Monday, October 22, 2012

Costumes and Masks: Behind the Mask

YouTube version:

I can’t imagine you don’t know Jose Feliciano. Most famous (perhaps) for  “Rain” (listen to the falling rain…) or maybe to you, for “Light My Fire” (c’mon baby light my fire), he hails from Puerto Rico, sings in Spanish, and (for better or worse), is known for being blind, in addition to his guitar chops.

As for this week’s topic, I would be hard-pressed to come up with another musician with credentials that pushed further beyond the subject of masks: who better to perceive beyond the masks we wear everyday than someone who cannot see those masks anyway?

To get to the point of this week’s postings, “Behind the Mask” is a Feliciano work very much in the Santana style to accompany the (short-lived) 2000 TV production of “Queen of Swords”. One YouTube commentator notes, in response to his affability in acting for the video: he is so easy to work with that he even willingly rides a horse – blind!

As for the mask song, there are both English and Spanish versions available online at YouTube. Regardless of the language, what shines through in each is the unique Feliciano vocal skills: 30 years down the line, this is clearly the same vocal powerhouse that belted out the original versions of “Rain” and “Light My Fire”

And in the lyrics, he sings:

Every one of us hides in his own way

Our ways may not be seen …

Behind the mask … there’s a secret life ….


Costumes and Masks: Ole John Bell (The Witch’s Curse)

Valerie Smith with Becky Buller : Ole John Bell (The Witch’s Curse)


I don’t care a whole lot for witches (except when singing along at the top of my lungs with the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman”). If you believe that “spirits walk beside you, can make you cursed, can make you bleed,” then you may also think that a real witch could curse, haunt and trouble you.

Whenever I see a witch in costume at my door on Halloween, I wonder if they’re real and am reminded of the Bell Witch legend. In a story that documents a terrifying, supernatural event in the 1800s, the Bell Witch ("Kate") haunted a pioneer family, murdered patriarch John Bell, and inflicted a reign of terror throughout the Tennessee countryside.

Bell Witch (the movie) premiered on September 24, 2005 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The soundtrack showcases bluegrass and old-time music from many artists associated with Tennessee’s Bell Buckle record label: Jimbo Whaley, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, Jeannette Williams Band, Jeff and Vida Band, Wells Family, and Becky Buller. The movie's premiere was broadcast in high-def via satellite to over 80 theaters throughout the U.S., definitely a first for bluegrass music.

The soundtrack for Bell Witch (the movie) emphasizes songs that bring plenty of apparitions to life. About a month ago, I used one of fiddler/singer/songwriter Becky Buller’s tunes for the birthstones theme. In the Bell Witch movie, she contributed five compositions. She (along with Valerie Smith and Kraig Smith) wrote the song, “Ole John Bell (The Witch’s Curse)” featured here today. Witch Kate's theme is presented in lean, rawboned fashion with only Valerie’s vocals and Becky’s fiddle as the ghost comes to curse, claim and torment Bell's “worthless soul.”

Back in 2005, Kraig Smith speculated that the movie premier was somewhat like “a duck on a pond, cruising serenely on the surface, but paddling like heck underwater.” The Bell Witch movie soundtrack was a big coup for these artists. It may not have had the same impact as “Deliverance,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” but it certainly shows that bluegrass and old-time music belong in the movies on a much more regular basis.

Costumes and Masks: The Moose


One of the themes that I seem to regularly come back to is whether there is objectively good music or not—why do some people think a song or artist is great, and others are crap. In general, as I have said before, I’ve come to believe that all art is appreciated subjectively, so I try to avoid making pronouncements that something is good or bad. That being said, the comedy routine at issue today, “The Moose,” by Woody Allen, is undeniably funny, and I will brook no dispute on this matter.

I know this isn’t a song, which pretty much puts it outside of the general universe that this blog lives in, but it was the first thing I thought of when I read the theme, and it is, I believe I have mentioned, very funny.

Most people today may think of Woody Allen as a director of films that range from pretty good to not so great, but there was a time that he created some of the best and funniest American films ever. And a time before that when he was a writer of hysterical comedy pieces. And a time before that when he was a standup comedian. And a time before that when he wrote jokes for early TV shows.  And he is also an accomplished jazz clarinetist, so this post isn't completely lacking in music content.

Allen’s persona was at the time, and for years after that, a nebbishy, unathletic city guy, focusing heavily on his stereotypical New York Jewishness, making the premise of “The Moose” funny at the start—that he had actually gone into the woods and shot a moose. Of course, in his later work and life Allen tried to recreate himself—dating and marrying beautiful women and casting himself as a romantic leading man, until it became almost ludicrous. But that came long after “The Moose,” which was performed and recorded in the early 1960’s, at a time when overtly Jewish humor was infiltrating the mainstream, so that simply referring to the moose as “the Solomons” would get laughs. And when the moose locks horns at the party with a married couple dressed as a moose, they are, of course, the “Berkowitzes.”

