The River's Badge

Friday, April 22, 2016

Gut Punched

I was driving home from doing some errands last Saturday and "Delirious" came on the oldies station. I cranked it up. As the song played, I thought how happy Prince's music made me feel. "Delirious" has a lot going on in it. It's definitely rock and funk, but there's also some scatting and maybe a bit of jazz. I also get a kick out of how Prince pronounces "deliri-OHS". Then my mind clicked on Michael Jackson and how both he and Prince reached the peak of their fame around the same time. I thought it was rather unfair how Jackson was labeled a genius, yet Prince never was. I thought, well, Michael Jackson died young because his life was so messed up, so there was something to say for being "normal", because Prince was still alive and still creating.

I don't believe in prescience. I wasn't thinking about Merle Haggard right before he died. I chalk the whole episode in the car up to a weird coincidence. Yesterday I was half-listening to a news channel through my ear buds as I worked, and the host announced that there was a report of a death at Paisley Park. My stomach dropped.

I am not a Minnesotan -- I live in Minnesota, but I'm not from here, The people I work with are Minnesotans, and wow, the grief. Everyone in my office had to get up out of their chairs and go find someone, someone to help them sort out the news. My cubicle neighbor's sister went to high school with Prince. Minneapolis is a big, yet small town. Minnesotans claimed Prince, sheltered him. They were proud of the fact that the local boy who hit it big didn't take leave for LA or some other bigshot city. Prince stayed, he went to local clubs, he sometimes gave impromptu performances at those clubs and sometimes he just sat in the audience and enjoyed the show -- you know, like a real person would. Last night there was a street party in front of First Avenue, the club where Prince got his start. Thousands spilled into the street and danced and sang Prince songs. They had a good time -- just like Prince always urged people to do, through his music. He had to be a joyous man -- just listen to his songs. He wasn't filled with angst. Besides, angst is over-rated. Life should be joyous. It usually isn't, but maybe that's where Prince came in. He brought us something we were sorely missing.

This is my first post in which I can't share video of the artist. Oh, there are a few performance videos out there, those with fellow musicians, but Prince was very firm that he would control his music, and so YouTube doesn't have any of the real stuff. I think I even complained about that once in a post, that he shouldn't be so stingy -- he should share his creations with us. I'm okay with his decision now. Yes, I'd love to watch some of his work, but I can still listen.

Somebody tweeted something about how people shouldn't always try to relate an artist who's passed away with themselves. Well, why wouldn't we? Isn't that what music does? Plays the soundtrack of our lives? So, I am going to relate Prince's music to my life. I'm obviously not in the target demographic for his music. I wasn't a teenager in the eighties, but I did have teenagers, and thus MTV was a big presence in our home. You know how much I love eighties rock. Prince was a huge part of that. I bought the Purple Rain album (yes, album) and "When Doves Cry" has always touched me. I, even at my advanced age, thought Prince was cool. And who wouldn't? He was cool. He was unique. When one of his music videos came on the tube, one couldn't take their eyes off the screen. I also appreciated that he didn't seem like a jerk -- like he was condescending to perform for us little people. No, he just loved what he was doing and he wanted us all to join him.

I love the following Prince tracks:

  • When Doves Cry
  • Purple Rain
  • Raspberry Beret
  • 1999
  • Let's Go Crazy
  • Delirious
  • and others I can't think of at the moment
I also really like this particular song that he wrote:

And, of course, this video played nonstop on MTV:


So, I guess I got to include a couple of music videos after all.

My home is a scant seventeen miles from Paisley Park. Thousands of people tonight are there paying tribute. I would never go. I don't want more sadness; I'm already feeling that enough. I would have gone to the street party, though, if I wasn't embarrassingly old.

But here are a few pictures of how my new hometown paid tribute to their hometown boy:

Shoot, we're going to miss you, Prince. Too, too soon.

Too soon.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Merle - The Hits Keep Coming

In my quest to find Merle Haggard videos, the fact is, there is what there is. I've been lucky so far, but YouTube unfortunately doesn't contain every song in the word. Wouldn't that be great, though? They should work on that.

Merle had a lot of great songs that didn't find their way to video. I'm not ignoring them; I just can't find them.

But let's continue down the road, shall we?

