Here at the way-station, there are neighbors, and from all appearances they are Normal. So I try to tread lightly. No more wandering around outside in various states of nakedness. No more greeting the day, or acknowledging the night, with hearty bursts of gibbering song. When I speak to the rabbits or the turkeys or the dragonflies or the trees, I try to do so quietly. Cat conversations are confined to the interior of the house. I think I’ve been pretty good about all this.
Then the other night I come roaring into the driveway, returning from a late-night shopping expedition, with the car windows more or less rolled all the way down, thereby treating the entire neighborhood to Joan Osborne pleading “I’ll Be Around” at pretty much top volume.
I didn’t cotton on to what I was doing until about the third trip into the house, lugging groceries, Joan continuing to loudly sound from the car. Is this Normal? I asked myself. Is this the sort of thing permitted by Neighborhood Watch?
Probably not, I decided. Oh well. Because it was just not possible to turn Joan down. A sin, that would have been. Akin to killing a mockingbird.
At least, I rationalized, this is the sort of abnormality the Normal can easily understand. Kids. And their music. Even if The Kid is in, uh, his fifties. And anyway the song is almost over. And it’s not even ten o’clock yet, for chrissake.
Back in the house, car radio silenced, flipping through the memory cards, I realized I had been unconsciously indulging in this behavior since I arrived here. Now that I know that, I don’t do it anymore. Probably.
I generally believe that inflicting music on people who don’t want to hear it is a form of rudeness, and so I try not to indulge in it. For instance, someone up the canyon here each Friday night feels compelled to drink vast quantities of liquor and then reel out onto his deck to serenade all and sundry with lubricated versions of such chestnuts as “House Of The Rising Sun” in a manner that would find him heaved bodily off any karaoke stage. I don’t want to be that sort of person.
The problem is that songs that come onto the car radio are different from those that you control via CDs or tapes or I-units or your own vocal cords. They’re ephemeral, a little gift from the cosmos. And sometimes even if your journey is at an end you have to sit there in the car with them until they’re over.
Jump the “furthur” for the five tunes I realized had over the past couple months drilled me to the driveway.
This first one is a total car-radio song: it never really sounded right to me anywhere else, at least until the advent of these here tubes. Ebullient love song—just can’t beat such a thing. If you tried to turn it off just because you’d pulled into the driveway, your arm would turn to ash.
I really disliked Michael Franks’ “Popsicle Toes” when he inflicted it upon the world back in 1976; I commonly shut it off with an oath when it invaded my radio. It sounded off-key to me: there was just something seedy and smarmy and male-dominating and even fundamentally stupid about the thing.
Then one warm summer night I realized I was thoroughly enjoying Diana Krall performing the same song. I think the difference is the delivery by a woman who makes it clear that in this lyrical situation she is there both freely, and in control.
Next up is the Osborne. I like her version much better than the original by the Spinners. I think for the same reason I prefer the Band’s take on “Baby Don’t Do It” to Marvin Gaye’s: in both cases, the white folk are more desperate.
As Greil Marcus wrote of “Don’t Do It”:
Gaye sings against a polite soul chorus, and you get the idea his girl won’t do it—Break His Heart—because after all, she and many of her sisters are right there singing along with him. The Band enlist their full arsenal of voices, each man coming in at his own pace and declaiming, “oh, baby, don’t do it, don’t break my heart, pleeeeze, don’t do it,” marching across the battlefield of broken dreams like an army of men ready to give it all for love.
Similarly, the Spinners sound smooth and cool; you get the impression that even though the singer acknowledges at the outset that “this is our fork in the road/love’s last episode,” he fully expects his lover to someday, probably even pretty soon, take him up on his offer: “whenever you call me/i’ll be there/whenever you want me/i’ll be there/whenever you need me/i’ll be there/i’ll be around.”
There is in Osborne’s version no such assurance. There is instead desolation. She believes this love to be lost. And her lover a fool to lose it.
I am lucky, because the local community radio station not infrequently spins this, the best version extant of Third World’s “1865 (96 Degrees In The Shade.” It was recorded during the “Reggae On The River” fest up north there in Humboldt County, California, which is why the crowd shots show all those white people.
“1865” is lyrically concerned with the Morant Bay Rebellion of that year, touched off when a black man was tried and imprisoned for “trespassing” upon a long-abandoned white Jamaican plantation. Protestors led by one Paul Vogle were fired upon by British troops; seven were killed. The protestors then briefly took over the town. When the British regained control, they shot down like dogs more than 400 Jamaicans—men, women, children—then “tried” and executed another 350, and flogged 600 more, including pregnant women.
Before he was hung, Vogle noted the heat—96 degrees in the shade—and then said this:
“You caught me on the loose, fighting to be free, now you show me a noose on a cotton tree, entertainment for you, martyrdom for me . . . Some may suffer and some may burn, but I know that one day my people will learn, as sure as the sun shines, way up in the sky, today I stand here a victim—the truth is I’ll never die.”
More than 100 years later, Third World transformed this tragedy into a song of remembrance, resilience, and victory. In a sort of perfect icepick wielded in the service of karmic justice, the song was written and recorded in the official residence of the Jamaican Prime Minister; at the time, the father of the band’s guitarist, Cat Coore—given a nod at the outset of the clip below—was serving as Jamaican Deputy Prime Minister.
I’m fond of Pete Townshend because, like me, he’s an aging pasty white boy who’s devoted an inordinate amount of time and energy to flailing around trying to Figure It All Out. And blithering about it.
“Let’s See Action” comes from Townshend’s abandoned “Lighthouse” project, broken bits and pieces of which—sorta like the broken bits and pieces of the Divine that are we folk in creation, according to Lurian Kabbala—appeared on Who’s Next. “Let’s See Action” didn’t, because Townshend wasn’t finished with it; he was, I think, still trying to work in the stuff that he eventually gave up and broke out into “Pure And Easy.”
This is from the period when Townshend was taken with the notion that the universe began in a note of music. A notion that we now know is not all that far-fetched, since the Science People have discovered that the universe is singing in B-flat. Though we can’t hear it. Or so it is said. ; )