I won’t spoil the finale, but suffice to say, it also addresses a Jewish issue that was relevant then, if not so overtly now. The video above is slightly different from the version I first heard on record (recorded in New York) in which Allen refers to an actual New York institution, rather than the fictional one in the video, from a performance in England. Maybe he thought that the English audience wouldn’t get the joke the same way that a New York audience would, much as Monty Python changed a reference in their “Nudge Nudge” sketch from Purley to Scarsdale when they performed it in New York.

I strongly recommend tracking down a copy of the vinyl, or the two CD set that contains the full version of the routines (linked to above). I guarantee that you will laugh many, many times. And I think you will agree that “The Moose” is objectively funny.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Costumes and Masks: The Lone Teen Ranger


We’re celebrating Halloween a week early here this week. This way, anyone who still doesn’t know what to dress up as can benefit from our suggestions. Seriously, Halloween, at least as observed here in the United States, is the time when we give into the urge for a short time to become someone or something else. That urge may be motivated by a desire for secrecy or concealment. Or, it may be a way of projecting a different identity onto someone else. The whole question of identity is rich ground for songwriters, and costumes and masks are a fine way to express that.

That said, our first example is not the finest display of deep songwriting you will ever hear. The Lone Teen Ranger is a 1950’s pop song about jealousy. The masked man in the title is a metaphor for a rival who probably doesn’t wear a mask as he walks the halls of his high school. The song is sometimes credited to Jerry Landis by himself, and sometimes to his group Tom & Jerry. This is itself a disguise for a duo that would later become much better known as Simon and Garfunkle. Landis is Paul Simon, whose songwriting under his own name is of a very different quality than this.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Conversations: Fish Song

Country Joe and the Fish: The "Fish" Cheer @ YouTube

I may be pushing the limits that define “conversation”, but here goes: Many is the live song that includes some form of dialog(ue) between the artist and the audience. In that a “conversation” is defined as a spoken exchange of thoughts and opinions, this leaves our weekly topic open to various interpretations.

I first thought of the Ry Cooder-type of dialogue. Ry manages to embed dialog in many songs; for example, wherein he and his vocalist exchange opinions. Cf: Down In Hollywood, where the dialog includes:
“"Hey, bud. Come here, let me talk to you for a second …”
Or in the back and forth in “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile”:
“I’ll tell you why.”

“Please tell me why.”

But then my thoughts went back to my original idea: the on-stage dialog between artist and audience. And while there are certainly numerous prior pivotal/historical instances, it occurred to me that one in particular needed our “refreshment” this week. So … back to our hippie days, the Cold War (want some serious perspective?), and the era of protest movements.

In this clip, live at Woodstock back in  ’69, Country Joe McDonald is at his peak. As many as half a million in the audience join him in voicing/responding, and thus conversing: their opinions about the Vietnam War. Gimme an “F”.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Conversations: Fishing

Richard Shindell: Fishing

There’s something about Richard Shindell’s voice that just grabs me. I’m not sure where or when I first heard him, but WFUV is probably a pretty good bet. And it isn’t only the voice, it is the quality of the songwriting—deeply personal and complex songs, often written from unusual perspectives, like truck drivers, or kids who ran away to fight in the Civil War.

It turns out that Shindell and my good friend David went to college together. I don’t remember whether they knew each other personally, but I know that David was a big fan. A few years ago, when my friend turned 40, his wife Melissa decided to surprise him with a private concert by Shindell at a bar in New York. But because of his touring schedule, he wasn’t available near David’s birthday, so she tentatively booked the party for January 28, 2001. Melissa asked me whether it would be a problem, because it was Super Bowl Sunday. When she called, my team, the Giants, were fading, and Jim Fassel had made what we all thought was a ridiculous “guarantee” that they would make the playoffs. I told Melissa not to worry, and plan the party.

Of course, the Giants caught fire, and not only made the playoffs, but the Super Bowl. So, I was looking forward to seeing Richard Shindell up close and personal, but kind of annoyed that I was going to miss the Giants in the Super Bowl. The bar, though, had TVs, and the game was showing before the music started. Unfortunately for me, and my fellow Giants fans, the Ravens blew us out, and I was ultimately very glad not to have to watch the game and instead see a great show from Shindell, who was friendly, and, not surprisingly, wonderful.

None of which has anything to do with today’s theme, but I like the story. And I really like this song. There are some songs that are like perfect short stories in miniature. The songwriter quickly outlines the characters, the plot and the resolution, all in a few minutes. Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is an example. Jason Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” is another. And “Fishing” is in this class.