Imagine my surprise as a kid just learning to play chords on a guitar to find that this next song only contains two chords. I'd had it drummed into me that every country song (this was the sixties, mind you) had three chords. Three. Three was the requirement. Callouses hadn't yet formed on my fingers as I played along with Merle's records, so this discovery was a revelation! I could play this song easily, and it would barely hurt!

Seriously, The Bottle Let Me Down was deceptively simple. Simplicity was Merle's magic, and no one could conjure it like he could. I like this video a lot, because it features the original Strangers. Much like the Buckaroos, the Strangers were stars in their own right. Merle never hesitated to give credit where it was due.

It was around 1968 that the country music industry finally, probably reluctantly, sat up and took notice. There was a club in country music in those days -- the "Nashville Club". They liked things the way they liked them. They liked silky strings and the Anita Kerr Singers. "Keep it soft!" they exclaimed. "What's with this Bakersfield shi stuff? Those loud guitars hurt our ears!" But the charts didn't lie. Not that Chet was about to adopt this rabble-rousing style, but people, he supposed, wanted what they wanted. And they wanted something like this:

"Mama Tried", of course, was the song with which I embarrassed myself in front of Merle. In my defense, I was a giggly (barely) teenager, and Alice and I logically assumed at the time that Merle would be impressed by us playing his record on my battery-powered turntable outside, feet away from his motel room. In hindsight, I think he just wanted to be left alone. He was right to not acknowledge us -- that would have just encouraged us.

I wonder if part of why people love Merle is that his songs are so accessible. When I stuck my guitar away in the closet, I didn't pick it up again for...hmm...twenty-five years? I had a living to make and babies to raise. When I did pick it up after all that time, I had two go-to songs. This was one of them:

If Merle had never written another song, this one would be a career. I wonder if he knew it at the time. He never released it as a single, weirdly. I didn't realize that until I read about it. It was the B side to The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde. I also read that it failed to chart. I don't get it. If it was never released as a single (an A side), how does everyone know it? Yet everyone does. It's almost impossible for me to choose a favorite Merle Haggard song, but if I was forced to, "Today I Started Loving You Again" would be it.

I remember the 1970 CMA's. I'm sure I was bouncing in my chair watching the telecast, because Merle took home everything except female vocalist of the year. This next song probably put him over the top. I talked about it a bit in my last post, and I'm ambivalent about it. Honestly, the song was rather mundane; not, in my opinion, Merle's best effort. But it struck a chord with fans. Part of my ambivalence, too, no doubt, is that I heard it on the radio constantly. Everyone's got a song like that. They liked it the first time they heard it, and the tenth time. By the one thousandth time, they were ready to grab a claw hammer and smash their radio to smithereens. Okie From Muskogee wasn't that song for me - Rose Garden was -- but familiarity breeds...well, you know.

I was always a libertarian. I didn't care what other people smoked. I didn't know about that stuff anyway. I didn't even start smoking regular cigarettes until I was sixteen. I didn't wave Old Glory down by the courthouse, because I wasn't a freak, plus I didn't even know where the courthouse was, frankly. The song seemed jingoistic. And Merle didn't believe that stuff anyway (read his autobiography). Nevertheless, the song forced people to take notice of him. I'm sad, though, if this was someone's first exposure to Merle, because that means they missed a lot of great music.

The next year, Merle continued his roll. Now he was mad -- fightin' mad. The best part, for me, of The Fightin' Side Of Me was the live album Merle recorded in Philadelphia. I wore the grooves off that album. I could probably, even today, quote some of Merle's lines from that recording. That was the album on which Merle impersonated Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash. Oh, and Hank Snow. By then I was wondering if there was anything Merle couldn't do. Too, Bonnie Owens had a prominent role. She doesn't get any credit from anyone, but Merle would have given her credit. The harmonies on his songs from the sixties and early seventies? Thank Bonnie Owens. She was his sound and his sounding board. She co-wrote Today I Started Loving You Again. Maybe personally things didn't ultimately work out for Bonnie and Merle, but harmonically, they were perfect.

Merle was always cantankerous. That never left him, throughout the following forty years of his life. I like that. He had opinions. This song seems more honest than Okie. And from a songwriter's perspective, it's a better song.

The hour is late, and I can't do justice to many more songs. I'll save that for next time. However, I've got one more. I mentioned my two go-to songs of Merle's. This is the other. Like "Today", this song was never released as a single. This flummoxes me. Then how did I know it so well?

