Friday, December 30, 2011

The Flaming Lips are the eggmen

In preparation for two New Year's performances with Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, the Flaming Lips recorded a cover of the song that arguably gave birth to their sound: John's psychedelic masterpiece "I Am the Walrus." While the original is a thrillingly weird aural feast, the Lips' rendition is just graspingly weird and coarse to the ears. Much like their take on "Revolution," it's an exercise in oddity, not an attempt at artistry. The one grace note comes at the end when the band starts chanting, "Smoke pot, smoke pot, everybody smoke pot," which I'll interpret (perhaps too charitably) as a self-mocking acknowledgment that drugs will surely be blamed for everything bizarre about the song. Go here to watch and listen.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Roy Orbison on The Beatles

Below is an audio clip of Roy Orbison talking about his 1963 tour with The Beatles, his favorite song of theirs, and how music was developing at the time.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"The world's only operatic rockabilly singer"

"I used to listen to a group called The Beatles; do you remember them? The very first record I ever had by them was called 'Please Please Me,' and that was written for Roy Orbison. If you slow that song right down, you can hear Roy Orbison in it. And that's the story."

So says Elvis Costello during the closing credits of A Black and White Night, the gorgeously shot 1988 concert special that spotlights the incomparable, groundbreaking talent that was Roy Orbison. It's among my favorite concert movies, and I watched it last night for probably the ninth or tenth time. As Costello suggests, The Beatles were huge admirers of Orbison and operated under his influence early in their career (go here for more). In the 1980s, George and Orbison even collaborated as members of the Traveling Wilburys.

Capturing a master singer-songwriter at work, A Black and White Night underscores just how influential Orbison was. He is joined by Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, James Burton, Jennifer Warnes, and other devotees to perform his indelible songs. The supporting cast is an astounding collection of stars - many legends in their own right - and yet they all happily play second-fiddle (or lower) to that melancholy man with the black sunglasses and heavenly three-octave voice.

The joy shown onstage by these folks says it all. There's the shit-eating grin on Tom Waits' face at the rousing conclusion of "Mean Woman Blues;" there's the eager, daughterly affection conveyed by Raitt, lang, and Warnes as they supply backup vocals; and most memorably, there's the recurring sight of Bruce Springsteen - brawny, brash Bruce Springsteen - reduced to a puddle of boyish glee. In the presence of one of his heroes, Springsteen wears a reverence and elation on his face that couldn't be more genuine. As he trades guitar solos with Burton and Orbison during "Ooby Dooby," he occasionally looks up at them with the expression of a young boy excitedly seeking approval from his father. You've never seen the Boss quite like this.

It's all for Roy, and if you don't understand why, watch A Black and White Night and let Orbison's mesmerizing, immortal voice work its magic; it will transport you. Though most of the songs - like "Only the Lonely, "Dream Baby," "Oh, Pretty Woman," and more - are deserving classics, I'll highlight "In Dreams," because it's a pop gem as unorthodox as it is beautiful. Like other songs by Orbison, it has no verse-bridge-chorus structure to speak of. It just flows, wondrously following the desires and whims of Orbison's sad, dreamy vocal. As Jennifer Warnes observes at the end of the concert, it's "timeless stuff."

*The quote in the title comes from J.D. Souther.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Paul's "Valentine"

"And I will never let a day go by / Without remembering the reasons why/ She makes me certain that I can fly."

The line is unadulterated schmaltz. It's also very Paul. Before he became a rock 'n' roller, young Macca was steeped in the melodrama of big band and Tin Pan Alley. His fondness for this style never wavered, manifesting itself throughout the Beatle years and beyond. Paul's next album, which will be released in February, is a love-note to the music of his youth. It will feature a variety of covers and two new songs, one of which - "My Valentine" - is the source of the lyrics above. You can listen to it here. On a certain level, this is who Paul is: a sappy balladeer who delights in even the most corny of sentiments.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"Isn't that fantastic!?!"

For your Saturday morning pleasure:

To learn more, go here. If the video is removed, go here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jude on John

In an interview from September, Julian Lennon spoke very candidly about how his painful childhood has affected him as an adult. Admirably, he sounds determined to not repeat the sins of his father.