It starts out as a very one-sided conversation, between an immigration agent and a Latino immigrant. The agent is trying to get the immigrant to turn on others—maybe the people who brought him to the country, or other undocumented immigrants. The agent uses the fact that his prisoner is a fisherman to try to forge common ground by sharing (symbolically loaded) fishing stories, while, at the same time trying to get him to “bite” on the bait that the agent has cast—the ability to stay in the country and protection for his “next of kin”—in exchange for cooperation.

Finally, the agent says, ostensibly talking about fishing, but really not:

Anyway, it's easy to bite.
You just take the bait
Can't snap the line
Don’t fight the hook
Hurts less if you don't try to dive.

In the last stanza, the fisherman finally responds, deciding to take his punishment rather than be a rat:

Señor, as you know I was a fisherman
And how full the nets came in
We hauled them up by hand
But when we fled, I left them just out past the coral reefs
They're waiting there for me
Running deep

The fisherman’s nobility contrasts with the agent’s manipulativeness, and leaves little doubt where Shindell’s sympathies lie. This song gives me chills every time I hear it. Joan Baez does a good cover, too, on her “Gone From Danger” album.

Conversations: Conversation with a Ghost

Ellis Paul : Conversation with a Ghost

Ellis Paul : Conversation with a Ghost


With Halloween approaching, I’ll offer Ellis Paul’s haunting “Conversation with a Ghost.” In the linked video, he provides an interesting narrative about the song and the ghost named Margaret “Pug” Putnam, a nurse during the Civil War. When jilted, perhaps a Ouija board (and a few letters from Margaret) are the only way to get answers. Or perhaps the song is an emotional tribute to a departed love who has fought a losing battle with illness or disease. The second video (with Susan Werner also on piano) makes the conversation all the more poignant, especially when she asks “Hey, are all those things you told me once still true?”

Ellis Paul’s 2006 double album “Essentials” (released on the reputable Rounder Records label) provides a great historical overview of Ellis Paul' songwriting for the past twenty years. He has many many kinds of songs over the years - folk, love, pop, story, rock, and even novelty songs. The two and one-half hours of music on “Essentials” deserves close listening and analysis of melodies, lyrics, messages, and arrangements. He's worked with seven producers over the years and many more musicians.

Paul attributes "Conversation With A Ghost" (released in 1992) as the first song that brought people out to the clubs of Boston to hear him play. Folksinger Bill Morrissey was producing his music back then. More recently, in 2012, Paul has released a brand new family album entitled “The Hero in You,” with original songs about the great impact that several free thinkers, risk takers and innovators have had on American culture and history.

From the stock of Maine potato farmers, Ellis Paul moved to Boston, studied music, connected with the roots of the folk genre, then proceeded to develop a signature singer/songwriter sound that now incorporates pop, rock and contemporary sensibilities. Ellis Paul's wise perceptiveness and charisma have built him a strong fan base. He's also a hardworking, resilient touring artist who has garnered numerous awards for about a dozen album releases and music, some of which has been featured in film soundtracks.

Ellis Paul's voice has character, and his songs understand the bond between land, life, heart and soul as he creates feelings of intimacy and familiarity. The masterful singer/songwriter’s messages are profound, and they make us think. As with “Conversation with a Ghost,” Ellis Paul's imagination and skill are both polished and fanciful all in one.

Conversations: Conversation


In this season of speeches and debates, I find myself thinking about verbal communication. Words can clarify or obscure, with or without intent. I am fond of saying that the internet has no tone of voice, but that doesn’t mean that hearing a voice with the words clarifies everything. There are times when a person hears words and meaning they have waited for for a long time, but also other times when the right words will not come. For songwriters, who after all live by finding the right words, all of these possibilities are potential subjects for their art. This week, then, we will be looking at songs that explore words said and unsaid.

Joni Mitchell’s song Conversation is an obvious starting point. Her narrator could be said to be having an affair. However, all they do is talk. The narrator is a sounding board for a man in an unhappy relationship. Mitchell creates a contrast between how easily the conversation flows between them and how broken the lines of communication are between this man and “his lady”. Even so, there are words that cannot be spoken in this situation. Conversation appeared on Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon in 1970. Three years earlier, Mitchell sang the song at a club called the 2nd Fret with a different set of words at the end of the song:

He's acted down all evening
Maybe it's over now
Maybe she's finally leaving
I'd like to show her now.

But friends are friends forever
So hard to change their role
Laugh with him, cry together
A friend feels so old.

Hey friend, it feels so whole
But you keep your feelings deep inside
You talk of them and think of pride
Now is the wrong time
But maybe if a dozen days are warm and right
You'll hear him say "I've wanted you baby for such a long time."

He comes for conversation
I comfort him sometimes
Comfort and consultation
He knows that's what he'll find.