I am not a good singer -- not a natural singer. I love harmony singing. If I could be granted a wish, well, I guess I would wish for unlimited money, but after that, I would wish for the ability to sing harmony. This song, though, made it so easy. Any dolt (meaning me) could do it. Not just two-part, but three-part harmony. All praise to the songwriter for that. Again, listen to the simplicity. Maybe that's what makes it so good.

It's a big job just gettin' by with nine kids and a wife, but that's a song for another day....

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Merle Haggard Primer

There are a couple of songwriters I always wished I could write like: Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. And they are such different writers. Kris is, not more cerebral, per se, but more enigmatic. He doesn't just come out and say it -- he leaves you to wonder; ponder. Merle didn't write like that. Merle said exactly what he wanted to say. Philosophers didn't need to delve deeply into his songs' meanings.

Both kinds of writing are hard. I perhaps once wrote a song like Kris would write, only not even a smidgen as good. I don't think I ever wrote a song that was even in Merle's ballpark. In fact, I know I didn't.

It's funny how talent seeks out talent. Merle toured with Kris Kristofferson and he toured with Willie Nelson and he toured with Bob Dylan. Higher standards. Principles. From what I've read, these guys all respected the hell out of one another. I think they raised each other's game. It's all fun and frolic to mentor new kids -- shoot, I do that in my day job -- but sometimes one craves a peer. Someone who "thinks right". These four had that.

In the retrospectives I've read about Merle's career, the writers were all eager to latch onto songs that meant little to us fans -- Okie From Muskogee, for one. When that record hit the airwaves in 1969, true Merle aficionados kind of scratched our heads and thought, well, that's different; kind of "out there", not the greatest song in the world, but it was Merle, so...sort of like "The Fightin' Side Of Me", which came next. I didn't know (albeit I was just a teenager) what that even meant. What's a "fightin' side"? Shoot, when I listen to Merle songs today, I don't even consider playing that one. There are so many choices that are so much better! Yes, Merle garnered Entertainer Of The Year honors in 1970 based on those two singles, and we fans were ecstatic about that, but we chose to believe that the suits had finally (finally!) recognized Merle's overall greatness; not that these two songs were representative of his career. Because they weren't.

I never was an "album gal" until Merle came along. Country LP's were sad. Nobody put any thought into them. It was all singles, singles, singles. A country album was a hit single and a bunch of cover songs. It was apparently an exercise in earning some coin for the artist, while satisfying the record-buyer's conceit that, hell, I love this artist! After all, I bought their album! Loretta Lynn covered Tammy Wynette songs and Lynn Anderson covered Loretta Lynn songs and Tammy threw in some "Don't Come Home a'Drinkin'".  I pity the 1960's songwriter, unless he was Billy Sherrill, because everybody just covered the same songs, over and over.

Merle, however, did concept albums. He did "Let Me Tell You About A Song", in which he talked about each song and its meaning, by way of introduction. Heck, even Dylan didn't do that! Merle's albums were actually albums, and they made me think about music; not just feel it. I tucked that notion away subconsciously, and didn't haul it out until decades later when I began writing, and specializing in a lot of biographical shi stuff. Merle released "Hag", with its stark white cover and a pencil-likeness of him; an album that got little acclaim, but one that I listened to deeply. It remains one of my personal favorites.

One can't overlook, however, how Merle's recording career began. Some of his earliest hits weren't written by him. People, in their reverence, tend to overlook that. I don't think Merle ever did. After all, his band was named The Strangers for a reason. "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" was one of the songs that put Merle on the country music map. It was written by Liz Anderson (Lynn Anderson's mom), as was "(I'm A) Lonesome Fugitive". I love both of those songs. They melded a songwriter's sense of the man and the man himself's honest performance. Most people forget that. I don't.

Let's take a look:

Wynn Stewart wrote "Sing A Sad Song". I always loved this, and it's so typical of what Wynn Stewart would write. But Merle did it like no one could.

It was around that time that Merle found his voice. This is what we fans remember; not "Okie From Muskogee":

Liz Anderson apparently inspired Merle to write about his own life. Funny how that works:

If you've ever been to a honky tonk and you haven't heard this song, then you haven't been to a honky tonk. Everyone who's ever plunked on a guitar has played this song. Cuz, why wouldn't you?

