A Song For You

Leon Russell died this week, yet another addition to the long, sad list of musical legends who’ve moved on this year (not to mention the potential end of the world as we know it, but I won’t get into that right now). I can’t say that I’m super familiar with his oeuvre, but one song of his has been a longtime favourite of mine.

I first heard this version by the Carpenters. The cheese is laid on pretty thick (there’s even a sax solo), but the beauty of the song cuts through, both in Karen Carpenter’s inimitable voice and the strength of the song itself.

I saw by looking on the record that Leon Russell had written it, but I wasn’t too aware of his career. Later, my friend Matt Collins made me a mix CD that had his original version on it. I always felt that his vocal affectations were a bit over the top, but it is his song, so he can sing it however he wants, and if you don’t like it… that’s what covers are for.

 

My favourite version is by Willie Nelson, a version I discovered some years later on a country mix from Montreal’s DJ Luv.

Why do I love this song so much? I’m not sure. In the Carpenters version, I always loved the sentiment in the closing line, “And when my life is over, remember when we were together, we were alone and I was singing a song for you.” But in the Willie Nelson version, the part that always hits me is when he sings “…if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, for my love is in there hiding.” In the Carpenters version that line is delivered with a very schmaltzy flourish, but Willie brings to it his famously subtle and understated phrasing, and it really drives home the beauty as well as the melancholy of the sentiment expressed in the song. When he adds a simple melody to the word “melody” itself, it’s slightly corny, but somehow perfect…

Because it’s a song about songwriting (normally a bad idea) and the inability to capture a feeling perfectly with lyrics (“if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, for my love is in there hiding”), it strikes a chord with me as a songwriter, aside from how I might feel as a listener. And ironically (or appropriately?), this expression of being unable to capture the feeling is, in itself, the perfect expression of the feeling. If that makes any sense.

RIP to Leon Russell, Sharon Jones, Leonard Cohen, and the American Dream…

Note: some of these thoughts are taken from a response I sent to Carl Wilson for his Crying Over Art project. I’m not sure if my words were ever used for that, so I thought it was probably OK to repurpose them here.

NoMeansNo: An Appreciation

When I saw the words “NOMEANSNO HAS SPLIT” on the group’s Facebook page a little while ago, I figured it might be one of their cryptic jokes. So I was sad to recently find out that the band has indeed called it quits. But they had a good run, to say the least.

nomeansno

The first thing of theirs I heard was a tape my brother had come across somehow that had The Day Everything Became Nothing and Small Parts Isolated and Destroyed. I was really young, maybe as young as 12 or 13. I was still listening to stuff like the Dr. Demento show. And there was part of their thing that fit in with that somehow. Even though they were dark and intelligent, there was always a very strong sense of humour that came through.

My brother and I went to see them in the early 90s in Toronto. The opening acts were Phleg Camp and The Ex! What an amazing lineup. We were very young teenagers—was it an all-ages show (at a bar), or did we somehow pass as older? Anyway, we didn’t see NoMeansNo because they played too late and we had to get home before the subway closed.

I finally got to see them live in Toronto, in ’94, I think. It was the tour for Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? They started the show as a duo: just the Wright brothers, drums, bass and vocals. I think it was at the Opera House and I was right up front. Rob Wright seemed really intense and scary. Even back then, his hair was completely white, and his age gave him both a certain novelty value and an unmistakeable authority.

More then 10 years later, I saw them again at the Sala Rossa in Montreal. I hadn’t been keeping up with their albums and wasn’t sure what to expect. I was completely blown away. Even though Rob Wright had softened somehow, seeming more genial and less frightening, there was so much strength in his hands, and in his bellowing voice, that I found myself looking up to him as I did to my father when I was a little boy: a mixture of awe and affection with a touch of fear towards an inspiring, benevolent, but incredibly powerful presence.

I saw them again a few years later at Il Motore in Montreal. They were getting on in years but still every bit as amazing. By this point, they had given up any pretense of being “cool”: Rob wore a Papa Smurf t-shirt and John wore these incredibly goofy Bermuda shorts. Of course, that just made them cooler.

I had this notion it would be cool to do a NoMeansNo documentary. I even brought copies of the Gordon Thomas and Corpusse docs with me to that show and was going to bring them to the band. But when I tried to approach Rob, some doofus had buttonholed him and by the time he was done, it was clear Rob was trying to get on with his gear takedown (these guys were their own roadies well into their sixties!). Basically I chickened out. Maybe it will still happen someday, from me or someone else. At any rate, I was reminded while listening to Damien Abraham’s podcast that in the vaults of MuchMusic, there’s a three-camera NoMeansNo show from the early-mid 80s… someone should dig that up and re-archive it before it’s too late!

Anyway. I loved their total unconcern for trends, their inscrutable lyrics (“but I lied when I said that honesty was dead”), their musicality, the way they combined the seemingly incompatible worlds of prog and punk, their work ethic, and the way they stayed true to their vision right until the end. But more than anything, I still love listening to the music. RIP, NoMeansNo. You are a true inspiration.

Ween: An Appreciation

 

Upon the recent news of the Ween breakup, I was sad, but couldn’t deny the simple truth of Aaron Freeman’s quote: “It’s been a long time, 25 years. It was a good run.”

It was only upon listening to this playlist from Montreal’s tireless compiler DJ Luv that I had the occasion to truly reflect on the band’s greatness and what they meant to me over the years.