Especially for Joni Mitchell at that time, this would have given the song an impossible fairy tale ending. But the final version of the song still contains these words as an implied wish. Mitchell never sings them, but her voice tells you that her narrator would like them to come true. In a haven where words flow freely, there are still things which must remain unsaid.

By the way, I would gladly have posted this song as an mp3 if I had hosting. Barring that, I would have liked to post an “official“ video, or at least a concert performance. Alas, I could find any such thing. The song is still important enough to me that I wanted to share it somehow, and I was happy to at least find a video that was artfully made. I hope nobody minds.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Leonard Cohen Covers: Chelsea Hotel

Lloyd Cole: Chelsea Hotel


Leonard Cohen says he now regrets linking his affair with Janis Joplin to this song. "The sole indiscretion in my private life" says this Ladies Man. Cohen's version is slow and funereal.

In his cover for 1991's I'm Your Fan tribute, Lloyd Cole speeds up the tune and brings in the hot band that supported him on those terrific early 90's albums: former Voidoids drummer Fred Mahar and the late Voidoids guitarist Robert Quine. There's a wistfulness there but not nearly as much regret. I like it better.

Leonard Cohen covers: The Future


I'll jump on the SMM bandwagon with the other weekly posters: I love Leonard Cohen covers but I don't particularly care for the originals. As a songwriter, he's pretty unparalleled, though. Here, Teddy Thompson, son of British folk-rockers Richard and Linda Thompson, turns Cohen's look into the future into an upbeat ode to dystopia. This horn- and chorus-filled live version was released on the 2006 tribute album "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Leonard Cohen Covers: First We Take Manhattan

R.E.M.: First We Take Manhattan

[purchase Warnes’ version]
[purchase R.E.M. version, on a Cohen tribute album]

When I was young and knew everything, I knew that there was good music and bad music, just as there were good movies and bad movies, good paintings and bad paintings and good books and bad books. Now that I am older, I’m not sure anymore. I’ve come to the point where I think that there is some art that grabs you, emotionally, intellectually or in some other way, and others that just don’t. So, even if you can understand why critics or other people that you respect really like something, sometimes it just doesn’t resonate in the same way.

That’s the way I feel about the music of Leonard Cohen, and it is one of the reasons why I didn’t post early on Sunday, as has been my recent habit. I can recognize that he is a great songwriter and understand that he is a compelling performer. I understand that many artists that I really like, and people whose musical taste I hold in high regard, love the guy, but I can’t ever imagine deciding one day that I have to listen to Leonard Cohen. Which is not to say that if I decided to immerse myself in his substantial body of work, I wouldn’t emerge with a love of his music. But I don’t see myself being motivated to do that. I’m sure I’m missing out, but there is enough other good music out there to keep me occupied.

“First We Take Manhattan” is one of the Leonard Cohen songs that I like-there is a certain foreboding to its lyrics, supposedly about a German terrorist group. Jennifer Warnes, who I always sort of dismissed as a schlocky, film theme singing vocalist, until I noticed that she was actually quite talented (probably first when she sang on an Alejandro Escovedo album that I love), released the song before Cohen, in an excellent version featuring the late and lamented Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar. You can see him in the attached video. The later-released Cohen version has a synthy sound to it that I find a bit off-putting.

My wife and I were discussing situations where the cover was better than the original (“All Along The Watchtower,” for example). Here, although the “original” is a cover, I like Warnes’ version much better, and I apologize for not appreciating her.

I’ve also attached a version by R.E.M., which is also pretty good, from a Cohen tribute album.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Leonard Cohen Covers: Who by Fire


Your moderator, Darius, and I appear to have similar tastes: I really do not care much for Leonard Cohen. I have the utmost respect for him as an artist/songwriter, but, despite my “better half’s” quarter century efforts, I can’t get into his stuff. I find his music too soft and dark. Funny: Tom Waits is dark, but I like his music. And I have nothing against “soft” per se. But Cohen … sorry. Adding insult to injury, for the last few years, the man has decided to add Istanbul to his regular tour itinerary, so I face a yearly request to purchase tickets to a show I don’t care to see.

In fact, considering my aversion, I had resolved to sit this week out. But then, I couldn’t. Hope you’re glad I didn’t.

What I found is a version of “Who by Fire” from musicians that I cannot locate a lot of information about. Schonwald have an online presence at various music-related sites, but there is a paucity of personal detail. They appear to have been making music for several years (albums dating back to 2006 at least) and their online work includes YouTube videos that include a version of this song. But as for details about who, what and where …. virtually nothing. So, once again, here is your chance to show me up: let us know in the comments what you know about these musicians. The YouTube clips depict them as a M/F combo who primarily focus on studio work.

Part of what pushed me to go ahead with a Cohen post is the “drive” behind this version. Whereas Cohen takes it relatively easy in his renditions, these folks veer towards the harder side – edgier and, as a result,  much more to my liking.