This is Merle Part I. I've got lots of parts to go.

Miles to go.

Bear with me.

This is just getting started.

Friday, April 8, 2016


Tonight I listened to some Merle Haggard songs. And I sang along. And I cried. 

I didn't want to ever have to write this. I've written a lot of goodbyes on this blog; some were pretty tough to get through. This one is the toughest. You see, Merle has always been with me. He's tied up in a box with some other people I've had to say goodbye to -- my best friend, my mom, the me that used to be.

I've read a bunch of articles this week about Merle. Some got it right; some just wanted to say something that would appeal to those who barely knew him. Tonight, this is about him and me. 

I was the new kid in a new town, a new school; the strange outcast who was too shy to make friends. And then I found one. I think she actually found me. I was a music geek, but my music was the Monkees and the Box Tops. Hers was some new guy named Waylon Jennings and somebody else named Bobby Bare. She was a country singer -- in a band, no less -- at age eleven. The only thing I knew about country music were my parents' two LP's, one by Buck Owens and one by Ray Price, from around 1963. Sure, I liked those albums. When you're a kid and purchased music is scarce, you listen to whatever's handy. But when I got my little transistor radio, I tuned it to the Top Forty. That tiny radio was sort of my lifeline, especially after moving to a new town that wasn't even a town like I thought it would be, but an industrial strip of land between two towns. Top Forty radio was my salve. 

And then I met Alice and she made it clear that she wasn't one of the mindless pre-teen dolts who worshiped Strawberry Alarm Clock. She knew what she liked and that was that. And she didn't care that it wasn't "cool".  So, I, too, decided I liked country music. I didn't know anything about it, but I was keen to learn. The first country album I bought was by Waylon Jennings, and then I think I picked up one by another new guy, Charley Pride. 

Together, she and I discovered Merle Haggard. This was when I finally understood what all the country music fuss was about. This guy was different. This guy was brash. His guitar twanged even twangier than Buck Owens', and his songs actually said something. It didn't hurt that he was cute, as we were wont to describe men at our ripe age.

After playing Merle's album over and over and over, I was determined I was going to buy a guitar. Alice said she'd teach me how to play. So I saved up my...allowance or tips or however I acquired money...and I finally forked over twenty-five dollars for the red Stella guitar that I'd admired in Dahmer's Music's window for what seemed like forever. Alice came over every Saturday and showed me the different chords. My fingers stung like bee stings, but I finally developed enough callouses to be able to chord along with "Swinging Doors" and "Sing Me Back Home". Shoot, Alice even taught me how to play the lead part in "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive" -- the only actual fingering I've ever...and since...been able to play. And I'd play along with Merle's records for hours.

The very first song I ever wrote had these lines:

1967, you taught me how to play
All those Merle Haggard songs
Man, he had a way

It wasn't until I tried songwriting years later that I understood how deceptively simple Merle's songs were. Most of them had three chords -- four at the most. "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" has only two chords! And yet he still managed to say something, with so little. I can't do that. Hardly anyone can.

As time went on (and time seemed so much longer then), I bought a JC Penney tape machine so I could play and sing songs and rewind the tape to hear how "great" my performance was. I was possessed. At sixteen, I graduated to a top-of-the-line one hundred dollar reel to reel recorder, and the first thing I recorded was a three-part harmony version of "Silver Wings" (by bouncing the tracks). I sort of wish I could find that tape now, because as I remember it, I sang the hell out of that song. 

"The Best Of Merle Haggard", with its fold-out cover, was my music bible. After that, I blithely followed every turn in Merle's road, because I knew I could count on him. I loved him. 

Nineteen sixty-eight was the nadir. My autobiography (now out of print, but since they're my words, I guess I can quote them) devotes a whole chapter to a seminal moment in my young life:

In the fall of 1968, Merle was coming to town to put on a concert!

After all the semi-to-not-even-semi-famous acts Alice and I had seen live; artists who only played the little-town circuit, because either everyone had long ago forgotten them, or nobody even knew their names yet; after all our dreamy wishing that we could have the chance to see Merle Haggard just once in our (so far, pretty short) lives; finally!

Alice and I made sure we were first in line at the box office; waiting, waiting; in an inexplicably short clutch of way older people; some probably as old as forty! until the bored fat ticket guy walked up to his little booth with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and flipped up the metal screen.