Excerpts from this article:

- “He was young and didn’t know what the hell he was doing," Julian said. "That’s the reason I haven’t had children yet. I didn’t want to do the same thing. No, I’m not ready. I want to know who I am first.”

- “Mum was more about love than Dad. He sang about it, he spoke about, but he never really gave it, at least not to me as his son."

- He added that he had to control the aggression he inherited from his father: “The darker side definitely comes from Dad. Whenever I get too aggressive, which comes from Dad's side, I try to calm myself down, be more positive."

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wilco's "I'm Only Sleeping"

In comparison with the original, Jeff Tweedy and co's live acoustic rendition is unadorned, nimble and alert. I don't think I've heard anyone attempt a truly faithful cover. It would probably be a losing effort. Wilco's, on the other hand, is a modest winner, with its easy, even if routine, charm.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

"John Lennon's Bad Theology"

A Christian writer takes aim at John's concept of God and the "blatantly nihilistic" message of "Imagine."

Editorial comment: Though I reject utopian thinking and don't care for "Imagine," I find this characterization of the song to be mistaken. Using the word "blatantly" suggests that the perceived nihilism of "Imagine" was intentional on John's part, i.e., John wanted the song to come off that way. He certainly didn't, though the naivete that's on display in the lyric continues to open him up to plenty of legitimate criticism.

As the 1960s became the 1970s, Lennon’s legion of admirers would follow him in his forays into Indian mysticism, transcendental meditation, and primal therapy. In 1970, now a post-hippie but still a seeker, Lennon sang of a personal god that was neither omniscient, transcendental, nor redemptive, but merely “a concept by which we measure our pain.” This clever bit of pop theology was instantly embraced by an exhausted and defeated flower-power generation searching for moral renewal at the dawn of the new decade.

But, appealing as this view of God was—and remains for a great many Lennon enthusiasts—it came with troubling implications. If God is merely a concept by which we measure our pain, then, ipso facto, where pain can be eliminated, God is no longer necessary. This perhaps explains the escapism and drug abuse of so many of the 60s generation, including Lennon, who himself battled heroin addiction throughout the early 1970s. Radicals, freaks, and lotus-eaters everywhere finally had a deity they could relate to. One who didn’t judge them, or tell them how to live their lives. You know, a god who just lets you be yourself and doesn’t harsh your mellow.

. . .

“Imagine” is in fact a blatantly nihilistic evocation of an atheist global utopia where the triple-scourge of possessions, greed, and hunger have all been abolished in the name of international brotherhood. Think of it as a North Korean propaganda film with a great piano riff and a nice string arrangement.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

December 8, 1980

Just when John Lennon had found peace and contentment on this earth - as a husband to Yoko and a father to Sean - he was robbed of his life. We all shine on.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Days of remembrance like this one encourage hyperbole. Even so, is there a more thrilling chorus in all of pop music than what you hear above? It's passionate and defiant. It surges with life and burns with John's singular spirit. It's the sound of triumph.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A true Beach Boy

On this day in 1944, Dennis Wilson - brother of Brian and Carl, cousin of Mike Love, drummer, and late-blooming talent - was born. Dennis, of course, was a member of the Beach Boys and, later, a solo artist. Overshadowed by his more naturally gifted siblings, Dennis left a legacy that in great measure is unrelated to his abilities as a singer-songwriter and musician: he was the wild, self-destructive Beach Boy; he was the lone member of the group who avidly surfed; and he was, at one time, a friend to Charles Manson. But, as songs like "Forever" demonstrate, he did eventually come into his own. Described by Brian as a "rock and roll prayer," "Forever" is one of pop's finest love songs - a ballad of aching beauty powered by Dennis' sad, weary vocal. What a moving line this is: "Let the love I have for you / Live in your heart and be forever."

Dennis drowned in 1983 at the age of 39. RIP.


(If the video is removed, go here.)

I was also hoping to post the Beach Boys' cover of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which features Dennis on lead vocals. Unfortunately, it's not available on YouTube.