I must have first heard of them through the punk rock media. That seems improbable now, but this was before the term, and concept, of “indie rock” had coalesced, and anyone vaguely DIY or underground could find themselves squeezed into the punk box. I do remember reading a great interview with Dean Ween in Flipside magazine. True to the punk-rock model of the time, it was a long, sprawling, seemingly unedited transcript of a conversation. One quote has always stuck with me, which I can’t find online so will paraphrase here: “You know, when you jam for three hours and then realize you’ve just written ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Those are always the best songs, man.”

I bought Pure Guava on cassette. My initial reaction, typical for the time, was something along the lines of “Hey man, this isn’t punk rock.” But I gave it a few more tries. The absurd lyrics and skewed vocals roped me in, but it must have been the pop hooks that kept me listening. And there was something so evocative about the photo of them on the porch of their house, surrounded by local weirdos.

Then I bought The Pod, which a lot of people seem to think is for hardcore fans only, but which still remains my favourite to this day. There was just something about how they synthesized a catchy, melodic pop sensibility with a twisted, alienating, noisy attitude that I loved, and still do.

Detractors claimed that Ween’s stuff was the kind of thing that “anyone could do.” Some of my musician friends argued that their stylistic pastiches, inside jokes and vocal fuckery were no different than what every kid does with their first 4-track. But to me, this quality was an asset: maybe anyone could do it, but these guys were the only ones with the nerve to actually do it—to not only record, but release these damaged, homespun pop gems.

Shortly after Chocolate and Cheese came out, something funny happened. All of a sudden a bunch of “normal” people (i.e. not just stoners and nerds) were into the band, even though they hadn’t really cleaned up their approach much at all—the production was slicker, but the sense of humour was just as sick and the music was still all over the place. I couldn’t figure out how they’d broken through to the mainstream, but as my friend pointed out, “hot chicks like Ween,” so it was all good. This was at a time when genuinely weird, original and creative artists like the Melvins, Flaming Lips and Daniel Johnston were getting major-label deals in a post-Nirvana fervor for all things “alternative.”

Around this time I saw them live for the first time, at the Phoenix in Toronto. The show was sloppy to the point of chaos, yet somehow incredibly engaging. “If you only knew,” Dean proclaimed at one point, wild-eyed. “If you only knew about the last 24 hours!”

For the finale, they started off with one of their own songs—I believe it was “I Can’t Put My Finger On It”—then segued into a bout of jamming with Gene doing a kind of pseudo-Eastern chant on top. This led into a more or less straight cover of “Dazed and Confused,” back into the chanting jam, back into their song. They turned on a drum machine and all left the stage except for bassist Andrew Weiss, who proceeded to perform a solo for about 10 minutes. Then the band came back on and did a cover of Prince’s “Shockadelica.” Between the announcement of the last song and the actual end, it must have been an hour.

It was a bit too close to a waking nightmare I used to have as a kid—lying in bed, I’d imagine a band or orchestra playing out their last note, but I couldn’t get the note to ever stop—so I skipped their next Toronto show, for the country album: a decision I’ve always regretted since my friend described their performance, supplemented with a pro Nashville piano player, fiddler and steel guitarist, as one of the best he’d ever seen.

Although I like it a lot now, the country album seemed a bit too jokey to me, and this marked the beginning of my moving away from heavy-duty fandom. I saw them live again a few years later, this time at the huge Warehouse. They had progressed into a tight ensemble, albeit one prone to incredibly long jams. But their audience was bigger than ever and they still seemed to be having fun. I left when it seemed like they were about to start an interminable jam, with warm feelings intact.

For the next few years, the band was like an old friend that you only check in with from time to time. I heard bits and pieces of their later albums—they had some good tunes and I was happy to hear them still doing their thing, but I didn’t feel any urge to buy the records or see them live. So when I heard about the breakup, I felt some sadness, but it was just another sign of the passing of time. It seemed like towards the end, their legendary appetite for debauchery had caught up with them, as it does for just about everyone.

But listening to the Luv playlist, there was so much to appreciate. The nasty, noisy early stuff; the pastiches of soft rock that approached pop perfection, then subverted it with a gleefully juvenile lyric; the songs so goofy that the band couldn’t even control their own laughter; the unexpectedly beautiful ballads, and the country songs, as ambitious as they are absurd: it was all so good. Like Guided by Voices, another one of my big 90s influences, they inspired with their audacity (wow, you could do that?), their progression from a lo-fi perversion of anthemic rock to the real deal; the fun they had onstage, and above all, their capacity for head-sticking hooks.

So RIP, Ween. Thanks for the memories, the inspiration and the tunes. See you on the reunion circuit—we may all be geriatric, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work.

Magnetic Powers

Friend of the WP Julia Kennedy recently posted this video on a certain popular social networking site, and it took me back.

The earliest WP recordings contained a lot of blatant, shameless Stephin Merritt-isms. I recall once spending a large portion of a European trip trying to rewrite a melodic line to hide the influence of the Luna song I’d stolen it from, only to realize after it had been recorded and released that the whole song was a total Magnetic Fields ripoff (that also contained a completely unchanged Guided by Voices riff, but I digress).

I have to admit I haven’t kept up too much with Merritt’s output in recent years, but the early albums are brilliant.

This song has some of my favourite lyrics. He goes from this in the first verse:

On a Ferris wheel
Looking out on Coney island
Under more stars than
There are prostitutes in Thailand
Our hair in the air
Our lips blue from cotton candy
When we kiss it feels
Like a flying saucer landing

to this in the second:

In Las Vegas where
The electric bills are staggering
The decor hog wild
And the entertainment saccharine
What a golden age
What a time of right and reason
The consumer’s king
And unhappiness is treason

Awesome.