You girls like Merle Haggard, huh?”

 Yea. Uh huh.

“Well, there ya go, little missies”, his sweaty paw sweeping the tickets in front of Alice’s face, as if expecting her to run her fingers across his meaty palm. Old dudes should leave little kids alone.

There were other people on the bill, too – that new guy, Charley Pride. That old guy, Freddie Hart, who hadn’t even had a somewhat hit by 1968. By the time 1971 rolled around, though, Freddie scored a monster hit; and Alice and I knew him when!

The day of the concert, Alice rode the bus home with me, because we'd arranged to leave from my place to go to the show.

We straggled into the motel office, and Mom whispered to me, "Guess who just checked in!"

Mom was perplexingly giddy. I was oblivious; unable to put the obvious two and two together.

Mom whipped the registration card out of its slot and waved it in front of our faces. Damn! It was Merle Haggard!

Merle Haggard was staying at my place!
Alice and I stared at each other; frozen in space; overwhelmed with…perhaps… the vapors, although neither of us actually fainted.

What would we do? This new knowledge obviously required some action on our part. A girl can’t just walk in her front door, have her mom tell her that the greatest, cutest artist of all time was their new house guest, and then nonchalantly whip out her life science book and start studying for a quiz.

So, what did Alice and I do? We stalked Merle Haggard.

It was only four o’clock in the afternoon. Neither Merle nor we had anyplace we needed to be for awhile.

Merle and Bonnie weren’t staying in the main (old) section of the motel. They were in room number twenty-seven; a few doors down from my big brother’s old room.

No offense to Mom, but room 27 wasn’t exactly the crème de la crème of MF Motel rooms; but Mom was probably suffering from the vapors, too. Mom had always been star struck. We’d had a few formerly famous singers stay with us. They’d always, sadly, traveled alone. They did one-night stands in local bars, backed by a local pick-up band. Stars whose last (and only) hit record happened in 1959. Merle was a whole, different, high-rise story.

Had I been casually minding the office and looked up to see Merle Haggard alighting my doorway, I most likely would have stared, slack-jawed, and said something completely inappropriate, like, “What are you doing here?” Then I, too, like Mom, would have grabbed the first room key my fingers could locate; never taking my eyes off Merle, and the key would have slipped out of my hand and sailed up and hit him in the face. At which point, I would have rounded the corner of the check-in desk and begin patting Merle on the face, repeating how very sorry I was, and did he maybe want to lie down, and should I get him a glass of ice water?

And then I would have killed myself out of sheer humiliation.

On second thought, Mom handled things much better than I ever could.

Since the newer section of the motel consisted of one long curvy rectangle, Alice and I commenced to walking around and around and around the complex, slowing down each time we approached their room. Giggling; making nonsensical conversation; conversing about country music, because there were no doubt things that Merle needed to learn about the music industry from…two eighth grade schoolgirls.

No one in room twenty-seven stirred; as much as we unwittingly tried to annoy them.

Alice and I skulked back to my room.

“I have an idea!” I light-bulbed.

“Let’s get out my battery-operated record player! I’ll grab the 45 of “Mama Tried”; we’ll go outside, down the little hill opposite Merle’s room, and play it!”

And thus we did.

We set the player on a tree stump. We played it. Several times.

The battery, in fact, started to wind down. Merle was singing fine, and suddenly, his voice dipped; began sounding woozy. “Mama tried to….rai-eeh….ssse….meeeee bettt-er….”. Then, all of a sudden, he started singing really fast and high; like a chipmunk.

Merle never mentioned this unfortunate incident in his memoirs. Perhaps scenes like these were de rigueur for him. I would say that he peered out from behind the curtains of his room; petrified; but had the curtains moved a flick, Alice and I would have seen it.

However, Merle was not simply an apparition. At a point when I finally realized I had to flip the case down on my Eveready battery-deficient music player, he suddenly appeared!

There he stood, outside his room, holding his little fox terrier on a leash!

We never made eye contact. I’m sure Merle thought better of offering us any encouragement. Would we barge into his room? Offer to share a bottle of Coke? Start listing all our favorite Merle Haggard songs? Start singing them to him? No doubt Merle didn’t want to take that bet, and no doubt he would have lost. We would have done that. There is absolutely not a shred of doubt in my mind.  

