doing their thing for over forty years, and somehow continues to do it well.

While primarily focusing on the Beacon concert Scorsese chops up the concert’s setlist with career spanning footage of the band, everything from TV interviews to early stage performances. Through the sparse but enlightening grainy reels from the band’s past Scorsese manages to tell the story of not only who these musicians are but also what continues to drive the members to perform well into their AARP years. 

ImageThe three original members–the mad man leader of the pack Mick Jagger, space cadet and guitar riff master Keith Richards, and the mysterious backbone drummer Charlie Watts–are each given a spotlight. We see the group’s rather innocent early days, their God like rise to stardom, and a little bit of the 80s aftermath (the funniest clip taken from what appears to be a Japanese TV interview featuring a giggly and possibly inebriated Jagger).

There is a specific moment in the film when Scorsese slips in an amazingly true to life comment from Keith that truly sums up what the Stones represent. When asked who is the better guitar player, Keith or Ronnie Wood, Richards jokingly replies something along the lines of, “well the fact is neither of us are any good but when we play together we’re better than the rest. 

In my mind this sums up what Scorsese set out to do with Shine a Light. Critics and fans may complain that this film is 30 years to late and that the Stones have been out of its prime for a long time (the band’s last truly standout record was 1981s Tattoo You, the last masterpiece was ‘78s Some Girls, which gets its dues in the film’s set list). Scorsese no doubt realizes this but he also knows that despite the bands faults the Stones still remain an untouchable force in rock and roll. Shine a Light is about ignoring that band’s shortcomings and simply having a good time. 

There is a reason the film was catered to fit the larger than life IMAX experience, the filming required multiple cameras or that the surround sound mixing was obviously handled with care. Scorsese uses Shine a Light to recreate what its like to be there with Mick and the gang as they rip through an entire career worth of classic sing-a-long rock and roll anthems (whatever band can write a song about a slave trader’s sexual desires as heard in “Brown Sugar” and turn it into a classic that everyone knows). The film shows that that despite the waning vocals, the group’s physical appearance (skeletal remains with baseball glove weathered skin), and the nonsensical ramblings of Mr. Richards who himself is surprised to have survived this long, these veteran rockers still know how to let it loose.

Songwriting Illusions


Listen Carefully

Gold Coast slaveship bound for cotton fields
Sold in a market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver know he’s doin’ alright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

These are the opening lyrics to a song that most of us have probably heard a hundred times; a song the majority of us can sing along with on command. How many of you though knew this harsh stanza was the opening to The Rolling Stones’ classic hit “Brown Sugar” when you initially saw it, without the aid of Keith Richards ultra cool opening guitar riff and Jagger’s identifiable raspy vocals?

Now I know that some of you knew from the get-go that these were gritty Sticky Fingers era Stones lyrics, however, I’m guessing that many were initially stumped. There are hundreds of songs out there that, like “Brown Sugar,” a song that deals with some “fun” themes such as slave trade, rape, sadomasochism, heroin use, and sexual fantasies, are often misinterpreted by its audience. It’s not that we as listeners choose to ignore the song’s true meanings but often we are so taken back by the catchy music (“yeah, yeah, yeah, woo!”) and the pop friendly choruses that we often pass over the deeper lyrical messages.

Brown sugar, how come you taste so good,
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should

There are many reasons for why certain songs seem to elude the majority of listeners. There’s the passive vs. active listener argument; the former being those casual listeners who enjoy songs for the music and live for the power pop songs that don’t necessarily have to be about anything but simply are candy to the ear and the latter being those dedicated listeners who dissect the lyrics and seek out the fine nuances of songwriting. This column is by no means a criticism of how people listen to music nor is it a judgment of those who were stumped by the lyrics above (after all I myself have always, to an extent, been a listener who focuses on the music rather than the lyrics) instead it is a look at a handful of popular songs that, for one reason or another, are constantly misinterpreted.

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
‘Til you spend half your life just covering up

Probably the most popular and baffling case of a song being completely misunderstood is the story behind Bruce Springsteen’s monumental rock anthem, “Born In the U.S.A,” a song that’s true meaning even stumped a former President. The title track of the Boss’ biggest selling album of the mid 80s has often been coined one of the greatest patriotic rock songs about America when in reality the track is a blatant and satirical slap in the face of America. The song tells the story of a small town everyman who is sucked into the war in Vietnam to fight for his country, loses a comrade and quite possibly his will to live, and is ultimately forgotten about upon his homecoming. The supposed American hero becomes an exile and nobody, a tale that is all too familiar now as it was back then.

I’m ten years down the road
Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go

Now while Springsteen clearly wears his ironic take of the American dream on his sleeve (just look at the album’s satirically perfect American pastime-themed cover art) “Born in the U.S.A.” still managed to elude an entire nation who, thanks to Ronald Reagan, saw it as a patriotic anthem rather than the scathing portrayal of a failing country (Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is another classic tune that comes off as being patriotic when its everything but). The track was used as Reagan’s 1984 campaign rally song and was embraced by his supporters, many of whom only truly heard the song’s pop savvy refrain.

In reality it’s no surprise that the lyrics on “Born in the U.S.A.” were so misconstrued. The song is a perfect power pop track. Loud, overpowering drums (I’m talking thunder snare hits people). Check. Ultra catchy 80s keyboard riff. Check. A vocal performance that screams rock. Check. And above all a ‘God Bless Americaesque’ chorus, “BORN in the U.S.A,” that tricks listeners into thinking the song is about pride and a love for a country when in reality it’s a sobering manifesto for hopelessness and the downfall of the American dream.

Often due to lyric misinterpretations songs take on new meanings all together, shedding the artist’s original intention completely.

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
Ill be watching you

The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” remains to this day one of the “greatest love songs” of all time when in reality the song is a fairly creepy allegory for what happens when love goes wrong. The song’s narrator is not the smooth sounding love God that so many people believe Sting to be but rather a domineering stalker (“Oh can’t you see, you belong to me”). The big brother themes and anti-romantic realities are overshadowed by the gentle crooning vocals, a subtle melodic bass line, and new-age style drumming. Yet despite this and more “Every Breath You Take” manages to finds its place on thousands of wedding playlists and romantic mix tapes around the world.

In a college a professor once talked about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” a song that has come to epitomize the singer songwriter genre but is often completely misunderstood. Taylor’s lyrics dive deep into his inner depression, his addiction to drugs and his struggles with his rising stardom, however, due to Taylor’s dreamy vocals and lullaby guitar strumming, the song is often mistaken as something more romantic.

It could be said that part of the brilliance of good songwriting is being able to convey a message without having to spoon-feed the audience. A song like “Born In the U.S.A” doesn’t have to necessarily sound dark to express a sad realization. Besides being completely overplayed, “Every Breath You Take” is a great song because you have to get past the cliché romantic melodies to realize the song really deals with the selfish and possibly dangerous side of romance.

Truly great music should be able to play tricks on its listeners. A song like “Brown Sugar” works well because upon first listen it’s a fast-paced, fun rock song but on a second, third or fourth take the listener grasps what Jagger is really saying. Lyrical appreciation and understanding takes patience, carefully tuned ears, and a will to dig deep into a song to realize that more often than not there is more to tune than what appears.