So, alas, after we realized that the two of us “new friends” were going to remain strangers, the time neared for us to get ready for the show. The concert started at 8:00. We got there around 6:00. Of course we snagged front-row seats.

After Charley and Freddie and the others finished their sets, Merle took the stage. He did all his hit songs; Bonnie singing backup. Merle did his impersonations of Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash.
He gazed out upon the front row, and HE SMILED AT ME!

It had never once happened to me in my life, but now everything suddenly went black.

After the show, Alice and I went around to collect autographs.

Freddie Hart wrote, "To Shelly, a little doll". Freddie said to us, "Didn't I see you girls walking around the motel?"  So, we weren’t invisible! Somebody actually noticed! After all our hard work! Honestly, we were almost impossible to miss, considering. Which leads me to believe that Merle really had been spooked.

I, therefore, after 45 years, would like to apologize to Merle Haggard. We were harmless. Really.
It wasn’t too much time later that Merle recorded, "Today I Started Loving You Again". I read once that when he was writing the song, Bonnie told him to lose the second verse. In my mind, Merle is writing that song in room number 27 at the Modern Frontier Motel; trying his best to block out the antics of two deranged school girls; Bonnie leaning over him, giving him advice. I'm pretty sure that's not true, but that's the story I choose to tell, to myself.

Merle doesn’t know it, but he shoulders a heavy burden for me. I learned to play the guitar by strumming Merle Haggard songs. The world I shared with Alice is bundled up in a pretty baby blue bow fashioned out of Merle Haggard songs.

Little does he know.       

And, no, I really am not crazy.

Alice passed away in 2000. We hadn't talked for a long time. When my son called to give me the news, I was nonchalant. 

Then I fell apart. 

My husband had been nagging me -- "You can write a song; just try." I said I couldn't. That's not how I wrote -- not in verse, for God's sake. After that phone call, I settled into the chair in my room and stared at my guitar in the corner.  I thought about Alice and I thought about Merle, and I paced over and grabbed that guitar and the words tumbled out. 

My dad and my mom died a year later. 

I could no longer listen to Merle, because the sadness was too much.

Merle did some concerts -- he toured with Willie Nelson and he toured with with Kris Kristofferson -- and I passed up all my chances to see him. I didn't say it out loud, but I wanted to remember Merle the way I wanted to remember him.

I was right. I'm glad I didn't go. 

I wanted to remember nineteen sixty-eight. 

I listened to "Sing Me Back Home" tonight. 

And I cried.

I don't know if I'll get over it. I don't know if I'll ever be able to listen to a Merle Haggard song the same way again. There are too many memories; too many goodbyes. 

This one hurts, more than I am able to acknowledge. 

This one breaks my heart...again.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Garry Shandling

"You know how, when you are driving past a herd of cows, someone always rolls down the window and goes 'mooooo'? Do you suppose the cows are in the pasture saying "Hey, was that a cow driving that truck? How can he afford a nice truck like that?"

Yep, that's when he got me. Who doesn't do that? Rolls down the window and yells, "mooo" at the cows? Maybe it's just me; maybe I'm too provincially rural.  That joke was from 1981; from the Tonight Show; and maybe it's silly, but it's the first thing that popped into my mind when I read that Garry Shandling had died. 

My oldest was five; my youngest three. I worked second shift at the hospital and late night TV was my de-stresser.  I'd come home, check on the sleepyheads in their beds, fix myself a snack, settle into my corduroy rocking chair and flick on Johnny. I found a lot of guys, funny guys, via the Tonight Show -- Jay Leno and David Brenner and this guy. This guy who always seemed so happy.

It's hard to fake happiness. There's a crinkle in the eyes, the lift of the brow. Happiness is something that pours out. Someone can smile and still look angry -- if they don't truly mean it. I think Garry Shandling was a happy guy. I liked that.

I watched "It's Garry Shandling's Show" on Showtime. That came later. I already knew I liked him by then. I'd seen him on Johnny's show, and on David's. He was a guy who always made me feel good, no matter how bad my day had been.

I'm at a point in my life where I'm looking for joy. There's too much anger and vitriol in the world. Everything seems hard. Everybody's mad and nobody's happy. Everyone has an agenda; a bone to pick. It weighs me down.  I want to yell, "Please stop!"

I'm going to miss Garry Shandling, even though before today I hadn't thought about him for a long time. He's folded into my memory; a memory of nicer, simpler days.

Days of joy.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Sir George Martin

The Beatles weren't exactly a garage band. We've all read the stories of how they cemented their musical bona fides in Hamburg, Germany; a grueling two year span in which they succeeded in dumping their pretty boy non-musician, Stu Sutcliffe, crowning Paul McCartney the official pretty boy of the band; and sneaking into the recording studio while Pete Best was out buying drumsticks, and slipping in a sub, Ringo Starr; thus relegating poor Pete to the crypt of history.

So, no, they weren't a garage band. They had something, but it was still a run-of-the-mill something. Then they got signed to Parlophone Records, or Capitol Records, as we Yankees know it. My brother basically introduced me to the Beatles' albums. No, he didn't introduce me to the Beatles -- my AM radio station did that. I heard "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" on KRAD, tinning through the speaker of my tiny transistor radio, and I thought, well! That's new and different!

But albums? What nine-year-old could afford to buy albums? I could barely swing a 45 every couple of months. My brother, though, he had them all. I think it was called The Beatles' Second Album, which in hindsight, is not a catchy title, but it was the early sixties, so marketing was rather slap-dash; that I became in awe of the group. I thought, wow, "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Please Mister Postman" were really cool original songs. I had many miles to travel before I would become a musical encyclopedia. Years and embarrassment have since set me on the straight and narrow.

A Hard Day's Night was the next one. I didn't like the cover, but wow, it featured some really great songs.

And it was apparently a movie, too! Who knew? Not me. I didn't go to movies. My mom took me to see Mary Poppins. That I remember. Unfortunately, I wasn't old enough to be independent, so I never saw A Hard Day's Night until well into my twenties...or thirties.

"Beatles '65" was the next one -- released in 1964, naturally.

Famous for its feedback:

And then:

The reason I particularly remember these last two is because they were the A and B sides of one of the few single records I owned.

People point and jeer at me because my very favorite Beatles album of all time is "Help!" I don't care. It is, and I stand by that. By the by, "Help!" was also a movie! I knew that at the time because I was older by then. Old enough to go see the movie with my very best friend. My ten-year-old review? It wasn't as bad as Elvis movies, but it wasn't all that great, either. Nevertheless, the album still holds up. It had a continuity to it. Maybe the Beatles didn't intend for it to have one, but in my whole ten years of musical experience, I'd never before heard an album with continuity, and I didn't even know what the word "continuity" meant.

My favorite (of all time) Beatles song? From that album! Here it is (sorry, no performance video to be found, but still):

"Help!" also featured this song, and a lot of people think it's one of the greats. Eh, don't care. I wasn't into rock and roll to be lulled by a viola, but you be the judge:

Then came Rubber Soul. Well, could it get any better? Rubber Soul was the peak of my Beatles mania.

These two songs were recorded for the Rubber Soul album, but weren't included. Why am I including them? Because they were, once again, the A and B sides of most likely the second 45 I ever bought:

I fell in love with my husband over these two songs. They were the "A" and "B" sides of one of my paltry collection of 45's. (Sorry for the double video post, but I didn't realize the second one was an instrumental track only, and I can't figure out how to delete it.)

Little kids digest music differently from adults. Hello? Yes, it's true. Kids can't quite fathom what the words mean. Sure, they ponder them, but they usually get the meaning all wrong. What do kids know? Really, for a ten-year-old, lyrics are just placeholders. The Beatles could have sung, "la la la" (which they actually did on some songs) and it wouldn't have mattered to me.

Sure, I pondered what the words meant, but I couldn't decipher them. A real Nowhere Man was like the grouchy octogenarian who yelled at my best friend and me when we strolled past his house, minding our own business; not, mind you, even touching one toe to his freakily cultivated lawn. Just a real pain in the ass; hassling little kids.

I also didn't understand why some girl told John to sleep in the bathtub, but sure enough, no more than a year later, I, too, tried sleeping in the tub. Then I understood why John sounded so maudlin when he was hiding his love away. Bathtubs are supremely uncomfortable for sleeping in! The only thing I knew about that song at the time was that John was apparently trying to imitate Bob Dylan, who I only knew because (again) of my brother.

Additionally, I instantly knew that I didn't like the song, "Michelle", because that was my name and that was simply embarrassing. Sure, the Beach Boys were fine singing about Rhonda, but leave me out of it!

The most enduring song from Rubber Soul was one to which I never gave a second thought, at my young age. I liked a good beat! I liked "You Won't See Me" -- still do (speaking of "la la la's").

It took me a bit of growing up to appreciate this one:

Revolver came next. It wasn't as good as Rubber Soul. In hindsight, it did have some great songs, but at the time (I'll go with age eleven), the only track I really liked was:

(Okay, yea, this is just Paul, but try finding Beatles performance videos! Good freakin' luck.)

Trust me, however -- "I'm Only Sleeping" is great. No performance video, unless one counts Beatles cover bands -- which I don't.

The Beatles were strange, in that, some of their best later songs weren't album tracks; such as "Penny Lane". Maybe somebody at Capitol could tell me why these, including "Revolution" weren't deemed good enough to be included on albums, but come on! A round yellow and orange disk didn't quite do them justice!

By the time Sgt. Pepper came along, I had moved along. I was in the eighth grade and I bought the album for my brother for his birthday. I wasn't, myself, interested in owning it, and I never did. My brother was nice enough to tell me it was "okay". Some people claim it's the best Beatles album ever. I couldn't tell you. Then came the White Album, which my husband swears is the Beatles' best. Don't know.

My Beatles education ended with Revolver. And with some single releases that came soon after.

So, what does all this have to do with George Martin? What doesn't it? As I said at the beginning, the Beatles were a good band, like a lot of good bands. The Dave Clark Five was a good band. What did the Beatles have that the DC5 and Herman's Hermits didn't have? They had Sir George Martin taking a little seedling and turning it into a fully sprouted redwood. John and Paul could've written Please Please Me's until the cows came home; but George Martin challenged them to climb higher. And they did. This producer gouged out the innate wondrousness these two guys didn't even know they possessed.

That is a legacy.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sonny James

Sonny James was one of those guys who was always around; one who resided in the recesses of a six-year-old's brain, but failed to advance to the front, because she was too enamored of Billy Preston singing some (now admittedly demeaning) song about Native Americans and by Eddie Cochran doing a prescient preview of real rock and roll.

Sonny James was the Ricky Nelson of country music. Ricky, as he was called then, got a featured segment on Ozzie and Harriet, at the end of each episode, to perform one of his rockabilly/teen angst songs with his eyes closed, which only added to his allure, apparently (or so my older sisters tell me). But you know, it was the early sixties, and things were ripening up, but weren't yet overly ripe.

Sonny James, a country singer, had a crossover hit in 1956 with "Young Love". Popular, for the masses, music was in its infancy then. Country was something hayseeds listened to on WSM on their battery-powered crank radios. Elvis had barely scratched anybody's consciousness with "Ready Teddy" on Sun Records -- not a real barn burner in the Eisenhower years. Music aficionados essentially had Eddie Fisher singing, "O My Papa" and Perry Como. Rockabilly was about a year away; the time it took for Carl Perkins to get a record released.

So, it was a revelation and a head-scratcher when Sonny James' song hit the airwaves:

He apparently liked the four-guy harmony behind him, but four-part harmony was the thing that separated the Ray Prices from the "pop crossover" artists.

I never saw Sonny James in person, and believe me, as a thirteen-year-old living in a small town, I went to every traveling caravan show that deigned to show up in my small town. I liked what I liked (Merle Haggard), but I still saw acts like Kitty Wells and Ernest Tubb. But Sonny, apparently never traveled to my town or I would have seen him.

He was one of those artists who was always tucked in the back of my musical mind. He was there, but he, after Young Love, made a decision to record covers of other artists' songs, and at a certain point in my young life, I chose to appreciate the originals. I don't know why he did that. In reading about Sonny's life, it seems he was a versatile artist. A great fiddler, I've learned. Maybe it got too hard. In the 1970's, after a breakout debut, Charley Pride did the same thing -- he started doing covers. It wrecked his career. Maybe it was comfortable -- I don't know. So, Sonny was always there, and always good. It just would have been better had he done original songs. 'Cause he was damn good.

Here's the Sonny James I remember from those days:

Rest in peace, Sonny James.

A tribute: